My business just celebrated its seventh anniversary.
Unlike some of my peers, I came into firm leadership in a roundabout way. As a military spouse, I gave up steady, in-office employment to keep my family together when we moved to a rural community in 2015. I became a busy freelancer with a fully remote business focused on building long-term movements.
There was some real romance in being a solo entrepreneur, but when I was pregnant with my first child, I realized that if I was going to take the same kind of paid family leave I was helping my clients advocate for, I needed a team.
We’ve grown quite a bit in our first seven years. It started as a one-woman strategy shop on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Now, we’re a growing team that has connected with more than 100 million Americans on behalf of our clients.
Here are four things I wish I knew the day I decided to make running my business my full-time job:
Invest in employee retention.
Hiring and training employees is a lot of work. When you’re leading a growing firm, retaining great employees is a cost-saving measure.
For small and midsize organizations, there’s no magic formula for the combination of policies and compensation that will encourage people to stick around and grow with your company. Until an organization reaches a certain size, benefits and policies are, by nature, tailored to fit the people who work for the organization.
Employers like me might not know a policy is needed until the need for it comes up! The best approach is to have an open and ongoing dialogue with key team members. What do they want their role to look like down the road?
I’ve also learned that building intentional company culture is essential. No matter what policies are on the books, a successful firm needs the supportive environment to back them up (i.e. nobody should be guilt-tripped for taking earned and reasonable time off).
Success is an evolving metric.
For a long time, I considered revenue the most important measure of success. Then 2020 happened, and I changed my definition of success to “keeping my team employed.”
Our most successful year as a business was not our most profitable year; it was the year I took 12 weeks of paid family leave to welcome my second child into the world. Success was the business running — and growing — while I took needed time to recover and bond with my baby. Success was the business being able to support one of my employees to also take paid family leave around the same time.
The lessons we learned from that year will stick with us. We built out processes and systems and ensured that institutional knowledge didn’t exist only in our heads. I delegated and we promoted from within. That experience has undoubtedly made the business stronger for the long haul.
The business’ taxes will probably be wrong at some point.
Hire an accountant and a lawyer. Outsourcing to experts is a necessary part of running a business, even if you’re a solo consultant. As a rule, it’s not a good use of a firm owner’s time to be in the weeds of tax or contract law.
That said, if your name is on the business license or operating agreement, it’s a good idea to know enough to spot-check your team’s work until they’ve earned your trust. Most of my business-owning friends have had to unwind a tax or legal mess at some point. Expect it to happen at some point, and do enough basic Googling that you’re able to ask the right questions.
Business-owning friends are invaluable.
Leading a firm is the best job I’ve ever had. But it’s also hard, sometimes emotionally exhausting, and a job that’s impossible to psychologically separate myself from at COB. Having a community of friends that understands has been essential for me.
I’ve found my entrepreneur community through my mastermind group, a Facebook group, professional conferences, and Meetup.com. It’s true that sometimes my peers and I compete for the same business, but more often, we collaborate on pitches, send each other prospective clients, refer each other to good partners and vendors, or serve as one another’s sounding boards. Politics and advocacy are fun because they’re social. I’m a big believer in the idea that you don’t have to operate in a vacuum to be successful.
Alesa Mackool is the founder and president of ACM Strategies, a team of strategists that specializes in helping progressive leaders and organizations build movements. To read more of her tips about hiring, workplace culture, and campaign strategy, connect with her on LinkedIn.