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27 of the Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned Since Starting My Own Business

on May 7, 2013

More than six years ago, I launched my brand journalism business Spark Media Solutions. In that time I’ve learned, experienced, and advanced more than any previous six years in work or school. I began thinking about everything that I’ve learned over those years that have become critical to building my business, and I came up with the following 27 lessons.

These lessons may or may not apply to you since my company is a service-based business. I’m far from an expert as all I do is learn experientially about what works and what doesn’t in business. While I know I have so much more to learn, I thought I’d take a moment and share what I know so far and beg you to add your wisdom as well in the comments below. Thanks.

1: Corporate political BS drains your soul

When I worked in office jobs, I kept struggling either for higher recognition, or to avoid demotion. I can’t count the hours I wasted worrying about nonsensical corporate BS. While running your own company is incredibly difficult, and there are tons of other factors that eat up your time, I’ll gladly handle them over dealing with political nonsense that is completely out of my control.

Since I started my own company I haven’t wasted a minute on corporate political BS and I am much happier as a result.

2: Always be working even if you’re not doing it for money

For the first few months of my business I had very little work so I just went out and did what I wanted other companies to hire me for. I’m fortunate that the majority of my work requires me to be highly visible at live events, such as conferences and trade shows, where I conduct tons of interviews, especially with influencers. For more on this technique, read and listen to my interview with photographer Michael O’Donnell on “Hacking Media Production.”

Even jobs that aren’t so public can become visible through brand journalism. One of my favorite examples is Ruth Perryman (@ruthperryman) who first promoted her accounting business by starting a blog about QuickBooks tips. It drove lots of traffic, thousands of Twitter followers, and most importantly, lots of clients.

3: Never ask if there’s available work

I’ve had people do this to me, and I immediately assume they’re in a very tough situation and I begin to feel sorry for them. That’s not a good way to promote your brand. You never want people to feel sorry for you. It’s not a reason for them to hire you. Rather, you want to be seen as incredibly busy and they should be lucky enough to hire you.

That’s why you always need to be working, even if it’s for yourself, and make it visible.

4: Follow up with everyone you meet

I would say this has been the core to the growth of my business. It’s one thing to meet a person and ask for their card. It’s another thing to actually follow up with that person. Sadly, I would say that only about one in ten people I hand a business card to actually follows up. It’s sadly pathetic. Make it a point to follow up with everyone you meet. If you don’t, your networking effort is completely lost.

For more, see items #11 and #12 in “16 Annoying Communications that Must End in 2011.”

5: Help someone out whenever you can

You don’t build your business through lots of friends on Facebook and Twitter. You build it on honest trustworthy connections. The best way to create one of these deep connections is to actually help someone out. The easiest way you can do this is through some helpful industry advice or just making a connection.

6: Don’t use Excel to manage your expenses

I thought I was being smart about handling my expenses in Excel, but it was a f’ing nightmare. I made so many mistakes and honestly don’t know if I did it right in the end. If you’re not using Quicken or QuickBooks, or a similar product, start now. Not only will it make managing your expenses really easy, but what I really like is at the end of the year when I’m summarizing everything, I can easily catch and fix my mistakes.

7: Get an accountant you can trust

There are plenty of tax laws pertaining to running a business that I don’t know.  I lean on my accountant a lot to just answer questions and guide me in the right direction.

8: Gather as many stories about your work as possible

When I was first starting out, I worried about getting paid my “rate.” A very successful colleague of mine who was starting (and has now sold) his third business said to me, “Don’t worry about the money, just get the stories.” He was so right. When you’re beginning what’s important is you need stories of how you do what you do; what works and what doesn’t work. When you’re negotiating with colleagues, they like to hear about your previous work. If you don’t have anything to show them, then there’s no way they can feel confident in your ability to do the work.

If you’re just starting out and you have to do work below your rate or even for free, do it. You need the stories.

9: Most companies would rather spend more than do any work themselves

I used to have a very limited service offering and would instruct my clients to handle the other parts of the job. I found that impossible to coordinate. But when I said that we could handle larger portions of the projects for more money, they were more than happy to oblige. The more you can vertically integrate your services, and reduce the client’s involvement, the happier they’ll be, and the wealthier you’ll be.

10: Ask for testimonials

Having one or two testimonials is nice, having twenty and you’re a rock star. Go out of your way to ask your clients and colleagues for testimonials. Here are some on my site.

11: Take as many meetings as possible

Always strive to get a meeting and know what you want out of it. If they can’t hire you, then they know someone who can hire you. Get that person’s name and an introduction.

