So ADS Begins: 24 Things I learned in Year One as an Entrepreneur
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Accidental Entrepreneurship. That’s exactly what I think of when I consider where I was one year ago today. I never thought I would even think of doing this until I was 40 (although, ironically, I’m not so far from that now!). In my 20s, I often thought to myself that by the time I’m 40 I’ll probably have gained enough of the experience I want to either [ A ] branch out to form my own boutique agency (mostly for fun!) or [ B ] start my own non-profit to help young people get more exposure to as many potential passion areas for their life as possible (i.e. careers, fields, businesses they could own, etc.). One of the two I felt I would definitely do by then.
So how was it an accident? After working in Scotland for a year – covering for our Global Brand Director at the time who was on maternity leave – I came to ATL for my next career role as Marketing Director for a small manufacturer looking to expand nationally for the first time. What I thought would be an easy “hero” situation for me turned out to be the worst nightmare job I’ve ever had. Let’s just say, I learned a lot about how to deal with a very dictatorial personality. The key? You don’t. [ In fact, here’s what I learned about how to deal with “horrible bosses” / toxic work environment situations here. ] So now here’s the story of ADS. [ Don’t forget to check out our big list of 24 Things Learned in Year One of Entrepreneurship ].
The ADS Story
Closed doors: the job hunt + an ended engagement
I toughed it out long enough with that employer to help them get the rebranding work done that I set out to do with them and promised (largely to myself), but I think we were both a bit done with each other after that. Freshly released with newfound freedom and a significant weight lifted off my shoulders – plus an engagement ring on my hand – I had the new stresses of planning for a wedding while also looking for my next job. Well it seems the stresses of my job search proved to be too much for my then fiance, so that got rid of one problem (don’t worry, it was sincerely for the best). So now I just had one major problem to deal with: my next job. Thankfully, that actually wasn’t something I was too worried about. True enough, I hadn’t been in ATL long enough (barely 10 months at the time) to build up much of a network, but I always felt I was pretty good at getting jobs and felt confident I would have something locked in soon.
This might be your time. Bring on the cheerleaders!
Needless to say, with no more job and no more fiance, this potentially could’ve been viewed as the “lowest of the low” moments in my life, but thankfully I don’t think like that. I’m a chin-up kind of gal – I always believe things happen for a reason and was thankful for whatever was around the corner. In fact, I thoroughly believe closed doors are blessings giving way to perfectly timed opportunities to grow us. [ Read my “The Power of the Closed Door” blog post here ]. Interviews were rolling in and to be fair – there were some really great opportunities (global ones again, which were exciting to me!) that I was up for. I think I was purposefully kept from getting those opportunities because, as one of my new cheerleaders said to me at that time, “hey – this might be your time!” I listened to one person after another in my life – people whom I respected from a business sense as well as from a mentorship level – say to me: “Go for it Andrea! What do you have to lose right now?”
Now bring on the “accident.”
It was kind of true. I’d been so mobile over the past few years in my career that I didn’t have the burden of a mortgage. I was in a simple, scaled down apartment [ Scotland taught me to be much more of a minimalist than ever before – which I love! ]. No kids. No husband [ ha! ]. I only had myself to look after. People have started businesses before with worse situations than that. But I wasn’t convinced – yet. After all, “what do you have to lose” isn’t much of a compelling argument. It would be far too easy to just get another role somewhere and start my newest, latest career adventure somewhere else. My focus was still there. It wasn’t until one of those encouragers said to me (for about the 50th time) – “You can do this. You need to do this. It’s time. And by the way – I need you to do some work for me and I’ll pay you for it.” Magic. Words. Spoken. Oh, we’re talking money now? Wait – you’ve got my attention. All of a sudden, my focus started shifting and instead of dismissing my cheerleader’s thoughts I started seriously gearing myself towards how to get this done. Hence – my accidental stumble into entrepreneurship.
Setting up ADS overnight
I started figuring out how to set up an LLC, a simple pay structure (what would I charge them anyway?), how I would accept payments, etc. One night I sat down in front of my computer with the spur of the moment gumption to get a website up. I bought the domain name – theadsagency.co – and got to work building up a basically free WordPress site. I sat there for 10 hours straight getting all the basics laid out. I tweaked it for weeks afterwards – adding beginner blog posts, etc. I locked in all my social media channels immediately, got them kicked off. Plugged them into my site. Bam. Nearly overnight ADS was up!
