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22nd February 2023

21 things I’ve learnt from 21 years in business

LinkedIn has reminded me today that I’ve been in business for 21 years this month, which has made me think about some of the stuff I’ve learned during those 21 years. I thought it might be worth capturing and reflecting on some of these over the next 21(ish) days – partly to remind myself how far I’ve come in business but also to see whether others recognise the same lessons. If you’re new to running your own business, some of these might also help you avoid a few mistakes I’ve made along the way.

Before I start on those 21 things, though, for those who don’t know my background, a potted career/business history.

First seven years of my career were as a researcher then Broadcast Journalist for BBC News, working across radio and TV news including stints on Radio 5Live and News 24 (now The News Channel). Highlights include conducting doorstep interviews with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and producing news coverage at events as varied as the Tony Martin trial and London riots to the opening of Tate Modern and The Chelsea Flower Show.

Was headhunted to become PR Director of Queercompany, an LGBT start-up, primarily a portal website (business model out of date) and magazine (business model ahead of its time). Had a blast but the company went bust after 18 months. Learned a lot about business watching a business start-up – and then fail. Learned a lot about PR, too.

This is when I went self-employed – January 2002, 21 years ago this month. Also happens to be the same month I met my (now) husband, John. Don’t think these two facts are necessarily related!

Started taking freelance PR jobs and also journalistic commissions to ‘tide myself over’ while looking for a ‘proper’ job. A PR-focused recruitment agency eventually told me they were struggling to place me in suitable roles as I hadn’t had a standard career in PR. That was when I realised I was enjoying the freelance/self-employed approach and that I could make a go of it.

The business was initially a PR consultancy, with a side-line in freelance journalism. Yes, PR and journalism might seem like an unholy alliance but I was always very careful to keep the two separate and would never write about my own clients. Some associate PR work introduced me into the world of aesthetics/medical/health and a lot of my PR clients over the next 10 years came from that sector although I also represented bands, beers and even online gaming at various points of my career.

Had a couple of people working with me on one of my biggest clients but that client then stopped paying (making excuses about late payment at first) while I still paid the team, eventually leaving me about £35k out of pocket, of which I only ever recovered about £12k. Lots of lessons learned.

While still at the BBC in the late 90s, I was an early adopter of ‘the internet’ and early social media platforms (anyone else remember Compuserve?) – in fact John and I met on an early gay social media site. As a result, once I was in the business world, it became clear that I understood the power of social media and people started asking me to train them and their teams about it. That led to someone asking me to speak at a conference about how to use social media for business, which led to other requests to speak, then requests to teach others to speak…and a portfolio business and my later career were born. I was running social media coaching (which I no longer do), media interview training (still part of my offering) and presentation coaching (very much part of what I do) from early in my business career, alongside the PR and journalism.

It was conversations with two business coaches that really got my business on track – @Julia Chantaray and @Rob Da Costa. Julia asked why I was still doing PR when it wasn’t making me happy – or rich. With hindsight I’m not sure my heart was ever really in it and I’ve often described PR as ‘telling the world about the interesting and exciting things that other people are doing’ – ie you’re just the messenger, often trying to flog not-very-exciting stories to the media. Julia encouraged me to focus on the training side of my business as that’s what I was enjoying – and also encouraged me to try out an organisation called ‘The Professional Speaking Association’ – and 6 years later I served as that association’s National President.

Over a coffee one day, Rob asked me to imagine that a client rang me tomorrow morning and offered to pay my full day rate for me to go into their office and deliver whatever I wanted for the day – what would I go in and deliver? PR? Media training? Without hesitation I said ‘Presentation Skills’ as that was what gave me most satisfaction – and I knew I was good at it. ‘Go and do that, then’, said Rob.

So I did.

For the last 10 years or so I’ve concentrated on high-level speech coaching, presentation skills and media training and have helped hundreds (if not thousands) of people to get their voices heard by the audiences who matter to them.

Of course, I’ve also forged my own career on stage alongside that, as a speaker (on all things communication and on my discovery that I’m the face of an online dating scam) and especially established myself as an event emcee. The PSA named me their ‘UK Speaker of the Year’ in 2015 and I was awarded The Professional Speaking Awards of Excellence in 2021 (one of only 23 people in the UK to hold the designation), so I guess I’m doing something right.

In more recent years my business and career has been shaped by other coaches including @Alan Stevens and @William Buist, including the productisation of some of my coaching services with the launch of Critique Club (small group coaching programme) and Speech Club (free monthly event watching and discussing great speeches). Explore those sections on my profile or website for more details.

There have been lots more ups and downs over the last 21 years and I’ll explore some of them over the next few days as a way of laying out some of the things I’ve learned from 21 years in business.

Thanks for reading this far – I’ll look forward to hearing from you on the things you’ve learned in business, anything you learn from the lessons I share and also any memories if our paths have crossed during those 21 years!




Posted: 22nd February 2023 by Steve Bustin Back to Useful Stuff

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