5 Things I Wish I Had Done (Sooner) For My Startup
Rather excitingly, dBx Acoustics has just turned three years old. I suppose that this means I can no longer call it a startup, although we are still evolving and my vision for the company is much more ambitious when it was in 2013, when my sole aim was never to have to go back into the corporate world again.
There are still challenges, I still worry about cashflow and pipeline and reputation. I don’t, therefore, want to pretend that I can give you the keys to success. But there are 5 key lessons I have learned along the way that I would like to share, in the hope that they might be useful.
1. Get a (good) accountant
What makes a good accountant? For me, it’s not just someone who will take a box of receipts off your hands at the end of the year, it’s someone who will actively take a role in my business and advise me as and when I need it.
It’s also someone whose systems I can work with, and who needs as little actual paperwork as possible.
I spent the first 12 months doing my own accounts, and happily I didn’t make a complete hash of it. When I first went to see My Accountancy Place, though, they saved me their first year’s fee in our first meeting by switching us to a different VAT plan. I get a monthly report, a quarterly face to face meeting, and all the phone and email advice I could need — it’s a two way relationship, and MAP are as excited to see the business develop as I am. They’re proactive, always willing to take my ideas seriously but also willing to tell me when I really am being daft.
We’re also using cloud based systems — Xero, Receipt Bank and Workflow Max — which means that I can keep on top of finances on the go, don’t have to carry round a wallet full of receipts, and can seamlessly link together our project management and invoicing systems.
2. Know what you’re bad at
When you start up — especially if you’re starting on your own — the temptation is to do everything yourself. You’re broke, after all, and you don’t really want to be spending the little money you’re making.
Or do you? It took me a while to realise this, but all the time I was spending on credit control, answering the phone, mailing out brochures, and researching prospects, was time I could have been spending on chargeable work. Plus I hate answering the phone.
Before the team started to grow a year ago (we now have a marvellous office manager and two consultants), I used a virtual PA to help get all of those things out of my hair. It’s also a great solution when you have a short term admin load that you need to get sorted out — don’t sit up all night populating that database.
The other thing I sorted out early was credit control. I’m not good at asking people for money, even when it’s owed, so farming out these difficult phone calls was an investment in my mental health. Plus it meant that if a client was ever annoyed at being chased for payment, their annoyance wasn’t directed at me -it was directed at someone much more thick skinned.
The other thing which I would recommend, if you can find funding for it, is to take business mentoring. Thanks to some EU grant money, I started working with my coach relatively early on. He’s my monthly point of sanity, the moment where I am forced to look up from my keyboard and take stock of the business, and the one who asks me the difficult questions. I’m lucky enough now to be surrounded by a team who are all as passionate about the business as I am, and who take an active part in discussing our progress and direction, but in the early days that was missing. Coaching made me look at myself, and the business, critically — and made me change my mind on a number of things which I thought were set in stone.
Finally, HR support — once I did start hiring, it was important to get it right. Find someone who understands what you need in your business, and who can make sure you’re not exposing yourself to any risk with your contracts.
3. Borrow wisely
Ever been told that you shouldn’t borrow from your family or friends? It’s true. This is the biggest mistake I made in the early days, and it nearly brought down the business.
I was determined not to borrow, but a good friend was insistent that they wanted to support me, and lend me the money to buy equipment. Interest free, no strings, no documents. Lovely, until we fell out 6 months later and they wanted their money back immediately.
If you’re going to borrow, look to short term invoice-based lenders like Due Course (who we highly recommend!) or longer term lenders such as Funding Circle. It’s surprisingly easy, and again, much less risk of stress and heartache.
4. Target your networking
In the early days you want to get your name out there, tell the world about your business, and evangelise about what you can do. You could spend so much time networking that you never get to do any work. I can remember going to just about every local networking event going — but while I made some great contacts and friends, it never got me any work.
Why not? I simply wasn’t in front of the right people. Acoustic consultants want to meet architects, contractors, planning consultants — and they don’t often turn up to small business coffee ’n’ cake meets. Networking went a lot better once I changed focus to construction and property specific events. Get into a room of the right people, and THEN keep going back. Again and again. You won’t get a job out of your first event but as people get to recognise you, and know you, you’ll start to stick in their mind.
5. Your brand is everything
It’s no secret now that when dBx Acoustics started, it was me and the dog, in the box room at home. It was a secret at the time, though — from the start, our marketing was centered around appearing professional and experienced. Our branding was there from the first — orange colouring, distinctive logo — and whilst our website has had a few tweaks it’s substantially the same as the very slick site launched on Day 1.
I made the decision to be a limited company and registered for VAT from the off for the same reason, and to carry a decent amount of insurance. I didn’t want larger clients to have any reason to perceive that the company might be too small to help them, or too new to survive.
Your corporate ‘voice’ matters too. I used our blog, Twitter and Facebook feeds to get out there and talk to people, and to put across the personality of the company. We want to be friendly, practical and approachable; what better way to demonstrate that? It’s a great way to put across what you’re about without always having to provide your elevator pitch.
And yes, ‘we’. I always referred to dBx as ‘we’, even when the other part of that was small and furry.
The dog and I did okay. We made a profit, we built a reputation, we added a hamster to the mix. I was doing exactly what I had written in that first business plan. I was sick of managing, and corporate life, and happy to potter along quietly. I obtained my MBA with Distinction from Manchester Business School. I found that, actually, I’m not that bad of a wife and mother, either. As these things happened, I quietly regained the confidence I had lost in myself, and in my abilities.
With that confidence has come a new ambition, and my vision for dBx Acoustics has changed. Thanks to some lovely students, who have been a joy to work with, and our steadfast office manager, I’ve learnt that being part of a team and having responsibility for others isn’t all bad.
What’s changed from my old life is that now, not only do I choose the people I work with, but they choose me. We’re in it together, by choice, and that makes us stronger. The company is about to grow — I expect that there will be 5 of us in the office by the end of this year. We’re adding new services to our portfolio, and constantly looking at how we can improve.
I veer between pride in how far we’ve come, and regret that it took me so long to find my feet, and to learn some of the lessons I am sharing with you here. But regret is a wasted emotion. What I do know now is that, with the right people around me, I can do this. I hope that you can too, and that the lessons above will help you on the way.
If there’s one key lesson you would share with someone starting out, what would it be? Please share in the comments below! I’d also love it if you could recommend this article by clicking on the heart. Thank you :)