June 11, 2019 10 things I’ve learned in 10 years of business

By Natalie Khoo

Natalie Khoo

When I was 25 years old, I came back to Melbourne with the hope of trading in my life as a ski bum for the advertising career I’d cultivated out of uni before I left. But it was 2009 – during the global financial crisis – and nobody was hiring. I applied for every media and communications job I could find but didn’t get anywhere.

This is what shifted my mindset from employee to employer. With no other options that resonated with me, I started my own writing business. It began with articles and brochures for people I knew. Now here I am – a decade later – with a turnover of seven figures, plus 12 employees and counting!

There have been some seriously dark times, but this year I’ve been lucky enough to take three months off. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen before retirement. Whether you’re thinking of starting a small business, or you’ve been in one for a while, I hope my top 10 takeouts below provide some inspiration.

1. Be yourself – you’re no good at being anybody else

When I was in my 20s, I would wear heels and a white-collared shirt to look older than I was. I also covered my tattoos and watched my language. I was so uptight about making a good impression that I’d forget that businesses are built on genuine relationships. If you don’t have mutual respect for each other’s personalities and experiences – irrespective of age or clothing – working together will be a chore.

2. Know what your definition of success is

Over the years, I’ve met entrepreneurs whose M.O. is scaling and selling for millions. Admirable, but not my jam. Know what makes you happy. Is it the hustle followed by fancy acquisition, or is it the ability to have more long weekends than most? For me, success is building a team of besties that look forward to coming to work each day – and the freedom to engineer my work/life balance around the snow and surf.

Natalie in snowboarding gear
From suit jacket to snowboarding gear… Being able to change outfits on my schedule is what I call success.

3. Bring heart to your work and the rest will follow

Finding work is tough. Finding employees is even tougher. Sometimes I think the only thing that gets me through is remembering what I set out to achieve in the first place, then asking others for help. If your clients and your team believe you’re a good person trying your best, they will stand up for you. And while good leaders should be strong, confident decision makers, it helps to show your vulnerable side. There’s no need to be as cold as ice.

4. You’ll never feel ready to hire that first employee

At what point are you ready to cease working with subcontractors and hire your first employee? I had countless conversations with other business owners about this leap. When I finally committed to putting someone on payroll, I had more time to work on the business, rather than in the business. I asked myself why the hell I hadn’t done it earlier!

From me to we. I’m so proud to have a team of buddies – here are just a few of us in the office on our last day before Christmas 2018.

5. Hire on attitude, not aptitude – but set aside time to train

Skills are important. But so is personality and work ethic. Even if employees are only with you for two to three years, they can bring a lot to the table in this time. But keep in mind this strategy only works if you personally dedicate time to help them develop. Wide-eyed graduates are great low-cost resources for small businesses, but they will struggle to make a positive contribution without constructive feedback and support.

6. Managing people = emotional labour = self-care

When people talk about business, they talk about profit and loss. They don’t talk about how much emotional energy it takes to keep your team happy. Unfortunately, this can build a lot of resentment. No matter how much you care, it’s exhausting listening to others vent about project woes. So, it’s crucial to look after yourself. About six to seven years into my business, I became super tired and grumpy. While I felt guilty about taking a holiday, the reality is that my team needed a role model. I swiftly took a few weeks off, and surprisingly, the world didn’t stop turning. I came back refreshed and in a much better position to inspire others. If you’ve lost that loving feeling, take a break. It’s ok.

Leading a team takes a lot of emotional work. But it can be rewarding if you know how to look after your own energy levels and remember to have fun.

7. Prepare to make less money as you grow

More people does not equal more profit. Once you reach around 10 staff, you require a leadership team comprising non-billable roles (i.e. account management and operations). I took a huge pay cut a few years ago, knowing this would make my life easier later on. I have no regrets. Accepting your finances will be up and down is just a part of the journey.

8. Invest in yourself

When your business is young, you have the drive to learn everything you can. When your business matures, you spend all your time in the trenches. It’s easy to lose sight of why you went into business in the first place – so make sure you treat yourself to conferences and time outside the office to think. Over the past few years, I’ve made my own expeditions to research tech trends in Silicon Valley and most recently, South By Southwest. It’s incredible how reinvigorated and reconnected you can feel.

Here I am getting silly on the streets of Austin, Texas, during SXSW2019 festivities. Taking time out is a great way to reset.

9. Learn to let go. Really.

Last year I was suffering from serious burnout. The Avion team had grown to around 10, and there was only so much of me to go around. I remember a teary moment on my yoga mat, where I decided with conviction that I would take a sabbatical to re-evaluate my priorities. After presenting this idea to my employees, I worked even harder to ensure they had the skills to manage the business without me. After I left, it was incredibly rewarding to see them step up – and not surprisingly, they absolutely nailed it while I was gone. 

10. Don’t forget who you are outside of work

Alone, on the beaches of Mexico, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. But upon disconnecting from my professional self, I was caught out with a serious identity crisis. I had dedicated so much of my daily life to work that I had no idea who I was, or what to do with my time. Emails and Slack were an inherent part of my routine. The habit of checking my phone was so hard to break. It was a very sobering realisation that once I had stepped off the hamster wheel, I didn’t know where the past 10 years had gone. Over time, I’d also lost rapport with friends my own age who’d grown up, gotten married and had babies. This cognitive space was very confronting, but I’m grateful for it. Now graciously looking back at what I’ve built, I’m excited to design my life for 2019 and beyond.

Stay connected to your passions outside of the office – these activities keep you balanced. As someone who loves the outdoors and conservation, here I am volunteering on a coral reef restoration project while in Mexico.

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