Freelancers And Small Business Owners: Being Great At Your Craft Isn’t Enough

You’re an experienced and talented [insert professional specialty here]. That’s a fabulous selling point, but it may not be enough Black text Value Is Everything on blue backgroundto attract your ideal clients or keep them happy for the long-term.

 

Sure, when you excel at the work you do, you have a competitive edge. To sharpen that edge, however, you may need to demonstrate other important skills, too.

 

Besides seeing yourself as a freelancer/professional extraordinaire doing your craft, strive to fulfill other roles, as well, to make yourself an invaluable resource to your customers.

 

Three Personas To Improve Your Professionalism

 

Competent Project Manager

Some clients have it all together—others not so much. If you have project management skills, you can fill a critical void for customers who lack the ability to organize efforts and keep projects on track. I was fortunate to have had the experience of working as a telecom product manager in my past career. Tasked with managing time lines and deliverables across various groups, the competence I developed in coordinating projects has become one of my biggest value propositions as a freelance writer.

 

Kick-Ass Communicator

Describing products and services, proposing rates, setting expectations, confirming responsibilities, explaining processes, and so on—things every business owner needs to do almost daily—all require communicating clearly. Concentrate on organizing your thoughts and getting to the point in conversations written and spoken. As an accomplished communicator, you can more effectively avoid misunderstandings and ensure you and your clients will be on the same page.

 

Intuitive Listener

Listening so you absorb what clients are saying, recognizing the motivation behind their words, and going a little above and beyond to understand their challenges can really set you apart. By getting to the heart of your clients’ issues rather than simply treating symptoms with Band-Aid solutions, you will earn trust, respect, and hopefully long-term business relationships. For example, I regularly have prospects come to me thinking their websites’ existing content is why they aren’t generating online leads. But after listening to them, reviewing their content, and looking at the big picture, I often find content alone isn’t their problem, and my services independently wouldn’t significantly improve their outcomes. In those situations, I refer these customers to other professionals who have the ability to fill the voids I cannot (like website design/development, SEO, and social media strategy).

 

The Value Of Being More

By developing these identities within your professional persona, you become more than just a service provider—you become an indispensable asset to your clients.

 

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” ~ Warren Buffett

 

Give them value and you’ll gain trust, respect, and loyalty.

 

What will you do to be more today?

What if? “La La Land”-inspired Food For Thought For Small Business Owners

If you wander back in time through my posts on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll find evidence I fell in love with the movie “La La Land.”

I’m often skeptical when a film gets obscene amounts of accolades, but this one deserves every single ounce of the kudos heaped Screen shot of Dawn Mentzer's Facebook post about movie La La Landupon it.

It’s a story of chasing dreams, the sting of reality, love found, hopes dashed, and fresh starts.

It’s also a story of “what ifs.” It’s a story of looking back and wondering how life and career would be different if we had done just one thing differently.

We can all relate to that, can’t we? Personally and professionally we wonder what our lives would be like if we had made other choices.

What if I had said that more tactfully?

What if I hadn’t lost my temper?

What if I had gone to that networking event?

What if I had quoted a different rate for that project?

What if I had said “no”?

What if I had said “yes”?

What if I had taken my time?

What if I had been more careful?

What if I hadn’t jumped to conclusions?

What if I had told the truth?

What if I hadn’t been so stubborn?

What if I had spoken my mind?

What if I had tried to be more understanding?

What if I had tried harder?

What if I had been more caring?

What if I hadn’t given up?

Every decision we make, every action we take—no matter how seemingly insignificant—affects how the future will progress. Turning down a coffee meeting, posting a contradictory comment on someone’s social media post, deleting an email before reading it…you never know when something you decide to do—or not do—will make or break opportunities and shape how your relationships develop.

What if we all put a little more thought into the little decisions we make every day?

Your turn: What “what ifs” make you wonder how things might be different today if you had made some other choices yesterday?

The Satisfaction Of Creating Doesn’t Pay The Bills

Some people would have you believe if you want a profitable business in a creative field, something’s not morally right with you.Words "Reality Check" In blue and yellow on white background

Sadly, in certain social circles there’s some stigma attached to wanting to make money so you can afford nice things and take part in the recreational pursuits you enjoy.

 

As someone who is self-employed in a creative role, I’ve sometimes questioned my motivation, purpose, and the rates I charge upon reading articles and social media posts that hint we’re misguided if we’re looking out for our bottom line.

