I reached the milestone of a decade as an entrepreneur on 1st December 2021, and I wanted to share the 10 big lessons I have learnt from my first ten years in business. It’s been an interesting and varied journey, and one that certainly hasn’t been easy (anyone who tells you it is is a liar!), but one that has taught me more than I could ever possibly have imaged, about myself, and about the world of entrepreneurship.
I don’t know how many lessons I have learnt along the way, but these are my big 10…
1. Whatever price you’re thinking of, double it.
Within a couple of months of starting out on my own, I had been asked enough times about social media management services to realise this could be a very lucrative string to my company’s bow. I had no clue how to price this though, so took advice from a friend who had a web design company, with a similar target audience. She said she knew lots of her clients would sign up for my social media management services if they were about £80 a month. And lo, the price was set at £80 per month for management of a Facebook and Twitter account.
Now, anyone who has ever used social media in any shape or form will know that it takes time, commitment, and effort to create content, interact with followers, and reply to messages. Far more than £80 a month (for TWO platforms!) can get you, that’s for sure.
But, when you’re starting out, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and social media was still in its relative infancy then, so this was all a big experiment.
Needless to say, I was inundated with clients. So much so that I had to take on my first member of staff to help me cope. We soon had about 40 companies on our books, and that was A LOT of work!
I eventually plucked up the courage to raise our prices to be more in line with the time and effort needed to service these clients. Some switched to a content creation only package to keep their costs similar, and others fully embraced the new, enhanced and higher priced service.
By the time I stopped offering social media management as a service five years later, our top package was £2,500 a month, with the average package being about £600. Both a long way from £80!
Time is a COST, and you have to charge for that. If you’re thinking of launching a new service, then I strongly suggest you double, or even triple, whatever price you’re thinking of charging, because everything takes more effort than you think it will.
2. Set clear boundaries.
Ooh, this is a biggie. Boundaries matter more than almost anything else in your business. The boundaries you set for clients AND the boundaries you set for yourself.
Way back in the early days, I used to offer a pay-monthly web design services on a commision-only basis for a developer friend. I invoiced the client, paid the developer, and acted as a go-between. Yeah, seeing it in black and white now, it was a terrible idea, but that’s not the boundary lesson I want to share here.
I had someone interested in one of these websites, and arranged to go and see her. She then asked to rearrange the meeting to an evening appointment so her husband could be there too. This rang all sorts of alarm bells for me, but I was relatively new to business and so went along with it (boundary #1: fail). All clients are good clients, right? Ha, another BIG lesson there: all clients are NOT good clients!
I went to the evening meeting, and basically spent the whole time batting away the husband’s haggling attempts. He wanted to have two websites for the price of one, which thankfully I stuck to my guns over. Boundary #2: win.
The business arrangement wasn’t the smoothest as his expectations were unrealistic. Boundary #3, setting clear expectations: fail. We limped along for a while, and the website was delivered as promised, but it all came to a head one Saturday as I was walking home from a trip into town, through my local park. The husband called me, and ranted about a minor detail on the website that needed fixing. Because I hadn’t set clear service expectations, he felt it was ok to call me on a Saturday. (It’s also worth noting that he was a truly unpleasant character, and a massive a-hole to boot.)
And so the client-provider relationship ended, not a moment too soon. I ended it actually, in a rush of slightly-too-late boundary setting, and I have never forgotten this horrific experience.
Decide what your terms of service will be and when you are available for calls or emails, and what your response time will be. If clients want you on call 24/7, charge for that! Don’t think you have to be at their beck and call all the time: you DO NOT. Especially not on a Saturday.
This is also a useful lesson in setting boundaries for yourself. Acknowledging that your gut is often right, is very important. That’s a natural boundary you need to take seriously. Don’t want to do evening meetings? Don’t do them! You don’t have to, and you really will thank yourself (and me!) for thinking seriously about those boundaries right now, this minute.
3. Celebrate what you’ve achieved.
This sounds like a platitude, but it’s true. Setting up my business was easy in itself: I just left my job and asked a few people I knew if they wanted any social media training (I had started dabbling in this in my day job, and was a qualified tutor in an educational college, so it wasn’t a big leap of faith for people to say yes). And that was it, off I went.
BUT, a couple of years later I got divorced, and that added a whole new element of stress to the mix. The support and stability at home disappeared, as well as the dual income household. I was suddenly responsible for all the bills, and the mortgage, and my office rent, and my staff costs, and motivating myself. It was A LOT.
Looking back, this was a pretty dark period in my life. I threw myself into my business, because, well, I didn’t really want to think about the shit show that was my personal life! I ended up buying my ex out, and kept the house going for almost three more years.
