It’s the first Monday of a new year. Welcome 2016. Today is my four year anniversary as an independent business owner (and glorified freelancer). It’s the start of Year Five for Iron Post Media!
I’m writing this from two perspectives. First, from the perspective of a wannabe time traveler looking back over the past four years. If I could send myself a message back in time to January 1, 2012, what would it be? What would I tell myself to do? Second, I’m writing from the vantage of someone with experience. I’ve made mistakes and don’t want to repeat them. Knowing what I know now, what would I tell myself NOT to do in the future?
First Things First: Plant Seeds
Let’s start with the hindsight. This applies to anyone in the first few years of starting a small business. The number one piece of advice I would send back to myself in 2012? Use your non-billable down time for marketing (followed by “pay your taxes”).
Put in the time and effort to do proper marketing. Don’t rely on word-of-mouth and referrals. This requires patience. Patience is hard to come by when you’re hitting the ground running with a new business and limited cash flow.
I’ve spent a lot of time imagining what my business will become. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself. Business plans, five year goals, branding documents and the like are all useful. They have their place. But I got so wrapped up in big picture thinking that I didn’t realize where I was in the process. In the early going, you need to focus on establishing a viable customer base. A customer base keeps you afloat during the ebb and flow of unpredictable income.
Real clients are a prerequisite. They come before you have the ability to grow your business into your big picture goals. I was focusing on oak trees and forgetting that you need to plant acorns before you’ll ever see their growth.
Goal for the Future: Be Special
As of today, I have about fifteen years experience as a creative professional. I’ve freelanced for almost as long and have run a business for the past four years. I’ve learned that you can’t be all things to all people. I’ve been too general with my creative service offerings. I’ve accepted too many kinds of work.
In my defense, it’s scary when you first get started. Survivalism tempts you to throw a wide net when you start a small, independent business. You’re willing to take on almost any challenge that presents a paycheck.
I still haven’t conquered the generalist mentality. But I have an intellectual understanding of what beats the wide net, jack-of-all-trades approach. Specialization wins over generalization in the long run. My number one piece of advice for future success? Specialize over time and solve fewer, more specific problems. The world is too big for anyone to be an expert in everything. Some people have a 360 degree view of “everything.” But they don’t have the skills necessary to solve real problems in all areas.
The generalist problem is mental. When you start eliminating possible channels of income, your scarcity mentality goes into hyper-drive. You start to believe that there’s less available. You revert back to survivalism. And you’re willing to take on anything because it’s better than nothing.
The solution is to start where you stand. Become more specialized over time, not overnight. When you can choose which work to accept, pick the work that’s most aligned with your chosen areas of focus.
In a Nutshell
Stop doing what you shouldn’t be doing and start doing what you should be doing. Sounds simple, right? So to any new business owner that needs quick advice or to anyone with experience that needs a reminder:
- Start using your non-billable down time for marketing
- Start to specialize over time and solve fewer, more specific problems
- Stop relying on referrals and word-of-mouth to grow your customer base
- Stop saying “Yes!” to every opportunity that crosses your path (some are better than others)