The past year has been a corker. I thought I'd put my experiences and thoughts down in a post, if not for the amusement of anyone else, to help draw a line in the sand and give me something to look back on next year.
May 28th 2016 - OMG
I'll start with the warm, fuzzy stuff. Yes that's right, this year I became a dad and we welcomed our baby girl into the world.
They say that having a baby changes your life, and I don't disagree.
Sleepless nights? A few. But waking up to see that face smiling at you isn't a chore.
This has also helped clarify what's important to me, how I should be spending my time and ultimately how I grow my business.
As if having a baby wasn't stressful enough, we also made the decision to travel halfway around the world for an extended stay in Indonesia.
This started off as a holiday, then we decided that we needed a longer break. Before we knew it, we were packing our belongings and with our new found interest in minimalism, selling anything that we couldn't pack.
I had always planned to create a business that was location independent and despite setting up my business in the heart of London and apart from a few conference presentations, I was pretty much running my business remotely anyway.
With the tools and technology available, there is really no reason for me to be living and working in a city just so I can meet my clients face-to-face, when a phone call or video conference is just as effective.
The only aspect of running a business that I am unable to do remotely is speaking at conferences.
So we'll see if that has a negative impact on business or whether I will need to make more long distance trips home in the coming months. I suspect not.
Regarding being away? So far so good! We have been living in Bali for seven weeks and whilst we are still settling in, we have made an excellent start!
My daily routine now includes riding my motorbike through a paddy field, an afternoon swim with my daughter and half a can of mosquito repellent before bed!
I have found an incredible working space out of which I have been working on a near daily basis. It is located just down the road from the beach and has a fabulous community of entrepreneurs and freelancers from whom I have already started developing relationships.
One of the best aspects of being in Asia is the time difference - I am able to do a whole days work without an interruptions - the phone doesn't ring, my inbox stays empty. Which means I am much more productive and can have work ready for my clients when they arrive at the office.
I'm confident being away is only going to help me deliver more value to my clients and help to consolidate my business.
Where's the business at?
2016 was the year my business went from freelancer to agency.
How do I define that?
Well I've moved from someone who does all of the work myself - needs analysis, course architecture, storyboarding, development, review and QA - to someone who works with partners on most (if not all) of this process.
Obviously on top of that is also the project management, sales, marketing, bookkeeping - so I'm definitely staying busy.
(Wow, just typing all that out makes me realise how much we try and take on when we start a business. It's no wonder as entrepreneurs we don't feel we can take a week off work!)
I realised after a few projects that whilst I enjoy many of the different elements that go into building e-learning, my passion and expertise doesn't lie in the technicalities but in the bigger picture of why the course is needed and what is the best strategy to achieve that goal.
The only way I was going to positively impact these things was by stepping away from the detail and passing that responsibility on to other professionals who are better at each phase of work than me.
The meaty bit
So let's get down to the details. I wasn't sure how to structure this blog post, but I didn't want to waffle on for pages and pages. I decided to break it into positive and negative experiences followed by my plans for the future.
But of course there are no negatives, because even a negative is a learning experience right?
So I've gone with highlights and challenges:
Looking at the highlights of this year was initially more difficult than it needed to be. Human beings naturally have a very short memory. We tend to compare ourselves to others rather than comparing ourselves to where we were previously.
It's easy to forget how much how far you've come unless you look back and take stock, which is why writing this post is such a cathartic process.
So in no particular order, here are my highlights:
Partnering with experts - I have built an extremely solid network of partners with whom I am working on a daily basis.
These guys have brought so much more to my business than I expected. Not only is the product better, my client relationships have improved, our processes have gone from strength to strength and I am learning so much off these guys every day.
And you know what? I'm happier when I'm not working alone - shocker!
Working with some great clients - this sounds like such a sucky thing to say. But it's true - working with great clients makes my job so much better.
It's easy to say the word 'client' and forget that the client is a human being. Just like me! With feelings, a sense of humour, creativity and ideas - who'd have thought?!
But at the end of the day our clients are what makes our business work - so finding the right clients is worth it's weight.
This year we have onboarded several fantastic new clients, and worked on some great projects. One of my goals for the new year is to get some of these up on our portfolio page, I'm really excited about sharing some of the work we've delivered.
