It’s my birthday!! Well, my business’s birthday! Today, I have officially been in business for 2 years! I’ve survived the dreaded first year and gone on to achieve bigger and better things in the second one! There’s still a long way to go before my business is where I’d like it to be, but I’m well on the way.
Here are 21 things I’ve learnt in these two years that could help you in your business:
1. Spend time figuring out your niche
When I first started, I thought the best thing to do would be to target anyone and everyone. I offered websites, branding and print design to businesses and custom print design for invitations and greetings cards for consumers. Big no no!
I didn’t stand out at all and struggled to get any work.
I spent so much time reading books and articles about how to get more sales, and I kept seeing over and over again that you should find your niche, a small targeted group of people whose needs are fulfilled by the specific products or services you offer.
It was only when I went to a business advice meeting where the lady said “you’re trying to do too much!” that I paid attention. She said that I was trying to offer something for everyone and it was confusing with no specific service or product, and no one was noticing my business because of it.
She asked me what work I enjoyed most and who I enjoyed working with most and the result of that meeting was my rebrand last year where I decided I was going to work with very small businesses, mostly creatives and crafters.
I added in more colour and paint splatter graphics to my website and materials so it wasn’t quite so rigid and formal. I changed the wording on my website and email templates so I didn’t sound so corporate, and tried to speak as myself rather than as a business. I invested time into creating my own stock photos that featured craft items. And I created a specific service that appealed directly to my target audience – my budget website package.
Everything that I did from then on, had my niche in mind and it has, honestly, worked wonders for my business!
2. Be an expert in one thing, not a jack of all trades
As well as narrowing your niche, narrow the amount you offer (I wrote a blog post about this recently here – 4 ways doing less can grow your business).
I used to try and work like an agency, because that’s where I worked previously, but now I embrace that I am actually a one man band and I specialise in (and love!) working on websites.
I still offer all types of design and print, but now I only actively sell websites. Other types of design, like branding, go hand in hand with a new website, and I often find that when I’ve sold a website, my customer also needs branding or print design and they can get that from me, someone they trust and have already worked with.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
I used to think that I had to do everything on my own and that if I asked for help then people would think I’m not capable of running my business.
It got to a point where I had to buck up and ask for help or look for another full-time job. I had a business advice meeting, I spoke to other business owners and I joined a small business Facebook group.
Now, I’m completely happy asking for help or advice as I can see that it’s all part of having a business. It’s a learning curve and asking for help just means you can get there quicker!
In the last couple of months, I’ve also hired a virtual assistant! I work with Jelena from JessicaDornieden.com for my blog. She helps me to actually keep on track with my blog posts so one goes out every week, and she proofreads them, sets them up on my website and schedules the social media that goes out with them. She’s brilliant and I probably wouldn’t have a blog if I didn’t have her help as I simply wouldn’t have the time to fit it all in!
4. Join a community of fellow business owners
You’ll want to talk about your business and ask for advice, but most of the time, unless they have a business themselves, friends and family can’t offer much help or understand the situation you’re in. By joining a Facebook group of fellow business owners, you can get the support and advice you need.
Spend time looking for the right one because many of the groups out there are just full of self-promotion and don’t offer much value.
Good examples of Facebook communities include The Profit Pack (I’m part of this one!), the Female Entrepreneur Association, For Love and Money by Caitlin Bacher, Creative’s Corner, Shelancers and Savvy Business Owners.
5. Create a business plan
Lots of people think business plans should be written only when you’ll be applying for business funding, but really they should be written for all businesses.
They help to bring clarity into your business and what you’re offering, as well as setting goals and financial forecasts.
Maybe part of the reason my business was in such a muddle when I first started was because I didn’t set out with a solid business plan!
I’ve now got a very detailed business plan, full of goals and steps to get there. It doesn’t have to be detailed or complicated – I just get carried away!
The Prince’s Trust has great information on writing a business plan as well as a handy template!
6. Review your business plan regularly
Once you’ve written your business plan, it’s important to go back and assess your progress, and also update the plan if your business has evolved.
Look at your goals and how close you are to meeting them. Are you on track? Way behind schedule? Passed with flying colours?
7. Set up an efficient system for your invoicing, contracts, quotes etc
Up until quite recently, I used QuickFile for all of my bookkeeping and invoices, Docracy for contracts and Google Forms for design questionnaires.
All of these are great systems to use but it was confusing and time-consuming for my customers to switch between them to get all the paperwork ready.
I’ve recently started using 17Hats that can do all of this in one, and you can even set up workflows that automate some of the processes.
I set up the quote for the customer in 17Hats and if they accept it, they move on to the contract and terms of conditions where they can sign online. Once they have signed, they automatically go to the invoice where they can pay the deposit online. A design questionnaire is then sent to them as soon as they have paid the invoice. Easy peasy!
