Yesterday, LinkedIn reminded me that The Knowlton Group has been around for three years! It certainly doesn’t feel like three years have passed since filing all the documentation and getting the company officially registered.

Reflecting on this, the only thing more surprising than how fast time has flown is how much has changed in that time. Many of my preconceived notions about starting a consulting business were challenged – forcing me to adapt. Things that I thought would be easy proved to be much more challenging. In this spirit, I have put together a brief list of some of the lessons that I learned starting The Knowlton Group.

Focus, focus, and focus

The first day after leaving my position at State Employees’ Federal Credit Union, I woke up with a ton of excitement. After all, it was my first day of being completely dedicated full-time to The Knowlton Group and surviving (or failing!) on my own. I sat down in my office, opened up my computer…and aimlessly wasted the first couple hours reading various news sites, blogs, and perusing social media.

Especially working from home, one of the biggest challenges I dealt with was staying focused early in the business’ maturity. When starting out I had a couple clients and some prospects I was trying to pursue. By no means did I have a full day’s worth of work. I found that it was very easy to kill a couple hours doing…well…nothing.

It’s easy to stay glued to my screen working tirelessly now that opportunities abound. In fact, the hardest challenge is now pulling myself away from the computer to maintain some sense of work-life balance!

The biggest lesson I learned from all this was to create a to-do list and prioritize tasks every day. Before I wrap up each day’s work, I put together a to-do list and an outline for tomorrow’s day. This enables me to immediately start work the next day with a plan of action. This helps me stay focused and achieve specific objectives throughout the day.

Credit Ms-Blake for the Rock gif!

Gif Credit: Ms-Blake

Focus, focus, focus.

Appreciate Everything – Positive and Negative

It’s obvious that one would be appreciative of their clients and partners. After all, without them, you would have no business. But over the past three years, I learned not only to appreciate the positives but to embrace and appreciate the negatives.

Not every prospect needs your services or is interested in them. Maybe they don’t think you’re qualified to solve their business need. Perhaps they don’t have the business need you’re trying to solve at the moment. Other times, an existing relationship with another vendor might take precedent over you. It was easy to be discouraged when I was just starting out, but I soon realized that every negative could be learned from and built into a positive.

The client that chooses another vendor enables me to learn how to better promote, communicate, and describe our services. Every negative opens up the possibility to improve – from business development to marketing to delivering services. Learning to embrace negatives and turn them into positives has been one of the best lessons learned over the past few years.

Appreciate and learn from everything – both the positives and negatives

Don’t Sell – Solve Problems

One of the pre-conceived notions I had before starting my business was that clients would be lining up at the door trying to book business. I felt that because I had the skills and qualifications, getting business and projects would be an easy sell.

The flaw in that line of thinking lay in the word “sell”.

Entrepreneurial naiveté led me to believe I could sell my skills and services. But that’s the worst way I could have approached business development. My focus needed to be on solving problems. Nobody cares that I can build a data warehouse, design advanced reports, develop SSIS/ETL packages or design a data strategy. What they care about is what business problem can I help them solve? How can I make their life and their team’s life easier?

This mentality has been one of the biggest factors for our recent successes. Our marketing efforts and content development reflect this goal: let’s help organizations solve problems first and foremost.

Don’t sell – solve problems.

The Pipeline is Never Too Full

As a consultant, my day is a constant balancing act between execution (completing deliverables and making progress on projects) and business development (communication with prospects, content development, etc.). Earlier in the business’ life, I was able to line up a few projects that kept me busy all day. I dedicated 100% of my time to completing those projects. That worked out well…until the projects were finished and nothing else was in the pipeline!

Marketing and business development can NEVER stop. I may have six months of work lined up, but you can bet that I am dedicating an appropriate amount of time each week to developing new opportunities. Expectations and timelines must be clearly articulated to any potential client. If you aren’t going to be free until two months from now, be clear and upfront. I would much rather a prospect decline to do business because the timelines don’t work out than take on a project where I can’t dedicate the proper amount of time to it.

Many companies face this challenge: the implementation team needs to be able to support the new business generated, while the business development team must ensure that the implementation team is at a high utilization. This challenge becomes amplified when the business development team and implementation teams are small in number.

The pipeline is never too full.

Your Reputation is Everything

Luckily, this is not a lesson I had to learn the hard way! I have always prided myself on building a positive reputation on the principles for which I stand.

If I believe a client is asking for something outside of my qualifications, skills, or scope of operations, I have no problem letting them know that I am not the right person for the job. I would rather lose out on business than accept a project for which I would not provide the absolute highest quality work.

There have been instances, when speaking with prospects, where the services we offer might not be a good fit for them. I’m going to be 100% up-front and let the prospect know that I don’t believe they need this service.

Why lose out on that business? Because my reputation, and the reputation of the business, is of the utmost importance – more important than simply adding dollars to the bottom-line. I want this reputation to be based on up-front honesty and delivering high quality and high value services. By trying to force a project just to onboard another client and get more business, this reputation we are striving for would most certainly not be upheld.

Your reputation is everything.

Summary

It’s been a great ride so far. Starting and owning a business that you completely dedicate yourself to is the most nerve-racking, scary, stressful, exciting, fun, and rewarding endeavor. I’ve learned a lot in the last three years, and I expect to learn even more over the next three.

Thank you to everyone who has helped the company get to where it is today, and thank you to all who will help it get to where it will be in the future.

-Brewster Knowlton
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