Business Advice for My Younger Self – Rich Brooks
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What would you say to the “you” just starting your business?
For my 300th episode, and having recently celebrated 22 years running flyte new media, I thought I’d like to talk to that guy starting a business in his apartment bedroom, and provide him the advice I’ve learned over the years.
Here’s what I’d tell him….
Rich Brooks: Welcome to Episode 300 of the Agents of Change podcast. That’s right, episode 300. My name’s Rich Brooks, and I’m your host. I’ve been your host every single one of these episodes, and it’s hard to believe that there’s actually been 300 episodes of this podcast. Yes, the first 100 were actually called the Marketing Agents podcast, but really it’s been the same content, the same ideas, the same purpose all along: which is to help you be the best marketer you can be by providing you with cutting edge information and all the best practices, and information from experts, and tools, and tactics, and strategies so that you can reach more of your ideal customers. As always, this episode is powered by Flight New Media.
Rich Brooks: I was starting to think about what I wanted to talk about for my 300th episode. 300, obviously a big number. Plus, just last month Flight celebrated our 22nd anniversary. 22 year in business, which is also a big number. In fact, in some ways it might be a bigger number than 300. It got me thinking about what I wanted to talk about on this particular episode. I decided that episode 300 should be a stand-alone episode, I don’t have a special guest, well you’re my special guest, but I don’t have a digital marketing episode that I’ll be interviewing on today’s episode, it’s just going to be you and me.
Rich Brooks: And after playing around with some ideas, and getting a little nostalgic about 22 years in business, I started thinking about that kid who started a web design company in his apartment all those years ago. I thought about what kind of advice I’d want to give him, what would he need to know? What have I learned along the way? And then I figured I’d share it with you, although I don’t know where you are exactly in your journey.
Rich Brooks: But before we get to that, I want to remind you that the Agents of Change Conference is coming right up, and early bird tickets are running out. We are gearing up, the event is going to be on Friday, September 20th, 2019. And it’s really geared for, well it’s geared for you. Anybody who enjoys checking out this podcast, learning from experts, trying to stay on top of all the changes that are going on on Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, email marketing, paid search, paid social, content marketing; all of those topics and a whole lot more are going to be topics that we’re going to discuss at the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference.
Rich Brooks: We’ve got a full day, including three keynotes and 12 breakout sessions on Friday, including our experts like Mark Shaffer, Dana Malstaff, John Jance from Duct Tape Marketing. Let’s see, who else do we have? I should’ve probably brought up the sheet before I started talking, right? Jenn Herman is going to be here, Mike Kim is going to be here, Michael O’Neill is going to be here, it’s an amazing collection. Brooke Selis is going to be here, it’s an amazing collection of speakers who are all going to be sharing some of their best tactics, and it’s a nice, right-sized conference. It’s not a mega-conference, nor is it you just going down to the Chamber of Commerce and sitting there with six to 12 other people. There’s going to be about 300 to 400 people in the audience, other marketers and entrepreneurs just like yourself, all looking to learn.
Rich Brooks: And the day before, for those marketers who kind of want to take their skills to the next level, you’re going to have a whole day of pre-conference workshops. You’re going to be able to choose up to two pre-conference workshops that are deeper dives. We’ve got Dana Malstaff talking about how to build buzz to launch your next campaign, I’m leading a session for agency owners, which is basically going to be in a format of Master Mind. We’ve got Facebook ads, we’ve got Linked In, a lot of great topics, it’s just going to be a fantastic day, and I absolutely want you to be here.
Rich Brooks: Normally the tickets for the conference are $349, but for right now, during the early bird discount, they’re only $179. So head on over to theagentsofchange.com, grab your tickets now, and I’ll see you in September.
Rich Brooks: Of course, there’s a lot that’s going to happen between now and September, lot of stuff to talk about, lot of episodes still to go. But let’s now turn our attention back to that kid who’s just starting off his business. What would I say to that person? And it’s not specific to web design at all, this is just good business information that I wish I knew when I started out.
Rich Brooks: I never took a business course in college, the closest I ever came, actually, was I had a typing business, a keyboarding business. This was back in the days, actually, when everybody would write out, hand-written, a rough draft before putting it onto the computer, or some people actually may have used typewriters, I don’t actually remember seeing typewriters now that I think about it. But basically you’d get on a computer and you’d type out your written rough draft. And a lot of people just didn’t have keyboarding skills, and I had been a very good keyboardist, typist, when I was in high school, so I just hung a shingle out, put signs up around campus and charged $1.50 a page.