Still not a full believer – yet.
Still with all of that done, I never thought this would be more than maybe some pocket change to see me through while I was still job-hunting and interviewing. An HR friend of mine told me I may as well buckle down through the winter because people’s budgets for hiring don’t crank back up until after the first of the year. So that gave me even more license to keep working on the business while I had it. In the back of my mind, I still thought this would be something I just did on the side for extra money whenever I had my next job locked in. I’d just continue it in the background until I hit 40 and then I could really press on the gas. I had exactly one client. Truth be told, that’s nothing to write home about per se, but I was proud of that first client.
All of a sudden in December I got a call out of nowhere from someone else I’d met months ago at an MBA event here in Atlanta. They were a serial entrepreneur with several successful businesses in the area. Plenty of connections. Doing quite well for themselves. Here and there I’d advised them on their marketing and branding for their businesses – for free. Just to be helpful. Quite similar to the background with my first client except by now I hadn’t spoken to him for months. This guy calls me out of the thin blue sky and says “Hey, what are you doing now?” After filling him in he says “I need your help.” Before I knew it, I had my first significant client. How significant? Enough to start covering my major bills. By the first of the year, I was sincerely becoming a true believer. This could actually work.
Not only did I have cheerleaders, but those cheerleaders put in work. They wanted to see me succeed with this! I had so many leads for business I didn’t know what to do with it. Without even having to advertise at all, I was getting recommended left and right for business. I took on a series of one-off projects, some new steady clients who also paid me monthly. By the spring, another project came across my desk from Scotland. That brought on new Merger & Acquisition work that would carry me through the end of the year. And so ADS seems to be steadily moving upward…
I saw something on Instagram not too long ago that says “Social media will have you thinking entrepreneurship is easy.” I can tell you it sure the hell isn’t. But is it worth it? Damn right. Now that you know the basics of The ADS Story, let me tell you about the lessons I learned along the way. Maybe it might help some of you who are also on this journey:
THE LIST: 24 Lessons I Learned in Year One as an Entrepreneur
[ 1 ] Mentorship Matters.
[ 3 ] We all have our limits.
[ 5 ] Finances
[ 7 ] Pricing is an art.
[ 14 ] Be open-minded.
[ 15 ] Your health is important.
[ 16 ] Don’t forget to network.
[ 17 ] Know your worth.
[ 18 ] Your business is your baby.
[ 19 ] Read along the way.
[ 21 ] Invest in yourself.
[ 23 ] Have fun with it.
[ 1 ] Mentorship Matters.
What are mentors? People who have been there, done that and can help make the process so much easier for you by allowing you to benefit from the education of their mistakes. I had several mentors. My first two clients were also mentors for me [ remember the cheerleaders? ]. I also got another mentor from SCORE – which I highly recommend as well. My mentors are all over the place. They’re people who have small businesses that make in the mid six-figure range, but they’ve been doing it consistently and profitably for years, have hired their first employees, lease their own space, etc. They’re people who are retired but sold their business for a cool million-ish and are living the life, traveling the world and offer all kinds of advice from banking, pricing, credit, etc. They’re people who used to be bar-tenders but had the best in schooling, upbringing, entrepreneurship examples in their lives and turned their lives around to create hundred-million dollar businesses in just 3-5 years. And they’re still moving.
Mentors expand your thinking. They’re there to help you out where you are right now but also elevate your ideas on what’s truly possible for the future. You don’t know what you don’t know until you get with people who do. That being said, Andrea’s two cents are this: to be careful about who you listen to. For all these successful examples, there’s 20 times more people struggling and faking the funk out there. And they’ve been doing it for years as well. That’s not who you want on your team. Learn from them from a distance on what not to do.
[ 2 ] You will make plenty of mistakes.
There are plenty of failures in your first year. This is your own education and likely the greatest you’ll ever get in life. You have to try things out. Fall down. Get back up. Dust it off. Forget your ego. Your systems will not be perfect. You may let people down sometimes even when you don’t want to. Promises do get broken no matter how hard you try. Get ready to apologize – a lot. Consequently, you’ll have plenty of “making up” to do. However, you need this cutting-your-teeth time to sharpen you. Let it make your systems better. Let it help you – quickly – determine what not to do and what to try next. The more you fail and the faster, the better. As long as you improve from it, your business (and you) will be better for it.
