LESSONS LEARNED: Launching a Business in the Shadow of a Pandemic
On the last day of February 2020, my excitement was palpable; after months of planning and preparation, I was ready to click the “publish” button on my website, officially telling the world that WNY People Development was open for business. I had developed aggressive company goals, created engaging and interactive content, developed marketing plans for services offered, researched networking groups to join, and blocked calendar dates for applicable conference opportunities. I set a conservative budget for year one; if I achieved it, which I felt confident I could, I would go into 2021 in the black.
Two weeks later, the world shut down.
Now understand, I didn’t choose entrepreneurship naïvely; I understood the risks, challenges, and road blocks. According to the Chamber of Commerce, 20% of small businesses fail in their first year, and only 40% of small businesses turn a profit overall, but I had contingency plans in place to respond to everything that could prevent growth; well, almost everything… “global pandemic” was not on the list. Like so many small business owners, I quite literally caught myself staring at the wall going, “What the *BLEEP*?” I found myself in an incredibly dark space of confusion, despair, and disbelief.
I was at a crossroads. Let my dreams of entrepreneurship die with a virus, or figure out a way forward. After a few bottles of wine, too many episodes of “Tiger King”, and a couple of good cries, I picked myself up and decided, come hell or high water, WNY People Development was going to survive Covid-19. It was incredibly hard to let go of months of planning, but it was necessary; I needed different strategies and a new plan if I was going to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a profitable business after only one year.
Believe it or not, I did it…just barely, but I did turn a profit within 10 months; I started 2021 business debt free after launching in a pandemic, and I know others can too. Here’s a few lessons learned on my entrepreneurship pandemic journey that I hope will help others.
LESSON 1: LET GO OF WHAT COULD BE, CONFRONT WHAT IS
We all learned an incredibly hard lesson this year; control is a myth. No matter how much we’ve planned, we can’t control if, or when, life will place a pothole in front of us; a single event can change everything.
I live and die by my calendar; the appointments on it energize me. When I had to start deleting items in mid March, it was so painful. I would stare at blank white spaces that had previously been filled with colorful notes representing business opportunities, connections, health and wellness, and a little fun peppered in.
I had a choice, wallow in sadness looking at white space, or pull it together… I chose to pull it together.
I began to fill my calendar again. The appointments were different, but they were purposeful. “Coffee with potential client” became “research new content”; “networking event” became “create and release new social media campaign”. Although I wasn’t doing what I had planned at this stage, the important part is that I was DOING. The pandemic pothole pushed me to create, innovate, and view my business model through a new lens; I’ve done some of my best work without a shower wearing the same sweatpants for three days. (Gross? Yes, but just trying to keep it real.)
My original business plan for WNY People Development was simple; provide face-to-face training and coaching for emerging leaders and teams. In the planning stages, I weighed the viability of adding virtual instruction into my service options, and I decided it wasn’t for me. As a leadership facilitator, connecting with people and encouraging open dialogue are my strengths; virtual learning was not a path I wanted to go down, because it stripped me of live interaction, which I believed I needed to provide impactful training experiences. The pandemic forced me to ask myself, “How do I successfully launch a business when my entire model is based on something not accessible for the foreseeable future?”
I had to pivot.
I stepped out of my comfort zone and began offering training and coaching via Zoom, and what I learned is that I COULD create a strong connection with participants, even if we weren’t physically in the same room. I had to work a little harder, be a bit more creative, vary tone and delivery, but I was pleasantly surprised with results. Sessions were impactful, engaging, and fun, and post training evaluations were 100% positive. I had proven to myself I was capable of doing something I previously didn’t consider, and probably wouldn’t have attempted.
A pothole may cause a blow out in your plan, but don’t let it cause you to pause…keep moving within the situation you’ve been dealt. Challenges give us the opportunity to create a new version of our old selves, especially in the realm of entrepreneurship. You may not have control of where and when a pothole emerges, but you DO have control of your response if you fall into one. Look around and see how your pothole can push you to be different and better!
LESSON 2: LEAN ON YOUR NETWORK
I wanted to keep start up costs low, so I didn’t launch with an elaborate marketing budget. I had planned to generate revenue with a few early contracts, and then reinvest those profits into local media, conference presentations, and possibly partner with a firm to broaden my reach through SEO and geofencing. To obtain initial business, I needed to put myself in the right spaces to sell my services and brand. Wilmington, North Carolina is a highly connected community, with a strong networking culture, so I figured it would be easy…cue Covid-19.
