In my 33 years, I have held down one marketing job after another; from writing ad copy for a real estate agency when I was 16 years old, to building the brand for a successful, listed start-up in Australia – and just about everything in between. It wasn’t until this year, after a six-month hiatus and journey around the world that I realized it was time for me to go out on my own and start a business.
I’ve always been a go-getter and a bit of a cyborg when it comes to building businesses. So from the day my partner James and I settled down in Los Angeles after our 16-country spin around the globe, I set myself a challenge to have my vision for a marketing consultancy standing on its own two feet in just 30 days. One month later, I am living to tell the tale. Here is how I did it:
Very Boring, Very Necessary
I am good at what I do, but I’ll be the first to admit that anything with a legal or financial tinge tends to fly right through my brain at the speed of light. I knew the very first thing I needed to do was to decide what kind of business entity I was going to operate, but I wasn’t sure about the pros and cons of sole proprietorship versus limited liability and bibbity bops versus blah blahs, so my first call was to a lawyer who did. The idea of even having a conversation with a “legal professional” freaked me out, so I did some research and found one that specialized in start-ups, and had a cool Instagram account to boot. You might be thinking that social media is no way to pick a professional, but I couldn’t disagree more. I wanted to find someone who I could “click” with, someone I could trust who was interested in my business. It was important for me to find a lawyer who also had personality and a business philosophy that was similar to mine. Most of all, I wanted someone who would explain the things I wasn’t sure about in a way I could understand, and who didn’t make me feel embarrassed about my shortcomings. My guy, Grant in downtown L.A., ticked all the boxes, and kept me in the loop about cool events and start up get-togethers that I wasn’t onto yet. He made the legal talk palatable and took something that I would normally dread and made it easy for me to understand. If you’re a small business owner you’ll agree that those little things can make all the difference when you’re starting out. It gave me confidence in my project and a transparent direction for my future.
Once I was clear that sole proprietorship would suit my business needs, I had to get a bunch of licenses that would allow me to operate. The Small Business Association (SBA) was a great resource, and it helped me to understand that I needed to file what’s called a DBA, which stands for “doing business as” and is required if you’re operating your business under any name other than your own. In addition to the DBA, I also had to get a local business license to operate in my area on the east side of Los Angeles. The DBA took a few weeks to come through, but the local license was quick and they both cost me under $200. As a new business owner, it can be difficult to understand the licenses you will need to operate, but doing the right thing and getting the proper paperwork sorted is necessary, not only from a legal perspective, but even for the little things like getting a business bank account. It’s not the sexiest part of the job, but it’s a non-negotiable too.
Now that I was legal and licensed, I wanted to make sure that I had the right protection in place. The word insurance is anxiety inducing for me, but I knew I needed a plan that would have my back if anything unexpected went down. When I first moved to L.A. a little more than a month ago, I jumped on Google and haphazardly typed in some details to get a quote on my renters insurance. I fielded many calls, but I couldn’t go past Zach who “got me” right away. He explained my options and while his policy wasn’t the rock bottom cheapest, he took the time to listen to me, which seems to be exceedingly rare these days. When I needed to know what my requirements were for the business, I got Zach on the phone again, and he took the time to explain what he thought was imperative based on my cash strapped start-up status. Just this week, I even rang him out of the blue to get a referral for a good local accountant, to which he gave me two recommendations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you’re running a small business, you need to have experts around you who care, and are also great to deal with. I always look for likeminded professionals to surround myself with, especially for the things that I can’t operate without.
Beauty and the Brand
With the boring bits locked in, I could turn my focus to the customer facing aspect of my business. I am a marketing person and brand means a lot to me. I knew I wanted my business to be a reflection of me and because I love to travel, I wanted it to inspire my clients with images and stories that showed them I was on my own journey, and that I understood theirs too. The name for my business - Journey Communications - was a no-brainer, and once I knew what I wanted it to feel like, I started focusing on the impression that it would give to my potential customers.
Building a website can be hugely daunting. For many businesses, it’s their shop front; the first thing potential customers see when they’re considering a product or service. I was keen to build my website on my own to keep costs down, and I decided to use Squarespace, a popular platform which enabled me to build the site in just a few days. I chose imagery that reflected my own journey and showcased beautiful pictures that made me feel happy, energetic and inspired. I am lucky that my sister is a brilliant photographer and I was able to create a library of photos that reflected my business and gave my brand the personality it deserved, without having to tap into stock photography. I paid a lot of attention to the navigation and content on my site, ensuring that it was easy to use and comprehensive without being overwhelming for the reader. I wanted people to learn about my expertise and understand how it could help them build and enhance their own businesses. I also wanted a place where I could publish my ideas and provide value to readers through various tips, tools and tricks of the marketing trade. I love sharing and I wanted to make sure anyone, not just clients, could access resources that might help them learn and grow on their own.