[ 3 ] We all have our limits.
Bandwidth is real. You learn real quick – and over time – what you have the personal capacity for and what you truly need help with. You think you know, but you don’t actually know until you jump in and start swimming. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but do be realistic. It’s not what you are capable of, it’s what you have the personal capacity to handle. The more I’ve learned how limited / finite my time is for business, the more I’ve realized how valuable that time truly is. It’s one thing to say it. It’s entirely another to plan for it, protect it and know the monetary and personal value of it. Indeeeeeeed.
[ 4 ] You are only as good as your team.
Everybody needs a team. Even if they’re not full-time employees, you still have people you can count on to make sure your business shines. ADS has partnerships with graphic designers, printers, direct mail providers, promotional item people, PR experts, web designers, app developers, finance and taxes, photographers, you name it. You really can’t do it all alone – and once you realize that, you’ll start seeking the people who can help you do better.
[ 5 ] Finances
Speaking of finances, I know everyone has their own recommendations, theories, systems, etc. for keeping this straight. I have three things in this area I’ll share with you (those of you who are new entrepreneurs or aspiring ones):
[ 1 ] PayPal invoicing was my friend. It’s easy. Everybody has it. Even for bigger corporations you may work with, you can still use it to generate a PDF invoice to send on to them. It’s professional, the “manage your invoice” section is easy and you can direct deposit to your bank accounts. Works for me right now.
[ 2 ] CPA’s are wonderful gifts from God. It’s the truth. Get a good CPA on your team. They are worth their weight in gold.
[ 3 ] Get a local bank. I had a local bank in SC, TD Bank, but they don’t have any branches here in Atlanta (dare I say Georgia?). After that, for my personal self, I got an account with Bank of America. But at the advice of several of my mentors, I ended up with a new local bank for my business – Regions Bank. Friendly. Approachable. Cares about you and your success.
[ 6 ] You start really learning who your target customer really is.
You can’t help everybody and everybody cannot afford you. There’s only so much “volunteer” work you can take on. At some point, some bills have to get paid and then you start figuring out what your time is really worth. (Bartering, by the way, does not pay bills). You also learn real quick how to screen for people you’d like to work with. This is your business and your time. You get to choose who you do and do not want to work with.
[ 7 ] Pricing is an art.
I learned I started off far too low. Learned that from someone in my same space who’s a friend of a friend (and several others whom I sought advice from). In the beginning, with my first client, I wanted to be fair with my pricing because they were a friend and mentor to me. I also – because this is accidental entrepreneurship in my case – had not done any pricing research in the market beforehand. My quick solution? I figured out what I was making before, broke that down by the hour and built packages based on hours. I’ve since learned that’s nowhere near enough.
As we all know, pricing is an indicator (whether we like it or not) to quality and the level of excellence you can expect. Pricing too low sends a message that perhaps you’re quite junior at what you do or maybe you’re very low quality, unprofessional, bottom of the barrel…you get it. People told me I need to charge 3 times what I was at least. And the prevailing attitude many others who did consulting work or other similar work: “I’m expensive!” It’s the sincere attitude they had and it makes sense. You’re not for everyone and everyone’s not for you either. And your time starts becoming a lot more valuable to you the less of it you have to give.
[ 8 ] You need your support systems. Your cheerleaders. Your encouragers.
As I said before, cheerleaders are invaluable. They were for me anyway and I was so blessed to have them. Aside from my direct business cheerleaders, I even found support within my own family – which I have to be honest, I wasn’t so sure about before! My family consists of 90% educators. Perhaps also 65% musicians. They’re practical, down to earth and salt of the earth people. They also take no mess and will tell you the truth – straight, no chaser. No one was really a business owner in my family. I was the only person in my close-knit family (immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) to enter the corporate world. Only my sister ever really attempted a business (shameless plug for Atlanta’s coolest jewelry business – Charleigh Rocks – for everyone who loves to sparkle affordably).
