Lessons from being in business for 6 years

On December 6th, 2006 I filled out the paperwork to officially make Ideal Project Group a business in the State of Illinois. Ideal is different from what it was when I started, has had a few ups and downs, and while I feel I still know a fraction of what I'd like to know, I'm much smarter and more knowledgeable than I was a few years back. Here are a few things I've learned along the way.

Your spouse is your most important business partner

I often write about my wife Maile and my family on this blog. I worry sometimes that I come off a bit too sappy, but I strongly believe that our partners in life become our partners in business and that too many people forget this simple rule. When Ideal started, it was Maile and her job that provided the health insurance. When I hit lows and started questioning things, it was Maile who was there to encourage me. During the upswings it was Maile who let me know we weren't just lucky. When I wanted to take some bigger risks, it was Maile who believed in me most. There's a huge difference between swimming against the current and swimming with the current. I'm fortunate beyond words for all the ways Maile has supported this business.

Build a product

We've built some products that are respectable but only generate a small amount of revenue. We built a product that will support our entire team as long as we continue to execute well. And we've built other products that we ended up shuttering completely. In every case though, something especially positive came out of it. Making things for yourself that express who you are, and show what you can do, when your team is making every decision is so important that it deserves it's own post.

Good clients are worth far more than the money they pay you

Good clients trust you to do the work you're good at. They refer you to other people who need your services. They pay you on time. They are fun to be around. They challenge you to be better but not in a way that questions your abilities. They don't dictate, but they collaborate. We're fortunate that every one of our clients for some time now has been what I would consider a good client. And a good client is worth so much more than just the dollars they pay you with.

Bad clients are never worth what they pay you

We've been extremely fortunate to have worked with some amazing companies and entrepreneurs, and the vast majority of our clients have been what I would call 'good clients'. Over the course of six years though, you're going to run into some lemons. Bad clients suck the life and the creativity out of you. They dictate things they want done without being willing to collaborate. They miss deadlines. They micromanage everything. They pay their bills late. They lead to work that you're not proud of and don't want to put on your portfolio. Worst of all, they suck so much life out of you that they impact the work you're doing for your good clients. Here's a really important secret: you can always tell ahead of time when a client is going to be a bad client. You just need to be willing to trust your intuition.

Limiting your talent search to a geographic location is silly

Talented people are everywhere, and the internet allows us to collaborate across the world with anyone. If you can't clearly communicate with someone that lives in another state or another country, you aren't trying hard enough.

In person interaction is critical and important

As wonderful as remote collaboration and the freedom it provides is, you have to make it a priority to physically get together sometimes. Our team didn't do this enough this past year and we've felt the impact. Balance is important, and sometimes you just need to get in the same room together.

Word of mouth is everything

Clicks are a digital representation of something far more valuable: one human speaking with another human about your product or service. Nothing else even comes close.

You can listen too much

There are so many conferences, and there is so much advice out there now, that you can go crazy trying to listen to it all. At a certain point you need to decide who you are, what you believe in, and stop listening to everyone else for a while. In fact, it's entirely possible you should stop reading this right now and get back to work.

There is extreme value in cash-flow

Payment terms are just as important as the dollar amount you charge, and you should never feel bad about requiring clients to stick to their payment terms. If you charge someone $100/hour and they paid you $90 you would say something. Same holds true for payment terms. There is real value in cash-flow and payment terms should always impact the price you charge.

People matter most

Of all the wonderful things that running your own business can provide, nothing compares to the relationships you form with other human beings. If you look at business as the context through which we form meaningful relationships, it changes the way we define success. I'm fortunate to have met many of the people I now call friends through my business. Friends are way more valuable than money.

There is no finish line

This was the hardest but most important lesson for me to learn. I used to think there was some finish line that existed - where once it was reached you could stop marketing, selling, or having to try hard. There is no finish line. You have to constantly try hard and put in significant effort to build the business you want and make it succeed.

There are however milestones, and I'm pretty proud to be able to say we've been in business for 6 whole years.

To everyone who made it possible, thank you.