People often ask me two questions when I meet them:
1) How I mustered up the cahunas to go out on my own and start a business; and
2) How I managed to make my business successful.
The truth is, it takes a lot of planning ahead, being kind to yourself, knowing your strengths, knowing your weaknesses and not being afraid to give things a go and see how they pan out.
Overall though, there are a few things I did that I believe really helped to set me up for success, and for those of you who are currently sitting in a cubicle with dreams of one day heading out on your own, they may serve as a sort of guiding light.
So here are a few of my top tips that I have learned through starting up my first business.
Give yourself 3 months
Save up 3 months worth of income for you to live comfortably. This will give you the buffer of time that you need, if you need it. It really allows you to take the pressure off yourself.
I once read that if you save up 6 months worth of your income, you will feel like you can do anything. When I read that, I made it my goal.
That being said, I realise that depending on your situation, it may be difficult to save that amount of money. In addition, I found that personally, I only needed 3 months of “buffer money”. In fact, not even, only two months as I sold my first big client after two *unofficial months* (which included about 4 weeks off on a holiday).
Doing this allowed me to make the careful, considered decisions that I wanted to make (rather than making decisions out of necessity).
Why is that important?
Well for me, I made a conscious effort to position myself as a more premium consultant in my market (pot to come separately on this).
Part of doing that meant I needed to be very careful about which clients I decided to take on.
Yes. I said “no” to work right at the beginning when I needed work and I am so glad that I did.
It was one of the “tough” decisions I may not have made if I was struggling for money and it has put me in a position where I am now able to grow my business and work with the calibre of clients I want to be working with.
The point is: having some extra cash gives you the latitude to discover the business landscape for yourself and some extra time to make considered decisions.
Set yourself clear goals (with a timeline)
This was also really important to me. If I had not set myself a goal for where I wanted to be, with a timeline for when I wanted to achieve it by, I simply do not believe I would have done it.
My goal was to earn a certain revenue figure before the financial year was over and I hit it in my third month of business. I wrote my goal down in my phone and in my journal. I forecasted and planned how I would make it happen- and I did.
I can’t recommend adding a date to your goals enough. A goal without a plan is just a dream. To make it a reality you need to break it down and make it actionable. Then action it.
Take everyone who is anyone to coffee
This was one of my strategies from the beginning. When I finished up at my full time role, I did give myself 4 weeks to relax and have a break. After all I really hadn’t taken a holiday for over 5 years (since I started my career).
So while I was enjoying my “stay-cation” I did organise to have coffee with everyone I looked up to in the industry. Some might see that as work but I didn’t. After all I love what I do and LOVE talking about it.
Not only did I learn some really valuable information but I built much stronger relationships. Which leads me to my next point…
Build a partner network
I know there are a number of freelancers who focus on finding work through freelance websites such as freelancer.com. Sure it’s a way to get work, but not necessarily high paying, high quality work that you’re interested in and passionate about.
In my experience, the best quality leads come from referrals. I do get a number of leads through LinkedIn and SPT Blog*, but they honestly aren’t the same caliber of leads I get through the businesses I partner with.
*Don’t get me wrong, blogging has been SO important for my business, but not for getting leads. More on this another day…
When it comes to WOM (word of mouth) referrals, there is a fundamental truth; People who know you, and know your work, know how to sell you to clients with whom they already have a relationship and have built trust with.
In addition, the bigger the businesses you partner with, the more likely you yourself, will be able to work with more premium clients.
Of course that may not be your goal. If you’re freelancing as a bit of a side hustle, then leveraging platforms like freelancer.com or even airtasker.com to make a little extra cash on the side can be perfect for you.
If you’re trying to build a business though, consistent referrals are going to help you grow.
Psssst. Want to know my secret? Find partners who offer services to your target audience at an expensive rate. For me, that’s mostly creative agencies (the boutique ones who don’t get digital) and video providers. Videos cost a lot of money to make, so tacking on a digital strategy to go along with it is an easy sell to a client who has already invested in the creative, and wants to know it will be successful online).
Know what you will offer (and package up your service offerings)
Here is a secret that works well for me (and it’s something I don’t see freelancers and independents do very often).
