9 contradictions that I’ve learnt in 9 years in business

Two weeks ago I was asked to deliver a short presentation at my old University, Leicester. In business terms I’m still very much in the foetal stage so I’m always reluctant to start telling people 5 minutes younger than me how to approach their career. However, since graduating I have been lucky enough to work with some astonishingly talented people who have taught me an absolute ton, so I decided to take the best of this advice and share it. And as for the “contradictions”, well the world of business is a complex place and for every golden principle there is a caveat or exception that requires equal attention (plus it made for a more interesting title).

    1. Think critically but focus on solutions.

There is no value in telling someone that what they’ve done is good. They might like you for a moment, but ultimately you have provided them with no value. Play devil’s advocate constantly and likewise surround yourself with people who will do the same to you.

However, unless you want to become universally disliked, you do need to ensure that these criticisms are accompanied with proposed solutions. It’s too easy to pick holes, people want to know what you would fill them with.

    1. Be confident, especially when you’re not.

I am either the loudest or the quietest guy in the room. I’m not even sure which is the real me anymore. All I know is that when I speak with conviction people buy into it. Developing this ability to project confidence regardless of what I’m feeling inside has probably been the single most important trait I’ve acquired since graduating.

    1. Say yes to everything for the first three years, then no to almost everything after that.

The main difference between those that achieve and those that don’t is that the former give themselves a chance. They throw their hat in the ring even when they’re terrified, knowing that if they succeed, great, and if they fail, even better, because now they’ve learnt something.

For the first three years after graduating from university I said yes to everything. This meant I worked long hours doing things that I was rubbish at or knew nothing about, but I learnt more in those three years than most people would in ten. It was this attitude that led to the directors of the company asking me if I wanted to start a new business with them, and of course I said yes.

However, at some point things change. You can’t take the battering indefinitely and what’s more people will begin to undervalue your time. At this point you need to focus, and that means saying no to everything that isn’t aligned with your core mission. You will immediately become more effective with your time and people’s perception of your value will quadruple overnight.

    1. Realise you’re in sales, even if you’re not.

If you have any client contact, you’re in sales. If you have to convince your boss to give you a promotion, you’re in sales. If you want to ask that girl out on a date, you’re definitely in sales.

Selling gets a bad rap. It’s a fundamental part of life and the sooner you embrace it the sooner you can work out what kind of sales person you want to be.

    1. In meetings enthusiasm trumps everything, but then you must back it up and deliver.

When I compare myself to my colleagues, it embarrasses me how little technical skill I possess. Likewise my knowledge, while extremely broad, is not particularly deep in any one area (other than perhaps SEO). So why is it that I was able to start a business and get both clients and colleagues excited about the things we would achieve? The answer: sheer, boundless enthusiasm. The kind of enthusiasm that would be irritating in any other walk of life (I can’t stand people like me) but in a work context tells the other people in the room ‘This guy is gonna make stuff happen’.

However, that last sentence is important – you must make stuff happen. When you leave that meeting having promised to get a 50 page report that will knock their socks off in their inbox within 24 hours, it needs to happen in 23. Reputations are ultimately built on action.

    1. Toughen up and be independent, but also find a mentor.

If you want to achieve anything in business you’ve got to be the solution to your own problems. It’s one of the things I absolutely love about working with Nick Pateman; if he has an issue he just gets on and solves it. No bitching or procrastinating. He just picks an action and gets to work. This is such a rare trait and one of many reasons I could never imagine Inbound without him.

However, while it’s important to be tough and independent, you also need the humility to recognise you know almost nothing and there are people out there who can impart more wisdom in a thirty minute chat than you will otherwise gain by yourself in a month. I’ve only ever had one person that I think would qualify as a mentor. He was my old boss and we aren’t in touch any more, but 60% of the business person I am today I can trace back to him. If you can find someone like this who not only shows you the path but also gives you the confidence to walk it, dig your claws in and don’t let go.

    1. Develop a broad knowledge whilst also finding your ‘one thing’.

Having a broad knowledge is really important. For a start, it’s only by having a broad knowledge that you can understand the broader implications of your work:

      • If you’re a coder, how does the work you do impact user experience?
      • If you’re a social media expert, how does the work you do impact conversion rates on a website?
      • If you’re an account manager, how does the work you do help your client achieve their promotion?
      • If you’re a business owner, how does the work you do impact the broader community in which you operate?

There is always a bigger picture and if you fail to recognise it, becoming completely blinkered on one skill/subject, then your work will never have the full impact of its potential. What’s more, you’ll be really boring.

However, while an awareness of the bigger picture is essential, so is the ability to focus. You cannot be an expert in everything and the moment you claim to be is the moment you lose credibility. You must identify your one thing (the more specific the better) and align half of your time to becoming the best in the world at precisely that. That’s how brands and people become famous. Not for doing lots of stuff well, but for doing one thing remarkably.

    1. Get to work early but refrain from working late.

Most people are morning people, even those that claim to hate mornings. You may look like s**t and barely be able to open your eyes, but your brain has had 8 hours of rest and is quietly brimming with energy. Do not waste this magical time snoozing and faffing.

However, you need to be equally disciplined in knowing when to switch off. For my first two years of running a business I played the martyr, staying in the office until 11:00 every evening, until one day I realised that I was getting about 30 minuntes work done after 6pm. What’s more I was starting the next day completely frazzled. So instead now I start the day an hour earlier (up at 5:30 every morning) and finish on the dot of 6pm.

As Sun Tzu stated in the Art of War “A soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning, by noonday it has begun to flag and in the evening his mind is bent only on returning to camp.” I didn’t understand much of the book but that one point is bang on.

    1. Start a business, but don’t do it to get rich.

My final piece of advice was to start a business. You will learn more each day of running your own business than you would in a month of working for someone else. And do it soon. Do it in your twenties when you have lots to gain and nothing to lose. Do it while you can afford to lead a completely selfish existence, because those days won’t last for long and once marriage, kids and mortgages emerge you will have no choice but to find balance.

However, if your only motivation is to get rich then forget it. It’s a stupid way to get rich. If money is the goal then go work for a massive company, probably in finance. You’ll earn twice the amount, five times as quickly and with a fraction of the sleepless nights. However, if your motivation is bigger. If you’re looking to make a dent on the universe – whether that’s through a product, experience, organisational culture or whatever other unique thing you have to offer the world – then start a business. Getting rich might just be a lucky side effect.



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