I kind of thought maybe my family might think I was crazy and that I should do the practical, safe, responsible thing and find a “regular job” – as per the usual. I was pleased to learn I was wrong! I got nothing but full support from my parents, sisters, uncles and cousins. Amazing to me! Some of the best mentoring advice I got came from my own father and a cousin of mine – both pastors with plenty of solid, sage wisdom and life experience. My dad gave me advice on developing partnerships as opposed to attempting to employ people, among other things like financial advice. My cousin told me just the right story right when I needed to hear it about striking while the iron’s hot – lest you live to add it to your list of shoulda, coulda wouldas.
Additionally, I needed my cheerleaders to help me get over my own perceptions of being thought of as an entrepreneur. These days, everyone’s a “CEO” of something. Doesn’t take much and therefore it also tends not to mean much. For that reason, you’ll notice I don’t call myself a CEO, founder or owner typically – only when the situation necessitates it. My title is Senior Brand Director in most places.
In any case, you need support (see #11 below). PS – check out my ADS Chat with my sister Nicole of Charleigh Rocks below to learn about her own mompreneur story:
[ 9 ] You have to educate the client.
Another surprising thing I learned is that there is a shocking amount of client education that needs to be done. People have extremely varying amounts of business experience and even less experience with marketing and branding. In order to set the right expectations of what’s achievable, what you do and what you do not, you really have to set aside time to educate the client on these things as needed. I’ve assumed incorrectly many times before this year about what people actually know about marketing and branding. I would think this is true for many other forms of businesses, but I’ve found it especially true in mine. Marketing and branding must be quite nebulous to so many people. They kind of get it on some level but mostly they really don’t. The danger in not educating means they may have false expectations about what you do, what’s achievable in a given time frame and budget and how much they actually get for what they’re paying. Education matters.
How can you learn more about marketing, branding and other business tips for your entrepreneurial endeavors? Catch up on our ADS Chats! Here’s one of our favorites with AJC Journalist Ernie Suggs regarding top PR Tips for entrepreneurs:
that touts a drink that will “make you fly!”
In the beginning, I worked out of cafes and bars. I would meet people out for dinner, drinks, coffee, and – my favorite – tea. [ Read about one of the cafe’s I found with a drink that’ll make you “fly”! ]. Many mornings I worked from home. Eventually I graduated to business clubs like The Gathering Spot and Buckhead Club. Now, doing much more global business [ which I love ], I find that most of my mornings are spent rolling out of the bed right to the computer for conference calls with the UK, Germany, Italy, Beijing, etc. I learned the hard way that even my own home environment needed to change to accommodate my ergonomic needs.
I used to think that was so silly to create safety exercises and check offs of your office equipment. One of the places I worked for actually had us do that – to check for the brightness of our screen, whether we felt that hurt our eyes or created headaches, the height of our desk in relation to our arms and hands, the comfort of our chairs, etc. The truth is – that stuff does matter! When a large part of what you do is done via computer (which is a lot of us), ergonomics do matter. Recently I invested in a desk that I absolutely adore and am so grateful for!! It cost me $250-ish bucks from a Home Goods store but it’s absolutely everything I need. The right height. Plenty of space to spread out my papers. I had to gift my piano to my little niece and nephews in the area to create space for it but it was definitely worth it (plus they get to learn piano on a proper instrument!).
[ 11 ] Your personal brand grows and evolves.
There’s an entirely different feeling you have going from corporate to entrepreneur. You’re used to introducing yourself as < name > with < x company >. Maybe your < title >. As an entrepreneur, it’s odd to say your own company name. It was for me at least. I still shock myself [ and other people, I think ], when I say “Hi – I’m Andrea with The ADS Agency.” “ADS – what company is that?” “It’s mine.” And then I go on to explain what it is, what we do, etc.
To say that it’s yours is still a mind-shift for me. Additionally, my perceptions of entrepreneurs changed as well. I used to be a bit anti-entrepreneur in the past – again – as I said before, only because these days everyone seems to be one. It’s not really special anymore, per se. It only becomes special when you’re actually a successful one. I learned to craft my elevator speech a bit better so people could quickly discern that my business was legitimate and that my clients and work (as well as results) are real. But the bottom line is this: you are now your business. Totally different mindset.