Rich Brooks: Now here’s where the entrepreneurial spirit was not strong in me then, because I was an English major, and a lot of the people who hired me were business majors, and it was a good money. For a typical thing I’d make $5, $10, and that was all the beer money I needed for the night. So it was a good deal, right? But as I was reading their papers, the English major in me just cringed, and I would fix it as I went along. And I know that a lot of people in my class got much better grades because they hired me. What I should have done is charged $1.50 for as is typing, $2 and I’ll fix your sentence structures, $2.50 and I’ll basically guarantee you an A. So that’s maybe one lesson I’d go back to college and tell my college self things. But let’s talk about, when you’re just starting out with a business, what are some things that I wish I knew then that I do know now?
Rich Brooks: Number one is, I’d niche down. The biggest mistake I think you can make is treating everyone as your potential customer. And yes, you are absolutely limiting who you can work with. But as long as you don’t pick too narrow a niche, say left-handed cat walkers from Peoria, there’s plenty of people you can still work with. And, those people, the people in that niche, they’re going to be more attracted to your message because it’s targeting them. You’re speaking directly to them.
Rich Brooks: You know, there’s a lot of people who say you can do something, like you can teach a class on using Linked In, and maybe it’s a free class, or maybe you charge $10 at the door for it. If you suddenly say, “This is Linked In for lawyers,” suddenly you can charge $50, maybe $100. And if you say, “This is Linked In for lawyers who are looking to prospect for corporate clients,” suddenly you can charge $500. And it’s the same content massaged a little bit for that specific audience. So, whenever possible you should be niching down when you’re targeting an audience.
Rich Brooks: I’m actually reminded of a story where somebody came into our offices once, it was an accountant from an accounting firm, and he said that he had been working with this one particular family-owned business for years, and had a great relationship with them. And then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, one year the company came along and said, “You know, we’ve decided to switch to another accounting firm that just kind of opened up in town, because they specialize in family businesses.”
Rich Brooks: Now I’m not saying that family businesses don’t have some specific things that they need to deal with different than non-family-owned businesses, but really that was just very good marketing from the new company to take business away from a trusted adviser. So, again, just a good example of, when you niche down you can have a better opportunity of grabbing that business.
Rich Brooks: Another example is, I have a good friend who runs an agency similar to Flight New Media, but they actually focus on one particular field. And because of that he can offer things to that audience that I can’t offer to mine. As an example, he actually has a service where he has the Chat box, these aren’t Chat bots, these are Chat boxes, he offers Chat box services, or chat services, to his clients and basically he has them manned with real people. So people go to their websites, they get that little chat popup box, “Do you need help?” The person asks them questions, they give some answers, and then at a certain point they say, “You know, you really talk to a specialist,” and they generate that lead for the client.
Rich Brooks: And the reason this works is because everybody’s in the same field, so he was able to train his team to answer the basic questions, and when it got to a certain point hand it off as a very warm lead. That’s nothing I can do, because some of my most recent clients are a company that makes special headgear for babies, a doggy daycare, a financial adviser, a company that deals with the Department of Defense on wastewater issues, I can’t train people to be able to be masters in all those subjects. So that’s one really good example of a company benefiting from niching down.
Rich Brooks: On top of that, he knows exactly what trade shows he should go to, he goes to all of them, he’s omni-present, and then because he’s been doing such a great job, and because he’s really focusing on the digital marketing for that industry, they bring him up to almost every panel and he’s constantly speaking, and he has become the man for that industry, something that I’m not able to do because I’ve always gone broad. Niching down, whenever possible, is always a great way of building your business.
Rich Brooks: And before you freak out that you’re losing all this business because you’re only going after the very small niche, I remember having a good conversation with John Lee Dumas, he used to have this character he called Jimmy, and he would always wonder, “What would Jimmy do?”, and made all his business decisions based on this. We actually have a great early episode of the podcast where he talks about Jimmy. And what he said was, is that even though he’s focusing on this guy who’s 32 years old, and has 2.5 kids, and has a 25 minute commute to work, and so on and so forth, even though every decision is based on this one guy, because he’s so narrowly focused he’s still attracting people from outside that. He still gets customers who are younger, and older, and female, and all this sort of stuff attracted to his message, but he stays on message, and he’s become the expert for that niche. And obviously we all know how successful John is, so it’s a path well worth following.
