5 Courageous Steps to Setting Up Your Business for Success

Sea Shell Arrow - by Ebelien

No one taught me how to run a business.

In fact, twenty odd years ago, when I left my last ‘real job’, I guarantee you I wasn’t thinking about being an entrepreneur. I was really just trying to figure out how to be home with my kids, and still pay the bills.

I had no idea what I was doing.

I’m a licensed clinical social worker. There were no business classes in graduate school, and I didn’t know anyone in my field who ran their own business. There were no mentors, no guides. There were no coaches or mastermind groups back then.

In fact, if anything, “private practice”, as a concept, was that vaguely elite (and therefore, to be snubbed) thing that, you know, psychologists did. Heaven forbid that a social worker would have that as her goal.

No. We were here to make the world a better place, after all. And somehow, that translated into an unspoken but widely held limiting belief that we were therefore not supposed to make any money.

So, if you made the leap to the world of private practice, girlfriend, you were on your own. You had to figure this thing out for yourself.

Not knowing what else to do, I rented a space. Read a few books. Hung out a shingle. Added my name to a few insurance panels. Bought a line in the Yellow Pages. Did a little networking, painful as that was for an introvert like me. And waited.

It was p-r-e-t-t-y slow going at first.

Eventually, I did get a referral – one client – and that was it for the entire first year. After that, things began to pick up, and I started to feel like I might actually make it. With messy imprecision I moved forward in fits and starts, gaining and losing clients, making and losing money.

Slowly but surely I moved through the fog, a little at a time.

And oh my goodness the mistakes I made.
When I look back, I’m astonished that I made any money at all. But I did. And over time, I got better at it. I picked up a saying somewhere along the way that says “When your confidence goes up, your competence goes up too.”  There’s truth in that.

As I became a better therapist,
I became a better business owner as well.

And vice versa.

Many of my coaching clients are right at that same place. They work too much for too little. Income is all over the map. They’re not clear at all about who they are and what they bring to the table. Marketing is sporadic at best and non-existent at worst.

But they, too, are learning.

There’s a lot to becoming CEO of our little corner of the world. I teach those lessons to my private clients and through the Success Circle coaching club.

But I want you to know this now, so you won’t make the mistakes I made just starting out.

Because I want you to make it. And enjoy the journey.

Start here.

1. Be the best at what you do.

No one ever says this.

But if you want to be successful in your business in an authentic and powerful way that serves your clients as well as your soul, you first – more than anything – must be good at what you do.

Very good.

So get the training and experience that you need first before setting up your own shop.

2. Get clear about who you want to serve.

At first, I’d work with anyone who’d work with me. That meant I agreed to see folks whether or not we were a good fit and whether or not my skill set truly matched their needs.

That wasn’t really good for me, or them.

Get clear on who you serve best, and who you want to work with, even if it changes over time.

Years ago, I was well known for my work with teens. As I’ve gotten clearer, that’s evolved into my work as an advocate for women, because that’s where my experience, and my passions, have led.

Who is your ideal – and I mean ideal – client?

3. Decide what services (or products) you will — and won’t — provide.

You know what you’re good at, and what you love to do. Deciding up front what services you will, and won’t, provide, enables you to create space to do only what you love.

That creates energy. And energy leads to income. :))

One of the first things I have my clients do is make a list of other resources they can refer to when they need to say no to a potential customer.

Most of you feel guilty saying no to someone who may not be a good fit for you, no matter the reason. But you can still help by having other options in mind that you know are right for them.

They’ll appreciate you for looking out for their best interests. Isn’t that a win/win?

4. Set firm boundaries around your time.

I’ll never forget the day I walked to my office to meet a fellow who was determined to make it in for his appointment – in an ice storm. He tried, bless his heart.

I made it in. He didn’t.

Then there was the time I agreed to meet someone who ‘really needed to come in’ on Memorial Day.

I went to the office. She went to the lake.

In the early days, I twisted myself to be as accommodating as I could.

On the other hand, a colleague of mine ended her day at 2:00 p.m. so she could be home in time to greet her kids after school.

We both had plenty of clients – but I’ll bet she wasn’t nearly as tired as I was.

Decide what your hours are. Set your boundaries. Your clients will adapt.

And you’ll get to go to the lake, too. :))

5. Learn how to handle numbers.

At first, I had no idea how to file an insurance claim, and no one told me that it took four months to get paid when I did. I didn’t know how to manage an irregular income, or how to be ready for quarterly taxes.

I had a pitiful system for tracking accounts and was inconsistent at sending out statements. There were more times than I want to admit when clients owed me thousands of dollars, but didn’t know it.