After the website was done, it was time to put my brand identity down on paper. My partner in crime and great friend Iolanda is a masterful graphic designer, and I am generally a control freak when it comes to bringing my vision to life. I had the brand identity perfectly conceived in my brain, right down to the exact font, but it took an expert to bring what was in my head to life. In just a week, my design doyenne had my logo, letterhead, social media profile pictures and business cards in my inbox, which worked perfectly with the imagery I had chosen for my website. It was at this point, only two weeks into my one-month race to the finish, that I truly had a brand.
After implementing my new assets onto my website and ordering my business cards, I began creating the various social media accounts I needed to give me a voice. I am not a social media disciple, but I do think it is a great way to reach an audience, provided you have something relevant to say. You can find Journey on just about every platform, but I have a slow and steady approach to my social media, and I am careful about building a following that is relevant to my business. There are a lot of folks who measure success in numbers, but I pay much more attention to the engagement factor, and I plan my content and topics based on what my audience - small business owners - need and want to know. And heck, I’m a sucker for a beautiful sunset photo every once in a while too.
The X Factor
Now that I had a face for my business, I could turn my focus to the guts of it and what I really wanted to achieve. I know so many small business owners and startups who have either never done a business plan, or have written one filled with high-level garbage to satisfy some potential investor. Part of what I do for my clients is business planning, so I wanted to make sure that my own plan really delivered for me and defined a roadmap for my success. I probably wrote and re-wrote the plan ten times, but in the end I walked away with a tactical, practical strategy that dug right down into how I was going to operate and grow my business, both financially and rationally. I also made sure that the plan suited the way I wanted to work and left plenty of time for me to find new business and educate myself on the latest tools and technologies. My plan is a live document that I use every day and it is one that will grow as my business grows. It’s an indispensable part of Journey and I can’t imagine operating without it.
It probably seems funny that a marketing business needs a marketing plan, but just like any start-up, I needed a solid strategy to generate leads and find new customers. I set myself an initial marketing spend of 15% of my projected revenue and committed to a minimum of five different activities per month. I am a firm believer in diversification and I handpicked activities in the areas of traditional marketing, online marketing, social media, public relations and events, knowing full well that some activities would generate activity and others would fail miserably. That’s the thing with marketing; you have to try a little bit of everything and measure and monitor them with ferocity to get the best bang for your buck. I track my spending weekly and analyze my cost per lead with a magnifying glass, all while giving each activity enough time to find its groove. Some of my marketing tactics are high cost, while others are completely free; some can reach thousands in a clip while others are painstakingly individualized. I can’t say yet what’s working and what’s not, but I know I have to be open to a mix of different activities, I have to monitor and measure the crap out of them, and I have to swap the ones that aren’t working for something new. I preach the same marketing philosophy that I follow myself, which is to set a marketing plan that matches your personality. If you have thumbs the size of sausages, don’t put all your eggs in the social media basket. If you’re terrified of standing up in front of a crowd, don’t base your plan on networking breakfasts and public speaking engagements. Be honest with yourself and set a strategy that you’re comfortable with. Otherwise marketing will become a task you dread and will soon fall right off your to-do list.
Once I had my plans in place, I was feeling confident with where my business was headed, which meant I needed to find someone who would tear me to shreds. Being a small business owner is a roller coaster and I wanted to have someone who was going to keep me honest, someone who was going to ask me questions that I never thought of and didn’t have the answers to. I wanted to find a mentor, but not someone who was going to pat my head and tell me I did a good job. I needed someone who was going to make my business better by pulling it apart. During week two, I went to a networking breakfast to learn more about the services that were available to small businesses and start-ups. The presentation was given by the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and on the stage sat two gentlemen. One was a small business owner who had built his business vision into a reality and attributed much of his success to the man on his left, a small business mentor appointed to him by the SBDC. The business owner was not shy in vocalizing how his mentor beat his business to a pulp and over the course of a year, pulled him way out of his comfort zone and forced him to make difficult decisions that ultimately paid off. Their relationship was jovial and respectful, but you could tell they had been through some conversations and decisions that left the small business owner uncomfortable at best. After that day, I knew I had to have a mentor who did all of those things for me. And with a little luck and some awkward stalking, I got him.
Not every business can be built in 30 days. I didn’t have a product to manufacture or capital to raise and pretty much everything I needed came from my own brain and from some amazing people around me. But in the midst of doing all my launch work, I was also able to introduce Journey to over 100 local businesses, attend six networking events, give a business planning presentation to a group of eager start-ups, create a series of Facebook ads, maintain 20 updates on each of my social media channels every week, write a half dozen blog posts, and create a groundswell of new business opportunities; which are now converting into customers. I’m not going to pretend it has been easy because it hasn’t, but entrepreneurs don’t choose to build businesses because it’s a walk in the park. As the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way.” The only question left is, are you up for it?
Writers Note: The information written above is for guidance only and is not to be interpreted as advice. Each individual will have his or her own needs and requirements, which should be researched appropriately before starting a business.