Project, business and strategic planning.
Lurking fears named; problems creatively solved; visions nurtured.
After the slow sultry summer months we seem suddenly to have rocketed into April, with its cool autumn weather, already. March was month number 4 of this particular stint of self-employment* and it was a month of mixed fortunes**. My marketing strategy is ambling along nicely and showing distinct signs of working the way I want it to. But some training I had lined up fell through at the last minute.
I find myself relishing the autonomy of being my own boss. I feel so free to do things my way and there are days when the future feels tantalising. But I would be lying if I didn’t also admit to there being days of tension… well… white knuckle terror is perhaps a more apt way to describe it. In March these were the days when I thought that my phone would never ring, that I had been deluding myself when I had done the market research and then the marketing. But the phone calls and emails and meetings did trickle in (thank you! marketing strategy) and work has been booked so nil desperandum.
Such is the rollercoaster of setting up a little business. I attend quite a few small business events, as much for my own professional development as to scope out the competition, expand my networks and keep abreast of trends. But what strikes me is the rhetoric surrounding startups – “it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do!” is what I repeatedly get told. A couple of people have even gone as far as to describe it as years of “hell”. Others have not hesitated to describe the setting up of a small business in terms of undergoing some awful ordeal. The StartupSmart website is currently running a series of (excellent and interesting) articles entitled “StartUps are Scary”.
Which they are. Don’t get me wrong – I am not inferring that starting up a business is anything but complex and challenging and a process that requires a huge amount of endurance and crazy braveness. But, even so, when I am standing in front of someone at a networking thingy and they interrupt me describing what I do to say “It’s VERY difficult you know – it’s the hardest thing you’ll EVER do!” a tiny treacherous voice inside me says “Well… it’s all relative, now, isn’t it?”
Because starting up a small business is not, actually the hardest thing I have ever done. It’s hard, to be sure, but so are a lot of other things. Walking into a workplace knowing you are going to be bullied by colleagues and a manager is hard. Recovering from clinical depression is hard. Living on social security allowance is hard. I found these to be harder than starting up a small business.
Some of the people who have shared their thoughts on the grind of starting up a business have been people who have just exited careers in executive management. They wax lyrical on the dreadfulness of their experiences, squinting into the distance like gunslingers, while I stare at their expensive ties and wonder how much it was they earnt at their last corporation. Maybe I am being unfair, but I am willing to bet that these guys have never had to start up a business while on the dole with absolutely no resources at all. I have. More than once. And that is hard.
Sounding like a smug little martyr am I? Something saves me from turning into a total self-referential prat. As part of what I currently do, I supply training services to some community based learning centres. At one place at which I train a high proportion of people who attend come from a refugee background. These are people who have literally fled war zones and / or made their way to this country in small rickety boats over the open sea. They come to my classes to learn small business or community development techniques with a view to managing their own enterprises. They are committed, positive, enthusiastic learners and I am floored by their vision and courage. I cannot look these people in the eye and say something like “Starting up a small business is the HARDEST thing you will EVER do.” Because that would be nonsense. If a small business fails in Australia it causes huge and devastating problems for its owners. But no one gets beaten up or shot by the Taliban or detained by the secret police as a result.
For me it is a gift to be around these people- it helps to put my own history and any past challenges I have faced into perspective. And now, when I think of the ‘hardness’ of setting up a small business I see it in terms of being on a spectrum of ‘life events’ and my experiences are nowhere near the scary end of this spectrum. To cope with my moments of fear during this past month I just told myself that if I was scared of not getting enough work then I had just better do some more bloody marketing. And I enjoy the marketing – it feels equally sensible and creative to do. It’s grounding and fun and after a while I forget to feel scared.
My challenge will be to hold onto a sense of perspective.
**To be honest, from my experience, every month of the first couple of years is a month of mixed fortunes.
The Croakey Koori needs your support! Consider contributing to this crowd funding campaign to fund the Koori Woman – “An actual statistic, who has a computer and can parse a pretty mean sentence when inspiration strikes” – to write some blogs about Aboriginal health.