And then it all got too much. The pressure to do everything – to be in control of my business, in control of my house, in control of my life was like a thousand weights on my shoulders. Something needed to change. So I sold the house that I had fought so hard to keep, and downsized to something much easier to manage.
But you know what? I am proud of that decision. I am proud that I kept growing my business, and kept a roof over my head, through a personal storm that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, no matter how amicable.
It’s only when we look back at our business and life journey that we think “wow, how the heck did I achieve that?”, but we should be celebrating what we achieve on a daily basis. Let’s normalise “you did good today, kid” and stop saving it up for the ten year anniversary…
4. Experiment with new things.
You have probably already noticed that I have mentioned at least two services so far that I stopped offering. My mother (and my ex!) have always said I am impulsive, but I see it more as wanting to try things out and then deciding they’re not always the right things for me. That’s one of the things that makes me such a successful entrepreneur.
In my ten years in business, I have tried (almost!) countless things in my business, and changed my mind on most of them. These include:
- Social media management services for Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest (the lifeblood of my business but withdrawn after about five years)
- Pay-monthly web design (a six month dissatisfaction, that you now know the story of)
- A BTEC in Social Media for Business qualification (run twice, to great success)
- A social media awards evening (run annually three times, with a glitzy venue and celebrity speakers. A real jewel in my business crown, but very hard work to organise and manage)
- A social media membership club (all online in the early days of digital business, complete with a bespoke online portal)
- A monthly marketing magazine (created for approximately 18 months. Printed on beautiful glossy paper and posted out)
- A weekly column in the local newspaper; a monthly column in a magazine for driving instructors (15,000 copies p/m); and a monthly guest blog post on an online business magazine site. (I have always loved writing, but these things just ran their natural course)
- Countless training courses for corporate companies and business groups (covering a whole host of online marketing topics, and training about 6,000 people)
- And probably a few more things I have subsequently forgotten about…
When you look at that list, that’s a hell of a lot of experience, expertise, and knowledge gained over the last decade. Would I have got all that experience if I hadn’t have changed my mind? I doubt it. Would I have been able to create my Marketing Megastars programme? Definitely not.
Part of being an entrepreneur is about finding what works best for you, and the only way to do that is to try things out, and change your mind if they’re not right or they have run their course. That’s what makes it all so much fun!
5. Have the confidence to pivot.
I took on my first staff member in early 2013, just over a year since I started the business. Over the next few years, I grew this to five staff, and a couple of outsourced specialists. Like many of us, I had been told, and I believed, that success was defined in part by the number of staff and size of the office. I had come from a corporate world, and didn’t know anyone with their own business, so I absorbed everything I read or heard, whether it was right or wrong.
I was a really good manager: I had been in my job, and I was in my own business, but it wasn’t without its stresses. Knowing I had to bring in enough money to pay my staff, as well as my business rent, mortgage, and bills, was certainly a lot of pressure, and not really what I’d had in mind when I first set up on my own.
I needed staff to service the social media management clients and all the other things we offered as a business, but I found I was spending a lot of time generating income through training in order to pay the ongoing staff costs. I could tell something wasn’t sitting right, but my business was growing in the way I believed was a success, so why wasn’t I content?
Each year I go to Social Media Marketing World in San Diego (a huge industry conference), and in 2015 I broke down to my business buddies while we sat on sun loungers by the pool (it’s not all work…). I admitted I wasn’t happy and someone said something so simple but so life-changing that I will be forever thankful for. They said my business model wasn’t set in stone and I could stop offering the services I no longer enjoyed, make all my staff redundant, give up my office, and go back home to my spare room. I could pivot.
And so I did.
It was a horribly painful exercise as I loved my staff dearly. Thankfully they all understood, and I am proud that we are still friends today.
It really is true that nothing is set in stone. Just because one guru says you need to have staff to be successful, doesn’t mean you need to take that to heart. Success is a very personal metric, and only you will truly know when you have achieved it.
If something in your business isn’t working, or is no longer making you happy, take steps to change it. It’s as simple as that.
6. Be the real you from the start.
When I started out in 2011, I made the decision I wanted to trade under a brand name and not my own. My company was called Zest Communications, and I legally traded under that until March 2018, although I outed myself as LIbby Langley in 2015 or so. I think I thought a brand name would make me sound bigger and better than I actually was (looking back this is really a confidence issue, but that’s one to dig into another day!).
Zest was vibrant and fun, and we were so well known for our lime green brand colour, that people used to buy us green things to decorate our office. It was great to have such a face of the business that I could effectively hide behind.
