It’s been too long since my last post but I was struggling to find a good topic for a post. I have since realized that in the last 3 years I have been able to successfully freelance and bootstrap my business into a successful web design agency. I thought that I would pass on what I have learned over these last 3 years.
- Do your homework
I was fortunate that I had someone to ask a handful of questions (the former GM at my pro soccer club) about starting a business before I took the plunge but that is not the case for all of you. Learn about the appropriate paperwork to fill out in your state. Figure out what kind of business entity you want (LLC, Corporation, Nonprofit). Learn about registered trademarks and copyrights if they apply. There are tons of books out there but I recommend contacting SCORE with a list of pre-made questions you have about starting a business to get your answers quickly. SCORE is an amazing FREE service that is basically a bunch of retired business owners that offer their advice to people starting or growing small businesses. They will usually meet with you if it is possible and do anything from market research to business plan to help from my experience. Find your local SCORE office and take advantage of them. They are volunteers so you know they are there to help you.
- Set up an accounting system as soon as possible
Unfortunately I was not introduced to Quickbooks until a few months into starting my company even after freelancing. This made things difficult down the line but it has been a super useful tool. Since using Quickbooks for the last 2+ years I have learned quite a bit about the software but even more about my business and managing the simple things. It can be used for invoicing, tracking expenses, and handling a lot of other things. They even offer a free version (Simple Start) that can track up to 20 clients (previously unlimited clients). I have since upgraded to Pro and have already learned a ton more about my company as well as more control over what I am doing. I still keep all invoices, purchase and payment receipts but using Quickbooks sure beats tracking things in a notebook which is what I did as a freelancer.
- Save money on free (or very cheap) software
Since I bootstrapped my business I only purchased the bare essentials of software. I have been able to find some phenominal free alternatives to some standard software packages.
- Mozilla Thunderbird – (Microsoft Outlook)
- Open Office – (Microsoft Office alternative)
- Quickbooks Simple Start – (Functions just fine for very small business needs)
- Skype – (Has easily replaced an office line at a very low cost using SkypeIn)
- Gimp – (Photoshop alternative)
- Learn as much about the industry as you can
- Be ready to work long hours but also manage your time
For the first 4 or 5 months I had another job (professional soccer player) so I could only delegate so much time to my freelancing. I did what I could to learn web standards and get up to speed with everything web design and biz related. Once I retired and started CWS I had a lot of free time and not the biggest client load. I could only continue to learn my trade and practice and refine my skills on my current as well as personal projects. Once I started to pick up more and more clients I found myself having less and less time. Pretty soon I found myself working up to 12 hours a day and maybe 2 or 3 of them were billable. The others consisted of reading related blog posts/books, invoicing, billing, emailing current and potential clients, and setting up meetings. For a while this worked out because I began to bill more and more hours but still was in front of my machine almost all day. Eventually it got to a point when I realized I was not managing my time well. I have since implemented hours of work for the week related to business tasks. This way I can plan my time much more efficiently. I make sure to start my day at 10 so that when I get up around 8 I can take the first 2 hours to catch up on emails, plan meetings, and read any current web-related material. I try to plan in 2 hour increments for at least 3 days in advance.
- Network like crazy
This is possibly where I had the most luck with everything. Since while I was playing professionally I was always meeting a ton of people and working with a ton of kids. Throughout my playing career I was able to meet a lot of great people who wanted to help me out. I would honestly say that about 50% of our client base has been from some kind of soccer relationship. Whether it was college alumni figuring out what I did or old teammates that needed some web help or they knew someone that knew someone that needed a website. Again I say this being very lucky with all of my personal relationships but if you always make it point to network and meet people there are always people looking for services you can provide. If you do a good job they will be the first person to refer to someone else. If you do 5 great projects and get 1 referral each, you could have doubled your client base (and hopefully your revenue) without spending any money on marketing or advertising.
Hopefully this small list will give you some things to consider if you decide to venture into starting your own business. I must say that is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Be ready for long hours and little pay while you get established and put efficient systems into practice. Also go out and read the 4 Hour Work Week and see what you can learn about automating your business. I wish I had read that book 3 years ago but it’s a tough road either way. That being said it has been one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced.