Our third podcast is below - a look into some of the practical points of putting a fledgling business together. Whether it’s getting an accountant for the first time, or knowing what to do if one of you were to be hit by a bus (yikes...), it all has to be discussed at some point. Damian reflects on this theme in his own article, breaking down the last six months into moments, thoughts and anecdotes.
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6 Months In
Words by Damian Borchok
––– It’s been about 6 months since Jason, Andy and I started For The People. I tried for three weeks to “craft” something about our startup experience to date — with zero success. Instead, these are the notes, observations and learnings in some orderly fashion:
Be always aiming for something new. When starting out there are always times when you become inclined to seek the easy path, the comfort of something that’s familiar. The world doesn't need another me-too business; that’s just the commercial equivalent of landfill. Newness is hard. Really hard. But the payoff is exhilarating.
A healthier relationship with risk taking: There are two dysfunctional ends to the risk management spectrum. The first, and most common one, is that adopted by so many incumbent businesses — risk mitigation at all costs, including growth. At the other end is the emergent cult of failing. The acceptance of failure as part of the innovation process is certainly a welcome counter to the pretence of corporate invulnerability, but there are an alarming number of “new age” firms that treat it as a badge of honour. We prefer winning to failing. Failing too often suggests that you are not learning from your mistakes or you lack some fundamental expertise. Also, there’s plenty to be learned from wins — it’s just that too often people choose to put the energy into celebrating them rather than understanding them.
“We’ve recognised that the most valuable thing we can do is listen to our client and have an engaging conversation with them about their challenges and ambitions. Our value becomes clear from there.”
There are no manuals. (And I’m not just saying that as a non-manual reading male.) There are so many variables, so many unknowns to starting out, you won’t find a lot of useful answers in manuals, case studies, step-by-step processes, top ten tips or winning formulas. All of these things offer incomplete and imprecise guidance. They may sketch out a pathway but they will never be "The Answer."
Talking our business into existence. In the very early days we talked a lot about what kind of business we should be. We talked among ourselves. We talked to clients. We talked to audiences at festivals. For a long time we focused on getting our elevator pitch right. We even tested pitches riding up and down in elevators. Then we realised that we never pitch in a elevator. (Actually, who does?) We’ve now become more relaxed about how we talk about our business. We’ve recognised that the most valuable thing we can do is listen to our client and have an engaging conversation with them about their challenges and ambitions. Our value becomes clear from there.
Network trumps marketing. The lack of money makes earning it as quickly as possible a massive imperative. Often so much energy goes into marketing from the outset but marketing is too slow a tool to rapidly kick-start the economic engine - at least for our kind of business. We've been able to double our revenues every few months and begin to scale almost entirely on the basis of our networks.
Wiping the slate clean. Breaking with the past has been personally lliberating for us. But we've also noticed that it has liberated the expectations of our market. We've been surpirsed and encouraged by the bredth of work clients are open to considering us for. This has been one of the unforseen payoffs of starting afresh. As an extension to this experience, I now wonder whether it would be an advantage to close down For The People in around 7 years and start something completely new again.
No FoMO. FoMO's probably one of the most paralysing of psychological conditions when you're starting up. Fear of not being invited onto a pitch. Fear of being looked over by the media for bigger, more established competitors. Fear of not having all the marketing materials that you think you need, which are often more of a distraction. Fear of not having all the features that a competitor is offering, so you bloat your offer and confuse everyone about what you do. When you are starting out you don't have / can't have all the stuff of a well-established business. Any angst around this is energy that must instead be directed to the pursuit of convincing the right customers to work with you on the right projects. Note that I've stressted right. When you are a small business there's an assumption that you should just say yes to every opportunity because you need the money. That's the big one: Fear of Missing Out on revenue. Businesses destroy themselves and lose good people in the process when they take on the wrong projects/clients.
"We were offered opportunites that we didn't believe were right for us, even though we needed the money. And we walked away from them."
We want to avoid that at all costs. Within months of starting we were confronted with this exact dilemma: We were offered opportunites that we didn't believe were right for us, even though we needed the money. And we walked away from them. In the majority of cases the clients came back to us after we said no and we worked out how we could work together, We now have money and great projects.