I was at a loss regarding how to reach potential clientele. I had a website, and was building a social media presence, but being a new company, following was minimal; it felt like messaging was falling into a black hole. I had stellar leadership development content I was ready to share, but if no one knew about it, it didn’t really matter.
Then it hit me…I’d lived and worked in this community for 12 years, and I knew a lot of people; they were quarantined, sitting in front of their computer too, so I started sending emails. I selected strategic contacts, and shared my new venture; in most cases, they were not the person who would hire a consultant to provide training, however they were connected to those who would. I let them know that WNY People Development was open for business, the services I provided, and I included the company website and social media links for reference. My “ask”? Please share my information if an opportunity opens up in your company. It was a simple message to connect, and it was effective; however, profits didn’t follow immediately.
My first clients were actually unpaid opportunities. Virtually, I provided a two hour training for a local women’s leadership program that had been left in a lurch when in-person meetings were canceled, and I was also asked to give a keynote for another organization about dealing with change. Between these two events, WNY People Development was introduced to over 100 power players in the community, representing a wide range of industries, and I didn’t spend a dime for the exposure. A few hours of preparation yielded paying contracts within a couple of months; a little good will went a long way.
Good will is great, but I’ll never forget that first payment.
When I received a check with “Payable to WNY People Development LLC” across the top, I’m not going to lie, I teared up. It represented passion, bravery, and opportunity…and it came, because I had sent a simple email to a local contact. That’s right, my first paying piece of business came from an individual in my network who shared my name and contact info with someone else seeking a training provider. Now, it wasn’t a “gimmee”; I had to earn the job. I went through multiple interviews, a proposal, and a presentation, but none of that would have been possible had I not reached out to share my business announcement with a professional friend who threw my name into the ring for consideration.
Never underestimate the power of your personal and professional contacts, or the networks they are connected to. Over the course of this year, I have reinvested profits into marketing, however, every client I’ve booked so far has come from referral. Relationships matter! And sidenote, make sure you return the favor; if a connection helps you, when the opportunity presents itself, pay it back, and then pay it forward to someone else. Research proves that expressing gratitude and giving back boost physical and mental health, so do both as an entrepreneur, especially during difficult times.
LESSON 3: SEEK PEOPLE WHO INSPIRE, NOT TIRE
We all know that person; the one who complains about the weather, their boss, the wrong choice on “The Bachelor”, too much salt in their lunch, and a whole host of other issues. They preach gloom and doom, and ooze negativity; conversations with them are draining!
This may come as a surprise, but those are NOT the people you should surround yourself with when starting a business, especially during a pandemic.
There’s a popular belief that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, so choose wisely; this idea takes on a whole new level of importance as an entrepreneur. Are the people in your circle supportive of your endeavors? When I say “supportive”, I don’t mean that they fund your company, or agree with everything you’re doing; are they willing to challenge your ideas, be a sounding board to help you problem solve, push you to grow, and celebrate your wins? These are the people you trust; they tell you the truth, good and bad.
About two months into the pandemic, I found myself in a bad place. I was questioning my decision to start a business, doubting my abilities, and generally feeling like a failure…I was losing hope. A friend and I were talking on the phone, and because of the mental state I was in, I made a comment that I knew my brand “wasn’t for everyone”. She pushed back, HARD. Over the course of the next ten minutes, she reminded me who I was, how I worked, and why all types of people in different industries would benefit from my services.
It was the kick in the pants I needed. The next day, I developed and launched a new social media campaign that brought in new followers, and led to future business for the company. A single discussion reinvigorated me at the perfect time; I don’t know if I would be celebrating one year of business today if that conversation hadn’t happened. I am eternally grateful for the truth bomb unloaded on me from someone I trust and respect; it made a huge difference.
On the entrepreneurship journey, there’s highs and lows. It’s pertinent to find people that inspire…inspire you to try something new, push past perceived roadblocks, keep your head up on tough days, encourage you to believe in yourself, and remind you that you’re awesome (because let’s be honest, we all forget that from time to time). Your support circle matters; keep people close that drive you to greatness, not tire you into despair.
FINAL THOUGHTS As I reflect on my first year in business, my biggest take away is that you must know yourself, strengths and limitations; stay focused on your vision, and no matter what, keep moving forward. That being said, you also must be willing to flex, bend, and sometimes change course completely to survive. We’re all in uncharted territory thanks to a global pandemic, and we have a choice to use it as an excuse, or as an opportunity.
I choose opportunity, how about you?