20 commercial lessons from 20 years in business

Is it a cliché to stop and reflect on 20 lessons learnt after 20 years in business? Maybe.

a man standing in front of a building: Ben-McIntyre-BJM-Digital

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But maybe, as I take another few tentative steps away from my constant friend, and foe, ‘perfectionism’, and inch towards free expression, some of the things I’ve learnt may resonate with you, drive you, cause you to stop and think.


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Ultimately, I wanted to deliver something real, something helpful, something that looks like a list, quacks like a list, and is a list, but also serves as a handy ready-reckoner for business decisions that I’ve learnt building BJM Digital.

It’s not perfect. If that was the aim, I’d be hard-pressed to produce this list before the 30-year edition comes out.

Every so often, changes in tech, consumer preferences, economies, politics or something else entirely ‘disrupts’ how we entrepreneurs, creators and dreamers build, manage and grow our businesses.

COVID-19 was and is something that I thought might well disrupt, if not obliterate and render obsolete, much of the value of the lessons I wanted to share here.

On the contrary, these thoughts seem even more relevant today than they did in pre-pandemic times, because of the emphasis on continual learning, reflection on growth (personal and in business), and staying connected, with your goals, your people and your consumers. 

Okay, get comfortable and wish me luck, I’m writing without a safety net. Ready?

1. Respect your customers

Once you’re celebrated and acknowledged where you are, it’s very easy to forget about what your customers think, and focus on the internal, the product, the service, the process, payroll, the profits the…

But remember, all that goes away if clients feel more valued and better looked after elsewhere.

Your customers are humans, not machines, and they need to be treated as such. I’m so grateful for ours.

2. Know your numbers

There is strength in numbers. No one can dispute the value of at least looking at them.

Early on, I would turn a blind eye, and instead warmed myself by the fires of optimism. But warm fires, hope and optimism is not a growth strategy.

Quash your fears or lack of understanding and invest in the truly exciting world of numbers.

Treat your business like a listed company, report, plan, have a dashboard, look into the future.

If you don’t, it’s wildly expensive.

Having once been on the brink of financial ruin, I can say with hindsight, numbers count.

3. Profit not revenue

Speaking of numbers, profit is the number to focus on.

I love the saying ‘revenue is vanity and profit is sanity’, and fortunately, I found that out quite some time ago.

Look, I relish the big gaudy gross turnover numbers as much as the next businessperson, but none of us start a business to enter “entrepreneurial poverty”, as beautifully coined by Mike Michalowicz.

So, go deep, calculate your required profit margins, and run your business according to those numbers.

4. Celebrate success

Sticking to the previous three points alone will exponentially increase your chances of longer-term success.

So, let’s talk celebrations.

You’d think that would be easy and instinctive and automatic, but it isn’t.

We celebrated 10 years in business by… moving onto the next project. I guess I forgot about it.

Pro tip: mark these special achievements and acknowledge even the smallest of wins.

Do you know what percentage of businesses succeed past the five, 10 or 20-year mark?

Don’t wait 20 years to celebrate. If you’ve earned it, you deserve it.

5. Long-term relationships are more important than short-term wins

It sounds self-explanatory, but let me explain: short-terms wins are often awful because they don’t always go hand-in-hand with long-term success.

Especially in these uncertain times, I can attest to the fact that mutually beneficial partnerships with trusted people will see you through.

Pro tip: raise your sights and focus on long-term success then pursue it, with your partners.

6. Take risks and be willing to fail

When you fail, embrace it. Be glad it happened.

Don’t waste it. Lean in, be curious and make sure you learn something from it.

As we move through higher levels of play, the game gets harder and stakes become greater.

Taking calculated risk is a part of business growth, but it’s also a two-sided coin, so become comfortable with uncertainty.

7. Invest in your business

The best things in life might be free, but successful businesses require a little more than happy thoughts.

Be prepared to spend time and money on and in your business.

I invested heavily in mentors, coaches and specialists who have supported me in areas I needed to develop (and I’d recommend you do the same, but we’ll get to that).

8. Not every person or every project is a good fit

This one is sad but true.

Beware, that potential team member that can literally do everything but tramples on company culture.

Or perhaps that massive project that will help hit your revenue targets, but will gut your resources and make stress a constant companion to everyone.

Remember, just because it’s a big deal, doesn’t mean it’s a good deal.

