Posted on August 14, 2019
“You’ve got to strike the iron while it’s hot.”
In metallurgy, in business, in life – a phrase that rings true. Iron, in the metaphorical sense and according to Wikipedia, used as an adjective and sometimes as a noun, refers to something stern, harsh, strong, unyielding, inflexible, rigid, sturdy, durable, robust, or hard. Moreover, it is the traditional symbol for the 6th Anniversary – and it so happens that Made in Germany turns six years tomorrow.
You may ask yourself – where did it all start, where is it all going? What have you learned? Did David Byrne inspire the beginning of this paragraph? Bear with me for now – I am thankful for your attention. Just like us, you are still here. Let’s not make this post a celebratory victory lap, talking about awards, growth, and milestones; instead let’s make it an opportunity to entertain, and reach out to those that lent a helping hand along the way. A time to recollect, to recognize, to tip the hat – boy do I love metaphors and idioms.
“To act on an opportunity promptly while favorable conditions exist; to avoid waiting:” Following the most literal definition of the motif of our story, the lunch break of August 15th, 2013, spent at the West Virginia Capitol with friends Patrick and Elke, made me Founder and CEO of Jens Kiel Marketing IT Consulting, LLC, doing business as Made in Germany.
Life, much as a business, follows its own rules. An awkward few days at the old job, an exit interview, a steak dinner, watching “Office Space,” and a prayer at a dear friend’s dining room table gave way to entrepreneurship. A shoe well worn and accompanied by an average of 180 words per minute my darling wife had to endure for the first weeks. Day one began with car signage, stationery, a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, and subscriptions to digital tools like Adobe Creative Cloud, TimeFox, and FreshBooks. I was on my way – visiting vendors, growing my network, finding opportunity. Friends reassured me – “you’ll do fine.” I am glad they were right – the company turned a profit after 90 days.
Not to say there were no challenges; after all, West Virginia’s economy ranks as the 5th-worst in the United States. As they say: If you find cabbage, make sauerkraut. Over one-third of all U.S. workers qualify as freelancers, but only a small percentage embrace the challenges and build a recognizable brand on the services they provide. I embraced the label as West Virginia’s German and carried it past the state and country lines.
Like the day Millward Brown reached out in 2014, to “speak to Mr. Jens, as the Brazilian Government had become very fond of the strategy ‘Made in Germany‘ as a model to be pursued.” Or that Thursday in 2016, when I talked to a visionary from the state of Hawaii. He had carried a message of hope and change that echoed around the world. I like him. However, I’m digressing.
Not to bore you with statistics, but 30% of all new businesses fail within the first year, and 50% of the surviving companies during the first five years. I want to share six lessons I’ve learned – hopefully they have a fellow solopreneur better prepared as they start on their adventure, or have them stick around when they hit the dip.
Learn the Market
You can be the best swimmer – but without water, you won’t get far. You must know the market, the peers, the potential clients, and your core capabilities. Twenty-six years of experience in audience analysis, strategic planning, digital production, design, and content creation, paired with eight years of building relationships with vendors, collaborators, and associations in the Mountain State helped me define the professional services we have to offer. If you want to run, make sure that you can walk. Remember that nobody gives you credit for the things you are going to do, only for the things you have done. Also, exposure is not a currency; you can’t pay your rent with it, or your software subscriptions.
Make a Plan for Your Business
Working with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) helped me to learn the (American) way of doing business, the stumbling stones and necessary evils like business and occupation taxes, city fees, balance sheets, and profit ratios. Moreover, a business plan and business model help setting goals, measure progress and create realistic expectations. Patience is optional and not included.
Bankroll Yourself If You Can
Bootstrapping your business is part of the American Dream, but not always a possibility. Save when you can, so you can pay the bills when the pickings are slim. Cut corners for yourself, but never in the quality of products and services you deliver to your customers. Don’t expect the same paycheck you got “working for the man” right away, as calling the shots for your company is part of the entrepreneur salary. Savor the moment you break even, but remember that without turning a profit, you are effectively an amateur.
A URL forwarded to a Facebook page can do for the beginning, but you need to have a website in place after three months that communicates your value proposition, availability, and quality of goods or services. Working from home was a good deal for almost three years, but moving to a downtown location put my company on the map, created synergies, opportunities, and a network – neither one I would want to miss today. Your mileage, of course, may vary. Don’t be selfish or stingy, always give an hour to a good cause in need – but don’t work long hours for exposure. If you don’t see the value you provide, others won’t either. Know your capabilities, but don’t be blindsided by your ego. Nobody is an island. If a Fifth-grader can’t communicate your brand, don’t count on receiving recognition, recommendations, or referrals.
Flexibility Is Key
Bruce Lee said it himself – “be like the water.” Go with the flow, master the rapids, but never “fake it ’til you make it.” Don’t get complacent, thinking what works today will work next year. Adjust and validate your strategy, recognize trends, and embrace change. Find a mentor, so you don’t reinvent the wheel. Fail forward, and do your own thing. After five years in business, for example, I trimmed the services offered to a number I can convincingly claim to be very proficient in. Also, end a sentence on a preposition if you see fit.
Let It Grow
Treat the expansion of your business – be it in the range of services and products, broader scale of audience, or the number of projects or retainer – with the same care and consideration you mustered when you were starting. Don’t compare yourself to this guy or that guy; the size of your business is a very individual choice and says nothing about the ratio of the profit you turn.
If you follow these simple rules and are still at the helm of your company after six years – good on you. I want to thank my clients for their trust and loyalty, either ongoing or just a little while. Quoting Robert Frost, “you never take notes in a love affair.”
I owe my father for planting the creative seed that still grows, and my mother for instilling a sense for good judgment, reliable follow-through, reflective humor, and inquisitive curiosity in me. Also, my wife, for being a muse, therapist, counsel, sidekick, and A/B test group too many times to count. However, most of all, for letting her love me Made in Germany like the always-calling, insatiable, and playful mistress she is – six years and counting.