Lessons I Learned from Starting a Business – Warts ’n’ All
May 11, 2016
I’ve worked in the digital industry since 2001, and it is a wondrous place.
I struggle to think of any other industry where opportunities exist in such abundance; where our level of involvement is driven wholly by us; where we have such a chance to shape the future of the industry through collaboration with peers we’ve never met; where really – age is no barrier.
It’s an industry that allows us to experiment, to enjoy ourselves whilst we work and where the line between work & leisure time becomes blurred. We take pride in the projects we’re a part of and our side-projects replace Xbox & TV.
The digital landscape is a living, growing animal and we’re feeding it everyday. If we treat it right it can feed us and it can feed us pretty well.
But it’s not all perfect projects, cool conferences and community. There’s a real tough side to the digital industry too, a side that unless tackled properly, could feasibly consume us and set us on a path that ultimately leads to failure.
I’m talking about starting out, and especially starting out on your own or as a couple of people.
Working in digital allows us to work on the dream projects eventually but, unless we’re very lucky, for every dream project there are fifty more projects that we despise – projects that challenge us for all of the wrong reasons.
As a professional, regardless of industry, we don’t mind putting in the hours to properly plan, execute, test and grow with our business – we’ve all pulled the all nighter fueled by pizza and Red Bull right?
Likewise, I’m not alone in the sleepless nights worrying about my response to an email earlier in the day; the result of a pitch; the difficult client who I know will be calling tomorrow.
When we start up, it can be easy for the surrounding challenges to quell our ambition and set us on a path that we’re frustrated to tread. These are the things that we never consciously signed up for: either no one told us these things would rear their heads whilst we were busy enthusiastically planning our new office decor, or if they did tell us – we simply thought it wouldn’t ever happen to us, these things only happen to those people who don’t do something right – we’ll be fine.
And usually, we are. Yet it takes a strong will and firm resolve to navigate those early days and actually, remain calm, objective and effective as our business develops and grows.
We’re business people and as much as we might not feel like it, as much as we will always feel like the great pretender or the person who “got lucky”, we are are business people and we didn’t get lucky, we worked damned hard.
The self-employed route isn’t for everyone and of course I would never suggest that being a 9-5 career person is a bad thing, but if you’re not cast from that die then it can be frustrating to find yourself treading a path that you don’t feel comfortable walking.
What can be more soul destroying and paralysing is the fear of starting: “where do I even begin?”; “do I really know how to do this?”.
We all have to make our own mistakes and build from our experiences, both good & bad. There is no manual to starting out in any industry, but there are people around us all with experience and insight that they are willing to share with us.
As a business owner I get asked a lot of questions and sent a lot of portfolios, I also see a lot of extremely talented people lose faith in their chosen industry because the lessons they have to learn along the way begin to take their toll.
Broadly, these experiences fall into 6 main ‘categories’:
- Starting Out & Setting Up
- Your Portfolio & Grabbing Those First Clients
- Relationship Building: Keeping Clients
- Pitching & Pricing
- The Business End
- Living a Life
I’m going to explore them.
Remember this: there are no ‘correct’ solutions to any of the lessons we all end up learning, but the tiniest insight can help us navigate our lives in a more beneficial way.
The bottom line, the thing to never, ever forget is this: yes we’re here to make money but we’re also here to be happy.
If you’ve read this far, one without the other will simply not do: you’re just not like that.
You want more.
Who Is This Article Talking To?
I’m not writing this to teach anyone how to suck eggs. This article is intended to address some of the things that people just don’t tell us when we start up.
It is compiled from the experiences I’ve had since 2005 when I decided to leave the corporate world and startup, wildly, with no real business experience and no idea who to ask for help.
That is a great choice – here's your download, use it!
1. Starting Out & Setting Up
Starting out can often be the most daunting part of the entire journey. By the same token, it will undoubtedly be one of the most exciting, fulfilling and challenging experiences of your life.
You know you have the skills to do the job and perhaps you’re coming from a background where you’ve been able to build some confidence in front of clients, customers, suppliers or partners.
That’s fantastic but if you’re not coming from that kind of background don’t worry, by virtue of pursuing this path you’re evidently confident enough to dip your toe into the commercial pool and try to sustain yourself.
Where to Start
The fundamental parts of starting up are frequently the parts that we don’t dedicate enough time to.
