Five Lessons I Learned in My First Year as a CEO
December 27, 2023 - by Jennifer Ringler, MS
If you would have told me on January 1 that I’d be the CEO of a small but thriving life sciences public relations firm by the end of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was cruising along at my corporate PR agency job – the job I planned to retire from, as I’d tell anyone who’d listen at the time.
But, the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.
On February 28 I found myself on the wrong end of corporate layoffs, and I was tired. Tired of job hunting. Tired of introducing myself to new teams and new people. Tired of trying to carve out my place. Tired of having to explain my visual impairment to new HR teams and ask for accommodations. Tired of trying to fit into other people’s processes and ways of doing things. Tired of feeling like a square peg in a round hole. Also, I was now 40, which, by all accounts, seems to be the age when women are just tired of everyone’s “ahem” bologna, in general.
So I figured it was time to try something new. After a little bit of wallowing, I dusted off my old LLC, ReadHealthy Communications (which I had registered a couple years before in the vague hope that I would do something with it “someday”), built a website, and decided to devote my time to building my own brand and starting a company.
After all – I’ve done brand building, awareness-raising, and public relations for other companies for the past decade and change. How hard could it be?
Haha. Well, it wasn’t easy, but it was eye-opening. There was lots of travel, lots of conferences, lots of networking. There’s definitely a learning curve to becoming a one-woman team of 10: biz dev, finance, account management, lead writer, project manager, head of strategy…on and on.
But here I am at the end of the year, with about 10 months as a CEO under my belt, with some great clients, some exciting moments to look forward to as I continue to grow my business in 2024, and some lessons learned that – hopefully – can help other founders and entrepreneurs out there.
1. Get out there and meet people.
I spent more days away from my desk this year than I have in any other year of my career. I went to conferences, medical meetings, networking events, socials, mixers, business lunches, awards galas – you name it, I was there. While a great deal of the work we do in communications and public relations can be done from behind a computer screen while wearing pajamas (don’t tell anyone about the pajamas), making genuine connections still requires face-to-face contact. The people I’ve met this year have turned into clients (some of them), but also prospects, supporters, members of my extended network of service providers, mentors, expert colleagues … and friends. Building your own company can feel pretty isolating sometimes, but there are people out there who can be part of your journey. It’s up to you to go find them.
2. It’s OK to ask for help.
I know a lot, but I don’t know everything. Part of starting a company is finding the right people who complement your skillset and can offer guidance or support where you need it. This year, I’ve asked personal and professional connections for help with everything from creating my logo and branding, to finding a lawyer who could draft up a Master Service Agreement for new clients, to advice on business development, to understanding invoicing and taxes. The best leaders do not try to be the smartest person in the room; they work to surround themselves with the smartest people they can find.
3. Get organized. Today. Every day.
There’s a lot to keep track of when you’re running your own company. I had to find the right tools and processes that worked for me – from keeping track of meetings and appointments, to tracking invoices sent and invoices paid, to keeping prospects warm and keeping biz dev moving along. Some of this was trial and error. Some of it was adopting what I saw worked at previous jobs and abandoning the rest. Some of it was getting my Google Drive organized and setting a ton of calendar reminders. And So. Many. Spreadsheets. It doesn’t matter what system you use or how you do it, but get organized, and then stay dedicated to maintaining that organization day to day and week to week so the whole thing doesn’t fall to pieces. It’s like the advice you hear about not working in a cluttered room or from a cluttered desk – you’ll get a lot more done if you’re not working in the midst of chaos.
4. Motivation is something you create, not something you wait for.
I’ve heard this one often as it relates to fitness goals. It turns out it’s also true of starting your own company. There have been a lot of days this year when I didn’t feel like giving it 100%. I didn’t sleep well. I’ve got personal things going on. The holidays are hectic. I’m feeling burnt out. The list of reasons NOT to give the day your all can grow to be three times as long as the list of reasons to keep going, if you let it. But I’m reminded of an old saying from Weight Watchers: “Remember your why.” When you feel like throwing in the towel – or even just checking out for the day and binging Grey’s Anatomy – remember the list of reasons WHY you’re doing this in the first place. Write the reasons down if you have to. Tape them to the wall. Tape them to the dog. Why is this meaningful to you? What are your long-term goals? Sometimes the endorphins don’t show up until halfway through the race – and that’s OK. Get up and lace up anyway.
5. Give yourself time to rest.
That said, there’s a fine line between being motivated and trying to be a superhero. You’re still human. Get some sleep. See your family. Hug the dog (and maybe remove that sticky note you taped to his back). Go to your friends’ social gatherings. Go for a run. Cook a healthy meal. Motivation is great, but if we push ourselves toward our professional goals at the expense of our families, our social connections, and our health, what’s the point? Life is about balance. This year, I had the pleasure of having COVID from November 8-13 and the flu from Nov 30 through December 5, despite being a huge proponent of vaccines. And I was traveling for work for half of October, part of November, and part of December. Between trying to catch up on client work, trying to do follow-up with prospects from all the conferences I’d attended, trying to see my family and friends, and being forced to stay in bed for days a time with those illnesses, finding balance was particularly difficult for me in Q4. And I was so frustrated with myself for not being able to do it all. But working yourself to the breaking point isn’t going to help you reach your goals any faster. Please trust me when I say it’s OK to sleep.
Looking to 2024
I’m sure next year will come with more lessons, more incredible people to meet, more exciting client work to dive into, more inspiring networking events and conferences, more peaceful days of drinking tea and writing quietly. And more challenges. And that’s all OK. This past year of unexpected challenges and blessings has given me the confidence to take on the next phase of this journey.