Updated: May 11
For our first Entrepreneur of the Month, we have the delightful Julie Lancaster of Lancaster Consulting in Flagstaff, AZ. She was kind enough to sit down with me for an hour and share her business thoughts and experiences:
My name is Julie Lancaster, and my business is Lancaster Consulting. I've been in business for about seven years here in Flagstaff with my consulting firm. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I've been in Flagstaff for fifteen years. I have two kids--an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old. My husband just left to go on a river trip for 9 days this morning.
Is he a river runner?
He's a wannabe river runner. He's a high school English teacher. But I just told him this morning that I was so impressed by his willingness, as we're older, to learn something new.
Were you entrepreneurial as a kid?
No. Some people say “I really want to start my own business, that’s important to me because I want to set my own hours, I want to be in charge of myself, I don’t want to have a boss, and I have a really great idea.” That was not my plan or my path at all. I had been an employee forever, and it was only when I started talking with some friends like, “I have these ideas about, Iike, leadership, coaching, helping people with training and development, but I don’t know what to do next...” So a friend said “you should meet this other friend” and within a month I quit my job and started subcontracting with her and I was like “Oh, I guess this means I have to start my own business.”
Will you tell me a little more about the woman who you went to work for?
Someone once described her as lightning in a bottle. She taught me how to coach. It was amazing how things were cosmically aligned, because when I called her (as a blind date, really) saying “Mary Ellen said that maybe we should meet?” and she said “This is so crazy [that you’re calling] because I’ve just come into more work than I can handle,” so she took me under her wing and taught me how to do it. She would send me out to do trainings in DC once a month for 5 years. And on the side then I got to start developing my own stuff.
So it was from her that you learned the how-to’s of coaching?
For sure. Hundreds of hours that she would sit and watch me and then give me lots of feedback.
Does entrepreneurship run in your family?
I was going to say no, but I guess my mom [was an entrepreneur] yeah. She had her own private therapy practice. Then I have three siblings - my brother owns a pizza shop in Pittsburgh, my half sister has her own business doing real estate transactions, and my half-brother also has his own business doing marketing.
My mom for sure was about “follow your passion, don't be afraid to take risks”.
I'm really interested in the shift in entreprenuers’ mindsets from “I’m a regular person working for somebody else” to “I don't like this, I'm going to do what I want, and I really have to believe that what I want is possible.” Can you describe that shift for yourself?
My path is so different than other people's because I feel like it is [generally] that way, “I don't want to work for the man!” and I was like “I'm fine being told what to do!”(laughs) I often liked being a number two. But she [my coaching boss] would consistently say “This is not stability - people could pull the contract at any second, you need to have a plan B.” But I also remember thinking “this is more money than I’ve ever made, the risk is worth it.” I do a lot of business coaching where people say “I want to start my own business, what do you think?” I always tell them, don't quit your day job yet. At least get your first client, practice on them, because that leap of faith - statistics say a lot of those people will be out of business within 5 years. So business is a calculated risk.
Would you say you have a higher tolerance for risk than the average person?
Probably. But not financially. The first workshop I gave on my own was called Bravery and Risk-Taking. I have a real passion for the idea of getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things. So yes in terms of my life, but in terms of money where I'm responsible for my family... I haven't ever thought about at what point would I cut and run, but I've often had a mindset of “I don't want to be risky with that [financial stability for my family]”. I haven't ever done the “I'm going to invest $10,000 in something with the hopes of better returns!” So I play it more safe than the average person in terms of that.
Could you talk a little bit about some positive effects and challenges that entrepreneurship has brought in regards to your family and your relationship?