I’m not talking about accountants and company formation here – there are better people than me to talk to you about those things. What I mean is: the questions we don’t always consider can raise their heads further down the line and if we’re not sure how to handle them, they can bite us in the ass.
Here’s where I cocked up:
It’s easy to get excited and kit yourself out with every piece of flashy hardware you might ever need whilst frivolously setting yourself up in your dream office.
Likewise, at this point it’s very easy to become a little too worried about spending any money and end up making decisions that will cost you either time or money later on.
Here’s the thing we need to remember at this stage: we only need to look as professional as our clients expect and we only need the equipment required to deliver a great job without cutting corners.
Read that last paragraph again because that is where the line is – toe it and you’ll do great.
The equipment point is perhaps a little moot if we delve further into it. You have a skill set you’re ready to sell and you had to develop that skill set somewhere.
You’ve probably got all the equipment you need already!
Do you need a new Macbook Pro? Sure it’d be great but really, your current set up will do just fine for now, right?
An important consideration instead of shiny new hardware is that of software. Have you previously relied on the business you worked for, for licensing key pieces of software such as the Adobe tools you might use, the accounting software you once raised invoices through, the time management software you subconsciously are reliant on?
If so, make sure that you have options: can you replace any software with open-source alternatives without losing valuable time re-learning tasks that you take for granted now or do you need to invest a little to grab the licenses you are going to need?
We can’t afford to be frivolous here, but we can’t afford to cut corners and under-deliver.
It’s about the balance. Don’t be afraid to say no to spending but don’t be afraid to say yes, if you’ve measured it.
Pragmatically assessing each element of your hardware and software and only spending where you need to will ensure you’re as effective as possible at delivering what you promise.
Drive a Hard Bargain
Cash-flow is obviously vital when starting up so adopting a similar approach to your choice of working space is key.
We all enjoy great architecture & quirky surroundings and, whilst we have to present a high quality outbound representation of ourselves, we don’t have have to do so expensively.
Consider these few questions and you’ll find yourself in a space that will toe the line between a healthy cash-flow and a client ready setting:
- Do you know any companies providing complementary services from whom you may rent a desk and an address?
- Do you really need a dedicated studio? Does your location provide access to creative incubation opportunities such as media centres, innovation parks or shared studio spaces that will allow you some individuality and financial flexibility whilst maintaining a professional perception?
- What are the entire costs involved with the space, and on what terms? For example: are all utilities and Internet usage included in the rental cost and is there an ‘easy-in/easy-out’ policy?
- Will the space offer a rent free period? Be prepared to drive a hard bargain, empty space is no good to property owners and if you have the right attitude, your willingness to negotiate can be very powerful at this stage.
- Ultimately, can you see yourself being happy in this space for the long-term and will it grow with you?
There is nothing wrong with deciding to rent your own space – it can be liberating and being proud of your surroundings will provide motivation and vital inspiration every single day.
Local support schemes exist in many major towns and cities to help us afford this kind of space – it’s not as big a commitment as it was even 5 years ago to rent space in a quality business environment.
Even though meeting in coffee shops and public spaces is fine early on, this will become problematic very quickly as your client relationships build; setting yourself up in a space that you’re proud to bring clients to can really change the way you think about your fledgling business.
Oh and from this point onwards, start thinking of yourself as “we”, not “I”. It really helps with how people perceive your business.
Surrounding Ourselves with Positivity
One of the key considerations when choosing a space to trade from is the relationships that it allows us to build.
A simple and extremely effective means of gathering new business lies in ensuring that we choose space that gives us access to like-minded people.
Incubation centres can be very good in this respect, allowing us to not only link up with potential clients, but more importantly by allowing us to build relationships with potential:
- Partners / Collaborators – likeminded people who provide skills that we do not posses at this stage. Identifying and linking with these people can really help a young business gain momentum and confidence. Ultimately this can easily lead to long-term, mutually beneficial relationships as advocacy is built within your immediate partner network.
- Suppliers – we all need to source things that our clients need, either to resell or to simply refer. It is always far better to answer with a “Sure, let me introduce you to…” rather than “I’m afraid I don’t offer that…”.
- Friends – friends that begin as business acquaintances can form some of the most fruitful relationships for any business. Naturally evolving friendships that occur through doing business allow us to develop an understanding of how one’s skill-set can be complemented by another’s. Throwing around ideas over a beer or burning the midnight oil poring excitedly over a new idea with a friend can be some of the most powerful ways to innovate and drive business development.
