6 Things I Learned from My First 18 Months in Business

business lessons

About ten months ago I wrote a guest post for this blog entitled 6 Things I Learned From Quitting My Job.

A lot has happened since then. I grew my blog from hundreds to thousands of subscribers, founded a content marketing agency and released a guide to freelance writing amongst other things. But most importantly, I learned a great deal. In fact, I believe that my potential at this point far outweighs my current achievements. Although I am happy with my progress to date, I believe that there is a lot more to come.

I referred to my first ten months of self-employment as “a roller coaster period [and] a time of unprecedented change.” The ten months that followed was more of the same and I know that there is far more change to come.

In this article I want to focus on what I have learned from my first eighteen months in business; the kind of things I wish I had known from the outset. When combined, they form a true blueprint for positive change.

1. Your Time is Your Most Important Asset

One of the most important lessons I learned from quitting my job was the importance of time. I still believe in the importance of time (now more than ever), but for different reasons.

The issue back then was simply having enough time outside of your job to build up a side income:

Let’s say your job takes up 50 hours a week — 8 eight hours work per day, 1 hour for your commute, and an extra 5 hours for overtime. You sleep 8 hours a night — that’s another 40 hours gone. Before you know it, nearly 65% of your available time has been zapped away by just work and sleep. We haven’t even mentioned some pretty important things (like eating, for instance).

Once you’re free of the shackles of employment you have an enormous amount of time available to you, but that makes it no less important. You must be careful to use your time wisely, because how you spend your time is the most influential determinant of your success.

To maximize my available time (and therefore my potential for success) I devised a four step process that I call AESA for short:

  1. Act: If you want to succeed you must act. Action is paramount and takes precedence over all other things.
  2. Eliminate: Once action has led to success, seek to eliminate those things that have not contributed to that success (directly or indirectly).
  3. Streamline and Systematize: Study the remaining tasks carefully and make each process as efficient as possible.
  4. Automate: Outsource those tasks that others can do in your stead, so that you can focus on the bigger picture.

I have learned that regularly reviewing my business through the lens of the AESA process allows me to strip away the cruft from my business and spend my time only on those tasks that are most effective and worthwhile.

2. Diversification is Not the Best Course of Action

Most people will tell you that diversification is a good thing. The logic is seemingly sound: If you’re committed to several areas of interest then you won’t be left stranded if one falters.

I believe in this approach when it comes to my personal life. I value every element of my life: My friends, family, girlfriend, work and hobbies. I recognize that having varied interests keeps my life interesting and prevents me from being too harshly affected by any individual setbacks.

However, to follow a diversification strategy in business when just starting out is utter folly. It took me a long time to realize this — it finally dawned on me when I was reading The 80/20 Principle by Robert Koch, in which he says:

Conventional wisdom is not to put all your eggs in one basket. 80/20 wisdom is to choose a basket carefully, load all your eggs into it, and then watch it like a hawk.

The problem with diversification in business is that it spreads you too thin. If you’re trying to execute on three business ideas at once, you are more than likely to end up with three failures. You must commit whole heartedly to the single or limited number of projects you are working on to give them the best possible chance of success.

Furthermore, if you stumble across an effective business model you should do everything in your power to make the most of it. For instance, I released an information product last November that has made me more than $11,000 so far. It is my biggest “passive income” success to date. And yet, since then, I haven’t released a second information product.

Why? Because of a misguided belief that I should diversify. A misguided belief that has ultimately stunted my business growth over the last several months. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

3. Quality of Life Is More Important Than Money

When I was younger I was obsessed with the idea of success and riches above everything else. I dreamed of being the stereotypical hard-working entrepreneur, working all hours of the day and night to build a business empire.

Fortunately, my perspective on life since then has changed drastically. I now recognize that money is nothing more than a means to an end. Don’t get me wrong — I like money as much as the next person and would love to have more of it (and certainly plan to), but it doesn’t rule me.

When I make business decisions my first thought isn’t about money — it’s about quality of life. I ask myself questions like:

  • Do I want to go down this road?
  • Will I find it rewarding?
  • Will I want to do the daily work necessary to sustain this course of action?”

If the answer to any of the above questions is no, I will pass on the opportunity.

I like getting up at 9am rather than 7am (I’ve never been a good sleeper). I like taking the afternoon off to play a round of golf. I like being able to pop in on my dad’s office for lunch to say hello and chat. Individually these things may not seem like much, but when combined they make up a considerable proportion of my quality of life.

Put simply, if you took them away from me I’d be less happy. And yet in the past I have been guilty of taking them away from myself. I have been so focused on building my business that I’ve lost sight of what the point of having a business is: To afford yourself a good quality of life. Not in ten years when you’ve built your empire: Now, and every day from now until retirement.

4. Motivation Shouldn’t Be Forced

I am a big believer in planning out my days. I believe that it makes me far more efficient and effective. However, I also recognize that each day is not equal in terms of the amount of motivation I will have.

