Lessons From A Year of Spoke & Wheel Strategy
Next month marks a year of Spoke & Wheel Strategy. I can’t believe that this idea, this figment of my imagination, has been a reality for almost a year now. It’s been an incredibly growth-inducing, challenging, difficult, and rewarding experience full of plenty of ups and downs.
As my first blog after a long hiatus, I thought I’d share some key things I’ve learned and gathered over the past (almost) year. While these are specific to me, they should be applicable to most people with entrepreneurial spirits, or who run their own business of any kind:
- Hire a lawyer to write your contracts and make everyone sign one: Unfortunately, this was one of those expenses that I tried to skimp on while starting a business. I figured I could emulate a contract just fine and that most people were trustworthy. The thing is, most people are trustworthy but once in a while you’ll find one that’s not. And if you don’t have an iron clad contract in place, it’s a lot harder to get paid. This lesson only needed to happen once for me to buck up and find a lawyer to write me a thorough, detailed contract that fits my needs and can be customized for various circumstances. This is certainly one of those not-fun business expenses, but I’ve found that it’s an absolute essential.
- The power of loose connections: In grad school, I went to a lecture called “The Power of Lose Ties” all about how people you meet but aren’t necessarily close with will often serve as your biggest advocates and most valuable sources of business. I sort of brushed it off at the time, but turns out that it couldn’t be closer to the truth. When you start a business, you expect (or at least I did) your closest friends in similar businesses or with influential connections to be ready to jump in and give you referrals and point people in your direction. Turned out this isn’t how it happened for me at all. Not to say my friends weren’t there to listen to me rant or to cheer me on with moral support, but the vast majority of my referrals over this past year came from people I’ve met briefly at a convention, talked to on Twitter, or worked with once or twice. These loose connections have turned out to be incredibly valuable from a business perspective, more than I ever could have imagined. It shows the importance of putting yourself out there and meeting new people and not placing your trust in the wrong places. You never know where your next opportunity will come from.
- It’s okay to say no: When I first started the business, I felt like I needed to say yes to absolutely everything. I felt like opportunities might not come my way in the future and I needed to take on absolutely everything I could. In some ways this is great. It forced me to dive in headfirst and really challenge myself. However, it wasn’t long before I felt like I was carrying the world on my shoulders. I was working 75-80 hours a week and feeling totally overwhelmed. I’m someone who thrives on being busy, but this was too much, even for me. I also felt like I needed to say yes to projects that were totally unreasonable (aka get this launch out the door for me by tomorrow). I’ve learned that if something seems like it will compromise you, your integrity, or your morale, it’s okay and good to say no.
- Don’t compromise your integrity: I pride myself on being a person with a strong moral compass but being in business, the question of integrity is something that will be tested over and over again. Working in the field of marketing (and having worked for other marketing companies), it would be incredibly easy to tell people what they often want to hear, which is often something along the lines of “You’ve made the best product/game/idea ever and it’s going to go totally viral and blow up. You’re definitely going to sell millions of these in the first month alone/” I know you’re probably thinking “Do people actually want to hear that?” The answer often is “Y-E-S!” I’ve actually heard former companies that I’ve worked for say things almost identical to this to potential clients when there was no way they were going to be able to deliver on their promises. I swore to myself that this was something I would never do if I worked for myself. It’s hard not to tell people just what they want to hear and I’m sure it’s cost me business, but in order to sleep at night, I need to make sure both future and current clients’ expectations are reasonable. I simply won’t just tell people what they want to hear in order to make a buck. Sticking to this is hard, harder than you might think because people often don’t like hearing the truth if it’s anything less than glowing. But I strongly believe keeping your integrity intact is much more important than keeping your bank account happy (although that’s nice, too).
- Your ideas are worth money: I’m in the marketing and strategy business, which means I’m also in the ideas business. Ideas aren’t things you can hold and they’re certainly not a tangible thing you can see, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable. The most valuable companies like Google, Apple, and Netflix all started as ideas that were brought to life. Ideas, strategies, and marketing tactics are a huge part of the business ecosystem and needed to be treated as such. One thing I’ve faced (and I’m assuming anyone in this kind of work faces) is others not seeing the value of ideas and wanting them for free or at an incredibly low cost. Not only is it insulting, but it’s diminishing the power of what ideas can do. Ideas provide business plans, strategies for growth, ways to grow awareness and reach new people, ways to increase cash flow, how to support causes you care about and so much more. It’s not just an idea, ideas are the basis of everything and it’s something that deserves compensation.
- Your worth is not your work: This is something I know to be true, but still haven’t fully learned how to take in yet. I love what I do and I care about it very, very much. The vast majority of time is spent at work so it’s hard not to translate how you feel about your work into all other aspects of your life. I’m trying to accept that if something doesn’t go well at work, that doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person and if something goes great, that also doesn’t mean I’m an amazing person. I’m striving to remember that despite feeling entrenched in my work and passionate about it, I’m also a human outside of that. My worth is more than how much money I make or how many clients I currently have.
