Wooo hooo! My first year in business is complete. Lots of lessons learnt and lots of successes along the way.
I left the agency scene 12 months ago now to start up as a freelance digital marketing manager/consultant and it’s been a super 12 months. During the early stages of going solo I was asked by many of my followers on Twitter about taking the plunge and if I had any planning tips I could share. I think flying solo is on most digital folks list of things to do in their lives.
It’s not easy I have to admit. But then it’s not meant to be easy. Taking the leap was hard enough.
Was it what I expected? Pretty much.
Before I took the step to start my own business I did do a lot of prep and planning, for nearly 12 months to be honest. A lot of it I mentioned in this post by Krystian Szastok so feel free to head over there to find out more about planning and preparation.
I thought I’d write and share my experiences, learnings and tips from the first year in business.
So without further a do, here are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt during my first year in business.
1. Visualise what the first year looks like.
I’m starting off with probably the most valuable lesson I could give you. Visualise in your head what your first year will look like.
You must do this otherwise you’ll get pulled all over the place and you won’t be able to tell the difference between your ass and your elbow.
You need to focus. Clarity.
You need to walk before you can run. Start slow.
You need to clearly visualise what your year 1 turnover is going to be (roughly)? How many clients will you have by month 12? Paying you what? For what type of work? What type of clients do you want to work with? What’s your “get out of bed” rate? For more on the “get out of bed rate” please read Su Butcher’s post here.
And let’s not forget the personal things in life. When do you want to play football with your son? When do you want to go bike riding with your wife? Do you want to be able to say “yes” when your child asks you if you can play Lego for a bit?
I had this figured from day one. I knew how many clients I required on a retained basis doing consultancy work or working as an in-house digital marketing manager for companies on a 2 or 3 day a week basis. I wanted 3 clients which I could service from home and 2 clients working in-house. 5 clients with a little room for the ad-hoc project here and there. That’s it. Manageable.
Visualising my first year like this allowed me to focus on the right type of work, right type of clients, be at home with family and also still be able to work from a clients office to here all the “real company shit” which goes down inside every business. Very valuable this.
2. Network like crazy for the first 3 months (whilst it’s a bit quiet).
From January to March 2014 I attended as many events, exhibitions, conferences, meet ups and tweet ups as I could. I had quite a bit of time to do this as I had finances sorted to cover me (mortgage, bills, kids etc) for 3 months. I gave myself a 3 months timeframe to build as many “growth” friends as possible. Friends who are at the same stage as me and grow together.
I did have work to keep me going in the meantime, just enough to keep things ticking over. For you, it maybe those one or two side projects.
I also used those 3 months to go visit old contacts. I worked with a few agencies during my client side days so I got back in touch with them. I made friends who were developers, designers, PR folk, copywriters and agency folk. I had built my network up pretty quickly.
Many people (freelancers) I speak to don’t like networking. Believe me, you have to network. You have to overcome this fear before you start up and go solo. You have to be able to show your passion.
In my first 3 months I managed to make many friends who I later worked alongside, outsourced work to or learnt some valuable skills from. It made those quieter times and the crazy mad busy times so much easier to handle and get through.
However, one word of advice, ensure you tell your network the type of work you will do and like to do – otherwise they’ll just pass the shit you don’t like to onto you. Not their fault, yours.
3. Try to position yourself in year 1.
Any digital marketer can do what they do in every single sector, niche, vertical or whatever you want to call it. Skill set is transferrable.
What’s your USP? As any other business or service provider – what makes you different?
What will make you different is the value added knowledge of how one niche/sector/vertical works. Be it retail, mobile, manufacturing, public sector, restaurants, fashion or toys – you need to be familiar with the sector.
Always be adding value. You get paid for the value you add.
When this happens, your competition goes from thousands of freelancers and agencies to just tens. Maybe even just two or three if you’re lucky. Which means more cake for you, charge more if you want and receive work via referrals from those outside of your network.
I specialise in construction, mainly building product manufacturers. Very niche. So the competition is very small. Sometimes you may also find yourself working with competition which is also fun.
