What the First 5 Years of Being in Business has Taught Me


It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I will be in the Darwin airport, heading home from the site where my journey of being self-employed began, 5 years, nearly to the day, since I threw in my day job and “went contracting”. I haven’t been able to help but look back on all the things that have happened in that time and ponder what got me here. Not in the “what the hell was I thinking” kind of way. Although I have thought that a few times. More in the why did I succeed in getting this far despite all the challenges and times where I should have failed. Especially where so many others have “failed” before me.

While 5 years in business hardly makes me any kind of guru or business adviser, I thought some others might benefit from my thoughts on what helped me get by for the last 5 years and what it has taught me about not just business but life in general. While some of them are a little cliché, I hope to put a bit of a no nonsense, non-“arty-farty”, non-“touchy feely” spin on things.

It’s All in Your Attitude.

1) Be Honest.

I have been told at times I am to honest. My fiancée told me I was insane for publishing my article on 7 reasons to not get your whole facility remodelled because it would cost me work. I know I have been honest to the point that it has cost me work. But more often than not it has worked out very well for me.

I have honesty to thank for the fact that I have one of my biggest clients. I advised them against doing something they contacted me to do which would have won me a pretty nice contact if I had of just shut up and taken the job, but would have cost them a lot of money for a job they could do themselves for next to nothing. They thanked me and hung up the phone. I thought for sure I would never hear from them again. To date they have spent a great deal of money with me and are looking like spending a great deal more. Far more than that first contract would have gotten me. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to be honest with them the first time we spoke. This isn’t an isolated incident.

I am honest not only because it serves my clients well but because it builds trust. If you want to build a lasting business and have someone spend thousands of dollars with you time and time again, they must trust that they will get at least that amount of value back from you or more. Even if they work for a huge company and “it is not their money”, but especially if it is their money!

2) Be Friendly.

You never know who you’re talking to or who is watching you. Not only on the job site but when you are out and about in general. I have sparked up a few conversations while out and about that have either turned into business being done or a great contact being made. Besides it makes unpleasant situations much more bearable.

3) Be Helpful. Even if You Are Not Getting Paid for It.

Not only has this served me well with existing clients, by going the extra mile and doing things I wasn’t really being paid to do, but could do, so I did. But I have had quite a surprising number of people contact me and start out by saying “I read your article…can you please come and do….?” most of which have led to happy clients giving me repeat business. I don’t get a cent from website traffic or YouTube views in the way of adds. I do it mainly as a way of giving back because I learned a great deal from things I have found online.

(To be completely transparent, I have “monetized” my YouTube account just in case something one day goes viral on my channel. I would hate to think I could have made millions overnight for nothing more than posting a video and didn’t. Let’s just hope it is for something good and not because of something stupid I did that was caught on video!)

4) Do What Your Client Asks You Too. Whatever That Is.

So long as it is legal and no one will get hurt, do it. That’s what they are paying you for.  I have seen multi-million-dollar contracts lost over one to many petty arguments between a contractor and client about how some unimportant detail should be handled while big issues were either being handled poorly or getting no attention at all.

The way I see it is; I give my client all the information I can on what should be done and why it is better done one way over the other, then let them make the choice on how they want to do it and just get it done that way. Don’t let your ego get in the way, it’s not personal. If it were the other way around and you were paying someone to do something for you, I suspect that is how you would like things to go, so why should your client’s not expect that? So long as it isn’t illegal and it’s not going to hurt anyone it shouldn’t matter what it is or how it gets done. They are paying you to do it the way they want it done.

5) Be Genuine.

If you have to force any of the above 4 points people will know it. I don’t do any of them because of what I might get from it. I do it mainly for my own peace of mind so i can rest easy knowing I have done the best possible job for my clients. If you are treating everything with a “what’s in it for me” or “I’m the expert it must be done my way” mentality, people will know. If you are lying or being deceitful to get your way, you will eventually be found out and most people don’t take that well. Don’t do any of them solely because you think you will get something form it. People will pick up on it, even if it is subconsciously, and not want to deal with you.

6) Be Brutally Honest with Yourself.

I am not talking about being self-deprecating. Just be honest. Don’t go along telling yourself you’re doing an excellent job when you are being told the opposite by everyone you have worked for or that has seen your work. You will always get “haters”. Ignore them. Especially don’t think you’re doing well if you are getting no work. There will always be times where things are quiet and work is hard to come by. That’s not what I am talking about either. Just be alert to the fact you will always have things to learn about your craft that can make you better at it. Likewise, know you can almost always make things better for your business and don’t lie to yourself in the face of bad or declining results. Look at why you got those results and change whatever you should too make them better.

