What’s it’s really like starting a business with no money

Beginning her business from an office in a windowless shipping container, Amanda Walls has learned the lessons of starting up without outside investment.

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Starting a business from scratch is never easy, especially in a market as crowded as the digital space.

When I started Cedarwood Digital back in 2016, I didn’t have any financial backing. That may sound scary, but this was a deliberate choice. I wanted 100% ownership and control over my business.

In the past few years, I’ve worked with a number of clients who have taken investment into their own businesses. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of angel investment and venture capital. I think if you choose this path, you really need the right investor with the right level of involvement.

Eight years ago when I started Cedarwood Digital without any such investment, I had no idea what the digital landscape would look like. Nor did I know with confidence that I’d be able to grow to an agency of more than 10 staff, or if I’d even survive the first two years (given that 80% of businesses don’t). So it’s a great opportunity to look back and reflect – and also share some of the things that I’ve learnt along the way.

Be lean from day one

Without investment I had to be super lean from the start. Picture me working out of a tiny, windowless shipping container in a government-funded startup space.

I think my first rental bill was £180 per month and we were pretty crammed in. For someone who has strong bouts of claustrophobia, it wasn’t the most fun experience. When we finally upgraded to a double-sized shipping container with windows I felt like we’d hit the jackpot.

It wasn’t just our cheap office space that was lean. I hired junior staff who I trained from scratch to keep salaries down.

I even took the Megabus on some of my first trips down to London and stayed in a tiny hotel near Euston with shared bathrooms. This is likely to be familiar to plenty of other early stage entrepreneurs – I actually bumped into a few while I was there and it was nice to share stories, which helped me to learn a lot from early on.

Keep realistic expectations of what you can deliver

The first few years I took pretty much any contracts that came our way and while most of these ended successfully, I quickly realised that in some instances we were faced with unrealistic expectations that we couldn’t meet.

This was where I learned one of the most valuable lessons to date – that having a clear contract, scope of work and expected outcomes should be set from the start. This means there’s no opportunity for disagreement along the way.

As I was relatively junior to business, I wasn’t aware of the implications. But now, eight years down the track, I won’t even begin work on a client account without all of the formalities signed off and in place.

The challenge of hiring and retaining as you grow

Once the contracts started to come in we needed to recruit more staff. Over the past eight years, we have seen a real myriad of market conditions, ranging from super easy to hire, through to near impossible (think just post-COVID), and back to the current recession climate where there are lots of candidates back in the market.

We’ve always hired at a relatively junior level and trained internally. This has worked well in the past. But, in recent years as we’ve started to take on larger client contracts and more sophisticated campaigns, we’ve started to draft in more experience. This has helped us to take on board external learnings, and also have staff that can hit the ground running.

Staff retention has also played a key role in growth. If you calculate the cost of replacing a staff member, particularly a long-term one, against giving them a pay rise and a more comfortable working environment, the benefits of the latter far outweigh the former.

Even when the budget can feel limited, the environment that you create is essential for your team. I think the key to staff retention is progression, understanding and flexibility – in that order.

Provide a workplace that supports progression and learning, that understands and showcases emotional intelligence, and that allows your staff a good work/life balance. It’s all key to retention, which after all is an important pillar of growth.

Networking in those early years

Even in the early stages of your business, networking is essential. This isn’t just getting yourself out there and talking to people. It’s about actively engaging with other people in your industry and offering genuine value through thought leadership, conversations, talks and written content.

Of course, this can all feel like a luxury you can’t afford when you’re starting up with no funding. Early on in my career, I very much felt like keeping my head down and getting on with it. I’d say even now, I’m definitely one to stay away from any industry drama.

Still, over the past few years, I’ve made a more concerted effort to socialise, network and offer genuine value to the community. It’s really paid off not just in terms of expanding my networking circle but also in terms of being seen and respected as a thought leader within the space.

This also works well when trying to grow organically. If your business is in a space that’s incredibly saturated, then you can’t stand out from the crowd through advertising alone. You need to garner the respect of your potential clients and thought leadership is a great way to do this.

Over the past eight years, I’ve learnt a huge amount about growing and developing a business in the digital marketing space. Most importantly I’ve learnt some key elements of how to grow organically and sustainably.

The key in the end is to be human to both your staff and your potential clients. By offering efficiency, relatability and a solid business structure, you’re putting yourself well on the path to success.

Amanda Walls, the founder and Director of Cedarwood Digital
Amanda Walls

Amanda Walls is the founder and Director of Cedarwood Digital, an award-winning Digital Marketing agency specialising in SEO, PPC and Digital PR. With 15 years of Digital Marketing experience under her belt, Amanda founded the agency seven years ago which was recently named Best Small Integrated Agency at the European Search Awards 2023 and Best Small PPC Agency at the UK Search Awards 2023.

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