I know what product manufacturers need and want (goals). I know how they operate because I’ve worked for some. I also know their audiences and what they need and want. I’ve connected to a lot of people in the industry, I can draw upon others expertise. I can share my own experiences also. Makes sense right?
So when a new client comes on board I can hit the ground running.
There will come a time when I need to expand into other markets so I already started to work with one or two (not many) companies outside of construction. My year 1 target was 95% construction businesses and 5% outside. I achieved this pretty early on actually.
Don’t get me wrong, positioning isn’t everything – but it will help. I know a few freelancers who will take anything and everything and they’re the ones always losing out on price.
Positioning yourself is important in helping prospects choose you over somebody or something else. Why always be looking for work when you should be attracting them to you – isn’t this what inbound marketing is? 😀
4. Don’t be afraid to say “no”.
It’s exciting when the enquiries come in and it’s far too easy to just say “Yes” to everything because all you can think about is the cashflow.
“I could do with that bit of cash” you think. Only to then find out that the work you expected to take 2 weeks is dragging now into a 2 month project.
I turned down a lot of work in my first year. I also said “yes” to a couple when I should’ve said “no”. It’s all part of the learning curve in the first year of business.
Well, going back to point #1 – know what type of client you want to work with and the work you want to be doing. This will help.
If they don’t fit your client profile then simply say no. Don’t be afraid.
My ideal client would be in my niche (product manufacturer), head office in UK, has a marketing dept/team and someone responsible/accountable for marketing, using agencies and a realistic budget to do some good stuff. It may take a bit of digging & probing before you know if they’re the right fit or not.
Make sure you say “no” to the type of prospects who are looking for a “quick fix” and expects digital marketing to be the silver bullet. Unless this is the type of work you want to do.
A lot of the work I turned down was either very small (think about your “get out of bed rate here”), head offices in europe somewhere (makes things difficult), prospect had mis-managed expectations or projects were too far along down the line for me to influence.
I knew the type of stuff I wanted to do and could do well. Get in early as possible in new projects.
I don’t like getting involved in website re-development projects when it’s almost complete and just the last few bits and bobs need addressing – feels like you’ve been bought in to just pick up the scraps. I can tell when there’s been no thought process gone into defining website goals, user journeys, testing programmes, measurement plan, content plan etc. But the project is too far down the line to be able to go back a few steps and do it properly.
So only until you know the type of work you want to be doing can you say “no”. If you don’t then you’ll find yourself doing lots of stuff you don’t enjoy – and then you and your business will suffer.
5. Give ideas away for free.
Yep, seriously. I helped quite a few freelancers in my first year by giving them ideas and knowledge for free. I didn’t mind.
You know what happened around month 8-ish?
Some came back with bigger projects wanting to work together or just referred clients direct to me.
6. Cut your losses quickly.
If you do get involved in something which you later regret then cut your losses quickly. Don’t keep clients or projects under your wings any longer – it’s not healthy.
If you manage to do points #1, 2 and 3 really well then you shouldn’t have any problem replacing these clients or projects.
I learnt this when I said “yes” to a client I should’ve said “no” to (my questioning was quite poor early on) and found myself getting frustrated and demotivated when it came to the days dedicated to them. This then affected everything else around me.
It was a mis-match of personalities, priorities and processes (3P’s) I would say. I ended the contract and left it as that. I should’ve identified this from the beginning (as mentioned in point #4 – Client fit). Again, all part of the learning curve.
I question a lot better now.
One really good question I now always ask during my prospect vetting process is “Why now? Why not last year? Why not wait another year?”. Hat tip to Liz Male for this one.
You get a sense of urgency and how much of a priority this is – or is it a project just make them look busy for a while?
7. Always make time for your own marketing (or learning).
I got so busy with client projects from around month 6 to month 8 that I had no more time for my own marketing.
Stuff like writing, maintaining my website, creating training resources or regularly recording my Construction Marketing podcasts.
What happened was that I disappeared from the faces of my prospects. Traffic to my site fell. The number of new connections and followers dropped. New enquiries had dried up.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching!!
This wasn’t good for building up a pipeline of prospects should my existing clients stop working with me for whatever reason. Most would think that because they’re busy, they don’t need to market themselves until things dry up. This is short term thinking. Most companies treat marketing in the same way too.
