Start Where You Are + Know Where You Want To Be

I had a call with a new client yesterday. A designer referred her my way for a conversation. They were planning to work on the client’s visual branding, but since she was still in the early stages of her business, she wasn’t in need of a custom website.

As I listened to the client share her story with me, I was struck by two things: her story needs to be shared and her mission will help give voice to so many people. But there was also something else I discovered along the way: this was a passion project for her. She didn’t have plans for how she would bring money in or what services she would sell. She only knew that she needed to do this.

In this situation, every business owner has a choice. You can make a sale or be a guide.

I used to hate sales calls. I convinced myself a long time ago I would never be good at sales because I wasn’t an extrovert. The advantage I did have and what got me through so many of those first calls was that I was an introvert who loves people. But even more than that — I love¬†helping people. My first business coach taught me how to reframe a sales call to something new: a service call. For the last few years, my job simply has been to serve people, to guide them, to show them what’s possible and help them make the right decisions.

And so I told this potential client something unexpected. I told her not to invest in a custom website or even one of our smaller website packages. Instead, I advised her to start creating content and use YouTube to circulate it. If she really wanted some sort of landing page site, I told her, we could help her set up a simple website with a homepage and blog. But that’s all she really needed to get started. Nothing fancy. No big investments.

The most important thing is that she create. She doesn’t need a website to do that, and I wouldn’t want her to be pulled away from creating by the website process.

Maybe in six months she’ll need a fancier site. Maybe it’ll be a year or two. She understands the work she’ll do will have an impact and it will need a container. But right now, I did my best to reminder her where she is and what’s most critical to her future success: not the website we could build together, but her doing the work she is so passionate about and ready to give to the world.

The Right Foundation

I met a friend for dinner last night. She and I have known each other a long time — pre both of our business days, when blogging was still in its infancy and we debated starting up a fashion blog together (in my very early days of playing with code). A few months ago, she referred a client to me, one she was doing some PR and marketing work for.

This client seemed to have the right setup: great mission, funny videos, good connections. But as my team and I began working with them, we discovered some huge problems.

First, there was a lack of willingness to invest in strategy: they didn’t want to spend the time discussing options to ensure they chose the best for them, they just wanted that info for free without their involvement in the process.

Next, there was a hodgepodged website. When I first took a look, I discovered that each page operated off of 4 different page-builders. If their website were a car, it would have been duct-taped together and barely able to move. It’s hard to get where you want to go when you have such a handicap. Their website wouldn’t convert for them or help them make money because it was hard for users to navigate and barely worked.

Finally, there was the question of involvement. Entrepreneurs just want their business or project to work. Ideally, other people are making this happen so the entrepreneur can return to where they thrive, in the land of brainstorming and visioning and having ideas. That’s not a bad land to live in — it’s actually where I thrive as well — but sometimes, you need to leave it and hang out in the land of getting stuff done and making sure systems are implemented. Not our favorite place, but really necessary to the long-term viability of your business or passion project.

As a business owner, you can’t abdicate the business once you have the idea. You are responsible for building its foundation, its systems, its processes so it can thrive (and you can thrive in turn).

So what then is the right foundation for a business?

  1. Vision. You have to know who you are as a business, who you’re helping, and what your big picture mission is. You must be able to sense what growth looks like.
  2. Team. It may start out as a solo-endeavor, but in time, you’re going to have to hire and collect the right team members. These may not be employees (they may); they can be contractors or anyone else who helps your business run, from virtual assistants to PR specialists to a website support team.
  3. Product. Whether it’s a physical item or a service, you need to know what you sell. Know the features (what it includes) and the benefits (how it changes people’s lives).
  4. Experience. No one is buying your product or service for that thing directly. They’re buying their experienced and they’re buying their evolution — who they will become in the process of using your product or service. Craft the experience and journey for them.
  5. Presence. You need a website that’s clear, engaging, and easy to navigate. And you need to utilize social media to create connection points for people to find you. It’s also really helpful to show up in the real physical world too, at meetings and conferences and events (not to mention your internal team meetings and client calls) — there’s a special impact you make with your presence.
  6. Positioning. You need to be well-branded, both with regards to your messaging (what makes you special and stand out) and your visual branding. The visual branding creates coherency; it builds a level of trust and recognition. Your messaging is what truly sets you apart from competition. The marketplace is saturated — it’s hard to avoid that — but no one will have your unique story or your unique message.
  7. Systems. While systems may be the least sexy part of business to an entrepreneur who loves ideas, they’re also what make the business run. When you have good systems and standards associated with those systems, you can delegate and the business will learn to operate without you, while still staying true to the spirit you gave it.

