When I started my business in March of 2010, I knew very little about starting a business. I had worked with my family’s business (Young’s Jersey Dairy) for many years, so I had a great understanding of how a business should be run – but none on how to get started.
Luckily for me, I had a great support system in my board of director (yes, just the one director, my father) and my wife. I also had the benefit of having two clients on day one. Very little startup costs, but a reputation for doing great work – and I was out the door and printing my business cards ready to start handing them out at every vague reference to someone needing website design work at networking events (oof – that wasn’t a great plan.) But there’s more to getting off on the right foot when starting a business that I wish I had known. Below are five mini-lessons on some things that I’d give as advice to anyone going out on their own.
It’s easy for a successful business to say no to potential work when it doesn’t fit into the framework of their ‘ideal client’. But when you are just starting out – saying no to a payday is difficult. You can easily sell out on your prices and the value of your time without even blinking. You want to start growing your business and if that means charging 50% of what the fair value of your time is just to get a yes – you’ll do it.
I did this when I was just starting out. I was charging 50% or less than what some of the projects I quoted were worth just to get some cash flow for the business. But what will inevitably happen is you will be worn down by these types of clients. They’ll monopolize your time and you’ll grow to resent them because they aren’t paying you for what your time is worth. There are many other reasons not to discount your prices, but the most important one to me is the presentation of value. You know how valuable your time is to complete the project or give them your service. Discounting your work displays a lack of appreciation for the quality you are going to provide the client. Stand firm.
Beyond pricing – don’t take on clients that ‘don’t feel right’. If your spidey-sense is tingling, it’s probably for a good reason. Taking on a client that is too much to handle, can never be pleased, or calls too often/not enough, etc is going to take up valuable time in the day of an emerging business owner. It takes time for a business owner to find their groove. And finding your groove is hard to do when you are spending an inordinate amount of time with a client that does not fit in to your ideal client model.
It’s OK to say no. If your product/service is good enough to sell, you will eventually get a client – the perfect client. And do right by that client, and they will refer you on to their friends. This is how a successful business is built.
If I could find some of my brainstorming notes from 4 years ago, I’d post them here. But I had so many ideas of ‘things’ I could do outside of website design. Photography, photo gifts, social media management, videography, graphic design – the list goes on.
It is impossible to be everything to everyone. Even a company that’s all encompassing like Apple doesn’t do everything. When you go into an Apple store – you certainly see mostly Apple products, but there are many other products that they are glad to refer on to companies that can help their customers.
I am not saying that you should only do one niche thing like “website design for pig farmers in Eaton Ohio” – but focusing your skills and your time on one small subset of an industry like “website design for farmers” isn’t a bad way to get your feet wet. Sure, they are likely to be fewer farmers looking for websites than restaurants – but there is also to be less competition for the farmer website business than restaurants.
Focus on your strengths and build from there. I offer 5 services, website design, email marketing, e-commerce website design, content marketing & search engine marketing. And while having five broad services like that seems counterintuitive to what I am preaching about, I feel that all of these services fit together and in conjunction make a successful online marketing plan. Website design is my forte – but the other four things I offer complement that service/product. While each client doesn’t necessarily utilize me for all of these services, having them available to my clients is what adds value to my business.
When I started my business, I did not plan on starting with an employee or a partner. My wife is a teacher and loves it. And while I have friends that I think would make great business partners, I don’t think going into business with a friend is a great way to maintain either side of the relationship. So I went at it alone. And I have made it 4 years without needing the part or full time help of someone. In my 5-7 year plan, I do see expansion on the horizon, but for now, I have to meet the needs of my clients with the resources I have available – my amazing network of other business owners.
Need a photographer? Got one. Need a logo – know the perfect guy. Want to market to the top 5% of households in a certain area? I know that person too. Insurance, accountant, real estate, financial planning – I have all of these bases covered. Knowing that whatever my clients ask for I can hand them off to someone I know and trust is a valuable tool. It makes you look a lot more important than you really are.
I have a network (and I’m not talking about LinkedIn, this is a real life network) of over 50 professionals that I can refer any client or potential client to. I know all of these people and that they will do a superb job, just as if they were to refer someone my direction.
In terms of cost to acquire new business, referrals will generally rank as the cheapest of any other method. And one of the best ways to get referrals is from existing clients. Clients that are not only happy with what you have provided them, but are SO happy, that they go out and tell everyone about it.
I have spent a whopping $400 in marketing for my business since 2010. When I was just getting started, I was talked into doing a city wide mailing by someone I saw as a possible partner in marketing (see thoughts on the ability to hone your spidey-sense from item #1). I received zero calls, emails and more importantly, zero business from the mailing. I’ve since focused on building my business from the ground up. Making sure each client has their needs met, their work looks great and showcasing the work and their testimonials on my site.
Most of my business either comes from referrals from existing clients or referrals from my network. By making my clients happy, I’ve turned them from ordinary clients into an enormous salesforce. My clients are happy to say nice things about me when someone brings up how much they like their new website. And that turns into business a lot more than you’d think.
One of the first lessons I learned is still one I have to focus on daily. One of my first articles I wrote on my blog was a tongue-in-cheek look at working at home in my pajamas. And at the time, for the most part, I was working at home in my pajamas. I don’t have clients come to my home, I make my own hours and I don’t do a great deal of video conferencing. So if I wanted to get up, watch a little TV, stroll up to the office at 10:30, work until 2:00 and then decide to shed the jammies and clean up – I could. But I found that I was not being very productive without a regimented schedule.
For the last year or so, I have followed a pretty strict schedule to keep me on task:
This keeps me honest. I have my in-business time scheduled, so I don’t wander into blogging when I should be finishing a project for a client. And in the same vein, I don’t spend 5 days wasting valuable time driving around town for 30 minute meetings when I can pack them into one day.
My to-do lists are set on Sunday mornings with a hot cup of tea at my desk. I look at what needs to get done, prioritize and schedule things throughout the week. Usually anywhere from 5-10 ‘tasks’ get done each day, depending on the nature of the task. These things get priority over anything that pops up throughout the day in my email or on the phone. I generally turn my email notifications on my computer and my phone off during the day to ensure I stay on task. Email can be the death of any productive day if you let it be. I’ll check my mail early in the morning and sometimes during lunch. Before the day is over and my scheduled tasks are all done, I’ll review any notes from the day and make sure that tomorrow’s to-do list is still in line with what needs to get done.
This all takes practice & discipline. Without it, working for yourself and especially working at home can be a disaster. But with a good game plan, a smile on your face and the willingness to always do what is right will turn most small businesses into a success story.
Do you have any other helpful hints that you wish you knew before you started your journey? Leave them in the comment section below!