12: Network all the time

Fortunately I live in the Bay Area where there are tons of tech networking events almost every weekday night. Making face time at networking events is so important. Recently, I just landed a few projects solely because I showed up to a networking event.

13: Keep looking for work especially when you’re incredibly busy

When you’ve got a full time job it’s really difficult to be out there looking for another full time job. Problem is that’s the best time to be looking. You’re always more desirable when you’re busier and the pressure to act fast is more intense. This is similar to running your own company and having others hire you. When you’re not busy there’s never the pressure to hire you as there’s obviously not so much demand for your time. That’s why you want to be looking for work especially when you’re incredibly busy.

14: Only hire people you can trust

If you find someone who is really good you can’t trust, don’t hire them. So much of running a successful business is not worrying about others getting their job done. Worrying wastes hours of your valuable time and it’ll stress you out. I don’t have to worry about the people I hire because I trust them and know they’ll do an awesome job.

15: Be very good to your employees and contractors

When you trust your employees return the favor by letting them know how much you appreciate them, and most importantly pay their rate. Don’t nickel and dime them. If you can’t afford them then you need to increase your own rate, or look for someone else. And when someone sticks with you for a long time, give them a bonus.

16: Don’t put any critical data into a system that can’t be exported into another system

For years I was using Outlook’s Business Contact Manager, which locked up all of my critical CRM (customer relationship management) data. It was a frustrating experience and as a result I’m in the process of paying someone to copy and paste 4,000 records into another CRM system. This would have never happened had I just looked ahead and realized that I would need this data for the rest of my professional life. If you’re ever using a tool for which you’ll need the data for more than a year, make sure you can export it to another system, because almost all programs will either die off or there will be something better you’ll want to use.

For more, read “How I recovered from Choosing a Bad Technology and How to Protect Yourself.”

17: Use a good CRM system

I’ve had a really crude “CRM” system which amounted to just a list of names on a screen. I’ve finally moved over to a former client, Zoho CRM, and started using their system to manage communications with potential and current clients. I also use it to manage guests for my podcast, “Hacking Media Production.”

18: Produce a company site you’re proud of

When I launched my business,  I hired a great designer to design and develop my website. She did an awesome job. Problem is that was awesome six years ago. It started to look dated, and it was configured in an awkward way so updating it became a pain. I became so annoyed with it that I started to let it languish so not only was the site antiquated, but the content was ancient as well. It was becoming a branding disaster. We finally relaunched the site via a WordPress blog and we’re very happy with the look and architecture which makes it super easy to update.

19: Blog on your own site and on others

We’ve built our brand through blogging, and we do the same for our clients. We mainly use our blog site, Spark Minute, and also post now to the business site Spark Media Solutions. For others to discover us, we need to guest blog on other more well-known sites. All our marketing has been purely through content creation. Call it content marketing if you will, but I think it’s better to refer to it as brand journalism.

20: Create some regular content series and stick to it

More than 99 percent of the time, people who are reading your content don’t  want to hire you. Less than 1 percent of the time will they be ready or even considering hiring you. Or maybe they’ll know someone who wants to hire you. When those times come around, you want to be top of mind. We’ve successfully built our business through our bi-monthly newsletter, Spark Notes*. This newsletter is filled with articles, funny tweets, industry statistics, videos, and podcasts of projects we’ve done for ourselves and our clients. The purpose of the newsletter is to simply maintain an ongoing touch point with our audience. After each newsletter I’ll inevitably get an email that says, “David, I’m so glad I got your newsletter. It reminded me about some project we’re doing…”

Whatever you choose to do, it has to be regular and ideally consistently branded. We’re expanding our education and relationship building with the launch of our weekly podcast series “Hacking Media Production.”

Please subscribe to our newsletter and podcast via our blog or business site.

21: Add tons of service on top of your core product

Avoid being seen as a one trick pony. Unless you’re the absolute best, you don’t want to be seen as just a writer, just a cameraman, or just a designer. Instead, you want to be seen as the cameraman that gets great interviews, or the writer that writes the juiciest investigative reports that are designed really well, or maybe the graphic artist that has a series of really popular characters. Whatever it is, add more services on top of the basic service. Once you’re able to do that you can charge a lot more.

22: Experiment on yourself before you roll it out to your client

One of the ways we add tons of service is by testing projects out on ourselves. For example, if we have an idea for a great style of article writing, we’ll write one for ourselves and publish it on our blog. If it works out well we’ll show it to our clients and ask them if they would like to do the same.

23: There’s a lot of money to be made as a service-based business

The tech industry in the Bay Area is heavily focused on creating the next big app. While there’s a lot of great talent in the Bay Area to create the next Instagram, there is actually a shortage of seasoned pros offering professional services.

