Entrepreneurship is an amazing ride. I’ve had the satisfaction of building a communications company that teaches leaders all over the world how to communicate. We now have 40 employees and revenues of many millions. Our instructors regularly travel the world—to India, Asia, Latin America, and North America, and it has been an exhilarating experience that has far exceeded my greatest expectations.
But not all companies flourish. Many remain small, with no employee other than the owner. Most are short-lived: In the U.S. only 50% of small businesses are around more than five years, and only 25% survive 15 years or more.
How can you create a successful business and enjoy the ride? The following seven pointers will help you, as they helped me in building my company:
Start with something you love—you’ll be spending a lot of time with the business so you have to love its product or service.
Before launching The Humphrey Group, I had been a PR specialist in several large companies, working with executives, preparing their speeches, and helping them become inspiring communicators. This gave me a buzz, and I was excited about what a business could deliver in the field of executive communications.
Eight years before I started my company, I dreamed of launching my own business. During those eight years I honed my skills, developed strong relationships with top executives and their firms, and strengthened my reputation. I even piloted my business by offering in-house seminars to executives.
I prepared for so many years that many of my friends began to say, “She’ll never do it.” But all that thought and careful planning increased the odds that my company would flourish as it has.
Have an idea that creates a new space in the marketplace. It’s a concept elaborated in the book, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant.
So what was my big idea? It came to me when I was at lunch with the actor Marshall Bell, who was in Toronto to help train executives to present with greater flare and conviction. We were both lamenting that executives could be better communicators if they had our combined skills. Suddenly it dawned on me that we could start a company in which I would teach executives to create strong scripts, and Marshall would show them how to bring those scripts to life.
The idea of The Humphrey Group was born in that conversation. And we created a new space: leadership communications.
Be prepared to pour yourself into the business. I have always had a deep passion for what I do. Our clients see that, respond to that, and want to work with us because of that absolute conviction.
My dedication took the form of late-night work in the office–I lived on candy bars monogramed with “H” for Humphrey that we bought for client events. And I made myself available to clients any time they wanted. I’d prepare speeches or rehearse executives any time of the day or night, weekdays or weekends. They always knew I was there for them, and we hired employees who showed the same devotion to our clients.
You need a sales mind-set to be successful. It’s not enough to offer a service: You must sell it. In those early days, as I drove to work through the financial district, I’d say to myself, “There’s a potential client…there’s another one….and another.” I saw life through a sales lens. I was convinced that anyone who had our training would be better off. In fact, I saw our training as a gift to clients. That made it easy to approach them.
I’ve always hired people who shared my passion. I looked for authentic and strong communicators. I didn’t work through search firms or draw up elaborate job descriptions. Some individuals I met at parties or networking events, and I would ask them, “Would you like to work for The Humphrey Group.” Many of these women and men have been with the company for decades and have been dedicated employees and brilliant coaches.
Once you have established a business, hold on to it until you are ready to exit. If you’re like me, you will get offers from folks who want to purchase a portion of your company—or all of it. I have had at least three such offers—for 100%, 50%, and 10% of the company. If I had sold to those potential buyers while I was still building the company, I would have had to share decision-making and would not have reaped the return I got when I was finally ready to bow out as I did two years ago.
Keep control of your company and hold on to your equity until you no longer want to be in the driver’s seat.