This article was originally delivered as a presentation to the judging panel for the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year category in the Elevator Awards 2016, for which I was shortlisted as a Finalist.
Whilst I was pipped to the post for the main prize, I was very proud to be included amongst the brightest business talent in the North East of Scotland at the glittering black-tie ceremony at Ardoe House Hotel.
This story includes all the ups and downs of my entrepreneurial journey to date – it’s quite a long post but, by sharing it, I hope to provide insight into the realities of small business start-up and encourage others to keep going, no matter what.
I’ve been in business for 4 years now, since I was 22. I started Boost because I wanted to live a life where I had control over my own destiny. I’ve always been independent, creative and an over-achiever – I couldn’t bear the idea of the 9 to 5, where someone else would dictate what I was worth, where I should live, and how high I should climb.
I spotted a gap in the market for practical business support and thought “what have I got to lose?” Just graduated from university, living at home – no job to quit, no mortgage to pay, no kids to feed. I knew I had skills that would be of value to small businesses and I figured it was an easy business to start, where I could learn the ropes of entrepreneurship.
Fast forward to today, and I have found a niche where I love what I do, I love my clients, and I love the game. I could not have foreseen where I would be in four years’ time. It’s been an evolution, not just of the business but of me as a person. Every year I have learned new things, overcome a different challenge and moved one step closer to having a successful, scalable business.
Year 1 – Building blocks
In Year 1, I learned the power of networking; I started attending local events with the Aberdeen Business Network, and undertook ad-hoc projects for free to get testimonials. I focused on delivering high quality work, being responsive and building trust with clients. This led to referrals, and gradually – 1 client at a time – I built my reputation amongst the Aberdeen small business community.
I started out with a very admin/research-based service offering, because that’s what I knew from university and work experience. But as I gained skills in online marketing, like blogging and social media, to grow my own business, I started to incorporate these as services too. Over time, I developed a service range with 3 distinct areas – admin, marketing and research.
I had no real starting capital, so growth was very organic – I bootstrapped wherever I could by making the most of free marketing opportunities. In 2013, I was shortlisted as a Finalist in these very awards, in the category of Most Promising New Business.
Year 2 – Peaks and troughs
My biggest challenge in Year 2 was that I was doing too much ad-hoc work – there were huge fluctuations in cash flow which I desperately needed to resolve. I was also very conscious of the limits on my capacity – I knew my growth would be stunted by the number of physical hours in my week.
My strategy was to focus on selling monthly retainer packages, to stablise the business and prepare for the next phase of development – hiring a team. I also needed to implement systems to improve internal operations and ensure that the good customer service experience I had developed would continue with an increased workload.
During that year, I won a couple of high-value projects which provided a good cash-injection and allowed me to reinvest. And even at this early stage in my business, I was beginning to get involved with the local community by giving talks to local schools, sharing my startup story.
Year 3 – Manager in training
In Year 3, I made the leap and hired 2 team members as sub-contractors – initially they were helping with internal admin, but gradually they started working on client work too. This increased capacity meant that I could take on more clients. I saw significant growth in social media, blogging and newsletter services – this was great, as they were monthly, ongoing projects.
But I struggled with quality assurance and creating standard systems and procedures – my services were very broad and relied a lot on my own skillset and personal relationships with clients. It was difficult to replicate this with team members carrying out the work, and being the middle man for communication.
I found that I became a bottleneck for quality-checking and liaising with clients – I put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything, rather than trust and empower the team. I was also doing too much on-site work, which limited my flexibility and the time I could dedicate to working “on” the business.
This was partly due to doing a lot of “in-person” networking – clients had the expectation that I would personally be doing the work, or that I was available for local meetings and being on-site. Despite knowing this, I continued to accept this type of work as I found it very difficult to say “no”.
Growth started to plateau, as I was still limiting my capacity by doing everything – I knew I had to rectify this in order to have a successful business.
I continued to further my personal development by taking on “extra-curricular” roles – doing more speaking at schools and colleges, taking on leadership roles at BNI Bravo Aberdeen, and delivering ad-hoc support for local charity SensationALL, for whom I would later become a Trustee.
Year 4 – Evolution
Year 4 was the toughest yet – it felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. I was stuck. I felt that the team was a big part of my struggles, which I put down to my lack of management experience.