This is a totally morbid thought, I don't think I've ever said this out loud, but I’ve often thought that if my husband would ever die, I probably couldn't do this anymore. I have one day of coaching a week, and I limit myself to three programs a week, and then I have one day like this, back office stuff. If I have a program, I can't leave. It's like if I'm a wedding coordinator - they don't care if I'm sick, they don’t care if my kids are sick, I’d better show up. So he picks up the slack. When I started doing the DC thing and I was gone 12 days a month, he was actually totally fine with it, he was totally supportive. So I felt very lucky. But after doing that for 5 years - one night when I was tucking my daughter in, she started to cry and said “Mommy I miss you! I don't know why, because you're here, but I miss you.” And that was the moment where I was like ”okay, this is a red flag, it’s time to transition [out of this].”
What do you love about being an entrepreneur?
What I love the most is that I can immediately turn vision into action. There's no bureaucracy, there's no red tape, there's no approval, no committees, no changing of a policy, so I can be fast-acting and make things come to life immediately. I love that my creativity has been on a vertical growth curve. I see that as one of my top strengths. I’m able to take a creative spark and run with it.
I love that my job is based on my relationships. It challenges me to be my best self every day in all my interactions because I value connections and relationships, but also those turn into gigs. I love the balance of strategy and planning and having strategic initiatives, and the spontaneity and flexibility to adapt to whatever comes up.
Did you ever have a point where you felt nervous about charging people money for your services?
This to me is a book: everybody's stories about their relationship with asking for money. I still remember my first year starting out--"How do I charge?" So I talked to a bunch of other people who did a similar kind of thing, that was the first step. And some of them said "I don't want to meet with you, you're the competition." And other people said "Come, let's have a meeting. I'll tell you how much I charge. Tell me about your strengths." So after talking to him I had a ballpark on how much to charge. And then - I remember the first time asking a client for money, and I discounted it, without them even asking for that. But now I don't bat an eye. My line is, "It's going to be a thousand dollars." Not 'what I'm charging you', but 'the fee for that'. "The fee for that is a thousand dollars. Does that fit into your budget?" That's my one liner. And if they say, "Oh, that's so much more than I thought," then we get to have a conversation about the price.
That's interesting. Do you offer payment plans, or is there a certain threshold that you won't go below?
It's a rubric-ed out fee structure so it's not subjective. If you have me for a whole day, it's going to be this. If I have to travel, how long will I be traveling? That will be added. If it's more than 25 people, it's going to cost this much more per person.
[As for thresholds], it's taken me seven years to get there. At first it was "I'll take anything." But my limit was anything that was less than an hour then I charge you for an hour. That was my big professional boundary (laughs). And then I got to "I'm never going to take a contract that is less than 300 dollars.", which felt like a strong line. And now within the last six months, I've gotten to a half-day minimum, which is 1200 dollars. So I've come so far from "I'll take anything." The reason I feel good about doing that half-day boundary now is that 1) financially it doesn't make sense for me to work so hard for an hour, and secondly, I can tell clients that "it's going to be a waste of your money for one hour - the longer I'm with you the better" and the amazing thing is that 95% of the time they say, "Okay!" I didn't know that's how it would work.
This happened last week: "We'd like you for an hour and a half." "Sorry, I don't do that. Is there anything else you'd like to add on?" And they said, "Sure." Perfect.
That's something that I'm trying to embrace - just ask! You know? And probably it'll work out.
And if it doesn't, that's ok. I feel lucky to not be so desperate that I'm like "Okay, you'll give me 3 cents? Ok, fine."
What are some things that you find difficult about being an entrepreneur and how do you deal with those?
In the beginning, one of the hardest was working from home, because I've got a lot of home projects. Even if it's like, "Oh, I could just put that laundry in real quick." "Oh I could just tidy this thing up." So I remember asking tons of people, "What are your strategies?" And I didn't start renting a space for coaching until two years ago - I have a space downtown now that I just rent one day a week. So before that all the coaching was out of my house, so I was there that day, and then the back office day. So that was a struggle. But now it's not a struggle because I'm used to it and I've got so much work that I better make good use of every minute that I have a back office day. And I've also set up boundaries. Which are hard. If friends want to get together during a work day, I almost always say no. Which feels good and bad, but.
