‘Run your business as if it’s for sale’: 24 big lessons from 24 years in business

business lessons

This week marks the 24th anniversary since I founded Barrett and, over the summer break, I had some time to reflect upon myself, my business’ journey and the many, many lessons learnt over the last 24 years.

We often get our ‘business lessons’ from big corporates, however, I have found many of these corporate lessons do not always translate well for small- (fewer than 20 employees) to medium-sized businesses, which make up over 90% of all businesses in Australia.

So given I fall into that 90% category and have managed to stay in business for 24 years so far (60% of businesses actually fail within the first three years), I thought I’d share 24 big lessons I have learnt, in the hope they help you on your journey in business and in life — whether you’re a business owner, startup founder, entrepreneur, team member or supporter of people in business. 

So let’s begin. Overall, the journey has mainly been an evolution, with the occasional revolution, filled with many joys and challenges along the way. Some of these lessons came to me personally, some from my team through the years, and others from clients, partners, competitors and the market. From each of them, I have learnt and evolved, and for that, I am grateful, because they made Barrett and me what we are today.

My 24 big lessons

  1. The essential element of any business is vision and purpose. A business with vision and purpose is a business with soul. Every time we have to make a strategic decision our vision and purpose act as a true north or plumb-line and guides us. For instance, Barrett’s vision is one where everyone is practising ethical, human-centred selling for a fair, sustainable and prosperous world. Our purpose is helping people and businesses sell better.
  2. Values define what we stand for. Values have helped me determine what is acceptable in our organisation and what is not. Values guide our work habits, and our charter and our selection process during recruitment of staff and selection of clients.
  3. Having a clear vision and purpose doesn’t guarantee business success. How you take your vision and purpose to market is crucial. A strategy needs to be part of a business’ DNA. The best thing you can do to assure the successful execution of your strategy is getting everyone involved in its development and planning. Plan from top to bottom and back up again. When people are involved and understand where they fit into a strategy and how they are relevant, they are more likely to get on board and deliver.
  4. Value propositions need to be defined in a language that current and potential clients understand. Even if you have the best products or solutions available in the market, if you cannot define and communicate the value you could deliver to others and how others will benefit by working with you, it makes sales life very difficult indeed.
  5. Passion and focus are crucial to business success. Without passion, you just won’t have enough energy or desire to make business success happen. Staying focused is crucial. Setting well-articulated goals and action plans, and then ‘seeing’ yourself achieving them is really important.
  6. For a business to be successful, you need to prioritise your health and wellbeing, and that of those around you. This includes exercising, keeping a healthy diet, resting and taking time off. It also means prioritising mental health and mental health practices within your team and families. Leading and running a business that centres on respect and human decency is key to your collective and individual health.
  7. Reading outside your area of expertise is a fantastic approach to continue creating and innovating, staying up-to-date, seeing trends and developing new opportunities.
  8. An annual business health check is a great way to keep your business fit. It allows you to flag and address any areas that need remedial work or reinvention.
  9. I found the best system to keep a business in good shape is to run it as if it is always up for sale. This means keeping an up-to-date sales strategy, business plan and financials, an accurate and full pipeline, then working on the work.
  10. Selecting good mentors and advisers make business life better. I look for mentors and advisors who can help me boost my knowledge and experience, especially in areas I may be weak in. They come in all shapes and sizes, and do not have to be older men in blue suits.
  11. Walk away from mergers that don’t feel right. If your values don’t align, the businesses never will.
  12. Getting a good lawyer(s) on your side is a smart investment. It helps protect a business, its team members and your IP.
  13. New business development is a daily process. Regular and consistent prospecting for work is an essential, unavoidable part of the process. It means identifying and overcoming any fears about prospecting and picking up the phone to promote yourself to the people that need to know about you.
  14. Share good news stories, ideas, trends and innovations. Involve clients and partners in good news stories — let everyone know when good things happen. Word-of-mouth referrals provide unbeatable credibility and value.
  15. Having the right people in the right roles makes for business happiness. Knowing what work functions your company requires to operate successfully is key. At Barrett, we review these on a regular basis as our markets and business change, we recruit for diversity (gender, nationalities, age, abilities, and so on) and we have current job and person profiles which support selection and performance management practices. All this makes for a much richer, more rewarding and worldly work environment.
  16. There are so many theories about what are the best workplace environments and policies — always in the office, always remote, flexible, agile, hot desking, open plan, the list goes on. I have found there is no one work policy or environment that works for all businesses. We encourage people to find the right balance for them. For us, it is having a flexible work situation where everyone can work around their family and work commitments. Some prefer to work regular hours and ‘forget’ the office when they are at home, while others have less strict boundaries and work from home after hours and on weekends. Having a family and running a business is never easy, so creating flexible work practices that allow employees to have a fulfilling career and a fulfilling personal life will create an environment of health and prosperity that works for everyone.
  17. I have found, for the most part, issues get worse when they’re ignored. It’s better to confront and resolve them straight away with a considered and evidenced-based approach — which means no reacting or flying off the handle. But it also means we cannot be afraid to take risks. If we fail at things, we always learn from our mistakes. This approach has led to innovations and new opportunities. Never see yourself as a ‘failure’. And when you feel things are getting tough, consider both your achievements and your mistakes, weigh them up and take a realistic view, not an idealistic or perfectionist view.
  18. Trust, faith and courage are your best companions. Trust in your vision and purpose, have faith in yourself and in others, have the courage to take calculated risks and have courage in the face of adversity.
  19. Not all clients are good clients. Sometimes, you’ll need to walk away from a deal, a project or a client because it is not good for you, your wellbeing, your values, your reputation or your bottom line, and it’s okay.
  20. There’s nothing like having a team that has your back.
  21. Being grateful and celebrating milestones and successes are good for the soul and team bonding.
  22. Optimism is indispensable to running a business.
  23. A drop of scepticism is a healthy dose.
  24. Always be open to creating and receiving opportunities.

I trust this may shed some light on what has helped me and my team carry on in business for the last 24 years, and continues to propel us forward. These are the lessons that ensure I wake up every morning grateful for the opportunity to be doing what we do.

Here’s to good business and selling better.

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