Check out some of our client’s testimonials here: ADS: The Delighted
[ 12 ] Nevermind the naysayers and time-wasters.
There will certainly be plenty of haters. Discouragers. Naysayers. People who don’t want you to succeed. Don’t want you to even attempt to try it. There’s a woman I know who seemed to always be “competing” against me earlier in my career. When she learned I was starting a business, she magically popped up a business of her own and then tagged me in a post about a job on LinkedIn. Just a little smack in the face to say – “Hey, don’t try this. Stick with what you know. Why don’t you apply for this nice job right here while I tackle the entrepreneur world.” In other words – stay out of my space. “I’m on my entrepreneur mode right now, not you. Why don’t you just get out?” Yes, she did that. Why people feel like they need to compete like that with each other is a bit beyond me – but you’ll get people like that.
There were people I came across who posed as potential mentors, potential business partners, etc., and ultimately went behind my back on projects. Tried to steal clients. Potential clients who ended up using their little niece for work instead of us because they could get it for free. I get free. I don’t get not being honest about it. People who will waste your time with the promise of business only wanting to go out with you to “date” you. It takes a lot to discern between those who are legitimate professionals and those who are either haters or timewasters. Like I said in #8 above – get your cheerleaders in order. There are enough people to poke holes in you around here, you need your positive pushers to keep your mind right.
[ BACK TO TOP ]
[ 13 ] You may have to change up your model.
When you’re an Accidental Entrepreneur, you really might have to consider changing up your model at some point. As I explained earlier, my entrepreneurship was pretty much accidental. No idea of a model in place, no pricing. Sure I’d dreamt of it for years – even spoke to people about it years ago, curious as to how these things work. But I’d never seriously considered it let alone put any serious thought towards the systems, the model, etc. Now having been in it a year, I’m thinking I may change up my own model a bit. Nothing like a whirlwind of a year to give you clarity after the storm.
[ 14 ] Be open-minded.
Like I said in point #1 – you don’t know what you don’t know. I think many of us who end up being entrepreneurs one way or the other do so because we have a lot of chutzpah. An extreme amount of personal confidence. An unshakable faith that we can do anything that we put our mind to. However, this is not the time to be so convinced in yourself and your abilities that you can’t be open to the suggestions and experiences of others. Recognize your mentors around you who are successful at what they do. Open your mind to learn from them. See how you can adapt their successes to your situations. Have an open mind.
Relax. Take care of yourself. Get the medical attention you need. Living without healthcare during a turbulent time for healthcare was crazy to me. I had no idea what I would do about healthcare. I’m a relatively young-ish individual. Pretty decent health. No major issues. No medicines I have to take on a regular basis [ besides iron pills which you can get on Amazon – ha! ]. Still, the stress of the year took its toll on me at times. I found myself lacing up my tennis shoes to go for a walk by the river many a day. To clear my head. To calm my heart. To gain clarity again and get centered.
I took advantage of a yoga special at the beginning of the year and that was great as well [ writing this now is making me miss it! I do need to go back. ]. Still I made myself paranoid a few times with some health things this year – I would bug my sister’s best friend about questions, trying to self diagnose myself with the Mayo Clinic’s website, Web MD, etc. Thankfully, my mom’s a hygienist and the dentist she works with was a lifesaver this year. While healthcare is still beyond turbulent in this country, I can say it helps to utilize the resources available to you and to try to be and stay as healthy as possible. Meditate. Exercise. Breathe. Relax sometimes. Also, have fun!! If you’re working real hard, you have to remember to play real hard too. Don’t be afraid of that. You can’t always, but without it, you can become …not so fun yourself. Most importantly, if you don’t recharge, what good are you to your clients? They deserve your best energy and the best you you can bring to the table.
[ 16 ] Don’t forget to network.
I love networking. In new cities, I do seek to involve myself in groups that help me fast track my network – ones I know and have been involved with other cities at least. It’s a great way to dig in and let people know what you do, let them see a bit of that, etc. However, I noticed once my work load increased with more clients, more projects, etc., I let the networking piece go [ among other things ]. I’m now in a space where I’m recognizing I need to get back to that. It’s the lifeblood of your business and a core piece of the puzzle to business development. People need to know who you are. Networking is a big part of that. Get in the right circles and keep exploring.
[ 17 ] Know your worth.