Other challenges: I help groups to do strategic planning, all the time, [but I struggle with] having a strategic plan of my own. I just asked the personal trainer I've been working with--"What are you planning on doing in five years, in ten years?" And he said "This. What I'm already doing." And then he started to tell me the details, and then he said "Why do you ask?" And I said, "Because... I don't." (laughs) I don't have a five to ten year strategic plan, so I'm curious about everyone else's. Because I feel like I'm consistently responding to the needs of my clients, but it seems like it would be a good idea to think about how do I do that for myself? Right now I feel like I can only map out four months at a time.
It's so hard to do the thing that you do for other people for yourself.
Yeah. And even if it's easy, even if I said "Okay, I've got all the time and space right now to do it!" I still--figuring it out? That's so hard. That's especially why I'm excited about this advisory panel [that I just started to advise me about my business]. So I'm like okay, you professional respected business-y visionary people--what do you see possibly as my future? (laughs)
Right. I get a lot out of a back and forth with somebody, so when you don't have that it's kind of like...where do things come from?
Will you tell me more about this advisory board? I know that in nonprofits it’s like a committee, you have to pass things through them and there's supposed to help you out. But it's not just a sounding board, which it sounds like your advisory board is.
Exactly, just a sounding board, they have no authority. I have veto power on absolutely everything. It's just good-minded people. Have you ever read any business or personal development books? There's this one by Gretchen Ruben, she's the Happiness Project person and she wrote a book called "The Four Tendencies" and it's saying there are four different personality styles in terms of how you get things done well, and mine is definitely when I have an accountability partner. So with this group, I've been realizing "Oh I could run all these different reports!”-- things I haven't even looked into myself before, like: who over time have been my top clients? What percentage of my business comes from strategic planning events versus leadership academies versus coaching? I've never run all of those reports. So being that I have that [board meeting] coming up, I'm thinking "what would a CEO report to their nonprofit board?" They have no expectations, right, they're not like--"Oh, you have to show us this" but it's really helping me to be more of a get on the balcony-type of worker instead of down in the weeds, checking off the things on my to-do list.
Do you have any digital or analog business tools that you've found very helpful? Analogue meaning a book, writing in a planner, a ledger? Or exercise? Anything that you've found helpful for your business.
I am intentionally behind the curve on the technology stuff. For example, I do an electronic calendar, but I also have a paper calendar--I have a day planner--because, I could give a hundred reasons as to why it's good. It's old-school, but I think it's super helpful. One of the biggest tips that helps me is "Don't do it unless I've written it down first”. Because if I remember, "Oh! I need to call Gina back," I might be like, "I need to do that right now." But no, don't do it unless I take the four extra seconds to write it down, then I can be more strategic about it. Like, "Ok, I'm in the middle of doing this thing, do I really want to call Gina right now, or should I wait until I'm done with this?" There's this philosophy of having weekly to-do lists now instead of daily to-do lists, because it's so frustrating when you get interruptions--because everyone has interruptions. Or that thing took longer than I expected. So if I have a daily to-do list, and I only get through 80%, it's the opposite of good goal setting philosophy. Good goal setting philosophy is that you can completely meet the goal, and you can build off of that success. That sense of success makes you feel even more confident. So weekly it's more like, okay, I've got a week to get all of this done, it's not as rigid as "for this hour, I have to get this done." So those are some of my guidelines.
I guess this one's not necessarily a tool, but to cut down on some of the wasted time whenever I have a client calling to say, "I want to do a program with you", I say here are three questions, answer these first, and then we'll have our planning meeting. So that’s specific to what I do.
What are your thoughts and feelings around the old work/life balance thing?
