In 2016, I took a big risk and started my own company. I have no business training. No MBA. Had never run a business or even a department in a business. Even so, I knew that I wanted to build something. Start it from an idea and build it into something tangible with demonstrable outcomes and success.
And so, with a leap of faith, and a willingness to ask anyone and everyone for help, I started Atrómitos. Atrómitos is an SBA-certified woman-owned small business (that process isn’t easy – good lessons learned there) committed to helping our clients do the big things they want to do. I was intent on creating a consulting firm that genuinely helped organizations through real talk and hard work. Atrómitos is Greek for “Fearless.” This word encompassed what I wanted to accomplish for our clients – to provide “fearless” strategic guidance and advice – without fear or favor. But the term was also something of a talisman for myself, reminding me that to be great, to be different, one must be fearless.
I’m incredibly proud of what Atrómitos has grown into in its first 5 years. During that time I have learned the truth of the saying that the most interesting things in life, the best things, happen on the other end of your comfort zone. I have also learned a few other (more practical) lessons along the way.
Here I highlight the top 5 lessons learned in the first 5 years of business.
1. You’re Team Matters Most of All
I have an incredible team of colleagues at Atrómitos. Every day I am impressed with their expertise, their thinking, and their approach to problem solving. I’ve had the privilege of building working and personal relationships with everyone on the team before they came to work at Atrómitos. I’ve also had the great benefit of being able to bring people onto the team by creating the right role for them rather than identifying a needed role and trying to find the right person to fit that job description. We each have different strengths and we complement each other in areas where we have weaknesses, meaning where I have a weakness, I have a team member with that strength.
Identifying and recruiting the right team is only half of the job though. It is necessary to develop and maintain an environment and culture that enables each team member to bring their best self to the game. Our team has mutual respect and shared accountability. This is incredibly important for creating a company culture that people want to be a part of.
2. Alignment of Clients and Partners with Your Company’s Values, Vision, and Mission Is Important
Atrómitos is a mission-driven company. Each person on the team believes in and is committed to the mission of the company: Creating healthier, more resilient, and more equitable communities. We individually seek to practice the values of the company: Big Ideas, Authenticity, Empowerment, Collaboration, and Perseverance. When working with clients or businesses that we partner with – or those community-based nonprofits that we support – we always seek mission and values alignment. Yes, this sometimes has an impact on our financial bottom line. But we know from direct experience over these 5 years that working with organizations that we do not align with or whose priorities and objectives are out of line with ours will not have a good outcome. This relates directly back to Lesson #1: your team matters most of all. People want to work for a company that stands for something. And that is no less true for my team at Atrómitos.
3. Business Owners Must Understand Marketing and Communications.
In addition to not having been a “businesswoman,” prior to launching Atrómitos, I also was not a marketing and communications expert. Five years in I don’t yet claim that title of marketing expert for myself (although I have built that expertise into my team). But I have learned many, many things about the importance of marketing and communication in the growth of my business. I have also learned that there are many types of marketing and communication. Last year I learned all about inbound and outbound marketing. You may choose to work with an outside marketing and communications firm or independent consultant. Whatever approach works for you, I recommend three things:
- Understand the available options, the pros and cons of each, the cost-benefit analysis for all options,
- Work with someone that understands your business, industry, and customers. Otherwise, they cannot effectively convey your message and value proposition, and
- Be prepared to change tact as facts and circumstances change.
Marketing and communication plans must exist. You must have a strategy with measurable goals and outcomes. But you must also be flexible and fluid, ready to adapt and move with the changing circumstances. In short, as in any aspect of business – you have to start with a solid, informed strategy and plan of execution, and be prepared to deviate from that in intentional ways as circumstances change.
4. Know Your Finances.
This is probably the hardest lesson I had to learn. I’m a lawyer by training, a consultant in practice. That means I do words. Lots of words. Numbers and I are not friends. And numbers in the context of accounting are by far my least favorite kinds of numbers. P&Ls? Yeah, I knew what they were, but I pretended not to need one in the early days. Budget? Nope, I’ll just figure it out as I go along? Revenue projections? Bah! I just won’t spend more than I bring in. Yep. I admit it. I did all that.
