Forget about "overnight success". There are countless quotes from successful people across industry that will tell you the trappings of external success aren't had overnight. My favorite is McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who says he was an overnight success, but "30 years is a long, long night."
If you're just starting down the path of entrepreneurship, consider this your final warning: establishing your business and making it a profitable, sustainable entity doesn't happen overnight. Sure, some people can shorten the learning curve to get there faster (I'll tell you more in a minute), but the truth is profitability (and sustainability) can take years.
Years, I said. YEARS.
As an entrepreneur with 20+ years in the game, I've helped entrepreneurs at various levels of business development. I've seen brand new startups go like gangbusters only to fizzle out after a year... because they couldn't sustain the momentum it took to get to six figures in the first place. I've also seen a solopreneur limp along for several years before hitting their stride... and what looked like "overnight" success was actually the result of several "redirections" they had to make until they got on the right path for them.
Creative Freedom is about defining success on your terms, doing the work that you love, making good money doing it - and being able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. But it isn't all fun and games. That's why I typically ask my new clients the following question:
What are you willing to do free of charge for 3 years?
Most fresh-eyed entrepreneurs will laugh at you and say "nothing!" because they somehow think they should get paid for every waking minute they plow into their business. While that's nice in theory, it doesn't always play out in practice. This is one of the big reasons why you see continual debates about working for free or for "exposure". The truth is, there's a time and a place for free work (or deeply discounted work), but if it's all you're doing, you don't have a sustainable business (this tongue-in-cheek flow chart gives you an idea, too). Free work is a great way to learn new skills, connect to new people, and leverage your Great Work in the world. But it shouldn't be the only work you're doing.
That said, I often ask people what they're willing to do, unpaid, for the next three years because sometimes it can take that long to hit the "profitable & sustainable" stride. Many businesses get profitable more quickly than that, but they're "hustling" so hard that it's simply not sustainable. Others maintain a sustainable pace, but aren't consistently profitable until about year three. But if you're not willing to put in the hours before you hit pay dirt, then maybe you should keep your day job.
My friend and former client, Les McKeown shares the lifecycle of a business in his book, Predictable Success. Every company begins in Early Struggle - where the singular goal is to find a profitable, sustainable market before you run out of start-up capital.
If you can do that, Les says, that's when it gets "Fun" - the second stage of business growth. On average, it takes 2-5 years to find that sweet spot. Why? Well, here's a closer look at what most of my clients go through during the early struggle phase of their business.
Year One: Honing Your Offer
When you're just starting out, the entire first year is about honing the offer. What are you really selling ? What's the investment? Who would buy what you're offering (it might not be who you think)? How can you do it in a way that works for the lifestyle you're trying to create for yourself? Some of these questions don't apply to large, corporate entities, but for solo and micro-preneurs, building a business around your life, they are imperatives.
The first year can often find you throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall (and essentially working for free), because you're just trying to find enough people with a pulse and a checkbook to keep your business afloat. This is often when we take on crap clients that we end up firing later, because we "need the money."
Year Two: Honing Your Marketing
When you've got a minimum viable offering, and you can start creating consistent sales, you may be hustling like crazy in order to do it. In that case, you're still not sustainable, and you might not even be profitable yet, but you've got some traction. Your nose is a little more above water, and you can see a little farther out on the timeline. You can think more clearly in terms of WHO your offer is meant for, and how they most resonate with your Great Work. You can begin tweaking your messaging to improve your results, or testing new avenues to market your offer because you've finally got some cash flow to pay for a marketing budget!
The second year builds confidence - for you as well as your potential customers. No one wants to deal with a fly-by-night enterprise, regardless of your industry. If you've made it through the first year, your clients have more reason to trust you're going to stick around and be there when they need you. You've also figured some things out - and maybe even started firing clients (or team members) that aren't moving in the direction you want your business to go.
Year Three: Honing Your Systems
You can't keep doing everything yourself, and if you haven't already, it's time to start implementing systems to keep your business running smoothly. Whether it's hiring team members, marketing automation, or financial management tools, without some level of systematization, you call into the trap of having to re-create everything or each new customer. Can you imagine re-creating an email to be sent every time a purchase is made? Email marketing systems can pick up the slack on that quite easily. By the third year, you've done a few things more than a few times, so you know what works and what doesn't. You can create a process manual that makes some elements of your business easier to delegate.
The third year is where profitability ans sustainability come together. The need to "hustle" is replaced by the need to "systematize" - there's more breathing room, positive cash flow, and team members to help take the load off you and support the growth of the business.
You Can Go Faster, But You Can't Rush It
In my years of working with clients, these three steps can't be skipped if you want to eventually be able to make good money doing what you love AND have time and energy to enjoy the money you're making. The faster you can do this, the quicker you get to the fun stuff. But you can't rush it, either. For as many people as I've seen shorten the learning curve and throw money at a problem to fix it faster, I've also seen people try to systematize something they've done once - and they keep having to re-trace their steps and modify the process. Every entrepreneur has their own tempo: Find YOURS. Hustling is a short-term sprint. It's not sustainable, and building your business around "always hustling" is a sure-fire way to stay on the hamster wheel for the rest of your life.
Um. No thanks.
But if you've got a knack for marketing, or you're a systems wizard, you'll be able to trim time off that three year projection and see profitability AND sustainability that much sooner. If you're a whiz in all three areas (crafting an offer, creating great marketing, and systematizing the hell out of your business) or can hire someone who is, then you can REALLY shorten the time frame.
But going into a new venture, thinking you'll be rich and famous in a year is a crisis waiting to happen. Instead, be willing to give yourself some wiggle room to make mistakes, experiment, and get this new venture off the ground. Bootstrapping is great, but if you're planning to give up after a hard first year (or three), you're in business for all the wrong reasons.
Join Me For A FREE Teleclass Series
Liz Larocque and her partner, Eric, have put together a free teleseminar series for corporate escapees that are ready to break out and launch their own business. The event kicks off February 9, and I am excited to be one of the speakers. You can register here to get all the details about turning your passion into a profitable (and sustainable) business. Disclosure: This is my affiliate link, which means if you purchase the recordings, I get a small stipend for referring you. The event is free, however, and I know there's LOTS of great information being shared.