- The importance of self-care: Self-care is a relatively new term for me. Because I love being busy and thrive on the energy of constantly working, self-care is something I’ve really never considered before. But this summer when I was working 75+ hours every week, I realized I was forgetting to eat, I would go days without going to the gym, sometimes I would forget to shower (TMI?). I wasn’t taking time to talk to my friends, in fact, I wasn’t really seeing anyone outside of doing my job because I was so incredibly busy. There’s a weird sense of pride associated with being so busy you don’t have time for anything else. It gives you a false sense of importance. But after months of taking on this routine, I realized this was not good. I needed to prioritize taking some time out for myself or I would eventually combust. Constantly working at this speed without taking even ten minutes a day to take a walk was just not going to cut it. Working some forms of self-care into my routine is something I’m still working on, but I’m definitely aware of how important this is for my own wellbeing.
- Work with people who intrinsically respect and understand what you do: Last week I was on a phone call and the person on the other side of the phone said “I understand PR takes time and hard work, so I completely understand that we’re looking at least six months of work here.” I actually paused and thought to myself “I think that’s one of the rare times that someone actually acknowledged the amount of time and work that good PR takes. Whoa.” It was refreshing and at the same time scary to realize that this is often the exception and not the norm. It’s made me reflect back on this past year and look at the times I’ve taken on projects where the client has worked to understand and respect what I do versus times where I’ve had experiences where people want what they want when they want it without any understanding or respect for my time. It’s a huge difference in terms of the way a working relationship can go. I feel more at ease and more able to deliver my absolute best work product when people respect the hard work that I do, which in turn makes for a great working relationship. My goal is to try and flip the ratio so that I spend more time with people who truly value what PR and marketing can bring to the table.
- Business ebbs and flows: Having only been in business on my own for (almost) a year, I’m still learning the patterns of busy times of year vs. not busy times. It seems like it’s almost impossible to have a steady stream of 9-5 work, like in a “normal” job. I’ve found that things are either totally crazy, or very quiet. I’m learning that the time of year greatly affects people’s needs and where they often are in the process of wanting to work with someone. I’ve definitely guessed my months wrong (aka December will be slow so you can totally take a vacation = bad idea) but I’m still learning what times of year will be busy versus slow and to plan for a totally inconsistent schedule overall.
- People avoid conflict and saying no: This has been by far one of the most, if not the most frustrating thing about being in business over the past year. I’ve spent a lot of time working on new business throughout the year, which can be a super fun and rewarding process. It’s enjoyable to get to know new people, form new relationships, and begin to think about possibilities of how I can add value to their team or bring new ideas to the table. However, new business takes a tremendous amount of time. It’s a lot of work and it’s work that I’m happy to do. When I talk with people about potentially working with me, they are of course in no way, shape, or form required to move forward with hiring me or using a PR or marketing person at all. However, I can’t tell you the amount of times that I’ve spent a great deal of time with someone on the front end or working on a proposal (anywhere from 5-40 hours typically) when they seemingly fall off the face earth, never to be heard from again. I’m assuming at this point they’ve decided to not use a PR or marketing person, save the money, or to go in another direction. All totally acceptable answers. I can’t say I wouldn’t be disappointed if someone told me no, but I always respect it. One of the hardest things to learn and accept is that this type of thing happens a lot and will continue to happen a lot. In the meantime, I’m working on refining my new business process to hopefully mitigate this a bit and trying to not take this so personally.
- You get less (real) time off working for yourself: At my last full-time job I had ten vacation days. I felt very limited in my ability to actually take time off to travel and to do things I wanted to do. But, while I was gone, there was someone covering my emails and answering my calls. In working in client services and owning your own business, there’s no one else there to do this for you. If you take a vacation, that often means you’re missing emails or not getting paid. If an emergency happens, you have to answer the phone. If someone’s launching their game during your vacation, you’ve got to launch it. It’s been an interesting shift in perception but I’m still determined to go to Italy this year!
- I’m substantially happier when I’m very busy: Being busy is a funny thing. Almost everyone I know (myself included) often complains “I’m so busy” as if it’s a bad thing, but a thing that they still want everyone to know about. It’s almost turned into a form of a #humblebrag as if to say, if you’re not busy, then you’re not doing anything worthwhile. I read an article years ago called “The Busy Trap” In the NY Times all about how being busy is actually a metric we use to gage success. For me, I’ve noticed an intrinsic correlation between how busy I am and how happy I am, and I think it is a measure of success for me. I’m a much happier person when I’m super engaged in my work, taking in projects I’m passionate about, and working with clients who value me and what I bring to the table. While I’ve always noticed how much I love being busy, I’ve never seen it have such a profound effect on my happiness as a whole. What I’m trying to learn is how to find the line between being a good level of busy and being able to maintain a life outside of work.
- The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty: I’m a type-A person to a tee. I don’t typically like surprises and make a to-do list of what I need to get done every single day. Friends make fun of me for making dinner plans a month or more in advance. For me, adapting to a totally unpredictable lifestyle has been a huge learning experience and a big challenge. My day-to-day activities change constantly, and I can’t always predict what I’m going to be doing next month, next week, or even tomorrow. It’s been an incredibly refreshing and immensely challenging way for me to look at life due this conflict with my innate personality traits. But I’m learning that the only way to stay sane is to realize that the only thing constant is uncertainty.
So far, as a whole, I’m feeling like this year’s been incredibly rewarding. It’s been tough, challenging, and there may have been some days I wanted to crawl in a hole and never come out again. But what a learning experience and what a ride. I’ve gotten to meet so many smart, talented people and have learned more in this one year than I have in several past years combined. It hasn’t been easy but it’s been incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.
Onwards and upwards!