Last March, I sat down with my father, CEO of Young’s Jersey Dairy to discuss my future. I had struck out finding work as an Early Childhood Educator in the Columbus, OH area and was unsure of what my direction was going to be. What came from that meeting was a vision to help other businesses do what I have been helping Young’s Dairy do for most of my post-childhood life, build relationships with their customer base online.
Since 1997 when I helped Dan build our first web page, I’ve always thought about starting my own web design company. While still in high school, I was commissioned to design the first district web site. I spent many hours going around and discussing ideas with teachers in the district and had plans for each teacher to have their own page to discuss what was going on in the classroom (something that is still being developed this day). Turns out I was way ahead of the game and many teachers weren’t comfortable having their pictures (gasp!) online and the project never fully came to fruition.
But I never gave up my passion for learning how to communicate online. I helped Young’s transition a 200,000+ postcard Birthday Club program into an email based version, grew the web site to include all that Young’s has to offer (not just a list of what flavors are being dipped), built a Facebook presence that is nearing 25,000 fans, a wireless network that now has two public Wi-Fi hotspots and a YouTube presence that is growing every day.
What I learned through my many years working on the farm (outside of the technology aspect) is what great customer service is as well as an appreciation of working hard to find what the customer wants, many times, before the customer knows it (a very Steve Jobs way of thinking, although my father’s influence is very Walt Disney based).
So I took that philosophy of wanting to help and incorporated my self-taught technology knowledge. Shout It Out Design was born.
Throughout my year, I’ve learned many valuable lessons. I pride myself in always wanting to grow & learn. Now that I’m a year in, I enjoyed reflecting on what I’ve learned and accomplished and hopefully you can incorporate some of my lessons into your business.
#1 Choose Who You Work With
One of the great things about working for myself is I can always say no to a job or a project if it just doesn’t have the right feel. I think back to our fantastic wedding photographer who ‘interviewed’ us before he agreed to sign us to document our day. That type of mentality made for a great experience for everyone. He was a perfect fit for our style and he wanted to be sure that his way of doing things melded with the way we wanted things to turn out.
I enjoy working with smaller clients. Nearly all of my clients in the first year have come from referrals from other clients. Do you think that Wal Mart would go out and advertise that I did a great job on their web site if I did a great job for them? No, but Young’s does, and so do most of my other clients. I might not become rich working with piano studios and local high school soccer clubs but I enjoy working with them and they truly appreciate the time I put in to make their visions come true.
#2 Know When to Say No
This was a lesson I learned early on and will probably need to continue to perfect. When something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. There have been many situations throughout my first year that I should have walked away from and didn’t. None of them were disastrous, so I can learn from my mistakes without a major penalty. Without learning from my mistakes, I will never become a better businessman – but something I was able to learn was to trust my intuition.
#3 Know What You’re Paying For
Within a few months of becoming a business, an advertising opportunity arose that seemed like a good idea; it wasn’t. It was a new idea for the local area that I do business in and because it was new, was sold at a discount to me. I liked the premise of the idea and for the cost, I only needed to gain one or two new clients to pay for the chance. When I talked to the sales rep, he said that it was still under development but would be done on time & done right. Neither promise came true. It came out late, was unorganized and most importantly, didn’t work.
I got no web traffic to my web site and (almost goes without saying) no business for my money. The thing that really got to me was that the sales rep (who was leading the project) asked for my input on how to make it better, said they would implement the ideas and never did. He didn’t apologize that it didn’t go well on the first time out and avoids contact with me when we happen to meet in the same circle occasionally. The best part is that I had initially agreed to do the second wave of advertising with him and he never called to go forward with that part of the project.
I’m not mad that the advertising dollars were wasted. I’m disappointed that I didn’t see the disaster that I had signed up for. I should have passed because of lesson #2: something just didn’t feel right. I should have waited to see the finished product before I committed any money.
#4 When It’s Just You, Outsourcing May Be the Way to Go
As a one man shop, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I’ve learned that while hiring people to do some work for you or paying a company to develop a product or service for your client may cut into my profit margin – it also makes my clients happy. And the key to getting more business is keeping your current clients happy. So happy, in fact, that they go out and brag about it.