Delivering Roadmapping as a standalone service - Usually prospective clients don't know exactly what they want when they are looking to start a new e-learning project.
So writing a brief and hiring an agency is a challenge.
It's a bit like having an operation - if you had a sore knee, you wouldn't go straight into surgery. You would have a doctors appointment first who would diagnose the problem. The doctor may suggest surgery, but there are other quicker, cheaper and less painful options!
Roadmapping is like that consultation with a doctor. We provide prospective clients with an opportunity to work together on a short discovery phase in which we figure out exactly why they are starting the project, what success looks like and the best path to get from A to B.
After session, the client has a clear plan as to how to move forward with their project. Whether that is with me or someone else, they have the confidence to get started.
We have delivered several of these sessions and I have been receiving some great feedback from clients who are getting value from the process, which leaves them feeling confident in investing their budget on the right solution.
Speaking at Learning Technologies Conference - I love this conference and 2017 will be the first one I've missed for five years. This year I talked about how to increase the ROI on elearning within your business.
Whilst I always enjoy speaking, it is the conversation and questions at the end that make this worthwhile.
If you're interested in what I talked about, this article goes through the highlights.
There have been many. Too many to list. But I am making an effort to write each one down (I use Evernote to remember everything) so that I can learn from each and use this to build a stronger business that delivers even more value to my clients.
Growing a team - Finding the right people can be a struggle. I am involved in several elearning communities where I have access to a wealth of expertise and therefore finding skilled individuals hasn't been as tough as it is for some.
However there was a learning curve that came with this. After a couple of challenging projects, I realised that I needed a test project in order to see how people worked. (And to make sure they were happy with how I worked).
This wasn't client work, so we had to fund this ourselves. Whilst it was an added investment, it has been worth every penny to make sure I was recruiting the best people possible.
Increasing overheads - When your business grows, costs increase. Of course I knew that, but it's not until you start growing you realise what is going to change.
You have to upgrade all your software from Individual plans to Team plans.
You have to spend more time meeting with the team to discuss projects and strategy.
You have to factor in holidays and sickness into your project plans.
You have to set expectations with your clients as to which individuals they will be speaking to through different phases of the projects.
System requirements - As the team grows and as you take on more projects, you need to implement a robust infrastructure of tools to support your team.
Project management goes from a spreadsheet to Gantt charts and specialist Project Management tools.
Shared file management is needed to make sure everyone has access to the latest versions of storyboards and designs.
Review tools are needed to share feedback and make suggestions for improvements.
Whilst the tools are making life much easier, there is a learning curve with this and often it takes a few weeks or a couple of projects to really start seeing the benefits of introducing new tools.
Goals for next year
In no particular order:
Pick a focus - My next goal is to pick a specific customer to focus on. I know that this is the best way for me to support my clients - I will increase my expertise in a specific area and be able to deliver more effective, engaging solutions to our clients challenges.
I have yet to decide whether this will be a market vertical - if you read my previous post that you can see why this is my most likely option. But I still have some careful thinking to do about this, and whilst Blair Enns would say that I'm avoiding 'The Difficult Decision', I feel that getting this right is an important step in
Recruit more experts - Whilst I have outsourced the majority of fulfillment work this year, I am still involved with the project management, review and quality assurance. I enjoy this work, but I am also aware that whilst I am working on this, I am unable to focus on many of the other things I should be doing to build a stronger business - improving the processes, refining the use of our systems, creating valuable content for our clients etc.
Tweak how I do marketing - I am planning to move more into creating video content to support my marketing efforts. In the past I have always done a lot of writing - on my blog, via guest blog posts and through various email newsletters and email courses.
But I think it's time to try something different. Video has been on my mind for a long time!
It remains to be seen how successful this will be, but I'm always keen to try new tactics and strategies. It is one of the most exciting things about running your own business, the ability to experiment.
Double down on self development - Working in Learning & Development, I have always been extremely focused on improving my own skills and knowledge. I am a podcast, book and blog post addict. I have learnt so much from a variety of places - please check out my list of notable mentions at the bottom of this post.