I tend to view that idea as misnomer. Or what does that even mean? What I do like is for people to not just work themselves to death and have no life outside of that. The people that I've coached who seem to find themselves that a predicament are the ones who spend--if we're looking at hours, a lot of hours, more than sixty hours, working every week. Because then their work becomes their identity, so if anyone challenges their idea or their proposal, it's a crisis. Instead of--it's just a job. So I am a firm believer in self-care. I model it probably too well (laughs). One time, I scheduled two massages back-to-back, one on Monday and one on Tuesday, and they called asking if I meant to change the reservation from one day to another, and I said, "No... I want them both." (laughs) So I think there are certain parameters that are important: don't work too much, whatever that means. Figure out what you enjoy outside of work, but if you love your work, don't be embarrassed about that. People that I work with are mostly employees, and that's not typically the issue. The reason they're working too many hours is because they feel overwhelmed, overtaxed. They can't get it all done in eight hours.
Right. And this is the nature of the contemporary American workplace, where one person is doing at least two people's jobs.
Yes. Too overwhelmed.
What are some do's and don'ts you've learned over the years in regards to business?
I have learned that you should have accounting software from the get-go. Because right now, as I'm doing all of this reporting--I think gosh, for those first couple years, I would just write invoices in a Word document (laughs). That's one.
To figure out your elevator speech. It's amazing how we know that's a good idea, but how often people don't have that dialed in. I feel like the nature of my work is a little confusing, it's not like I can just say "I’m a bookkeeper". I'll say I'm a management trainer and leadership coach, and sometimes people ask "In plain English, what's that mean?" or "And you do what?" So I've figured out how to say what sounds clear.
What is your elevator speech?
My elevator speech is "I'm a leadership coach and management trainer, and what that means is I do three things. (I try to frame it up for them--"Three things are coming.") One is I do one-on-one coaching for people who want strict management-issue skills. The second is I do leadership academies which means I go into an organization, for up to 80 hours, and do lots of work on leadership topics. And the third is retreats or workshops, so they're skillbuilding on particular topics. I feel like I could say so much more: "and I've got this online women's course, and I've got..." I don't do much marketing for all the stuff I do except for these women's leadership retreats, because I just do two of those a year, and anyone can sign up. All the other stuff is internal, with corporations. So often people will say, "You're the women's leadership retreats woman!" I'm like no, I do that two days a year, (laughs) and then I have maybe 120 other programs that I do in a year.
Another do is, reply to emails within 24 hours 99% of the time.
This is a huge one: If you don't know how to do [something], it's figure-out-able. But also there are people who are better at this stuff than me. So either they can teach me, or I can use their services, or I can use their services for a short time so they can teach me and then I can just start doing it on my own. But I have an office assistant, a bookkeeper, an accountant, I have a website person-- I did my own website for years until it was time to say "That's a crappy website. Now I need something better.” I used to make my fliers and posters for events, and then I thought "I'll try to hire someone" for the first time, and the things were so much better. So much better.
Do you have any particular ways that you approach productivity or efficiency in working?
For sure. Over the years I learned to chunk my times up. At first my calendar wasn't too busy, so it was "Oh you want to have a meeting? Oh you want to do an interview? When works for you? Okay, great! I'll put it on my calendar." Now, I do all my coaching on Mondays instead of ‘whenever it works for you!’ So it's whenever it works for me, not when it works for you. And then this is one of my favorite ones (and I'm not super consistent about it, so I hesitate to say it, but I think it's so good): have a list of projects. There are maybe 8 projects I'm working on now, and then everything on my to-do list should tie into those projects. I can change that projects list, each week even, but it's helpful for me to know that I'm not just doing this one task that's not connected to the bigger goal. For example, right now I'm trying to learn social media strategy. So I can put that as one of my goals. So then it makes sense why I'm talking to this person or I'm reading this thing online. That helps me feel more aligned with what I'm doing instead of frenetic like I'm running around foaming at the mouth.