We all need people to bounce ideas around with and, unless you’re setting up with a good friend or partner from day one, being a startup can be a lonely road.
One of the biggest mistakes we all make is keeping our head down and doing the work.
Taking the time to step out of our daily routine is vital to the success of any venture – we have to know what’s happening out there and more importantly, other people absolutely must know where we are and how we can help them.
Don’t be shy, stand tall and let people know that you do what you do, and you’re damn good at it.
And remember: “Of course we can help”, not “Of course I can help”.
Want more on this topic? I recommend:
John Lee Dumas – The Freedom Journal – Your guide to achieving your goals in 100 days. Thinking of starting? This WILL help.
2. Grabbing Those First Clients
You may be lucky enough to have built a network of potential clients prior to starting up or you may already have some freelance clients that you can continue to build relationships with as you move into your own business life.
That’s a great situation to be in but often these prospects are driven by months, if not years, of relationship building as a by-product of some other link to them.
Of course, the place we all start is with our family and friends. These can provide with some early client hits but more often than not, they’re not the type of clients we’d ultimately like to work for.
Those circles are quickly exhausted and here’s something to get into the habit of too: you don’t do mates’ rates.
Rather, you over-deliver: you never under-price. Small, but powerful.
So how can we really come out of the blocks fast and start to win work from day one?
Well, there are only two things we need:
- A strong portfolio
- The willingness to ask
Creating a strong portfolio
I see so many resumés and portfolios landing in my inbox that I sometimes find it hard to dedicate time to really look at them.
Our prospects are like that too: they don’t really have the time to sift through emails or take the dreaded sales call. But they all have problems that we can help to solve and realistically, that’s what we’re here to do.
Creating a strong portfolio isn’t about listing everything we’re good at or about applying a percentage score to each skill in our skill-set, it’s about creating desire.
A hard truth we all have to learn at some point is that clients, for the most part, don’t really care how something is built or developed.
They don’t care what frameworks you use, what software you use; they simply want one of two things:
- to see that you can solve a problem that they, or their customers have – the Problem Solvers
- to see that you can create something they want – the Aspirers
Creating that desire is vital and, once we get good at it, ‘selling’ becomes much easier. We’re just here to help.
As much as we might hate it, we all have to sell – we may be simply selling skills, creativity, knowledge, experiencer products off a shelf – but realistically we’re not all sales people.
Early on it’s important to set out to deliver what we enjoy and what we are good at. Later on we all have to broaden our horizons, but it’s much easier to strike up a conversation and hold that when we’re discussing something we’re passionate about.
Deciding what we want to ‘sell’ – is it design, is it a product, is it something we’ve developed based on our experience, is it something else – and aligning our ‘pitch’ with that really helps the confidence levels and allows us to develop a sales process that clients will respond to.
I’m not here to state the obvious but find out what makes you better than a competitor and then do not be shy about telling people.
Grabbing Those First Clients – Chicken & Egg
One of the biggest problems with this approach, and a problem we’ve all faced is that without clients it’s sometimes hard to develop a portfolio; without a portfolio it’s sometimes hard to gain clients.
Solving this problem can be challenging but if you’re ready to set up, you’ve probably already got a fair few side projects you can polish up into the beginnings of a portfolio.
Whilst this usually serves us very well – after all, we do side projects because we enjoy them, so the result is often very usable – it doesn’t overcome the challenge of solid testimony.
Previous employers and peers will typically gush about our skills via reference yet when it comes to winning clients this isn’t always enough – we need to not only show that we can deliver what we promise, but that we can also take a brief; interpret a brief; successfully liaise with third parties; project manage our projects efficiently.
Suddenly our portfolio has done its job of convincing prospects that we have the skills, but we find ourselves in the position of being asked to ‘prove’ we’re much more than a blunt instrument.
We all need testimony from clients that prospects can relate to. Anyone willing to spend serious money with us needs to be convinced of the whole package.
A difficult thing to accept for most of us at this point is: early on, we may need to over deliver.
Let’s explore the reasoning:
- Our goal is to earn a desirable living for a sustainable period of time.
- In order to achieve that and maintain a healthy work / life balance, it’s vital we rise to a level of client choice: better to work on one job at a fair price than 3 jobs at a lower rate just to make ends meet. And better to enjoy it.
