12 Things I’ve Learned In 12 Years Of Business – And Surviving A Global Health Crisis
I originally published this article on the Avion website in June 2019. A lot has happened since then, and I’ve now adapted it to April 2020, adding my two cents relating to COVID-19. If you read this last year, skip to the end where I share my most recent life lessons: “Things don’t always go your way” and “Empathy trumps enterprise”.
When I was 25 years old, I came back to Melbourne with the hope of trading in my life as a ski bum for the advertising career I’d cultivated out of uni before I left. But it was 2009 — during the global financial crisis — and nobody was hiring. With no other options that resonated with me, I started my own writing business, which I still have today.
My agency, Avion, is currently surviving the toughest economic situation it’s ever faced. While weathering the storm has not been easy, there is an upside: the space to reflect on my life’s most valuable lessons, as well as what really matters in business when shit gets tough.
Whether you’re thinking of starting a small business, or you’ve been in one for a while, I hope my top 12 takeouts below provide some inspiration.
1. Be yourself — you’re no good at being anybody else
When I was in my 20s, I would wear heels and a white-collared shirt to look older than I was. I also covered my tattoos and watched my language. I was so uptight about making a good impression that I’d forget that businesses are built on genuine relationships. If you don’t have mutual respect for each other’s personalities and experiences — irrespective of age or clothing — working together will be a chore.
2. Know what your definition of success is
Over the years, I’ve met entrepreneurs whose M.O. is scaling and selling for millions. Admirable, but not my jam. Know what makes you happy. Is it the hustle followed by fancy acquisition, or is it the ability to have more long weekends than most? For me, success is building a team of besties that look forward to coming to work each day — and the freedom to engineer my work/life balance around the snow and surf.
3. Bring heart to your work and the rest will follow
Finding work is tough. Finding employees is even tougher. Sometimes I think the only thing that gets me through is remembering what I set out to achieve in the first place, then asking others for help. If your clients and your team believe you’re a good person trying your best, they will stand up for you. And while good leaders should be strong, confident decision makers, it helps to show your vulnerable side. There’s no need to be as cold as ice.
4. You’ll never feel ready to hire that first employee
At what point are you ready to cease working with subcontractors and hire your first employee? I had countless conversations with other business owners about this leap. When I finally committed to putting someone on payroll, I had more time to work on the business, rather than in the business. I asked myself why the hell I hadn’t done it earlier!
5. Hire on attitude, not aptitude — but set aside time to train
Skills are important. But so is personality and work ethic. Even if employees are only with you for two to three years, they can bring a lot to the table in this time. But keep in mind this strategy only works if you personally dedicate time to help them develop. Wide-eyed graduates are great low-cost resources for small businesses, but they will struggle to make a positive contribution without constructive feedback and support.
6. Managing people = emotional labour = self-care
When people talk about business, they talk about profit and loss. They don’t talk about how much emotional energy it takes to keep your team happy. Unfortunately, this can build a lot of resentment. No matter how much you care, it’s exhausting listening to others vent about project woes. So, it’s crucial to look after yourself. About six to seven years into my business, I became super tired and grumpy. While I felt guilty about taking a holiday, the reality is that my team needed a role model. I swiftly took a few weeks off, and surprisingly, the world didn’t stop turning. I came back refreshed and in a much better position to inspire others. If you’ve lost that loving feeling, take a break. It’s ok.
7. Prepare to make less money as you grow
More people does not equal more profit. Once you reach around 10 staff, you require a leadership team comprising non-billable roles (i.e. account management and operations). I took a huge pay cut a few years ago, knowing this would make my life easier later on. I have no regrets. Accepting your finances will be up and down is just a part of the journey.
8. Invest in yourself
When your business is young, you have the drive to learn everything you can. When your business matures, you spend all your time in the trenches. It’s easy to lose sight of why you went into business in the first place — so make sure you treat yourself to conferences and time outside the office to think. Over the past few years, I’ve made my own expeditions to research tech trends in Silicon Valley and most recently, South By Southwest. It’s incredible how reinvigorated and reconnected you can feel.
9. Learn to let go. Really.
Last year I was suffering from serious burnout. The Avion team had grown to around 10, and there was only so much of me to go around. I remember a teary moment on my yoga mat, where I decided with conviction that I would take a sabbatical to re-evaluate my priorities. After presenting this idea to my employees, I worked even harder to ensure they had the skills to manage the business without me. After I left, it was incredibly rewarding to see them step up — and not surprisingly, they absolutely nailed it while I was gone.
10. Don’t forget who you are outside of work
Alone, on the beaches of Mexico, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. But upon disconnecting from my professional self, I was caught out with a serious identity crisis. I had dedicated so much of my daily life to work that I had no idea who I was, or what to do with my time. Emails and Slack were an inherent part of my routine. The habit of checking my phone was so hard to break. It was a very sobering realisation that once I had stepped off the hamster wheel, I didn’t know where the past 10 years had gone. Over time, I’d also lost rapport with friends my own age who’d grown up, gotten married and had babies. This cognitive space was very confronting, but I’m grateful for it. Now graciously looking back at what I’ve built, I’m excited to design my life for 2019 and beyond.
11. Things don’t always go your way — and that’s okay
Control helps me avoid chaos. I try to plan most things in life, from what meals to cook during the week (so I can efficiently put together a grocery list, of course) through to what my life should look like in the next 3–5 years. But these plans don’t always work out. This year, COVID-19 has really made sure of that.
For the past 12 months I have been laboriously mapping out my US office. It was supposed to have gained more momentum by now (the idea being I could could switch out my career for kids by the end of 2021). Right now, everything is on hold — all I can do is use this as an opportunity to step off the treadmill and appreciate what I have. Making lemonade out of lemons sucks, but it’s a stark reminder not to get too attached to a particular path.
12. Empathy trumps enterprise
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed businesses to pivot fast, or die. But what’s often left out of this picture is empathy.
This of my favourite quotes from Maya Angelou:
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
- Employers, please treat your employees with dignity and respect.
- Salespeople, please only show us things that are relevant right now.
- Business owners, please maintain an honest bond with your community.
I was recently moved by this personal apology I received from the owner of Toss Pizzeria in Austin, Texas after picking up some cold dinner.
If I hadn’t received this email, I may have never want to order from Toss again. But the heartfelt message from Justin DeLaCruz explaining his team was trying their best (and grateful for the business) definitely motivates me to go back again. I’d love to see more examples of business owners speaking to customers like this.
In closing, this is my latest learning: Human connection comes first — that’s how you build a business around you.
About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.