On 29th March 2018, at the ripe old age of 52, I walked away from a secure 32 year career with the Ministry of Defence (Royal Air Force) to embark on a brand new venture as a self-employed Health Coach.
With a very small client base and a slowly growing Facebook Group I set off into the world of business, without a clue what I was doing or any guarantee that I could be successful. I gave myself a 12-month window to prove that my business idea was viable and made a promise to my husband, Mark, that if it looked like it wouldn’t work, I’d go back and find a job.
Twelve months on and I’m glad to say my business does look like a viable option. Am I making heaps of money and living the laptop life? Sadly, not yet. And despite what the internet ‘gurus’ would have you believe, there is no such thing as a free lunch and you don’t get to see the pounds rolling in while you push out the odd blog post in between cocktails on the beach.
Having said that, I’m as passionate about what I want to achieve now as I was when I embarked on this journey over 2 years ago and I haven’t regretted for one minute making the decision to change direction in life – despite being a middle-aged grandma with no previous business experience.
So, a year on, I thought I’d share my 21 lessons learned. These lessons may not be true for all new businesses, and I don’t profess to be a business expert. Far from it. But maybe, if you’re in the early days of starting a new business, you may relate to some of these lessons or, if you’re contemplating making the leap from employed to self employed you may find them interesting.
1. It can be a lonely place being a self-employed coach. As an extrovert I love being around people. I consider myself to be what you might call a people person which is possibly just as well since my purpose in life is to help and support others to reach their potential. So I find it amazing that feeling isolated was not one of the problems I foresaw when I decided to leave my job. Going from working for a large organisation, surrounded by workmates and the social activities that that brings to working in a home office (my spare bedroom!) and only speaking to clients through the medium of online video messaging was a major shock to the system. My mental health suffered a bit in the first few months and it wasn’t until about 4 or 5 months into the year that I really started to recognise the negative effect not being around people was having on me. Scheduling a couple of hours at least 3 days per week to get out of the house and work from a café went some way to helping, and latterly getting out and networking more has really helped.
2. Everyone wants to tell you what you need to be doing – and then charge you for it! When you don’t know what you’re doing, it makes sense to seek advice and help. Consequently, I found any number of people keen to help me build my business, and charge me a hefty price to do so. Whilst I don’t believe any of the people that offered help truly intended to ‘rip me off’ my lack of clarity around what I was trying to achieve meant I made some poor financial decisions before I finally started to get a bit more strategic about what I wanted help with. With hindsight I should have sat down right from the outset with a good business coach and created a solid business plan. This would have helped me to clarify in my mind what I wanted to achieve and then budget accordingly.
3. You have to build your network and that means getting out and meeting real people. For the first 9 months or so I avoided networking. Despite being an extrovert and having no problem whatsoever standing up and speaking in front of a room full of people, the idea of going to a networking event where you had to go up to complete strangers and introduce yourself and, God forbid, SELL, filled me with dread. Thankfully I learned pretty quickly that once you take out the need to sell, it removes a whole lot of pressure and allows you to be yourself. I’ve also learned that the more I do it the easier it gets. And, in fact, it even becomes quite enjoyable. There’s a certain ‘buzz’ to be felt when you meet someone and they say ‘oh, you’re Bev, I’ve been hearing a lot about you lately’. Let’s face it, if you want a business to be successful, people have to know you exist.
4. Collaboration is better than competition. This was a game changer for me in terms of self-belief. When the penny dropped that there is more than enough business to go around and that, as a coach, clients buy because of who you are rather than simply what you do, the pressure to compete was lifted. Instead, being open to collaborating with others in a similar field makes for some amazing joint ventures. The old saying ‘the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts’ is very true.
5. Opportunities are everywhere, grasp them and say yes. I’ve been so surprised by how many opportunities have come my way. I believe they are everywhere but sometimes we just don’t see them, we aren’t looking for them or we simply don’t say yes when they arise. I’ve learned to just say yes and figure out the how and the why afterwards. I would just caveat this point with the fact that I only say yes to opportunities that align with my goals, as there is a danger (and one I’ve fallen foul of on occasion) of saying yes to absolutely everything then finding I really wished I’d said no as it simply didn’t help me on my journey. But if the only thing making you say no is self-doubt and fear, ignore it and say yes instead.
