It is a much harder question than you would think, because there is so much that I have learned about owning and operating a business that I did not know when I first started out back in 1991. At that time, I foolishly thought that running a CPA firm would be easy because I was already a good CPA. But to answer that question, let’s review the two biggest mistakes I made that restricted my growth.
Big mistake number one!
This is the biggest mistake that first-time business owners make when they are starting out. They have the same misconception I had—that being a good CPA would automatically translate into being good at running a CPA firm. Nothing could be further from the truth! The skills required to be good at doing the work are completely different from the skills required to be good at running the business of doing the work!
Even bigger mistake number two!
When I started out, I just hated the idea of selling and marketing. I didn’t want to become a pushy used car salesman. I thought all I had to do was be good at my job and people would find me. I call this the “Field of Dreams” sales method. If you have watched the movie, you know that it is about a farmer who cuts a baseball diamond into his cornfield after hearing a ghostly voice telling him, “Build it, and they will come!”
Just one problem with the “Build it, and they will come” sales model—what if they don’t come? Well, that’s what happened to me. You see, I picked up my first six clients in the first week and thought, “Wow this is easy!” Then I didn’t get my next client until month seven.
What I learned (the hard way) is best described by Bill Glazer, author of Outrageous Advertising That’s Outrageously Successful: “I have a two thing business—Getting new customers and keeping them as long as possible.” I was good at keeping a client, but I really had no clue how to get them.
For me, the key to success was understanding what Dan Kennedy stresses in his No B.S. Marketing books: Every business is really a marketing business!
This realization that I had to become a sales and marketing expert for my business changed how I approached my business. I no longer thought that I was in the business of preparing tax returns, preparing financial statements, and providing profit consulting. I now understood that I was in the business of marketing and selling those things! That meant that no matter how much I hated selling, if I wanted my business to survive, I had to learn how to do it.
So back to the original question: What would I do differently if I started over?
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now know that before I opened my business (or within the first year of operations), I should have:
- become an expert at the efficient operation of a CPA firm, and
- become an expert at marketing and selling my services.
I am going to assume that you have trade manuals and training materials about how to run a business in your industry. Plus, most business owners already know how to do the work of their business, so it is just a matter of learning how to do it more efficiently and learning how to manage the business.
But becoming an expert in marketing and selling is much harder. Most entrepreneurs who start a business are good technicians, but many have little sales or marketing experience. Compounding the problem is the fact that outsourcing marketing and sales seldom works. This is a very critical task that the owner must do themselves. The owner is the one responsible for delivering what marketing and sales messages have promised. The owner is the only one who truly understands how their product helps solve their client’s problem. And the owner is the only one who knows what the goals for the business are.
So how do you become an expert at marketing and selling? I outlined 10 steps to becoming a sales and marketing expert in an article titled “Every Business Is a Marketing Business.” You can find it in our January issue of Innovative Small Business Strategies (still available for purchase on your iPad or iPhone).
These are some great steps towards becoming a sales and marketing expert:
1) Change your mindset about sales and marketing. Understand that if you really believe your product or service will transform your customer’s life, then you have a moral obligation to provide it to as many people as possible. This can only be done by selling.
2) Read at least one marketing book per month.
3) Take a variety of marketing courses.
4) Hire a personal sales coach.
5) Subscribe to sales and marketing magazines and blogs.
6) Create a marketing plan.
7) Create a 12-month implementation plan.
8) Choose sales tools to reach your prospects that fall within your budget.
9) Make a monthly appointment with yourself to review your marketing.
10) Set aside some time each week to sell.
With everything I have learned about managing and marketing an accounting firm, I could easily start over and grow my firm to its current level in five years instead of the 22 years it has taken.
Of course, I still hate selling. But I close about 70 percent of the prospects I meet, and our business has consistently had annual growth between 10 and 20 percent each year.