Day Creative just celebrated our 8 year anniversary, and as I reflect on almost a decade in business, I thought about my younger self, and what I would say if I could send a letter to that guy.
Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still in business (and doing this well). A little background; I don’t have a business degree, my education is in film. The worldview that I saw modeled, through parents and other adults, was, go to college, get a degree, get a job in the field your degree is in. Then go to work for someone forever, and hopefully they have good health benefits!
So that’s the route I started on. However I got to a stage in life where that paradigm just wasn’t working. At the time I was working for a corporation in Oklahoma City and living in Norman, so I was engaging in that typical rat race commute. We started having kids and I just felt like my family was getting my leftover energy, not the best of me. It wasn’t ideal. At the same time I started doing some design on the side to make a little extra cash, and then it occurred to me that I could build a business around this pursuit that I enjoyed, and have the added benefit of actually being around.
The decision was made to turn the side hustle into a business, and it was exciting. When I made it to the one year mark I reached out to a business coach connection I had made and told him, “Hey! Can you believe it? I made it a year!” His response? “Call me back when you make it to year five.”
Statistically, the estimate is that about 20% of small businesses fail before the first year — most do make it to the point I was so proud to reach. However, only about 50% survive past five years and after that? Dismal chances.
We did survive, however, and now we’re at year 8! Those years have been full of lessons, and evolution. Even though we succeeded, if I could, I would tell my younger self a few things. Three, to be exact.
Build long term relationships
Owning a business is mostly relationship building. When I first started, the thinking was, “Who will hire me and pay me well and on time?” It was purely transactional. I would finish a job, get paid and move onto the next client job. What I didn’t realize is I had a giant hole in my business–I wasn’t circling back after the transaction portion of the relationship was done to find out their thoughts, future needs, or how I could do better.
Now, I’ve learned that I don’t just want the contract for designing their website, or other pieces of business. I mean, I do want that, but I want to understand their business so that I can offer guidance for the next project. “Have you thought about this? I feel like this would benefit you.” The goal is to be a partner; a trusted advisor. Becoming an outsourced marketing department is much different than simply offering a la carte services (which we still do, of course), and that’s our goal. We have a lot to offer, and while the business is still a business, it’s better for everyone if the relationship focus is kept at the forefront.
I’m happy to say that we still have clients that I’ve had since the beginning eight years ago — I have become a trusted advisor, and we’ve become friends. Attending games together, going golfing…that type of relationship is the best kind of business relationship because building trust means that you can provide more value. I’ve had clients build from simple services to assisting with bigger events–one company did a fundraiser for an employee that had cancer, and they trusted us to help. Longevity happens when people trust you, and they trust you by having multiple opportunities to see you perform in the way you promise.
Find a business coach, STAT
I would say this to any small business owner starting out (and do), but particularly to my younger self because I didn’t have a business background. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Someone with practical experience and knowledge to guide and inform me was valuable, and I think if I had engaged my coach sooner, I would have benefitted earlier. If you’re new to this (or even if you aren’t) you may have blind spots, or things you’re doing that you could improve that you can’t see yourself.
One of the first questions my coach asked was, “What does Day Creative do? What services do you offer and which ones give you the best margins?”
I didn’t even know what a margin was. Yikes.
It’s hilarious in hindsight, but my first year or two with my coach wasn’t fun. It was a lot of tracking and examining data. I hated it! I’m a creative person. I don’t like sitting and crunching numbers, but as I looked at our data I saw the wisdom in taking all of this into account and it began to shape my decisions. Developing new revenue streams, improving efficiency…all of the things that lead to sustainable life for a small business, I understand now, and can enact them easily. All because I worked with a business coach.
Most local branches of the Small Business Administration can help you find a coach or small business incubators that offer free or scaled help for those starting small businesses…find one with experience that fits your needs. You’ll get more bang for your buck if you find one that has diverse experience, an understanding of all aspects of business. Sales, finance, etc.
Learn to specialize
This piece of advice that I would give my younger self is maybe a little unexpected. When I first started, my goal was to be a full-service branding agency. I wanted to specialize in great design, from logo and a branding systems to website design and all of the little corollary pieces that go with it.
At a particular point my business coach and I were doing some work to pivot the business towards generating recurring revenue, and I found myself doing a lot of social media management. It was okay, but it wasn’t what I was best at. It was a good move because of the numbers, and it was workable, but I wasn’t happy doing it. My coach suggested only doing what I was good at – which sounded awesome, but I wasn’t sure how to grow revenue with this approach. But I trusted him and moved in that direction.
This had a couple of effects; one, when I focused on the work that I am the best at, it yielded success and provided opportunities to then grow the team at Day Creative by bringing in people who specialize in the other things I wanted to offer. It also made me happier because I was doing what I was actually best at – which yielded even more growth. Focusing on solving your customer’s problems is always the correct approach, and when you provide high quality work doing what you are best at it makes it even better – instead of trying to be something that you aren’t.
Even in the last two to three years, we’ve transitioned to becoming more of a website shop. We have partners that handle the back end hosting, and we have a creative team that can produce a website that represents our client’s brand — it smells like them, it’s going to move the needle with their customers — and also provides all of the analytics and reporting data they need to grow the business.
In the past 8 years we’ve gone from my original grand scheme to be a branding agency, to being content with being the best at creating websites and driving traffic to them. We provide growth for our clients by leading with what we’re best at. In the last two years, we’ve built partnerships with other agencies to produce their websites, where we become their go-to when they hit capacity. Specializing can open lots of unexpected doors.
Those would be my three main points, if I could send a letter to my younger self, starting my own business 8 years ago. Think about long term relationships, get a business coach as soon as possible, and find a niche.
Here’s to the last 8 years, and here’s to 8 more!