 

Enough already.

 

Starving Artist Reality Check

There’s no shame in wanting to come out ahead and have the means to provide for yourself and your family.

 

Not every creative professional finds glory in “starving artist” status. While the creative process is enough to satisfy some writers, painters, photographers, and other artistic sorts, others of us want to make a decent living and have a little extra for our trouble and talent, as well. We want not only the satisfaction of creating, but we also aspire to achieve and sustain a desirable standard of living.

 

Don’t let anyone fool you. Wanting to do well financially in your business of being a creative doesn’t make you greedy, self-centered, or unethical.

 

To the contrary, it demands you must be even more fair, customer-focused, and responsible.

 

Running a profitable business in a creative field doesn’t mean you’ve sold out. It instead shows you have the heart, soul, and determination to not only survive but also thrive when doing the work you love.

 

Think and share your thoughts: Have your love of creativity and desire for profitability ever collided? How have you struck the right balance?

Three Sure-Fire Cost-Cutting Moves For Solopreneurs And Small Business Owners

Ever since I started my own solo business, something a SCORE mentor said during a startup workshop six years ago has stuck Dollar bills graphicwith me:

 

“Money is the language of business. For your business to thrive, you need to learn to speak the language.”

 

He didn’t mean that all that matters in business is the money, but rather that your business financials tell how effectively you’re running your business. You need to have some understanding of profit and loss and other accounting basics.

 

No business is too small to care about profitability. Even for a very small business like mine, a healthy profit matters.

 

But what if, like me, you only have so many viable options for increasing your revenue without adding headcount or complexity to your operations? How do you boost your profitability then?

 

I think you already know the answer: Cut costs.

 

Three Ways Your Small Business Can Cut Costs

 

Think Before You Spend

Is it a “must have” or a “nice to have”? Obviously, the “must haves”—the things you need to do your job and keep your business running—shouldn’t be ignored. But the “nice to haves” can usually wait.

 

Before you buy, ask yourself…

 

  • Do I need this to effectively create or deliver my products and services to my clients?
  • Will my brand be at a competitive disadvantage if I don’t buy this?
  • Can I make more money if I buy this?
  • Will I use this?

 

This applies to anything and everything—from business software to networking group memberships.

 

Use Tools That Free Up Your Time

When you’re running a very small business, especially one that’s service-based, your time IS money. The more time you spend on the administrative and marketing aspects of your business, the less time you have to spend on revenue-producing work. Over the past several years, I’ve been using—and have seen others use—a number of online platforms and mobile apps that make various tasks far less cumbersome and time consuming.

 

A few you might want to check out include:

 

Quote Roller powered by PandaDoc – Online software for generating proposals and securing contracts

 

With Quote Roller becoming PandaDoc in 2015, the software also provides sales document management capabilities. I’ve been using Quote Roller for the past two years to send proposals to clients, which then become executed agreements when they sign off with their electronic signatures. With the ability to save pre-written text blocks to a library for future use, the platform makes it far quicker and easier to “roll out” proposals than crafting all pieces from scratch.

 

Trello – For coordinating efforts and managing projects

 

I’ve used several other project management tools when clients have insisted, and I have yet to experience one that is more streamlined and straightforward than Trello. The drag-and-drop interface and simple collaborative features have helped me keep projects with multiple moving parts and players well organized and on track.

 

QuickBooks Online* – For invoicing clients, recording all business financial transactions, and keeping tax information in one central place

 

I’ve used this for the past three years and I enjoy the intuitive interface in addition to the peace of mind that all of my financial data is automatically backed up.

 

Invoice2go – Mobile app providing the ability to invoice clients immediately onsite with a debit or credit card

 

Invoice2go can save entrepreneurs time and help them get paid faster by giving them a convenient, on-the-spot way to take care of business. I haven’t used this app because it’s rare that I would need to invoice clients at their locations, but I can see how it would save other small businesses a lot of time and headaches.

 

Hootsuite – Social media management tool for posting to and monitoring activity on social media platforms

 

I primarily use Hootsuite for keeping up with the fast pace of Twitter. It has saved me gobs of time, enabling me to see activity of users on my various Twitter lists through a single dashboard. And I don’t know what I’d do without the Hootlet browser extension. With it, I can compose and schedule tweets to share content directly from the web pages I’m visiting.