- In order to win these bigger jobs, we need to invest time in building a relationship with the bigger clients and we need testimony; proof we can handle the whole job we pitch for.
- In order to gain testimony and, frankly, practice managing these projects under our own steam we may need to over deliver early on, because we may not have the ability to install confidence and to sell ourselves at the price we’re worth.
It’s the old chicken & egg scenario again.
How do we manage this without working for free? By being honest.
Approaching prospects very honestly and openly early in our solo ventures, discussing with them what we charge and what we would deliver for their budget, whilst explaining why we’re willing to over deliver on a specific project is the only way to maintain our future saleability, whilst gaining the valuable peripheral skills we need to aim for the bigger, ‘dream’ jobs.
“We would usually do this but look, honestly we enjoy working with you and we’re really excited by this project – we think that if we just do this little bit extra as a gesture of goodwill, we’ll both benefit much more from the output.”
Really, we aren’t underselling, it’s developing an honest relationship from the outset with likeminded people. You won’t win them all on that basis nor will all of these projects end up pristine, but those you do win will be with you for a long time because they value your integrity – they will both allow you to grow and at times, grow with you whilst beginning to see you as a partner, not a supplier.
Don’t Be An Ostrich
When we set up as in business suddenly we’re not just the person doing the work that we enjoy, we gain multiple job roles: business development manager, sales manager, administration assistant, finance director, account manager, tea maker; the list goes on.
In order to be profitable we have to maximise our saleable time however we cannot simply ignore these other facets that demand our attention. Whilst we’re able to outsource some of these elements cost effectively to our accountants, for example, there are elements that only we are capable of looking after.
In order to maintain the vital sales pipeline we have to be mindful of business development and opening doors that later, we can explore.
This is a perpetual cause of headache for us: we have to do the work but we also have to get the work.
We’re prepared to work longer hours than people perhaps expect of us, it comes with the territory and yet still we find ourselves struggling to develop our early sales because we are so focussed on delivering the work.
This is a cycle we need to break very early on.
The World exists outside of our space and spending 100% of our time poring over delivery does nothing to ensure we have a project to undertake after we complete the current one or a sales pipeline outside of a seasonal rush.
Conversion time from first contact to a project beginning can be weeks, months and sometimes even years!
Remember that pulling our heads out of the sand, getting out and seeing people is still working – coming from employment this can sometimes be hard to stomach.
You’re no longer a ‘coat on the back of a chair’ employee, part of your role is to make time for people and relationships – and this is just as important as anything else you do, if not more.
As a rule of thumb, I always make a point of giving everyone the time of day. Just because they may not have a budget right now or timing may not allow you to work together, who knows where that relationship will lead.
Making time to meet new people, open doors and discover what else is around us is the single most effective marketing tool we have and is the only way to build a rock solid client base.
Want more on this topic? I recommend:
Brad Burton – Brad is coming out of the gates swinging this year and his “make it easy for me to say ‘yes'” mantra should be the cornerstone of all “pitching” that you do throughout your business.
3. Relationship Building: Keeping Clients
When we make the jump to being a business owner, a big driving force is undoubtedly the desire to be our own boss.
If you’re freelancing in your field, it will often take one of two forms: spare time freelancing or temporary contract work.
With each of these we have a certain element of control that may help us feel like our own boss on the projects or the contracts we’re working on – we’re frequently left to our own devices and trusted to deliver as we say we will.
Making the decision to form a business instead brings with it an element of regression: our clients are effectively our bosses.
And you know what, that’s not a bad thing. Yes, we still have the flexibility to work the hours we see fit – as long as when our clients want us, we’re accommodating.
Yes we still retain the option to book time off around our own schedule – as long as clients don’t need us.
Yes we work for ourselves so we can work as many or as few hours as we want – as long as we hit deadlines set by clients.
Sounds familiar, right? As I say, this isn’t a bad thing because ultimately we are doing this for ourselves.
The first worry that we can forget about is that there’s not enough work for all the businesses out there.
There is. More than enough for everyone.
Gaining clients isn’t about being gimmicky or being cheaper than the rest, it’s about showing how you can help and then nurturing a relationship over the course of the weeks, months or years it takes to win that first job with a prospect.
Then it’s about over delivering every single time.
