A lot of people who are exceptionally talented at a niche skill often don’t see it that way themselves. To them, their ability is simply second nature, and the thought to package that into a career doesn’t cross their mind. For years, Amanda Miller Littlejohn had provided free advice to friends, family and colleagues alike, and it wasn’t until she was laid off from her job as a reporter and forced to find a way to support her family that she considered employing her true talents in a professional way.
She launched a career as a communications consultant and copywriter, but it wasn’t until she met her match — a professional business coach — that she was able to see her abilities in a new light and realize that she had even more skills to offer than she initially realized: coaching, PR and branding. It took years of tweaking, and many tiny realizations and fumbles along the way, but Amanda can’t imagine doing it any other way. Today she’s joining us to share many nuggets of wisdom, including why being clueless is a good thing, what to do when you’re creatively depleted, and how success goes hand in hand with sacrifice. –Sabrina
Photography by Natarsha Wright Photography
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I started my own business after being laid off from my newspaper reporting job. I had just had my first child, so I was looking for a way to earn a more substantial income since I had a family. I knew I was a talented writer and that my writing skills were valuable in the marketplace, I just needed to figure out a way to connect those skills with the audience that was willing to pay for them. This was the first iteration of my identity as a business owner: I was a copywriter and communications consultant. But since then, my work has [evolved] to full-fledged PR work as well as personal branding — I now offer training, coaching, speaking, and consulting services in addition to a physical product.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I first learned about coaching work when I worked with a coach who was helping me get clear on how to reach my own goals. I met her at a networking event and, before that time, I didn’t know what coaching was. When I discovered that people got paid to give advice and help others get clarity, I knew it was something that I could do. I had been giving people free advice over coffee and letting them pick my brain for years! Working with the coach made me realize that I was leaving money on the table by not monetizing my knowledge. I first learned about becoming an infopreneur when I discovered Fabienne Fredrickson’s Client Attraction tools. She was one of the first people that I saw who actually packaged her genius and was able to sell a product with valuable information that was not packaged as a book to be sold on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Seeing the value of the information that she delivered as well as the different verticals that could come of that — workshops, retreats, group programs — really excited me because I knew I also had information to share that was of value.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Even though my parents were not business owners per se, they always encouraged me to keep my overhead low so that I could remain flexible and manage expenses as they came my way. This advice proved invaluable to me in those early years, particularly when we were experiencing the height of the recession. My husband was unemployed for a year at one point, so there were times when I was the sole financial support for my family.
Having low overhead in the beginning helped me to grow my brand while not getting in over my head so that I could grow awareness of the work that I was doing as my business and client base grew organically. Now I have higher overhead, but I’m much more comfortable with taking on those expenses because I have been in business long enough to see the trends and know where I can invest and where I need to scale back. But in the beginning you just don’t know that because your business is so new. Now I can make projections and predictions based on my trends.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
I think the most difficult part of starting my business was my ignorance — which was a blessing and a curse. I really didn’t know anything, so I read every book I could find and did a lot of research and approached starting a business with zeal and curiosity. I think being so clueless was an advantage because it made me work very, very hard to make sure I was doing things right. So I learned a lot of different perspectives and was aware of a lot of things that I don’t think I would’ve known had I had more experience and knowledge upfront. Obviously, I fell on my face a lot and had to learn lessons the hard way, but in retrospect I’m glad that I did because I developed a tremendous work ethic and spirit of reinvention. I’m not afraid to try new things and I’m not afraid to fail.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I have learned how important it is to be able to work with people. Admittedly, I am an individual contributor, I am an artist, I like to be creative and produce things on my own. But if you’re going to run and grow a business, you have to involve other people and you have to learn new skills beyond creative. I was a newspaper reporter and a writer, so I was not accustomed to managing people below me, but that is a skill that I have had to pick up along the way. I’m excited because working with others is a lot of fun, and while I did not set out to do that in the beginning (because I do prefer to work more as an artist on my own), involving other people in my work, in the creative process, [and] in the work outputs for our clients creates a sense of community and shared achievement that I absolutely love.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
There are too many to name, but I will share this one: I hosted an event once that was meant to serve as the launching pad for a new group program. The event was a great success, however, I totally botched my pitch at the end and no one, not one single person, signed up for the program. While I was slightly devastated, it taught me that I really need to learn how to be a better salesperson and that I need to have a strategy for how I enroll students in programs of that nature. Since that event, I’ve been able to successfully launch a more refined version of the program that I pitched during that event, (we are actually going through a cohort right now of the Package Your Genius Academy) and the women enrolled in the program are amazing and we are having so much fun. I think that having had experiences where you didn’t get the response you were hoping for allows you to have tremendous gratitude when you are able to figure out how to make things work, and you get a totally different result. Going through and leading the program that I’m leading now is incredible and I don’t think I would have the same sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude had I not had that botched launch.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
