Lunch and Learn: Expert advice on how to run a successful business

Kat Haylock
Kat Haylock

Posted: Wed 19th Aug 2020

On today's Lunch and Learn, Lemon and Lime Interiors director Elaine Penhaul joined Enterprise Nation founder Emma Jones to talk about her tips for creating a successful business.

Elaine has been running service-based businesses for years, from business coaching to home staging. She shares her advice on marketing, hiring the right people and running a business around a busy schedule.

How do you go about pricing your time?

Learning to price your time is one of the biggest challenges for service-based businesses. As Elaine puts it: it's the million dollar question.

"Home staging was a new sector. In a new industry, we had no blueprint and nothing to base our pricing on. There was a lot of trial and error. I got good financial advisors and a business coach who could pin me down on the details. That's been critical," she said.

"I haven't got the time or patience for those things, so I brought people in who will help me. Now, with each strand in business, we look at the financial model before we leap in with both feet."

What's your advice for marketing your business?

The first step is to clearly identify the niche you want to work in - in Elaine's case, it's the premium market. Then, spend time with the people who can make a difference to your business.

Elaine targeted the estate agents who were their main route to market and invested time in building relationships with them. She advises setting up face-to-face meetings whenever possible.

"I've drunk a lot of coffee and eaten a lot of chocolate biscuits, just in the process of going to see people. Those face-to-face interactions are important. People want to look you in the eyes, so they know they can relate to you."

What skills do you look for in your employees?

Elaine recruits based on values rather than skills. It's something that she believes her business coach background has given her the confidence to do.

"The home staging business is so new that we don't generally get people coming in with skills. If the value set fits with the team, we can teach the skills they need. As long as they fit with the team and have a passion for what we do, we recruit them," she said.

To get a sense of someone's values, Elaine recommends focusing on your intuition when you meet them. However, she's also set some unusual tasks when recruiting.

"One of our staff was really puzzled when she applied for a role and I had asked people to send in a handwritten cover letter. The thing is, 90% of the letters that came in were typed. If you sent in a handwritten letter, you showed you listened to instructions, you could spell and that you cared. You can tell a huge amount by a very simple exercise.

"We're taught to ignore our intuition and just look at CVs and experience. Actually, I feel lucky that I've got old enough to say: my intuition works just as well."

What are your tips for staying productive?

Elaine brought up four children while working, so she's an expert at fitting her professional life around a hectic schedule.

Her advice is to learn to work in the margins - the small bits of time where you don't think you can get anything done.

"Habitually, I wake up at 5am. I won't shower or get dressed or anything; I'll just grab a cup of coffee and do a couple of hours before the rest of the house wakes up. I did a Master's degree when my child was 18 months old and it taught me to work in 20-minute slots. You can get a massive amount done. Set yourself a target and just do it."

How do you manage emotionally when things don't go the way you want?

Emotional resilience is critical. Elaine explains that running a business can be a very lonely place, so you've got to have a lot of self-belief to get through difficult times and times where it gets too busy.

When things are going well, you can run yourself down with exhaustion and end up feeling low.

She recommends surrounding yourself with a good support network, both in and outside of work. It's also important to reserve time regularly where you can let your brain do nothing and relax.

Remember that there will always be difficult times, but it will be worth it in the end.

Is it a crazy time to start a business?

As Elaine points out, any time can feel like a crazy time to start up. And, as long as you have a plan going forward, there are some advantages to starting up in a difficult economy.

"You need to be clear about your business plan and very clear about how you're going to manage financially over the first few months. But I think building a business in a difficult time is much better than building the business in a boom time.

"If you can build your business in a difficult market and survive, you can emerge and be confident that you can do it. Whatever happens, you know you can deal with worse."

What's the one piece of advice you'd give your younger self about starting a business?

Elaine remembers growing up in a generation where women were supposed to focus on being a mother. Now, there's lots more help and investment out there for female entrepreneurs. She wishes she'd had the confidence to get started sooner.

"Just get on with it. There are all kinds of reasons not to start a business early in life. I started to build Lemon and Lime when I was in my late forties and set it up as a separate business when I was 52.

"There's pressure later in life to build it quickly enough so you have an exit plan at the end. I think if you've got a good idea, don't be afraid to give it a go."

Kat Haylock
Kat Haylock
Kat is a writer for Enterprise Nation, The Pitch and Side Hustle Club. She's worked with small businesses for the last four years, championing Britain's startup scene and anyone who has snacks. 

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