Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of my firm, Grassroots Online. It has been a fantastic journey, filled with a lot of great successes, but also some…we’ll call them “teachable moments”. But over the last four years, I have been blessed to work with fantastic clients, impressive teams and skilled developers. There is no course or guide on running a business and being self-employed is not for everyone, but as my family will tell you, I very rarely complain about my job, as I love what I do.
I’m often asked about the experience of owning/operating my own firm, both by people who are thinking about hanging their own shingle and those who are just starting out or other business owners who want to compare notes. For our fourth year, I wanted to offer four lessons that I have learned along the way. Some you may agree with, others you may not. But these lessons are derived from principles that I have followed in my business dealing that have always served me well.
1. You Need Stories
A weak spot for new businesses is a lack of a track record. While prospective clients may be interested in your services, no one wants to be a guinea pig. So they will look to your client roster or case studies to size up your ability to deliver on what you promise. When you are first starting out, it becomes a vicious circle: you can’t get more clients until you have a good track record, you can’t get a good track record until you score more clients.
So sometimes, it is necessary to take work at cost, or even for free. I realize there is a defined school of thought that says you devalue your work when you offer it for free. But in order to get those “stories” that are so valuable when pitching new business, the best way to get people to work with you is to eliminate the risk for them. I can say that almost every time I have worked in that type of situation, the benefits have come, either through making new connections that lead to more work or being hired on when they see what the firm brings to the table. Again, no business is a charity, but it the early days give and ye shall receive.
2. Trust Is Crucial
In a business where you are giving advice, it is absolutely essential that people trust your judgement and that you are looking out for their best interests. Even in a service business, those on the other side of the table need to feel that you will deliver on your pitch and that you aren’t just selling them something they don’t really need. Over the last four years, I have offered advice to my clients that, in the short term, was detrimental to my business: I told them they didn’t need my services or offered free advice that could be found with a quick Google search.
Why? Because that’s the only way you will create the trust that is necessary for a relationship to thrive. It’s ultimately not about only you, it is about both parties succeeding. Sometimes that means you have to give advice that they don’t want to hear, or will result in you not making a sale or signing a contract. But I have always found those decisions that focus on the long-game pay off down the road.
3. Sometimes It’s Not Worth It
I have a strict 80/20 rule with my clients: If you are 80 percent of my headaches, but 20 percent of my revenue, we can’t work together. I know a lot of business owners who won’t turn down work, no matter how high-maintenance the client is. I will and I have. A mentor of mine once told me “we are experts, not order takers”, which is a rule I run my business by. If you don’t want to take my advice, no problem. Find someone else. The stress and poor productivity is not worth whatever figure is being offered, I can assure you.
It’s also not just different points of view. I have terminated relationships with clients simply because they treated me or my team poorly or they just brought chaos to my life. Those types of situations only get worse. And I learned the hard way that they infect other relationships like a cancer. And we all know the best way to get rid of cancer – remove it completely. The customer is not always right – otherwise, what do they need you for?
4. Mind Your Niche
On the road to building out a solid client portfolio, you are often presented with an opportunity that doesn’t quite fit into your core service offerings. Then the dollar signs start flashing and you get mighty tempted to take on the project, even though it isn’t really what you do. I can tell you that whenever I have done that, it never ends well. I either realize it is something I can’t do, or it is something I don’t do very well – and the client knows it.
When carving out a niche, the natural instinct is to wonder whether you are missing out on a much larger market because you are specialized. But the opposite is true: clients will be drawn to your expertise because you do that one thing very well. It’s like the old saying: If you are a Jack of all trades, you are a master of none. No one wants to hire someone who does everything OK; they want the best people dealing with their issue. There is lots of business I don’t even pitch on because there are (too) many better at it than we are. I have no interest in being one small fish in a huge pond.
Many of these lessons were learned the hard way: making a mistake and learning never to repeat it. But they have also served as a guidepost throughout the four years since I opened up shop. They have kept me out of trouble and in business.
Any lessons that you use in your business dealing that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below.