Early business decisions that allowed me to be an entrepreneur
Did you know that appx. 45% of businesses close up shop before the five year mark, and 96% of businesses don’t make it to the 10-year mark?
To be completely candid, I see so many business owners choose to pursue a different path (curiously, most clients who have done so did so between year 5-6), and so many mergers and acquisitions, the 10 year statistic wasn’t entirely surprising.
However, I’m now closing in on year 7, and the first 6 months of year six was the first time the floor began to feel shaky, to put it lightly. Later, I’ll publish part three of this series with a behind the scenes look at the 6 months that felt like a bombed-out valley.
(Note: this remains true at every stage of business. When it’s sink or swim, you learn how to swim-fast. And you’ll find yourself jumping off the deep end over and over again in business.
Pre-Launch decisions that changed everything
I worked a side-hustle to fund my transition and launch.
I personally made the decision that I would never run my business in debt. I was risking enough by starting with $0 in the bank account, and no salary. I know things can happen that are out of our control when it comes to business finances (stay tuned for part 3 of this series), but every day when I came home from work, I worked overtime in my “calligraphy business” to finance my business entity, my first website, and my first “big” check-hiring a business coach.
Starting an online business is honestly not nearly as expensive as most think, when done correctly. Anticipate paying for:
- A website (note: this doesn’t have to be a custom site. Designers such as the designer of my website offer templates, cutting costs down to a fraction of the original price)
- A logo/brand (same note as above)
- Legal (entity formation, website agreements, client agreement). Hire a lawyer. Do not DIY legal. It’s foolhardy and an amateur move that will keep you in the amateur zone. Your lawyer will also become an invaluable networking resource, and you will always want to have someone on hand to call.
- Copywriter (keeping your brand tone consistent at the beginning will save you thousands down the road)
- Photographer (you will need photos for your website/ launch)
- Business coach/mentor (A mastermind is a great way to both work with a mentor and build a network)
- Important note: hiring a business coach carries an invisible ROI. Your business coach will be the first person to help you build your network.
I spent time deeply observing
This doesn’t get talked about enough. I knew what I wanted to do in the industry, but I wanted to make sure that my business actually catered to my clients in the most proficient way possible. I also needed to learn how to “speak the same language”. I was coming from usually being the only woman in the room, from the energy industry. Most conversations were disputes, and most of those disputes were in the 7 figure ballpark.
I was entering a world of helping founders grow and scale businesses. What’s more, I knew that to truly advocate and strategize for my clients, there needed to be a true element of counsel. I didn’t want to be a lawyer who just filed paperwork for someone. I wanted to be that wall of defense when a client got copied and needed to be talked off the ledge, or defended, quickly.
These observations led to the conception of the Creative Law Shop®, a place where I could meet growing entrepreneurs where they were at (more on this in part 4 of this series). An important note: don’t conflate this with procrastination. You can’t observe forever. But put yourself in a position so that when you jump, you’re aiming for something.
Early business decisions that changed everything
Honestly, it almost scares me to think of how different that first year would have been if I hadn’t taken these steps.
I knew I had to get my foot in the door. I made three decisions that were linchpins in the success of my firm:
- I started attending local networking events. An easy step to take, but one that, if we’re being honest, our egos or insecurities sometimes stop us from taking.
- Lasting impact scale: 6/10. I met some friends who are dear friends and clients to this day, who were those new colleagues I could turn to for advice in those early days. However, I probably wasted time going just for the sake of going, after awhile
- I hired a business coach who I knew was working with semi-established, to flourishing brands. I didn’t go into that relationship with the expectation of getting referrals, but wanted to keep that door open. Moreover, I knew when it came to building businesses, at least, she wasn’t smoke and mirrors. Even though an education-based business and a tangible product were wildly different than a law firm, both had a global presence. I knew she would provide invaluable insight into my potential client’s minds, while also challenging my own
- Lasting impact scale: 9/10. That relationship was a game changer in the early years.
- Get yourself in the room. The other thing I saved up for with my calligraphy money? Buying tickets to attend two in-person conferences in the first two months of starting business. And oh my goodness, am I glad I did.
- Conferences will always be hit or miss. The first was a miss (a bit too much fluff, a bit too much lecturing, zero implementation). However, it gave me insight and understand my potential clients’ culture. And that in itself was an incredible education.
- (Important note: business can make you arrogant. In the same way no one is there to applaud you, no one is there to correct you. Never forget that you can learn something from every single person you meet.
