Five years ago this week, I registered this business with the state and began my much-oxbowed journey into small business proprietorship. When I started Magnetic North, endurance coaching wasn't a thing; Training for the New Alpinism hadn't come out yet; climbers still called their alternate self-flagellation and debauchery 'training'; and running a fifty miler was still pretty out there.
I established MN out of curiosity. After training for my first hundred miler and experiencing a thriving mind, body, and spirit, I knew there was something different about the way I approached my mountain practice that allowed me to avoid entropy. I started this business because I wanted to share (ultra) endurance as a practice of self-love, an opportunity to plug back in to the Earth, and a vehicle in which to explore the topics that interested me the most: lucid dreaming and performance, pregnant athleticism (even though I didn't have a child at the time), and the new frontiers of mind-body integration I was exploring in the cadaver lab, the scientific literature, and my own movement.
In its fifth year, MN has hit its stride. Given my many doubts and trials along the way to building this successful, change-making business I've learned a lot. I'll share some of what I've learned here.
Authenticity, there is no other way: Upon first establishing MN I was totally clear on one structural aspect of running a business that is quite different from other outdoor businesses: I would not accept sponsors. Too often these days sponsors' needs and values override the athlete or business they sponsor and, to me as a consumer, this reeks of inauthenticity. By not accepting sponsors I've retained total ownership of my business' vision and I don't have a boss - except for my dear clients.
Low overhead + loyal clients = creative freedom: A primary value of mine, in business and in life, is total freedom to do and say things that may be different or provocative. In order to be nimble and explore cutting-edge (read: TOTALLY CRAY!) new aspects of the endurance life, I've consciously kept my overhead low. Like crazy low. Like this is my highest overhead month ever and it still is under $100. That doesn't mean this business was free to found (I mean, think of how wealthy I'd be if I'd never gone on climbing expeditions or paid tuition for physiology courses or if I'd spent all my time working instead of running!) but it does mean I am unencumbered by the pressure of debt or the need to 'scale up'. PS: Scale as the measure of impact is a farce. By connecting deeply with the clients with whom I work I've been able to build a sustaining user-base that tends to align well with new evolutions of how I do business.
Not everyone will like you and that's okay: It has never been a challenge for me to be a honeybadger (DGAF) but it is worth noting that in the world of small business, your niche is your claim to fame. When you establish a niche and claim your voice, you will inherently winnow out some potential clients even while you gain credibility with others. Not everyone has to agree with or like you; but you still have to respect one another's work.
Fake it till you make it: This doesn't mean to lie to yourself or others about what you're capable of, this just means that even if you're writing to an audience of three in the beginning (and one of them is your mama) then you should write as though a thousand people are reading what you have to say. This is exactly how I started and now I have an international reach via traditional and grassroots media channels. It still boggles my mind how many people have read my work and have shared it with others - especially given my VERY humble beginnings in 2012.
Work your ass off: No small business ever got off the ground without a good deal of chutzpah. Apply your passion to your mission, people, and you'll see results. This process may take years of rather unrewarding churn and shittons of self doubt but nothing beats good old fashioned dogged persistence.
Imposter syndrome: When I first started this business I was nearly paralyzed by not feeling smart/good/strong/fast/educated enough and I still get imposter syndrome sometimes. The best thing I can tell you to navigate imposter syndrome? Anytime that perfectionistic impulse to do nothing out of fear that it isn't good enough sets in, ask yourself: If I believed in myself what would I do next? Then do it. Send that email, make that coffee date with a bigwig in your field, reach out to that news outlet, fucking go for it. The worst you'll hear back is 'no' - and you better get used to hearing 'no' real quick.
Start small, start now: On the aforementioned perfectionism. It is tempting to start a business only once your idea is perfect, your website is super polished, your clients are already lined up but sometimes the best thing to do is just to leap. While I was still working a day job I started offering weekend mindfulness and running retreats, hosting a 6am trail running group, and blogging weekly. Think up a limited menu of services you will offer and offer them now - even if only one person signs up it is worth it.
Boundaries: Part of running a small business is being vulnerable because the thing you've chosen to do is inherently something about which you're passionate. For me, after a decade working dispassionately for a good cause, starting this business and proclaiming my personal interest in endurance was terrifying. Using my voice in a public forum was something that took years of getting used to. In order to feel like I was establishing real connections through my business but that my unprocessed personal stuff wasn't out for display I adhered strongly to the Brené Brown method. Though my reach has changed drastically and though I review my boundaries of what I share and I what I don't share regularly, my short list of people has remained remarkably the same today as it was five years ago.
Word-of-mouth is gold - and the Nordstrom policy is the best by which to operate your business. Nuff said.
Profitability and taxes: Aim for year-over-year profitability and track your shit people! Don't get hit with a big end-of-year tax bill like I was in 2014 and use Mint or Square or Quickbooks or something to track your ins and outs. Budgeting for a small business can be tough but the least you can do is to stay organized so tax time doesn't take you by surprise. Another interesting thing to note is that I've been profitable since day one - thanks to my aforementioned low low overhead.
Haters and copycats: Kierkegaard’s prescient statement about dem haters: “Showing that they don’t care about me, or caring that I should know they don’t care about me, still denotes dependence.” *boom* When you get your first copycat you know you've really made it. Let them haters and copycats be, if they crop up on social media delete their shitty comment and report them for bullying. And remember: it probably took the copycat a long time to imitate your brilliant work and by then you've already moved on to new, spectacular heights of creative work. It is too bad they are making themselves small by shouting from the cheap seats or undermining their own creative gifts by trying to steal your joy - but that doesn't really have much to do with you, now does it?
My favorite business resource: Being Boss.
Now go get em, tiger!