Do not let people take advantage of you. You have significant value. Your time is not for free. You do not give “discounts.” You do have to learn how to say no – and you gain the power to do that by knowing what you’ve already said yes to. Refer to #7 above – Pricing is an art.
[ 18 ] Your business is your baby.
Even though I don’t have kids [ yet? ], I do believe this business has become my baby. It is my obsession. My world. My everything I focus on. It’s a sincere time commitment that doesn’t end with sleep. It encroaches your sleep. Becomes it. You wake up to it, breathe it. It is inescapable. Before you step into your business, make sure you ask yourself if you’re willing for it to become your life. If not, you may want to set some serious parameters on time, expectations, etc.
Incorporate the ideas that mean the most to you. Read articles. Books. Blog posts. Learning should never stop in general in life, but it certainly exponentially ramps up as an entrepreneur. There’s a concept called “Just-in-time Learning” – learning things as you need to along the way. It’s the truth. Keep doing it.
[ 20 ] Think REAL big (but start real small).
Speaking of reading, in the book The One Thing, the idea of thinking big is discussed. The importance of having an incredibly, scarily big dream matters [ as opposed to creating small, easily achievable goals ]. Real success begins with gargantuan-sized dreams. But it’s achieved in the smallest bits. It starts with picking the most important thing to do each day towards your dream by asking yourself the question: “What is the most important thing I can do today that – by doing it – either (A) everything becomes easier or (B) everything else becomes unnecessary.” Buy the book and read the book. But if you don’t have time for that yet, you can also watch our latest ADS Chat with David Patterson reviewing the best ideas from The One Thing.
Buy the book here: The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
[ 21 ] Invest in yourself.
There’s something to be said about investing in yourself. Your health. Your financial situation. Your personal education and skills. Club memberships. Your spirituality. Trips to get out of here and clear your head. Buying yourself something new to feel fresh and polished [ speaking of style, check our Style Tips from our ADS Style Chat with Morgan A. Wider of Styled by Stats ]. There are many things one can do to invest in yourself.
[ 22 ] You have to – a little bit – not be afraid of the chaos.
Business can be chaotic – and that’s true more than anything in your first year as a business owner (likely your first few years but we’ll see about that). Things aren’t perfect. The clothes may pile up. Some bills may get behind. You may misplace a meeting on your calendar. An important email can get stuck in your draft box [ or your outbox ]. Relationships may suffer [ heck, I lost a fiance in the process lol ]. You may not be able to go out with your friends – to the parties, the happy-hours, etc. Your sleep schedule will get way out of whack. Don’t be afraid of the chaos. It’s a part of it. Embrace it. Do your best. Keep moving.
[ 23 ] Have fun with it.
If you can’t have fun, what are you doing this for? Find the fun. It’s there. You’ve gotta love what you do after all. If not, again, we ask you – what are you doing this for?
[ 24 ] Do NOT be afraid to accept help.
Accepting help – depending on the kind of help it is – was and still is very hard for me. However, angels will come your way. Don’t say no. Be grateful and remember them. Likewise, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask and ye shall receive.
The conclusion: be grateful.
This year alone, I’ve been to Germany, Italy and the UK. I ran a business panel for a client at one of the world’s largest beauty shows [ which was loads of fun! ]. I created my first six-figure proposal [ truth be told, I didn’t win it, but it was still exciting ]. I hosted five live shows on Facebook for ADS – one of which was at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s news room [ very cool ]. I got to create incredible advertising for a global staffing company with thousands of contractors on six different continents. My clientele this year included an architecture firm, IT staffing and light industrial staffing companies, an agricultural services company, a multi-state law firm, a millionaire author and one of ATL’s best political candidates. I’ve had the freedom to be able to walk by the Chattahoochee River if I so choose any given morning, take a long lunch with a friend, leave in the middle of the day and cover for grandparent’s day to see my niece and nephews at their school. The CEO of a publicly traded global company called my team’s work “flawless.” I survived a year “on my own” and never really had to go without. Started a business for the first time, had a lot of fun with it and got to meaningfully help shape how some very cool brands move through this world. Of any tip I could ever give about anyone’s first year in business, the best I can give is this: be grateful and count your blessings.
What are your tips – what advice do you have?