I’m sure some will disagree; some will suggest you price fairly and only deliver on spec. That’s a valid stance but here’s the reality: someone else will surpass that; a competitor will deliver more.
Because we are all in the service industry.
It’s not about how good we are at design, it’s not about how great we are at development or SEO, it’s not about how great our products are or about how good we are at our jobs – it’s about how our clients feel we’re servicing them.
Of course, with regards service industry businesses, we have to tightly specify projects so that the client doesn’t simply expect to be able to let the scope run and run, but delivering more than a client bargains for and doing so with a smile is simply the best retention tool there is.
We’re not talking ridiculous amounts of ‘free’ here – we’re talking about subtleties; elements that with a little extra time investment from us, will make our clients’ lives so much easier.
Harking back to the “our clients don’t usually care how it’s done” point: instead of taking the stance that a CMS system, for example, works as it does because “that’s the way it should work” versus the more open stance of “well ok, I can see how that might be a problem for someone who only uses it twice per year, let me see what I can do”, works wonders.
Just because something is technically correct and just because we know how things should be implemented doesn’t mean that we know how that will impact the client’s business or the overarching aims of that business.
We cannot be arrogant enough to believe that we know better – we don’t.
A client is a partner. This isn’t a master / servant relationship – this is a collaboration.
Delivering using this approach over a period of time can result in a huge boost to your business – recommendations flow abundantly and marketing becomes easy.
We just do what we do and the clients we’ve helped become our advocates.
Declining & Losing Clients
There’s a big difference between declining and losing a client or customer.
If starting a business brings regression by making clients our bosses by proxy, it provides a huge step forward in that we can choose these bosses.
We’ve all lost clients, and we will all continue to do so. There are a plethora of reasons for this and the biggest thing to draw from that experience is education.
As long as we can honestly say that we have delivered to the best of our ability and serviced that client as we would expect to be serviced ourselves, and then some, we have no reason to worry about a client loss.
Yes there are things we can do to ensure client losses are kept to a minimum but frankly, some clients simply want a change – it’s really that simple sometimes.
Let’s not kill ourselves over it. Instead, we can ask clients why they chose another partner and build from that. You’d be surprised how many clients you can win back by simply telling them frankly you want to do business together and are willing to listen to their concerns.
Declining clients is a different matter altogether.
Working for ourselves allows us the chance to make of our situation what we really want to make of it. Theoretically we can choose the clients we want to work with but you know what, that takes some serious guts.
Learning to say “no” for the right reasons is one of the most important lessons we learn – our panacea is to be busy and happy, not busy and unhappy.
Again, there are a plethora of reasons that we would perhaps decline to work with a client: a clash of values; a clash of personalities; the wrong type of project for us; capacity versus deliverability.
There’s nothing wrong with this. We all have our own instincts and learning to trust them and deal with that gut feeling is a skill that develops over time. The key thing is that we must all make sure we are honest and fair.
A prospect will sincerely appreciate an honest declination of work, some fair parting advice and a pointer in the direction of someone with whom they may develop a fruitful relationship.
Without burning any bridges, we can confidently and politely decline to work on a specific project without it damaging reputation or relationships.
This is a skill that is thrust upon us and learned many times via mistakes – ignorance of the gut feeling on a project or acquiescing in a situation that we are uncomfortable in can be more damaging that a well placed “Here’s the thing: I’m not sure we’re right for this, but here are some options…”.
Want more on this topic? I recommend:
Brian Fanzo (iSocialFanz) – There's no one better at this. Fact. Relationships are what makes Brian tick, and boy does he tick.
That is a great choice – here's your download, use it!
4. Pitching & Pricing
Pitching and pricing are two of the most difficult things to become confident with for most of us.
We aren’t born sales people nor do we feel like we can ‘hard sell’. In fact, many of us feel like we shouldn’thard sell – realistically none of us like that and it’s neither pleasant nor effective.
Early on we need to make a decision: where do we sit in the market?
Or another way to think about it: what kind of work do we want to do?
There’s a great Internet MEME out there that attempts to sum this up:
“Good, Fast or Cheap – pick two; Good + Fast = Expensive; Good + Cheap = Slow; Fast + Cheap = Inferior.”
Overall that’s not a bad generalisation but what it doesn’t account for is:
- Peripheral services
- Added value
Finding the right price
Here’s the secret: there is no right price. Prices vary wildly from business to business. Often, clients aren’t comparing apples with apples; there are grey areas.
