10 Things I’ve Learned Over 10 Years of Running My Own Business

Ten years ago, in 2011, I started Shift ONE Digital from my kitchen table. I’d just been retrenched and took it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start my own thing. I was given a two-month payout, unfortunately, no golden handshake for me.

I had a very short runway to get my business going if that's what I decided to pursue because, at the same time, I was still flirting with the idea of getting a job; debating whether I should put the golden handcuffs of a consistent salary back on my wrists. 

Why? Why would I want to go back to a place where the politics nearly killed me? Where I didn’t fit in?

Simple: FEAR.

I was afraid my business wouldn’t succeed. 

Where would I get customers from? Despite having worked in Cape Town for the previous six years, I knew nobody outside of the globally-focused company I’d been working for.

10 Things I’ve Learned over 10 Years of Running my own Business

I’m not sure if you’ve ever stood with one foot in two separate boats? Well, that was me in the early days of my retrenchment. On the one hand, I was designing and building my own website, writing blogs, and deciding on the business name.

On the other hand, I was going for interviews and sending out my CV. 

The realisation dawned on me that in order to succeed, I would have to choose one path, commit to it, and give it my best shot. 

This leads me to lesson number one.

Lesson 1: Commit

In order for something to succeed, you have to give it your all.

If you’re trying to walk two paths, God can’t bless one path, you might blame Him for choosing the wrong one. He needs you to choose a path.

And so I chose.

I called all the companies that had my CV and actively turned down each potential role.

I committed.

Both feet in one boat.

One path.

And within three days I had my first two retainer clients. BOOM!

In the early days, I said ‘yes’ to any and every client and job that I found or came along. That’s how I learned and figured out which services were most needed, and which services I wanted to provide.

But it also meant that I worked with quite a number of toxic clients… people who lacked respect for others, who thrived on a culture of aggressive confrontation, and who expected me and my team to work all hours.

Early on I realised that, if I allow toxic clients to burn my team out, I will be left with nothing.

 

Which led me to lesson number two.

Lesson 2: No A-Holes

I don’t hire a-holes and I won’t work with a-holes. It’s even on our About Us page on our Shift ONE website.

Fortunately, toxic people reveal their true colours very early in the relationship. If you’re in a boardroom and the CEO is abusing his or her staff, publicly humiliating or being aggressive or rude, get up and walk away. 

They won’t change and that kind of behavior will burn out your staff. 

These clients are also notorious for not paying their bills.

Not worth it.

Same goes for toxic staff members. 

Our culture is what makes us who we are: We are nice people who work with nice people, we do great work and we enjoy what we do.

When you hire staff who are not aligned with this culture, your brand suffers... 

 

Hello lesson number three.

Lesson 3: Hire People who are ON-Brand

I’ve tolerated staff with attitudes that exceeded their talent because I thought they were irreplaceable, but after they left, the peace and joy that returned made me realise that they weren’t worth the impact on the culture.

Culture matters. It’s the essence of your BRAND.

Your people create your culture.

Your people create your brand.

Your staff ARE your brand.

Hire people who are aligned with your values. 

While we’re on the topic of staff, let’s move to the next lesson.

Lesson 4: Develop Your People

It’s only recently that I realised that I’m actually in the business of growing and developing people, not marketing, digital marketing, or social media.

The other day I sat down and counted the number of people who passed through these doors who now run their own agencies or are successful freelancers. 

Digital Marketing is a great career for the careerless - all you need is the ability to write (I can’t teach you that) plus a ton of tenacity and gumption (again, I can’t teach you that).

We’ve always hired juniors, many of our top staff started out as juniors. I’ll bring you on board at any age and retrain you in digital marketing if you’re prepared to earn peanuts while we do so.

And as you learn more, so you earn more… a fair exchange in my estimation.

This brings me to the lesson of juniors. I realised recently that having a few good juniors in the business is key for keeping the staff development relay race going.

Our juniors all start on our internal brands: Shift ONE, the Digital Marketing Academy, and the Dylan Kohlstadt brand (yes, they create my content for me, who has time). Once they’ve mastered those, they get moved onto the 2-3 small clients that we keep on simply for this purpose.

Small clients are difficult and hard to please and for little return, but they’re the best place to cut your eyeteeth as a junior digital marketer. 

Once our juniors have nailed this phase they are ready for a bigger account, either to support a lead Digital Marketer or to run an account themselves.

Developing juniors takes time, energy, and effort to train, and within 3-6 months they should be able to move on to a small client. If not, you’ve wasted that developmental spot and now you have a gap in your pipeline.

So the lesson was if you bring in weak junior staff, the whole system fails when a staff member leaves or a new client is brought on board and you don’t have someone ready to step up.

So, weed out the weak quickly and don’t keep them on just because they have great personalities or bring you coffee each morning!

It’s my job to consciously create opportunities to train and teach and share my knowledge with the team, passing on what I know, which brings me to my next lesson.

Lesson 5: Be Involved

I’m not naturally someone who loves to execute - I’d much rather delegate.

After I completed my Gallup Clifton Top 5 Strength Finder Analysis it was confirmed to me: I can do the work, but I’d much rather delegate. 

When I realised that it made so much sense; it explained to me why I’m not a solo freelancer, and why I’ve always built a team around me… because my natural inclination is “who can I give this to?” 

I’ve always hired top managers to help me look after clients and for probably 7 years I was only marginally involved in the day-to-day client work.

As a result, I nearly burnt out a few of my staff members, amazing people who took the day-to-day responsibilities of client work on their shoulders and paid the price for it. 

After nearly running out of cash flow in 2018 and having to retrench, I changed my level of involvement, and I haven’t looked back.