I fell into that trap. I got busy so I stopped marketing. Luckily for me things didn’t dry up too much but imagine if they did completely? I would not want this to happen to you either.
Always be looking to find time for your marketing, to either write, read or learn and keep marketing.
Consistency is key – if you are consistent then you shouldn’t really be out of any work as you’ll always be marketing or learning to build up your value. Practice what you preach.
8. Experience what it’s like to be over capacity. Once.
One of the scariest things for me in the first year if business was managing workload. It’s easy to keep saying “yes” to new projects and clients. That buzz of new client wins eh?
During the summer I learnt and experienced what “busy” or “full capacity” felt like (as mentioned in the previous point).
I had to do this.
And I’m glad I did it as early as possible to be honest. My year two plan is to become a little bit more efficient in some of my more manual processes and to learn about things I can automate.
Before I knew it, I struggled to manage the workload and my service levels dropped. I left no buffer time. I couldn’t manage the workload and it meant that I had to sacrifice the other part of my life – personal time. It’s a fine balancing act. Something had to give and it takes a while to accept this.
I woke up tired, I was glued to my laptop, I had no time for football, I had to deal with hundreds of emails, I was needed in two places at the same time and agencies kept ringing every 20 minutes. I also delayed the time in responding to new enquiries and replying to comments in blog posts – this was bad bad marketing by me.
This is not how I wanted to work. It felt as though I lied to myself. But I learnt and experienced how I don’t want to work to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I felt it was important to understand and know when too much is too much. You need to know your limits.
Like I said at the start – 5 clients was my target for the first year with a mix of projects. I did push it to 7 or 8 and this was tough. 5 was just right for me – a sense of reassurance that I got it right from the start.
9. Treat your family as if they are a client.
I’m a family man. One of the biggest reasons I went solo was so I could be with my two boys more often than what I used to be when I was working 9-5.
I also tell new clients this so if something isn’t important and it concerns family – then it can wait. I have to have clients respect my family as much as I respect them.
Remember when I got busy in the summer? I had to give up a little bit in this area. That’s why you should try and treat your family as your client.
I made 1pm slots in my diary for football. I made sure I finished at 4pm on some Monday’s to take my eldest to swimming classes.
Occasionally I held family meetings at Nando’s at 1.30pm. 😀
Share success with your family often. It’s healthy.
10. Start visualising next year, around month 10.
I spent so much time visualising, prepping and planning for year 1 that I don’t even know what year 2 looks like.
Does it look like year 1 but just with a couple more clients? Really? That’s not ambitious.
But then for some it could be just what they need – a stable year 2. Nothing more and nothing less.
I met Tim Fitch, MD of Invennt, a specialist business consultancy specialising in construction recently at the The Building Centre. I ended up working with Tim helping him set up the companies new website.
The first time I met Tim he asked me “What’s your long term plan for the business?”
Holy shit! Long term?
That was a good question. I hadn’t considered long term.
I honestly don’t know. I just wanted to ensure year 1 was successful before thinking about year 5.
What I do know is that visualising year 1 had helped me massively. I should now be doing this for year 2 and every year onwards. As early as possible.
I’m now thinking about things like possibly re-positioning into more niche markets such as building products in the IoT (internet of things) space, partnering with agencies in other disciplines, outsourcing manual work to allow me to do more of what I enjoy most, possibly recruiting or cut the stuff I no longer want to be doing. The latter is a brave decision.
I’m asking myself some tough questions like “Do I really want to be doing X,Y and Z in 3 or 4 years time?”, “If not then what do I want to be doing and what do I need to do now?” and “What will my ideal type of client look like in year 4?”
I think it’s important to know what you want each year – a sense of satisfaction – no year should be the same. Well, that’s what I’ve decided for me.
If you’re a lone ranger like me then try to find an ‘accountability friend’ for year 2. That’s what I’m planning on doing this year. (idea courtesy of @chinashopbull)
Someone who you can be accountable to and commit to helping each other move forward, share ideas, encourage and support. You hold each other accountable.
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