Choose wisely. Understand the wider impact.

9. Create a structure

Because structure clears the path to clarity.

And clarity allows people to do their jobs well while ensuring the right level of accountability rests with the right people.

Pro-tip: org charts are critical for providing clarity at all stages of business, even when you have seven roles and job descriptions yourself! 

10. Everything is connected

The whole ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’ thing which old mate Newton said is true in all facets of business.

The skill of managing this lays in knowing your priorities and imperatives and starting there.

Interdependence is the reality, so work to understand how and why. 

11. Project management matters

Don’t underestimate the role that solid and transparent project management plays.

It organises chaos, defines client experience and, when done well, even when it’s hard, strengthens relationships.

Fall short on client experience, and you’ll fall short of customers, or more accurately, everything.

12. Change is inevitable and progress is never linear for long

Plans, processes and protocols are fantastic because they help us deal with change and that’s important because strangely, change is the only constant we have.

Progress is not linear.

While change may be uncomfortable, that’s where the growth is.

It invigorates us, so accept it, welcome it, and change with it.

Let go of the philosophy of ‘well that’s the way we have always done it’.

13. Starting up and scaling are two different things

Too often we (okay, I) thought that one was a progression from the other. A different part of the same trajectory, so to speak.

But I came to understand that starting out as a sub-$1 million business and becoming a $1 million-plus business is about becoming something completely different, as opposed to remaining the same with slightly deeper pockets.

So, what to do?

Get support by investing in good business coaching and development.

Don’t try this alone. There’s a lot you don’t know, and a lot of new skills to learn to elevate yourself. 

14. Schedules are key

Look up from your dashboard, and look out the windscreen, because those deadlines are coming right at you.

Help your team to help themselves by incorporating sound scheduling.

Make sure you can see into the future, literally.

15. Pay to play

This one might sound contentious, but verbal promises, I found out, don’t pay your people, your bills or yourself.

Written agreements and upfront deposits declare a mutual commitment, create trust, foster integrity, are commercially sound, reflect professionalism and confirm accountability.

16. Prices and fees are relative to benefit

Many will try to get a better deal from you, and so they should.

Aim for a win-win.

But you shouldn’t undervalue your products or what it’s taken to get them to where they are, particularly when they provide enormous benefit to your clients.

There should be no losers. Negotiate. Absolutely think long-term, but, just think about it.

17. Design matters

Your brand and how people experience and interact with it comes down to your reputation by design.

Leaving their experience with your hard work to luck is akin to leaving your opportunities, profits and success to wishful thinking. It’s that simple.

Design matters. And how you apply it is how you get to matter. Especially in this increasingly noisy, post-COVID-19 digital world.

18. Focus on the details, not just the destination

When you’re next driving a car, you’ll notice there are a lot of gauges and lights on the dashboard.

Focus on your destination, sure, but keep an eye on the gauges too.

The same goes for business.

19. Team culture is the beating heart of the business

I have found that without the right people buying into our guiding values and principles, our business and our people flounder.

If you’re not clear on your own principles, values and vision, it’s time to revisit them as they govern and exemplify your DNA and your culture.

If they sing, you’ll have clarity on whether you have the right people, in the right roles, in the right environment.

Check-in with your people, and make sure they have all they need to excel, and a clear on where you’re headed.

20. It never gets easier, but it does get more efficient

I have found that doing what I have done for 20 years still requires the same levels of commitment, energy, skill and enthusiasm.

That or the experience of highs and lows hasn’t changed from day one. 

If you’re hoping that, eventually, you’ll be able to shelve your passion, maybe stop, and have a think.

I love cycling, so if I’m to sneak passion for it in here, it’s now or never. For both a weekend cycling enthusiast and a Tour de France winner, hills remain challenging, but the latter benefits from better training, coaching and therefore greater efficiency.

You don’t stop when you’re tired.

The famous cyclist Greg LeMond once said: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

In part two, I’m going to focus on the personal lessons I’ve learnt during my 20 years in business.  Again, the hope is that you’ll find one, two or 20 points in there that will convince you to invest in yourself and strive for better, or even perfection, in a healthy way. 

Speaking of which, stay healthy, stay well, and here’s to your best 20 years in business. 

NOW READ: A growth versus fixed mindset often means the difference between success and failure

NOW READ: How to stay successful in a business environment that’s anything but status quo

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