Originally posted on thekooriwoman:
Amongst our many conversations a wild idea appeared, maybe I could write some columns, from the perspective of someone who actually uses Aboriginal health services. Whoa right? An actual statistic, who has a computer and can parse a pretty mean sentence when inspiration strikes. So of course I said yay, and Melissa said yay, and The Croakey Koori was born.
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I have been flat out this week and therefore hard pressed to tease out any of my own ideas to put in a blog. Instead I am posting a couple of ‘Recommended Reads’ – blogs that contains links to great articles other people have written. Enjoy!
This very candid interview of entrepreneur Jono Birkett of Memtell by Rose Powell on the StartUpSmart website caught my eye. As the title suggests, Birkett reveals how he had a few tries to get a venture up and running and reflects on lessons learnt along the way.
Do we talk enough about failure? Do we inhabit a culture that can view failure as a chance for learning and / or a stage our projects might have to work through on their way to realisation? Or do we view failure as something that damns us, that is an indicator of weakness or something shameful.
The spectre of failure surely hovers in the background of any kind of project, especially in its start-up phase. I have been involved in my fair share of failures (and successes!) across creative, community and business orientated projects. It’s certainly no fun to be haunted by the idea of what could have been. And the shame and mortification of being associated with a failure can be toxic in a situation where the difficulties encountered by a project’s team have been handled or communicated badly or accompanied by painful breakdowns in working relationships.
At times I have been involved in what I privately call ‘rescue’ work. This is where I have been employed to fix up a project or program that has gone off the rails. Sometimes I have been able to make a difference, and sometimes, sadly, not. This is difficult work, sometimes draining and disappointing and sometimes extremely rewarding. But it is a wonderful learning experience and, I must admit, quite fascinating. I actually enjoy trying to track the underlying causes of problems and love it when I can help a project team come up with some great strategies to help the project get back on track.
So I am impressed by Birkett’s willingness to reflect on and share what he has learnt. A willingness to talk about failures and problems, a willingness to step away from the need to always look like a winner or an expert, could be an adjunct to our business culture. Reflecting on our failures can teach us so much, and sharing our insights puts us in the position of supporting and empowering others.
One of this fortnight’s ‘Recommended Reads’ is this great article – ‘6 Free (or Low Cost) Ways to Prove Your Business Idea is a Winner’ - by Susan Jones on her Ready Set Startup! Website which, as the name suggests, gives information to entrepreneurs and small business people in the process of starting up their ventures.
I am especially mindful of this at the moment because I am currently mentoring a lovely jeweller who is in the process of planning a small business. She was initially quite nervous at the thought of doing these formal sounding processes labelled ‘market research’ and then ‘market testing’. But then she brought me photos of pieces she had made and mentioned offhandedly that she had sold them all to people, and that she was attracting more commissions. So we were able to start having great conversations about how this was going, and to design a strategy through which she could harvest insights and information to feed into the business planning process.
Still, I have found with other people I have worked with that they are often quite nervous to tackle market testing. Testing things you have nurtured, and relished in your imagination by forcing them out into the real world is confronting. This article has some beaut ideas which, depending on your situation and type of business, could be easily implemented. If you read it check out the comments as well, as they contain feedback and further discussion.
I came across Carolyn Tate’s report – ‘The Conscious Marketing Revolution: Marketing for the 21st Century’ last year when I was planning and researching the setting up of my new business. The report recounts experienced marketing consultant Tate’s loss of faith in the prevailing traditional paradigm of marketing and her insight into how marketing could be done instead:
“Conscious Marketing is all about promoting your offering with honesty, transparency and congruency and with messages of joy, hope, love and humanity… Ultimately your business will be sustainable and profitable because your product or service and your message will leave the world a better place. It’s all about profiting on purpose.”
I loved Tate’s suggestions about how to centre your marketing campaign on communicating your values and inspiration rather than just pushing for the hard sell. It was what I needed to read at the time and I still find myself mentally referring to it from time to time during these early months of setting up. I hope you enjoy reading this most excellent paper here.