BUT

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be realistic. No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Cut yourself some slack for the learning curve and don’t get disheartened. Keep at it.

7) Always Keep the Big Picture in Mind but Focus on the Details.

I don’t make any decisions, no matter how small, in my business without first thinking about the big picture. How will this decision affect where I want to get to and how I want to get there? That said I am a details kind of guy. I love getting all the little stuff perfect. I think this combination of always thinking about how every little decision will affect the big picture has served me very well and kept me on track. From the outside, it may look like we haven’t gotten very far in the last 5 years of working for myself. Given where we started and where we are now, with the one exception of a major issue in our lives that was 100% out of our control, we are right on track to where we want to be. Watch out for the next 5 years!

8) Be Ready to Learn to Do It Yourself.

I cannot believe how many things I can do now that I couldn’t do 5 years ago. I have had to learn the in’s and outs of personal and company tax. I have learned how to build websites (I did this one myself). I can now work with 3D scan data that I have captured myself. I have had to learn all about how software and computers work as well as how to spec and build computers to work best with my software. I have learned to do video tutorials and even write articles, just to name a few.

The reason I can now do these things and so much more is because either no one could tell me how to do what I was trying to do (the joys of working with cutting edge tech!), or they had to be done and no one was going to do them for me. I certainly couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do them. The big take away from most of the things I have learned is that a job done poorly is often better than a job not done at all. (That applies in no way to the 3D scanning!) For things like websites and social media accounts, it is often better that you have one so people can find you then to spend 100’s of hours trying to get it perfect the first go. You have bigger fish to fry and you can always update them later, as anyone that saw my first website can attest to.

9) It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint.

Be prepared for your dreams to take time to come to fruition. You will see this all over the place, but there is no such thing as an “overnight” success. If you don’t believe me, pick any “overnight success story” you want and actually do some research on how long the person/people behind that story were working on either it or the path to it before they got their “overnight success”. Expect it to take at least 5 years to start to see any real traction or “success”, likely double that or a lot longer for some things.

Handle Your Business.

10) Get a Website

Kind of obvious these days, but I wish I had paid more attention to this earlier. It really is a great, cheap, 24hr advertising place. Spend some time and effort on this early in your businesses life. If it really isn’t “your thing” get someone to help you do it or pay someone. It will pay off in the long run and isn’t hard to do it yourself. Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is worth spending some time to make a decent site.

11) Get a Uniform and Business Cards and Keep Them on You Whenever You Go Anywhere for Business.

If for no other reason than it makes you look more professional.

However, I cannot believe how many people I catch looking at my logo on my shirts. When I got my uniforms, I didn’t have much traffic on my website (almost no website traffic at all to be honest). I could actually see spikes of traffic for a day or two after I had been out somewhere in my uniform. It is “free” advertising! A uniform also starts a lot of conversations with people, you never know who you have just sat beside in public, they could be your next big client.

As an employee in the past, while on large sites with other contractors on the same project who didn’t have uniforms, I have had the people from the site comment that they like the fact they know who we are and where we are from at a glance due to the uniform. That is particularly true of mine sites where there are hundreds and even thousands of people working every day. It makes you stand out.

I must admit I am not perfect with the cards, I am working on it, but I also know that has cost me work. I have met people, had a great chat about what I do and they ask for a card and DOH! No card. No follow up, no connection, lost opportunity. That also makes you look a bit amateurish.

12) Buy the Right Equipment for the Job.

If you are working for yourself you are putting yourself out there as a professional in your field. How do you expect anyone to take you seriously if you show up with subpar equipment or have to constantly delay deadlines because of faulty or slow equipment? Not only that but if you do get the job and your equipment fails, what do you think the chances are of getting more work or being recommended? This can be the most expensive part of running your business but when you can reliably deliver top quality results in record times because you have the best gear to do the job you are far more likely to be taken seriously and get more work. I learned this one the hard way. Trust me don’t make this mistake.

13) The 2 Most Important Things You Will Do for Your Business Are Invoicing and Advertising.

Some may say that your work or servicing your clients is more important than either of these things. Here’s why I say it’s a close second to them;

  1. Invoicing – if you are not sending invoices out and following up outstanding invoices, you are not making money. All BS aside, the only way a business survives is to make money. It should be one of the most important things in your business.
  2. Advertising – it is all well and good to do an outstanding job for your existing clients, but what do you do once the work for them is done? Even our biggest multi-national clients with multi-million-dollar projects run out of work for us. How do we get more work if no one knows we exist?

