The four biggest lessons our first year has taught us

In this post I’d like to review the four biggest and most important lessons our first year has taught us. It’s been just over a year since I was made redundant from my previous job at Homebase, and about 10 months since we both decided to try and make a living through LEH Design. As is often the case, the last year feels like it has fairly flown by. And thankfully, LEH Design is still in business! We’re both rather self-effacing types, but it’s fair – and true – to state “so far so good”.

There are several reasons for this, which I’m sure would provide some material for another blog post. However, I want to explore the other end of the spectrum. Reviewing the last year, I want to highlight some of the main mistakes we’ve made – things we’ve either done, but not very well, or things we just haven’t done at all.

My (potentially) simplistic reasoning for this is that by identifying areas for improvement we can avoid complacency. Apply any cliché you like regarding needing to look back in order to look forward, but I do think it’s important that we use our experiences almost as a kind of manifesto. If we want LEH Design to evolve from surviving to thriving, then the building blocks for that transformation are right here.

Just as an additional thought, I think it’s interesting how social and professional attitudes to what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’ have changed over the course of the pandemic. Although Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was referring sport when he said “first is first, second is nowhere”, that rather unforgiving idiom has traditionally been applied to so many areas of our lives. Thankfully notions of how we all achieve our goals – whatever they may be – and how we react to them when we don’t, and equally importantly how other people react to us, are increasingly based on a compassionate understanding of mental health. Whether these attitudes are here to stay or are merely a short-term reaction to a once-in-a-lifetime event remains to be seen. It’s probably fairly obvious to state that I fervently hope for the former.

So here goes, four very important lessons to learn from the last year:

If you build it, they will come.

We haven’t really got a business plan right now. Not a proper one anyway. There’s an increasingly long note on my iPhone, filled with headings, sub-headings and bullet points. Little snippets such as ‘website redesign’, ‘local SEO footprint’ and ‘customer on-boarding process’. I’ve read enough industry or influencer blog posts and articles stressing the absolute necessity of having a business plan, and subsequently thought “yeah, got one of those thanks”. But have I? Not one that’s fit for purpose, no.

So turning my notes into something structured, actionable, and adaptable is definitely the first step. I was never much of a fan of RACI models. As a tool for team and time management I always thought they had a limited effectiveness. But in our case, right now, following the general RACI guidelines to build a proper business plan feels like the right thing to do. We need more clarity.

I’d like to use the business plan to refine the answers to crucial questions such as what exactly we offer, what our key skills are, how we take those out to a market, and how we manage clients to keep them happy. And of course, our business plan needs to be flexible enough to adapt to future events, whatever they may be.

Copywriter, teach thyself.

We built our website a couple of years ago now. Well, Lucy built it – and it looks great. I just added the words. And at the time I thought those words were pretty good. They reflected a serious, professional approach to our craft, but with more than a hint of humour and fun. I like our strapline/motto – “Your vision – realised”. But you have to scroll down quite far to find out what services we actually offer! The other pages probably need a bit of an overhaul. I certainly wouldn’t want to completely change everything – I love the About Us page, it reflects Lucy’s personality, and her enthusiasm for designing.

Luckily we are planning some changes here. After finalising business plan, we view upgrading the website as our most important task of the autumn. And with various other commitments, it probably will be later in the autumn. Lucy can get to play with new design and prototyping tools (hello, Figma). We’re also looking at re-platforming, and I can get to review the copy. We should also be in a position to update our portfolio. The objective is to create a great advert for our business which also retains a little bit of our personality.

Shout, shout, let it all out.

LEH Design is practically invisible on social media – we hardly do any marketing. Partly this is because we haven’t needed to so far, and because….well, I was going to say we haven’t had the time. There will be countless small business owners, or self-employed people who would say “of course you haven’t got time, nobody has. You’ve still got to do it anyway. People won’t employ you of they don’t know you exist.” I can’t argue with the truth of those words, and I daresay they will be ringing in my head over the next year like a persistent, noisy bell.

Marketing is an area which both fascinates and scares me. So much potential for success, yet so much potential for wasted effort (and money). Luckily I have completed a basic – but still extremely useful and interesting – marketing course via Google. I’m looking forward to building on some of the lessons learnt there, implementing certain ideas, and perhaps less so (sob!), somehow finding and maintaining a marketing budget.

Ironically, I’ve attended several online networking events for copywriters where the overwhelming experience has been that most of their work comes from word-of-mouth recommendations. Whatever profession you work in, word-of-mouth is a crucial testimony, an endorsement, that first step to trusting the person who is about to work for you. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so prominent amongst copywriters. And it was interesting to hear about the efforts other people put into marketing, which ranged from being very active and prominent across Facebook, LinkedIn, etc, to only posting on Twitter a few times a week. Whatever works, I guess. We’ll learn, and find our own happy medium.

Write, right?

Speaking purely from a copywriting perspective, and leaving Lucy’s reflections on UX/UI for another day, I would love to actually write more over the next six months. Whilst I don’t think the world really needs yet another new blog, finding an outlet to learn new skills, and practice and perfect areas of the craft, feels pretty important. My lifelong love of birds, birding, and the natural world feels like an ideal opportunity – what could be better than writing about what I love?

Additional note – leaving a yawning gap of five months between blog posts on our website isn’t the best practice! School report – must do better.

Second additional note – this is the first blog post headline that I’ve run through an analyser, so I’d love any feedback please. Did the headline make sense? Make you want to read the post? Is it the right length?

Final thought

So in conclusion – some important lessons to learn. To repeat – we’re lucky. We work hard but we’ve been given a chance, and given the time, to review the business at the end of year 1. Here’s hoping that year 2 will be as exciting and rewarding as year 1!