You can be very successful in the Bay Area not launching a tech startup, but rather offering professional services. For example, I’ve noticed there’s a major shortage of PR firms and pros willing to take on $5K-$15K monthly retainers from well-funded startups. That’s too small for the larger agencies, but for an independent or small agency with low overhead, that’s a hunk of cash.

24: Learn how to write a proposal

This is a core skill you must have to run a successful business. It took me a solid year to learn how to write a good proposal. The first ones I wrote were nine pages long and took me an entire day to write. With some help from a friend and a lot of practice I’ve been able to bang out simple proposals in 30 minutes and larger ones in about an hour.

25: Don’t lower your rates, lower your offering

When you’re starting out you’re probably going to have to do some pro-bono work or stuff below your pay grade. Accept it. As I said before, you’re primary job when you’re starting a service business is to get the stories because the stories will be what sells you to other potential clients.

After you’ve established yourself and understand your rate within the industry, stick to it. If you have a client that balks at a proposal, don’t lower your rates, simply lower your offering. If they don’t want to pay that much, simply ask, “OK, what don’t you want to do?” Most simply won’t have the money but they’ll still want to work with you. Just lower the number of services you’ll provide.

26: Maintain relations with current and past clients

Don’t let every communications with your clients be about work. When you see something valuable in the news, forward it to them. Send them a personalized video greeting via Facebook. When the holidays roll around, send them a personalized gift that will remind them of you. For example, this past holiday season we sent out posters to clients that were funky designs of the cities they lived in. All our clients loved them and hung them up in their office. Now, every time they look at the posters they’ll be reminded of us.

Had we just sent them food they would have probably left it in their break room and we would have been forgotten instantly.

For more, read “I just sent 555 personalized video greeting cards – How I did it.”

27: Every job is an audition for the next job

I once said to a client that we always over deliver. The client remembered that and then saw us actually over deliver on every project. It was for that reason they kept hiring us again and again.

When you’re working a full time job there’s never the pressure to deliver something awesome every single time. It’s not easy to get rid of a full time employee if they just screw up once. If you’re a contractor, it’s extremely easy for a client to lose faith in you if you screw up. You always have to over deliver because every job is an audition for the next job.

OK, cough up your tips

I’m still very much a professional newbie because there’s tons I still don’t know about business. Please share with me and others by offering your experiential advice in the comments below. Thanks!


Creative Commons photo attributions to jvumn, Digital Wallpapers, MyTudut, nicholoaslaughlin, 401(K) 2013, MDgovpics,  andercismo, JoshuaDavisPhotography, “maya”, and jjpacres.

Stock photo of girl writing on chalkboard courtesy of Bigstock photo.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Lengstorf May 8, 2013 at 12:24 pm

One of the biggest things I learned was to always contact the client first, even if it’s just to say you’re not done with their project yet. Every time a project has started to turn sour, it’s been a result of the client having to reach out and ask where we were at.

If we would have simply shot them a note to say, “Hey, we’re working on your project and expect to have something to show you next week,” the whole dynamic of the conversation would have shifted, and instead of looking furtive and unprofessional we could have been upfront and organized.

TL;DR: Always email first, even if there’s nothing new to share.

David Spark May 8, 2013 at 12:26 pm

That’s a really good tip. Interesting you say that. I just hired a developer who does exactly that with me. :)

Mary Flaherty May 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Superb advice, David! You’ve covered a lot of territory here — so many practical and valuable lessons. I think lesson #25 (Don’t lower your rates, lower your offering) is a critical one. Too often our response is to reduce rates when we should be reducing scope.

I’d add: Create a referral system. (This will help with #13 by bringing in new clients when you’re doing work for current clients.) Referrals are one of the top ways in which service providers get new clients.

If it’s OK to post a link here, here’s a slide presentation with 25 Ways to Get Referrals:

David Spark May 10, 2013 at 10:07 am

Great link on the referrals. Thanks for sharing. I must say I’m bad about not being aggressive getting referrals. It’s a good reminder.

Aras Geylani At Inkeo May 15, 2013 at 4:26 am

Thanks for this stupendous post. In terms of proposals and consulting, I’ve found Alan Weiss to be a giant in that indsutry, I found his book “Million Dollar Consultant” very helpful

David Spark May 15, 2013 at 10:13 am

Six months before I started my business a colleague recommended that book to me. I read it. Best advice is to price on value. Figuring that out is always the toughest thing to do.

Ted Marshall May 30, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Great post! I’ll have to apply some of these to my business practices.

David Spark May 30, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Let me know what works. :)

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