Rich Brooks: So number two thing is get help. And when I first started I really didn’t know anything about running a business, much less what I was doing in terms of marketing. And really when I started it was just about websites. The only help I ever really got when I was first starting out was just articles I was reading on the web, which still put me ahead of a lot of other people, but the bottom line is that isn’t enough, and wasn’t enough, and I really wish that I had gotten some help right at the beginning of starting my company, because it would’ve made a lot of difference, and I would’ve had a lot less headaches probably along the way.
Rich Brooks: And there’s a lot of different places that you can go and get help, there’s Master Minds, and coaches, and consultants, and I’ve used all three. Currently I’m in a couple of different Master Minds, one for putting on live events, regional events, and another one for agency owners, and I’ve been in other ones before that.
Rich Brooks: I have hired coaches, and I’m currently having a business consultant that I work with, and we get together every couple of weeks and talk about where the business is going and what I should be paying attention to. The help does not have to be paid, I’m paying the business consultant, I’m not paying either of the Master Minds, we work together to get better at these sort of things.
Rich Brooks: I have a friend of mine, a friend and a client, and he is in the corrugated box business, and he found a number of corrugated box owners, that doesn’t sound right, right? They own more than a corrugated box, they own a company that makes corrugated cardboard boxes. And they get together, I think it’s a couple times a year, in each one of their respective cities, because they’re not competing with each other. They open the books, they talk about everything that’s going on, and he said this is one of the best ways that he’s really learned to grow his business.
Rich Brooks: So find some like-minded people in similar places to where you are in your industry who you’re not competing with and start a Master Mind. We’ve also got, here in Maine, and I’m sure wherever you are you’ve got similar services, we have Score, and we have the Maine Small Business Development Centers, and CEI, and ACE for consultants, and all these different services, many of which are free, some of which have a small fee attached to them. But I wish I had known about that when I first got started, because I just didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know whether I should be an S-Corp, a C-Corp, an LLC, a solo-preneur, there was just, there was no support system when I was first starting out. I’m sure there was actually, I just didn’t know where to turn to it. And so if you’re just getting started, or even if you’re along the way, it’s never too late to get some extra help along the way, find that help that you need.
Rich Brooks: And I guess part of it’s like, you know that scene in the Matrix, where Neo and Trinity are on the top of the roof and they’re trying to escape, and there’s a helicopter there, and she’s like, “We’ll take the helicopter,” and he’s like, “Do you know how to fly a helicopter?” And you can see almost instantly that the information is being downloaded to her head through the Matrix, and she’s like, “I do now,” and they hop in the helicopter and fly away.
Rich Brooks: Life’s not quite that simple, but the bottom line is, working with somebody who’s gone through this process already before, or has experience in this is going to speed up your learning process. It’s going to make your whole life easier because you don’t need to make all the mistakes. You’ll still make some mistakes, there’s no way around that, but you won’t make all the mistakes you would have just by tapping into some of that knowledge that’s already out there.
Rich Brooks: The only thing that I’ll say, the only kind of caveat that I’ll give this is, don’t get into a situation where you get paralysis by analysis. At the end of the day you have to trust your gut. So you can take the advice from a consultant, or from a course that you take, or a Master Mind, or whatever it may be, but at the end of the day the decision is yours. So get information and advice, and hear from people who have experience in this, but at the end of the day you have to make your own decision.
Rich Brooks: Number three is, know who to hire, and when. When I first started I wasn’t planning on hiring anybody, so this really didn’t become an issue for a long time. I didn’t even think my company was going to last two years, much less 22 years. I always figured that designers would learn to program, or programmers would learn to design, I never realized that I could just hire people who were significantly more talented than I was, and I would just run the business, which is basically what ended up happening. And it doesn’t always have to be an in-house person. I have, there’s seven, eight of us at Flight New Media, we’re actually looking to hire now.
Rich Brooks: It doesn’t have to be an in-house person, especially these days. It’s so flexible, you can easily hire somebody from around the corner or around the world. I know a lot of companies that do a mix, they have some in-house people and then some external people. We have a few contractors that we absolutely love working with, but it just doesn’t make sense to bring them on, or they’re very happy being an independent. So know how to hire those right people.