And even when they did, I felt so guilty for letting them reach that point that I didn’t press them for payment.

Get a system in place early on for tracking income and expenses. Same thing goes for managing your invoices.

If this isn’t your strength, hire someone to do it. (And if you need help, I can teach you how to do that, too.)

Treat your money (that is, your business) with respect.

And in so doing, you are treating your clients, and your Self, with respect, as well. And that is how a Courageous Woman sets up her business for success.

Now – what do you think?

Do you have a good story about a lesson you’ve learned along the way? Talk to me in the comments below.

Photo Credit: by Ebelien on Flickr

Courage, also called Malala, and You

Malala 2 - Southbank CentreShe’s only 17.

And just two short years ago this month, she was shot in the head at point blank range by a Taliban fighter as she rode the bus home from school.

She was shot because she believed girls had a right to an education. And she dared to say that. Out loud – and often. At town halls. In newspapers. On the radio.

Anywhere anyone would listen.

And she said that even as schools were being destroyed around her country; even as women and girls were not allowed to leave their homes; even as men were being shot in the town square.

And as I’ve learned more, all I can think is that she must have some powerful angels; that she must keep them very, very busy.

And that her mama probably loses a lot of sleep.

This week, it was announced that 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai will be a joint recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with the equally brave and Ghandi-like children’s rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi.

“...for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education…

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee writes:

Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has…shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations.  This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances.  Through her heroic struggle she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education.“  

When a friend gave me the book, “I Am Malala” last year, I had no idea what an amazing young woman this was. I vaguely remembered hearing some news report about a teenaged girl being shot by the Taliban, but I couldn’t have told you who she was.

In fact, I – wrongly – thought that the unknown girl had died. I thought that the shooting was random. Just another sad story about tragedy being wrought by a group of men most of us can’t begin to understand.

I had no idea who Malala was.

Apparently, neither did the Taliban. Not really. :)

Because Malala’s voice is stronger now than ever. And her audience is no longer limited to the small valley where she was born, or even to her home country.

Today, she speaks to the world.

Malala is a young girl born into a traditional Islamic family, in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. Since the age of 11, she has been an outspoken advocate for girls, arguing for their simple right to attend school.

Her family is traditional in the sense that they are moderate, practicing members of the Islamic faith.

They are traditional in their general observance of gender roles. Her mother, as I recall, was extremely reluctant to be photographed when Malala began to rise as a public figure. That was something women just ‘didn’t do’ in her culture.

But as I learned more about this amazing girl, I came to understand that behind her stood a father who himself believed in the right to education for all children. He, too, spoke out in the face of danger, and it is his example that Malala follows.

Strong fathers grow strong girls, it seems.

But I digress.

In her words:

You know that there was Talibanization in my valley. And because of that no one could go to school. And at that time I stood up for my rights and I said that I would speak up. I did not wait for someone else. I did not wait for someone else. I really had two options.

One was not to speak, and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. And I chose the second one…because I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn and be who I can be in my future…

She wanted to learn so she could Be Who She Can Be in her future.

Malala Yousafzai is Courage in action. Girl with a book, ITU PIcturesBut this isn’t just about Malala.

This is about you, too.

I know good and well that you, like me, stand in awe of the incredible young woman she is. And I know just as well that you think she has something you do not.

I beg to differ.

Throughout my adult life, women have come to me with their own incredible stories. Friends. Family. Clients. Co-workers. In every circle of my life, you’ve come. You’ve told me about story after story about things that you’ve done that are just as amazing. Just as powerful. Just as brave.

Sad stories. Strong stories. Funny stories. Powerful stories. Stories of hardships handled and losses grieved. Stories of hurdles cleared and battles won. Stories of decisions made and Big Dreams reached.

I am not comparing our lives to Malala’s. I do not pretend to know what it would be like to live in the world that she lived in.

But I am comparing your Courage to her’s, because I know what it takes for each of you to face what you face, to do what you do, to Be Who You Can Be, too.

I feel it in the hearts of the clients I counsel, as they make peace with their past and step proudly into their future.

I see it in the the eyes of my wise women friends when they pass their hard-earned wisdom on to me.

I hear it in the words of my family when they tell tales about burdens born with grace and good humor.

I see it in the business owners I coach when they finally step up and into the role of leader in their work.

You, too, are Courage in action.

And if you listen, Malala does not shy away from what she has done. She owns it. Acknowledges it. Celebrates it. And uses it.

And that one adolescent girl is having an impact on the whole world.

How might the world be different, if you and I did the same?


Photo Credits:  Southbank Centre and ITU Pictures on Flickr

Why you need to make peace with (making) money

Making MoneyThere was a time when I wouldn’t even touch money.