Evaluate your needs and decide on a system that works for you. QuickFile might be the perfect fit but if you need customers to sign contracts then something like 17Hats might work better.
8. Organise your tasks in a way that suits you
I started off using an app called Todoist to organise my tasks, and I still use it now! It’s a great app and you can read more about it here. However, I started to get quite overwhelmed by having a huge to-do list. I’d end up procrastinating and doing the small tasks that I enjoyed doing rather than doing the big money making tasks.
Figure out a way that works for you to narrow down your task list and make sure you’re tackling the big tasks that you need to do (I have a printable to do list available to buy via Etsy for this!
A good system to use is the Eisenhower Matrix. You sort your tasks according to the deadline and importance to work out what needs to be done first. I’ve gotten so used to working like this now that I automatically colour code my tasks as I add them to Todoist.
Something else that’s super simple but works for me, is a mini whiteboard on my desk. I look at my task list and write down just the most important tasks for that day that are achievable in that timeframe. Plus it’s very satisfying when you can rub off a completed task!
9. You don’t have to work 9 til 5
I used to try to stick to working 9 to 5 and would feel guilty if I got up late, or went out with friends or did something other than work in those times.
But I realised, the whole point of running your own business is that you are the boss. You set the rules!
If you work better in the evenings, work in the evenings. If you went out the night before and you’re exhausted, sleep in! If you want to make plans during the day, make up the hours another time.
As long as you get the work done, you don’t have to have rigid work hours.
The exception to this is if you have a physical location, like a shop, where customers expect you to be open at certain times. But there’s still an element of flexibility!
Honestly, as a business owner, you’ll probably work more than 9 to 5, but it’ll be more flexible and much more enjoyable because you love what you’re doing! Just don’t overdo it!
10. Set time aside for yourself and take days off!
Following on from number 9, don’t work too much! You’re allowed to take days off and set time aside for yourself in your working days.
Even if you love your business, working all hours of the day leads to burn out – trust me, I know!
Listen to your mind and body, and if you need to take the time to rest, then take time.
I stop several times during the day to stretch or walk around so I’m not sat at my desk for hours at a time. I also take a full hour for my lunch where I usually switch off and catch up on my favourite Netflix TV show!
Three times a week, I split my day up so that I can go to the gym in the late morning when it’s quiet and then work a bit later in the afternoon.
Working for yourself is flexible, but it’s important to get the balance right so that you’re still looking after yourself. You come before your business.
11. Keep learning and improving
It’s important to keep learning so that you can improve your business and the services or products that you offer. It’s also important to keep up with changes and trends to make sure you’re up to date in what you’re offering.
I’ve wasted a ton of money on courses that aren’t actually that useful to me or that I never get round to doing! Figure out what you can improve on and be realistic about the time you have.
There’s also plenty of free information online in blog posts and articles.
It’s easy to get carried away with reading blog posts or doing courses, so try to stick to one topic at a time and set time aside each day or each week to commit to learning something new or improving your skills.
12. Focus on one or two social media platforms, not all of them
I used to be on every social media platform that I could think of, but it was time-consuming and disappointing if I got no engagement.
I now focus on just Facebook and Instagram because that’s what my target audience uses and that’s where I get the most engagement and the most work.
Assess where your target customers are and make sure that’s where you’re spending your time.
Just focus on one or two social media platforms and work on building your presence there rather than spreading your time across several different platforms.
I’ve written about this more in my post about doing less to grow your business.
13. Put your prices up!
The chances are, you’re charging much too low!
I used to charge ridiculously low and I barely got any work, and when I did it was hardly any money compared to the amount of time I spent on the project.
I put my prices up and I actually got more work. Recently I put my prices up even more as I was still under-charging and the amount of projects I’ve got still seems to be increasing!
It just goes to show, when you charge what you’re worth, people realise your value and want to work with you.
Research what your competitors are charging, research what your customers can afford, figure out the costs you need to factor in and figure out how much profit you want to make.
There are lots of articles online about pricing strategies, but this article from The Design Trust is one of my favourites.
14. Remove distractions
I’m the queen of procrastination! I get distracted easily by new shiny things or social media. So much so that I now only check my emails about twice a day and I’ve unsubscribed to most email newsletters (sorry Paperchase, your lovely stationery is just far too distracting!).
After reading this article by The Business Bakery, I’ve started to write down when I procrastinate and why so that I can remove the distraction and improve.
For example, if I’m worried about where to start with a big project, I tend to go on Facebook or read some articles online. Now that I write it down, I see that I’m just being a big chicken and need to tackle that project head on, usually by planning and splitting it down into small tasks.
I also turn the sound off on my phone, close the window on my computer with my emails and social media, put on classical music at low volume and set a timer so that it makes me concentrate on that one task and try to beat the timer!
