How to avoid overwhelm when growing your first business

I went live on LinkedIn recently to join one of my business buddies, Leanne Cooper, a career confidence coach from You First Coaching, to talk about the challenges of launching your first business when doing it alone. We touched on how I got started in business, and I shared some tips to help keep the overwhelm at bay. Here’s the transcript:

L: “Thank you so much for being here, Caroline! I’m excited to get into our conversation, but first, I’d love it if you’d give me a quick whizz through your backstory and tell me how you got started in business.”

C: “Sure! Thank you for having me, Leanne. I started my career as a local government employee, working at Harrogate Borough Council for five years. Then, I moved into the not-for-profit sector for three years, where I worked with GPs, and then to the private sector, where I worked for an international engineering firm for three years.

Like most people, I experienced some ups and downs in my employed roles and have taken a few knocks in my career. It was while working in my final employed role that my life changed completely. My Dad died shortly before my 30th birthday, of brain cancer. As other people have experienced, when they lose a loved one, it makes you question everything about your life. 

I reassessed everything. I was working too many hours and taking work home. I felt under constant pressure and was firefighting problems all the time. The beginning of the end came when there was a change in the senior leadership team, and it became clear that my values no longer matched the company values.

I was frustrated for a long time and would get home every night, pouring everything out to my poor boyfriend, ‘You won’t believe what they’ve done now! If I was in charge, there’s no way I would do that.’ He kept telling me I should be the boss, but I’d laugh it off. 

Eventually, I started working with a career coach and explored options for what I could do to make a change, and I kept coming back to the idea of doing my own thing. The thought of going alone terrified me, but I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

After a particularly intense period of work in the autumn of 2018, my boyfriend and I went on holiday and jointly decided that I was going to quit my job and go for it. I wrote my resignation as soon as we got home and handed it in on my first day back in the office. I quickly had to work out what I was going to do as I only had a couple of months’ salary left to come in.

I spent the first couple of years in business as a Virtual Assistant. I was surprised as I became active on social media, how many people got in touch asking for help because they too wanted to launch a business. I helped as many as I could and found that I enjoyed giving business advice much more than the VA work I was being paid to do!

I eventually decided to shut down the VA business and relaunch as you see me today. I help ex-corporate women figure out what they’re doing with their businesses so they can leave their corporate roles far behind.”

Leanne and Caroline live on LinkedIn

L: “Oh, what a journey, Caroline! This wasn’t an overnight thing, was it? You went through the ups and downs, figuring it all out, with inevitable difficult periods, too. You got through it, though, and it’s been so worth it. Getting to the point where you’re doing work you love and helping others do the same is so worthwhile.

I know there are people watching today who are exactly where you were five years ago. They’ve realised their job is no longer what they want. They’re not enjoying it. It’s not aligned with their values and fills them with such negative emotions. They don’t want to spend their time counting down to the weekend or their next annual leave.

Of course, some will be looking for new employed roles, but others would love to set up their own business. They know they’re great at what they do, but the idea of taking the leap feels super-overwhelming.

There will also be people who’ve taken the first steps to launch their business but found their heads spinning because of all the different things to figure out. There are so many unknowns when it comes to starting your own business. 

I was so naïve! I remember thinking, when I’ve got my coaching qualification, I’m going to do so much coaching practice, I’ll be the best coach ever, and everything will be brilliant. Then I got going, and realised there was so much more to it than I thought! And that’s when the overwhelm began for me. 

There’s so much noise on social media about business, isn’t there? So much conflicting advice, and you very quickly get sucked into watching what other people are doing. People seem to shout that you need to do this and do that, and I was left wondering, ‘Am I really cut out for this?’. And that’s so common, isn’t it?”

C: “Definitely. When you start looking for help, your social feeds quickly fill up with ads. There are so many people selling miracle solutions, that you soon get to the point where you don’t know who to listen to or what to do. You can even find yourself spending tons of money on things you never use!

It’s usually once people hit the point of overwhelm when they come to me for help. They’re so distracted by all the noise they can’t think straight anymore. They’ve got so many different ideas and are trying to do everything all at the same time, and it’s just not humanly possible.

So, I want to give a handful of tips today to try and help people who are currently in that, ‘It’s all too much, I can’t do anything kind of mode’.

1) Pace yourself.

C: “This is the biggest one. You can’t do everything all at once when it’s just you. 

It’s so easy to get dragged into thinking, ‘I’ve got to be on LinkedIn, I’ve got to be on Facebook and Instagram, I’ve got to dance on TikTok. I’ve got to go networking. I’ve got to write blogs and send out marketing emails.’

The thing is, until you know exactly what it is you’re offering to people and have figured out how you’re going to talk about it to encourage them to buy, there’s no point in trying to do all these things because every method works in different ways. You’ve got to get up to speed with one thing before jumping into the next. 

You’ve got to block out what everyone else around you is doing because there are so many who are way ahead of you. They might have a team of employees or VAs supporting them. They can cover so much more ground because they’ve got more resources and they’ve already figured out what they’re doing and got all their systems in place.

When you’re just starting out and from nothing, you can’t go big. You’ve got to start small and take it one step at a time.

