Business Lessons Learned in 2016
Growing a one-person business ain’t easy.
Since I launched my full-time freelance business in 2015, I’ve been focusing on staying busy, finding clients, and basically: surviving. I learned a lot of business lessons in 2016, and today I thought I’d share some of the most valuable lessons from the last year.
From “surviving” to “growing”
Towards the end of 2016, I started to realize that I might be selling myself a little short, and that maybe I should set some bigger goals. I needed to start investing in tools that would help me save time and be more productive. Instead of just surviving, I realized that I needed to start growing and putting money back in to my business.
With this in mind, I’ve got a bunch of new projects in the works for this year and my new redesign isn’t the only big change you’ll be seeing on this site in the coming months. I think it’s important to be transparent about this kind of thing, because being a solo-preneur isn’t all about going to the beach on weekdays and working in your jammies. So, let’s get into the good stuff. Here are the top business lessons I learned in 2016.
Clear, consistent communication is the easiest way to build trust with clients.
These days I even like to err on the side of over-communicating. Some clients that I work with like to be fairly hands-off and let me do my creative thing, but others need a little bit more hand-holding throughout the process.
If I don’t hear from a client for over a week during a project, I start to get nervous. If we don’t have consistent communication, then it’s way more likely we’re going to miss timelines, or someone is going to get confused about the project goals.
Whenever I start a project I map out all the key dates and meetings we’ll need to have so there’s a clear start and finish to the project. This is a great starting point, but I’ve also started doing some general weekly “status updates” as well. If it’s a smaller project, this is usually just a couple extra emails. If it’s a longer term project, it might be a weekly call + a few extra emails here and there to give a progress report. This helps clients feel comfortable with reaching out to me if anything changes in their timeline or if they need advice on something.
Just because you can do a project, doesn’t mean you should
In 2016, I took on almost every project that came my way. If the budget was a little bit lower than it should have been, I would still do the work if I liked a client and thought it would be a fun project. I don’t think this is always a bad thing, but there has to be balance somewhere. It’s February, and I’ve already turned down 2 projects that would have been so fun, but just didn’t have budget or timeline I needed to do them.
Tread cautiously when clients ask for a service trade
I’m a huge fan of trading services with your clients when you’re just getting started. It’s a great way to build a portfolio and get some good testimonials. However, you have to treat every trade the same as any other project. You need a contract and you need to be super clear about each person’s responsibility to the trade. Last year I spent 24 hours working on a project for a big-name lifestyle blogger, and then once my portion of the trade ended, her trade did not provide the same value to me. I ended up disappointed and feeling ripped off, but I felt like I couldn’t do anything, because the terms of the trade weren’t clearly defined.
Set the expectations for the project
I really dislike when clients text me. This is just a personal preference I have for keeping some sense of boundary between work and personal life. Often during the day I have my phone face-down on my desk with notifications off so I can focus. Something about texting feels urgent to me and I’m almost never available to immediately change tasks. I don’t like setting an expectation that clients can just text me on a Sunday evening and expect an immediate response. Now, whenever a client texts me, I politely respond asking them to put their request in an email or schedule a call with them when I’m available next.
Make room in your project proposal for “the extras”
Add 5 – 10% to a project for that little bit of scope creep that occurs near the end of every single project. No matter how thorough I am with my project proposals, there are always small tweaks that pop up towards the end of a project that can add an extra 2-5 hours to my plate. It’s way easier to just prepare for these things in advance rather than feel petty asking for more money when a project is nearly over. To clarify, I’m talking SMALL changes. If a change is going to take more than that 5-10% you budgeted for, then consider it a feature change and make a separate quote for it.
Review proposals with clients over the phone or in person
Holy moly, this makes an amazing difference. Especially if a client has never worked with a designer or developer before and they’re not familiar with a lot of tech terminology. Reviewing a proposal over the phone and giving your client time to ask questions and make amendments makes it 100x more likely they’ll see the value you’re providing and not try to haggle you on price. For a long time I didn’t do this because I HATE talking about money, but now it’s ingrained in my onboarding process for clients.
And finally: have empathy
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from other freelancers that I’m too relaxed when it comes to collecting payments from my clients. My standard procedure for payment is 50% upfront, 25% at the project mid-point, the final 25% at the launch date. Sometimes, clients need extra time or want to do a different kind of payment plan, and that’s ok with me, as long as we redefine the terms of payment and get them in writing.
Being flexible in this area is important to me, because even though being a freelancer pays my bills, getting paid is not the most important part of this business. My business is built on trust, and I only work with clients that I trust. I’ve been told that this mindset is risky or even careless, but I can’t imagine doing things any other way.
2016 was a roller-coaster year, but I wouldn’t change a thing
I had to make some mistakes in order to get to the point I’m at right now. At the same time, some of the projects that I thought might be a mistake ended up being some of my favourite projects for the whole year. I will never have everything figured out, and I’m excited for the business lessons I’ll be learning in 2017!