There are other pieces a business needs to operate, but these seven are my core and the ones I return to repeatedly as I evaluate where my business is and how it needs to grow. I often stop and look deeper into one of these pieces to elevate the business to its next level.


You Control the Conversation

As owner of a business, you often have to have difficult conversations with people. Sometimes it’s a team member whose work has fallen short lately. Sometimes it’s a client who has written in to express their dissatisfaction with how a project is going. Sometimes it’s a customer who bought a product that has broken or failed them unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s an employee who has violated your trust and put your business at financial risk.

These conversations can turn your stomach. Ideally, you’d never have to have them or avoid them completely, and most of your thoughts leading up to the moment involve scenarios of what could go wrong rather than what could go right.

But this is what I’ve learned from having these conversations and being in these different positions (more than once in the past): you control the conversation.

That doesn’t mean you speak the whole time or dominate the room. Rather, you can bring energy and presence that can shift the situation from dreaded to enlightening. Here’s how to start:

1. Arrive with your learning spirit. Something may have gone wrong. That doesn’t mean you need to beat yourself or someone else up for the mistake. Failures are only failures if you learn nothing from them and they don’t move you forward.

2. Listen. Whether it’s a client or customer that needs to vent, or a team member that needs to share what happened, take the time to ask questions and really listen to the response. We all want to be seen and heard, and taking this time to gather information can break down false beliefs you may have constructed leading up to the meeting or call.

3. Admit where you’re wrong. Even when I had an employee indirectly steal money from me, I was still able to admit where I wasn’t clear or boundaried enough. I saw what I needed to change going forward to prevent this situation from happening again. If you can own your part of the situation, you can let it go.

4. Propose ways forward. I never arrive in a meeting with a preconceived notion of how to solve a potential problem. Rather through listening, I discover different paths forward and share those possibilities, so together we can decide on how best to take the next steps. Sometimes, that means ending a relationship but most often it means a deepening of the relationship and new standards and expectations being set so we can be successful together.

5. Continue to check in. With yourself most importantly as you need to ask yourself how changes are working for you and if further modifications may be needed. But you also should be checking in regularly with your team or following up with your client or customer. This helps ensure lessons you’ve learned really take hold and brings the situation to a full and satisfying resolution or continues to strengthen the relationship.

This is the start of the shift.

Falling Apart to Fall in Love

Sometimes everything needs to fall apart to be put back together in the right way.

That’s what I’ve been telling myself this past week.

Most people think I totally have it put together: successful business, living in a great area, new podcast, great friends. Honestly, I don’t know what “together” is sometimes. Here’s what I do know:

The past three months have been simultaneously both difficult and glorious. I’ve pushed myself into uncomfortable places and lived through some of my worst-case scenarios, and been made better for them. I launched a new podcast with a dear friend that I’m incredibly excited about. I’ve connected with new people and discovered that my tribe is even larger than I’ve previously known. I had a sponsor for a new project within 48 hours of starting to work on it. I fell in love unexpectedly and fully and deeply with an incredible guy.

This week’s challenge: I learned that my business has been operating at a loss for the last three months and may not survive if changes aren’t made.

And the changes aren’t easy ones. I’m starting by cutting my salary — I feel as owner and leader it’s my responsibility to take the first hit. But there are still difficult decisions to be made and I’m working through figuring out how to take care of my team while ensuring that this business is sustainable for all of us.

Truthfully, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this. I’ve stood on stage and gushed about how amazing my business has been with all its growth. “Successful” has become part of how I’ve defined myself in the past few years.

But somehow along the way I’ve lost hold on what success really means. It’s not more money every year, or more employees, or more clients. It’s care and love and boundaries on my time so I’m not working 90 hour weeks. I’ve made some decisions that haven’t been the best ones, tried some experiments that have failed, been taken advantage of by people who only sought personal gain. And now it’s time to remember all the good I’ve done and that has come of this to reset it and start fresh again.

So while I was a little heartbroken to get the news this week, I’m choosing to see this as an opportunity to change things,¬†rediscover the magic, and fall in love with this business again.

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Jane Reaction

(logo and original branding) is a graphic design and art director who works with with small businesses and creative entrepreneurs, creating cohesive and interesting brands and websites.

Carrie Coleman

(photography) is a wedding photographer, whose goal is to capture the visual expression of a couple's love through timeless, organic images. She is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.