Ask MiGoals: "I want to start a business but I can’t get my act together."

Posted by Anna Mackenzie on


Ask MiGoals

Question:

I’ve wanted to start a business forever, but despite all my wanting I’ve never actually been able to get my act together and do it.

For context, I’m in my mid-20s. I studied graphic design at uni but once I graduated I couldn’t find a designer role and so I’ve ended up working as an Account Manager at a creative agency. I’ve tried to move sideways into a creative role but unfortunately I haven’t had much success.

My dream is to start my own graphic design business and I’ve been working on my idea for months. I’ve tinkered with building a website and I’ve been mulling over what to call my brand. I’ve listened to countless podcasts about getting clients. I’ve looked at how other graphic designers showcase their work. I even got a friend to build me a financial model to show me how I’d bring in as much money as my current salary.

I feel like I’ve done so much but 12 months on I’m still sitting in the same job and feel like I’m no closer to making my dreams a reality.

I’m working so hard but getting nowhere and I’d love some practical advice. Any ideas? I’m in my mid 30s and feel totally stuck.

— Tom

This Ask MiGoals column is written by Anna Mackenzie.

ANNA'S ADVICEAnna Mackenzie

@annaclmack

Anna is a founder, startup consultant, host of the lady-brains podcast and writer of Anna Mack’s Stack; a weekly newsletter sharing business, career and life lessons infused with a dash of humour and vulnerability. Subscribe to her newsletter here and follow her on instagram.

Tom, you’re not alone in struggling to get your business off the ground. In fact many (if not most) people find it challenging going from zero to one. Putting your skills out there and your heart and wallet on the line is Big Scary Stuff.

I know a thing or two about it.

A few years ago I started a business with two friends that eventually became a top rated podcast where we interviewed some of the world’s most accomplished founders. We had some initial success, landing a network contract and travelling to New York for some high profile interviews. After that early traction we decided to create an online course to help would-be founders flesh out their business ideas. We deliberated on a course name. We went back and forth on the colour palette for months. We tinkered endlessly on the course material. We wrote and rewrote the sales page close to a hundred times. Eventually we got the damn thing out of our minds and into market, but what should have been a six month project ballooned into two years of stress-induced-dilly-dallying and faffing about. By the time it finally launched, we were exhausted.

What I didn’t know then (but I do know now) is that while we were working hard, we were working hard on the wrong stuff. We weren’t focused on what mattered most: shipping a minimal viable version, proving demand and getting cash in the door.

I think this is where you might be right now, Tom. It sounds like you’re agonising over little details - like “do I want burnt orange or bright orange as a brand colour” - and big questions - like “how will I build this business?” or “how will I ever do this full time?” or “how will I make six figures?” or “how is it going to work?”. These big questions are valid ones and I suspect the planning, strategising and enlisting of your friend to build a financial model are your honest attempts to find the answers.

But here’s the thing: you don’t find the answers and then start, you uncover the answers during the very act of your doing. The doing is what’s important. The action is where the magic lies.

Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, explains this best through the framework of Motion vs. Action. He writes:

Motion:
  • Talk to a personal trainer
  • Research your book idea
  • Explore different types of meditation
Action:
  • Do 10 squats
  • Write 1 sentence
  • Meditate for 1 minute

Motion feels like progress. Action is progress.

Motion is sneaky. It likes tricking us into thinking it’s action when it’s not. To dive a little deeper, let’s take a look at some of the things you’ve been working on:

  • Tinkering around with a website. Having somewhere to showcase your work is important however your use of the word ‘tinkering’ is a big clue. Tinkering means tweaking, pruning, refining, delaying, questioning, reworking and rebuilding, all things that lead to spinning your wheels. Tinkering is motion, not action.
  • Listening to countless podcasts. I’ll be the first to admit that books and podcasts are amazing tools, but they’re only impactful when you’re implementing what you’ve learned. Listening to a podcast about how to make a sales call is one thing, but picking up the phone and calling a potential design client is another thing entirely. Learning is motion, not action.
  • Getting a friend to build a financial model. In the early days of starting a service based business a financial model is not that useful or meaningful. What’s useful is banking your first buck. Strategising and planning is motion, not action.

Tom, are you starting to see how some of your efforts might be more motion-y than action-y? Is it possible some of your well intentioned effort is misplaced? Might it be possible that if you were redirected into taking action; heart-in-your-throat, pulse-racing, beads-of-sweat, why-am-I-doing-this type action; that things would start to take shape?

Here’s a little secret. It’s not your website or brand or messaging or strategy or fancy financial model that will make you feel like you’ve got runs on the board. It’s landing your first client and getting that first dollar in your bank account. Because that is proof you can generate income from your skills. It’s evidence supporting your hypothesis that you can build a business.

With that in mind, an action oriented to do list might look like something like this:

  • Create a pitch deck outlining who you are, the services you offer, and how you can help.
  • Send 10 sales emails to potential clients per day.
  • Do 1 sales call per day. Take them before or after work hours, or on your lunch break if you need to.
  • Offer to do highly discounted (or even free) work for your first few projects. A testimonial and case study is worth its weight in gold.

These are the steps that will land you a client. And once you have a client, you have a business. Once you have a client there’s no turning back. Once you have a client, you’ve started.

And once you’ve started, there will be no stopping you.

— Anna

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