5 Years: Lessons Learned in Starting a Business

Last month my business hurdled across an important landmark; the magic five year mark. Business is amazing. Revenue and profit are at record levels. As a professional speaker and trainer I have engagements already booked through March of 2009. Lately other people have begun noticing my prosperous little business and have started asking questions: “What is your secret?” and “How have you built a business from nothing to something in five years?” This gave me pause to think and to articulate the six key principles I have used to build my business:

Listen to your customers. It’s not what you want to sell; it’s what your customers want to buy. The best ideas (if you are listening carefully) come from your best customers. I have a Leadership Development program that I conduct for my clients across the country. One day I got a call from a training Director and he said “This may sound crazy, but would you be willing to license your program to us so we can conduct it on our own?” Fast forward to eighteen months later, I have 2 large clients on multi- year licensing agreements for my products and I have several more in discussion. Translation: generate additional revenue without having to actually be present. I don’t know if I ever would have thought of this on my own.
Question: What are your customers telling you that you are not hearing?

Do your homework. When I work with a client, I do my homework in advance on their industry, company, issues and challenges. In the internet age information is all available at your fingertips. During a recent training session in Charlotte, a participant said to me on a break “thanks for today- you really seem to know our business”. They now have asked me to do an additional 15 days of training for them this fall. Preparation is the mark of a professional. Apparently some people don’t prepare and this can be one of your distinctions.
Question: What should you and your people know about a client before you engage them?

Deliver no matter what- no excuses. A few months ago I flew from Philly to Portland to facilitate full day training for a client. Every connecting flight was delayed and delayed and delayed. I finally landed at 3:30 am, got to the hotel at 4:30 am and was in bed by 5:00 am. I was back up at 6:30 and started training at 8:00. I did a full day training session for 40 people on 90 minutes of sleep. Did they know it? Nope. I only told them at the end of the day. The point is this- perform no matter what. No excuses. No whining. When you perform despite the challenges and difficulties, it is also a chance reinforce and enhance your reputation.
Question: What excuses do you allow you and your organization make for not delivering?

Control overhead. As Sheryl Crow once said “This aint no country club this is L.A.” Well here is my version “this ain’t no social club this is a business.” I don’t have a fancy office or tons of overhead. I run lean. I think if you can’t be disciplined with expenses and overhead, then maybe, just maybe you shouldn’t be in business.
Question: Are you controlling overhead where it makes sense?

Stay sharp. I belong to and participate in three industry groups and I invest in attending 2-3 conferences each year. These kind of activities keep you sharp and in the loop on what is going on in your industry. In the last three years, some of the ideas I have gained at these conferences have had a huge influence on how I operate my business. If you go and keep an open mind, a new idea or two will jump start your thinking. The investment in staying sharp can pay off ten fold. It has for me.
Question: What could you join or be part of to keep business and industry knowledge sharp?

Pick a niche. Ok, let’s face it you can’t be all things all people. Your marketing budget isn’t big enough, and it’s too difficult. I decided a few years ago to specialize in training and speaking for the cable industry. ( an industry I came from) I have literature that states “There are 6700 languages in the world and your meeting speaker or trainer may speak any of them. Still the big question is: do they speak cable? My name is Shawn Doyle and I speak cable.” The response to this approach has been amazing and I now have seven cable clients and they contribute a significant amount of my annual revenue. Most people would rather hire a specialist than a generalist. My goal is to become the training resource for cable companies and cable networks. I am currently developing a website and several products just for people in cable. Pick a niche small enough to own but large enough to be profitable.
Question: What niche could you select and own?

So those are a few thoughts at the five year point. I am sure I will learn much more in the next five. It is an exciting place to be , owning a growing and dynamic business. Some nights I am so fired up I can’t sleep. (in a good way) As Oprah Winfrey once said “When I think about the future, the future is so bright it burns my eyes.” It’s how I feel right now. I hope the same for your future.

Now go make something happen.