- The second was wildly different than the first. Instead of 50ish people and a lecture format, appx. 20 of us gathered for a “mastermind retreat” in Charleston. Here, we actually shared our business stories, worked through problems together, strategized together, and implemented together. Entrepreneurship can be so lonely, and it’s so easy to feel like you’re on an island. This is rarely true. Attending that conference taught me an infinite amount, and I still keep in touch with most every month.
- Lasting impact scale: 9/10.
- Bonus #4: I reached out to the two other attorneys who I knew worked within the same space. I did this out of respect, and as a cordial acknowledgment. Attorneys have to refer cases all the time, so it just made sense. I still refer cases to one to this day.
I Niched Down My Client Base
I know there’s a quote out there about “if you’re speaking to everyone, you’re speaking to no one”, and that is so very true. Especially when you’re establishing a new reputation.
In the beginning, from 2017 until 2020, I worked nearly exclusively with wedding professionals (due to the events of 2020, I stayed in that industry a bit longer). However, I knew that in my 5 year plan, I would be working in a slightly different capacity, with a slightly different clientele, as I am now (more on this in the follow up post).
I strongly believe that it was because I cultivated a reputation of being a lawyer for wedding professionals that my word of mouth referrals spread like wildfire, and my firm doubled in revenue each year.
Which leads to…
In the legal world, it’s illegal to work for two firms. So when I started my law firm, I came with absolutely NO clients or leads.
Remember that test I referenced in the last post that tested the skills of those “selling professional services”, and ranked “rainmaking” as my lowest skill? This is a very revered institution that has been in business for decades, that many professional firms hire when assessing teams (think financial advisors and lawyers). This wasn’t some random internet quiz.
According to that test, rainmaking was my lowest skill, because I demonstrated too much care for the clients, and could spend too much time “within a client file, unable to refrain from becoming engrained in the client’s work”. I can understand this, on some level, from a founder’s level.
But I took that assessment and flipped it on its head, using it as my competitive advantage. I clearly had a proclivity for getting to know my clients on a personal level, and frankly, it was on paper, I “couldn’t get much worse”. So I just chose not to worry about it, or be performative in my client meetings, and just show up as myself.
And what do you know, it worked.
I’ve never been good about showing up consistently in newsletters or social media, but I am always a dependable resource for my clients. A big part of my wanting to start my firm was because growing up in an entrepreneurial family, I saw what true advocacy meant for a small business owner. It meant a dad being able to show up for every track meet, every horse show, and every family dinner, and never once would I know if legal troubles were weighing him down. I grew up always hearing “Don’t worry about it, Ray’s handling it”.
Your lawyer should be a gatekeeper to safeguarding your peace of mind, which requires trust. And you know what, does require the lawyer to get to know the clients on a bit of a personal level.
Specifically, within about 6 or 8 weeks of opening my firm, I split the company in two, and opened the Creative Law Shop®. The Creative Law Shop® is a contract template shop with about 90 contracts I’ve written for myself or my clients. I did this for 4 reasons:
- I came from a world of contract writing and litigation. Frankly, it’s a strength- I get into an entirely different headspace when I write a contract. However, a well-written contract will take an attorney hours to complete. From a business perspective, it was not realistic, nor was it wise, to build a business model in which I was spending 10+ billable hours a day writing contracts that would cost clients thousands of dollars. Turns out, running the business itself takes a lot of time.
- Many of my clients who did not yet have contracts in place were on the newer side of business as well. Hiring an attorney to draft a $5000 contract just wasn’t feasible. I had a problem of my own; according to my attorney ethics, I typically can’t write contracts across state lines. Legalzoom and Rocketlawyer made a killing off this model; why couldn’t I?
- I wanted to open an intellectual property firm. Some business owners know they need trademarks; many, unfortunately, have to learn the hard way. However, I became the lawyer they already knew about in the back of their minds.
- The very honest truth- I entered entrepreneurship because of a life-changing chronic illness. I have (and likely will) have to have revision surgeries every few years. This model allowed me to take time off when I couldn’t provide 1:1 services.
I’d like to say that diversifying this was a stroke of some genius, but honestly, it was just a linchpin; a greenlight solving both mine and my customers’ needs. Little did I know, this would be my saving grace through a turbulent 5 years of 12 surgeries, including spinal fusions, etc. When I had to step back from business, I still had a liferaft.
More importantly, this serves as a reminder: meet people where they’re at. You also may be a services provider, and your dream client wants to work with you, but is just waiting for the chance. Give them an opportunity to get started now.