Reflections on starting a business

Jun 1, 2023 | General

Three and a half years ago I stepped away from employment in a large conservation organisation to launch my own business – Human Nature.  I’ve recently been asked a few questions about this shift from employee to independent. 

It’s been an exhilarating few years.  There have been a few times when I’ve questioned whether it was the right choice.  It’s been a lot of hard work.  But I’m glad I took that leap.  I really enjoy what I do, the people I get the privilege of working with and the impact their new skills have on the conservation impacts they have.   

Here are some of my reflections, and a few lessons learned for anyone thinking about going independent. 

What should my business be about? 

This is the biggest question I get asked.  For me, my businesses purpose – to support natural scientists to access conservation social science – emerged without me specifically looking to be independent.  For others, this might happen the other way around.  Either way, there are three questions to explore to help you focus:

  1. What are you good at? 
  2. What do you enjoy doing?  
  3. What do you want the world to look like? 

Answer each of these in turn, and then look for where they overlap.  Question 1 is about finding out what talents and skills you already have and can draw on.  Remind yourself of these, as we sometimes forget our own strengths!  Question 2 – being independent is hard work.  Doing something you enjoy can help energise you through the tough bits.  And question 3.  Many of my readers are interested in making the world a better place.   What does that better world look like to you?  Spend some time imagining what would be different to today. 

And then look for the connections between your answers to all three questions – what are you good at, that you enjoy doing that can contribute to moving the world towards your vision?  

Finances

Money.  Being independent requires you to deal with money.  You’re going to need to put a price on the services or products you offer, managing the business’s money, and grapple with the challenge of “but what about people I could help who can’t afford to pay” dilemma.  And more.

In 2022 I finally learnt – and implemented – cash flow forecasting in my business.  This is the single thing I would do differently if I could start again.  Many small businesses have very “lumpy” cash flow where some months have plenty of revenue and some months have very little or nothing.  I was sort of doing cash flow from the start, but I knew I hadn’t got it right.  A workshop with Nicola Deverson showed me how to do it properly, in a simple way which would inform business decisions.  My absolute top tip for anyone starting a business – learn and implement this before you begin! 

Plan your life first and then your business 

The first time I heard this advice my mind was blown.  No one had ever said anything like this to me.  Mind.  Blown.

But if you’re starting your own business you can choose what your life looks like.  Perhaps you want to work a four-day week.  Perhaps you want to retire at 50.  Perhaps you want to be at all your child’s school events (or grandchildren’s, niece/nephews …).  Perhaps you want to take a month off every year to travel.  There are a host of ways life can look.  Have you ever considered this for yourself?

Knowing what’s important to your life is vital to developing a business which works for you.  I currently have a young family, so my working day is approximately 9:30am to 3pm.  I rarely have meetings before 10am – to give me time to switch from Mum brain to work brain.  I don’t work much during the school holidays.  But there are consequences to this.  I work more evenings than I would like as the school day is pretty short.  And my business isn’t growing as fast as it could do.    

It’s a trade off, but having that knowledge of what’s important in life helps put boundaries round the bits which need protecting.  Otherwise work has a habit of swallowing as much time and energy as it can. 

Keep learning

If you’re independent, it means you’re probably working alone and therefore you’re responsible for pretty much everything.  Choosing the products or services to offer, marketing, doing the finances, paying invoices and your salary, making the tea, etc etc.  It’s like being the Chief Exec, HR team, IT department and project officer all rolled into one.  Most of us don’t start with all those skills and it’s important to recognise where there might be gaps in your skills.  I have learnt so much in three and a half years – to say it’s been a steep learning curve is an understatement! 

Some of this learning comes from the experiences of getting out there and delivering workshops and courses.  Talking to my clients, and understanding their needs informs the continual development of what I offer.

Sometimes you learn because it’s 10pm and if you don’t get the file into the right format and send to the printers in the next hour you won’t have the leaflets for the event you’re attending. 

And sometimes you need to invest in your learning.  I’ve recently completed a three-month business Foundations course with Actually.  It’s been hugely valuable and implementing what I learnt is already making a big difference to how I support my clients and run the business.  Picking the right course for you, at the right time can be a great boost to move you forwards. 

So be aware of your strengths, but also of the areas which you might need to develop.  And ask for help when you need it. 

Have a support network

Being independent can be lonely.  And in my experience, loneliness is when imposter syndrome, inefficiency and overwhelm ramp up.  A support network does lots of things.  It fends off the loneliness.  But it’s also a group of people who encourage you, celebrate with you, problem solve, listen, offer advice (sometimes unrequested!).  Your support network is a reminder of all you’ve achieved and a reminder to look after you too.

The network can be your friends and family – who are hopefully supportive of your ambitions, irrespective of their experiences of running a business.  But you may also want to connect with other business owners.  Maybe through a network in your area, or through an online community.  I’m a member of a group of purpose-led business owners run by Sara Price.  They all understand the rollercoaster of running a business, they offer insight and encouragement, and I learn from their experiences too.  And we laugh a lot, which is always good!

You may also need to add some specialists to your support network, such as an accountant, copywriter, or designer.  These are the people who you commission to help you with the elements of the business which aren’t in your skill set (or aren’t your priority) to free up your time to focus on the main work of your business. 

Body first, business second

All the posts you see about self-care?  When you’re running a business, keeping you functioning keeps the business functioning.

This mantra “body first, business second” emerged in the first support network I was in.  We were all running purpose-led businesses, and all relatively new to it.  Very soon it became clear that when we were exhausted everything was harder.  That wasn’t new information.  But what was new was the recognition that there was no backup.  If you’re not well and can’t get to the office, there’s no team mate to cover for you.  

Sometimes things crop up that can’t be predicted.  But if you’re independent, looking after you is also about looking after your business.  If I don’t go to my yoga and ballet classes regularly my back will play up and that makes it hard to show up and deliver training.  So knowing what you need to keep yourself healthy enough to show up – and doing it – is vital.  

So there’s a few reflections on what I’ve learnt in the last few years.  I would never have imagined I’d be running a business.  But here I am.  I love it and I am so glad I took the leap. 

If you’re thinking about going independent – ask your questions below or email me.  I’m always happy to talk.

And if you’re already independent, what experiences would you share? 

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