7 things I would do differently if I had to start again

In business model, productivity, work-life balance, getting things done by neville

Looking back over the last 8 years of running solo, it’s not been a bad run. I’ve had the privilege of working with large oil & gas companies, smaller, kick-ass businesses run by exceptional people and spent time with a large number of startups in the early stages of their businesses.

I’ve had the privilege of taking the knowledge that I’ve gathered over 30+ years of business experience and helping other businesses get momentum faster – and that perhaps has been the most gratifying part of all of this. I believe that I have been able to make a difference in people’s lives – for the better – and that is still where my passion lies.

But looking back over the solo part of my career, I’ve learnt a lot of lessons myself. If I had to start a business from scratch again – knowing what I know now – there are things that I would have done differently. Here are the top 7:

  • find a niche for your business faster, sooner;
  • start small with info products;
  • don’t roll your own website;
  • where to start a blog;
  • start small with marketing;
  • daily startup and shutdown routines; and
  • productivity and using a timer.

1. Find a niche faster, sooner

One of the things I teach young businesses is to find a niche where they can play. A small, vertical, well-defined market segment with a well-defined problem they’re going to specialise in. Find a niche small and well-defined enough, and you don’t have to compete with the big players, it’s easier to become the known expert in that area and you become the go-to person (or business) for solving that particular problem.

I have a broad business background and an education in computer science. I love systems and my thinking naturally gravitates to systems thinking – it’s easy for me to create frameworks and systems others can use. This has been a great help in creating the library of info products I’m currently building up.

But if I had to criticise my own business, I would say that it is still too broad. My focus is on helping entrepreneurs build a lifestyle business – a business that generates steady, strong revenues but still allows the owners to have a life.

This is a broad topic – what some would call a horizontal specialisation. I could have (and perhaps should have) focused on an industry vertical, or just focused on one aspect of building and running a business. And no niche is too narrow.

One of the niche businesses I admire is run by Shawn Blanc over at The Focus Course. Between his focus course and The Sweet Setup, Shawn has a very finely focused business with a small number of info products – and he’s been doing this for over 10 years. It’s worth checking out.

In comparison, my business is very broad – providing a framework and tools that cover everything from business model, revenue engines (marketing, lead nurturing, sales, delivery and follow up) to culture and personal effectiveness. That’s a lot of scope and not as niche as I would advise my clients.

If I had to start again

So, if I had to start again, I would find a smaller, more defined niche, perhaps in a vertical market segment, and focused there. And I recommend this to anyone starting a business now – find a niche, specialise in that niche and become the expert.

Would I change it now?

The Tornado Method has turned out to be a tremendously useful framework that now forms the basis for a range of info products and consulting services. It’s also the only framework of its kind in the world – a framework that literally covers everything you need to get right to have a successful business – and a life.

So, while my business is still relatively broadly focused, I’m happy that I am where I am. But the journey took longer than a more finely focused niche business would have taken to build.


2. Start small with info products

I am on a deliberate path to build a business that provides a range of products and services. In the shorter term, most of my income has been from consulting and coaching services. In the longer term, I’m building up a library of info products that provide more passive income.

But the biggest mistake I’ve made in the info products side of my business has been trying to build products that are too big – too wide in scope.

I have two flagship products under development – Tornado Marketing (a Marketing 101 for entrepreneurs who know nothing about marketing) and the Lifestyle Business Foundation Course – a self-study course to help business owners ensure they have a solid foundation for their businesses.

Both of these products are big and ambitious – no matter how you cut it, there’s a lot to learn in each of these areas. The products will eventually get out there, but they cover a lot of ground (the Foundation Course will end up being 300-400 pages).

If I had to start again

In retrospect, there are a number of reasons a big product is a bad idea:

  • It’s a lot easier to sell a smaller product, at a lower price, that is more focused on helping entrepreneurs solve a specific problem.
  • Smaller, more focused products are a lot faster to develop.