15. Make your workspace inspiring and motivating
To me, a cluttered workspace is super distracting and un-motivating. The same with a boring workspace.
I used to work in my mum’s garage that had a ton of stuff in and was often really messy (it was mostly my mess!). I took a couple of days off and sorted the whole space, getting rid of anything that we didn’t need or want, sorting things into storage, decorating with fairy lights and painting one wall lime green!
I made the space tidier, colourful, pretty and more motivating!
I now live in my own apartment and work in the corner of my living room. This space is much smaller but I still make sure it’s organised and inspiring!
16. Include exercise in your daily routine
Sitting at that desk all day is going to do your back in and fry your brain! Get up, move around, go for a walk, join an exercise class, find a yoga lesson on YouTube, or go to the gym!
I became a bit of a couch potato while I was working at my last job. I put on a ton of weight and never exercised!
I started off the same way when I began my business, but then realised that I really needed to be more healthy! And with my working hours being quite flexible, I couldn’t use the excuse that the gym is busy and scary, because at 11am I usually have it all to myself!
The better you feel yourself, the more you can put into your business. I’m still working on being healthier and improving my energy levels, but I’m much better than I was 2 years ago.
17. There’s nothing wrong with being a 5-9’er or having a part time job
I was so fed up of my corporate job that I just quit, without really planning ahead. I had savings but I hadn’t even started my business when I quit my old job.
Luckily things worked out for me, but only just! I’d advise planning and saving, and starting your business while you have the security of a job before taking the plunge into running your business full time.
There are so many people now who run their business in the evenings and weekends around their full-time job, and it’s still run just as well as any other business!
I used to have a part-time job at a fabric shop where I worked 3 days a week alongside my business. This brought in a bit of regular income and it also meant that I was able to be a bit more social. I worked with some great people and I was always meeting new and interesting customers in person, whereas at home when I’m working on my business everything is digital, and while I meet amazing people all the time, it’s mostly via email and Facebook! Now I work full-time in my business, I make a point to arrange more time to go out and see friends and family.
18. Ask for feedback
When you’ve finished a project or you’ve sold a new product, ask for feedback. There’s nothing wrong with a request for feedback and a gentle reminder if you don’t hear from them.
Many customers don’t even think to leave a review if you don’t make it available to them. For example, I now send a questionnaire to each customer after a project. In the email, it says that it’s entirely optional but I’d be so grateful for their feedback and maybe a testimonial so I can improve my services.
Don’t let the fear of getting bad feedback stop you from asking what your customer thinks. Honestly, if a customer wants to complain, they usually will whether you ask for their feedback or not! And don’t worry about constructive criticism, it’ll help you to grow and improve so you get 5* reviews all round!
19. Don’t be afraid to say no to customers
I used to say yes to everything. Discounts, crazy projects, changing my terms etc, but that led to lots of unnecessary stress, loss of money and backwards steps in my business.
Be confident in your business and what you offer. Sure, offer discounts occasionally as an incentive but don’t devalue your business by offering them all the time!
And don’t say yes to projects just because you feel you have to. If a customer is asking for something that’s just too much, e.g. a starter website package with 10 extra pages for free, then you can say no. Be polite and offer other options, but don’t waste time worrying.
Always stick to your terms and processes. They’re there for a reason – to protect your business and to ensure everything runs smoothly.
20. Invest in proper terms and conditions
When I first started, I didn’t have solid terms and conditions or a contract. This meant that when a ‘friend’ convinced me to do some work for him with the promise of payment when he could afford it, I was out of pocket when he disappeared off the face of the earth without signing a contract that accepted my terms and conditions. And honestly, those terms and conditions weren’t good enough that I could chase for payment anyway. My lesson was learnt the hard way! Luckily, it was a small project.
Depending on your business, you won’t always need a contract. For example, when a product is bought on your website or Etsy, they usually tick a box to accept your terms and conditions.
I’d definitely advise setting up online contracts with something like 17Hats, Echosign or Docracy if you’re a service-based business.
21. Be yourself
Most importantly, be yourself. To make your business stand out and resonate with your target audience, you need to be authentic and comfortable being yourself.
This is something that I’ve discovered recently. I’m naturally a very quiet and shy person, and I became very conscious about it from people making comments about me being quiet as if it was an awful personality trait. It was like being the “nerdy quiet girl” back at school!
Through the support and advice from my amazing fiancé, family and the lovely ladies in Nadia Finer’s Profit Pack, I realised that there’s nothing wrong with being quiet and perhaps, like Nadia herself, being quiet could be part of my unique business personality.
Embrace your natural personality and let it shine through in your business. People can spot fake a mile away, and are much more likely to connect with you if you are yourself.