Rich Brooks: In fact, it doesn’t always have to be an employee. Just like I said, we’ve got a couple of contractors, and recently we hired an HR company to work with us. A lot of small companies never get an HR person, which means it falls to the owner or the office manager, or somebody else, and you don’t always have the expertise that an HR professional brings to the table.
Rich Brooks: So what I needed up doing, after years of never thinking about it, we had a couple of incidents come up that I needed to deal with, and it just kills our productivity. So what I ended up doing is I contracted with a local company that are HR consultants. Sometimes they send people in, sometimes they just come and talk to you, and one of the first things they did is help us really improve our employee handbook. Which seems like a small thing, but you know I’ve basically been running this company just kind of like, when something goes wrong I try and fix it, probably not the best way to run a company, quite honestly. But HR had never really reared its ugly head, I had never had to deal with it, and now I did. So I’m glad that I was able to bring in that level of expertise.
Rich Brooks: And similarly, we never really had a financial person in-house, outside of anything more than a transactional level. And so I ended hiring a local company to help us with our finances a few years back, it made a huge difference. We had never had a budget, we never did any forecasting, I wasn’t really paying as close attention to the numbers as I should. It’s not a strength of mine, but I brought in the right people, and that’s a big thing. Hire for your gaps.
Rich Brooks: Number four is determine what kind of company you want to run. And I’m not talking about what kind of product or service you bring to the marketplace, I’m talking about who are you, and what do you stand for, and what are you willing to do, and what aren’t you willing to do? You know, as time goes on you’re going to have some situations that arise that kind of put you in a moral quandary of what you want to do. And the more confident you feel in who you are and the kind of company you want to be running the better off you’re going to be.
Rich Brooks: And if you don’t own your own company, and you’re listening to this podcast just because you really like digital marketing, this is your role and you’re not really running a company, you can still determine what kind of employee you want to be, or how you want to run your department, and what’s okay and what’s not okay. And writing that down into a vision statement, or a mission statement, or a purpose statement is really critical. Because you can always go back to that when you’re like, “Is this the right thing to do?” And that guidepost will give you the answer of whether or not it’s the right type of thing to do.
Rich Brooks: And these are important questions to ask. Do you value hard work, or do you value a work/life balance? Those may not seem like mutually exclusive, but knowing which one you would lean towards may help you determine what happens when you decide whether or not you want to have summer hours, or whether you want to give people extra days off, or whether you want to give people the day off after Thanksgiving and not charge them for it. So these are important things for you to decide. And if you are owning your own company you have a great opportunity of making that company an extension of you and how you see the world. And if you think you’re doing a pretty good job, then you want to create a company that does a really good job too, because you’re really just multiplying your effect on the planet and everybody around you.
Rich Brooks: What are we up to, five now? Five is simply track things, okay? And again, I’m talking mostly to my young self, you may be awesome at tracking things, but when I first started I didn’t track anything. I mean I liked Google Analytics when that came around, but to be honest it wasn’t a thing when I first started. There wasn’t even Urchin, which was basically what Google bought to create Analytics. There was AW Stats, but that wasn’t even easy to install or get on most websites.
Rich Brooks: But it’s important that you do track things, and I think I mentioned earlier that you should always trust your gut. And I stand by that, you should absolutely trust your gut. But by the same token you don’t bring an opinion to a data fight. And by that I mean it’s like, yes, it’s great to trust your gut when you only have so much information, and you’re trying to predict the future and what direction you should take. But it’s a completely different thing when there’s definitive evidence and answers and metrics at your fingertips, and you’re just not looking at them, and you’re just saying, “No, this is how it works, and this is how things are going, and I don’t need to check any of the metrics.”
Rich Brooks: One thing that I’ve started doing recently is tracking where I got all the jobs from previous years. And it’s like, so ask yourself, “How did you get your last 10 jobs? How did they hear about you?” Was it digital marketing, was it SEO, was it paid search? Was it because you’re well-connected? Was it through a networking group? Was it because of a speaking gig? Was it because somebody found you through the book you wrote?
Rich Brooks: I just had this situation where we had a client call us up out of the blue. They were starting a new business, they found my book on Amazon, they read it, and they hired us. I mean, that’s incredible. So you never know where your business is coming from, in this one example, unless you’re actually measuring that sort of stuff.
