leadership-boats Lessons in starting a small business

Sharing my experience in successfully launching a small business.

I started Hallmentum almost five years ago, officially launching the company in April 2019. I'm sure people have different reasons to start a company; for me, it was a natural progression of my leadership journey. I started my career as a hands-on technologist, managing Unix and Linux systems, but quickly moved into management and leadership positions.

I served as Senior Manager for Enterprise IT Infrastructure and Operations for a number of years. That is a big title that essentially means my teams managed every server and storage system that supported the University of Minnesota - including Unix, Linux, and Windows. My teams also managed the data center, disaster recovery, databases, automation, and other aspects of Enterprise IT. And some of my team provided desktop support for the central IT groups. After that, I served as Campus Chief Information Officer at a university for over five years, then served as Chief Information Officer in government for another three years.

Throughout all of these senior IT leader roles, I attended "CIO roundtable" events where I met with other local CIOs. We compared notes and shared advice about how IT can help advance our organizations. At every one of these roundtable meetings, I would meet several CIOs who were new to the role. Many shared the same story: "My previous CIO left or retired; the CEO came to me and said, 'You're the most senior IT person, you're it.'" And these fresh CIOs didn't have the management or leadership background to be successful. I often offered my help with strategic planning and getting their organization in order. But it sparked an idea in me: Someone should really be there as a leadership resource to help CIOs and IT leaders learn about leadership. And that's how I came to start Hallmentum.

Starting your own small business

Going into business for yourself is an exciting venture, but it can also be quite stressful. The person who helped me file the legal paperwork as an LLC provided some excellent pointers to be successful in my first year - which is even more important because most new small businesses don't survive their first year. I feel fortunate that Hallmentum not only survived its first year, but actually thrived. All this despite the sudden downturn of the COVID epidemic.

Looking back on that first year, I wanted to share my advice to anyone else who might plan to launch their own small business:

Start with a business plan

It sounds boring, but a business plan is critical to clarify what you intend to do as a small business. A business plan is key if you need to ask for venture capital, but it's also important for small businesses that can get started without outside funding.

The business plan is basically a document that describes what your business is about, who your customers are, what your services or products will be, and how you will match those services to clients. An important part of the business plan is about marketing. That's where you define the different avenues where you might advertise or raise awareness about your new venture, and identify a road map for how you will expand into those areas.

Finally, the business plan needs to run the numbers. Figure out what your actual costs will include over the first year, including computers, online services, insurance, advertising, and professional services such as hiring an accountant or assistant.

My business plan to launch Hallmentum was fairly straightforward for me to write, because I had been thinking about how to help new IT leaders for several years. But it was an important exercise to really define what I was going to do in my first year and how I would be successful.

It's about networking

No one will know about your business if you don't get the word out. A common assumption by many small business owners is "I just need to hire a good marketing company" - and certainly, as a new small business owner, you will find yourself inundated by emails from marketers promising to connect you with 30 business prospects every month. Be careful about jumping into a marketing partnership, especially with an organization that promises such a fantastic return. No one can "promise" to get you business leads. Most of these online marketers will spam a list of business contacts with your name. Think about how these marketers approach you as a potential client; they will approach your potential clients in the same way. If you find yourself annoyed by these emails, so will any potential clients they contact on your behalf. That won't help you.

Instead, join local roundtable events about your business topic. There is always a local group happening, especially in larger metro areas. These groups are usually informal, but a lot of networking happens at these meetings. Show up early to the events and get to know everyone. Avoid being too eager and immediately jumping to a business proposition. Instead, listen to what others are talking about, and offer comments and advice based on your perspective.

Join your local Chamber of Commerce

Look for the Chamber of Commerce in your area. These can be a great resource for local businesses, especially when starting up. My local Chamber offers lots of networking events and meetings where you can get to know other local businesses. Some of these might be competitors to the service you also offer, but many will not.

Look for opportunities to meet people where you might form a relationship. Every encounter could be a potential avenue to a new partnership. For example, at Hallmentum, I provide training and workshops, mostly for IT leaders and IT organizations. In that first year, I spoke with many folks who worked in an HR leadership role, either as a full-time HR officer or as a fractional HR director. Most Human Resources departments are interested in training and workshops that they can share as professional developments to their employees. This is one way to raise awareness about your business with potential new clients.

Raise awareness

You can increase your visibility in other ways, too. Another small business owner I met in my first year shared that she attended charitable donation luncheons. She would donate an item for a silent auction, and attend the event to meet others she might do business with. This wasn't an avenue that worked well for my business model, but this could be the right fit for you, depending on what your business does and the people you need to meet.

Also consider sending mailers and postcards to potential clients. Do this carefully. As a CIO, I would sometimes feel buried by these unsolicited physical mailers, and I often would toss them into recycling without reading them. If your potential clients are the same way, sending physical mail may not be the best way to reach out to them. But other clients respond well to this form of marketing. In general, be considerate of your audience and meet them where they are when you decide on how to contact them.

One method that worked very well for me, especially in my first year, was to sponsor a local conference. I avoided the big national conferences and focused on local events. When you sponsor a conference, make sure to get a table at the vendor fair. The table provides an in-person opportunity to meet with the clients you want to work with. You don't need a flashy booth to make this work; invest in a table runner and display a few samples of your work. If you are in the startup phase and don't have actual work samples to share, create some mockups that you can show off. And don't forget to provide a "giveaway" item at your booth, even if it's just a plain bowl with Halloween candy. I can't tell you how many people stopped by my booth at those early conferences, just to grab a free tiny candy bar, and found themselves asking about my business.

A key part of making conferences work for you is engagement. Don't sit on your phone during the event. Be present and make eye contact with people as they approach you. When that potential new client picks up their "giveaway" item, they are likely to ask about what you do. That is an excellent opportunity to give your one-sentence "pitch" about what you do. You can't have that discussion if you're scrolling through social media on your phone.

Look forward to a great first year

Starting your own business can be an exciting venture, an opportunity to do something that you've always wanted to do. But launching a small business can be scary. You can make it less so by defining your plan and focusing on building leads through local networking. With careful management, you can make your small business a successful one.