We often hear from those who have made it, those who own global empires, those that look back and fondly recollect their first year in business all those years ago. Rose-tinted lenses reflect on the madness of the year, the late nights and weekends worked, all with the aim of getting things off the ground. The thing is, memories fade, views are skewed by success and time changes the way that you do business.
So, as we hit that 1 year landmark, with memories still vivid and lessons still fresh, I thought I’d share my experience.
Let me start off by stating one thing, we’ve been a success. Hydrogen at one year old is much bigger than I had originally hoped for on that first day of trading. This therefore will not be a negative view on the pitfalls of the first year, I won’t regale you with tales of evenings and weekends pouring over new briefs or the often quoted hairloss, it’ll be my take on how that success has been possible and what we’ve learned from the bumps we’ve had along the way.
10th August 2016, exactly 1 year ago, I was sat in my tiny home office registering the business. We had no clients and no staff. We existed as a business in name only and a bit of an idea in my head. Now, as I type this article I look around our agency studio (photo above), our designer is working on a new brief for 2000 AD, the community team are discussing Club Med content for the upcoming weeks and our strategy director is working through a consultative piece for our global oil & gas company. Over the past 12 months we have picked up 12 clients and we now count household brands such as Club Med, SSE and Hachette Partworks (Assassin’s Creed, Transformers, 2000 AD, Judge Dredd, Dr Who and Marvel) amongst those names. I’d say that’s not bad for a little start-up from Glasgow.
Looking back over those initial 12 months I've attempted to boil everything I've learned into a few (7 to be exact) points that might become useful pieces of advice for anybody on a similar journey.
So, here goes:
The first 3 months: This for me was the most nerve-wracking period of the past year. I’d left my previous business with an established client base and an idea of where the next pay-cheque was coming from and I now found myself with nothing. No clients, no pipeline. I’d built a website, ordered business cards, updated my various social profiles, developed a set of creds and now found myself on the hunt. We got lucky, we secured a fairly sizeable contract early on which was a relief but that didn’t stop me chasing everything down, and this is where I would say I made my first mistake… I’d mentally set a barrier on what our fees would be but I found myself talking to a variety of businesses that would be unlikely to ever afford us. I produced proposals, went to meetings and had various calls, all of which led to nothing in return. If I could do it over again I would aim to hold my nerve, not go after everything and go for quality leads not the quantity.
Your brand: I’ve heard nothing but positivity about the Hydrogen branding. Whether that’s just people paying me lip-service or not, I’ll happily take it. Right from the start I understood the importance of a strong brand and set out to establish this well before I started going to market. The result has been that we have felt like an established business for our clients right from day 1. There are so many businesses out there that I see with no assets, no imagery and no tone of voice. They get a logo, build a stock site and get going. Given that time is often pushed at the start of a business that last thing I wanted to find myself doing is scrambling around trying to figure all of that stuff out later down the line, I’d much rather have it all pre-planned.
Value yourself: I’d say in year 1 we have given away around £20k worth of time for nothing to clients and prospective clients. When I write that, I find myself thinking I must have been crazy to allow that to happen. The thing is, it does happen. You tell yourself it’s a time investment, that it’ll all pay off in the end and it’s the sort of thing that you need to do as a start-up to get the client to believe in your abilities. All total bullshit. I’ve come to realise that there’s those clients that have the budget for you and will have no issues paying, they believe in your abilities and they pay you (sometimes upfront). Then there are those who have no intentions of doing so and want to access your skillset for nothing. If you think early on that the latter is the case, have the guts to back out or ask for pre-payment.
Don’t be afraid to ask: Money is tight when you start a business, ridiculously so at times. As a result I have called in favours from about everybody I know. We’ve been given free legal advice, free accountancy advice, HR advice, countless introductions and upfront payments on projects. The priority has to be the business and staff at all times, if that means saving on something, calling in a favour or asking a client for a payment to be made early so you can afford those wages in the first months, then you need to do it. You’ll quickly realise that people are more than willing to support when they see the effort you are putting in.
Take calculated risks: I’m not a gambler, I never win at anything. But this is something I’d say is a must if you are to make a success of it. In year one, forecasts go out the window. You have no history to fall back on other than your own past experiences. In effect, that forecast growth in the second half of the year may or may not happen. But that didn’t stop us making strategic hires and investing in software without the pipeline in place to fully understand how we were going to afford it. There will be a few of you who find this reckless, I wouldn’t blame you. However, I was extremely confident that we’d get there and was willing to sacrifice my salary to pay people if I needed to. I just knew that without these hires we couldn’t deliver what our clients needed, which would ultimately lead to overall company failure.
Surround yourself with experts: I’m lucky as I have a long list of ex-colleagues, ex-clients and friends that I could go to for advice. In the first 6 months I had numerous lunches, drinks and dinners. I picked all of their brains on a variety of matters and got their counsel when I found myself with a challenge ahead. Having this group of people I trust to speak to has been invaluable to me because doing it all on my own would have been a lot more difficult.
Choose a team you can rely on: I’d like to make a distinction between those that are great at their day job and those that are both great at their day job and you can rely on. The team at Hydrogen are amazing, they are the most professional, reliable group of people you could ever find. The result has been that no matter what happens, who is off, who is out of the office, you just know the job is going to get done to a high standard. There is no shirking of responsibility, everybody gets stuck in and delivers. This is something you seriously need in year one, it can't always fall to you.
Well there you have it, 7 tips from a one year old on thriving in your first year in business. The team and I are now all off out to have a little celebration.
Have you just gone through your first year? If so, I’d love to connect and hear your experiences.
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