And then I learned the value of truly understanding the company’s finances. Working with my amazing team (see #1), we identified different systems for time tracking, invoicing, accounting, and payment processing. Then I spent days playing around in the system learning how to do financial analytics. For the first time, I knew at the beginning of the year what we needed to achieve in revenue, what we could invest in marketing and communications, in professional development, and so on. With this knowledge, we were able to create a business development strategy and growth plan for the year. We report on the progress of this plan monthly, identifying areas in need of attention and strategies to deploy to improve.
5. Burnout – It’s Real.
Saving the least favorite lesson for last. While it is last, it may be the most critical lesson for anyone starting a business, running a business, or thinking about doing so.
Burnout is real. You need to know the signs and take action when (not if) they appear.
I am lucky to have an incredible support network, personally and professionally. My family is very supportive of me and help when and how they can. My team at Atrómitos is also as hard-working as I am and is always there when I need them. So, it’s not only a matter of having or not having support. As a business owner, you have a lot of responsibility and accountability. You will necessarily work long hours for extended periods of time. Even when you aren’t working, your mind is still thinking through work-related things.
As my colleague Tina says, let’s begin at the beginning (and go until we reach the end
). What is burnout? I appreciate the definition provided by Helpguide.org: Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.
It is far more than stress. We all have stress at some point. Burnout is different. But, like me, you will likely convince yourself that what you are experiencing is “just stress” and it’ll go away, and you’ll be fine. Check out the helpguide.org resource on burnout. They provide a table that compares stress to burnout.
Knowing what burnout is, is important to being able to recognize it. And recognition is the first step in being able to deal with it.
I personally am not a proponent of the idea of work-life balance. I think that is an unachievable objective, particularly as a business owner when one’s life is not neatly divided between “work” and “all the rest of life.”
However, I am a proponent of self-care
and recognizing and respecting your own boundaries. It’s okay for you to take a day off. Your team can handle it. And if you are still a business of one and don’t yet have a team, I promise one day off will not make or break your business. But it could mean all the difference in whether you break. Get a hobby. Have something that you do simply because it brings joy. Kayak. Hike. Read. Play tennis. Whatever. Just do something for the pleasure of doing it. And, no, “but my work brings me joy” is not an answer. Exercise. 10 minutes, 20 minutes, whatever. Just move. I’m still working on this one, but I know it’s integral to my success. All of these actions will help build your resilience
. Stepping away from work will also remind you of the joy you found in the work in the first place.
Here’s to the Next 5 Years!
Finally, while I have shared my “top five” lessons here, I will also confess that these were not “one and done” lessons – or things I learned once and then faithfully practiced forever after. No. Like all things in life, it has been a process, and these are lessons that I have confronted repeatedly and had to learn and relearn – particularly as it relates to budgeting (I really do not like numbers). This requires extending oneself some grace, and to borrow from the great Ted Lasso
– when making a mistake (even when you should have known better) – be forward-looking: Be a goldfish.
With these lessons learned and an incredible team at my side, I look forward to continuing to grow Atrómitos and becoming a better, stronger and more fearless partner for our clients and community.
Michealle Gady, JD, is Founder and President of Atromitos, LLC, a boutique consulting firm headquartered in Wilmington, North Carolina. Atromitos works with a variety of organizations from health payers and technology companies, to community-based organizations and nonprofits but their work reflects a singular mission: creating healthier, more resilient, and more equitable communities. Michealle takes nearly 20 years’ experience in health law and policy, program design and implementation, value-based care, and change management and puts it to work for Atromitos’ partners who are trying to succeed during this time of dramatic transformation within the U.S. healthcare system. Outside of leading the Atromitos team, Michealle serves as a Board Member for both the Cape Fear Literacy Council and A Safe Place and is a member of the American College of Healthcare Executives and American Health Law Association.