6. You need help – get a good coach. I spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to figure things out for myself or paying for online courses that simply didn’t live up to their hype. A good coach is an investment that will pay for itself easily. Find a coach who really understands you and what you want to achieve. Speak to a lot of people and try to identify who will work best for you. Group coaching is great for social support and the feeling of being part of a community, but one to one coaching will really accelerate your progress and hold you accountable to your goals.
7. Don’t be scared to change direction or ‘pivot’ as you grow. The business I see for myself now is not the business I saw when I started 2 years ago. I struggled with changing direction for fear that people might think I was indecisive or ‘flighty’. In reality business, as with all aspects of life, is a living, growing and ever-changing organic being so it makes sense that you’re likely to want to change direction or ‘pivot’ as you learn and grow.
8. Self-care can take a back seat – even for a health coach. Despite being told this numerous times by many coaches, I didn’t really believe it, but it’s true. Our own self-care can easily be dismissed as we try to juggle so many other priorities as a solo business owner. It can feel like there are an endless number of jobs to be done that take priority over exercise, play and social time. Add to that the fact that I now spend a vast amount of my day sat in front of a computer screen just 2 metres away from the loo and a short walk to a kitchen (and a fridge) full of food and it’s no surprise that my weight has gone up. I’m learning to schedule time for self-care into my day, making sure that if I do nothing else, I include 20 minutes yoga practice into my morning. I’m still working on padlocking the fridge door and fitting in more regular walks, runs and gym sessions.
9. There’s a wealth of free resources out there. Websites such as Eventbrite and Meetups are a great source for finding events close by. Everything from networking events, business training and business expos to workshops and trade related seminars, many of these events are free or very low cost. Local authorities and colleges often run courses to help new businesses to create their business plans and tap into funding opportunities. Established businesses will often offer free courses packed with valuable information with the hope that you might buy into their paid products and services. I’ve yet to attend such an event and feel any kind of pressure to buy, although there have been occasions when I’ve been so impressed by the quality of the free training that I’ve chosen to invest in their paid products.
10. Other women in business are your biggest allies. Despite the belief that whenever you get groups of women together you’ll find cliques and bitchiness, my own experience of women in business has been quite the opposite. In fact, women only networking groups have proven to be an incredibly supportive and warm environment where the overriding feeling is of ‘all in it together’. Maybe this aligns with lesson number 4, collaboration beats competition!
11. Facebook is Fickle. I don’t really have a lot to say on this subject other than figuring out how to use Facebook for advertising is a dark art and Mr Zuckerberg appears to change the rules of the game on a daily basis.
12. Don’t shy away from your numbers. If, like me, the thought of staring at a spreadsheet is slightly less interesting than standing behind the woman with the coin bags in the post office queue, tough! You need to know your numbers. Apart from the fact that shying away from your accounts means you’ve got a pretty horrendous amount of work to do when it comes to self-assessment time, avoiding looking at the reality of the financials within your business can lead you to think things are far worse than they actually are (if you’re lucky!). But as well as keeping your accounts up to date, you also have to get your head around cash flow, profit and loss, forecasting, financial targets, sales targets etc. I know, it’s not fun, but get over it, it’s essential. Personally I discovered Quickbooks and it was a lifesaver. No spreadsheets and I can do pretty much everything from my mobile phone.
13. The biggest hurdle you’ll face is YOU. There is every resource you could possibly need to make you a success, pretty much at your fingertips. But until you realise that the only thing really holding you back is you, you’re likely to stay stuck. Feelings such as fear, self-doubt or imposter syndrome hit everyone, even the most successful, so learn to manage the feelings and push through regardless. Behaviours such as perfectionism, procrastination, excuse making and blame will also keep you stuck, so learning to let go of blame and accept responsibility for EVERYTHING that happens to you and your business is essential. If you’re struggling refer to Lesson 6 and get yourself a good coach.
