The mistakes I made - and the lessons I learned - when I started This is Milk
Being in a position to reflect on 7 years of building This is Milk, has been a humbling experience. I’m thankful for being able to make the decisions I have in life, and as a result made the learnings I have. As they say, you learn by doing.
When you’re building a business – your focus is always, at least in part, on looking successful, so although you experience much hardship as you grow, it’s not always appropriate to share your failings and therefore your learnings. Today, I feel comfortable in sharing what I learned in those first few years, and in another 7, I’ll be sharing what I’m learning today!
Be your own salesperson
In the early days I had the courage and bravery to start a business, but I lacked the confidence to make sales and pursue the business I needed to. I looked to others to do this for me. But when you first start a business, you need to be the salesperson, you need to have enough confidence to do that yourself.
Get on top of your cash flow
Cashflow is the killer of small business and in the first few years, I don't believe any small business will not have cashflow problems. I personally feel cashflow problems as like a physical pain. It makes me want to vomit, I feel stressed, I can't sleep. It's awful. It completely distracts you from delivering and making the right business decisions. So, getting on top of your cashflow, and really understanding where the money comes from in your business, is one of the first things that you have to learn. Rather than getting distracted by brand, and marketing and team development, you just need to understand where your cash is coming from really, really quickly. (And don’t underestimate the value of developing your company’s credit – credit cards, and overdrafts aren’t easy to get until you have trading history, so view your ability to get credit as an achievement).
Don’t rush to employ staff
Employing full-time staff was a pressure that as an early-stage business owner I found really derailing. There is a lot of overhead with employing staff, both from a finance perspective, a time perspective, and the pain if it doesn't go right. A lot of the push that you get is to employ staff early, because it looks good. But in those early days, what was more important to my business, was close associates that can help you deliver and being confident in your model. Getting used to delivering a lot with a little human capital is key!
Trust your gut
I once believed that nothing bad could come with a cup of coffee with someone. Yes, it can! I also thought I should pursue every opportunity, even when my gut told me it wasn't the right one. I should have trusted my gut, as I knew something wasn't sitting right, even if I couldn't entirely articulate what it was. Learning to trust your gut instinct and to be confident to walk away is so important. I think as we learn more about our brains, we will really start to understand that intuition, is really knowledge.
Eat that frog
Have the difficult conversations. Specifically, for me, these were with team members, and I would lie awake at night, losing precious sleep over issues and unsaid things. I should have just had the conservation and been upfront about my expectations. I wanted to be nice, and be seen as a different kind of boss, and as a result I let things fester. Don’t be like me, just eat that frog straight away. It’s never as bad as you think it will be and you’ll be respected and be able to deal with issues in a better way.
In business there’s a patriarchal tendency towards ownership, to look big, and to have the swanky office. This leads to people feeling like that’s what they need to do to compete. But that’s not the kind of business I wanted to run. It sat so incongruently with my values. Once I made the decision to embrace being small, it turned out we were able to land good clients because we were being authentic, and we were delivering better work. Walking away and saying that is not what I want to become was a very important thing for me to do.
And finally, ignore the naysayers!
When you first start out, there’s so much negativity, everybody's giving you advice. It's really hard to navigate this advice. Some of it is well meaning, some of it isn't though, some of it is just: “Who do you think you are to be doing this?”. Ignore the people with tall poppy syndrome!
Forge your own path, make your own learnings, and know there are others out there that do mean well. Find your community, this will help you on the bad days and celebrate the good days.