So my recommendation – especially if you’re in the early stages of developing an info product – is to start with a smaller product (or products). You’re not only developing a product, you’re also going to go through a heck of a learning curve for your marketing, sales, creating sales pages, getting testimonials, and on and on. I would say less than 50% of the effort goes into developing the product – the balance goes into learning how to sell info products.

Would I change it now?

As a matter of fact I am. While both products are still progressing, I’ve had so many requests for a product I call Workshop Ninja that I decided to finish this off before I get back to the flagship products. I already had the framework for the product in place and there’s not a lot more to develop to get it to market. So if you need to deliver killer workshops or presentations, keep an eye on my newsletter.

Once Workshop Ninja has seen the light of day I will get back to the Foundation Course.


3. Don’t roll your own website

I’m a software developer any training and I like to believe I have a bit of an eye for design. So I built my website on WordPress with the X theme – one of the most sophisticated WordPress themes out there.

In retrospect, that was a mistake. Not because of the sophistication of the theme, and WordPress has been great because of all the additional functionality I can get for free with plugins – but because all that sophistication and flexibility is a distraction from my real business – helping small business owners.

Rather than focusing on building the consulting and info products parts of my business, I get distracted building my website. I have to do more troubleshooting when stuff doesn’t work. And I have to design a pretty face for my website from scratch.

If I had to start again

I would use one of the very capable website builders out there, like Squarespace or Wix or Weebly or any one of a large number of contenders (or even Strikingly if you are a total beginner). Any one of these builders would have gotten me a good-looking, functional website faster than WordPress and I would have spent a lot less time fiddling with the insides of WordPress.

Would I change it now?

Yes. I’m in the process of doing some low-key research (that means when I have time to kill, which is not a lot) in finding a website builder that does everything I need it to. I have a couple of test sites up that I play with every now and then – but this is a major commitment, not urgent, and I will get to it at some point in time.


4. Where to start a blog

I started writing long-form articles – blog posts – about 18 months ago and it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made in my business. There’s tremendous future value in writing – articles like this are evergreen content I can use over and over again, and even my modest collection of articles (around 130 and counting) covers a wide range of topics.

Being the nerd I am, I thought that I might as well use WordPress for my blog. In retrospect, this was not a good idea.

It’s not difficult to get a blog on the air using WordPress. But what I did waste time on – and now live with – is that the look and feel of the blog is not quite as simple or clean as I would like it to be. And getting into the insides of WordPress to tweak the design is not something I have time for.

If I had to start again

There are at least two easier ways to start a blog:

  • If I had started with a website builder I would have gotten some pretty neat blog layouts included in the deal. This is not a bad place to start if this is the route you’re going.
  • But even more attractive is starting a blog on Medium.

Medium, in case you don’t know, is a network of blogs. There are thousands of authors publishing articles on every conceivable topic and the Medium website gets 30+ million visitors per month. You can also create your own publication – the Medium version of a blog or online magazine, and some of these publications have hundreds of thousands of followers. Check out my own publication here.

You have a lot less control over what your articles or publication look like than if you were to make your own, but you can create something really attractive in minutes – literally. There are other pros and cons, but in balance this is the fastest way to start a blog – and attract some of the vast number of visitors to Medium.

Would I change it now?

The jury is still out on this one. I have my publishing process down pretty well and cross-posting from my blog to Medium does not take a lot of effort. I’ll see how things go and make a call some time in the future.


5. Marketing – start small, learn, automate

Marketing is the heart of what generates leads for your business, and can make all the difference between a long-term struggle and success. I’m not a trained marketer and I’ve had to learn what works (and what not) the hard way, but after eight years I know enough to be confident I can teach novice marketers the basics.

The biggest temptation novice marketers have is that there are so many different ways to market, we want to try them all. Most of the time we don’t get any one of our channels to market to work really well, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels figuring out what works.

If I had to start again

If there’s one thing I would change if I were just starting out, I would focus on just one channel to market (say, my newsletter and blog) and get that working well before I added another channel to market.