L: “Oh, this is such a powerful tip! I didn’t do this. I didn’t know this when I started. I was like, ‘Right! I’m going to be everywhere! I’m going to be across all the socials, in the papers, on this blog and on that blog. I’m going to do everything.’ And what happened? I spread myself too thin. I was trying to do all these different things and wasn’t doing any of them well enough. I didn’t have the time to put enough effort into any of them, so wasn’t moving the needle anywhere. This is an amazing tip because without pacing yourself, you hit burnout before you’ve properly got started.”

C: “Exactly! You’ve got to conserve your energy and focus on one or two tactics in the beginning, otherwise you rapidly run out of steam.

2) Trust your instincts.

C: “You know yourself better than anyone else, and again, you’ve got to block out the noise of everything else that people are telling you you’ve got to do and go with what feels right to you.

I find public speaking difficult. It makes me nervous, and I don’t really like it. So, I knew that seeking opportunities to speak was a no-no for me in the early days. If you choose something that frightens you to death, you won’t do it. You need to find something that feels comfortable enough for you to really go for it.

For me, it’s writing. I love writing because it allows me time to think and draft and redraft, whereas doing stuff live, like speaking to you here today, has taken me practice to build up to. So, think about what you can do most comfortably, and what naturally fits with your personality when it comes to marketing yourself.  

Also, on the point of trusting yourself, you’ll get a sixth sense for the people who approach you asking to work with you. In the beginning, when I was a VA, I found that when I started posting content online, a handful of people tried to take advantage of me. It was almost like they could tell I didn’t really know what I was doing and asked me to do work that didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel ethical. Or I would get a feeling that they’d be a nightmare to work with.

As difficult as it is to say ‘no’ to things when you’re desperate to grow your business and earn money, sometimes it is better to turn down opportunities that give you a bad feeling because it saves you a whole load of hassle and heartache further down the road. You’ve got to tune into your gut and listen to what it’s telling you”. 

L: “You’re so right here. We get that feeling internally. We know what the answers are but get distracted by all the noise out there. We can lose our nerve and stop trusting in ourselves and think ‘I better do what she does or what he says.’ Then you can end up doing things you don’t enjoy and find yourself right back where you started, unhappy in your work, just like you were in your corporate role.”

C: “Absolutely. The best thing about running your own business is that you’re the boss. You can have things however you want. There are so many experts saying you should do it their way that it can feel like you won’t succeed if you don’t. There are so many ways to do it, you’ve got to explore alternatives to find the way that works for you. 

Despite what the influencers say, it takes years of persistence and showing up day after day to grow a successful business, so you need to set things up so you can stick at it without running out of energy and enjoyment.”

3) Build a routine.

C: “This is something that took me a while to figure out. I was so desperate to leave the 9 to 5 and being chained to my desk. For my last year in employment, I had a three-hour daily commute and was so sick of having to get to places at a time stipulated by someone else that I didn’t have a routine in my business for quite a while. I just wanted to do whatever I liked whenever I wanted! Looking back, I needed that freedom then because I was burnt out. 

But when you seriously need to get visible with your marketing to get leads coming in, a proper routine is essential so you get into good habits. It doesn’t have to be 9 to 5. I don’t do my best work in the mornings, so I start later and finish later. I occasionally take time off to meet friends for lunch, and a couple of days a week, I finish early to get to a gym session and do more work when I get home if needed.

I don’t work the same hours every day, but I do have a routine of things that I do every day at the same sort of time. I post across my socials most days, in the afternoon because that’s when I find it easiest to write my content. I check and respond to emails and DMs at certain times throughout the day, leaving the rest of my day free for other things, for example.

Without structuring your days, you lack discipline and can easily back out of doing the things that make you nervous or uncomfortable (which you must do to develop and grow). If you create a routine and stick to it as much as possible, you’ll conquer the scary stuff and move your business forward.

Alongside all the work stuff, you MUST build in stuff that’s just for you. I’m passionate about making sure that life is balanced between work and play. Things that are just for you are the things that usually get lost in your never-ending to-do list. 

I know it’s hard when you feel overloaded with work stuff and have a family to care for and a house to keep going, but if you don’t take the time to care for yourself, everything else comes crashing down because you run out of energy to take care of it all.

Scheduling time just for me was something I did from the earliest days of my business. Yes, at first, I felt guilty about it. Old habits die hard! But I was burnt out from work. I was very overweight, I didn’t exercise, I made poor food choices. My whole life had been consumed by work. I never wanted to be in such a bad way again, so I promised myself that I would never let work take over again.

L: “This is music to my ears! It all goes back to the sustainability point we made earlier. You’ve got to harness your freedom and set everything up so it’s going to work for you in the long term, so you can show up for your clients and in your marketing activities and keep your business going long into the future.”

4) Don’t compare yourself to others.

C: “It’s so easy to get caught up watching what everyone else is doing when you’re on social media, but it’s never a good idea because when you compare yourself, you always find yourself lacking. Somehow, we seem to be wired up to focus on the negative things about ourselves which is really sad.