I am sure you can attest to this: Some days you’re just not on top form. For whatever reason (tiredness, illness, etc.) you’re not going to be as motivated to work as you would otherwise be. If you’re in a job you have no choice but to slog through this, and many entrepreneurs act in the same way. But to go back to my previous point on creating a good quality of life, there is another option.

Quite simply, if I’m not feeling motivated on a particular day then I won’t try to force myself to work. Instead I might complete a bunch of menial tasks, read a business book, or even just lie on the couch and watch television if I’m really not feeling it. I recognize that life is a series of peaks and troughs and that I’ll make up for it on another day when I’m really feeling up for it.

All other things being equal in life, there is balance. With that in mind, I know that my demotivated days will be matched by my highly motivated days. While I could force myself to work on those demotivated days, I’d prefer to afford myself a higher quality of life and cut myself some slack. There’s every chance that I’ll be super-motivated the next day and make up for the lost time.

I cannot stress enough how beneficial this approach to work has been for me. Basically, I only work when I truly want to. Fortunately, because I have focused on creating a business that prioritizes my quality of life, I want to work most of the time. But when I don’t, I allow myself the time off. By doing so, I tend to come back far stronger and more motivated for it.

5. Thinking Big Creates Big Results

I recently finished reading The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz. I consider it compulsory reading for anyone who doubts their ability to achieve more in life.

One of the biggest lessons I took away from reading the book was this: If you aim to far exceed what you consider a reasonable goal, you are more likely to achieve at least your original reasonable goal. For example, if I set out to earn $10,000 then I might earn $5,000. But conversely, if I set out to earn $100,000, I might earn $50,000.

By pushing the boundaries of what you consider reasonable, you make insignificant what was once imposing. And believe me, a lot of success in life comes down to attitude and outlook rather than intelligence and nous.

In my experience, it is the power of belief that drives success more often than anything else. If you believe that you can earn an amount of money that you might previously have considered absurd, you could find yourself far closer to that “absurd” target than you ever would have been if you continued to tell yourself that such goals are nothing but pipe dreams.

Personally speaking, I have achieved more to date than I consciously thought possible previously. I’ve set myself new absurd goals and I intend to reach them. I know that by doing so I will be affording myself the best possible chance of success.

6. Integrity Is More Important Than Profit

I first launched my blog, Leaving Work Behind, as an online accountability journal of my efforts to quit my job. Since then it has gradually evolved into a blog that can help other people to quit their jobs too.

My plans for its future are big — I want to make it the destination for people who want to quit their jobs and create successful online businesses. And while I do of course want to make money along the way, it is just as important to me that I create a resource of true worth — something that can help to change people’s lives for the better.

As such, every decision I make about the blog is grounded in my desire to retain integrity. I did not come to this strong moral standpoint easily though — it has taken time and many mistakes to get me here. I implemented my fair share of money-making strategies that I did not feel comfortable with, such as webinars and posts written with the primary goal of generating affiliate product sales. Each effort left me feeling deeply uncomfortable and even sad about what I had done.

To allow integrity to rule your decisions in life is to free yourself of guilt and worry. I have found it wonderfully empowering. It makes everything so simple — if you have a shred of doubt about a course of action, you know not to do it. When you take the attitude that your integrity must remain 100% intact at all times, it narrows your available options down to a quality core.

In almost any business model there are ways to make money while retaining your integrity. For me it is simple — I will give away the vast majority of my content, but create products and services that people can buy if they want to. I won’t go in for the hard sell, I’ll simply give them access to all of my free content and let them know that the premium products are there should they want to purchase them.

Ultimately, working with a completely clear conscience is far more important to me than making a few extra bucks. It comes down to quality of life yet again.

There’s Always More to Come

I don’t fool myself into thinking that I have reached some level of ultimate enlightenment when it comes to my personal and professional life. However, I do know that I am far more enlightened now than I ever have been.

In fact, the two posts that I have written for this blog perfectly illustrate that I am doing something right. In this post I have been able to share six hugely valuable lessons I have learned in the last ten months — lessons that I hadn’t even considered when I wrote my first post.

Who knows what I’ll have to say in another ten months?

Photo by Michael

20 thoughts on “6 Things I Learned from My First 18 Months in Business”

  1. A good way of making sure you’re not sacrificing your quality of life is to keep your biggest priorities in front of you where you work. To figure out what those priorities are a good way to start is to look at the biggest regrets of the dying, which have been recorded as:
    1. I wish I had the courage to live true to myself instead of how others expected me to
    2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
    3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
    4. I wish I stayed in touch with my friends
    5. I wish that I had let myself be happier
    Then create a list of what is true for you personally and remind yourself every day.

    I also like how you point out how motivation shouldn’t be forced. Some days what you need is to step away instead of forcing yourself forward. Very often the problem won’t be as huge when you come back to it after some well needed away time.

    Awesome post Tom, I’ll be checking out your blog for sure. Thank you!

  2. Tom, Thanks for sharing. I have been dealing with this for about three years now. I got out of a job I had been doing for awhile, wanted to started my own business but was scared. So I took a contract job which has great prospects but ultimately will not make me happy. Got a business running on the side which I really like and have been doing it for over a year now. Unfortunately I have a health issue that I am dealing with that is stalling my plans. It is very frustrating. Your article has shown me that no matter what, if you apply the right effort it will be possible!

