11 Business Experts Share the 3 Lessons They’ve Learned the Hard Way

Exciting as it is, the process of taking your business to the next level can present a few nasty surprises. Featuring advice from top CEOs, founders, writers and coaches, this roundup is your guide to avoiding the rookie mistakes.

In our roundup, a range of bona-fide business experts give their two cents on the matter.

See below for their responses when asked for ‘3 Business Lessons You’ve Learned the Hard Way’.

James Watt and Martin Dickie - Co-Founders, Brewdog


BrewDog co-founders, James Watt and Martin Dickie, kicked off their craft beer revolution in 2007. Pioneers of the ‘anti-business business model’, the rebel duo have since become proprietors of the world’s first ever crowd-funded brewery - picking up some valuable intel along the way.

1. Growth

First world problem, but we were too popular. The demand for BrewDog grew so quickly, we had to learn fast how to scale the business without relying on the suits or losing our edge. Equity for Punks was the answer: inviting people who love our beer to finance our growth, and be rewarded in the process.

2. Finance

We negotiated some pretty scary bank loans when we first started, and although the majority were spent on stainless steel, it’s this initial outlay that provided the basis for everything BrewDog is today. Cash is king – when it comes to finance, you need to be a yoda-esque grand master of playing by the rules before you can even consider breaking them.

3. Mission

Don’t start a business, start a crusade - if you’re thinking of starting a business, the overwhelming likelihood is that you will fail; 80% of them end up in the trash after the first eighteen months. You need a clear purpose, a mission and a reason for existing. We didn’t just start a brewery, we set out on a mission to make people as passionate about beer as we are and this still underpins everything we do.

Matt Fox - CEO & Co-Founder, Snaptrip

Matt Fox Snaptrip

Matt Fox is the bright spark behind Snaptrip, the marketplace for last minute UK cottage holidays. Not without its customary share of challenges, the start up’s also nailed some lucrative investments, and provided key players like Matt with ample business acumen.

1. Investment will take a lot longer than you predict.

The scrutiny that every CEO goes through in raising capital is a gruelling process, and one that I’ve now had to go through three times! If you’re looking to raise, do not underestimate how long it will take to close your round. Angel investors and particularly VCs will want to go through a due diligence process - that can take a while. And that’s after they’ve even decided whether they like the business! It is never too early to start having preliminary conversations and mobilising your network.

2. Hiring talent is hard and can take time.

Getting the right team in place as you grow is crucial; the most valuable asset of your business is your employees. I would much rather pay 5-10% more for a more talented, more enthusiastic, more creative person, than someone who would accept a lower salary and do a worse job. We also look to hire people who are interested in taking equity in the business, which we always offer new starters, as we think they will be better engaged with the wider strategic goals of the company.

3. Time is the most valuable resource for any business, but particularly a new business.

When you embark on the process of building a company, there are infinite possibilities of things to spend your time on: marketing channels to try, events to attend, new features to build. All these pulls on your time can be a distraction from what actually matters - growing your business. Of course, when you build a new business, fundamentally you need to experiment and take risks, but as the CEO, you are whom the buck stops with, so you need to be honest with yourself and your staff to make sure that time is not being wasted.

Doug Shaw - Organisational and People Development Consultant

Doug Shaw

Doug Shaw has over 20 years’ experience in business as a speaker, behavioural coach, and social entrepreneur. Spanning Europe, the USA and Middle East, Doug’s track record includes a diverse range of sectors that have since benefitted from a heightened understanding of creativity, human behaviour, and what great work looks like.

1. Be adaptable

Very early in my career I planned for a day of facilitation which went horribly wrong. Speakers didn’t show, or were hours late and poorly briefed. I wasn’t directly responsible for any of these things but I hadn’t planned for them. I managed to salvage a useful day for this team and I learned a lot from it, primarily to expect the unexpected. Have a plan B and a plan C too. Better to go along for the ride with too many things to do than not enough.

2. People rarely say no – so don’t wait for it

Folk don’t seem to like saying no. The trouble is the silence that follows a proposal is a much bigger let down than the no that you don’t want to give. No frees people up to do something else. Nowadays I’m over the fact that folks don’t like to say no. It’s their choice; I don’t wait for it to happen anymore.

