13 lessons learned in 3 years of growing a business
By Lauren Hong
Truth: Building a business is hard...
…to say the least. It’s exhilarating. It’s tumultuous. It can feel like time is rushing by, and it can feel like time is crawling. There are highs, and there are lows. But here’s another truth: It’s so very worth it.
My business, Out & About Communications, celebrates its third anniversary this year. Over those three years, I’ve grown from solo, freelance graphic designer to leader of a full-service marketing firm with a team of more than 15 amazingly talented people and a roster of incredible clients.
Am I proud? Absolutely. Am I grateful? Even more so. But the thing I feel the most is the need to share - the triumphs, the lessons learned, and what three years of growth really looks like - so you can benefit from them in your own journey. Here goes nothing...
1. Focus on what gets you up in the morning
I like to say that Out & About was born by accident. With a background in graphic design and in the midst of a job transition, I took on some design work as a freelancer. I was handed that first cheque and I knew a door was opening to a new chapter. But before I pursued more clients, I rewound to think about what really gets me out of bed in the morning, and how I could continue that fire around the clock.
In the three years since that day, it’s been a whole lot of racking and stacking what’s important, zeroing in on that which lights my team members and I up, and taking baby steps to make it all a reality. It takes time, but when you’re lit up by your work, that time feels more like a sunny ride on a coastal highway than a trudge up a muddy hill.
2. Get comfortable with risk
Starting out, I didn’t have a portfolio. I didn’t have a client list. What I did have was a voice inside my ear asking, “How am I going to grow this business?”
As a service provider, sometimes big wins require big risks. I could see where I wanted to go, and it felt like a mountain to climb. But getting comfortable with the risk meant knowing that I was fully committed to this business and trusting that the universe would step in and do its part so long as I was. Gradually, through the support of referrals, identifying great talent, and small wins that dispelled some of the fear, the rewards started to outweigh the risks.
That’s not to say that I don’t still feel the roller coaster - you’ll always feel the roller coaster - but you have to be open to the risk, first.
3. Lean into your community
Part of taking risks means putting yourself out there. Business comes down to relationships, and relationship building requires leaning into your physical and virtual communities. When I landed in San Diego, I knew I wanted to dig into this community.
For me, that looks like meeting once per month with a local group of women entrepreneurs to run ideas by each other. It looks like hosting an event at a local restaurant. It looks like teaming up with a local charity to pay it forward.
I’ve been so grateful for the respect I’ve received from my local and virtual communities, but without leaning into that, I could not have developed the relationships I’ve been so fortunate to have built.
As a business owner, surrounding yourself with the people you want to be around will make the entire journey a different story.
4. Find people willing to take risks alongside you
Having a team has changed everything. The power of having other people in your wheelhouse, whether via official partnerships, team members, or masterminds, is having the input of different experiences and expertise. It’s empowering, and while building a full-fledged team might not be for you, everyone does need people willing to take risks alongside them in their journey.
5. Always listen
At the end of the day, it’s about putting people first. Whether you’re managing a team, a client roster, or a customer base, being able to put them first requires listening - to the spoken and the unspoken.
You can’t hear what you don’t listen to. Don’t forget to open your ears and eyes to what’s going on around you so you can better yourself and your ability to serve others.
6. Garner and give respect
A big part of running a business and/or a team is treating your clients, customers, and team members with the utmost respect.
I love using this analogy: Picture a bunch of boats sitting in a pond that’s empty. That’s my team at O&A and our clients. As a leader, I’m trying to raise the water for everyone. I can’t do that without respecting their patience and their talent. The synergy that comes from mutual respect is what’s required to keep everyone floating in the right direction. Remember: your clients, your customers, and your team members are in this journey with you. Mutual respect will lift everyone higher.
7. Be the common thread
Business is all about relationships. (If I sound repetitive, that’s on purpose). Building relationships as a business owner requires awareness of individual’s passions and joy, then connecting them with other people they can teach and learn from.
A few key thoughts: Don’t overpromise. Do what you say you’re going to do. Reach out and be thoughtful. Focus on connecting people. Give in a way that you would hope people would give to you.
Business can’t happen in a silo. Be the leader who breaks down the barriers.
8. Place your trust in others
When I started Out & About, graphic design was my foot in the door, but I knew it was a means to an end for me. In order to grow the organisation I had been dreaming of, it required placing an incredible amount of trust in other people, their talents, and their reliability.
Finding top-notch talent and passion is half the battle. The other half is giving them the creative freedom and the resources they need to accomplish the job. With trust comes empowerment, and in empowering your team and those around you, you ultimately extend your reach higher than you ever could alone.
9. Be your own cheerleader
Business savvy and skills can only get you so far. What so many people fail to mention is the mental strength required to be an entrepreneur.
A company gives you structures and security, and a built-in team of cheerleaders invested in your success. But when you begin your own journey, you are your most loyal cheerleader. When you get an email from a client that’s trying to take advantage of you, or feedback from an unhappy customer, it’s up to you to be resilient and take thoughtful action. Training your mind for happiness and success is a pillar of entrepreneurship that is incredibly important in getting from A to Z.
10. You are the sum of your strengths
Speaking of mental strength, please know this: Strength is cumulative. I love keeping this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on hand: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really look fear in the face.”
Whether it’s making an uncomfortable ask, challenging the status quo, launching your first product, or pitching a new client - the little steps you take to overcome your fears grow into a deeper and deeper pool of courage you can continue drawing from as time goes on. Suddenly, the little things that previously seemed scary won’t be so daunting anymore, and those big, scary things? You’re a little closer. The little risk and fears you conquer give you an aggregate strength.
11. It’s okay to say no
Know this: There are going to be people who aren’t right for your company. Not the perfect client. Or the perfect team member. You have to know where your line in the sand lies and put up boundaries for yourself and your business before others do it for you.
“No” can feel like a closing a door; like a harsh rejection; like a deep sense of regret waiting to happen. But in saying no, can you create the space to truly be fair to your clients, your team, and yourself.
12. Work/life balance is a myth
I’m probably going to say what most don’t want to hear: I don’t believe in work/life balance. When you’re an entrepreneur, you own it. It’s hard to turn off or keep to a 9-5, especially in the first few years.
For me, it’s more about taking the time to refuel myself when I need it most - typically in the middle of the work day. I like to schedule in walks, errands, lunches, and other mental breaks that give my mind a breather and create day-to-day balance.
Finding that perfect blend of work and life isn’t easy, but it requires being honest about the breaks that you need, no matter how much you love your work and want to see it succeed.
13. Practice gratitude
As an entrepreneur, you’re going to trip over your own two shoes. You’re going to get beat up. You’re going to have periods where you feel everything is working against you. Yet you are also incredibly fortunate: You get to be an entrepreneur.
Practicing gratitude on a daily basis helps you celebrate the fact that you get to fill your days with work you love, despite the bumps you encounter and mountains you have to climb.
Advice to my former self - and to you
If I could rewind three years and tell my newbie entrepreneur self anything, it would be this: Honour your work and know that it is truly valuable - and you are worth it.
And that’s what I want to tell you: You are worth it.
Yes, you’ll have your own mountains to climb; bridges to build; oceans to cross. You’ll accumulate your own lessons learned with experience. But… building a business doing what you love fills every day with a higher purpose, and that simply cannot be beat.
Lauren Hong is the president of Out & About Communications, digital marketing that breaks through the clutter for companies committed to high growth.
Three years ago she was a freelance graphic designer. Today her company has grown into a full-service marketing firm with a team of 15.
Balloon photo credit: Rugger Productions