10 Powerful Insights I Learned from Starting a Small Business

In honor of Small Business Week, I decided to look back at a few things we’ve learned from our years of running a small digital marketing, web design and development business.

I’m thankful to have experienced an incredible time of learning and growth in the last decade. There have been huge successes I never dreamed we could accomplish, but my fair share of struggles along the way. While I’ve learned from the successes, the failures have taught me much more.

Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned at Blue Compass. These insights have helped us find great success, and I hope they help you on your journey. 

10. Give Away Your Small Business's Expertise

A few years ago we sat down with the marketing team of a national financial company to discuss their digital marketing strategy. With thousands of employees and decades of experience, their brand had some impressive offerings. However, we noticed their website focused almost entirely on the company itself and not its audience. 

“Your website has a lot going for it,” I said, “but I see it provides visitors only with information about your brand. What if we start using the blog to post articles that don’t talk about your company, but provide compelling content focused on your audience?” We went on to encourage them to focus less on talking about the expertise they have and more on sharing that knowledge with their audience. 

team photo digital marketing agency

We could see the members of the marketing team were immediately uncomfortable. It was as if we had suggested they start linking to a competitor’s website. They were concerned that if they gave away this financial expertise, their audience might not need them any longer. And what if their competitors began using these financial insights? 

Sharing your expertise with potential clients can be intimidating. In fact, it’s counter to the way many of us have worked for the last 50 years. Most businesses only advertise how great their products or services are. 

We have found that most people aren’t especially interested in ads that tell them who or what they need. They want to do business with brands that care enough to provide them with valuable expertise. 

Blue Compass has seen incredible results from giving away our expertise. We do this through speaking events, free website audits and blog articles. For instance, we recently wrote an article where we explained our testing process to find the best image size for Twitter. Our team ran into a problem where parts of our images were getting cut off, so we tested other options to discover the best solution. After releasing the article, we found out a lot of other social media marketing professionals were running into the same problem, and by giving away the best Twitter image size we were able to save them time and stress. 

best twitter image size

The best way to prove you’re an expert is to show it, not to claim it. People appreciated our no-strings-attached guide and we've received many compliments because of it. We have found the more you give, the more you get, both in business and in life. In fact, I've been so personally impacted by the effectiveness of this approach that I wrote a book about it called The Content Marketing Miracle

best way to prove you're an expert quote

9. Successful Small Business Leaders are Always Hungry to Learn 

Years ago I spent most of my free time on entertainment like movies and video games. As time passed, I realized that I have to be continually learning or I won’t be able to serve my team and clients the way they deserve. Now, I’m always reading a book on digital marketing, leadership or personal improvement. I’ve almost eliminated music from my spare time, listening instead to podcasts on personal development or motivation.  

Technology is constantly changing, competition is everywhere and our business can’t afford to fall behind. We’ve tried to foster an environment of learning for our entire team. Our team is encouraged to read and share relevant blog articles from thought leaders in our industry. We often get together for lunch-and-learns and we send our team members to at least a few conferences a year. In fact, one of our primary value statements is, “We continually grow our expertise.” 

Blue Compass' values on the wall.

Every business is currently traveling in one of two directions: forward or backward. We have found that a deep emphasis on learning helps us continually move forward. 

8. Listening is One of the Small Business Leader's Most Powerful Tools

I recently read an excellent quote by Stephen R. Covey: “The biggest communication problem is that we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply.” 
biggest communication problem is listening to reply quote
Many of us are so anxious to express ourselves in the workplace we barely pay attention to what our coworkers are saying or feeling. Talking feels good because we all want others to care about our thoughts and perspective. But, that’s precisely why listening is so powerful. Truly effective people care enough to listen and understand their team.

Listening is an exceptionally essential skill for leaders. I’ve seen many meetings in which the leader begins by telling everyone what he or she thinks, then asks what everyone else thinks. That’s a great way to close down communication and encourage team members to rethink their positions. Great leaders first ask others’ opinions, genuinely listen, then offer their thoughts. 