 

Shop Around For The Best Deal

I feel almost silly including this tip, but I know people who buy from the first place they find an item if the price sounds reasonable enough. As you’re equipping your office, whether it’s at home or at another site, look for sales and special deals in print and online. It just seems wrong to buy anything (especially big ticket items like copiers/printers, computers, etc.) at full retail price when there are ALWAYS deals somewhere at all times. Yes, it may take a little research and time, but what you save will likely make it well worth your while.

 

Frugality Pays Off  

Don’t confuse frugality with being cheap. There’s a difference.

 

If you’re frugal, you’re economically savvy and conscious of getting the best products and services at the best possible price.

 

Cheap means wanting whatever costs the very least regardless of quality.

 

Frugality will give you the wherewithal to cut costs without compromising your business integrity and reputation.

Four Common Email Shortcuts and Sidesteps That Could Cost You

When you have a crazy-busy schedule and not nearly enough hours in the day, it makes sense to look for ways to save time. As Email @ symbol and envelopeyou’re squeezing in everything you possibly can in the limited time you have, you might find yourself taking some shortcuts and sidesteps with mundane, everyday processes—like handling email.

 

While some of those shortcuts (such as setting up filters or a priority mailbox format) streamline and boost efficiency, others can potentially cause you to lose opportunities, put business relationships at risk, and…well…make you look like a fool.

 

Four Email Mistakes That Could Hurt Your Business

All of the below are oopses that I’ve made or that I’ve seen made first-hand. Are you guilty of any of them?

 

Never checking who has sent the emails that landed in your spam folder.

I’ve learned the hard way that emails from prospects and clients sometimes turn up in spam rather than my inbox. Don’t miss out on viable opportunities or important information by completely ignoring your spam folder or deleting emails in spam without checking who they’re from first.

Not double-checking (BEFORE you hit send) to make sure you’ve included only the intended recipients.

This can trip you up in many ways. You might send confidential information to someone you shouldn’t have disclosed it to. As a means of venting frustration, you might have written something not so favorable about someone and then inadvertently included that person in the distribution (This happened to one of my friends who is by all accounts an accomplished professional.)

Bcing (blind-copying) someone on an email.

This can set you up for another email faux pas. Under most circumstances, people Bc other people in emails when they secretly want to let those people know what they’ve sent to the “To” recipient(s). That’s fine and dandy until someone who has been Bced “replies all.” Yep. Awkward. It can destroy trust and create hard feelings. If you want to keep others in the loop, consider Ccing them so it’s all up-front or forward them the email you had sent to the recipient. The latter is more stealth than a Cc but less risky than rolling the dice with a Bc.

Thinking that you’ll remember to put a commitment on your calendar later.

Assume you won’t, and reserve the time as soon as you’ve responded to an email with agreement to a meeting, a task, or an event. If your brain is pulled in diverse directions at nearly all times, trust me on this—your memory isn’t as phenomenal as you think it is.

 

The Fix For These Email Faux Pas?

All it takes is a few extra seconds and some attention to make sure you don’t make any of the mistakes above. Your email communications have the potential to make or break your business relationships. Why risk missteps that could make you look unprofessional or alienate clients or project partners?

 

What other easily preventable email mistakes have you seen other professionals make? What’s the worst one you’ve ever made?

7 Signs It’s Time To Kick A Client To The Curb

Not all business is good business. I learned that early on when I first started my freelance writing business in 2010. And it’s aThanks But No Thanks piece of advice I give to every new freelancer who asks me for tips that might help them survive and thrive as a solopreneur.

 

Although turning away revenue isn’t typically an attractive option, for a variety of reasons, accepting work from a new client or continuing to work with an existing client may not be worth your while. Sometimes, earning a buck can cost you more time than you bargained for, frustrate you, and rob you of your mojo.

 

As an example:

 

Several years ago, I said “no” to a prospect who offered an ongoing writing/editing assignment for a print publication that would have given me a steady and perfectly respectable stream revenue indefinitely. During the contract discussion process, she was calling me multiple times every day to chitchat. And when I’d ask specific questions related to our prospective business relationship, she wouldn’t provide firm answers. Quickly, I realized she would completely deplete my energy and patience. Thanks, but no thanks.

And I’ve turned work away from other prospects and clients, as well, when I’ve seen signs of trouble and felt uneasy about going down the path of no return.

