During my daily reading of Facebook posts I came across a great opportunity from Sophie Callahan http://www.sophiecallahanphotography.com/www.sophiecallahan.com
It was an invitation for small businesses (and maybe not so small businesses) to give some feedback and tips on, well basically, what they’ve learnt as business owners.
Before I enlighten you with what I’ve learnt, I’d best start at the beginning. I’ve owned Equestrian Life Magazine since 2001. An old pony club friend of mine had been running it for three years but she had no interest in taking it any further, by her own admission she hated IT. I was looking for a change of direction, I was at that time a Product Manager for a well-known chocolate brand – but although having had some fabulous jobs over many years, priorities had changed as I now had two children and wanted to find work that gave me more quality time with them.
I couldn’t not work, I’ve always worked, I’m not a stay at home mum, coffee morning, cake baking fan, so the magazine seemed rather an ideal option. I’d ridden and competed from age five, knew my way around a horse and had marketing qualifications.
The decision was made, the deal was done and I was off and running, well, more of a medium walk! Foot and Mouth disease had struck the same year I left the full-time job, but by the time I was getting around to signing off the first issue, events were starting up again – but under strict control.
Know Your Customer
I had already done a fair bit of research before committing to this new way of life but the reality of being the one in charge, no Line Manager to go and sit with or colleague to discuss things with suddenly hits you.
Talking to the readers was easy. Notepad and camera in hand I could be found at many events every weekend. Event secretaries were tripping over themselves to get included.
I’d just come from a business where I was planning 18 months in advance, so I thought working six months ahead with local businesses and stockists would suit them down to the ground; we were in the summer months and I was only talking Christmas!
“We don’t know what we are doing next week, let alone Christmas” became a familiar war cry. WHAT!! I love a good spreadsheet and I had them ready and waiting. It was bringing me out in a cold sweat, I had to put something on them.
Today, we are in over 400 newsagents but at the start we were stocked in local feed merchants, tackshops and saddleries. Delivery was done by a local chap (sadly no longer with us). I decided the best way to get to know my customers and, in turn, see the products on sale too was to do the deliveries myself. It was going to be a couple of days out of my month … but invaluable. Quickly everyone got to know my face, my name, or more often than not “that’s the lady who runs Equestrian Life”.
The result? My spreadsheet started to fill with forward bookings.
I’m a big people watcher. I’m still passionate and protective of my business and I want everyone to love it. They don’t, of course they don’t. We don’t cater for every single person who owns a horse or pony, that would be impossible. If I’ve taken the time to photograph an event, write a report or article for half a dozen events or more then to watch potential customers pick up a magazine, flick through it and put it back down again is disheartening. What is there not to like I would ask myself? The reason was nothing personal; a combination of nothing specific to them that issue, nothing more detrimental than that but the competitive streak in me would want to work all hours to try and cater for every single person and the problem with that could be the potential loss of the majority of your customer base trying to please one or two. The adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is very true.
Know your subject
As I’ve already said above, I’d had ponies from age five and I was fortunate to learn from my mother and grandparents who had owned and ridden too. I was a brave jockey, would get on anything and point it at anything expecting it to jump which they invariably did. We were a bit old school possibly, didn’t go in for gadgets, just riding, riding and more riding.
I’d had a break from riding for a few years as life had taken me to Canada and the Rockies for a few years. I didn’t return to horse ownership immediately on my return to the UK as we weren’t sure where we would be settled but as soon as we had put down roots I was on the look out for a four-legged friend. My daughter was already showing an interest and so what a great opportunity (and excuse) for me to get out and about regularly. I am still, to this day, able to combine my work with my hobby. Of course, one horse is never enough and we have recently downsized to three but they all do different things; we are members of just about every society; we compete at riding club level up to HOYS level – Bank of Mother is invariably under great strain but I can safely say I’m fairly up to speed on the horse scene!
In the early days I was either glued to my computer all hours during the week and out at shows at weekends. The children earned pocket money taking current and back copies round the Lorry parks and we all became experts in ordering cheesy chips!
I was so concentrated on producing each issue – and as a monthly publication the issues seem to get quicker and quicker as the year progresses – that I almost forgot to look up from the parapet and plan ahead. It is so important that even if you are a small concern to pace yourself and take a reality check to see what’s going on around you. Social media has changed the way everyone interacts these days, we are accessible 24/7 and that’s not generally healthy. A long time ago I gave myself ‘office hours’, if I choose to work outside of these that is my decision, but I don’t feel guilty for taking time out.
You can’t be all things to all people
In the early years it was simple, a magazine once a month. Fast forward to 2018 and we have a printed magazine, an online magazine, a website, social media pages galore and we are expected to be specialists or at least fairly proficient in them all. I’m happy that I have always had a reasonably good grasp of technology but there are definitely a few apps, gadgets and systems that baffle me. I know to keep up with the various channels everyone uses for business I need to make time to learn and include them, but I think it is just as important to find the channels that either work best for you or suit your business and concentrate on them. I personally don’t outsource as its another cost to factor in and as a small business every penny counts so I’ve opted to use systems like Hootsuite so I can forward plan my content and not be a slave to it constantly. Social media can be a full-time job in itself so by planning my week leaves me free to focus on magazine content which always remains my primary focus.
Keep the faith
Running your own business can bring great highs and great lows. We don’t want any competition, but competition is healthy. You know if you’ve invested your time and money into an idea or concept and done the research and numbers you’ve got a good chance of success, but it might not be an overnight sensation. For me it was consistency, working to produce a consistent product that I was happy with, tweaking here and there. I’ve looked at and tried a few alternative ideas over the years, but I come back to what works best. Life moves at a fast-enough pace anyway so if I can give people the chance to put their feet up for five, ten minutes with a hot drink I’m more than happy. This summer will be my 17th anniversary, and it will come and go in a blur of deadlines as its our busiest time of the year, maxed out with shows and events probably covering and competing at, keeping my ear to the ground for who’s doing what, remembering to communicate with our readers whenever possible … but not forgetting to keep a small watching brief on what other, similar businesses, are up to. I try not to waste time and energy bemoaning some other business that might look like the Crème de la Crème as they could be looking at mine the same way. I keep my head down, my sights facing forward and keep the plan and bigger picture firmly in view.
So, just a small glimpse into a few of the areas that have kept me busy, sane, not so sane, chilled and manic over the past 17 years. Not sure I’ll manage another 17 years as time is marching on – but thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings.