I started my own business — nrichmedia — over 20 years ago, after having worked at various firms and deciding I’d rather be the boss than work for someone else. I’ve never regretted that decision. Still, some lessons were learned — and continue to be learned — along the way. I’d like to share those lessons with you, hoping you may find them valuable in starting up or improving your own small business.
1. Communication is King
Everybody wants to feel heard, especially when they’re paying you. You may not be able to answer every phone call, return every voice mail, or respond to every email right away, but make it a priority to get back to everyone in a timely manner. What ‘timely manner’ means may vary from situation to situation — i.e., most people are okay with hearing back within a business day. However, if a message is urgent, it’s best not to wait long before responding. Even if you don’t consider the situation to be an emergency, getting back to the client quickly will go a long way to easing their anxiety. They’ll appreciate that.
There may be times when you’re so swamped with work that you feel like you don’t have time to respond to messages at all. That may indeed seem to be the case. But think about it from the client’s perspective. They don’t know what you’re going through. Sending them a quick note just to confirm that you’ve received their message and will soon respond in full keeps them happy and alleviates your stress of knowing they’re waiting to hear from you. Doing so only takes a matter of seconds. It’s well worth it.
2. Build Relationships
No matter what type of business you’re in — counselling, web design, non-profit — you’ll have to develop working relationships with clients and/or co-workers and colleagues. That’s not ground-breaking news. What’s important is that you do everything you can to make those relationships solid. Providing quality service and products is, of course, essential. But really connecting with the people you work for and with is equally important.
Most people much prefer to work with someone who is personable rather than not. It just makes dealing with that person much easier and more enjoyable. We recently had a lot of work done on our house and all of the contractors were very pleasant to be around. Sure they did great work, but if they hadn’t been personable, the overall experience would have been much less positive for us.
It’s up to you and your comfort level to determine how you want to build those relationships. Perhaps it’s by taking someone out for lunch. Maybe it’s by asking a few friendly, personal questions when you speak on the phone. It could be by asking them how their vacation was or wishing them a good weekend. All of those little things add up and create long-lasting relationships that both you and your clients or colleagues sincerely enjoy.
3. Every Client/Customer is Valuable
We all have clients who are “bigger” than others, whether that’s in terms of the number of people in their organization, how prominent they are, or how much business they give us. The tendency may be to favour those clients and their projects. But smaller, less demanding clients deserve your attention just as well. If you don’t feel that they do and even consider them to be a nuisance, then you need to do yourself and the client a favour by letting them go so that they can find someone who will value them. Put yourself in their shoes. You wouldn’t want to feel that you’re annoying someone you’ve hired and are paying for a service, would you?
4. Manage Your Time
There have been times when I feel like I’m playing Whack-a-Mole, trying to keep clients happy or at least not disappointed. While having that much business is generally a good problem to have, you don’t want to be constantly stressed and frustrating your clients. So managing your time is essential.
Set up a scheduling system. There is plenty of software available to keep your tasks organized. Or if it works better for you, just keep a running list of all projects on a spreadsheet or even on a piece of paper. I have an ongoing “To Do” list where I can always see what’s on the go and I have a “Today” list of what I plan to get done in the current work day.
If your business runs on projects of various sizes, schedule them in as best as you can. Experience will help you determine how many large projects you can handle at a time. If that number is three, for example, the fourth project will need to be delayed until you have time.
Do the quick things first.
You may think you should do all projects on a first-come first-served basis. And, while that may work well in general, it doesn’t make sense to put off something that will take 15 minutes until you complete a 3-week project that you started earlier. What normally works for me is to get all the quick tasks taken care of in the morning — usually within a day of receiving them — and then spend the afternoon working on one or more larger projects. It took me a while to figure that out, but now it keeps things running like a well-oiled machine.
5. Be Consistent
Clients (and co-workers) like to know what to expect when working with you. If getting a small request done normally takes you a day or two to get to, but suddenly it takes a week, you’ll have disappointment to deal with. Do your best to keep your work quality at a high level and your response times consistent. That way you’ll build up realistic expectations and hopefully high standards that you can continually meet, which will keep your clients and your co-workers happy.
6. Keep Up With Your Marketing
I’ve spoken about this before (and again). In times when you’re really busy, you may feel like you don’t have time to write a blog post or do any other kind of promotion of your business. However, it often happens that, if you don’t keep up with your marketing, things will eventually slow down and you’ll have periods of little or no work. Prioritizing marketing, even when you’re busy, helps to keep the quiet periods fewer and farther between.
7. Always Be Learning
Hand in hand with keeping up with your marketing is keeping up with your education. Every field is constantly changing and growing. All at different rates, of course. But if you don’t designate some time — whether that’s weekly or yearly — to upgrading your knowledge, at some point you’ll get left behind. Either you’ll start losing business to your competitors or your clients will ask you questions about things you should know about but don’t. You’re the only one who knows what sort of skills upgrade you may need. Don’t let them slip too far.
8. Find Balance
Work can often feel overwhelming, no doubt. But working harder and longer hours doesn’t always help. The more you push yourself, the more your health and personal life will suffer. Putting in extra time once in a while is usually not a problem, but if it becomes a habit, eventually the quality of your work will suffer, too. If you’re sick, stressed, and miserable, that will lower your productivity.
I always find it’s best to listen to your body as well as family and friends and see what they’re telling you. The more balance you can create in your life — work, personal life, health, etc. — the better your performance, productivity, and enjoyment in each of those areas will be.
9. Know Your Limits
This one often takes a long time for many people, especially sole practitioners. We tend to not want to say no to anything. However, the truth is we can’t know and do everything. There will be times when you’re just out of your scope or simply don’t have room in your schedule. You need to learn that that’s okay. It’s how you deal with it with others that matters.
Outsource when necessary.
If it doesn’t work for your client to delay a project or if you simply don’t have all the skills necessary to complete it, you may want to consider hiring an employee or sub-contractor. As long as that person is someone you trust, who understands the work, meets your quality standards and timelines, and has good communication skills, then the work won’t suffer and may even be better than had you alone attended to it. As long as your clients are at least as happy with the results as they were when it was only you doing the work, hiring may be something to consider.
Learn how to say no.
If the thought of hiring someone else is just not up your alley for whatever reason, then the other option is to simply say no to certain projects or clients. Doing so is often in the long-term best interest of both you and the client. Usually when the fit feels wrong, it is and — if forced — ends up in hurt feelings and disappointment, neither of which you want.
10. Maintain a Sense of Humour
There will be times when things don’t go as anticipated. People will make mistakes, technology won’t work as expected, interruptions will happen. As they say, you can’t always change your circumstances, but you can choose how you’ll respond to them. Sure, it may feel good to scream into a pillow, punch the air, or vent in another way for a minute. But after that, sometimes you just have to laugh. If I’m having a Murphy’s Law type of day, and I notice the tension building, I take a step back and joke about what else could go wrong. Sometimes that ‘what else’ actually does happen and then it seems funny.
We’ve all made mistakes, so why not give someone else who’s made one a break? These days, in particular, we can all benefit from relaxing and having a good laugh.
Running your own business can be a very rewarding experience. Following the above tips will help to smooth out many of the potential bumps along the way.
What about you? Do you have any tips on running a small business that you’d like to share?