Rich Brooks: And what you want to do is then also keep track of, I know this is 101 for a lot of you, but I swear I know there’s other people that are like, “Oh my god, I totally should do that.” You should be pulling every month and seeing how you’re doing month over month, and year over year. Because you need to know how things are trending. And I’ve definitely seen, over the past 22 years, where things that worked really, really well suddenly didn’t with very little notice. And you have to be on top of your metrics and where your business is coming from, and how it’s closing, and what it’s costing you, and what your revenue is on it, because the more you’re paying attention to it you’re going to see those early warning signals that’s going to give you advantage over your competition.
Rich Brooks: Okay, and this is number six, and the last bit of nagging that I’m going to do to my 29 year old self. And that’s to have goals. And not that you don’t have goals, but to be very specific about your goals. Because one of the things that I was surprised to find out about myself is that I’m a really hard worker. Especially when there’s something that I’m really interested in, or especially when my ego is on the line. I will just buckle down and work extra hard to make sure I’m getting everything done.
Rich Brooks: But, if you’re like me, sometimes you just get into the grind and you don’t look up. And if you don’t know where that finish line is, you never actually finish. And there’s then never that real feeling of completion, there’s never that feeling of success, because you just feel like, “Well, I always have to keep working hard.” And I’m a big fan of hard work, you know, I know there’s always those people who say work harder, not smarter, I think that you probably do both. But I’ve definitely found myself sometimes working really hard, but because I didn’t know whether or not I had got enough sales for that month, or closed enough deals, or what my recurring revenue was, I was really unsure if I had done enough.
Rich Brooks: So one thing that I would really tell myself is, you know what your goals are for each year, for each quarter, for each month, just so you kind of know that you can take time off, or you’re done and you don’t have to do anything else right now, you can just relax, enjoy the weekend, enjoy your family, enjoy your friends. And that’s the last bit of advice that I’ll pass on to my younger self today.
Rich Brooks: Hey, I hope you found this helpful. I don’t know if my younger self would have actually listened to any of my advice, or if he would’ve said, “Listen old man, I’m going to make my own mistakes,” but maybe if you’re listening and you got a couple of good ideas then it was all worth it.
Rich Brooks: Before I wrap up today I just want to thank a few people out there. Want to thank Mike Stelzner, who kind of kicked my butt and pushed me to get this podcast started after I had been hemming and hawing about it for a while. I want to thank John Lee Dumas, who inspired me and probably a whole generation of podcasters, and really turned this into a way that you could run a business. And that was, it was very inspirational. I had met John before he ever started his first Entrepreneur on Fire podcast, it’s just been amazing to watch him grow, love everything that he’s doing out there.
Rich Brooks: I want to thank my crew at Flight. I have got to the point now where all I have to do is just hit record and talk to really interesting people, and they kind of take it the rest of the way: the editing, the files, putting the files together, putting the podcast up, getting it distributed, creating all the images, sending out the emails, all that stuff is done by other people at Flight, I couldn’t do it without you. My amazing transcriptionist, Jennifer Schultz. If you want any information about getting your own podcast transcribed you can definitely reach out to me. All the amazing guests that I’ve had the pleasure to interview over the years, I have learned so much and gotten so many great ideas from them, and also developed a number of friendships and connections, and that’s been really amazing.
Rich Brooks: And lastly, I want to thank you. I really appreciate the time that you’ve given me, week in and week out, tuning in to the shows and then giving me feedback and letting me know how things are going, either at iTunes, or Stitcher Radio, or any of the other review sites, or just running into you randomly at an event or on the street, and you telling me that you’re really getting a lot out of this podcast. That means an absolute ton to me, it definitely gets me to keep on doing this week after week.
Rich Brooks: Again, I just want to remind you that time is running out for the Agents of Change early bird tickets. If you can’t make it to Portland, Maine, I really hope you can because I’d love to meet you in person, you can still grab a virtual pass, which includes a live feed of all the stuff going on during the day in the Main Hall, and then every single session available On Demand, so you can watch it whenever and however often you want to, to get everything out of that day. It’s only $199 for the virtual pass, and right now during early bird it’s only $99. So again, you know what, just head on over to theagentsofchange.com right now if you haven’t already, if you’re not there, check out the highlight reel, look at the full agenda, grab your ticket.
Rich Brooks: Now next week we’re back to the interview format, and we’ve got some great guests lined up over the next few weeks, so make sure you’re subscribed. This has been Rich Brooks, and I hope that you’re here for another 300 episodes.