The reason they are equal first is that it is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. I guess at first you could say advertising is more important in order to win a client, but they quickly become equal. The fact that you are doing your best possible work for your clients is a given and shouldn’t really rate as a thing that has to be done, but if we are rating it, I still say it is a close second to these two things.

14) You Better Be Ready to Stand up for Yourself and Stand Your Ground.

I have always been a lover and not a fighter. But since working for myself I have had to harden up and learn to fight for myself. By this I mean be ready to hold people to their word. If they have promised you something by a certain date you must be ready to make the tough phone call or have the hard meeting to demand you get it. (Refer my point about following up invoices.) Especially when your business or reputation depends on it. I have my beautiful Fiancée to thank for teaching me a lot about this. Don’t cross that woman!

Business Man Ready to Box
Stand up for yourself

(For the record don’t loose your shit at clients. That won’t help.)

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes.

15) Deal with Problems Fast and Move On.

By this I mean take some time to think about it, do some research if you need to but make a decision and then move on. You will soon learn if it wasn’t the right decision and there aren’t many decisions that will completely ruin you in one fell swoop if you were wrong. If you were wrong, you can almost always change your mind or take steps to fix it. The longer you spend thinking about that one problem the less time you have focusing on other critical issues.

16) It’s Business, Not Personal, Keep It That Way.

This one is probably one of the hardest, but one of the most important. Don’t make decisions for your business based on personal feelings alone. You need to consider everything with relation to how it will help or disadvantage your business. And I mean EVERYTHING. I find the best and easiest way to do this is to think of your business as someone or something you have to do everything for and you only want the absolute best for that entity. If you use this mind set it allows you to keep some distance from personal emotions when a really tough decision has to be made which is the only way you will do what is best for the business and not what’s best for you. Running your own business will require some level of personal sacrifice.

17) Ask Lots of Questions.

No one knows everything. Most people, including your clients are happy to share information that will make your life easier. Most people are aware that if you are new to their site then you are not going to know it all. They will expect questions. You will not lose work over it. If someone fires you because you were asking questions in order to do your job better, you really don’t want to be working with people like that anyway. If you need help with something, ask someone. Almost everyone is more than happy to share their thoughts on something. Just take a look at some internet forums!

18) How You Handle a Mistake Is Often More Important Than Not Making Them.

Admit fault and fix it as fast as possible with as little hassle as possible. I have seen and made some pretty big mistakes during my life. (Anyone who says they haven’t is lying, don’t trust them! Haha!) Where a client or boss/manager is concerned, it is always more important that you confront them if you have found an error and it is always best that you either agree to do everything you can to fix it or already have a plan in place to fix it. I have seen some MASSIVE stuff ups that could (probably did) cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. If they had been left for the client to find, it likely would have cost the contractor their contract and likely an expensive legal battle for the costs to fix it. I can’t recall ever seeing someone getting in trouble or sued for taking an issue to a client with a fix already sorted. The opposite can not be said.

Stay Motivated

19) Look for Something Small That Motivates You and Look to It Often.

For me this is music. I can listen to music while I work to drown out the surrounds and focus on what I am doing. But more than that I draw inspiration from the lyrics of the songs. I use the pace of the music to help pick me up or help calm me down. This is about as airy fairy/touchy feely as I get for the most part. But I find this really works well for me. Especially when I have to work huge hours for weeks on end. For others, I have heard having pictures of your dreams/goals, inspirational quotes or positive affirmations around the place helps. Whatever it is that works for you do it and do it often.

20) Your Greater Why.

Ever since seeing this video;

I can’t help but think about the fact I actually have one and that really is one of my biggest motivations on crappy, hard days. I can’t put it better than that video, so watch it, find yours and keep it in mind always.

21) Work out a Plan.

It doesn’t matter if you write a 50 page document or if you just get it clear in your head, work out what you want to achieve from working for yourself. Whether that is “just” doing your own jobs, for yourself, the way you want to do them and being paid “industry standard” rates, instead of doing it for someone else, the way they want them done and being paid half of that. Or if it is making mega millions and living the high life, work out what it is you want to achieve by working for yourself.

Work out your end goal and work backwards from there. Work out how your business is going to help you achieve that goal. Once you have that worked out, then work out what steps you have to take with in your business to reach the end goal for your business. Then break down each major goal to a series of smaller goals and those goals into individual tasks to be done. Now you have your plan.

Things are a hell of a lot easier to achieve when you know exactly what you want and have a plan on how to get it. If you are just starting out it doesn’t have to be perfect and it WILL change as you grow and achieve things and learn more.

To Do List
To Do List

22) Work Your Plan.

One day at a time, one task at a time, but every day, do one thing every day toward your goal. This is critical.

Every day.

One thing.

