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Four lessons from four years running a small business

By June 15, 2021 Stories

People often ask me, “what’s it like running a business”? My answer for the past four years is always the same – it’s hard.

It’s both the hardest and most rewarding work I’ve ever done, and the most analogous situation I’ve found to it has been mothering a child.

Despite what it might look like from the outside, the hours are long and the praise short, but the good days far outweigh the hard ones.

Since Media Mortar turned four this April, I wanted to share four of my biggest learnings in running it, because we’ve come a long way since I wrote this post two years ago.

Whether you’re in the small business trenches already or are thinking of starting your own business, sink your teeth into my biggest learnings so far.

1. Hire for attitude not aptitude

In small business, attitude is everything because there is no place for it to hide.

Bad moods, fatigue, frustrations are not diluted by the other 150 people in the office, instead, they’re as contagious as the flu to a small team where a person’s energy is everything.

In hiring for our team, I’m proud to say we’ve only got it wrong once. I hired the wrong attitude by favouring aptitude and it didn’t end well.

When you hire with company values (which let’s be honest, in a small business are usually the owner’s values), you’ll end up with a team that’s excited to do their work.

It’s always been my view that you can teach skills, but you can’t teach a personality – and if I’m going to spend more time at work than I do at home, I damn well want my team to light me up and inspire me.

To hire for attitude, I recommend personality testing your new-hires and going deep down the referee-check rabbit hole.

2. Treat your employees how you’d like your customers treated

Richard Branson famously said ‘the way you treat your employees is the way they treat your customers’ and as usual, he’s spot on.

I always endeavour to give my employees the things that made a difference to me when I was an employee – birthday cakes, work anniversary presents and bonuses you don’t have to ask for.

For most of my career, a simple thank you from a senior level of management would have sufficed, let alone the bright shiny stuff.

What I’ve seen firsthand is when you treat your team right, they mirror that behaviour to your customers.

I’ve found that our client’s birthdays are remembered, their wins become our wins and there’s a more collegiate relationship between our agency and the client than you’d normally find.

3. Set boundaries as the owner but know when it’s OK to cross them

As a small business owner it’s easy to work 24/7. In fact, until I had my beautiful daughter Penny, I probably would have continued happily burning the midnight oil.

In fact, the first time I ever put an out of office on since opening the business was to go into the labour ward and I turned it off two weeks after her birth.

As a small business owner, it’s important to know your boundaries and police them or you’ll fall into the business burnout that so many self-starters trap themselves into.

A simple google of ‘business-owner fatigue’ reveals over 32 million war stories aka search results with a similar tale.

It’s therefore SO important to know your limits and stick to them. If you don’t want to be working on weekends, DON’T. If you want to log off at 3pm, DO IT.

But just as important as holding boundaries is knowing when to fold them. The boundaries you make for yourself can also be the boundary to your business’ growth.

After all, when you don’t do the work, there’s always someone else willing to do it. Don’t ever forget that.

4. Read red flags and listen to your intuition

I’ll let you in on a secret – of all the clients who didn’t work out with us, we saw them coming.

As you get better in business, you can spot a red-flag-client a mile off. In fact, client red flags are hardly discrete.

“We don’t have money to pay you, but want you to guarantee all your results” is as direct as they come.

Picture red-flag-clients more like a grenade whose ring-pull starts counting down to detonation from the first phone call.

And yet, from time to time, we make the mistake of letting these clients through the doors when logic gets in the way.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it’s to quieten down the logical noise – “we need the work” … “it’s not a long job” … “they’d be great for the portfolio” – and listen to your intuition when a client doesn’t feel like the right fit for the business.

What are the common red flags we see in our industry? You’ll find most of them in our 5 reasons to not outsource your social media management post.

And if you’re after some light reading, check out our social media post where we asked our audience what red flags exist with clients in their industry. Go on, have a chuckle @mediamortar on Facebook and Instagram.


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By Hannah Statham

Hannah Statham is The Boss at Media Mortar. She’s a heavy weight wordsmith, punching with puns, analogies and metaphors that leave readers wanting more. When she’s not refreshing her Instagram feed, you’ll find Hannah searching for the best gnocchi in town.