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5 lessons learned after 5 years in business

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Christina May

Our 5-year business anniversary was anticlimactic. Not the answer most would expect from an inbound marketing agency that thrives on coffee and creativity.

Sure, we celebrated internally with a nice brunch and social media posts, but what does a business anniversary really mean?

50 percent of all businesses make it five years, so congrats on the neutral odds. Reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned, if I could go back in time Back To The Future-style, this is the advice I'd give to my former self.

Spend more time executing, less time analyzing.

Hard to believe, but this analytical marketer is telling you to stop thinking. Before I began Illumine8, I considered the decision for three years before mustering up the courage to do it.

If I executed on the decision right away, we’d be celebrating our 8th Anniversary, not our 5th. This isn’t the only time that I’ve spent too much time considering options instead of executing. Don't get stuck in “perfection paralysis” or -- even worse -- the 3 Ps: Perfection, Procrastination, and Paralysis.

Perfection paralysis is mitigated with fear management. Whether it’s fear of judgement, not being good enough, or success, we spend an incredible amount of time worrying about what happens if we fail. Then, we plan accordingly.

Very few of us combat the fear of, “What happens if it works?”

“Just do it” sounds simple. The reality is that our greatest enemy is mind dialogue. Over past five years, I learned that managing mind dialogue is the key. Successful individuals perform to a higher standard and experience more happiness because they’ve mastered their internal monkey mind.

As for my personal barrel of monkeys? I think about working out regularly, meditating, and the awesome meditation of manual labor, which has been a year-long journey of restoring our historic home in Downtown Frederick.

Accept that every choice has a consequence.

Free will doesn’t exist.

“Wait, what? Of course, I have free will! I’m starting a business!”

That was my reaction when I heard that for the first time.

What I didn’t understand was that every micro action casts a ripple with a consequence. For every choice, prepare for its consequence. This sounds doom-and-gloom, but when leveraged correctly, you choose more positive outcomes. Happiness, a work/life balance, and success are all choices.

Here are some examples and how I modified my actions to choose more successful outcomes:

  • Choice: Emailing after work hours
  • Consequence: Communicating to everyone I am always available 24/7/365
    • Amended choice: Scheduling emails to send if I’m working off-hours
    • Amended consequence: Resetting the expectation that work isn’t made for late evenings or weekends

  • Choice: Saying yes to every invitation even when it doesn’t align with the business’ goals
  • Consequence: Too many meetings, missed goals, and no time to work on the future
    • Amended choice: Saying yes only to invitations that relate to company goals
    • Amended consequence: Better time management, focus, and productivity

  • Choice: Saying yes to every request, regardless if it aligns with the business’ ideal work
  • Consequence: Scope creep, lost revenue, and generalization vs specialization rate
    • Amended choice: Saying no to opportunities that aren’t a fit and requests outside of scope
    • Amended consequence: Improved company KPIs, recovered revenue, and better company positioning

Without falling into analysis paralysis, I learned to pause briefly and think through my actions before executing. From Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand then to be understood.

Only The Lonely In Leadership

When I began Illumine8, I naively relished in the idea of days spent in my home office with Lucy. As a self-prescribed introvert, I loved this ideal working environment. It didn’t take but a week to realize that this was a foolish illusion.

You realize that as a solopreneur, you do what you love and what you don’t love. It’s also humbling to realize that your skills aren’t advanced in every aspect of your craft (let alone running an entire business, which is a craft in itself). I pondered the possibility of continuing consultant work, bringing on other contractors, or starting a full-fledged business with employees for six months. Ultimately, I tried all avenues, but given the gift of hindsight, I would’ve advanced to the company model sooner.

However, with leadership in all forms comes something no one tells you: It’s a lonely journey. If you’re lucky enough to have friends who are also business owners, count your blessings. Few understand the drive and determination it takes to build a company, from the long hours and sleepless nights (that you’ll continue to have) to the trial-by-fire education process.

You’ll be asked, questioned, and accused of putting your business before everything, including health, money, and relationships. If you think you have shoulders to lean on during this long experience, think again.

If you’ve been in management in your career, you know that being a leader is a lonely path. You may be close with your teammates, but ultimately, you’re in charge.

We consider ourselves family, but at the end of the day, everyone knows the tougher decisions lie in my court. That means some days, you make the unpopular decision.

Team and culture matter.

Culture isn’t a hippie trend from Silicon Valley that includes ball pits, candy walls, and bean bag chairs. If you’ve never worked in a small, tight-knit company, you probably think the cube-farm environment of Dilbert is the norm.

When I set out five years ago, I didn’t know what culture was, but I knew what it wasn’t. I ensured the things that I disliked from my previous work experiences didn’t creep into my company, but I wish someone told me sooner that culture is critical to success.

Company culture is a defined codex of values that guide the company’s employees, decisions, and actions. You know you’ve been successful at instilling a culture when your team takes actions that align with those values without your input. I believe in keeping things simple, so our five core values are the following:

  • Trust and transparency
  • Work hard, play hard
  • Always do the right thing
  • Teach a man to fish
  • Always be innovating

As your company leader, you set the culture for your company and team. To quote Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Culture isn’t words on a wall or employee handbook. When it comes to culture, actions speak volumes.

No matter the size of your team, it’s important to hire individuals with the right attitude to fit our company culture. Skills are taught, but attitude and value alignment aren’t. Hiring for skills only leads to a revolving door of potential employees who don’t believe in the company’s mission and values. This is costly to your company in time, money, and morale.

In our company, we let everyone in on hiring decisions to mitigate the risk of hiring for skill only. Ultimately, the decision is mine, but being open to team input makes our team culture stronger.

Comparison is a killer.

If I could tell my former self only one thing, stop comparing yourself and your company to others. We’re highly competitive for ourselves and our clients. We like to win, but the hard part is to stop comparing us to our competition. By doing so, it limits our ability to succeed.

By comparing myself and my company, I allow the competition to set the definition of success. I’m seeking outside validation that quantifies success on someone else’s terms and letting someone else set the bar.

One of my motivators for starting a company was to set my own bar. By falling into the comparison trap, I’m allowing others to define success for me again. It’s no different than a boss telling you how far you can go in your career.

Let's also consider that it’s human nature to mimic others. It’s safe, but imitation limits creativity, innovation, and individuality. No one ever won an award for the best imitation.

That said, a strategic difference lies between research and comparison, as well as best practices and comparison. Don’t fall into the trap of comparison in the research phase. Gather the data, then make an informed decision that’s right for the situation, not because “That’s what X does”.

In a selfie-filled world, this is a hard pill to swallow. If you don’t wish to take my advice, take it from Oprah, “You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.”

Five years and five hard lessons learned later, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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