Key learnings of London-born, Bermuda-raised businesswoman who runs a PR agency in the UAE
While launching a new business venture can be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences in one’s career journey, we often find ourselves learning the bigger, occasionally scolding lessons in the heat of battle. Despite the fact nothing can replace the power of first-hand experience, being familiar with peer learnings in the early years of business can help serve us well when it comes to swerving hazards during low visibility conditions, and taking speed bumps a little slower when they suddenly appear. With that said, read on for a taste of my five biggest learnings in starting a business.
I am often asked in conversations pertaining to my work and career, “What have been my biggest learnings in starting a business?”
Whilst some of us have come to realise many of the big lessons, others are embarking on the new business journey and (like all of us), may well benefit from the wisdom of hindsight. With the subject rearing its head repeatedly amongst my peer circles, when writing this piece I thought apt to reach out to my former business partner Brooke Boyschau and deliberate over some of our key realisations during the company’s initial start-up years. We thoughtfully considered a short list of our most transformative learnings which, by some stroke of luck, may just help out one or two others on their journey to success. Because as they say, hindsight is good, but foresight is better.
Don’t be a ‘Yes’ man. Be confident enough in your knowledge and expertise to boldly share best practices, while at times it may indeed challenge others’ preconceived briefs and plans. Hold on tightly to the fact that you are the expert, which is why, if they are a client, they have sought you out in the first place. Sometimes referred to ‘as the disease to please’, it can be all too easy (for women in particular, according to research) to allow peers, clients or colleagues to steer the ship when it comes to strategic choices for fear of upsetting the applecart or as a means to avoid difficult conversations. When clients are incredibly close to a project, they can’t always be blamed for sometimes leading with emotion over rationality. Cue, the expert. Your job is to hear out ideas, understand perspectives, and when required, very clearly and confidently justify (and stand by) your rationale for recommending a particular strategic direction or tactic.
Do things before you’re ready, it’s okay to not know what you’re doing. Do not fall into the perfection trap. Whilst delivering work at unsurpassed standards has always been a founder’s value, obsessing over perfection can hold you back when the most important thing may actually be to keep projects or opportunities moving forward. When your communication and handling of matters is conducted at the highest level of professionalism at all times, most of the time you will be afforded forgiveness if a mistake occurs. That being said, mistakes will always be minimised when communication on projects is executed as precisely and thoroughly as possible. In the same line of thought, always be open to seeking out support – you don’t need to know it all. Leadership doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. In my opinion, the concept is two-fold: at a high level, leadership is taking an idea and driving it forwards; and at a local level, leadership is about bringing the people around you, with you, inspiring, supporting and motivating them to be better. This doesn’t mean you can’t do things before you’re ready.
Never be reluctant to claim and celebrate your achievements. You are not alone if you find it extremely uncomfortable to “toot your own horn” to a social audience for fear of the judgement of others. However, always remember your big achievements are worth sharing, and when done so tastefully and on the appropriate platforms, how the news is received by others is not your concern. Nine times out of ten, people are happy to see you succeed and welcome news on your big career moments, so don’t hide in the shadows. Sharing your achievements does not by default equal “gloating” and is a valuable way to reinforce your aptitude, passion and expertise amongst your professional peers, sometimes leading to new business connections or opportunities you may never have imagined, such as educating the future generation. Similarly, do not expect others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions to a role, company or industry. Most people are rightly focused on their own journeys and the gravitas of your achievements isn’t necessarily going to hit home or be placed on high priority to share or announce. Take ownership of your successes and be your own biggest champion.
Culture does not manifest by way of declaration alone; it is derived from leaders setting a consistent and healthy example from the top down, day after day. Do you wish to profess that it is within your company culture to prioritise employee work-life balance? To champion and hone your employees’ individual strengths? To cultivate strong intercultural awareness and mutual respect throughout the organisation? These ideas becoming etched into culture come about by way of doing, not just saying. Not only that but cultivating a culture of success within the company is also fundamental and comes down to setting clear expectations. I strongly believe a healthy culture is also created and maintained by focusing on the right goals and creating the experience of winning in the marketplace.
Don’t hesitate to value your expertise fairly. While there are moments in a business where we may feel compelled to make certain sacrifices in order to build up a strong portfolio of clients or win exciting and noteworthy projects, stand by the value you can bring to that client, project or business, and do not undervalue your contribution by drastically slashing fees or over-resourcing certain accounts. Doing this inevitably comes at a later cost – in the form of taking away resources from your other valued clients or projects, creating a detrimental knock-on effect and potentially an entire showground of fires to fight. Stand by your expertise and winning position in the market, and be willing to get frank about fees and resourcing with clients. It is always preferable to have the ‘tricky’ conversations before an agreement is signed because they become significantly more difficult if and when expectations are misaligned halfway through a project or contract.
Starting a new business can be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences in your career journey, and like many new professional scenarios, “learning on the job” is just a necessary, albeit challenging part of the gig. To that end, advice merely serves to act as a gentle source of support, guidance and comfort and is certainly not designed to supersede the richness of first-hand experience. That said, keeping familiar with our “little black book” of peer learnings in the early years can help serve us well when it comes to swerving hazards during low visibility conditions, and taking speed bumps a little slower when they suddenly appear. Ultimately, each one of our unique journeys will be peppered with unforeseeable challenges and wild twists and turns, and when we take on each one with zeal, enthusiasm and patience, we always come out wiser, stronger, and better prepared for what lies around the next bend.
Owner and managing director at Dubai and Manila-based PR Agency Atteline
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