I’ve spent many hours trying to come up with a solution for a specific need of a client, only to have come up empty-handed. It’s THEN that I look for an alternate (paid) solution. Think about all of the better things I could have been doing during that time. Whether that be cultivating new clients or spending valuable time with current ones. Each financial decision isn’t always as easy as it looks, but if the end of the day your clients are pleased with the result and you made more than you spent, you are doing OK.
#5 Sign on the Line
I have spent many unnecessarily frustrating hours making phone calls, emails, texts and voice mails over invoices: what is this bill for, why does this cost $50, etc. In the beginning, I was so anxious to get that check, I didn’t think about what was on the invoice or how much the client understood about the billing process. I wasn’t taking advantage of my clients, I was just assuming they knew what was going on.
I assumed that I explained myself well enough that they would know exactly how much I would be billing them for and when. I assumed that they knew that I wanted to be paid within 14 days of invoice. I assumed that they knew how much I was going to be able to get done for them for the cost we agreed upon. Boy, did the old adage about assuming hold true.
Bottom line, don’t assume. A formal contract may not be necessary (my ‘Operating Agreement’ is one side of one page), but laying out exactly what is going to be done, how much that costs, when the bill is coming and when the check is due saves a lot of frustration and confusion for both parties.
#6 Grow at the Right Pace
Of course, the ‘right pace‘ is going to be different for any business or any business owner. My pace is two new clients per month. Some months (especially of recent) have been more, and some (mostly early on) have been less. But growing at the right pace allows for a better disbursement of your time.
In the times that you are slow, have things ready to go to fill that time. Whether it be fine tuning your budget, writing 2-3 blog entries ahead for your web site, scouring Facebook or Twitter for potential business, attending networking events or spending time looking at your web site to be sure it sends the right message. You should never be bored as a self-employed business person. It’s like the saying goes at Young’s, “Time to lean, time to clean.” If there’s time to be standing around, there’s time to get things organized so when the dinner rush comes in the door, you’re ready to roll with the punches.
#7 Get a ‘My Panera’ Card
As someone who works out of their house, having a quiet, friendly meeting space is a must. Not everyone wants to meet at their office or house. Panera, for me, makes a perfect meeting space. Coffee is cheap (and great), they have light lunch options and it’s not a sit-down table service place, so there won’t be distractions from the wait staff. Plus free wi-fi? There are many other great options for meeting spaces, especially in my area – but Panera is my office away from my office.
Last fall I met a young man at a Gahanna Chamber of Commerce networking event and he talked about how they were forming a BNI (Business Networking International) group nearby and that I should come by to check it out. BNI is something I had researched when I first started developing my business plan but had never followed through.
It has been the best thing I’ve done as a small independent business owner thus far. While I’m partial to the structure that our group offers, I’m sure a small business person can find value in other networking opportunities. Finding time to get out and meet other business people may not always land money in your pocket, but learning new ways to talk about your business to others will.
#9 Have a Mentor
While I’m not saying that everyone should call my father to be a mentor or sounding board for ideas (yet) but having a smart businessman in your back pocket is always a great idea. We meet quarterly and he acts as my Board of Director(s). And just as a Board of Directors would act, he combs through what I’ve been doing, what I am planning and how I plan to get there. We usually meet at Aileron, a meeting & collaboration space in Dayton, OH. Aileron was founded by Clay Mathile, the former Iams CEO and owner.
Having one of the best and brightest in business as a part of my board and as my father is something that not everyone can have. As my business grows, I will begin to include & invite others to be on my board to help put a new pair of eyes on things. They don’t call the shots, but having smart people around you will make your decisions much smarter.
#10 Have Fun
Of course I began this business to make money for my family. But something not to be forgotten is the element of fun. If I didn’t want to have fun while I worked, I’d be schlepping my resume all over town trying to ‘work for the man.’ Working for yourself, owning your own company and eventually being the CEO of an excellent staff of people is the real American dream.
I’m by no means an expert at this point, I’m still learning like most of you. But I find myself immensely more business-minded after spending a year in the trenches and beating out the 30% of small business owners that fail within a year. I would love to help you join me in my growth as I can supply my experience not only in business, but how to thrive online with your business.