I cannot pretend that 2013 was an easy or enjoyable year. Progress towards my goal of hanging out my shingle as a freelancer felt agonisingly slow and muddled at times. And yet, by year’s end, I had to admit that progress had been made. During September, October and November I completed a Certificate 4 in Small Business Management and (via a Recognition of Prior Learning process) a Certificate 4 in Training and Assessment*. I found the Cert 4 in Business straightforward and easy – one of the services I plan to offer is small business planning after all and I have a history in doing this. I did enjoy the chance to bang out my own business plan during the course and was comforted by the fact that a lot of the research and thinking I had done during my slow year proved to be of use. The Certificate 4 in TAE I am more ambivalent about. As a qualification it seems to be highly thought of, but I have to admit to finding it a very dry and bureaucratic process, and somewhat alien to the way I instinctively train and mentor.
So, by the end of December I had come to the conclusion that 2013 seemed to be the year during which I attained 2 pieces of paper that proved that I do know some things that I know. I feel somewhat odd that these little courses, these circumscribed fenced off areas of instruction, should carry such respectability and gravitas in the eyes of the world. Mine has been a scrambling mad progress through life in which I learnt my skills in order to survive some adventures, create some dances, dodge some bullets, help some people. I am not overly turned on by spouting didactic knowledge at folk, or barking out accepted wisdom (while happy to acknowledge that sometimes the wisdom is accepted because there’s something to it). Mine is not the voice of the expert, but rather the voice of the survivor, and a curious survivor at that. This is not an admission that I am dumb or lacking in experience, by the way. But my history has formed me into a creature that is compelled to explore, adapt and invent, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes as a cheeky response to boredom. Asking the right questions is more my thing than giving lectures, but I feel that hard dried certainty is more the admired style these days (I love Twitter but sometimes I feel as if my Twitter feed is an echo chamber full of experts shouting truisms at each other). I must admit to feeling a little sad and strange that my rollicking history apparently counts for less than the 2 pieces of paper I acquired last year in the eyes of many folks I encounter. I guess that my challenge is to find a way of marketing myself so that this history, and the things it showed me and taught me, comes to count for more.
* I also managed to pick up regular training work from Springvale Learning and Activities Centre and a little role playing work from Deakin University. I most definitely do NOT recommend doing 2 Certificate 4s at the same time as part time work.
I have decided to write a little blog reflecting on the process of starting up this business. I am aiming at writing something every month or two from now on; this is the first of two blogs about the first 3 months.
Happy New Lunar Year of the Horse!
Here I am in the third month of my little business. Month number one (December) felt busy, maybe because I was tired after a hectic but productive few spring months, partly because I was doing some work for the Springvale Learning and Activities Centre (SLAC by acronym, but not SLAC by nature). Like most community based learning centres it’s a bloody interesting place. I was teaching some units in SLAC’s Diploma of Community Development course to a most glorious group of people; glorious because they were an interesting and interested small class of people who, despite diverse backgrounds, worked together as a strong mutually supportive unit.
January was the month in which I felt privileged to be able to work at home, hide from the weather and dodge the necessity of commuting in the extraordinary heat. As month number 2 in the business, and as the notoriously quietest time of the year, I did not expect to get work from clients. Instead I used the time to get my house in order and organise the mess of documents I regularly use, create some more training materials, and play around with some draft marketing materials.
Having done that, February is now the month I start producing those marketing materials and getting them out there. I seriously expected to have no clients this month as well, so I am delighted that some of the marketing I undertook at the end of last year has paid off and that I am getting a little work coming in. Nice interesting work, too, with nice interesting people.
So, steady as she goes. I am where I roughly thought I would be (both in terms of budget and action plans) and that’s a good thing. For now. And mildly surprising – unexpected events have a way of ‘finding’ me; I have some weird rogue furtive impulse to pull them towards me and this is both a blessing and a curse. The challenge is to keep on getting my house in order so that when something zooms out of left field I am in a position to respond to, and even enjoy, it.