I dove off the cliff. I began the process of building my mediation process and being a first-time business owner the day I submitted my resignation to the president of the college at which I served as a vice president and dean. That was almost 11 years ago and I still remember breaking out into a cold sweat driving home that evening.
My first steps after resigning, aside from panic stricken moments where my daily jogs turned into runs so fast you might think the hounds of hell were after me, were to enroll in Woodbury’s then-post-bac year-long certificate in mediation (500 hours), and to register my business name. I’d spent my entire working life in higher ed and deeply value good education for setting a foundation. And though I had a doctorate at the time, I only had about 80 hours of mediation training. I was competent but wanted to be an outstanding mediator, and knew the kind of depth Woodbury offered would serve my particular needs well. So I gave myself the year of full-time learning, during which I set up my practice. The intent was that I’d finish the year with practice foundation in place and ready to launch.
Here’s the short list of specific actions I took in creating my business:
- I sought out the counsel of business advisors through the SBA. Some of their advice was priceless, some I metaphorically dropped in the trash as I left the meetings (and I talk more about this in my upcoming book).
- I wrote a business plan, one of the best startup choices I made. It killed me to write it at the time, because it was a new kind of thinking for me, but it forced me to do something that helped make my business success early. It forced me to methodically and deeply think through what exactly I was seeking to achieve, how I would be different and special, and why anyone would want to buy my services.
- I aimed first for the market that knew me best, and that market helped make my practice full-time in less than two years. I used all the contacts I’d made in years of higher ed leadership, think tank participation, and association affiliations and put the word out. Because they already knew me, it was a short leap to trust me in my new role.
- I offered pro bono work to some institutions and organizations in return for referrals if they were satisfied with my work.
- I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to price my services, a crazy-making activity at the time because advice was all over the map. I finally settled on a method that combined what I learned about the range similarly experienced colleagues were getting and simple calculations of my target income for the year.
- I spoke about dispute resolution anywhere someone would have me, finally thankful for all those speeches I had to give as a dean and which had initially made me almost faint.
- I offered free intro workshops in dispute resolution for the workplace in order to build business contacts.
- I paid a graphic designer to create a professional logo, then printed letterhead and envelopes and business cards.
- I put up a website. I’d been helping my division’s department directors create websites and had created several of my own, so I bought a software program and did it myself, including the coding.
- I used that business plan I wrote to get a line of credit to supplement savings for the first couple of years. I never touched it, but it helped me sleep at night to know it was there.
- And I started to build my mailing list.
And here are few things I didn’t do:
- I didn’t create brochures. Someone told me early on that I should buy folders, get my logo design onto labels for the fronts of the folders, and then put into the folders whatever specific information a particular person might need (bio, list of services, articles, testimonials, etc.). She was right. Brochures would have outdated too quickly, as the way I described my work and my offerings developed over time.
- I didn’t take all the work that came my way, in contrast to what remains the general wisdom. I decided to be selective and refer cases that weren’t in my primary market or niche to others.
- I didn’t see clients in my home or rent an office space. Because of my market, primarily higher ed and other organizations, I went to them. This lowered my overhead quite a bit.
- I didn’t attend many business networking events like chamber. I’d had to do so much schmoozing as a VP that I felt pretty darn schmoozed out, and the few times I did go to those events, I felt like I didn’t fit in with the crowd. I found other ways to reach the folks I wanted to.
- I didn’t take out ads, either in the phone book or in other media.
I had a few guiding principles that helped me make decisions:
- Always do my best work (and if an offered project doesn’t offer that chance, don’t take it).
- Always offer more value than they expect (go the extra mile, even when it’s not in the contract).
- Always give back (do some pro bono at all times).
- Keep a learning attitude.
- Think like a business person at least as often as I think like a mediator.
Next, I’ll talk about what I’d do again if I were creating my business now, and the mistakes I’d surely try to avoid the second time around! Here is the link to How I Started My Mediation Practice, Part 2.