3. Deep dive with care

For my first major conference, I worked with an event company who attracted sponsorship and used their extensive mailing lists to generate an audience. I wanted this event to be as good as possible: I sought out great speakers and tried to write the very best website I could. I became so focused on these things I “forgot” to sort out other stuff. Stuff like – how much was I going to be paid for my efforts.

The event was a big success, but a few days after I received a cheque for around £2,500. That was my financial reward for around four months of hard slog. I subsequently found out that the event company had made a load of mistakes in their bookkeeping which left me somewhat short changed. I learned some valuable, very expensive lessons. Don’t focus on one thing at the expense of all others, and insist on making robust transparent financial arrangements upfront.

Julian Hall - Founder, Ultra Education

Julian Hall

Julian Hall is the founder of Ultra Education, an organisation dedicated to making entrepreneurial instruction mainstream in schools. He is also the best-selling author of From Entrepreneur to Ultrapreneur. Julian’s expertise comes from over two decades spent working alongside some outstanding talents - from owners of billion dollar businesses, to tomorrow’s tycoons.

1. Achieve balance

Being present in your own business journey is so important. We all have goals and targets, but don’t obsess. Being in the moment has a real value – both for your business, staff, partners and family. Richard Branson himself said “Balancing, doing and being has been a lifelong lesson for me”.

2. Take care of your physical and nutritional health

If you don’t look after yourself, quite simply it’s your health that suffers and then your business. If you’re stressed out constantly and not sleeping properly then this will hamper execution and, worst case, will lead to depression. Regular exercise (running, walking, yoga or just getting outside) clears the mind, de-stresses you, helps you focus and gives you more energy.

3. Do what you love, it’s not all about money

To be a successful entrepreneur you don’t have to have an “all or nothing”, “boom or bust” mentality. The world’s most successful entrepreneurs love what they do. Yes, it’s useful to have strong commercial acumen, but don’t go into business hoping to make a quick buck. Do it because you love it and believe you can create sometime unique, different or better.

Nancy Cruickshank, Founder, MyShowcase

Nancy Cruickshank Myshowcase

A serial entrepreneur and startup savant, Nancy Cruickshank has an impressive industry record. She currently heads up MyShowcase: a marketplace where independent beauty brands are connected with women working flexibly (the Stylists) and clients who want guidance on how to shop cleverly for beauty products.

1. Maintain a single, unifying vision.

I run a fairly complex business. We're SAAS for our Stylists, we're training, mentoring & motivation for our community, we're a new channel to market for our brand partners and we're the 4th fastest growing technology company in the UK (according to TECH5, March 2016). We also need to avoid getting lost in the mechanics and progress from comparisons with other businesses. “MyShowcase is a Personal Beauty Shopping service” neatly describes exactly what we do for every member of our community. As Founder and CEO, my role is simple. To be the ambassador of this vision and to keep us all focused on prioritising our tasks to deliver it.

2. Having the right talent at every stage of a business' growth is key.

I’ve been involved in two businesses where the CEO had become the wrong guy for the job. He hadn't always been wrong but the business had scaled very fast or transformed far from its roots - and these guys no longer fitted the bill. My critical lesson was about leadership and talent. Get the wrong people on the bus and it doesn't matter how brilliant the vision or strategy is, chances of success are dramatically diminished.

3. Good is good, but great is what's required!

I recently read a fantastic book, Good to Great by Jim Collins. It explores the unique factors that set apart great companies from the many average ones. I reflected on my business as I consumed the book in one Saturday afternoon and felt like we came up short. We were doing a lot well, but I didn't feel I could call everything great. So we've gone back to basics in 2016: championing doing fewer things really brilliantly and going systematically, product by product, from good to GREAT! The early results are encouraging and our resolve is steadfast.

Jamie Hardesty - Editor, Bdaily Business News

Jamie Hardesty Bdaily

As editor of Bdaily, Jamie Hardesty has his finger firmly on the pulse of UK business. A particular pundit of North East news, Jamie’s also fanatical about startups and tales of regional entrepreneurship.

