Starting from scratch
When I started my sole trader business in Darwin 14 years ago, I had a computer, the internet, a mobile phone and a spare room that could be set up as an office. I also had the thing I intended to sell - scribing, writing and editing skills - and a small client base of departmental managers around town for whom I'd already scribed some reports. However, I had no experience or training in administration, book-keeping, marketing or business planning.
As soon as I registered my business, I found myself managing back-to-back bookings scribing reports in offices around Darwin and Casuarina and working 12-hour days. In between bookings, I learned about filing and book-keeping; developed templates for quotes and invoices; and attended training sessions about tax, marketing and anything else the Business Enterprise Centre or NT Department of Business reckoned a small business owner/operator should know.
I am a wordsmith, not a numbers person and I found it really hard to get my head around quoting, invoicing and book-keeping, but I slowly got better at it. I kept hearing from the powers that be that you should try to 'grow' your business into something big but I kept my business small and personal. In my view, keeping my costs down, producing a really high standard of work, and having satisfied customers referring new clients to me all the time, has been key to a happy, small but successful business.
My business started as a mixture of online and onsite services, moving to a fully online business about 10 years ago. I am still developing my skills, learning to manage my business better and always improving my online shopfront (website and social media).
The importance of mentors
Mentors and people who give you moral support are really important when you are starting up a business. I was given tremendous moral support by my partner (who is now my husband) which gave me the confidence I needed to take the plunge into small business. My main informal business mentor was Richard Powell who ran a small business in Darwin called Wordpower. Richard not only gave me information, guidance and IT support during those first few years; he is still the person I go to when I need advice about an information technology or business issue. Other informal mentors were several senior managers of government departments who by their example taught me how to deal with public servants and business managers in a professional manner, and helped me develop my interpersonal skills and confidence. These mentors and supporters helped my business and I to grow into what we are today.
What have I learned?
What I've learned over the years is that when it comes to managing a business, whilst it's good to be original and have your own ideas there is no need to re-invent the wheel. If you don't know something, seek advice and information from someone who does. If you can, find a mentor and make sure you have supportive people around you to lean on when things get tough. If you need a new skill or knowledge or piece of equipment that will help you manage your business better, or improve what you are selling, buy the best product available. In the long run, it will end up saving you time and money.
What am I still learning? My main challenge over the years has been how to balance my work and personal life. It's easy to give lots of importance to my work but especially when things get busy at work, my personal life and that warmer, fuzzier world where deadlines are less important gets relegated to the edges and sometimes left behind. The work world is about fast thinking, multi-tasking and producing quality work to deadlines whereas the personal world is about being kind, feeling and relaxed and not enforcing timelines unless absolutely necessary. I've got a few tools that help me switch my brain quickly from one world to the other but I'm still learning to do this better and finding a good balance between those two sides of life is a work in progress.
Work-life balance is especially difficult to maintain when you are managing a business and perhaps even more so if, like me, your office is based within your home where you have a family to keep fed and clothed. Over the years I've developed some tools to keep my work and personal lives as separate as possible and this has helped me operate better in both worlds. If you're interested in hearing more about these work-life balance issues, or if you have anything to add in this regard, please let me know in the comments section below, and I'll explore those issues in a future article.
This article is based on my own experiences since starting On Time Typing as a small (sole trader) online/onsite scribing business in 2002 which has evolved into an online transcription, scribing, writing, editing and proofreading business.
Stay posted for future articles about starting up and managing an online business.