On March 1, 2015, I made a life-changing decision. I started my business, The Sturm Agency. My first day, I had one virtual assistant client and two marketing clients. Two years later, the business has grown to support nine clients and numerous one-time projects.
Here are seven of the most important lessons I’ve learned from two years in business:
1) Get a contract
I did a few deals early on without any formal contracts. The end result was not good for my business.
Contracts keep you safe as a freelancer. They help add a small element of security into an otherwise insecure job.
Contracts should include the following:
- Your payment schedule and what happens if a client pays late
- Your cancellation policy and how much notice a client is required to give you when they want to move on
- Your terms and agreed upon duties/tasks
2) Expect the best, prepare for the worst
One of the most challenging things about being a freelancer, or someone who owns a small business, is the unpredictability of income.
In a traditional workplace, you can lose your job at any time, but usually you’re spoken to about the status of the company or your performance before that happens.
I’ve had a few issues with clients who refused to pay me. One client owned a particularly large sum and was 2+ months late with payment over the holiday season. They eventually paid up, but it was a stressful situation.
This year, I lost my largest client due to restructuring in his business. I have to admit, I wasn’t prepared for this. I let myself have a few days to mourn the loss and then sprung into action. I began submitting proposals for new positions and created a pitch log in Google Drive. Even though I remained optimistic, the hits kept on coming and I lost another long-term client that same month!
I needed to make up a certain amount of income per month to match what the clients were providing. I knew this would be difficult as they were two of my largest clients. However, I had always known that it wasn’t a great idea to have one or two clients constituting around 45% of my monthly income. I wanted that number to be no higher than 30% for one client, going forward.
Preparing for the inevitable loss of income, or lean times, is something you should do as a business owner. You don’t want to be left surprised and unable to pay your bills.
3) Get your systems in place
- Use a project management system
I use Wunderlist for keeping track of my client’s tasks. I copy and paste each task into their list and give it a due date. Each morning I look through my Wunderlist tasks and make a paper list of what I need to do for the day. This ensures that nothing gets overlooked. It also keeps me from using my inbox as a to-do list.
- Have an onboarding process
I onboard my new clients with a 20-30 minute introductory phone call. I get to know their needs and how they like to work. From there, I send an email that says how I work best, how to get in contact with me, and what my hours and turnaround times are. I also send over an engagement contract.
- Use an organization system
I keep everything in Google Drive. This frees up space on my computer and allows me to access my files anywhere, should I need to.
I organize my folders this way:
Main folder: Current Clients
Subfolder: Client Name
Subfolder(s): Documents, Projects, Contracts (all with their own folder)
I also keep a Former Clients folder and a Potential Clients folder for people who decided to go with another person for the job or put the job on hold for the time being. These connections may come in handy in the future.
4) Get help from professionals
Although I have an MBA and could do my taxes and accounting, I choose to hire this work out to a CPA. I want to use my time to further my talents, not do work that I dislike. This minimal expense saves me a lot of time and frustration.
If you don’t like marketing, hire someone out. If you don’t do graphics or images, find someone who does. Trying to do everything in your business will cause burn out. One person cannot do everything.
5) Ask for reviews/testimonials/referrals
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to ask for reviews or testimonials with my first few clients. I only recently started chasing people down for reviews after we completed work together.
Testimonials and reviews strengthen your brand and legitimize your business. The more you can get, the better. Start a reviews/testimonials page on your website and begin adding them as soon as you start working with clients.
6) Make it easy for people to find and contact you
You need a website. It should look good and be easy to navigate. You should have a place where people can easily find your contact information.
Recently, I added a contact form to my website. I should have done it a long time ago! Within one week of adding it, I had two clients contact me asking about my services. I can only assume it was because I made it very easy to work with me.
Create a separate page for contacting you titled “Hire me” or “Work with me” and have an easy-to-use form. People don’t want to have to copy your email address, open their email, and write up a message.
7) Stay grateful and humble
On a more philosophical note, I feel that having the right attitude does a lot for your business and your success.
There are a lot of people who are running their businesses with massive egos. These people are very difficult to work with. Often the biggest egos are the easiest to bruise.
I credit a lot of my success to staying grateful and humble. I am so thankful every time a new client reaches out to me. I think my appreciative attitude, both in my heart and outwardly to my clients, is something that sets me apart.
Running a business is no easy task and I’m proud to say that I’ve done it for two years. I hope to continue running my business for the rest of my working life.