This year I am planning a few things to really ramp up the self development:
- Turn off the TV and read more - I have never been a huge watcher of TV, but out here in Indonesia with the climate, the pace of life, the proximity of the beach and sea, any desire to watch TV has all but disappeared. I plan to keep my Kindle close and use any opportunity of peace and quiet to sneak a chapter.
- Go on a retreat - I have been hearing about retreats for a while, so whilst I'm somewhere with cheap accommodation and easy travel and have a series of family members visiting to support the babysitting at home, I have decided that 48 hours of solitude, away from distraction, email and people is exactly what I need to focus my mind and figure out how to get the best out of life next year.
- Attend a business getaway - How does this differ from the retreat? Well on the retreat I shall be alone. On the getaway I shall be surrounded by other business owners, with whom I can share my challenges, experiences and strategies and brainstorm ideas for new, clever ways to improve my business. I can't wait - I love discussing business with others who really care - hurry up and get it organised Brennan! ;)
- Take more breaks - It sounds counter intuitive to work less, but I really notice that whenever I take a break from work, my productivity and creativity skyrockets afterwards. So both on a weekly basis through taking a swim in the sea, going to a yoga class or just playing with my baby, or even on a more more macro basis and taking a weekend away or holiday, I plan to do more of this - safe in the knowledge that my work will improve as a result.
It's not until you type up something like this that you realise how different life (and business) is to this time last year. We haven't even started our Christmas celebrations and I'm now even more excited to get started next year.
As promised below, are my favourite posts and some of the best resources I've discovered over the past 12 months:
My favourite content from 2016:
Unleash the Power of Elearning in Your Business - we launched a free crash course this year to help business improve the levels of engagement with their e-learning - the course has had some great feedback, without checking the statistics I think we've had over 250 people go through the course and I've had some excellent discussion about the content.
The Best Example of Gamification I Have Ever Seen - This was our most popular post of the year and I really enjoyed writing it. There were some interesting discussions on Linked In and Twitter too, with others sharing their favourite examples of gamification.
Double Your Elearning Return on Investment - Seems like ages ago that I spoke at Learning Technologies, but this is a topic I love to talk about! This article shared five simple and effective techniques that any organisation can implement to increase levels of adoption of e-learning within their business.
Why Slack might become the number #1 tool for L&D - I bloody love Slack. And I'm seeing how this could be used more to support learning within the organisation.
Promote e-learning through a network of champions - I learnt so much when introducing elearning into a global organisation and this one tip still stands out as the most effective way to increase engagement.
Why engaging content and a state-of-the-art LMS is not enough - This article has been used so much with our clients to explain how they need to think more deeply about how their learners experience online learning. It's not just about creating great content and giving them access.
Resources that are helping me grow my business:
The Positioning Manual mentoring program - I joined Philip Morgan's mentoring program in April 2016 in order to benefit from his deep expertise in positioning, The program was very valuable, opened me up to a whole new community of people facing similar challenges to myself and gave me regular access to someone who could answer my questions and give me specific advice. Definitely recommend.
Win Without Pitching - We were lucky enough to have Blair Enns present at one of our bi-weekly elearning community events and we weren't disappointed. I love his writing and his perspective on how to build your business. If you are a freelancer, consultant or entrepreneur, this is the one person who you should definitely check out.
Double Your Freelancing.com - Brennan also came to present at one of our community meetups. Listening to his outlook in this topic is fascinating. He has been through everything I am currently going through and more. Brennan has built an incredible community of experts who are working together to make life easier for all of us working independently.
Smart Passive Income - Whilst this podcast isn't really aimed at those of us building agencies, I find the tips, tricks and ideas in this podcast compelling and relevant. Pat Flynn also hosts another podcast called Ask Pat, which I also regularly listen to and find very useful.
Jonathan Stark newsletter - Jonathan's emails are incredible, he makes so much sense and replies to most reader questions. I have really enjoyed learning from Jonathan this year and hope it continues into 2017.
Zen Founder podcast - This is a new one for me and only sneaked into this list after I started listening earlier this month. But it's so refreshing to hear someone talking about the mental health of entrepreneurs. Really enjoying these episodes so far.
The Minimalists - not a business resource. But the teachings are definitely helping my business. I have become addicted to this concept. The idea of less is more. This year we sold or gave away over 80% of our possessions and I feel so much better - if you haven't already learned about this stuff, I urge you to check it out.