We had numerous brand photo shoots, and they were always fun and exciting, often involving bright green limes. Again, I was able to hide my introversion behind the frivolity of Zest.
When I decided to go it alone and focus on more corporate clients, I had another photoshoot done. This was very serious: I wore a jacket (gah!), and had my arms folded a lot. I wanted it to be as different from Zest as possible, but was still hiding behind this persona that I thought I had to have in order to succeed.
A year or so after that, I had more photos taken. This time we went to a coffee shop and they were much more relaxed, and more me. I didn’t ever work in coffee shops though, so whilst the photos were beautiful, they were still portraying a stylised business and life that wasn’t mine.
Roll on a couple more years, and I had found my calling in the form of my Marketing Megastars programme. Finally I had created something truly transformative for my students, bringing all my business and marketing experience into one place. I had arrived! And, of course, this needed more photos…
This shoot was fun, but it was also too try-hard. I tried to replicate classroom training (with a few willing friends, in a pub, in between lockdowns!), and I also climbed a hill in the rain, because that’s something I like to do in my spare time. Once again had myself some beautiful photos that didn’t truly represent the business me. I had already stopped face-to-face classroom (or pub!) training by then, and I have never worked with a client in the wilds of the countryside.
A year and a few more lockdowns later, I had my latest shoot. The photographer came to my house (this was his third shoot of me, including my wedding) and we just took pictures of how I actually work. Lying on the bed with my cat; using my ring light; sitting on the stairs on my laptop; just normal stuff.
And you know what? They’re such good photos. They’re not glamorous, but they are a beautifully crafted peek into what it’s really like to work with me. You might have seen them scattered about my social media and website.
How long did it take to finally allow the camera to capture the real me? Nine years and eight months. That’s a LONG time to be hiding!
It is ok to be yourself from day one. You DO NOT need to pretend you’re anything other than yourself, even if you work at home, on your own, with only your cat for company. Especially not then! The more you are open and honest about who you are, the more you will attract like-minded people. And that really is an incredibly powerful thing.
7. Keep an eye on your finances.
One of the biggest lessons I have learnt over the last ten years is that having a bigger business doesn’t always mean having a bigger profit margin. There is a lot of guff in the online world about £10k months and £50k launches, and it honestly doesn’t mean anything.
I have had multiple six figure years, but they haven’t been my most profitable. And profit is all that matters in business.
In true hands-on entrepreneur style, I’ve created a spreadsheet detailing my annual turnover each year for the last decade, with another column for profit, and a third showing the percentage profit each year. What’s most striking about these numbers is that my professional annus horribilis (2015) was my highest turnover year, but the lowest profit. In the spirit of transparency, I actually made a loss of -3% that year. BUT, if I just told you the big old six figure turnover number, you’d form a totally different opinion of how that year went. This is why you knowing ALL your numbers really does matter.
I always work with my students to make sure they truly understand their business finances. I’m not an accountant, but I do have an MBA which put me through two rigorous rounds of P&L and financial modelling exams. I also know how important finances are, from my own experience. For this very reason, one of the lessons in module one of Marketing Megastars is about knowing your numbers.
My overall profit margin over the last decade is 45.95%. Not too shabby really. In the years since I become a solopreneur again (2016 onwards), this has increased to 58.7%. And in the few years since I met my now husband (2017 onwards) and started to feel truly happy in myself, my profit margin has increased to 77.55%. Coincidence? I think not!
Finances are essential to have an understanding of, and being happy in your business and your life is a big part of that mix too. If you hate your business and your clients, then you will never make a true success of things, no matter what the numbers say.
Don’t get blinded by the money you’re bringing in. Look closely at your costs – and I mean ALL your costs! Factor in your tax and VAT payments too. Don’t leave a single penny out. Only then will you will know exactly where you are in your business. And you know what? It might be a healthier position than you think, and the perfect platform for growth you have been longing for.
8. Focus on your ONE thing.
This may seem a bit hypocritical coming from someone like me who openly admits that they have done about a billion different things in their business, but let me elaborate.
Your one thing (an expression coined by the Gary Keller book back in 2013) doesn’t have to be one single thing. It can be a theme or suite of offerings, all on the same topic or in the same niche.
This is something I have got right in my business from day one (there had to be something, right?!). My focus has always been on online marketing. In the early days this had a definite bias towards social media, but even in 2012 I was running workshops about blogging and email marketing.
I am well known as the go-to person for all things social media, and as the online world has changed, and the world itself has changed too, this has allowed me to shift my focus slightly to the emotions and mindset behind each and every piece of marketing we do. This shift has allowed me to bring all my years of experience in the business and online world into what I do, instead of keeping myself pigeon holed as a social media trainer – something I have never actually entirely been.