14. Shiny object syndrome is real and it’s a dream stealer. As a graduate of shiny object school I can quite honestly state that it’s not a great qualification for running a business. I believe shiny object syndrome is the result of insecurities and a lack of planning and accountability. Rather than sticking to one clear path based around well defined goals, we flit from one great idea to the next or we’re seduced by one fantastic opportunity or another. It’s another form of procrastination borne out of self doubt.
15. You can’t be on every social media platform, so don’t even try. If you’re not careful you can end up spending ridiculous amounts of time and getting extremely stressed out trying to stay on top of all the different social media platforms. I’ve found that sticking to 2 platforms which are predominantly where my market audience live, means I can share better quality content and not feel under so much self-induced pressure. The other positive side effect to this strategy is that I also spend less time getting distracted by other people’s content.
16. Start before you’re ready. This is a pretty widely shared bit of business advice, but it’s completely valid. You’ll learn more as you go than you will trying to have everything perfect before you get started. Feedback will help you as you go so watch and listen and amend as you go. Failing to start before you’re ready is likely to result in you never getting started at all.
17. Books are your friend – but you have to actually apply what you learn. Not only books, but also audio books, podcasts, blogs – all will help you to grow and develop both as a business owner and as an individual. But, reading information will not make any difference if you don’t actually apply the learning you gain. Maybe you’ll read something and try it and find it didn’t work for you but that’s fine. At least you now know what doesn’t suit you and you can try a different approach. I can’t remember the last time I listened to the radio in the car – now it’s an audiobook or a podcast every time.
18. Follow other people for inspiration not for comparison. Over the last 12 months I’ve learned that some people inspire me and some simply make me feel lacking. This has absolutely nothing to do with the other person and everything to do with me. So I have a policy now that if following someone doesn’t leave me feeling inspired and motivated, but instead leaves me feeling riddled with ‘comparisonitis’ and less confident, I delete or unfollow them. And it may change over time so keep vigilant to how someone makes you feel and realise that you have the choice about how you react. If you can’t control your need to compare yourself, then you can at least control you social media feed.
19. Find a balance between consumption and creation. I’ve learned that fear and lack of confidence have caused me to spend too much time consuming information and not enough time creating it. A need to be ‘qualified’ or to have more expertise can keep us caught in the procrastination trap where we fear creating our own content because we think we’re not knowledgeable enough. Whilst I’m all for personal development and lifelong learning (see Lesson 17) there is a balance to be found between consuming and creating. I try now to work on a 70/30 split in favour of creation. Creation includes writing and recording content, serving my clients as well as the normal day to day tasks needed to run my business. Consumption includes books, podcasts, blogs, websites, seminars, training days etc.
20. Not everyone will like you – get over it. As a born people pleaser it’s hard to accept that some people simply aren’t going to like me, won’t agree with me and might even want to be rude to me. But life is like that and I’m learning to accept it and not let it affect me. Having had my first few trolls I’m assured this is simply a rite of passage into the world of running an online business. Sad, but true.
21.The more you learn the less you know. One of the contradictions in life is that the more you learn the less you know. When I started out as a nutrition coach and personal trainer I thought I knew a lot of things about a lot of things. Turns out I only scraped the surface. I love learning so this is a good thing for me, and it also takes a bit of the pressure off the need to be seen as an ‘expert’.
So there you go, I could probably add another 50 lessons at least that I’ve learned but you’d be asleep before I got through them all (if you’re not snoring already!).
To finish I can say that despite it being a scary move, I have never regretted making the decision to start my own business. I’ve encountered challenges I never imagined and learned skills to solve problems I didn’t expect to have.
Thankfully self-belief and self confidence grown the more you get out and do your thing and I truly believe that the only way I can fail is if I give up.
Finally to summarise I leave you with the following:
You have to learn to understand:
WHO YOU ARE
WHO YOUR CUSTOMERS ARE
AND THAT YOU TRULY WILL NEVER MASTER FACEBOOK’S ALGORYTHMS!