How can we possibly be successful at pricing early on when this is the case?
Back to that old card: honesty.
Setting our stall out to deliver the best quality for the fairest price allows us flexibility; it allows us the chance to be honest and frank with a prospect or current client; it allows us to confidently outline why the price is the price; it allows us to delve into those peripheral services that clients sometimes forget: meetings, phone calls, documentation, training, support, drawing upon and implementing experience – all things that take time.
No matter how we dress it up, we sell our talents against that time – and that time is valuable to us.
Making the decision early on not to under-price, with the caveat of the portfolio scenario mentioned earlier, has several benefits:
- We become better at selling by proxy of honesty – there is no pressure to justify a price that frankly, we can’t.
- We don’t have to constantly change our pricing; realistically it’s rare that we have to charge by the hour as a business – instead we’re usually asked to specify a project and for a price to deliver to that specification. Anything over and above that becomes a separately scoped mini-project with its own parameters. Yes we have to allocate hours and price those accordingly but it’s easier to do that if all hours can be justified – an honest 10 hours at a constantly fair rate is always easier to sell than 5 hours at an inflated rate or 15 hours at a “discounted” rate.
- Clients become used to our process and trust our transparency from day one.
- We become confident that we can provide the level of service that the client expects because we’ve fairly accounted for that level of service and the client knows that.
- Both parties appreciate that it’s about value – we don’t give prospects or clients a price, we offer them an investment and help them assess measurable returns on that.
Will we win them all? No, of course not.
But those clients we do win are more likely to send repeat business our way and it’s that repeat business that stabilises us.
The lifetime value of a client is an important factor to any business yet it’s such a difficult thing to gauge in the early stages of an initial project up.
The approach we’ve looked at for pricing can act as a pretty solid barometer – people that appreciate andunderstand the ‘why’ are more likely to have worked with people like us before and realise the value we bring.
These people are likely to have a much greater lifetime value as clients simply because once they knowwhy they need to spend what you offer, they’re willing to accept it.
As long as we aren’t stubborn enough to offer no flexibility with our pricing – we all need a little wiggle room at times and for different reasons – this strategy can work wonders for us.
By combining this approach with the decision making process we discussed in the previous chapter, especially when to take a client and when to decline, can ensure our business operates profitably andhappily from week one.
Horrible isn’t it.
Isn’t it? Not always…
Sadly spec work is something that can’t be avoided, especially in a creative business. Yes it raises moral and ethical questions and yes, some people take a solid ‘no’ stance when it comes to it (or at least publicly say they do) – but let’s be fair here: sometimes it’s worth it.
There’s no getting around the fact that we’re usually unhappy about doing spec work – realistically though, spec work is there for a reason.
I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we take on every piece of spec work to win any old project out there, but approached pragmatically spec work can work for us, not against us.
Spec work has to be about picking battles wisely:
- can this project open doors for us?
- is it financially worthwhile to invest some quality time in a loss-leader piece?
- can we help to educate a client or provide a solution they may not have thought of?
We need to keep an open mind with spec work – yes it has a bad name and yes some prospects take advantage of it, but assessed and managed properly, it has its place.
Want more on this topic? I recommend:
Chris Ducker – Chris often talks about being seen to sell, and has some fantastic views on how to price yourself and your products. His site needs to be in your bookmarks.
5. The Business End
We all have aptitude when it comes to business: to be even considering making the step into full time self-employment we must have. And yes, we all have certain areas of business in which we excel, but as an owner-manager we have to quickly recognise where we excel and where we need help.
I’m not here to wax lyrical about finding the right accountant or the right bank. We all understand that there are specific skills that we simply must outsource – deciding not to outsource them frankly poses too much of a risk and let’s be honest, these are the elements we neither enjoy or are experts at.
There are however lessons that we all learn. Early on, training ourselves to recognise weak points, when lessons are actually being learned and how we can grow from them is vital to our business and personal development.
Given that many people set up their own enterprises because they love the job, it’s not surprising that many of these ventures fail.
It’s a sad fact that once a new digital or design business has exhausted its family/friends/current network and farmed from that network any warm projects, it becomes infinitely harder and takes much longer to convert new projects.
