Bigger is not always better
When you are running your own business there’s an expectation that you want to grow it to be as big as possible. The media portrays getting funding, hiring staff, and moving into bigger offices as big milestones you should be aiming for. Go big or go home seems to be the mantra of most business writing and it’s a pressure that’s hard not to get sucked into.
I used to read Wired magazine and see successful international businesses run by people younger, smarter and better dressed than me that had fancy offices with hundreds of employees. That’s who I need to be I used to think.
When I started my business in 2011 it was when the Silicon Roundabout hype was starting. With all the events about “startups” it was hard not to get in on the action. There was a big focus on typical VC route and funding and I spent about 3 months thinking about raising money, creating slide decks and going to pitch events. I was planning on raising to raise £400,000 because that’s what someone smarter than me told me I would need for a business like mine. What I didn’t realise is that we had a differing opinion of success. If I was aiming for a company to take on the world and make millions (or billions) then I would need £400,000 and that would just be the start of it. But I wasn’t honest to myself about what would make me happy and instead was trying to fit in with expectations.
I never took any funding in the end. Five years on and the business has organically grown to have over 1,000 paying customers with a small remote team of about five.
Here are four lessons I’ve learnt along the way that I was very insecure about initially.
- Money is a luxury. In my first six months before I considered funding I was focussed entirely on getting to £1k/mo revenue. I didn’t spend more than £500 on the business; I just spent lots of time coding, hustling and taking shortcuts. The pressure of knowing that this business needed some customers forced me to do things I really wouldn’t normally like cold calling. There’s no choice so best-practices and ideals go out the window — decisions are made automatically and the only route is as-the-crow-flies to results. These days, having money to spend on things like advertising seems like a real luxury: it’s so easy to waste if it’s at your disposal and with all the possibilities it opens up it’s easy to waste time deliberating.
- It’s fine to take your time. It was only two years ago that I hired someone to help out with customer support. Up until then I was spending about three hours a day doing it all myself. It was only last month that I hired a contractor to help out with a redesign — I had been doing it all myself up until then. The big business advice would have been to get help much earlier on so I could focus on more important CEO type stuff, but I wanted to go at my own pace and I enjoyed taking my time.
Lots of people tell me that my service is too cheap and I think they are right. I’ve had these prices for years though and we can operate with a profit in most cases so it hasn’t seemed urgent to change it. If I had investors, the expectation would be to change this as soon as possible to maximise profits but whatever — I’ll get round to it in my own time.
- More people is not necessarily better. Hiring people is a big responsibility. The more people you hire, the more people you are responsible to, the more difficult decisions you need to make, and there’s much more boring admin. And at some point you will need to hire someone to manage the admin of people.
- Everything is not compulsory. Having a blog seems essential for a SaaS business like mine. Our blog is out of date, the content is inconsistent and finding writers feels like a constant burden. I don’t think anyone reads it, and I don’t think it’s got us any customers. With so many disciplines it often feels like there are a lot of shoes to fill when running your own business. Ooh, I must optimise user experience, I must learn how to use Google Analytics properly, I must set up those Facebook Ads. There are millions of things that could be done but they are not all necessary. Get the things that are important to you right, create value for your customer, and anything else important will make itself known. Forgive yourself for not doing everything.
Ticket Tailor is not a big business and not worthy of the pages of Wired but it’s fair to say I’m living the dream and the business gives me exactly what I want. I picked an office that’s 10 minutes walk (or skateboard) from home that I share with some friends. Sometimes I work from the office, sometimes I work from home, sometimes I work from cafés. I take my dog for walks in London Fields and Victoria Park. I go to the cinema on a Monday afternoon. I get to do exactly what I want. And fortunately it’s by no means a hobby job — it brings me much more money than I could ever earn in a normal job.
The biggest lesson of all is that there is no right way to do things. Any advice you get is given from another’s perspective who has different ideas of success and happiness to you. You can make your own way and apply any advice you get in ways you see fit. Ultimately you should feel good about the way you do things just because that’s how you want to do them. Your happiness should always be the goal so do whatever you want to get there.