1. Things will go wrong

As in life, things don’t always go to plan in business. I once wrote an article about a company and referred to them as their biggest, and similarly sounding, competitor. Naturally, the business was exasperated although (luckily) in the digital world - we’re fortunate that things can be edited and resolved fairly quickly. Whilst the launch started badly it was quickly remedied and apologies were swiftly made - it wasn’t the end of the world as first felt.

2. You can’t please everybody

One thing I’ve definitely learned as I’ve gotten older is that you simply cannot please everybody - and if try to, you’ll probably not please anybody! People are different and one man’s masterpiece is another man’s disaster. I once gave a speech to undergraduates where I thought I came across very well and was congratulated although one person said I came across as very arrogant. Whilst this affected me at first, I got over it and forgot the criticism. That’s life, isn’t it?

3. 'Shy bairns get nowt'

Shy bairns get nowt is a phrase which we Geordies use to mean: if you don’t ask, you won’t get anything. When I first started off in journalism I’d often go to events and leave feeling a little underwhelmed. Why? Because I didn’t put myself forward enough; I wasn’t confident enough. Confidence in business really is key. Now, I always strive to seize the moment and make impressions - that’s what gets people to remember you.

Brad Burton - Founder, 4Networking

Brad Burton 4Networking

Ditching his flatlining marketing startup to launch 4Networking, an international business networking group, was the making of Brad Burton. 10 years on, Brad’s experience and knack for no-nonsense motivational speaking have proved a winning combination, earning him plenty of gigs at the UK’s most revered business events.

1. It’s easy making money on spreadsheets.

I’ve done it loads of times, 3% increase there, 5% saving there. Hurrah! I’m a millionaire. A spreadsheet millionaire. The truth is, it’s likely to take you 4 times longer than the business plan you’ve drafted for the bank states. Prepare for that.

2. If you have a Plan B, you don’t 100% believe in your Plan A.

If you don’t 100% believe in your business succeeding, aka your Plan A, don’t get upset when others don’t 100% believe in it either. You have to have unwavering - sometimes misguided - self-belief when starting a business. Lose the Plan B and make your Plan A work.

3. Experience is what you win when you lose

The great thing about any mistakes is up until that point, it was the correct decision. No one, including me, wakes up and goes “You know what? I think I’m going to mess up today!” But occasionally I do. A mistake means you’ve learned a lesson from it, which makes you better placed to avoid it in future.

BONUS 4. Find YOUR level. And be happy.

Not everyone can be Sugar or Branson. I’ll never reach a level of success like that, but truth is after 10 years I’ve found MY level. My success. I don’t need a private island to have my success affirmed. Same goes for you, and on those days when you want to quit… Remember why you started in the first place.

Charlie Mullins OBE - Manager Director, Pimlico Plumbers

Charlie Mullins Pimlico Plumbers

Starting out in 1979, with no assets except a bag of tools and a second-hand van, Charlie Mullins now pilots London’s largest independent plumbing and service company. Suffice to say he’s earned a controversial rep over the years, as both Prince’s Trust patron and connoisseur of blunt business chat.

1. My motto is: Pauci Prudentiam Profitentur (Common sense, it ain’t that common!)

People are always talking about ‘common sense’ and I’m no exception, but I’ve learned the hard way that what I consider second nature can be a losing battle to get through to others, and you should never assume people are on the same wavelength as you. There’s a simple and logical way to help teach yourself this lesson. Ask yourself - if common sense was actually common why aren’t there more people doing what I’m doing?

2. Don’t try to do everything yourself!

It’s the biggest trap in life and the same goes for business. There are not enough hours in the day to micro manage every aspect of your operation. And for some self-made entrepreneurs (like me) there’s an even greater truth here, and that is that other people are better at some things than you. I think it took me 20 years to properly appreciate this lesson, but it’s one that you must learn and make peace with if you are going to grow your business beyond a certain size. Refusing to let go is a genuine limit to growth.

3. Meetings are the refuge of the idle and 99% of the time they are a complete waste of time!

As I made the transition from being a plumber to becoming a ‘businessman’ one of the things I started to encounter was people wanting to have meetings with me. To begin with I went along with it; I’d started wearing a suit after all, so why not have meetings? I quickly learnt however that If you want to waste time and not get things done, call a meeting. The more people you get involved the more time you waste, and the less you will actually achieve.

