24 Lessons in 24 Months

Best Practices, Maren Hogan

Two years ago, I started a company that wasn’t really a company. It was me. Fulfilling all the requests, working on all the new business, handling marketing outsourcing for various companies myself. Today, Red Branch Media has grown approximately 9000%* and I realized that it’s been a full 24 months since I began this journey in earnest.

It doesn’t feel like 24 months. It feels both longer and shorter and I have learned a LOT, from dealing with clients and colleagues, to handling accounting and legal (badly in many cases) to how to delegate and communicate. I’m not there yet, but here are some things I’ve learned about myself and being a real entrepreneur in the last 24 months.

1. Establish a No Asshole Rule. I established this early on in my company. From the minute I started my company, I realized I only wanted to work with people that I really like. This is not the same thing as always being pleased with one another, mind you. When I have to explain a design concept I feel strongly about or when I (and I sure do!) muck up an important campaign, there CAN be tension, but it’s about the work, it’s not a fundamental piece of one’s nature.

2. Leads matter. Early on, I figured that as long as the content was good and the design was solid and the funnel was crafted correctly, the leads would come. If you are chuckling to yourself, you’ve already learned this rule. It takes tweaking and a constant, competent hand on the wheel to provide solid leads. (Psst! That is marketing’s job!)

3. Definitions change. What worked for one client may not work for another, Google may change its SEO algorithm (again), you may find yourself suddenly and inexplicably out of touch (I HATE PINTEREST!) Things change, definitions change. Be okay with it.

4. Work life balance is a silly, stupid lie. I’m sure it exists somewhere. It’s not in my house. Last summer, I packed up work every day at 2pm to hang with my kids. This summer, I got an ulcer and went to Europe. It’s all over the place man.

5. You can’t do it alone. So don’t try. Jeremy Hogan, my husband and Red Branch’s super awesome web dev, makes this business run.

6. Reputation really matters. I used to think I had a handle on what people thought of me. I didn’t. When you spend your career building the reputation/brand of others, you sometimes neglect your own. Don’t. Or if you do, then find a way to fix it.

7. The world is short on implementation. There are a thousand strategists for every front line tactical person. Learn to do both and you’ll never be short of business. Fortunately, startups are a great learning environment for the wearing of multiple hats and doing of multiple things.

8. For your latest novel idea, use your brain, for all else use Evernote.

9. Set boundaries. Whether it’s for yourself, your clients, your family or whomever you must create parameters in which to live your life. It could mean you don’t take phone calls after 6, or that you observe work hours during the day and don’t schedule lunches with friends. One person just put a stop sign on his office door, which his family strictly observed.

10. Yes, Virginia, you DO need a plan. If you don’t have a plan, it’s too easy to get distracted. For me, when the going gets tough, I envision my normal 9-5 job with a six figure salary as my “grass is always greener”. This robs me of the energy I need to plow through the very real issues of being a business owner. Make a plan. Stick to the plan.

11. You need a product. I don’t sell a product, I sell a service; this means that everyone I work with needs to have a product or I am literally spinning my wheels. While I have worked with a select number of beta products, it generally does not end well. Beta means it doesn’t exist yet.

12. Charge for services, not time. Man oh man, is this one ever the hardest. I STILL find myself charging for time and it’s the worst practice ever. Nearly everyone told me not to price this way, but I never listen.

13. Be kind, honest and firm. Kindness begets kindness, until it doesn’t and then you can break out the honesty. If the honesty and the kindness don’t work, be firm. Sometimes it will seem like this is a bad policy when unkind or dishonest people run you over. It’s NOT a bad policy; keep it up!

14. Say sorry when you forget number 13. Being able to say you were wrong and sorry and take the blame for something (even when it could be partially someone else’s issue) is the sign of a grown up. Everyone appreciates it too — it works with kids, spouses, clients, friends, family, colleagues, even on social media. Practice with me: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I will work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

15. Write down your reasons. When I started hiring, I had specific reasons for hiring the people I did. I also had specific reasons for using the tools I use. I have lists that state the reasons clients give for when they hire me and reasons that I create things a certain way. When I get frustrated or my decisions are challenged or seem not to be working, I go back to my list of reasons. Do they still hold true? Are they still important? Is the person/tactic/idea not getting the desired result? If not, something needs to change.

16. Build confidence, not resentment. Grrr, this one is hard. I’m naturally pretty critical and sometimes I forget that building confidence is more important than crafting the perfect blog post or ensuring that every weekly report is pristine. People and their feelings affect business results in a service company, sometimes it’s messy but it’s always true.

17. Motivations shift. And there is not a dang thing you can do about it. I speak all the time about hiring and while there are a lot of best practices, startups cannot meet the needs of every employee, contractor, client or intern. Sometimes, people need something you can’t provide. Be okay with that.

18. You ARE unique. For all the talk about entrepreneurship and startup life, very few people make it (and 2 years is not some amazing milestone, beeteedubs). The type of person who can do this is made of pretty gritty stuff and if it’s you, you definitely are unique. Celebrate that and recognize that there are not a lot of you out there.

19. You’re not that great. Unique? Yes. The bee’s knees? Maybe not. You need people that complement you, not a carbon copy of yourself. Being a leader means stepping outside of what you are good at and recognizing what everyone else brings to the table, which is hard to do from up there on that pedestal.

20. The buck stops with you (me). You want me on the wall. You NEED me on that wall. That means I take the hits for this company, for my clients, for whoever needs me, because when you own the company, there is no “But it’s HIS fault!” whining.

21. Get help. I have accountants and lawyers and even a travel agent. Wanna know why? Because I genuinely suck at those things. I used to pay bills by writing out checks and sticking them in the envelopes; it didn’t matter to me that there was no money in the bank. I basically thought checks were giant IOUs. Enough said.

22. Get sleep. Sleep is the most underrated thing in the whole world I think. Sleep makes everything better. It rejuvenates your body and it lets your weary mind rest. I am proud to say I regularly get 9 or more hours of sleep a night.

23. Say thank you. Thanking people on the regular is something I try to do more of. It is so stinking easy to forget people who got you through the tough times. Maybe it was the friend who gave you a chance to design a website or the former competitor who let you design a logo? Perhaps it was the coworker who brought in a new piece of business or recommended you for a job that would move your business in a new direction? It could even be the person who showed you where you should be instead of letting you take the lead on a project you weren’t really ready for. Or just the first editor who published a guest post. Say thank you and reciprocate.

24. Know when to cut bait. One of the things I’m proudest of, is that we never try to keep a client that is ready to move on. We also never sign on a client that we can’t utterly delight. Growing right is very important to every member of this firm and while I can’t say we always nail it, we’re getting closer…