7 Reasons You Might Consider Kicking A Client (Or Prospect) To The Curb

If you have a prospective client or existing customer who exhibits any of following characteristics/qualities, you may want to second guess accepting work from them:

  • Always springs assignments on you at the very last minute.
  • Never knows what they want and then reprimands you for not being on target with what you deliver.
  • Tries to nickel and dime you.
  • Never pays on time and only pays after you’ve sent numerous payment due reminders.
  • Is so needy and demanding that they distract you from giving proper time and focus to clients who do value and respect you.
  • Calls or texts you at all hours of the day/night, expecting you to drop whatever you’re doing to tend to their needs.
  • Working with them drains you emotionally.

 

Sometimes it’s easier than others to recognize if you’re better off parting ways. Sometimes the signs are subtle and you need to go with your gut (which will become more intuitive with experience). But always pay attention to what will be in the best interest of you and your business.

 

Your turn! Have you ever kicked a client to the curb? What qualities or habits are deal breakers for you?

Three Vital Points To Keep In Mind When Creating Marketing Content

As I prepare to be a part of a marketing panel discussion in a few days, I’ve been thinking about content creation from a differentTo-Do-Creating-Content perspective.

 

If I weren’t a freelancer who writes content for a living, what questions would I have about content’s role in marketing?

 

One thing I’d want to get a grip on are the things I should consider regardless of the type of content I’m creating. So, here’s a question I anticipate receiving in some form during the panel event—and how I would answer it:

 

What does a business owner need to keep in mind when creating content as part of a comprehensive marketing plan?

 

  • Maintain a consistent voice for your brand.

Whether you’re a solopreneur who is the face of your business or a business owner or manager at a larger company with multiple people creating content for you, strive to make your content consistent in its “personality.” Your tone, your level of formality, your values…your brand’s voice is “who” your brand is more so than what your brand does. A consistent voice builds trust as it enables your audience to know what to expect of you. Don’t confuse “consistent” with “boring,” though. You can still be creative when developing content that’s consistent!

 

  • Don’t make content all about “me, me, me.”

Focus on what’s in it for your audience and not how spectacularly wonderful your company is. A constant barrage of content that sings a business’s praises rather than giving prospective customers information they can learn from or be entertained by is a turnoff. Write content that is audience-centric. Use more sentences with “you” rather than “we” or “I” as the subject, and share insight that will help customers live and work smarter, save money, save time, accomplish their goals…you get the idea. Yes, that may mean sharing bits of expertise for free.

  • Realize creating content doesn’t guarantee people will find and consume it.

There’s a lot of content out there competing for your audience’s eyeballs. YOU have to make the effort to get it in front of your customers. Share content on LinkedIn (if you publish it as a post, all your connections will be notified about it), include it in your status updates on your social media channels, send it to your email marketing list, and directly share it with individuals you absolutely know can benefit from it.

 

Of course, there’s far more to creating content and making it an integral part of your overall marketing strategy. But I think these three considerations stand as a good foundation for guiding how to approach the creation of content for your business.

Your turn: What underlying principles or rules do you follow in your content efforts?

 

It’s A Leap Year! How Will You Get A Jump On The Possibilities?

You have an extra day coming your way soon: February 29. As you know, leap years only happen about every four years, so Happy jumping childdoesn’t it make sense to make the most of them?  Aren’t we always complaining about how we could use more time?

2016 is giving us what we’ve asked for. Now the responsibility is on us to either make the day matter or squander it.

Eight Ways You Can Make Your Extra Day During Leap Year Matter

  • Strengthen business relationships by scheduling time to meet face to face with a few local clients you haven’t seen in awhile.
  • Review your website and start updating content that’s no longer accurate.
  • If you’ve fallen behind in accepting invitations on LinkedIn, log in and catch up.
  • If you have a collection of business cards from networking events on your desk, send LinkedIn invitations to the professionals you want to stay in contact with. Then dispose of the cards so you’ll have more room to work!
  • Brainstorm topics for your blog.
  • Purge your email and computer files of messages and documents you no longer need.
  • File paperwork that has been piling up in your office.
  • Take some time off! You’ll be 60 days into the new year, which is plenty of time to start feeling overwhelmed and underinspired. The best use of your extra day could very well be some time away from your work!

Of course, what I consider a valuable use of my time may be different from what you’d deem time well spent. How will you spend your February 29?