Jason and Jodi Womack - Co-Founders, The Womack Company

Jason And Jodie Womack The Womack Company

Jason and Jodi met in the front row of history class. 23 years later and they're still partners in work and life - running their own international consulting firm. Together, the Womacks help busy professionals be more productive through coaching, consulting, their Get Momentum Leadership Academy, and now their book, Get Momentum: How To Start When You’re Stuck.

1. Accepting it won’t all get done.

The psychological weight of unfinished tasks and unmade decisions is huge. It constantly creates the feeling of pressure to do more with less. We must be willing to accept that we are never going to get it all done. We will always be updating our to-do list by crossing off completed tasks and adding new ones…and that’s okay! When we improve the way we approach the things we need to get done, we will stop wishing things were different and start really making new things possible.

2. Time block and prioritizing.

Time blocking and prioritization are two important keys to daily productivity. When you spend your day making giant to-do lists or flagging “urgent” e-mails, you’ll never get any real work done. Instead, look at your day and figure out where you have blocks of time to really focus and engage on what needs to be done.

3. Breaking through inertia.

Have you ever watched a freight train start to move? That first forward jolt takes the most energy; keeping the train rolling is much easier. Do a few small things to get rolling, then pace yourself. You’ll probably find it’s much easier to keep rolling along at a comfortable clip.

Dr Stephen Fear - Chairman, Fear Group

Dr Stephen Fear Fear Group

‘The Phone box Millionaire’ to some, Dr Stephen Fear began his career aged 15, trading industrial oven cleaner from the blower on his Bristol council estate. Having since worked across multiple markets and sectors and enjoyed a stint as Entrepreneur in Residence at the British Library, Stephen now chairs Fear Group alongside his son, Leon.

1. Business is essentially simple! You must sell your goods or service for more that you pay for the accumulative cost of acquiring it.

Of course it's all complicated by things like, employees' rights, taxes, competition, and increasingly political interference. I learned early that it is absolutely essential to get a good team to handle all of these underlying aspects so that you can focus on producing more sales.

2. Make sure you only buy the best equipment.

By this I refer to anything that assists the smooth running of your business. This is even more important in the early stages as anything that interrupts the flow of your business is to be avoided.

As an example we had a mail order business which sold information products. Instead of hiring a good commercial printing company to print our material I decided to buy a copier and have a member of staff operate it. This worked very well until the machine I purchased developed problem after problem, which delayed our print run, and affected our smooth operation and therefore profits. Even today in my study at home I have the best printer/copier money can buy. In my opinion. That is a product from Brother, but regardless of make, only buy the best, regardless of initial cost. It's cheaper in the long run.

3. One last lesson I learned. Keep your promises! Always.

Melanie Goldsmith - Director, Smith & Sinclair

Smith And Sinclair

Melanie Goldsmith makes up one half of Smith & Sinclair: pioneers and purveyors of luxe, alcoholic pastilles. With their ‘cocktail confectionary’ causing a stir at various international events and on the shelves of London’s most prestigious department stores, Melanie and co-founder Emile are indubitable champs of the city’s startup scene.

1. Creating a product, never been done before.

Coming from an arts background I never thought I’d know so much about encapsulated malic acid in my life. This said, when we started development on the product we were selling straight away and were finding that the product wasn’t lasting in packaging. 1 month into the business we had an order of 20,000. We were working out of a school’s kitchen and had 1 week to do the order. 4,000 in and a dramatic change in temperature = a lot of unusable sweets, sweat and most definitely tears.

2. It takes twice as long as you can imagine.

This applies to EVERYTHING from website design to hiring to receiving money for invoices, so make sure you budget that time in – genuinely – twice as long as you think!

3. Not everyone will love the business as much as you.

Hiring is hard; you work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week because you love it and you think everyone else should too. You will find them but it takes a looooot of trials and testing to get there – keep it up though, a brilliant team makes everything worthwhile.

About the author

Mike Stephens FCII is a respected senior industry professional and Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) with well over 40 years’ varied experience in the commercial insurance sector as a director, underwriter, and operational improvement manager.