Back when I worked at a top notch long term treatment facility for really troubled teens, the last thing I thought about was how long their insurance supported their care. The work we did was saving lives; that’s all that mattered to me.

So when my boss said to make sure my team of therapists were watching the insurance benefits, that really irritated me, and I’d puff right up with righteous indignation.

Why would I care about that? That was someone else’s job. All I cared about was helping those kids.

So of course, when I started my own practice, I took that attitude with me.

Suddenly, “that money stuff” was staring me in the face.

Suddenly, there was no paycheck; no billing department. There was no one else who would make sure the bills got paid and the lights stayed on.

Suddenly, I was the one who had to watch insurance, create income and collect actual checks (gasp!) from the people I wanted to help.

I was immediately conflicted.

I had to get paid, but I didn’t want clients to think that all I cared about was the money. And I really didn’t want “that money stuff” messing up my relationship with them.

(Did you catch the assumptions there?)

I was so troubled by this that my husband tried to help. He built a little wooden box with nice brass hinges and a little slot cut into the slanted, locked, top. He hung that little box on a wall by the exit door at my office, so I could ask people to just drop their checks in on the way out.

What a great solution! I could keep money completely out of the room, and out of my client relationships. (I thought.)

At the end of the day, of course, I’d run to see if anyone paid me for their visit that day.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much there. A few co-pays made their way in, but often they were forgotten (or ignored).  And insurance payments, if they came at all, were four to six months down the road after a session. So, it didn’t take long before I was in trouble.

I didn’t want to touch money.
So, naturally, there wasn’t much to touch.

Boy did I have a lot to learn.

My first lesson: profit is not a bad word.

And this isn’t volunteer work.

Don’t misunderstand me. Everyone has something to contribute, and I’m a huge believer in the power and good that comes through volunteer work.

But your business is not volunteer work. It’s your livelihood, your income, your way of supporting yourself and your family. The profit you take home, after covering your costs, is what you live on.

This is a good thing. Remember?

As my coach loves to say, your purpose is to make the world a better place. The purpose of your business is to make money.

If I didn’t learn to handle the money side of my practice, my family would pay the price. At the very least, I owed it to them to get comfortable with the idea of profit, and make my peace with money.

My second lesson: money is a “therapeutic issue”.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up a saying: “It’s all grist for the mill.”

Now, depending on where you’re from, that phrase may not make a whole lot of sense to you. :)

But essentially, it means that everything a client brings into the room, everything that comes up in our mutual, collaborative, working relationship, matters. And it matters often in ways that may not be so obvious at first.

That includes interactions around payment.

So I learned, eventually, that clients needed to talk about money. Goodness knows they worried about it, whether we talked about it or not. Pretending it wasn’t there did them a disservice, and made my discomfort their discomfort. That was the last thing I wanted to do!

How they felt about money, and managed it, taught me more about them as people. That, in turn, made me a better therapist.

So, in the language of my industry, money was a therapeutic issue. And I owed it to my clients to discuss it easily, and make peace with it.

My third lesson: money is an exchange of value.

It’s taken me a long, long time to learn this lesson. But here’s what I (finally) know.

As a consumer, what I pay says something about how much I value a product or service.  If it doesn’t really matter, I won’t spend much time thinking about the price. I’ll just get the cheapest widget I can find and move on.

But when it’s really important to me, for whatever reason, I’m happy to pay more, sometimes much more, and I don’t resent it. Far from it.

I value it.

In other words, I may pick up a cheap bar of soap or brand of paper towels, but I don’t necessarily want the cheapest doctor, business coach, or financial adviser.

Do you?

Now think of that as a business owner.

If you believe that what you offer to the world is important, needed, and of the highest quality, then being paid well for what you do feels right, is right.

But if you accept less than what you know your work is worth – what does that say to the world about your business?

(Better yet, what are you saying to your Self?)

Money is a mutual exchange of energy tied to worth as we both see it. If you don’t believe in the value of what  you do, why would anyone else?

Amazingly, in the end, I owed it to my Self to make peace with money, as well.

I never saw that one coming.

Why this matters to you.

Whether you’re a business owner, or a dedicated employee, you, too, owe it to yourself to get comfortable with money.

As an employee, asking for a raise isn’t being greedy. Negotiating for a salary that truly reflects the value you bring to the table, honors your worth in the workplace.

And as an entrepreneur, being paid what you’re worth isn’t being greedy. It’s telling the world that you recognize, and honor, your value.

Making peace means that it’s okay to make a profit. It’s okay to be paid well. It’s okay to be worth it.

