A Few Collected Wisdoms (updated for 2022)

A few things I’ve learned

I get asked regularly to give advice on setting up a new business, changing career and so on, having been through the process and, to all outward appearances, made a decent fist of it. I’ve survived for 14 years on my own now. You can get the basic advice on the mechanics (getting an accountant, bank account, registering at companies house etc) from anywhere, and I am the last person you’d go to for advice on personal admin – but that’s the easy part. The hard part is knowing what will work and what won’t, what will help and what will be a waste of time, how to keep thinking clearly and so on. So, to that end, I have decided to post a collection of my own personal experiences that are a product of 20 years trial, error and, in some cases, bitter experience. They are in no particular order.

I do this so you don’t have to

  1. Don’t sound like a snake oil salesman

Be careful with the copy on your website and in your other communications. Try to avoid corny cliches and general boasts about your expertise. Anybody can say things like “our consultants are seasoned industry experts with unrivaled experience” or whatever. ANYBODY can make that same boast.  They’ll say if if it’s true, and also if it isn’t true. That’s why it’s a waste of space on your website. It could do more harm than good and at best will just get tuned out by visitors as white noise. Try to say things that other people can’t say and qualify them with specific examples. Why do you think I write these blogs, and the occasional article for the CQI and IOSH? It builds trust, hopefully adds some value to the reader (free of charge) and gives specific examples. I use case studies and (where I have permission) name names. The bottom line with that being “judge me by the company that I keep”.

Oh, and always (try to) tell the truth. It’s always better in the long run. A good liar also needs a good memory.

2. Writing in your own voice

People that have met me sometimes say that when they read my blogs, emails and even my training course notes, they can hear the words coming out of my mouth. I’ve somehow learned to write the way that I speak. It’s a way of writing that is consistent with the way I am in person. There are a couple of advantages in doing this. First, it stops your material reading like you’ve copied and pasted it. Second, people like consistency, people trust consistency. I’m not a natural writer and it took me a while to find a style of writing that I could actually make work. I don’t use a lot of adjectives and my writing isn’t stylish or flashy, I’m just not good enough with vocabulary to do that. I write in short sentences and I try NEVER to use a word I wouldn’t use in everyday speech.

Ask somebody else to read something back before you post it to your website.

3. Never underestimate the value in being taught a harsh lesson

You will make mistakes. Sometimes painful, embarrassing and expensive ones. I would never be so patronising as to suggest that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger –  that is patently not true – but there is usually something to salvage from a wreck. Don’t dwell too long on the damage because it’s already done. Try to work out what the lesson is and learn from it. There is usually something you can take away from it.

I once wasted 4 days of my life and also some money on a an ultimately futile fishing expedition to Doha, but I did learn a couple of things and acquired a couple of anecdotes for my lectures. So, every cloud …

I really do wish I could have gone through life learning lessons without all the collateral damge that spectacular cock ups bring with them, but I do learn, and I tend not to make the same mistake twice.

If your mistakes hurt, that’s a good thing. It means you actually care

4. Do favours freely, with some limits …

There are massive advantages to be gained from being the good guy – it’s a useful reputation to earn (and you do have to EARN it). Putting some goodwill in the bank is like any investment, values can go up as well as down. Actually its quite not as bad as that, I can’t remember actually being harmed by trying to do someone a favour. Some people return the favour, but some don’t. Some people don’t return the favour just because they don’t ever get the opportunity to. Don’t use the occasional apparent lack of gratitude as a reason to stop doing favours. It is rare to encounter ingratitude, but odd times you might get taken advantage of. I just see that as acceptable collateral damage and no reason to stop being kind. Sometimes people will ask a lot of you, and ask then ask again. But most people will realise when they are asking a lot and will be a bit embarrassed about it, so they’ll only do it as a last resort. Genuine people will tend not to ask then ask and ask again. People that do that are invariably going to take a lot more than they are ever going to give, and don’t care one bit that they are asking a lot of you. So put some limits on your goodwill. There has to be a limit, because sooner or later you’ll have to get back to doing some work that gets you paid.

5. You get more work from people you know than from people you don’t

I used to put a lot of time, effort and money into search engine optimisation (SEO). Whilst being high on google rankings is an advantage, it isn’t everything. Remember that customers that use google will usually be relatively uninformed and often price sensitive. There are customers for whom confidence that you can do a good job is more important than price. Think about what you need to do to develop that trust and customer confidence (see point 1 above). The last 2 years, for example, I think I have worked exclusively on referrals. It’s a slow burn and it takes some time to get there, though. Linkedin is a very useful tool and resource IF YOU USE IT PROPERLY. Don’t use it like Facebook and mute any of your connections that do. There’s some good quality intel gets passed around on that platform, but you might well miss it if you allow your timeline to get polluted with white noise such as word puzzles and people encouraging you to “like if you agree” with some shite or other.

6. Never bet more than you can afford to lose

Trial and error is an unavoidable part of life for start ups. Differentiating yourself will involve an element of risk taking. It irritates me when I hear people describing a failure in a trial and error process as a “mistake”. These people clearly have never been through the process, but it’s 2020 and everyone is suddenly an expert in risk management. The most useful tip I can pass on in this regard is the above. Know what your worst case scenario is, and work out if it is tolerable. If it isn’t, then think very, very carefully. Not being able to afford anything going wrong is a bad place to be.

7. “Never Give Up” …. and other business cliches to avoid

This has to be the worst piece of advice I see paraded around Linkedin, often accepted unchallenged as sage wisdom. IT IS REALLY BAD ADVICE. Knowing when to cut your losses, stop throwing good money after bad and how to jump off a one-way train to oblivion are a far better set of principles to adopt. You WILL make bad decisions and choices, and stubbornly trying to get a good outcome from a bad decision rarely ends well. Ignore the smug (and usually completely made up) rags to riches parables that get posted up on Linkedin, where some soppy minded sociopath claims to have “followed his dream” to eventually become a squillionaire or something. For every one of those, there are twenty tales that are never written about people that bankrupt themselves for not knowing when or how to get out.

When I first set up Capable People and needed a bank account, the bank asked for a business plan. At the time I didn’t see a lot of point because it was based around so many unknowns, but I cobbled one up anyway and they seemed happy with it. It is only recently I’ve started to understand their point. The bank was just trying to establish whether I knew what I was getting into. Did I really understand my start up and running costs? Did I understand my revenue streams? Did I appreciate how much time, money and effort was needed to generate enough sales to even cover my costs? Did I understand the likely lag between doing work and getting paid?

I can remember a couple of times in the past when I’ve had conversations with acquaintances and they’ve talked with some enthusiasm about setting up some business or other, and all the while I’ve been thinking “Don’t. Don’t. Mate, don’t. FOR THE SAKE OF YOUR FAMILY PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS”. Usually because they’ve underestimated costs and overetimated sales, or the ease with which sales can be achieved. Their whole business model is based on an entirely improbable Field of Dreams premise. If you build it they generally won’t just come.

8. and finally, a bit more about costs …

Start ups can be very fragile entities. Chances are you will spend money before you will make money, and you want to get into self sufficiency as quickly as you can. The problem is that there will be costs, so be careful not to live like a millionaire before you are one. In year one, some things are more important than others, so prioritise.

If you have any of your own to add, please post them as a comment. If you disagree, feel free to comment, after all this is written purely from my own perspective, but I do hope it will have some value to some people.

Have a Happy 2022. I see opportunities in them thar hills …

Shaun Sayers

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