Three Lessons Learned from Running a Small Business

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Three years ago, I decided to turn my hobby of videography into a small business to run on the side and pay for some of my bills while I pursue an MBA degree. These are the three most important lessons I have learned:

Personal interactions generate business leads. General online marketing doesn’t.

When I first opened for business, I spent about $1,500 on online marketing by purchasing Google Ads, local news ads, and email listservs. “You have to spend money to make money!” That was my attitude. So far, it’s been the worst investment I have ever made. It didn’t generate a single sales lead. Instead, because I blasted the internet with my contact info, my phone wouldn’t stop ringing with spam offers for credit cards, insurance, and other “once-in-a-life-time” opportunities.

All of my billable business over the past three years can be back-tracked to my very first customer. I did a video with a Johns Hopkins physician, documenting her research so that she could show it during a scientific conference. She liked working with me and referred me to a few colleagues and friends. They also liked working with me and the referrals continued. My business network grew and I was soon working on diverse projects with clients in DC, Philadelphia, New York, Indianapolis, and even Los Angeles.

I don’t believe there is a shortage of videographers in LA, but a client flew me in from Baltimore because of a personal referral. Positive personal interactions with my clients continue to be the number one source of business leads. Any time I have a chance, I try to meet people in person. Email, messages, and even phone calls can be easily ignored. It’s more difficult to ignore someone during a face-to-face interaction.

Always exceed expectations.

Since my business relies on personal referrals, there is nothing worse than a disappointed client. The quality of my work is nonnegotiable. I always make sure that the quality of my product exceeds expectations. Besides hard work and attention to detail, there are not many tricks to improve quality. Time and price, on the other hand, are negotiable and I use a simple trick to exceed expectations. I always overestimate my time and price quotes for new projects. If a project can be done in two weeks and for $4,000, I will tell a client that it will take three weeks and $4,500. Since I set the expectations, it’s easy to exceed them. When I deliver the final product in less than two weeks with an invoice for $3,990, my clients are positively surprised.

It’s always better to overestimate than underestimate. If you underestimate and can’t deliver, you have to tell bad news. No one likes receiving disappointing news, but everyone likes pleasant surprises.

Be confident and take on new challenges.

My business has transformed multiple times. What started by creating a short promotional video for a physician’s research progressed through music videography and event videography to e-learning module creation. Today, I work primarily as an instructional design consultant for a Fortune 500 company. When I got the first phone call from the headquarters asking me if I was interested in overhauling their e-learning modules for EPA regulations, I was more than intimidated. The project involved explaining highly technical EPA information to thousands of employees. Previously, the company worked with a large production firm that would put a crew of 6-8 people on a project of this size. I was not sure if I was going to be able to compete, but decided to give it a try.

What I saw as my weakness turned out to be my biggest strength. Because I don’t have a crew of 6-8 people with heavy camera gear on site, I can be efficient and nimble. I don’t have to stop production and can work fluidly around a fully-operating factory floor when documenting procedures. I use employees rather than hired actors to explain processes. Employees are excited to work with me and show pride in what they do when being recorded. Because of my friendly attitude, they often tell me things they do not feel comfortable telling their managers. As a result, I’ve been able to discover process inefficiencies and recommend solutions. When I finish post-editing, my e-learning courses do not look as polished as when produced by a large production firm; however, my courses look more natural and resemble the actual look and feel of a busy production floor. As such, they are more closely followed by employees.

Take on new challenges no matter how intimidating they seem. What you see as a weakness may turn out to be your biggest asset.

Lukas Manka
Lukas Manka

As an MBA candidate at Johns Hopkins Business School, Lukas is actively involved in the start-up community. He is the co-founder & COO of immuonoHUB™ (a clinical immunology diagnostic support company) and owner of MankaCAM (instructional design consulting). Lukas also interned with the Commercial Innovation Department at Janssen (Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals), where he developed new strategic marketing initiatives. Before his MBA studies, Lukas led a team of aircraft engineers as Product Support Engineering Leader at GE Aviation. He was responsible for commercial operations, Lean Six Sigma project management, and development and sales of new products and services. Lukas received his Bachelor degree in Economics from Earlham College with full Dean’s Honor Scholarship.

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