In the early days, of course you’re going to want to do some market research to help you figure out how you’re going to approach things in your business. It’s useful to look at what others are doing in your space. It helps you see how they’ve packaged up their expertise into client services. It allows you to see how they approach their marketing and how they’ve pitched themselves in terms of cost. But beyond that, you shouldn’t be forensically looking at what others are doing because not only are you wasting time, but you’ll also find yourself lacking and hold yourself back from achieving your goals.”

L: “Chances are you’re going to be comparing yourself to someone who’s been in business for years anyway, so they’ve gone through all the doubt of not really knowing what they’re doing, and to you, they look like they’re flying. That leaves you feeling terrible.”

C: “Your brain can really be unkind to you, so I think it’s best to train it to not go looking for trouble in the first place.”

5) Don’t try to please everyone.

C: “This final tip seems kind of obvious because we all know that you can’t please everyone. However, when you’re starting a business and you need it to work, there’s a lot of pressure and you can forget the things that ordinarily seem obvious. 

The default setting is to cast your net wide to help as many people as you can, therefore, bringing in as much money as possible. The trouble with that is when you try to help as many people as possible, your marketing and messaging get really wishy-washy and confusing to your audience.

Let’s think about when I was a VA. There are all sorts of different clients that a VA can help. I decided early on that I was going to focus on supporting solopreneurs who’d left corporate to do their own thing. They’d got as far as they could by themselves and needed another pair of hands and a second brain to keep pushing forwards.

Many VAs work with larger organisations and specialise in supporting clients with a particular type of tech or in a specific area, like HR. And then there’s a totally different type of VA that works with high and ultra-high-net-worth individuals providing support with personal/lifestyle matters rather than just business activities.

If you haven’t narrowed in on who you’re going to support or decided whether you’re going to be a specialist in a particular field, it’s easy as a VA to find yourself trying to appeal to all these different people and organisations. You’re not only going to find it exhausting trying to get into their heads and figure out what they each need to hear from you in your marketing messages, but you’re going to confuse your audience with the constant changes in the stuff that you’re putting out there as you try to reach everyone.

So, although it feels like going totally against what you feel is the right thing to do: trying to reach as many different people as you can, what you actually need to do is narrow down and get really specific about who you want to help. That way, your messaging is much more consistent, it’s easier to keep showing up because you know what you need to talk about each day, and your posts start to cut through all the noise in the social feeds, and people pay attention.”

L: “It’s so hard to do that at first because when you’ve got such a great service or product, you want everyone to be able to experience it, but when you try to help everyone, you actually end up helping no one because you’re not getting through to them.”

C: “Exactly. And going back to the sustainability point again, getting real clarity about who you help makes everything so much easier because you find your voice quicker. You get more comfortable with what you’re saying and who you want to attract. Then, once people start engaging, you pick up more clues about what’s going on for them and can use that info to craft new posts that speak more deeply to their problems, and it all adds up to make you stand out as the go-to person for help!

The beautiful thing that happens next is that people you don’t necessarily directly market to get in touch asking for help. Because you’re showing up all the time, they get to know you and what you do, and they’re like ‘Oh, I’ve got this problem, and I know she can help me.’ 

I market specifically to women because I’m a woman. I get what they’re going through when they’re leaving a corporate role, and all the nerves and fear that go with it. It’s easy for me to relate to women in the same position. It’s the path of least resistance for me. I’m looking for people who were in my shoes five or six years ago and can talk about what they’re going through everyday, because I experienced all the same things. Men ask me for help too, though, because they see my posts, like what I’m saying, and see that I know my stuff.

To summarise, when you stop trying to help everyone and narrow it down, you end up helping more people than you ever could when you were casting the net wide. Your messages are clear and specific instead of bland and generic, and people pay attention, get to know you, like you, trust you and buy from you.”

L: “Oh, Caroline! Thank you so much for sharing your tips with us today. They’ll be so valuable for anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed in their business right now. I wish I’d had you to help me a few years ago.”

C: “Thanks very much for having me, Leanne! I’ve loved talking to you and comparing notes about starting a business. It can be such a rollercoaster journey, and I hope today’s session has helped people feel less alone and overwhelmed.”

Action points

To get the most from the time you’ve invested reading this article, schedule a slot in your diary and consider the following:

1) Think about your daily activities

Are you putting in enough effort and seeing results from them all?

Or are you jumping around from one thing to another and not doing any of them well enough?

If you’re overstretched, which activities can you drop to free up time?

2) Think about how you can block out noise so you can listen to your gut and stop comparing yourself to others.

Are there people you need to unfollow on social media or marketing emails you should unsubscribe from?

Do you need to set limits on the time you spend on socials each day?

3) Look at how you spend your working days.

Do you need to establish a stronger routine?

Tracking your time with an app like Toggl can help you identify where you’re wasting time.

Are you scheduling time just for you?

4) Look at your marketing activity.

Are your messages clear or confusing?

Will a stranger to your social profiles or website find it easy to understand what you do and for who?

Whenever you’re ready, there are various ways I can help you in your business journey. It doesn’t matter whether you’re brand new or have been going for years. Check out how you can work with me here:


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