Early Lessons From Building a Consulting Company

by on May 20, 2013 | posted in Entrepreneurship

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Nine months ago I quit my job to start my first company, Siege Media. Three months later, I talked about the mysticism of entrepreneurship, “taking the jump” and how the process was remarkably easy – and also, something I probably should have done earlier.

It was and it is, but that doesn’t make building a company an absolutely smooth ride. Running a consulting business in a state of mediocrity is relatively simple – the demand for SEO services is great and if you’re at all active online, client inquiries come rather easily.

However, growing said company is a different beast entirely – client churn is a distinct possibility if you provide lackluster work, and if that becomes the standard, don’t expect much in the way of client referrals.

So, while running the company is easy, quitting was a no-brainer and should have been done earlier, there were definitely things that I did not expect entering the process that I now know, nine months later.

1. Your Website Won’t Make or Break You

When I entered the process I had the expectation that I would make a company website that others simply weren’t. I would blog frequently, it would be done with the precision and excellence others simply weren’t, and I would finally beat back the SEO myth that we do not eat our own dog food.

Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, clients did. I wanted to blog and spend time tweaking the site, but demand immediately came through providing good work. We got referrals by spending four more hours on improving our clients businesses, not by allocating that time to blog more. More importantly, those four hours insured that our clients would be retained, and longer term contracts would be signed.

So, it was illuminating to know that as an in-house SEO and niche consultant my outside laughter for those businesses who never blogged and had websites that were laughable was really rather based in ignorance – many if not all of these “empty” agency websites may actually be but a few tight landing pages for the thriving businesses that escalated more on the great work that built them naturally.

While the KPI for your ad-driven website may create a psychological bias that blogging more=results, in the agency world, much of the business development comes behind the scenes, in e-mail, during one on one conversations, and in boring Excel spreadsheets.

That said, let me add the disclaimer that I still believe in blogging as a method for driving business, and the other positive effects that come with it. Blogging frequently doesn’t mean an agency is struggling.

However, I think it is worth communicating that you may find it (ironically) surprising when building a company that the initial engine of growth comes not from writing more words for the outside world, but instead, spending more time on client accounts.

2. Account for Personal Life Impacts on Productive Work Periods

Something that has also contributed to my lack of writing is the simple readjustment of my life. In the past two years I have started dating someone I care about deeply, and because of that, what was once a time period spent writing – nighttime, is now spent hanging out with her.

This is a simple adjustment that has caused a syphoning out of one of my most productive times for that kind of work. And that’s not to say that it’s bad – I choose to hang out with my girlfriend instead of write, but it is a reality that as you begin to give and care about someone else more than populating a text field, one part of your work life may suffer.

 

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For you, your night work might be better spent heads down on difficult projects or something else. As someone who might be considering starting a company or entering into another large project, it is worth thinking about your night hours, and how you spend them – if your personal life changes and someone else enters it, how will that impact your work life? Will that valuable part of your working efficiency cause your business to go down in flames? Or will you find yourself pushing that person away in an effort to prevent it, causing a possible hole in both?

These kinds of considerations may prevent one business – or your personal relationship – from losing before they take off. For me, not writing as much has been fine: the business has grown from within, and I now have a more rewarding, enriching life because I am spending it with someone else.

For you, it may be difficult to balance both personal life and work, or your more productive times may be at conflict with your significant other’s time off. Definitely, how you deal with this interplay may define your immediate life trajectory – and the business that comes with it.

3. Zero Employees – Easy. One Plus – Damn Hard.

It took me quite a while to hire Siege’s first employee, but I’m glad I took the time. I found someone great (Bryan Vu, you should follow him), and now Siege has the capabilities to grow and do better work – something I’m extremely excited about.

That said, hiring an employee dramatically changes the game. You essentially have a mouth to feed, cash flow must be monitored more closely, and the business becomes less “just do SEO work for people” and more “build a company with processes, a business bank account, and a future plan”.

In the first six plus months, I essentially ran on experience – no fancy Excel documents, processes or anything like that: this was possible because it all existed in my mind. When you hire someone else, that must be transcribed on paper or at least verbally, and there must be standards for implementation that grow with the company – or your work will suffer as it scales.

Moreso, the choices you make at two plus employees (we’re on the verge of hiring a second) can begin to truly create the culture your company will call its own. Will we be a young company? An old one? Do we work hundreds of hours? Just get stuff done? Telecommute? In office? How will we hire? All of these considerations are important, and suddenly turn a lifestyle business into a real one.

Up to the first hire, your work is easy: you are still doing what you always did. At some points during the first and through the second plus employee, you suddenly are thrown into a world of process documentation, paperwork and long-term business strategy – efficiencies that were never truly developed building links in-house.

So, be aware of the challenge and difficulty of that transition. For that reason, I am taking it slow. No outside funding, no forced hires, no 80-hour work weeks to force growth: the decisions will be methodical, and hopefully, the end product will be rewarded.

What’s Next? Transition

I’m finding that the next stage for Siege Media will be building out the competencies to create effective content in house. We are currently an outreach and strategy shop – while that has benefits, it is also limiting for the clients who do not have the content development capabilities in house, and we have also found that sometimes communicating content needs can create a gap between idea and end product.

I will always believe that clients should have that piece within their own doors – where true vertical efficiency can be built – but for some, that is just too difficult to do. So, we will begin to do it here, and hopefully do it well. We will hire the people that can do that, and we will take on the clients who believe in what we do and trust us enough to take our recommendations and run with them.

At the end of 2013, Siege Media will also be opening a new office in San Diego. How that transition occurs will be another building block that will shape the company, and it is a challenge I look forward to.

And, if all goes well, I’ll hopefully find the time to blog about it sometime soon. Hopefully.

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