7. Small Businesses Only Have Two Modes: Growth or Decline

“What’s your goal for Blue Compass?” a friend recently asked me. “Do you want to grow or are you satisfied with where the company is currently?” For us, the answer is quite simple: if your company is not actively working to grow it’s in decline. We’ve found that businesses wanting to embrace the comfortable status quo generally don’t respond well to change, and we live in a fast-paced world that’s constantly changing. Modern companies that embrace change, take risks and focus on continual growth have an advantage over more traditional organizations that want to play it safe. This is especially true for tech companies.  

In this case, “growth” isn't simply referring to profits or number of team members, although growth in these areas is certainly positive. Successful organizations are always focused on growing their customer service, efficiencies, influence, brand awareness, relevance and knowledge. 

6. Reject the Fear You Experience in Your Small Business 

Every small business leader feels the sting of fear creep in. 

In the first few years of our business, I looked at the costs of payroll, the problems, and unknowns and continually thought, "when is this all going to fall apart?" I was playing not to lose. Eventually I realized that everything generally works out and there are great opportunities for those who aren't stricken by fear of failure. I began to play to win.

Picture of Blue Compass team members eating in the kitchen.
I've found that F.E.A.R. stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. I believe 95 percent of what we worry about never happens.

Your business will never truly flourish if fear of what could happen is continually running through your head. To counter fear, focus on the opportunities you would like to have and gratitude for what you already have.

5. Be Comfortable Giving Up Control to Great Employees

I learned very early as a leader that it's difficult to give up control to your employees. Small business owners are often micromanagers plagued with the idea that it won't be done right if they don't do it. I was victim to this thinking for years. 

One of the greatest blessings of running a small business, however, is giving up control to talented employees who do it better than you. I've found that every time I have stepped out of a role (project management, design, direct sales, etc.) and put another skilled team member in that place, that role runs smoother and better. 

Trust and empower your team members. Take joy in giving up control and letting talented people do what they do best. 

giving up control to employees quote

4. Customers Will Never Love a Company Until the Team Members Love it First

We play an interesting game at Blue Compass. Our main conference room has one wall comprised entirely of glass. When we hold interviews, the interviewee typically sits with his or her back to the glass. Years ago, a couple of our team members started trying to make me laugh while I interviewed people. It started with such attempts as a cartwheel or a funny face. Soon it escalated to pushing each other around on chairs and breaking open a piñata. During a recent interview, I looked up to see a few of our team members carrying a full couch by the conference room while someone calmly sat on the couch, working on her computer (for the record, our team has not yet gotten me to laugh). 

Are these crazy interview hijinx 100 percent professional? Probably not. Could they shock an interviewee and turn that person off of Blue Compass? Absolutely. But I’ve never stopped these office pranks because they exemplify who we are. 

Picture of the Blue Compass team volunteering.

If a business wants long-term profitability and desires to provide employees with good quality of life, a positive company culture is absolutely essential.

Blue Compass is known for its amazing culture. It’s taken years of learning and experience, but we’re very proud of the fantastic environment we’ve created for team members. We have found great success in encouraging joy and humor in everything we do. We fully encourage joking, pranks and good-natured teasing. Nerf gun fights and office pets are not uncommon at Blue Compass. We believe laughter is the most important metric of a healthy company culture, and thankfully we have a generous dose of it on a daily basis.  

digital agency prank

We’ve had people join our team from traditional ad agencies and been very surprised at the stark difference our culture has to offer. We are a team that supports each other - no internal politics, no fighting for power and no individual stars that are considered better than everyone else. No one is here to glorify themselves, but to uplift the team. For example, if anyone is working past 5:00 PM, I’ll almost always hear another team member ask, “How’s it going? Can I do anything to help you?” before they leave for the day. Simply put, we have each others’ back.

Don’t let company rules and regulations squeeze the fun out of your office environment. Having an occasional team lunch doesn’t cut it. Foster an environment where everyone laughs and feels supported every day. And let pets visit (at least occasionally).