That’s an easy one: I would write. Writing is the thing that connects me to myself, to my audience, and to potential clients. It is my “main thing,” and the fact that I do not make enough time to do it on a daily basis really bothers me. I do write in my journal, but I’m not publishing daily on my blog, which I would like to do. If I had three more hours per day I would definitely be thinking and writing more consistently.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
The biggest sacrifice that I’ve made in being a business owner has been with relationships. I have a great relationship with my husband and my children, but there is not a lot of extra room for additional relationships, and that [has] been really hard for me. Sometimes I wish I did have more time to do girls trips, happy hours and more fun things outside of all of the time that I spend on my business. That being said, my business has put me in a position to meet some really amazing people and develop some really amazing relationships. And above all, my work really fulfills me, so I see it as a tradeoff that works.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
One of the things that I’m most proud of is translating my PR experience and coaching work into a physical product that [is helping] to scale my business. For service-based business owners, scale can be an incredible challenge, and I really led the market in the PR and personal branding space. So it’s cool to know I am an innovator in that the work that I’m doing [has] inspired so many others to package [their] genius in a similar way.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Wow, I have so many! Obviously my resource, the branding box, is a really fantastic tool to help you figure out what your marketable skills and gifts are as well as create a promotional plan to get yourself out there and position yourself as an expert. In terms of books, Danielle LaPorte’s The Fire Starter Sessions is amazing, one of my best friends Lauren Maillian wrote a fantastic memoir called The Path Redefined, [and] I loved #GIRLBOSS and read it in one sitting.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
At one point I stopped doing my signature one-on-one personal branding session because I had gotten overwhelmed with having so many sessions each week. I give a lot to my sessions: a lot of physical energy and a lot of mental energy, and I was feeling depleted even though the sessions were a huge success and were resonating with my audience. I decided to take them off the market and focus more on my product and group offerings. But after a few months I was in a funk, and couldn’t figure out why. I did the process of inquiry that I teach my clients, and I realized that I missed those sessions because I really enjoyed the connection with clients. The sessions gave me a lot of ideas, helped me stay in tune with what people were going through, inspired content for my site and podcast, and they were a really big pipeline of energy I do use in new clientele.
So I decided to revamp the session into a program and I increased the price. And after I did that, I felt much better about offering my gifts one-on-one in that way. So in a way, it was a success that led to a failure that led to a success. And I think that is what business is all about, tweaking and calibrating things until you find what works for you, because what works for someone else may not work for you. It’s all about finding that fit.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Are you ready to sacrifice to be successful? Success breeds its own challenges and you will have to sacrifice, so are you really willing to do that?
2. What type of business do you want in terms of revenue, lifestyle, and even the length of time that you’re going to be in business?
3. Lastly, I would figure out what is your “why” for your business? What are you in this for, what drives you to do this work every day? Do you want to run a big business, or do you want to actually focus on doing the creative work, because the trajectories are very different. If it is important for you to be the creative in your business, be honest with yourself about that from the start because as you grow, the more your time will be spent on managing people and projects; not doing the creative work that may have inspired you to start the business in the first place. So really think about what growth will mean for you, and how you want to be involved, how you see yourself playing a part in your business at as it evolves.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
While I don’t like [it], the first thing open is my email, just to make sure nothing came through during the night that needs my attention. But then I do go to my social feeds on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
The hardest thing about being my own boss is being responsible for all of the decisions to change and grow. It can be nice to have other people to bounce things off of, but at the end of the day, I am responsible for moving the needle, so while I can take credit and feel good about successes, I am also 100% responsible for failures. I don’t share that burden with anyone.
Secondly, because what I’m selling is an extension of myself, feelings of identity and rejection play a big part. I’m a very sensitive person who has had to develop a thicker skin because I know that failure, on some level, is a guarantee in business. I am a business owner, however — my business revolves around me, my ideas and my personality, as well as my products and my services — so it can be difficult to divorce the idea of yourself and who you are from your business. When things don’t work out with potential clients or business partnerships, you can’t take things personally, or as a judgment on your value or your worth. It’s hard not to tie your own esteem and self-worth to the success of your business when your brand is your business, but you’re going to have ebbbs and flows, ups and downs, if you stick around long enough. So you really have to stay centered and self-aware.