There’s a lot to learn when you start out with marketing, and one of the things you have to realise is that marketing, while critically important to your business, is aimed at unqualified leads. So you want to automate your marketing as much as possible so you can qualify your leads and only spend more time on promising leads (rather than spending a lot of time on everyone).

Would I change it now?

No. I’ve learnt enough about marketing to know what works on some of my channels, and in most ways you can’t turn back the clock.

But what I am changing is how I market specific products and events. I’m getting better at it, and automation is helping me get more exposure with less effort. So I’m continuing to learn, adapt and automate as I go on.


6. Startup & Shutdown routines

As a solopreneur everything ends up on your shoulders. This is the primary reason it takes longer to build a business as a solopreneur than it would be if you had a team – the amount of work to build the business remains the same but there’s only one person to do all the work.

So you have to be as productive and effective as you humanly can, and one of the ways I’ve found boosts my productivity is with daily startup and shutdown routines.

Every morning starts the same way for me. After a coffee, shower and getting dressed I walk into my office and pull out my weekly task list. I review the tasks for the day, review my calendar and make adjustments if I need to. Then I jump into work, knowing exactly what I want to achieve each day.

Similarly, my day ends with a review of what I got done, moving incomplete tasks to the next day and check my tasks and calendar for the rest of the week. I also write a short entry to capture how the day went.

These daily startup and shutdown routines have been one of the most helpful things I’ve developed to make sure I stay focused and on task during the day. The routines are part of a larger planning system, but sticking to this every day keeps me focused and allows me to switch off at the end of the day so I can have a life outside of work.

If I had to start again

The daily routines – and the larger planning system around them – took me some time to develop. I’m an eternal student of productivity so even these routines and systems are continuously being tweaked, but if I were to start again I would adopt these immediately.

Would I change it now?

As I mentioned above I’m the eternal productivity student and I’m always tweaking the systems I have. The key is to find something that works for you and stick with it – but ruthlessly cut it out if it doesn’t work.


7. Productivity and using a timer

It’s easy to get lost in the work I do – and before I know it I’m either distracted (oooh, I have email!) or my energy has been sapped and my productivity takes a nose dive.

One of the things I have adopted with great success is the Pomodoro technique. The concept is that you break down your work into short, highly focused bursts of work interspersed with short breaks (the classic Pomodoro technique calls for 25-minute work sprints and 5-minute breaks). I’ve adapted the technique for what works for me – 60-minute sprints and 15-minute breaks, and I get more done during the day using this method of intense focus and enforced breaks than ever before.

You will be well served by looking and testing the Pomodoro technique. I combine that with things like only checking email three times a day for a 30-minute period where I triage my email – that gives me another 4 to 6 hours per week back.

If I had to start again

Productivity is not something you can really start again – you learn over time what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found that it works well for me – you will have to test it and see what works for you.

Would I change it now?

I’m always playing with new ways of getting more productive, so you could say this is an eternal work in progress. But there’s a danger in that of course – you can spend so much time tweaking systems that you get to play with them more than you actually do work.

So test and experiment by all means, but remember that the purpose of the exercise is to get more productive, not spend more time tweaking your systems.


Summary

There’s a lot to building a business. The seven things above are what I’ve learnt didn’t work that well for me, and I hope that it will help you build a better business faster – and still have a life.

In summary:

  • Find a small, well-defined niche for your business. You will get to success faster, find your clients more easily, make it easier for them to find you and become the go-to person for a specific problem much faster.
  • Rather than start with grand info products, start small with products that help your clients solve a small problem. You’ll get to market faster and learn how to market and sell your products sooner.
  • Don’t roll your own website – this is not what your business is about. Use a website builder.
  • Start a blog using your website builder or on Medium. What you give up in control you’ll get back a thousand times in the time you save.
  • Start small with marketing. Learn what works, automate and then add the next channel to market.
  • Develop and stick to daily startup and shutdown routines. You’ll be a lot more productive during the day and it will be easier to switch off and have a life.
  • Look at using the Pomodoro Technique to stay hyper-focused and productive.

I hope these help you build your business. And don’t forget to have a life!