The not so pretty side of entrepreneurship: 12 lessons we learned the hard way
We did it. We have officially made it to the 12-year mark in our business. Yeah sure 12 years isn’t one of those milestones people talk about – it’s usually 10 or 15 years. But since we never did a 10-year anniversary post, we are doing it now.
12 years means a lot of challenges. And with every year we became more resilient overcoming issues that do many business in.
Throughout our many years, I can say this one thing applies to every business out there: there is no single strategy that can lead you to success. But hard work, consistency, and optimization of every business process processes: is the surefire solution.
You can read all the business books and blogs, follow the greats and gurus, but every business is unique and requires a different mix of sales and marketing strategies to make it work.
There are some lessons you can learn from other companies, and in this anniversary addition blog, I will share a lesson from every year we have had growing our lovely company, Invesp.
1. Figure out where are the bottlenecks in your business and fix them
Don’t let bottlenecks delay your processes. From our experience, you have to eliminate bottlenecks, especially when you are one of them.
What are bottlenecks? They are road blocks that stop your business from growing.
And yes, they come in different shapes and sizes. And we dealt with all different types of bottle necks throughout the years. Sometimes, they are internal, in the way we had certain processes. Sometimes, they were external in how we dealt with clients.
When we first started, everything needed to be reviewed by either Khalid or myself. Well, that’s the least efficient way of doing things or running things. I recall looking at the process of publishing a post on our blog. We had such an elaborate process of back and forth and reviews and approvals. It took usually about a month to get anything published. Our intentions were good but the back and forth brought the process of publishing a single post to a crawl.
I see business suffer from this all the time. Sometimes it is because they do not trust their employees. Sometimes, they are trying to prefect everything they do. You have to find the right balance between getting things done, getting everything perfect and getting everything to a good enough state.
Constantly evaluate your processes and constantly improve them.
That means of course that you have to be open to change. Most humans hate change. They like to settle on certain ways of doing things even if that means inefficiencies.
Bottlenecks delay output, and allow the blame game to become a part of the culture.
That’s bad for the climate in the company and for getting things done at a faster pace.
An agile approach to everything is key, and following a method we use in conversion optimization: SHIP (Scrutinize, Hypothesize, Implement, and Propagate). The word itself is telling of rapid and deliberate movement. I’d love to say we use it for all activities, but it’s certainly something we try and utilize to ensure the success of activities and quick turnaround.
When we first started, everything needed to be reviewed by either Khalid or myself. Well, that’s the least efficient way of doing things or running things. Plus, you aren’t trusting your employees when you do that. You need to let go and allow the process to flow. We quickly recognized this and identified in what areas and parts of the processes we needed to remove ourselves.
Bottlenecks delay output, and allow the blame game to become a part of the culture. That’s bad for the climate in the company and for getting things done at a faster pace. An agile approach to everything is key, and following a method we use in conversion optimization: SHIP. The word itself is telling of quick movement. But it stands for scrutinize, hypothesize, implement, and propagate. I’d love to say we use it for all activities, but it’s certainly something we try and utilize to ensure the success of activities and quick turnaround.
2. Figure out what channel works for you and optimize the heck out of it
I posted a question on online group asking people what works for them in terms of demand generation. Mind you, the group is full of online SEM experts who have been going at it for a long time.
And I got the typical answers.
Content marketing, email, social media, blah, blah.
Most people who were giving answers are probably doing a lot less than what we do for each of these channels. But the internet had impacted us in some negative ways. How often do we jump to read an article because the author promises he has the magic solution to many business problems? I stopped counting and stopped reading.
There are 10 to 15 possible channels for your business that can generate demand. Figure out what these channels are. Most likely, they will be intertwined. Here are some channels that worked for us:
- Blogging (content marketing)
- Paid social
- Social media (with all of its different channels)
- Exhibiting at conferences and tradeshows
- Speaking at conferences
- Webinars (producing and appearing at as a guest)
- Podcasts (producing and appearing at as a guest)
- Writing in magazines
Test each of these of channels for few months in a systematic manner. Set clear goals and see if you are able to generate positive ROI.
Numbers and goals matter a lot when testing a channel. God knows that there are some channels Khalid and I are in love with but we cannot track the ROI.
3. Do not get comfortable
I often kick myself about this. We got comfortable at some point in our business. As a result, we lost some great opportunities.
If you start a business, the work, marketing activities, growth potential – they all never end. If you met your objectives for the year, well push the envelope for the year after. Challenge yourself, your company, and your employees to always keep pushing and keep growing. Never be satisfied with what you have.
When you get to that oh I’m comfortable and satisfied point, know that your business potential will be greatly reduced.
After we had that lapse in judgement, we got our act together and never looked back. Certainly, you sometimes have to err in order to learn. Sometimes though, you can’t recover.
Our hope is you read this blog and don’t make the same mistakes. As they say: “wearing white after Labor Day is a mistake, invading Russia after Labor Day is a whole other mistake.”