By always focusing on my one thing of online marketing, I can bring new fun things into my business, and they still fit with my target audience. Some of the members of my Marketing Megastars programme (launched in late 2020) are actually people who came along to some of my really early courses in 2011.
That’s what focusing on your one thing can bring to your business too. The vernacular may change, or the tools and trends may change (they certainly all have done in the online world!), but the core concept and skills stay the same.
Crafting out your niche or specialism right from day one, even if it’s quite broad, will make it so much easier for you to market your offerings, and to retain a loyal fanbase for many years to come.
9. Remember it’s YOUR business.
One of the most challenging things about being in the online space is the amount of noise and distraction. There are so many promises of “better” ways to do things, and “shortcuts” to million pound businesses. And most of them are complete crap.
Not that they’re not solid ideas, or don’t come from trustworthy people, no, the main issue I have with promises like this is that they don’t take into account the fact everyone is starting from a different ground zero. If two people in the same industry both sign up for a programme that promises a shortcut to a million, and one’s entry point is ten years’ experience and a consistent £500k turnover; and the other’s is a year’s experience and a £20k turnover, their end result can’t possibly be the same. That doesn’t invalidate the programme’s content, it invalidates the programme’s PROMISE.
And that’s where things start to come unstuck for us solopreneurs. We see the shiny lights around the big promises, and think this is our saviour.
You know what though? We don’t need shiny lights, or any kind of saviour, whether on horseback or not. What we need is a step back, a deep breath, and a channelling of that inner confidence we all have. Somewhere. Deep inside us.
We also need to remember that our businesses are just that: OUR businesses. Every bit as individual as we are. And so one size will never fit all of us at once.
I learnt a £15k lesson on this. I wanted to get better at sales funnels, so I joined a shiny programme that promised me the earth. The biggest issue with it was that unless you followed their structure and rules to the Nth degree, they wouldn’t support you. There was no allowance for individuality, or differing client groups, or tech ability, or personal preferences. “Do this, or fail” was the only message. Hmmmm…
I have always been an advocate of finding your own path, and indeed my Marketing Megastars programme teaches business owners to grow with only the marketing tools they enjoy, and not what these shiny experts are telling them they need to do. Needless to say, me and the £15k programme didn’t stay in each other’s’ lives for long (and I got a proportional refund. #winner).
What you like and dislike matters more than you perhaps give allowance to. You started your business for a reason, and trying to fit into someone else mould of what a business “should” look like is only going to cause you stress, demotivation, and misery. Be proud of yourself. Be proud of your business. And never feel you need to change any of it, unless you really want to.
10. Investing in yourself is NEVER a waste of money.
You’d think someone who signed up for a £15k programme that turned out to be significantly below par, might regret making that decision, but far from it. I don’t think investing in yourself can ever be a waste of money. Things might not always turn out as you hope, but every single thing you do can be a learning experience.
That isn’t intended to be a completely blinkered thou-shalt-always-be-positive statement, I simply believe it to be the truth. Without the £15k programme I wouldn’t have met some of my best business buddies who I talk to most days. I wouldn’t have had the drive to find a way to grow to where I want to be, in the way I want to do it. That’s valuable beyond any monetary amount. Even if your learning is “well, I don’t want to do it like that”, then that is INCREDIBLE. It’s something to celebrate because it means one less dead end or rabbit hole you need to go down. Wow!
Because of my own experience, I never teach my students what to do. Instead, I help them to find out what works for them in the online marketing space. Everything is their choice, and that is SO powerful.
You know, it doesn’t matter if someone finishes my Marketing Megastars programme or not. If they do, they get all the info they need to make all the informed choices they need to make, but that isn’t the point of the programme. The point is for each and every student to take out the bits they need and leave the rest. If the nuggets they need are in module one, and that unlocks something inside them to go forth and grow their business like never before, that’s amazing and well worth their investment. They can come back any time for anything else, or dip in and out of our student Facebook group, or join the weekly coaching calls, but they don’t have to. Everything is there for them to access as and when they need it, and that is a truly powerful thing.
Sometimes the investment alone is enough to drive you forward. Not participating in something you have joined is absolutely no cause for beration or self-scorn. I have signed up for a couple of courses this year that I have never even logged into, but knowing I have them there in my arsenal for when the time comes (book-writing course, I am looking at you here…) gives me confidence I am on the right path.
I am so thankful for all (yep, all!) the mistakes and learnings I have had over the last ten years, because this has made me a stronger and more focused person, and a far better coach to my students than I ever could have dreamed possible. Where I am now has come about in an organic way, and that’s ok with me.
Here’s to the next ten years! 🥳