This one isn't for all business people but: I realized there's a lot of time wasted when I pack and unpack for a program. Which books do I need to bring, the sign-in sheets, evaluations, cards, whatever. So I thought, "How do I figure out how to do that better?" So I would say my number one tip for the entrepreneur is to think about where am I being less efficient? You don't have to have the solution yet but just figure out the question. The clearer the question, the easier the answer. So when I realized my question is how can I be more efficient about the set-up and the breakdown, I thought “teachers sometimes have this mobile classroom - what if I had all that stuff? Get one of those little wheelie crates. When I see people use one of those it kind of feels nerdy but whatever (laughs). Now I have everything there so I don't have to think, "Oh, I forgot to bring my little speaker to play music. Oh, I wanted to bring the bell, because it's a group bigger than 25 so they can't hear me when I yell and say everyone come back together." Or whatever. So I am almost always thinking about how can I be more efficient. That’s when I started, within the last three years, asking clients to answer those 3 questions ahead of time. Because I would end up spending an hour and a half with them on the phone helping them figure out what they even wanted from me. So if they do they prep work, now my time is more efficiently used. Other good organizational strategies: figuring out what I need to do and what I can outsource--what I can give to Lauree. And that was after maybe 5 years or so until I got someone else. And I still struggle with that--"I just need to do this real quick. Or, I can give it to her."
Do you have any tips for scaling or growing your business?
At my advisory panel, I have all of these things I'm reporting to people about. I'm then going to break it into two groups. One is "help me strategize big picture stuff". The other is I want to scale all these women's retreats. So I guess the real tip for me is pool together people to get clear on exactly what you want to scale and then pull people together to get ideas. And follow people who are doing what you're doing on a bigger scale. I went to this women's leadership summit down in Phoenix, and we had a thousand women, and I thought, "This is possible? Because mine just have 50 people." So I was taking notes like crazy.
Learn other people's processes and don't be afraid to reach out and call them to say, "Can I learn from you how to scale?" I remember meeting at a coffeeshop one time with this woman, and we were talking about these women's retreats [I do]. She asked, "Why don't you have sponsorships?" I thought, "Sponsorships! What a great idea." So for me, I learn so much from talking to people close to me. And then I can turn mission into action. I said, "Sponsorship. Okay, I'm going to write up what that means." And now I have sponsorships every time. So to be consistently talking about it, and asking questions, and following the people who are doing it, how you want to be doing it, and not being afraid to spend money to ask the experts. I've been thinking, "Is there a person out there who does women's retreats on a large scale--not just the event planner who makes pretty centerpieces--I want them to do the whole marketing strategy. I'd love to outsource that, but I haven't found that person.
Second, get comfortable with how you're going to choose to sell. In this day and age, or maybe always, people hate the sales pitch. So you have to figure out how to do it in a non-salesy way. For example, my assistant just found this strategy, and I thought, "This is brilliant." So at the end of a women's retreat, have everyone write a post-card to themselves to say "This is what I learned, this is what I want to remember." And then send it to them a week before registration opens for the next one. Brilliant!
There are probably ten to-do's about staying in front of your clients. Having a monthly newsletter so you stay top of mind. Figuring out how to avoid churn, so that once you have a client, you can make them a repeat client, instead of always having to get a new one. That's a huge one--figuring out how to say your sales pitch without being salesy. When I talk to someone, I'll often say to them, "Do you need my help with anything? No pressure--but being that I haven't worked with your team in a while--do you need my services for anything?" Or I'll tell them, "I'd be happy to have a call with you to see if my services are right for you, but again, no pressure." But just not being afraid to have that sales talk.
Do you have any other resources you'd like to recommend?
Yes! Suggestions that I have for every entrepreneur, especially women:
1. Get involved with the Small Business Development Center. It’s a free service for all entrepreneurs, and is especially helpful when starting out and scaling.
2. Read Women Rocking Business by Sage Lavine
3. Follow Marie Forleo, and possibly do her B School online - an online business school of women entrepreneurs.
If you're in the Flagstaff area and you'd like to join us at our upcoming "Increasing Sales Through Brand Clarity" workshop on July 28th, you can get more info here.