Lessons Learnt

7 Important Lessons I’ve Learnt Over 7 Years Running a Small Business

This month, Organic P&O Solutions celebrates seven years in business.

Back in 2013, having spent many years in the corporate world working in senior HR roles, I took the plunge, leaving the relative security of salaried employment to go solo and set up my own business.

It was a huge, life-changing step and turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Starting my own business was something I’d been thinking about for a long time. I wanted to create an agency that would provide access to the best learning and development resources, help clients develop effective and productive workforces – and I knew there was a place for my HR ethos.

It was a statistic I saw in an FSB survey that finally convinced me. While nearly all the HR agencies I’d come across (apart from one-person independents) were focused on working with large businesses and corporates, the survey highlighted that 60% of all UK employers were SMEs.

I could see there was a gap in the market, and once I realised I had a unique blend of employee relations skills and specialist qualifications and experience in learning and development – two areas where typically one route is chosen over the other – I knew the time was right to launch Organic P&O Solutions

It’s been quite a journey. In the last seven years, the business has grown from just me, into a team of specialist HR consultants. Today, we’re working with a broad range of companies – and our client base includes SMEs and corporate organisations.

Along the way, I’ve learnt a lot of lessons about running a small business and our 7th anniversary gives me an excuse to share a few of them with you:


Lesson #1: Be flexible: things change

It’s true! To paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, “No plan survives the first encounter with the enemy”. I’d suggest the same is true of the best-prepared business plan – although I’m not for a moment making a comparison between clients and hostile forces!

Yes, have a business plan but keep things flexible. Listen carefully to what your client’s challenges are and be prepared to adapt your strategy if they are not aligned with your original expectations.

As mentioned, when I set out, I planned to use my strong HR and learning development experience to help SMEs. I did, and I still do, but early on, I found I was also being asked by corporate clients to train and support HR teams, and work on complex projects requiring me to engage and manage other specialist consultants.

Because – rather than rigidly following our original business plan, we took time to listen to our clients, our business has evolved and changed shape to meet their needs.


Lesson #2: Find out what you’re good at

Whatever area you work in, the likelihood is that you’ll be competing with other businesses for projects. While you might offer similar services, there will be aspects you excel in that set you apart. Being clear about these key differentiators will help you develop a unique identity and ensure you stand out from competitors. Keep in mind that it’s not only what you do that helps establish you as a brand; it’s also the way you do it.

Reading the Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz helped me understand the importance of identifying a niche, staying focused and being brave enough not to take on projects that don’t fit – no matter how tempting they may seem.

Once we were clear about our HR specialisms and had developed our own unique style of working, marketing and promoting our offering became much easier.


Lesson #3: Surround yourself with the right people

A benefit of running your own business is the freedom to be selective about the clients and projects you take on. But of course, you can’t run a business on your own, and making sure you choose the right people to work with is crucial.

If you have ambitions to scale up, you’ll need to hire staff, and even if you don’t, you’ll almost certainly have to appoint suppliers and partners.

From the outset then, you need to surround yourself with people who share your ethics and values. We call our values our Rules of Play, and we use them as a reference point to check the compatibility of anyone we’re considering working with.

Establishing values you’re happy to share with all your stakeholders will probably take longer than you anticipate. Even though I’d worked a lot on values with clients in the course of my career, I didn’t find it easy summarising them for my own business!


Lesson #4: Whatever the size of your business, run it like a big company

The professionalism and confidence that doing this will bring will enable you to punch well above your weight. As well as helping you to attract the best clients and staff, it will also reduce any ‘growing pains’ as your business expands.

It’s something I took on board right from the start. Even when I was the only person in the business, I’d schedule monthly board meetings, draw up an agenda and review each function in the company.

As the business grew and finances permitted, I engaged a business coach to fill gaps in my knowledge, teach me skills I’d not needed in my previous corporate roles, and help me make some critical decisions that would have been difficult to work through on my own. As well as outsourcing my general admin, social media and bookkeeping, I invested in technology, and introduced systems and processes (see lesson #7) which meant I – and later my team and I had more time to spend on servicing clients.

We’re still a small business, but we’re ambitious. By thinking and behaving like a big company, I believe we’re far more likely to achieve our goals.


Lesson #5: Keep up your personal development

As a business that promotes personal development for our clients, you won’t be surprised to hear that we practice what we preach. I don’t believe self-improvement and personal development should end because you run your own business. If anything, it becomes even more vital. I read a lot of books by and about people who have set up successful businesses, and a commitment to ongoing learning is a recurring theme.

Ongoing development doesn’t have to be overly complicated or time-consuming though. At Organic P&O Solutions, instead of having a big development plan with lots of activities, we simply choose themes to focus on each year.

During 2020, I’m working on rebalancing the time I spend on the business versus the time I spend in it. It’s something that’s changed over time, and the growth we’ve experienced over the last two years means I now need to give more time to my MD responsibilities. Even though I’m still very much involved in delivering for clients, now that I have a team around me, I can give my MD functions the attention they deserve. It’s a real shift in perspective for me, so I’ve made it my development focus.


Lesson #6: Don’t let insecurities get in the way of talent

Running your own business can be lonely. Inevitably, there are times when self-doubt will creep in. I’m sure most business owners will admit to the occasional crisis of confidence – especially in the early days – and I was no exception.

My advice is to trust your instincts and believe in yourself. You know more than you think you do. Don’t be afraid to seek advice and share your fears or insecurities with others who might be able to help. I’ve had amazing support from some really great people.

I will always remember when I pitched for my very first project. It was only a half-day training programme, and even though I knew I had the skills and experience needed, I was convinced the client was looking for a bigger, more established consultancy.

At the time, I was fortunate to have an unofficial mentor in Paul Connor who gave me a confidence-boosting pep talk. He reassured me that I did have the expertise the client was looking for and that the size and relative newness of the agency was irrelevant.

He was right. The client told me my proposal was the best they’d seen, that I was the only consultant to ask crucial diagnostic questions, and I won the business!


#7 Implement robust systems & processes

To optimise efficiency and ensure you deliver a consistent level of service, you need to have clear, robust systems and processes in place. My business coach Rob Pickering of ActionCOACH reminded me (often!) of this. In fact, I already knew it from my time working in the retail sector – but I wasn’t applying the principle enough to my own business.

Although I’ve always considered myself to be well organised, it was only when Rob got me to focus on documenting things that I realised how much information I was keeping in my head.

When there’s only one of you in the business, it’s very easy to dismiss the need for systems and processes. But establishing them will increase efficiency levels and lead to a better, more consistent client experience. And as your business grows, scaling up will be far easier

There are some caveats though. Focus only on things that will help you to generate more revenue and profit, and bear in mind that ‘back of house’ systems and processes don’t have to look perfect. Also, accept it’s an ongoing process. You’ll always be refining how you work.

There are plenty of tech solutions out there to help too, including things like Hootsuite for managing and scheduling social media, Xero for finance and accounting and Monday.com for project management – to name-check just a few of the online tools we use.


Can We Help You to Grow Your Business Organically?

As we know first-hand, growing a business isn’t easy, but it is rewarding and exhilarating. We can support you, helping you to nurture and develop your single-most important assets – your people.

Call us today to arrange an initial conversation.

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