It doesn’t have to take you hours, it can be small. A social media post, 5 minutes setting up something Sunday to let you hit the ground running on Monday. Just do something EVERY day towards completing that next task towards the next goal. Before you know it you’ll have reached that goal and be working toward the next one.

I take this approach over putting a date or time line to a goal because I find it keeps the pressure on and keeps me motivated. I find if i set a date in the future, I relax to much and that date sneaks up to fast and goes by and I don’t achieve what i wanted to. EVERY day I do something towards my goals.

23) Be Prepared to Go the Distance.

I have literally worked 27hrs straight to deliver on an important deadline. I have worked 2 consecutive 8 hr days (16hrs/day) for two different clients for weeks on end. I have arrived home from mine sites having worked 12+hr days 7 days a week for a week or more, getting little sleep due to crappy beds and noisy people in the adjacent rooms, had a shower and gone and done another job for another client. I have literally worked 12-16hrs a day, 7 days a week for a month in 4 different states for 6 different clients.

I don’t say this bragging, but for me this has been what it has taken to keep the business going and to keep clients happy due to the nature of the work I do. You may face different battles, but you better be ready to do what it takes to get through them or you will be toast.

24) Stop and Smell the Roses Occasionally.

It is all well and good to have a goal and be working hard towards it, but life goes by pretty fast when you are focused on achieving something big. Even if you have to force yourself, stop occasionally and enjoy the fruits of your labour. Whether that is enjoying spending some time with the loved ones you are working so hard to support. Taking a minute to stand back and look at all the things you have achieved in a certain time. Or, taking a minute to give yourself a pat on the back for handing over a job well done. If you don’t it will soon begin to feel like you are getting nowhere fast. That will take its toll on your mental health and make everything harder.

My Rose to Smell - Sunset from Home
My Rose to Smell – Sunset from Home

25) Never Give Up.

This is by far the most important thing of all. You never know just how close you really are to cracking the big time. Most of my biggest wins have come on the days where I just didn’t want to get out of bed. All I wanted to do was throw it in. It often only takes one phone call to completely change the day. Don’t you dare give up on your dream! This working for yourself thing sucks at times, but the rewards are there and they are worth every single minute of hard work and pain! Never EVER give up. You’ve got this!

Never Give Up, You Never Know How Close You Are.
Never Give Up, You Never Know How Close You Are.

Well, that ended up being a LOT longer and harder to write then I expected. That said there is probably half a dozen more points I could add to this. But I think these are the major ones. I will keep the others for the 10yr celebration!

This marks the last in the list of my 5 Articles Celebrating 5 Years in Business for myself. I really hope they help someone out there that is either starting out or struggling through a tough time at the moment. It get’s better and easier! Stick with it. It really is worth the effort.

I feel I should also take a minute to say a heart felt thank you to my beautiful fiancee Tess for not only putting up with all the heart ache and pain that this journey has caused, but for helping me through the hard times. She has helped me both psychically, by helping me with everything form actually doing work that needed to be done and taking care of pretty much everything around the house so i can focus on the business and work. As well as mentally by being a shoulder to cry on when I am struggling and a sounding board to talk things out with and get an (often brutally) honest opinion. Thank you My Beautiful Girl, I am not sure I would have been able to do it all without you.

I also need to thank my parents for their unwavering support and advice on all aspects of my business. Their experience and knowledge has been no end of help, and for that I will be forever grateful for their input. Thanks Ma and Pa.

I should also thank all of my friends. I have a lot of excellent friends that, although I almost never see them they are always there to have a laugh and unwind a little with when I need them. Thank you to you all.

Lastly, whatever you are doing in life or business have a bit of fun and enjoy the ride. No one gets out alive.

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3 Replies to “What the First 5 Years of Being in Business has Taught Me”

  1. A long read but once again a good read. I am so proud of you and the person you are and I wish you and Tess all the very best. You have always had a strong work ethic even as a kid. Bought your own boat in year seven, bought your own motor bike by 17 years etc etc
    You have done it tough in many ways over the years but you’ve come through well done. It’s not the hand you are dealt but the way you play it. And you know the good thing Josh you never stop learning! I love you but be sure to look after your health along the way it is your biggest asset.

  2. Hi
    I am just in the process of starting out on my own. Reading your comments on 5yrs has given me much more confidence and advice then other professional sector l have approached. It just takes an invisible hand to push you and guide you on. Thank you so much for your article and l will be following you..have a great day..Linda

    1. Thanks for the kind words Linda. Nice to know it has helped someone. Please feel free to connect on LinkedIn and keep me up to date with how you are going. I wish you all the best of luck with what you are trying to achieve.

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