That summer, I went on the Elevator Challenge – my biggest takeaway was the need to work with the team’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and empower them to take more responsibility – so I came home and immediately had a virtual team building session.
But despite my best efforts, growth was tailing off – the success that I had early-on, when it was just me on my own, seemed to be slipping away. This wasn’t helped by the decline in the Aberdeen market. Ultimately, this led to my decision to part ways with my main team member.
I lost my second team member just a month later, due to changes in her family circumstances. So I went from a team of 2 to none in a very short space of time. By this point, around November 2015, I was feeling very despondent about the business – I lacked passion and motivation and was very close to giving up.
I invested in some coaching sessions to work out where my passion truly lies, and find a way forward. Through this process, I discovered that marketing was what I really enjoyed, and should focus on this as my core service. Initially, I resisted, because I was afraid of turning my back on good work and letting people down. I’d spent so long being everything to everybody.
But over the next couple of months, more and more signs started to point in this direction. I surveyed my mailing list subscribers to find out what their biggest challenge was in business – there were 2 clear answers: lack of time, and finding quality clients. Again, this pointed me in the direction of marketing support.
But I didn’t want to become a marketing agency. I didn’t want to be pitted against the vast number of marketing companies in Aberdeen. Being a virtual assistant was a way to stand out from the crowd.
This process of soul-searching culminated, by chance, in a coaching call with a well-known serial and online entrepreneur called Chris Ducker. I had recently joined his online mastermind community, Youpreneur, and won the call in a lucky draw.
He reassured me that I could still be a VA who specialised in marketing services. He encouraged me to raise my prices and set my sights on a higher calibre of client. This was the confirmation I needed.
So in April, I announced that I would be specialising in content marketing support (watch the announcement video here), and began making the changes we discussed, including hiring a new team member.
I thought I had found my niche, and was on the right path. But all the same struggles with team building, delegation, systems and scaling up were still there. What did I need to do differently to make it work this time?
Then, in May, Chris Ducker held a live mastermind event in London, with 40 online entrepreneurs from across the UK and Europe. We were sat in tables of 5 and each had 45 minutes to focus on our own business.
When I explained my business and my situation to my table mates, they didn’t get it. What was I really offering? What problem was I solving? Who was I targeting? What was I best at? What was my passion? They were relentless in probing me, until eventually we struck gold.
I realised that, this whole time, I hadn’t been specific enough. At all. I didn’t have a niche, and I wasn’t solving a real problem, so my services and my message weren’t speaking to anybody in particular.
But one problem I KNEW I could help with was the lack of consistency many online entrepreneurs have with blogging.
Blogging is hugely important to any online marketing strategy, but when they’re not held accountable, many entrepreneurs let it fall by the wayside. Without consistency, they will see no results from it.
I can help them work out what is preventing them from blogging consistently, come up with a content creation process that works for them, and then take care of the entire production process from start to finish. Even better, the process is entirely systemisable, delegatable and scalable.
All of sudden, I found my confidence. I found my authority. From that moment, everything fell into place. On the flight home, I was buzzing with ideas. An entire scalable business strategy literally fell out of my brain.
Blog content production is now my core service, and will be the only thing I promote externally. But we will add value with a number of bolt-on services, which complement and enhance the client’s content strategy. These include scheduling social media content, creating email newsletters and repurposing content for other media. Some of these will be done in-house (the systemisable ones!), and others we will outsource to specialists, building up a suite of bolt-ons, without adding to our operational headaches.
I know what systems I need, and who I need in my team. Now, when I’m talking to prospective customers about my business, they immediately get it. On the same day that I had this epiphany, I gained 3 hot leads from fellow mastermind attendees.
Year 5 – Onwards and upwards
So, what’s in store for Year 5? Who knows, but one thing’s for sure, the future’s bright. I have never felt happier and more motivated about the business. I have a clear strategy and I know how to achieve it.
To be completely honest, when I applied for this award, I didn’t really believe I could win it. My goal was to be a Finalist, to have an up-to-date badge for my email signature. But now, I believe I could win Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year.
Why? Because I am constantly striving to create a business I’m passionate about, that works without me, and that’s scalable. Every year I’ve got closer, always learning, always evolving. Trying to figure out how it all fits into place.
I’m not in this to be the owner-manager of a small business. I’m in it to be an entrepreneur, in the truest sense of the word. This isn’t my job, or my career, it’s my life.
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