Over the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my business, including my plans for it’s future and reflections on it’s past.
Compared to a lot of small businesses, my current operating costs are relatively low, but running my business certainly isn’t free. Like the downtrodden women in 80s soul songs, over the years I’ve paid a lot of bills that I could barely afford. Having worked for one of the largest companies in the country, the most obvious solution to this problem is to charge more for my services and stop doing things for free. Neither of those options really work for me. They don’t reflect who I am and they don’t match my business values, but despite that, I’m also not prepared to repeat my past mistakes.
I’ve been running my business since 2014 and there have definitely been some ups and downs. Throughout that time I have done some incredibly clever things, but I’ve also done some really stupid ones, such as providing free services because it “felt awkward” to start invoicing clients for security and maintenance at the end of the 12 month period included with their initial website build. That isn’t being professional, especially if as a result you end up struggling to pay your own bills on time. Not only is that not a smart move, but is in fact the sort of thing that easily sinks a small business. The nice people at the credit card company don’t feel awkward charging me every month and I’m sure that they don’t feel bad adding APR to my balance and nor should they. It’s a professional arrangement and as such they have certain expectations and specific pre-agreed rules. As a small business offering paid services, I’m no different.
The thing with being a small business is that you really get to know your clients and I love that, but the work I do for them is still part of a professional relationship. It’s a lot easier to stay friends with people if there are clear expectations about the business elements. In my Royal Mail account management days, I could still be friends with a client, even if the scary people from finance fell out with them and started threatening to cancel their services. It was very easy to distance myself from any bits I didn’t like. These days I am the entire organisation. I am operations, finance, IT, sales and customer services all rolled into one, which means that I need to make sure that billing is done on time, that invoices are chased up and that work is scheduled properly.
Back when I only had occasional small jobs, I had more time, so I could afford to be more flexible (and flexibly stupid) but now that my business has grown that isn’t going to work. The timescales associated with projects matter. If I allocate a specific period of time to a particular client, then it matters if they don’t provide their content and I have to reschedule the work. The same applies if a couple of tweaks to an existing site is allowed to turn into a full unpaid website redesign. I no longer have empty days in my diary.
Over the last few months I have really crystallised the future I want for my business and that means that whilst I’m not suddenly going to become a hard nosed, profits before people robot, I am going to change some of my business admin practices, to make my company more efficient. It’s how businesses work. It’s not unreasonable to bill people for my work or for the words in my contracts to mean something. I don’t love my clients any less, in fact running my business smoothly helps them and their organisations.
The frustrating thing about my expensive one sided business relationships is that when I look back over the last 5 or 6 years, most of the problems weren’t actually caused by the clients. How do they know exactly when the deadline is for providing their written copy, if I don’t provide them with a project schedule? How were they supposed to pay an invoice that they were never sent? That’s not them, that’s down to me. (Stupid past life me)
I don’t know what this year has in store for me and my business, but I do know that I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure it runs smoothly.