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Gini Dietrich

Experience: The One Business Regret I Have

By: Gini Dietrich | October 10, 2013 | 
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Experience: The One Business Regret I HaveBy Gini Dietrich

Kate Finley and I were having a conversation the other day about owning a business. She asked me if I have any regrets.

I thought for a minute and then told her my biggest regret is not getting more experience before going out on my own…not understanding the business side of the PR business before I ventured out.

Of course, if we know what we’re about to get into when we start businesses, most of us wouldn’t do it. In this case, ignorance is bliss.

I had only eight years of experience when I started Arment Dietrich. I thought I was pretty hot stuff. The two agencies I worked for didn’t lead me to believe anything differently.

But I really had no idea what I was doing. I was very good at my tactical job, but I didn’t yet understand strategy and I certainly had no idea about the business side of things.

The most I’d ever done is budget and forecast for clients. I’d never done it for a business…not even for a profit center.

I’d led teams, but I wasn’t in charge of their destiny.

I did invoicing, but I wasn’t the final say in what time we wrote off and what time we billed. In fact, when I joined my second agency, writing off time was so ingrained in my character from the previous agency, I’m pretty sure I nearly sent the CEO to an early grave when I liberally didn’t charge clients for time worked on their businesses.

Some of those things I would have learned with more experience in an established company that had the resources to allow me to grow. But there are other things you can’t learn until you have some years under your belt. I wish I’d known that when I was the ripe old age of 30.

Regrets of Lack of Experience

If you’re thinking about starting your own business before you have nearly 20 years of experience, following are some things to consider.

  • People. It’s highly likely you’ll manage people before you have even five years of experience. That’s not the issue. What you want to gain experience in is not just managing people and providing their annual reviews, but in becoming a coach and a mentor. I think about people management like I do a football coach. Your job is to not only hire the right people, but to make sure you’re using their strengths in the right positions. Being able to do this only comes with experience. If you can get it on the job, do it.
  • Finances. Many of you, particularly on the agency side, have to forecast and budget for your clients and turn those into your profit center leaders. Find ways to get yourself ingrained in the finances of the agency or the corporation for which you work. Sometimes it’s buddying up to the CFO and asking lots of questions. Other times it’s telling the partner you’d love the opportunity to watch them work, particularly during annual budgeting time (which is right now!).
  • Business development. If you’re on the agency side, many of you will have already participated in new business meetings. On the corporate side, you probably sit in sales meetings. This is a great first step. But, until you bring in a piece of business all on your own, you don’t understand how to sell. If you own a business, you have to know how to sell or you don’t survive. Network, speak at conferences, go to industry events, find ways to meet new people. And don’t be shy about learning about their organizations so you can find a fit. It’s not always fun, but it’s a necessary evil.
  • Resources. When I worked for the ad agency in Chicago, we built a PR department of 20 people and $6 million in billings in two years. It was easy to do because we had the resources we needed to get it done. When you start your own business, you have no money, no software, no expense accounts, no corporate credit cards, no creative department to make your materials gorgeous. You have just you and a small team (or sometimes not even the team) and you have to figure out how to compete with the organizations that have the resources you do not.
  • Cash flow. You will hear over and over again that cash is king. I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t have cash in your business to cover at least three months’ worth of expenses (including payroll), you are doomed. Ideally you’d have six months’ worth. Make that a goal.
  • Strategic relationships. When you run a business, your job becomes more about the strategic relationships and the people you hire than anything else. You no longer do what you set out to do (in my case, communications). You have to find the right accountant, the right attorney, the right banker, the right insurance broker. Those relationships must be nurtured, carefully cultivated, and grown each year. It takes a long time to find the right partners. Take the time to do it right.
  • Benefits. When I started my business, I thought I had to offer the same benefits I had at the large agencies. WRONG! Offering that level of benefits to employees was great for them, but terrible for the business. Learn what you have to have, what is nice to have, and what you can grow in to. There is almost nothing worse than taking away benefits you’ve already offered to stay in business.

My only regret is not getting eight more years of experience before starting my own business. If I had waited to start until now, the things I could have learned on the job would be insurmountable in our success.

Sure, we’ve done it, but I’ve learned on the job, which has sometimes been painful for me, for my team, and for our clients.

There is nothing that replaces experience. Not a degree. Not reading books. Not an advisory board. Nothing.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

100 comments
JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

I agree - experience is the only way you'll grasp the enormity of being responsible for a business. 

Your last point about benefits - "Learn what you have to have, what is nice to have, and what you can grow in to"

That is huge across all of the other areas. There will always be things that are nice to have and that you can grow into, but businesses that succeed truly understand the difference between those and the must haves. It's a vision thing. Not a lot of people connecting nuts and bolts to the big picture. Also did I mention ambiguity? If you start a company you better be ready for that. 

Kato42
Kato42

Great post, Gini. I love your behind-the-scenes snapshots.

I wonder if there isn't some benefit to learning the "hard way," though. Often we learn bad habits from the environments and people we work for, and figuring things out on your own at least gives you the opportunity to choose solutions from a wider range of options.

Sometimes unlearning habits and assumptions is just as painful as learning from scratch. Actually, I've had experiences where it's been MORE painful ... and a little soul-crushing.

But then, the grass is always greener on the other side, right?

Latest blog post: What is ROI, and who cares?