Because you are…

…worth it.

Photo Credit: by 401(K) 2012 on Flickr

How I found myself in a most unlikely position…

I suppose some of you might be like this.

You set a goal.
You make a plan.
You implement the plan.
You reach the goal.
You set another goal.

 Nice and steady. Straight ahead. Unwavering. Always on target.

Yeah. Not me.

I set a goal.
I make a plan.
I implement the plan.
I hit a few curves in the road.
I find a new goal I like even better.
I make a new plan.
I stumble into a stop sign.
I take a detour.
I may or may not make it back to my plan.
I may or may not make a new plan.
I reach my goal.
Or change it to another goal entirely.

I keep moving forward.

It’s messy – and for some of you, this may sound completely crazy.

But it works.

On the Q&A call with my Small Business Success Circle this month, one of my clients talked about this.

“You’re proud of the way your career has evolved over time. You just exude that – and it’s so nice and light! I’ve always felt like I had to do things one way and keep doing them that way no matter what…”

So we talked about fear, and how so many women allow fear to hold us back in the way we run our lives, or our businesses. Fear of breaking some invisible, unspoken rule. Fear of disappointing others and whatever they expect of us. Fear of losing (too much) money. Fear of making a mistake or not getting something just right.

But “life is what happens while you’re making other plans,” as it says in an old John Lennon song.

And when we are willing to follow the curves and detours that come our way, we can find ourselves in some of the most unlikely – and interesting – places.

Sometimes, the discoveries we make are life-changing.

For instance, I never, ever, in a million years, expected to own a business. I used to feel so sorry for my business-major friends back when I was in college.

Marketing? Ugh.
Sales? Yuck.
Profit and loss? Ick.
Corporate structure? Shoot me now.

So after college, armed with degrees in psychology and social work, fascinated with the human condition and ready to contribute to the world, I built a career in helping people. I worked in agencies and hospitals. I moved quickly into management and sharpened my clinical skills, doing good work that was challenging, important and fulfilling.

I loved what I did. (Still do.)

Then, we brought home an 18 month old brown-eyed bundle of love, and I suddenly wanted to be home a lot more. I looked for a clinical job that would allow me to work part time, but there was nothing to be found.

So I took a detour.

And found myself in a most unlikely position. :)

More from desperation (or determination) than anything else, I started a private practice. It was my first experiment at running a business.

I did my research, of course, then I hung out a shingle, and waited. I started awkwardly asking for referrals. I learned, stumbled, learned some more. But according to everything I read, I was entirely the wrong kind of person to be doing this.

I was not terribly disciplined, or organized, or outgoing, or a self starter. I was an introvert who was quite happy to stay holed up in her office all day. I hated going to networking events. And I didn’t care about numbers at all. I didn’t even want to talk about money.

But some amazing things happened
on my way to becoming an entrepreneur. :)

  • I was “at cause” in my work.  If I made it, it was up to me. If I didn’t, that was up to me too. No matter what, in the end, the whole thing was my responsibility. Totally to my surprise, I discovered that I liked that.
  • I loved my clients. Turned out that those I didn’t love, didn’t love me either. :) That meant that eventually, I had entire days of working only with people I genuinely enjoyed, and knew I could help. I liked that.
  • My time was my own. If I wanted to take a day off for a field trip, I could. If I wanted to work on a holiday, I could do that too. I didn’t need anyone’s permission to change my hours or take a day off. I liked that. A lot.
  • I could try anything I wanted to try. When I wanted to try a support group for adolescent girls, I could. When I wanted to try a column for the paper, I could. When I wanted to start a networking luncheon for colleagues, I could. When something worked, I kept it up. When it didn’t, I tried something else. I liked that.
  • My income was up to me. My ability to earn an income – great or small, efficiently or inefficiently – was also up to me. Though I didn’t always feel like it, the truth was that the only income ceiling I had was limited by my imagination, creativity, persistence and willingness to try new ideas. I liked that too. :)

Over time, that practice evolved into the premier counseling service in my community, with a staff of ten, top-notch clinicians providing outstanding service to a wide range of folks on a whole host of issues. I’m proud of that.

And along the way, I grew too, as an individual, and as an entrepreneur. I’m proud of that, too.   Curves Ahead - Sherry Ezhuthachan

Christine Kane says that the best thing about being a business owner is not running a business itself, but about who you become as that process unfolds.

I agree.

Because I’ve become not only a business owner, but someone who loves running a business, and being a business owner.

How about you? Talk to me in the comments below. Who do you want to become, as your own life, and business, unfolds?

Photo Credits: Horia Varlan, Theory of Sherry E., Flickr