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Lessons Learned Running a Small Business in 2011

Small Business Working

As 2012 begins, I want to look back over the past year to see what can be learnt from it. Learning from your mistakes is less glamorous than a list of grand New Year’s Resolutions (Though I do like those too), but often more effective at ensuring the next year is even better than the last.

With that in mind, what follows are some of the lessons I have picked out from my own 2011. I would love to hear if these resonate with you.

When looking back at your own year, I’d encourage you not to look for when things went “wrong” as such, but simply to think of how things may have gone differently. That’s what I’ve done. If I were to go back, I may well do some of these things the same, but considering the alternatives is a great way to learn.

Plan For the Follow-Through

When working on a large project, launch day is the natural target. All of your work is dedicated to releasing the product.

That is obviously crucial, but equally important is planning in advance to build on the momentum from your big release. That could mean anything from analyzing its success, planning the next release, or simply capitalizing on the good PR.

I learned this lesson from the relaunch of this site in May. We had been working on it on and off for almost a year, so it had been a huge project, but in the push to launch, we built up a backlog of other work.

I worked on this and wrote a number of articles following the launch, but not enough. The backlog took priority because as far as schedules were concerned, the relaunch project was complete. The follow-through should have been a clearly defined of the project.

Short-Term is More Tempting than Long-Term

How many times have you heard a freelancer say they can’t find the time to work on their site or a personal project? Even though they really enjoy it?

All freelancers hit this issue, and I was no different. I think the reason for this is extremely simple; short term benefits have a clearer and more obvious benefit than long term ones. In my case, PliablePress has been hurt by this. Improving the framework brings me incremental benefits over time, but taking on a large client project pays off right away.

The trick here I believe is a balancing act. If you spend all of your time on short-term goals, you’ll never get past where you are right now. But similarly, if you only work on long-term plans, you may not survive that long. Don’t let one overcrowd the other.

Focus Beats Multitasking

This is a common enough productivity tip that you have likely heard before. Only work on one thing at a time. It makes sense, and it will come as no surprise to you that closing down Twitter and Skype etc. will help you work better.

The bigger lesson is to organize yourself each day so you know which projects you will be working on. You don’t need a step-by-step breakdown of the tasks (Though some people swear by that), a simple list of the top x projects that need your attention today will do.

This is something I see in my work again and again. The days in which I have a clear list of projects to work on, and I tackle them one by one, are my most productive days. Sometimes you can even spend a whole day on just one project, which is fantastic. Focus only on the next task, not all of the tasks.

Sidenote – When making your list, try to avoid adding any murky tasks that don’t have clear completion objectives, e.g. research can go on indefinitely so before you start, make sure you’re aware of how you will know when you’re done.

New Does Not Necessarily Equal Worthwhile

In the tech world, we all love the speed at which things change. The impulse is to try as many new products and services as we can, because who knows what the next game changer will be?

And therein lies the problem. It could be anything, and there are new things coming at you every day. You can’t try them all, and the attempt is a waste of your time. I think a better approach is to let the community try them out for you, and join in when a winner seems to be emerging.

Quora is a great Q&A style site.A good example of this is social networks. There are a million different variations out there and new ones all the time. Most won’t catch on, and the time put into them is lost to you. I joined Quora after consistently reading good responses on it for months, but I’m not on Pinterest, Path or any of the other current “hot” networks yet. I’ll check back again in a few months.

The exception is tools that really add value to your business (Webapps you use, development software etc.). Again, I wouldn’t try every single one as it comes out, but every few months, take a look around. It’s fun too, playing with new toys is hard to count as work!

Join The Communities You Value

The web is full of little communities, and you could take part in them from morning to night. On a productivity note, you might try to cut down on this when you have deadlines to meet.

It’s possible to go too far with this though. Once you’ve read a lot on a particular site, and especially after you’ve started enjoying the comment discussions, you can get a lot more out of taking part as well.

Hacker News & Stack OverflowI used to post thousands of comments in forums when I was younger, and then again on blogs as I started Pro Blog Design. That’s been somewhat lessened in 2011, so I’m looking forward to starting again. In particular, I’ve massively enjoyed reading Hacker News and Stack Overflow, so it’s about time I joined up.

Planning is Both Impossible and Essential

A slight paradox, but it’s true. It’s impossible to plan for everything that may happen, even over just a short period of time. But with no plan, things inevitably fall into chaos.

I like to think I’m quite organized, and I always have a good idea of how the next 3-4 weeks will flow. I don’t think any of my “ideas” have ever gone 100% to plan though.

Things change. Something will crash, a client will take longer with their feedback, an awesome new project will come up etc.

You need to plan enough to help things run smoothly, but be flexible enough to cope with the inevitable curve balls that come at you. I’m still not sure of the exact formula for this, but it seems that the more experience you have of it, the better your plans and estimates become.

Fight to Work On What You Love

When you run a small business, you’re responsible for everything. I have the pleasure of working with a number of other people throughout the year here, but no matter what, the final responsibility is still mine.

In practice, what this means is that the tasks you can’t easily find someone else to take care of, you do yourself.

That’s fine in the short term, and often even beneficial (Knowing you have to submit your accounts yourself keeps your finances very organized throughout the year!), but it isn’t a long term solution.

You didn’t start a business to work on things you don’t enjoy. There will always be some jobs you just have to do, but when the ones you don’t enjoy are the majority, you need to fix it.

I’m quite happy with where I am in regards to this now; the trick for me was angling towards certain types of projects. Great clients with interesting projects means that more or less everything is fun!

The Truest Test of a Business is When You Leave It

Not that I didn't still enjoy the break!Again, this is something you’ve likely read before, and it’s spot on. In September, I was away for around 3 weeks, and it likely affected every part of the business.

I planned in advance as much as I could, but every change has a knock-on effect. By prioritizing the projects that could most likely be finished before I left, I was leaving others to be done largely after I returned. I was also lining up new projects to be worked on while I was away, but I was still needed at various points to give my thoughts.

In other words, the month before and the month after the trip were crazy. There is no easy fix to this, but removing the dependency on you is definitely a big area to work on if you want your business to grow.

Conclusion

Those were the biggest new “lessons” I would take from my 2011. I’ve deliberately chosen from when things could have gone better, not from when they went great. I’d be happy to share those as well if you like, but learning from mistakes is often the more revealing analysis so they weren’t included here.

In return, I’d love to hear about your year. What have you learnt from it and what will you do differently this year?

Before I finish, I want to apologize for how quiet the past months have been. They’ve been some of the busiest months I’ve ever had, but I’ve missed blogging greatly. January will be a quiet month as well, sorry, but after the 29th, I will be back with a vengeance. I’ve learnt a lot, so there’s a lot I want to share!

If you reached this far in the post, thank you for still being a reader after all this time.

Happy New Year everyone!

Main photo by razvan.caliman.


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