Being an entrepreneur is about growing as a person, growing those around you, and learning from your mistakes.

I love being involved in overseeing the quality of our work because I can ensure all work is at the right level, which means happier clients, better results, and better client retention - it fixes everything, including profitability.

 

And so, lesson number 6…

Lesson 6: Cash Flow is King

Entrepreneurship 101 will teach you this, and having nearly run out of cash at least three times since founding the business in 2011, I can attest to this. 

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that I was pricing the work out incorrectly: I was quoting for the hours it took for me or a staff member to do a task; not the hours, plus my hours, plus the admin costs and overheads. 

That’s how you cost. 

Plus a little for profits and savings.

And save every penny for a rainy day. 

But it’s hard to charge like this when your clients are small entrepreneurs. As your team grows and their experience grows, their salaries and your costs grow too. You can’t charge more when your clients aren’t able to afford it - as the size of your clients grows and their budgets increase, then you can make sure you’re invoicing correctly.

And that takes time.

You grow, you learn, your clients get bigger, their budgets increase, and you can’t rush that process if you started at the bottom, as I did. If you come from a big agency, and have a lot of contacts and start your own business with some clients, then you have other lessons to learn.

The business turned around after learning this painful lesson, and after my business partner, Michael Wimpey, joined me.

 

Hello next lesson!

Lesson 7: Get the Right Business Partner

In the early days I had 4-5 different people or groups try to get me to join them, and each time I turned them down as it just didn’t feel right. I’m glad I waited because not everyone had my best intentions at heart.

Even though I met Michael in the year I started Shift ONE (we had a mutual client), it took me eight years to convince him to join me! 

Michael handles the creative, video, design and technical side of the business while I manage the marketing, social and digital teams… a very complementary skillset. We also share the admin work between us, which means we can each do the admin tasks a little better than if it were still just me doing everything.

Having a partner with complementary skills makes the company (read:me) more stable, helps us make better decisions, makes the work easier and the results better.

“I was done in by my business partner” is something I’ve heard many times before, so I was very cautious about who I partnered with, but Michael has taken Shift ONE to the next level and has been a real blessing. 

Speaking of great results, my eighth lesson.

Lesson 8: Just Do Great Work

It used to drive me crazy that I wasn’t earning the same as some of my peers who were also running their own agencies, or that I wasn’t driving a Range Rover. 

Until one day I realised my focus was off. 

What is focus? It means to look at one thing. 

10 Things I’ve Learned over 10 Years of Running my own Business Quote

So instead of focusing on money and the fancy car, I changed my focus (my attention) to look at one thing and one thing only: Just doing great work.

10 Things I’ve Learned over 10 Years of Running my own Business We Do Great Work

It’s so important that we’ve even made it a huge decal on our wall at the office.

We don’t do fast work.

We don’t do cheap work.

We do GREAT work.

That’s the focus. 

Once my focus shifted, I became more and more involved with the outputs, checking and checking and checking again. 

And I’m a ton happier too and can drive past fancy cars without that feeling, in fact, I feel great! 

Some people say you need to remove yourself from your business, well, I’ve done the opposite - I’ve inserted myself into the day-to-day to ensure the team delivers on this promise. Until they are able to do so without me, I’ll make sure that I keep checking, and teaching them at the same time, passing on the learnings, giving of my self and my time.

 

Speaking of giving…

Lesson 9: Give Back

The last time we hit rock bottom financially was in 2018, and I was forced to rethink my entire business model and business structure.

After some hard truths hit home, I restructured the business, retrenched, and built a leaner, better business.

One of the things I did at the same time, paradoxically because I was skint at the time, was I increased my giving.

A while ago I write a blog called the Paradox of Generocity, and I still hold by its truths. Somehow, when we give, we receive.

I started giving, to people who were in need. And I firmly believe that this played a role in the business turnaround.

It's not something many business coaches will advise! But it works, don't ask me how...or do ask me how over a cappuccino and cheesecake (you're buying) - it's a long conversation and a deep one.

So look around you - see the need, help out - even if it's just one person or one family. If we all do that, then the world will be a better place.

And the final lesson.

Lesson 10: Niche

I’ve wanted to niche ever since starting Shift ONE in 2011. As anyone who’s worked for me, I was constantly asking the team, should we niche? Should we be a video agency? A thought leadership agency? A franchise-marketing agency…?

Let’s pivot! Was my favourite line for many years.

In reality, all I did was disrupt the team and nothing changed. We kept doing the same thing we were doing from day one which was offering social and digital marketing to a broad range of customers.

Then came Covid.

The pandemic that changed the world.

After an initial dip and losing all our tourism and most consumer-based clients, we levelled out and started to grow and thrive. 

Covid was a game-changer for us. We (finally) pivoted into a B2B SaaS (that’s business-to-business software as a service to you) marketing agency - at last niching after nearly 8 years in business.

Sadly it wasn’t thanks to any great idea of mine!

It seems that Shift ONE has succeeded more in spite of me.

And so, after 10 years in business, everything has just clicked. 

Our work is top quality, award-level (if we had time to enter any awards).

Our team is solid, growing, stable, dedicated, and skilled. We have a wonderful staff who are talented, warm, caring, and massively capable.

S1 Team 2021

We are profitable and able to save for that rainy day.

We are niched.

We have amazing clients who are wonderful people and we work on amazing projects with them.

Everything isn’t perfect, but this is a very different company to what it was three years ago, five years ago, ten years ago.

Ten years ago, when I started Shift ONE from the co-working space at the Bandwidth Barn, Ferdie Bester, then from Clickmaven, told us that after 10 years, everything would click, before then everything would be pure hell.

Thanks, Ferdie. You were right.

Now here’s to the next ten years.

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