When people ask me to recount “lessons learned” about building my own consulting business, KHK Leadership & Learning, my immediate reaction is, “Why are they asking me? What do I know?” As a 15-year professional at large financial services firms, I always thought of myself as the consummate corporate professional. I thrived in the fast pace, the structure, and the high-quality people environment in which I had the privilege to work. While I am innately self-motivated and determined, I had never contemplated anything remotely entrepreneurial. I am not a natural risk taker. I am obsessed with planning. Selling something or myself? No way! That was never, ever, something I could imagine. Yet, here I am, almost four years in, opining on building a business.
Before jumping in with a few suggestions of hopefully practical advice, I preface this by saying, I would never have had the courage to make the leap without having had many years of solid training “in the trenches” at two world-class organizations known for considering their people as their greatest asset. I also had several incredible managers (who are still mentors) who challenged me and pushed me out of the nest at important moments. Lastly, a key factor in my decision was my impending 40th birthday – call it a mid-life crisis?
Since I launched KHKLL in April, 2017, it has been a whirlwind – in the best way. It has been hard work, exciting, stimulating and challenging. Here are a few lessons I have learned along the way.
1. My reputation is all I have. Not to harp on the incredible training I received as a young Analyst, there has not been one day where I haven’t thought about my reputation. I think about it ALL THE TIME. I check every email (is there a typo?); in every discussion with a client or strategic partner or prospect, I ask myself, would I be proud to see this work/this communication on the front page of a newspaper? I think often of Warren Buffet’s quote, “if you lose money…I will be understanding. If you lose reputation, I will be ruthless.” Lesson learned: My reputation is all I have so I’d better not do anything to jeopardize it.
2. My network is key. I recognized I had a relatively large and broad network, but it wasn’t until I pulled together my list of 350+ contacts to send my “I have arrived” launch email that I realized quite how many people I knew. Building and maintaining relationships has always come somewhat naturally to me and, I have been told, that I am a “connector”. My network of both clients and strategic partners has been the single most important asset to my business. Lesson learned: You never know who will end up being a client, competitor, or colleague someday, so be nice and professional to everyone along the way.
3. Invest in yourself. About 3 months in, I hosted a dinner at a nice restaurant for 20 women I admire in business, ranging from former colleagues to potential clients to peers to my mother. I went around the room and made a personal introduction and commented on what I admire most about each guest. There was no further agenda. The women got along great and it solidified valuable professional partnerships for me. Lesson learned: Spend a little money to create the opportunity for personal connections.
4. It’s a marathon not a sprint; I can’t always plan months ahead. When I started out, I set a few productivity goals (ie. X number of “prospect” meetings to talk about my business; “land” Y number of new clients and I wanted to achieve certain revenue goals). I quickly realized that all of this takes time and effort. It doesn’t just happen overnight and may happen unevenly throughout the year. Also, in years like 2020, being flexible and nimble was critical. Lesson learned: No matter how busy or overwhelmed I may feel, take a minute to breathe and prioritize. If things are quiet, that’s ok. Down time provides opportunity to read, reflect, strategize and network.
5. Simple but accurate trackers are my best friends. I rely on Excel (and Quickbooks) to track my revenue and expenses and keeping those up to date is imperative. I rely on Outlook Tasks, and specifically a task entitled “Balls in the Air”, to track my client work. Luckily, organization comes easily to me. Lesson learned: In order to be productive, I must be organized.
6. Being able to say NO is important.I am still working on this. I like to give people what they want. But sometimes, others’ desires or demands don’t align with what I see as best for them or, for that matter, what works for me. When having these difficult conversations, I try to be concise, direct and fact-based. Sometimes it takes more than one awkward discussion. Lesson learned: It takes confidence to challenge or disagree with a client, but it is critical to maintain “quality control” over my work product and my time. The buck stops with me.
One last word on timing. Many successful entrepreneurs wish they had started their journey earlier. Respectfully, that wouldn’t have worked for me. You have to be ready. Ready for hard work; ready for disappointment; ready for the unknown; and ready to take big risks. I will never regret the 15 years I spent building the skills and gaining the confidence I needed to take that leap. I feel grateful to be where I am, but I am very conscious that each day, week, month, and quarter are a clean slate; nothing is guaranteed. I will always have to work hard, continue to grow and develop so that my business will evolve and I will continue to create new lessons.
Kim Karetsky is a leadership expert and Founder and CEO of KHK Leadership and Learning, a consulting business that designs and implements customized professional development and leadership services to organizations and individuals.