On celebrating my fourth year in business

Six things I learned only from doing it myself

Business anniversaries are always a good time to look back and reflect on where you've been and where you’re going. The fourth anniversary of my PR firm is a strange one: On one hand, we’re still a young business yearning to grow; on the other, we've outlasted about half of all businesses started at the same time we did.

And then there’s the imminent five-year anniversary that’s oh so close. The five-year mark is that magical number that, if you can get to it, makes it seem like you can’t fail. Of course, that’s bunk; businesses of all ages and sizes fail for a variety of reasons. But as a psychological milestone, it’s the equivalent of the Dow Jones hitting 15,000.

For the past year, my main focus has been growth. In fact, in 2013 I wanted to double our revenues. We didn't hit that goal (we essentially replicated our revenues from the past two years), and there are some good reasons for it, both personal and professional. I won’t go into the personal reasons (mainly, I had family stuff to deal with that distracted me), but here’s what I've learned in four years:

  1. No Assholes Allowed. Probably the hardest lesson I've had to learn. This applies to clients, vendors, employees, and any other people related to the business. If someone’s bringing you down, it’s better to just take them out of the equation.
  2. Listen to Your Gut. If a project or a client doesn't feel right, if they’re setting off all kinds of red flags (such as demanding—not negotiating—your fees), then say no. This might be difficult, especially when you have mouths to feed other than yours. This can also apply to hiring decisions (more on that below), but also to how you spend your time (also more on that below).
  3. Fire Fast. Usually the saying is “Hire slow, fire fast,” but we have a pretty fast-paced work environment and don’t always have the luxury of hiring slow. So, I have sometimes felt I had to make some pretty fast hiring decisions. After all, clients can’t wait around for us to execute their work.
    Having worked at a variety of companies before starting my own , I thought I could just coach someone into behaving a way that aligned with our business goals and culture. And I couldn't have been more wrong. I've learned that it’s essential to find people to fit your work culture. This is a real cliche, but the truth is you can’t understand it until you've actually experienced the pain that is having to deal with a bad hire.
  4. Spend Your Time Wisely and Relax a Little. For the first three years, I worked 12-16 hour days, six days a week. This schedule is probably familiar to those who want to grow fast and are ambitious. And, after three years, I was pretty burned out. After the third year, I decided to bite the bullet, take a pay cut in exchange for hiring additional staff. This was possibly the most important (and the best) decision I could have made.
    Ultimately, this took me out of the billing equation, allowing me to focus on networking, building relationships with clients, and developing stronger, more efficient processes. Additionally, it allowed our small staff to spend a little more time on some of our clients, ensuring a better final work product in the end. And, perhaps most importantly, I've been able to unplug from work at times, which allows me to stay fresher and more energized when I need to be.
  5. Management ALWAYS Take More Time than Expected. It’s almost impossible to estimate in advance how much time you’ll need for management, but I've learned the hard way that it’s worth taking as much time as needed to helping employees get things right. Now, as part of our culture, we expect employees to generally be entrepreneurial and work to solve problems independently. What’s become essential to helping employees achieve this level of independence, which I did not anticipate earlier, was to set up a structure and environment where they can ask questions.
    I used to be very annoyed by employees who asked a lot of questions; to some degree I still am (my philosophy is that if you can Google it, don’t ask me). These days, I’m a little less annoyed, with the hope that I can teach employees how to solve problems independently as they bring them up.
  6. Sometimes you have to go where the market takes you. This is something that a mentor said to me early on in my business. And if he hadn't said that, we would probably still be sputtering along at a much slower pace. Although my business model was originally set up strictly to provide sub-contracting services to other agencies, it become abundantly clear that there was a need for light-weight, tactically-focused services designed for startups, whose budgets generally demand a big bang for a relatively small buck. If I hadn't recognized that opportunity and pursued it, I think we’d either be out of business today or just hobbling along.

One thing that I didn't learn in our first four years—which I already knew—is how to say thank you. Thank you to all of my mentors who have helped guide me. Thank you to past and current team members (both good and bad) who helped get us to four years. And, finally, thank you to all our past and current clients who enable us to stretch our minds and our muscles.