Remembering that we’re here to achieve three main objectives is key to success in the early days:
- Service our clients beyond all expectations
- Be happy
- Get paid
We can’t afford to forget any of these elements and in particular, we must all remember that ultimately we have to earn a living.
One of the biggest mantras we can all focus on, no matter our experience is:
“Focus on the important, not the interesting”
We really do enjoy our work. But when we start in business we stop being just an individual, we become that owner-manager and we must begin to raise our awareness of what really matters.
We’ve all been in the position of spending an afternoon tinkering, researching or playing with some new technology or design style. It’s so easy to do that, and realistically it’s that curiosity that makes us good at what we do; we’ve all got fantastic side projects we love working on. Allowed to run unchecked for 8 hours per day however, that curiosity can become so tempting.
Avoiding that temptation isn’t something we should do though, instead we should plan for it.
Everyone hits a groove, no matter what they’re doing. Finding your groove allows you to plan your time a little better whilst also allowing you to focus on different areas more effectively.
For example, let’s say that core skills flourish in the mid-afternoon to early-evening range, by identifying this and then focussing on the important during your least creative hours you ensure that your day remains positively productive for as long as possible.
The distractions we face as we undertake each element of our business can sometimes mean that billable time is difficult to find!
Of course, we can’t survive like that – the goal we all have is to make money and live an enjoyable life but the problem is that the distractions we face are, most of the time, justified.
Amongst a million other things we have to:
- Take client calls.
- Answer to emails.
- Create new project proposals.
- Bill our time.
- Chase our money.
And we have to do all of this without either rushing it and whilst maximising that billable time.
How can this problem be alleviated?
- Solid time management.
- Time recording.
Time management is something that we all do naturally but it’s something that most of us struggle to formalise. There isn’t a right or wrong, it’s just about finding that groove whilst maintaining:
- Billable time.
- Quality of service.
- Clear and efficient communications.
Whilst there is no right and no wrong way to deal with this, there are some things we can do to maximise these three important elements:
- Realise that emails do not need to be instantly answered.
- It’s ok to call people back.
- Just because we’re up against it, we can’t let that service slip; short and brash responses help no one.
- Record all client time – our pricing will become more accurate and our billable time understood much more.
- Recognise when we need help.
- Allocate dedicated periods of time during the working day to the mundane and the fun (production work); there has to be an end in sight for the things we don’t enjoy and there has to be a business limit to the time we spend doing the things we do enjoy.
Coming from a development background I personally found this to be a big challenge: realising that my time spent carrying out service led tasks or a morning spent emailing responses is still working; that my working life no longer consisted of coding, was a huge adjustment.
Ultimately it’s about balance and it’s that balance that allows us to deliver to our highest standard without becoming resentful of the elements of doing business we don’t enjoy as much.
If you’re interested in digging into this subject even more, you can grab a free copy of my comprehensive book “The Essential 14 Day Guide to Cutting Your Working Hours & Increasing Your Impact” by clicking here.
No matter how anyone dresses it up and no matter how many times we’re told that we should do what we enjoy to lead a fulfilling life (a sentiment I heartily advocate), there will always be one solid fact about creating a business:
It has to make money.
You need to live, yes you can enjoy it, but you need to live. And to do that you need to earn.
The problem is that every other business that we trade with has to do the same; it has to minimise its outgoings and maximise its production value just like you do. Managing cash-flow is a challenge that faces us all and honestly, it’s a damn tough thing to do effectively.
If we’re honest, most people we do business with understand that this is the reason we have a relationship with them. Both parties have made the choice to trade and the parameters set out as that trade commences should be adhered to by both parties.
At times there are extenuating circumstances that mean our invoices may not get paid on time or that the scope of our project suddenly changes, but realistically we cannot be shy about asking for money.
As crass as that may seem, we have to get good at deftly navigating situations that force us to chase that delayed invoice.
But you know what, people understand.
We can’t make up fantastic and wildly imaginative reasons why we need paying for our work, we have project agreements in place for a reason and we are doing nothing wrong by confidently and reasonably asking for those terms to be respected by our clients.
The realism is that we will be fed excuses for payments being delayed and we have to decide how best to deal with them.
A simple outline of expected payments prior to a contractually obligating project agreement being signed by the client, can help to alleviate some of this pressure, but when it comes down to it – if a client isn’t paying then they aren’t paying for a reason.