4. Some business theories are just theories
I read nice sounding theory or best practice or strategy about business and try to implement it, then it fails.
It fails miserably.
Because some of these nice sounding theories are just…well, theories.
Content marketing is great; content marketing is dead
I worry every time I hear of a new way, a new strategy, a new theory on how to drive business success. It seems to me that my Facebook feed is filled with entrepreneurs who are trying to teach other entrepreneurs or marketers trying to teach other marketers how to succeed in some sort of marketing.
I am all for testing new ideas. But do it carefully to see if you are onto something useful or you should move on.
5. why I hate “Hire slow, fire fast”
One of the biggest challenges we have faced throughout our business is hiring good talent.
It isn’t easy.
The hire slow part comes naturally. And firing remains one of the worst experiences for any senior leadership at the company. We don’t like doing it. We establish bonds with our people and it is not easy to let go.
The way I’ve avoided hiring the wrong kind of person is by giving them an initial trial period of 1 – 3 months. The type of work we have and the training program we’ve established at our company allows us to easily identify whether or not the person will be a good fit.
Firing someone after 1 – 3 months isn’t as bad as someone who has remained with the company for 6+ months. Even the fellow employees and team members will be undeterred by losing the employee during that early period.
One of my worst experiences was hiring a marketing specialist who probably from month one I knew wasn’t a good fit. But she stayed. And she established strong bonds with all the employees. By the time I had determined she had to go, her exiting the company cause great distress to many of the team members. That takes time to get everyone on track, focused, and build the trust and confidence that you hope they can always have in the company.
6. Must have skills when hiring
Another must do when hiring is try and test the person before they come on board. We’ve identified some major skills we need. Some you can quite capture from the tasks you give like work ethic and attitude, but depending on how you position the task, it will give you an idea.
For one task we asked some usability experts to look at a webpage and provide us their analysis. We had 4 types of responses:
- The kind that apologized – not a good match
- The kind that wrote a couple of sentences in an email – not a good match
- The kind that at least created a word document and put a bit of effort – maybe
- The kind that went the extra mile and provided an entire analysis with an expert design with meticulous attention to detail – YES. HOLD ON TO THIS PERSON.
Unfortunately, finding the latter is the most difficult part. Nonetheless, there are diamonds in the rough that can be discovered (the maybes).
7. Marketers kill almost every channel they get into
Great. You’ve found your marketing method bullseye. What’s the next thing that most marketers do? They blog about their experience, share it on linkedin, facebook or some other forum.
What happens next?
Within an instance, this bullseye method that worked so well for them is replicated so many times it becomes obsolete.
Some things are meant to be shared right away. Hold on to your bullseye, gain the traction you need from it, then share it.
8. There is no easy button in business
Wouldn’t that be amazing. You know the red Staples “Easy” button we see on TV. If only our business activities and success were as easy as pressing a button. If you’re starting a business, it’s not easy. Know that before you begin. Be prepared for long hours and lots of work and heartache.
Yeah you look at who made it and maybe that make it seem easy. A college kid that drops out to create Facebook. Why can’t we all be so brilliant? Even for Mark Zucherberg, I’m sure he’d tell you it really wasn’t easy. There were many points where it felt impossible actually. That’s the reality of building and growing a business. That’s why you’ve really got to love what you do.
9. Learn how to keep your clients happy
Sometimes you think a process or product is so amazing, your customers or clients should be singing your praises. Well, you’ll learn early on, that you’ve gotta do a lot less boasting and a lot more listening. Their perspectives are critical to your success. Sometimes what they say may cause you to pivot your business entirely. I’ve heard that story many times. If that’s the case, and that’s the road to success, so be it!
10. Focus, Focus, Focus
Seems quite obvious. But when you’re running your business the amount of stress and tasks you have is usually quite overwhelming. That’s why having razor sharp focus on things that matter most will lead you to great success. You can focus on “the one thing,” set certain time for each task your working using the Pomodoro method, write up a task list with priorities, and the list goes on.
But what’s critical is not to focus on the little, non-business generating and growing activities. It’s easy to fall into this trap. Make sure whatever tasks you assign yourself, they’re the most meaningful thing you can be doing with your time.
11. You will NOT satisfy everyone
Your family is important. Cherish them. Spend time with them. I know owning a business can be taxing. My husband and I started our company together, and it really had an impact on the family. But they are your most important critics. Losing them will make everything you work so hard for worth nothing.
But in business, between partners, stakeholders or investors, clients, and your employees, you have known that not everyone will always be happy about what you decide. But in the end, you’ve gotta roll with the punches and do what’s best for the business.
12. don’t preach to the choir
The marketing industry has a ton of experts and ton of conferences. We worked really hard to establish our name and to be recognized as leading conversion rate optimization experts. And even within forums and activities we try and keep our name fresh and relevant. However, you want to make sure that this activity doesn’t eat up all your time. In the end, all we are really doing is preaching to the choir.
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