This month marks 10 years since that snowy morning when I left Boston and moved to Washington, DC to start a new life and a new business teaching public speaking. Prior to moving to DC, teaching public speaking had been a side business that I had always been afraid to launch full-time.
There was one pivotal moment when everything changed: I left my job in Cambridge to accept a consulting position that would have doubled my salary and given me financial independence for the first time in my life. But a very strong gut feeling told me it wasn’t the right move. So I said no to the job — even though I’d already given notice to my previous employer — and started my own company instead.
In DC, with no revenue and about a year’s worth of living expenses in my savings account, I started working out of my kitchen. I set a goal of 2 networking meetings per day, every single day. I didn’t ask people for business, I asked for advice on how my skills would be valuable in their industry. Advice turned to business, and I had 35 clients in the first year (which means I probably heard the word “no” from 100 others). I captured many of those initial learnings in a blog post.
Ten years later, we are a global company with clients ranging from Bank of America to Procter & Gamble to Vital Voices Global Partnership. I’ve had the honor of working with prime ministers and their cabinets, women leaders around the world, and graduate students at Harvard Kennedy School. And most importantly, I have a team of incredible professionals, the best of the best, who are all committed to helping people find their voice and their courage to speak. Just this year, we added two new team members, and I feel like we’re just getting started!
Looking back, here are 10 lessons that I’m still learning.
1. If you refuse help, you refuse success.
We are surrounded by people with tools, solutions, and hard-earned wisdom. Before every major transition in my business — from hiring employees to bringing on coaches to integrating new technologies, I spoke with people who had done it before. Rather than keeping it all to myself to protect some sort of competitive advantage, I realized I had more to learn from those who had made mistakes before me. Every business is part of an ecosystem; when we tap into that ecosystem, we exponentially increase our effectiveness.
2. Business relationships are like compounding interest.
The meetings and training industries have long sales cycles. From when you meet someone to when they refer you or reach out could take anywhere from months to years. The one contract that transformed my business took two years to materialize. The more people you meet now, the more seeds you are planting for future growth. And rather than the “hard sell,” simply sharing your enthusiasm for what you do is your most powerful sales pitch.
3. Make time for purpose-driven work.
In any business, we have to find those with both the need for our services and the willingness to pay for them. However, there is also a group of people who need our services but can’t afford them. I created a cross-subsidy model by which we use part of our profit to support our work with non-paying clients. We have strict criteria for determining what constitutes a pro bono or discounted program, and we still pay our team to deliver a program even when we are not getting paid. Not only does this allow us to fulfill our mission of helping people find their voice, regardless of their financial circumstances, it has unexpectedly led to paid opportunities with corporate clients who sponsor those nonprofits.
4. Be intentional about how you make people feel.
When I teach public speaking, I talk about how much our energy as speakers affects the energy of our audience. It’s not limited to the stage; it’s something we can do every day in business. Fellow speaker and leadership expert Cy Wakeman said something on stage that I will never forget: “Leaders don’t manage people, they manage the energy of people.” I think about this before every email I send or difficult conversation I have: how do I want my team to feel? Based on that answer, I adjust the email or the message and usually add in something more supportive or encouraging.
5. Learn to embrace opposing viewpoints.
In business and in life, there are many ways to get something done. I thought I had the right way of doing something before one of my employees did it faster and better on her own. When I started to give up my micromanager tendencies, I found the business improved. While I have a tendency to procrastinate when I’m unsure about a course of action, I’ve learned to hold those opposing viewpoints in my mind, weigh them, and then make a decision. Consulting with my team before those decisions has helped me make better decisions.
6. Be fiercely protective of your productive time.
So many of the executives we coach will complain that they don’t control their time. From 7am until the end of the day, they are in back-to-back meetings. If other people are controlling your time, it means those people are controlling your priorities and your output. I’ve learned to protect my time at all costs. For me, morning is my most productive time of the day. As a result, I block off my calendar before 11am. No one can add meetings unless those meetings are with international clients in different time zones or directly related to my priorities for the day. This means that I am in control of my most productive time.
7. Find optimism in every challenge.
When the pandemic hit, we had just doubled our full-time employees, and we had salaries, benefits, and office expenses to pay with zero revenue coming in. Rather than seeing staff as a liability, I saw them as a life-saver. I remember saying to them, “We’ll never have this downtime again – let’s use it wisely.” We each spent 40 hours/week turning the ship in a new direction. Everyone contributed what they could: we created new branding and new collateral, we built a new CRM, and we launched two new websites. We adapted all our in-person programs to virtual and created a new process to accompany them. Today, we are a stronger company because we invested in projects we would never have had time for if we had been constantly leading workshops.
8. Listen to your clients.
Our best product ideas have come from prospective clients during Needs Analysis calls when they discuss their challenges. In fact, we reserve 30 minutes after every call with a new client to capture what we’ve learned from their industry and think about how we can improve our program offerings to better serve that industry. During the pandemic, listening to our clients showed us that they needed virtual communication skills to speak with confidence and authenticity on Zoom or WebEx. Today, we are hearing that they need help returning to in-person events and rebuilding a sense of trust and community with their teams. Rather than selling the same solutions as before the pandemic, listening to our clients has helped us grow and innovate.
9. Always Be Learning.
There are speakers out there who have been using the same slides for 20 years. We’ve all heard #AlwaysBeClosing but my motto is #AlwaysBeLearning. After every keynote, workshop, or coaching session, we debrief: What worked? What didn’t? What will we do differently next time? And then we immediately update our outline, our run-of-show, or our processes in order to make that improvement permanent. In the 10 minutes immediately after a program, we harness that energy and drive to make ourselves better. We share our debriefs with one another so we can all learn and adjust. This means that every single day, each one of us is becoming a better professional and we are becoming a better company.
10. Find the people who build you up.
Running a business is hard—you make mistakes with payroll, lose a big proposal, or disappoint a client. And because it’s your business, you take it personally. There are key people in my life who have been my informal advisors. They believe in me and my potential. They have unique insights and perspectives to offer—and they are not afraid to push back when they believe I’m on the wrong path. Those people have played a pivotal role not just in my business but in my mental health. During the pandemic, I wrote their names on sticky notes and would call them to check in or whenever I needed help. Think about who plays that role in your life – and for whom you can play that role.
The reality of running a public speaking business is not the glamor of keynotes or the excitement of foreign travel—it’s about pushing through the rejection, the mistakes, the pressure (both real and imagined), and the exhaustion of small business ownership. They don’t make for glamorous social media posts, but they have changed my life for the better and, by extension, the lives of everyone we have impacted through our work.
Thank you to everyone who has been part of this journey. This is just the beginning!