Many clients truly hate the idea of working with someone on a “cost per hour” basis. clients have budgets for for activities. Some for marketing, some for PR, some for finance etc.
Even if you tell them your cost per hour and the number of hours, there is something about charging in this way that sometimes makes clients feel a bit uneasy (since they don’t always know exactly how many hours will be required).
When you’re looking to sell your services, you want to reduce any perceived friction or barrier to convert.
I find that by “packaging up” my services, I get a much better conversion rate.
My clients don’t question anything as they know exactly what I will deliver for a particular cost.
Know your client, know who you are working with and forecast your project accordingly. For example, if you have a client who you know is going to need a lot of hand holding and therefore require additional hours to walk them through things – be sure to account for this in your project scope and stick to your hours. Not doing this and giving away too much out of love will not put you in a position to grow your business. Not only will you be working a number of hours for free but it lowers your overall value in the eyes of the client also.
That being said, of course it is important to put in some extra effort sometimes. Things happen and sometimes we need to pull our clients a solid to help them out. Working late or on the weekend to get something done, or spending a little extra time than was scoped to make sure the finished product meets expectations.
Fact: Any business people worth working with will understand your value and be happy to pay you for your time. Any reasonable business person (worth working with) understands the cost of business.
Know what services you will not offer
This is just as important as knowing what services you will offer.
Know where to draw the line. Don’t stretch yourself too thinly. I often see people taking whatever work they can get. I fundamentally believe this is a big, nay huge mistake.
When you focus on what you’re already good at, you can become great at it. When you become great at it, people will throw money at you to do it.
Focus on your craft, and take an interest in the things that “brush past” your craft. By this I mean, things that integrate well with what you do. You can then talk about how your craft applies to a bigger picture, but still not need to be the expert on that subject.
Build yourself a collective
Inevitably, you are going to get leads you don’t have time for or want.
To maintain your reputation, it’s important that you can pass along this lead to someone who you trust to good work who can help them.
By helping someone out, even if you’re not able to offer then your services, you are doing them a solid. They will remember it and if they happen to be at a BBQ one day with someone who needs a helping hand, and is in line with your value proposition, they may recommend you.
In addition, sending leads to other businesses will build up your relationships with them. Then, if they get to a point where they don’t have the capability to take on more work, then they may flick it to you. Business friends!
Give away your best for free
I often get a lot of push back when discussing this one with my peers but I can tell you, this combined with a healthy dose of passion and enthusiasm (which is totally infectious) has been the key reason I’ve been able to sell my Digital Marketing Consulting packages to my clients.
When you give away your best for free in your first meeting, it puts you in a position to impress the suits in the boardroom very quickly. Do they know it’s your best work?
How it looks for me is that I will share my Inbound Content Marketing Methodology. It’s something I’ve finessed over the years through executing digital marketing strategies for businesses and for SPT Blog and it’s a proven formula that I know works in the digital marketing space.
I will always explain my methodology and why it works in my first meeting with a client. People often tell me:
“But when you’re telling them what they need to do, won’t that mean they won’t need you? And they haven’t even paid for it yet!”
To that I say: “Look, that’s true but there is just no way they would even know where to start with that model and sharing my best knowledge about digital and where they need to be impressed them and helped them to develop an appetite for what is to come.”
Giving away your best for free can work in your favour when you know that the information you’ve shared is too complex for them to execute themselves. Heck if you’re a specialist in a certain area your “best” is not likely to be understood by many. This also means that there is no real risk of those individuals taking your model back to their current agency because well, could they really explain it let alone execute off the back of it?
Know what makes you different
As an independent, one of the things I can offer that a big agency can’t is the ability to be flexible and even sit in my clients office for a day if they would like. For a client who really values working with people who want to truly “partner” with them to achieve results, this is a HUGE selling point.
Think: what can you offer that your competitors cannot?
Do you have a methodology or framework that is proven to work for you, but that others do not typically use?
Those are some of the things that I did and learned from launching my very own independent consulting business.
Are you interested in running your own business someday? Do you have a “side hustle” going at the moment? I’d love to hear about your fears, challenges and tips in the comments below!
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