Last week, I wrote about self-employment myths. Now that you know the potential downside, if you still want to take the plunge, here are ten tips for making your new business successful.
1. Set work hours and stick to them. When you're self-employed, any time spent not working is time you aren't making money. Don't let this fact turn you into a workaholic. Make sure to schedule time for your other priorities, like relationships, hobbies, exercise, and sleep. In my experience, workaholics often think they're getting more work done, but at a certain point they burn out and the additional hours spent working aren't very productive. You need a certain amount of rest time to recharge your batteries -- this will allow you to be highly productive during your scheduled work time and still have plenty of time off to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
2. Hire help if you can afford it. Running a small business brings with it both the work that your business does for others, such as designing websites, and the work of running the business itself, like bookkeeping, filling out tax forms, and shopping for office supplies. Hiring someone to either help out with the simpler work tasks or help with the business-running side of things will allow you to focus on what you love. Employees don't have to be expensive -- take a chance on an intelligent high school or college student, pay them more than they would make flipping burgers or folding t-shirts, and give them the learning experience of a lifetime. You'll both be grateful.
3. Minimize expenses. This point may sound obvious, but the truth is that it's all too easy to justify getting a brand new computer, a Blackberry (complete with expensive monthly service plan), a spacious new desk, fancy pens, stacks of business cards that you spent hours designing, or even a new car custom-painted with your company's logo, with the idea that these items will make you more productive or successful and get you excited about starting work each morning. You don't really need any of these things to jump start your business -- you need passion, hard work, and a good business plan. Once your business starts to be successful, don't jump the gun and develop elaborate plans to borrow money from your uncle so you can have designer offices. It's important to reward yourself for your hard work, but keep your rewards realistic. Startup businesses tend to have very narrow profit margins, if they're making a profit at all. When you're first starting out, keep in mind what you really need versus what you just want, and forgo the luxury items unless you can get them cheaply and easily.
4. Even when you really need the money, don't take just any assignment. There are times when you may feel that your hands are tied because you really need the cash, but you shouldn't always take a job just because it's a job. To stick with the website design business model, if you aren't even remotely interested in farm implements and someone wants you to design a website for their tractor business, suck it up and do the job. Taking a job that is somewhat unpleasant is one thing. However, if a client approaches you to design a website for something that you don't support or wouldn't be proud to associate yourself with (say, a website for a local chapter of the NRA), refuse the job even if you need the money. The universe will take cues from your behavior and provide for you accordingly. If your actions say that it's okay to do work that repulses you, more of it is likely to come your way. If you refuse it, you'll be available for the next great project that comes along. You'll also gain the respect of others who share your convictions and gain credibility as a business with a conscience, which can only improve your business.
5. Make sure to teach people how to treat you. There are certainly situations in life where we have no control over the way people treat us -- if you get shot because you happened to be in a bank at the time of a robbery, you haven't done anything to provoke that attack. But much of the time, the way people treat you is a reflection of what kind of behavior you allow from them and what kind of behavior you don't allow. Decide at the beginning what kind of business you want to be and what your policies are. During what hours will you accept calls from clients? How quickly will you return emails? Do you work on weekends? What constitutes a client emergency? How much time do customers have to pay you?
6. Make sure you get paid in full and on time. There's no excuse for any client to take longer than 30 days to get a check into your hands. Make sure that payment terms are established in writing at the onset of any project and that they are printed on the invoice as well. Establish penalties for clients who pay late, and enforce those additional charges. Keep in mind that if you want your clients to do you the courtesy of paying you in full and on time, you need to do them the courtesy of completing your work on time, submitting invoices promptly, and, for hourly work, keeping them posted on how many hours you've worked as you go along unless they've told you at the onset that money is no object.
Anyone who has ever done any freelancing work can probably tell you about at least one client who only partially paid or didn't pay at all. Have policies in place that will prevent people from taking advantage of you and prevent you from getting ripped off. For some jobs, one way to accomplish this can be to require partial payment up front. Also, keep in mind that even the most prudent or assertive person can still get conned. Try not to beat yourself up over it, think about what you can do differently next time to avoid a similar situation, and make sure to use the loss as a tax writeoff when March comes around (business taxes are filed in March, not April). Also, listen to your instincts from the beginning: if you get a sleazy vibe from someone, don't work for them.
7. Communicate with clients to keep them happy, even when you mess up. Clients are more apt to like you if you're honest with them. This doesn't mean telling them about every little misstep -- in fact, it's best if you keep those things to yourself if you can fix them in a reasonable amount of time so you don't alarm your clients or give them the impression that you don't know what you're doing. However, when you make a mistake that they need to know about, don't try to hide it. Not only will a client that gets lied to never be a repeat customer, but when both parties know about a problem, it can be easier and faster to come up with a solution. Even if things are going well, keep your clients in the loop--give them status reports at appropriate intervals so they know where their money is going and when their work is likely to be completed.
8. Keep in touch with former clients to remind them that you exist and get repeat business as well as new business. Even if a previous client doesn't have any new work for you to do when you call, they may know someone else who could use your services.
9. Advertise. This one may sound obvious, but no matter how wonderful your service is, people aren't going to hire you if they don't know you exist. One way to establish a client base when you're new is by offering free samples, coupons, or gift certificates. For example, if your mom has a friend that needs a website designed, create a gift certificate for an hour of free web design services that your mom can give to her friend. The friend will think your mom has given her a generous gift and that your business is already well-established. You'll take a slight pay cut on the job, but you'll get paid for everything after the first hour of work, and if you do it well you'll have a happy client who will spread word of your business to others.
10. Don't grow before you're ready. Expanding your business can make you feel great about yourself and bring in more money, but there's more to it than that. If you engage in a major advertising campaign to bring in more work, make sure your company has the capacity to take on that work if your campaign is successful, particularly if your company is small and you're already working near capacity. If the additional business causes you or your employees to become overworked, the added stress can cause things to quickly spiral downward. By the same token, don't overprepare for what you hope will be a pending expansion, because if things don't work out you'll be dealing with both the emotional distress from the setback and the financial loss from overpreparing. Growing a business successfully requires both careful planning and a little bit of luck.
Nobody said that starting your own business was easy, but while there are plenty of misconceptions and pitfalls, people still manage to do it successfully every day. With these ten tips, you'll already be ahead of the game.
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