Max Sheffield is Founder and Marketing Strategist of Max Wilde Stories.
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
My first brush with entrepreneurship was reading "The Four Hour Workweek" by Tim Ferriss. I was a consultant for a tech agency and never even considered that owning my own business was an option until I read it.
I came from a decade in healthcare as a nurse and software trainer, I began to feel burned out. I could tell it was not aligned to my strengths and longed for something that was more creatively fulfilling. After dealing with some chronic health issues, I struck out on my own in 2018 after getting certified as a health coach.
This was not the right fit, but through it I learned networking, marketing, and what I enjoyed and didn't. I pivoted from coaching to marketing strategy and copywriting in 2018 and started helping healthcare professionals grow their businesses and create engaging content.
Was any one person who was instrumental in helping you get from where you started out, to where you are now?
My first business mentor was Racheal Cook. It was through her coaching, training, and guidance that helped me to realize how to harness my own unique strengths to craft a business that was much better suited to both what others were looking for and what I enjoyed doing. I'm especially grateful for the community she built through her mastermind. These relationships are still folks I connect with and collaborate with on a regular basis.
Is there a particular piece of advice you were given in the early days of your business journey that you still benefit from today?
I used to keep this as a sticky note on my computer monitor: "What's In It For Me?" While this was advice more specific to copywriting, I find that I use it in other applications and with my clients. If you can't communicate what's 'in it' for the customer, why they should care, then you need to go back to the drawing board. This may be when crafting your offer/product, when describing it to others, when developing a particular piece of content, etc. Before writing anything, I will keep this at the top as my north star. I need to make a promise to my customer, tell them what's in it for them, and deliver on the promised value. This is why we're in business in the first place.
What is the most important lesson you've learned about leadership in your business journey so far?
Owning and running a business is a massive personal development project that never ends. I am constantly working on and building myself because it influences how I work with clients, how my business operates, and my overall success. If I can't lead myself, I can't lead anybody else. When I push myself too hard or struggling, I'm leading by example.
I have extensive trauma, I'm neurodivergent, and I'm a transgender person. A big piece of my own journey is learning how to be authentic in my identity and who I am (and who I'm not) in my business. I also have to be able to be honest about how my capacity. I left my previous career due to burnout and as a business owner, there's no one telling you to clock out or to get rest. You have to learn self-regulation and self-management.
What are the top three things you wish you'd known when you were just starting out?
This is such a great question and it should be talked about more often. We're all going down a path that in many ways is uncharted but there are many folks who have come before and found their own ways to success. I hope that this helps prevent other founders and business owners from making the same mistakes.
1. First, find out if people are willing to buy what you're trying to sell. When we get the idea for our business, we're excited and passionate. However, we're also often using a lot of assumptions. When developing your product/service, incorporate customer feedback from the beginning. Getting a minimum viable product out there and see what people are actually willing to pay for. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just needs to be functional. You don't need a brand or website to get started. The sooner it's in people's hands, the sooner you have revenue coming in and get iterate and improve. You don't want to spend a year trying to market something that your target market doesn't see a need for it. That's what happened to me. I became a health coach and was targeting healthcare professionals going through burnout and didn't get a single client in 9 months because they didn't think a coach could address their problem. I ended up pivoting and it was through having conversations with the folks I was wanting to reach and using the MVP model that go me my first few marketing clients.
2. When I first started in 2017, the world 'side hustle' wasn't in popular use yet. You were seen as going all in to your business and if you wouldn't do that, then you weren't actually serious about it. Having a job (either full-time or part-time) is not giving up on your dream. If you're bootstrapping, it's taking the pressure off and giving you the flexibility to invest in your business without having to see an immediate payoff. I wish I had stayed in my previous job a little while longer while I got all of the foundational pieces of my business up and running.
3. Ask for help early and often. Relationship building and growing your network is the best asset you will have in your business and career. No one person can learn and do it all. There are so many opportunities for collaborations, growth/development, and resources that your community can give you access to that you wouldn't otherwise. I've invested in masterminds, community organizations through volunteering, and in an accelerator I'm currently a part of. Every time I invest in community, it comes back to me and then some.
In your experience, what is the most effective way to build a strong network of mentors and advisors to guide you in your business endeavors?
Early on, I went to a large event here in Kansas City called Global Entrepreneurship Week where business leaders, professional organizations, and mentors shared of their expertise freely. It was my first introduction to the startup community here in Kansas City and it's where I found my first mentors. I think you have to be willing to put yourself in uncomfortable spaces, join like-minded communities, and make connecting one-on-one a priority in your business. Last year, I tracked how many conversations I had with people the entire year with a goal of having 50. I ended up having close to 30-40, but it was still more than I would have done if I hadn't pushed myself.
How do you determine when it's time to pivot, and what factors should you consider in making that decision?
First and foremost, learn to listen. You'll learn when it's time to pivot by listening to your self, to your advisors/mentors, and to your customers.
Often, your heart and your gut are going to give you the earliest signals it's time to pivot. When I'm struggling to stay motivated, when I've tried a strategy for 90 days and not seeing any results, when I'm feeling like I want to give up and go back to a job, it's not time to throw in the towel. But it is a time to re-evaluate and come back to why you started.
After looking internally, look at the feedback you're given externally. Is there a recurring theme of customer feedback? If not, have conversations/interviews with current and former clients to uncover what isn't working for them. Being as clear as possible on the problem is 90% of developing the right solution.
Then you can bring both your own internal reactions with customer feedback/data to your colleagues, peers, and mentors to get an outside perspective. With my own clients, they're so engrossed in the day to day it's often hard to come at a problem objectively. Going to your advisors third also helps with not coming into customer conversations with assumptions that may lead you down the wrong path. All businesses evolve, iterate, and pivot. We just need to be doing it for the right reasons.
How do you stay motivated and inspired during the business cycle of ups and downs?
I'm a little bit biased here as a professional storyteller, but I look towards the stories of others who have gone before me. So many wildly successful people, including founders I look up to and admire, have wanted to give up several times before they finally turned a corner. Even the folks who are still in the trenches have interesting perspectives and insights to share. When we're transparent about the challenges of entrepreneurship, it gives permission for others to keep going even when it's hard.
Looking back, what one thing would you do differently if you could start your journey over again?
I was in college during the 2008 economic recession. Through that process, I made decisions that were based on fear of the unknown. I changed my major to Nursing, something more stable but I knew it wasn't where my true passion was. I didn't want to get saddled with a lot of student debt without any hopes of even getting a job in that field. If I could do anything differently, I would have used passion instead of fear to guide my education and career path.
Where should people follow you to find out more about your work?