EventsResearch
EventsResearch

Excellent points one and all. I was 28. I think you sum it up beautifully with your statement "I’ve learned on the job, which has sometimes been painful for me, for my team, and for our clients."

The corollary, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger is not really true - certainly not for your clients, employees and family.

jonmikelbailey
jonmikelbailey

This is all great advice! I'm so glad I already knew all of this before I started my business. I am so smart. Borderline genius really. Humble too.

Or as my Dad likes to say "owning a business is great; you get to work any 80 hours of the week you like."

HeatherTweedy
HeatherTweedy

I truly think my favorite Spin Sucks blogs are when you share the successes and challenges of owning your own agency.  They were a big help when I took a huge swing and a miss earlier this year. 

Great advice for new or newer owners.  

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

Great, great insight! It's a side of the business you don't get to hear about to often unless you're in it yourself. Thanks for sharing.

lauraclick
lauraclick

Um, yes. This is all so very true - and I'm still figuring it all out. I would say that one of the big differences between you and me is that you had big agency experience and I come from boutique agency / non-profit / government. 

In reading this, it made me realize that my background in those areas has made me incredibly shrewd with money. I've never ever had a large expense account or fancy amenities. I've always had to be creative with budgets and make things stretch. So, if I have one thing going for me is that I've learned to make the money work - both for me and my clients. 

Other than that, this list rings true. I really wish I had more finance / business experience. It's why I thought about getting an MBA at one point. I'm glad I didn't, but wish I would have gotten more experience in this area instead.


KateFinley
KateFinley

Hi :) Great post ... I think it's your most detailed on this topic yet. What can I say? You're so right. I think this is also SUPER great advice for startups of all industries. They have the added layer of incorporating and nurturing investors.


The hard part is that it seem there is no middle ground. You have to take the plunge eventually and then ... that's it. Make it work. My question to you is this: Given the opportunity to do it over, would you have put your business on hold a year or two in and instead gone back to get more experience?

EricPudalov
EricPudalov

LOVE this post, Gini!!  I find that the longer I'm with this organization, the more I'm able to learn about how a business functions and what it needs to survive.  I'm finding out that the people management and strategic relationships are *hugely* important, and those are some of the things that are enabling us to grow.  I really appreciate your advice.

jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

Loved this Gini. Honest and useful as all heck.

DebraCaplick
DebraCaplick

What a great post! I've just completed my second year on my own, and it's still a battle. I came to it with a different perspective: I started my own firm with virtually no agency experience, and desperately needed it. After 20 years of trying for and never landing that agency job, I gave up trying to work for someone else and started my own firm, and now one of my seminars I give is "The Involuntary Entrepreneur," describing the issues I rant into when launching Quicksilver Edge: Incorporation, licensing, etc.

When first out of college, I worked in nonprofits because I was self-supporting and couldn't afford to hold out till that agency job came along. Then, potential employers refused to believe that someone with more than eight years of experience was serious about wanting to be an account executive. Then I progressed to "you're too overqualified" (read: too old) for this position. When I hit the "you're too old to understand social media" and "how well do you get along with young people" stage, I quit trying and went out on my own, doing PR for clients the way I wish I our agencies had serviced our account when I was on the corporate side.

My challenges have been that I don't have the inside knowledge of the nuts & bolts of agency life, and it's not something that is taught. It's assumed that  you know about billing, and tracking hours, and burn reports and all those other things that go into agency life. Me? I'm figuring it out as I go along, but it sucks up more time than I'd like. Gini's right that cash is king - there's nothing quite like scraping together enough cash to meet the bills and still pay for a BusinessWire announcement because the client insists they must have it.

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

Agree that things would have looked "different" for you now if you had started with eight more years under your belt, but would they necessarily be "better"? Would Arment or Spin Sucks be what it is? Starting a business is like becoming a parent in lots of ways; yes, you can prepare, you can read, you can babysit other people's kids, but you have to actually raise kids to be a parent and learn as you go the things you never could have any other way. More important, if, as business people who weren't as experienced as we could have been before launching, would we be the kind of people we are today without the mistakes and struggles we endured? To @RobBiesenbach's point, maybe not knowing everything helps us step out in ignorance or in faith or both.

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

People skills go an awful long way too. Cash is critical but learning how to find people to do what you can't or don't have time to do is huge.

Can't count the number of times I have seen businesses implode because of people problems. Some seem to think if they simply offer competitive compensation people will stay, but there is so much more to it.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Word Ninja I am a MUCH better business owner now than I was eight years ago...or even two years ago. I have the advantage of perspective and experience now. Those are two things you can't learn. You have to earn them. And they are making me better for my team, for our clients, and for the business. 

susancellura
susancellura

@Word Ninja @RobBiesenbach @ginidietrich This makes me think along the lines of having a child. Some people wait and wonder what will be the "perfect time". but in reality, you can not be fully prepared. All new parents think they are going to fail, but then instinct and love kicks in and you become amazed on a daily basis of how much you growing and creating with your child. "Cash is king" applies here is well.  ;)

jonmikelbailey
jonmikelbailey

@ginidietrich @KateFinley Ultimately I think it works out better in the end if you bootstrap. I think you learn more by starting out lean and making mistakes along the way. That said, learning as much real world business knowledge as you can before you dive in can be beneficial. Cardio and naps help too.