That’s really the key to the whole problem, the reason that a client puts us in the position of having to ask:
- Is the client itself having cash-flow problems?
- Is there a problem with the work we have produced?
- Has the client gotten everything it needs from us to process the payment?
Developing the confidence to not skirt around the issue and ask these sometimes difficult questions can be a tough thing for us to learn, but in doing so we don’t damage our client relationships as we may fear – we strengthen them through earned respect.
The answers to these questions and the answer to “How best can we resolve this?” will ultimately determine the quality of the client and define its place in our growth plan.
As long as we ask for our terms to be respected in a way that doesn’t undermine either the relationship or our service driven approach, then we have no reason to fear it.
6. Living a Life
In the early days of a business we all expect to work crazy hours. Based on gaining a whole host of new responsibilities by creating that business, it’s difficult not to work extremely long days to deliver the production work whilst juggling the business end we’ve looked at.
That’s not a problem in the early days when we’re so excited to be doing our own thing. Nor is it a problem burning the midnight oil working on a project we love – our entrepreneurial spirit drives us to deliver and it drives us to work tirelessly to do so.
The thing is, we need to rest.
The Productivity Paradox
Productivity is a word that loses its meaning the further we get into running a business.
The reason for this is psychological – that same entrepreneurial spirit forces us to feel as if we have to be doing something “productive” as often as possible.
The truth is: the more we strive to be productive, the less productive we are. Yes you can force-complete certain tasks on a Sunday morning but really it may take you twice as long and may be half as good.
As a business owner, coming to the realisation that we don’t have to work all of the time is important. It’s something we all struggle with and it’s something that most business-people learn the hard way.
A focussed 8 hour day is much more productive than a 12 hour day at half-full.
It’s very easy to become a busy fool and spend hours in front of a screen being ‘productive’ whilst simply waiting for emails to drop.
I know it’s clichéd but there is some truth in the old adage:
“Work to live, don’t live to work”
It’s important to feel comfortable having solid time away from your work. The world won’t end, you won’t lose your clients and you won’t come back to a burning office – planned well you can take the time off you’ve earned without any problems.
The interesting and extremely satisfying thing about your new venture is that it will entirely consume you: you must be filled with the ambition, drive and intent to take this journey when you set out.
You must have the desire to succeed and to willingness to adapt, change and grow as you’re expected to. You must be willing to admit a 24 hour per day addiction to achieving your goals and allowing your mind to develop as this venture takes shape.
You will never switch off completely 100%, it’s in your nature.
But that’s fine – that’s why we do it isn’t it – this is a lifestyle not a job. We don’t do this because we want to simply deliver projects, we do this because we want to enrich our lives.
It’s important to recognise that this is ok, it’s not a bad thing to love what you do and it’s not a bad thing to be thinking of it whilst you lay on a beach somewhere – planning, plotting and aspiring.
Just as importantly though, it’s vital to recognise when it’s time to make it priority number two.
Family & friends, whilst wholeheartedly supportive, deserve our time and dedication just as much as our agency or clients do. Just like in business, we have to know when to prioritise and let business take a back seat – whilst it consumes us it cannot be allowed to control us.
We all do this to live a better life, however we may quantify that. The fact that we are our own bosses is fraught with challenges but it can really help us to enjoy our lives; it can allow our families and friends to benefit too – the ability to enjoy their company at a time that suits them, knowing we can pick up certain elements of work later can be liberating.
Adjusting to this mindset can be difficult and of course we have to be constantly mindful of the impact it may have on our clients, however we must be allowed to enjoy the benefits of living this life.
As a great friend of mine once educated me: the subconscious works wonders, take the time away that you need to make it work for you. Find out more about cutting your working hours and increasing your effectiveness, I’ve done it and it really makes for a happier life.
Want more on this topic? I recommend:
Tim Ferriss – Tim's book “The 4 Hour Work Week” redefined productivity for a generation, and his podcast ultimately serves as an extension of that type of content.
There are lessons we can all learn. If you’re reading this you obviously have the ambition to strike out on your own and adopt a lifestyle of selling your skills and personality to enrich your life.
There is no right and no wrong, doing what you enjoy and keeping in mind that we all work in the service industry will go a long way.
You’re the best there is and you can achieve whatever you desire, don’t forget why you do it and have the confidence to do it your way.
These are just my experiences and I’d love to hear your feedback, thoughts, experiences and lessons.
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