  3. Great post, Tom.

    I have definitely found time to be a valuable asset. When I first started building my private practice, a friend suggested that I take 1 day off per week for a month from my day job to free up some time.

    I thought about it, crunched some numbers and realized that I could actually take 1 day a week off on an ongoing basis. This freed up so much time and really helped me take a big step forward in my business.

    I’m totally in agreement with having a good quality of life too :-)

  4. Tom! High quality post, man! “You must commit wholeheartedly to the single or limited number of projects you are working on to give them the best possible chance of success.” This conflicts with certain online camps, but it is absolutely true. My wife and, quite naturally, keep straying from our projects only to realize what little bit of success we have stems from sticking with them. This never varies, so we meet and get back on track right quick!

    There is so much to comment on here, but this little snippet was my fave;)

    Have a blaster of a day!

  5. Tom, I love that you came back to talk about your continued growth – mistakes as well as successes.

    This bullet point really spoke to me: “Will I want to do the daily work necessary to sustain this course of action?”

    When my husband and I are meeting – which happens several times a day – we often come back to this whole concept. Yes, certain types of work seem appealing, but when you really break it down and see what that type of work will entail, you realize, Ah…not really for me. Not only is it important to realize what you want to do but also what you’re unwilling to do.

    Thank you for your writing, Tom!

  6. I like your focus on integrity and time over money and profit. I’m also with you on being aware of diversification. What I can’t fathom as a blogger going on two years with two books written and a third in process, is how you were able to create such an increase in traffic numbers so fast. Of course, I just do it part time and don’t have the tech expertise or money to push the site. It’s all simple and organic. http://www.danerickson.net

  7. Man, do you speak my language. Thanks for the post! I’ve been an independent consultant for almost 12 years now, and I can relate to all of these. The most important one for me is that money is not as important as quality of life. Usually, when you start your own business, and it goes well, you make more money than full-time employment. Then you realize that you have the ability to go back to your old income level, but working a lot less than you ever did. There, for me, lies the sweet spot. Thanks again for this very relatable blog.

  8. Interesting post, I like your point on ethics. I would like to make some money from my blog in the future but doing it in an ethical way is very important to me.

  9. I really enjoy posts like this, but do you know what I’d really like to see? A real financial breakdown of expenses and income. It’s easy to talk in generalities, but I want the nitty gritty. I’ve been building a business for a while and as I’ve done it I’ve saved a pretty nice cash stash — my goal, and I’m almost there, is one full year of expenses. Call it risk aversion or whatever, and yes I know that “once you leave your job you’ll need less money than you think,” but I think it’s important to other entrepreneurs to see the numbers to help gain confidence.

    I know Tom has income reports on his site, and that’s kind of helpful, but it doesn’t seem to factor in things like business/personal living expenses, taxes, the kind of stuff you really need to think about when running a business. How much did Tom have in savings before he felt comfortable taking the leap? What were his monthly expenses? Man, it’s all I think about in my personal life… how low can my expenses go, how much can I save while I still have a full-time job, and what’s the tipping point where I’m comfortable taking the leap? You’ll need less than you think, but let’s see some real world studies!

  10. I definitely agree with time being your most important asset. My only regret is that it took me this long to truly realize that fact. If I spent as much time developing skills as I did playing games, I could be an expert in a variety of fields by now.

    Also I played with the idea of making a living online from middle school to the end of high school, and I can definitely testify that spreading your efforts is ineffective. I ended up going pretty heavily negative in all my efforts. This because I would give up and try something new every few weeks.

    I love that you value integrity over profit. Thinking in the long term, integrity can lead to more profit than instant profits and the following defamation of your name and credentials.

    And I also agree that the learning process in life never ends. A good example of this is when you challenge yourself to truly get to know someone that you think you don’t like at a surface level. When you truly understand someone, dislike is very rarely the result. It can sometimes open up completely new perspectives.

  11. Tom I loved your post!

    I can relate to a lot of your insight!

    Let me know if you would like to write a post for GrowthGuided

    Have a great week!

  12. Tom, your focus on integrity comes through with every word you write. From the comments here and on your blog, it is clear you have built a loyal audience. This does not come from being a scammy entrepreneur.

    Plus you reply to the emails I send to you, which means a lot to me!

    Excited to see what comes next for you, Tom!

    – Razwana

  13. Tom,
    I adhere to almost everything you “preach” (for lack of a better word)

    You must be overwhelmed with the following you have built. I wish I could do the same


  14. Wow. Forgive me for being blunt, but this is actually a really good post from someone who has earned their dues as opposed to someone who just wishes they had what they were writing about. Kudos to you. I especially like the part about not forcing motivation. That’s so refreshing to hear and you don’t know how excruciating it is for me to witness the cognitive dissonance people are setting themselves up for when the force themselves to put on a smiling face and be happy no matter what. I’m actually audibly sighing with relief after reading this article. Thanks for this article.

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