Picture of some dogs at the Blue Compass office.

3. Surround Yourself With the Right People at Your Small Business

The biggest mistake I made in our early years was hiring too soon and without enough information. Hiring the right people is an incredibly difficult process and who you include in your organization has huge, resounding implications. Thankfully, we’ve learned much over the years and have an amazing team today. 

One of the most important characteristics we look for in potential team members is personality. Many companies look for the most impressive resumes that list eye-catching skills and accomplishments. Talent is essential, of course, but the right work ethic and values are also critical. You can teach skills, you can’t teach personality. It doesn’t matter how impressive someone’s resume is, we only hire people who are genuinely positive, totally team-oriented, intelligent and eager to grow. We will not hire or continue to employ anyone who engages gossip and drama - neither are allowed at Blue Compass.

company culture

I always tell people that being at Blue Compass each day is like hanging out with a bunch of friends. I love this great group of people. I learn from them and am supported and encouraged by them every day.  

Ensure the people you add to your organization are positive, team-oriented individuals that will bring joy to your team. 

2. You Become What You Think About

Have you ever worried about something so much it kept you awake at night and lurked into your thoughts nearly every chance it got? Early in our company’s history I frequently worried; “Will we have enough for payroll this month? What if this client leaves? Is everything beginning to fall apart?”. There is never a shortage of things to be concerned about. 

Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that we become what we think about. Humans are deeply influenced by what goes on in our heads. Our goal isn’t to escape problems because we can’t. Our goal is to focus on the positive instead of the negative. There are so many wonderful blessings that we’ve been given: amazing clients, an expert team, potential business growth, etc. How often do we take for granted the freedoms we enjoy, our family, or even the ability to walk or to see? At Blue Compass, we desire to focus our thoughts on the good, not the bad. 

If worries about cash flow or company growth crawl into my head I try rejecting them immediately. I refuse to be negatively influenced by such thoughts. I’m not perfect at avoiding anxiousness, but my quality of life has increased greatly since I’ve committed myself to rejecting worry.

You may not always be able to control how you feel, but you do you have control over what you think. Change your thinking and you will change how you feel. 

Blue Compass group photo.

1. Good Leaders are Servants, Not Bosses

Years ago, I had an interesting experience that made a huge impact on me. A few of my team members and I flew across the country to absorb information from thought leaders at a marketing conference. It was a great time with many memorable moments, but the most impactful experience came when we recognized a company showing off one of their products at a booth. 

Three employees interacted with passersby while their boss sat nearby, staring into a phone. Interested, I kept an eye on them each time we passed by the conference floor, only to notice the same scenario. The boss continued to sit by while the team spoke with attendees. 

At the end of the conference, we said our goodbyes, grabbed our swag bags and boarded the plane back to Iowa. As we walked through the plane, we noticed the boss of this company on the same plane, seated in first class. As my team and I made our way past first class, we saw the boss’ employees huddled together in the back of the plane. 

I’m referring to this person as a “boss,” for a reason. We believe bosses sit ahead of their team while leaders sit with their team.

leaders sit with their team quote 

Many business owners, CEOs and managers are followed by employees because their title requires it, but that doesn’t make them leaders. Real leaders serve their team. They work alongside, not above their employees. They care about people more than profits. They take a little less of the credit and a little more of the blame.

If you’re in a role of authority, encourage and serve your team. Ask your team members how they are doing. Ask what is working and what is not. Ask what you can do to help. 

We love following leaders that care about us and inspire us. No matter your job title, be a servant leader that puts your team before yourself. 

leader vs a boss image


Blue Compass Culture

Drew Harden
Drew Harden

CEO and Co-Founder of Blue Compass, Drew Harden has grown and guided the company from a two-person startup in 2007 to one of the Midwest's leading digital marketing companies today. He's a published author, has been cited by PR News and USA Today, and has led web projects that have been honored by organizations like Adobe and American Design Awards.