Fall in Washington, DC

Two years ago this week, I moved from Boston, MA to Washington, DC with the idea of starting a business in a new city. Instead of looking for a company where I could fit myself into a job description, I decided to build a business around my passions, interests, and skills (special thanks to career coach Susanne Goldstein for helping me identify them).

I’ve received a lot of questions about what it’s like to move to a new city and start/grow a business. So here’s a “behind the scenes” look at the process and some of my major take-aways. As any entrepreneur will tell you, starting a business is stressful and risky and anxiety-ridden, but those stories are for another blog entry…

In December 2012, I moved to DC to launch a business based on work I’d done for the past 10 years (15 if you count performing) teaching public speaking and presentation skills. I moved to DC without a single client but with an incredible network of friends, former colleagues, and classmates.

Arriving in DC, I could literally feel the clock ticking; this was only going to work if I made it work. So I set a goal of 2 networking meetings per day. I reached out to people (mostly people I knew, some I didn’t) and asked them for advice on how my skills might be valuable in their industry. I’d ask them who else I should speak with, then would follow up with a thank you email with a paragraph about me that they could easily pass along to others and a customized one-page PDF about my business.

Advice turned to referrals, and I was amazed to count 35 clients in the first year of business. The business has grown 300% in the second year and we’re looking at expansion strategies. Our clients are private-sector companies, the Federal Government, international organizations, and nonprofit organizations. Wow!

What have I learned from this process?

  1. Go all in: We act differently towards a full-time business than a part-time business. When I depended on this business to pay the rent, I threw myself in with a relentless focus that I didn’t have when it was a part-time consulting gig, giving myself a strict daily regiment to keep myself on task. I don’t give myself long weekends because “I’m my own boss” – I work weekends because “I have so much I can’t wait to do.”
  2. Use your network and make it easy for them: None of this would have happened without friends and colleagues who believed in me: I also made it easy for them to help me. I asked for advice, not business, and followed up with emails that were very easy to pass along. I was also incredibly specific in my requests; the more specific I was, the easier it was for them to help me.
  3. Follow-up is everything: If a tree falls in the forest…you know the rest. If you meet someone and don’t follow up, it’s almost as if you never met them. Giving someone my business card means very little; if I follow up with a relevant email and stay in touch periodically, it exponentially increases our chances of working together.
  4. Focus on the people whose eyes light up when you say what you do: It’s a tough business model that involves changing people’s beliefs and behaviors. I try to find the people who already realize they need my skills, whose eyes light up when they hear what I do. If they “get it,” then they will be powerful advocates on my behalf within their company. I disregard the people who don’t care.
  5. When you believe in what you do and share your enthusiasm with others, you are the best salesperson in the world: I completely and fully believe that the work I do has a transformative effect on people around the world. I know this because they tell me so – in person and in the anonymous surveys I collect after my workshops. This fuels me and keeps me going and makes me a very powerful and authentic salesperson.
  6. Have your elevator pitches ready to go, practiced and authentic: When people meet you, they immediately try to determine where you fit in the scheme of what they know (and who they know). If you have an agenda (clients, referrals, connections), you can use that to your advantage by making it easy for them to help you. Have a practiced, authentic elevator pitch that gets to the core of who you are and what you are up to – 2 sentences max.
  7. Talk to everyone: I’ve found clients on the Acela Express (a man handed me his business card while getting off the train after overhearing one of my conference calls. He said “I heard what you do and I need your help; call me.”), I’ve found leads after asking a public question at a conference and using a short 2-sentence elevator speech, and I’ve worked with two separate individuals after meeting them while dancing tango at the 18th Street Lounge. Especially in DC, you never know who is sitting next to you. Smile, introduce yourself, and ask “so what brings you here?”
  8. Don’t take rejection personally:  For every email I send that gets a response, I send 3 others that don’t. Maybe the timing isn’t right and maybe they’re just not interested. If you think there’s a connection, keep at it and maybe the timing will be right in the future. If you can’t see a connection, don’t push it. And don’t take it personally when they don’t want to work with you. If possible, find out why and learn from it.
  9. You can’t always influence someone’s decision timeline, but you can influence how often they hear from you and how many people you meet: I tried to set monthly sales targets, but I quickly became frustrated. I realized that I had little influence over someone else’s timeline. If they were waiting for a merger to happen, or the new HR director to come on board, or the old CEO to leave, I had zero influence over their ability to say “yes” to a training program. All I can do is politely follow up regularly and occasionally send them things of interest; when the timing is right, they will respond.
  10. Give yourself time off: Despite take-away #1 of “going all in,” it is indeed the joy of being your own boss that you can take time off when you need it. In my case it’s time off to perform or spend time with family or travel, especially when I’m on a business trip overseas. We can’t work at 100% all the time, and the more we can enjoy some down time after hard work, the harder we’ll work once we’re back.

The learning is by no means over; what advice would you add? I’d love to read your comments below.