Image courtesy of chrisroll at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

The Nitty Gritty Of Non-Disclosure Agreements For Your Small Business

I’ve been asked to sign—and have asked others to sign—non-disclosure agreements in the course of doing business with others. Non-Disclosure Agreement GraphicBut are they really necessary or simply a formality? Nellie Akalp, who is a small business expert and CEO of CorpNet (an online legal document filing service), recently wrote a post that covers why NDAs are important.

 

As solopreneurs and small business owners, it helps to know what legal documents might be in our best interest to secure when working with individuals and other companies. So, I asked Nellie if she’d share more about NDAs with my readers. I believe this Q&A can help answer some of the questions you might have on the topic.

 

  1. What is the purpose of a non-disclosure agreement? How can it protect your business?

 

An NDA, or non-disclosure agreement, is a contract that binds someone to keep a secret. In the course of running your business, you may give contractors, vendors, or other business partners access to “behind the scenes” information that you’d prefer to keep private. An NDA creates a confidential relationship to prevent people from revealing any of that private information.

 

  1. What circumstances dictate when a non-disclosure agreement is necessary?

 

This is a really important question, because small businesses often think that they don’t have any kind of “confidential” information. You may not be building rocket ships or safeguarding the recipe for Diet Coke, but you still have sensitive information that should stay in house. Examples are client information, your annual marketing strategy, financial data, or an analysis about your competitors. Let’s say you hire a contractor to help you with some client work in the background. You might not want them to contact your clients directly and disclose their role.

 

  1. Who should you ask to sign your non-disclosure agreement? (i.e. vendors, project partners, etc.)

 

Anyone who might have access to sensitive information. Think about vendors, contractors, freelancers, and business partners. An NDA is such a standard procedure in business operations these days; most people won’t think twice if you ask them to sign one.

 

  1. Are there any particular types of businesses that need a non-disclosure agreement more than others?

 

Certainly. Tech companies or anyone who manufactures a product will have very specific needs to keep their manufacturing process secret. Or, if you keep any confidential information about your customers and clients, you’ll need to have a solid privacy policy. But, as I said above, small businesses of any kind probably have some kind of sensitive information that should be protected.

 

  1. At what point during your business relationship should you ask for your non-disclosure agreement to be signed?

 

Great question! In most cases, the best time to introduce the NDA and have it signed is at the point of hiring the contractor or signing the vendor/contractor agreement. In some cases, you may need to reveal company information during the interview or exploration phase (meaning, before you decide to work with someone). In this case, you should have an NDA signed before giving anyone access to your information.

 

  1. What are the key elements every non-disclosure agreement should include?

 

A typical NDA should include the following elements. First, it should specify what kind of information should be kept secret. Some people choose to keep this as broad as possible, but I think it’s a good idea to be specific about what can’t be disclosed. The reason for this is it makes sure the other party realizes what their obligations are and what information they need to keep private. In some cases, contractors or vendors may not even realize they shouldn’t talk about your new website or contact a client directly. Remember, the whole point of the NDA is to make sure your proprietary information stays private; spelling out the details will help ensure all parties are on the same page with how to handle information.

 

Other elements in an NDA should be the length of time that information should remain confidential, what happens if there’s a breach, and what method of resolution should be taken when there’s a breach (e.g. court or arbiter). You can find digital templates for NDAs online. Just search on Google for some samples; one example is Upcounsel.

 

  1. What should you do if you discover someone violates the terms and conditions of your non-disclosure agreement?

 

Hopefully, your NDA specifies how disputes or breaches should be resolved. Many small businesses opt to use arbitration rather than the court system. And, while I believe that small business owners can handle much of their legal matters on their own today, this is one situation where you should retain an attorney to assist you with recovering any damages. If the other party is found guilty of breaching the contract, they can be held responsible to pay those attorney fees (note, this is another good point to spell out in the NDA).

 

  1. Are there any other tips or advice you might share about non-disclosure agreements? 

 

An NDA is a very easy legal document to produce and ask to have signed. As I mentioned before, it has become standard practice these days so there’s very little reason not to use an NDA with each new vendor/contractor/partner relationship. With that said, it’s important to realize that an NDA is just a document; it’s not a 100% guarantee that someone won’t misuse your confidential information. The bottom line is you need to use common sense and a little caution whenever sharing potentially sensitive details with others.

 

I hope this information has helped you better understand NDAs, and I thank Nellie for sharing her expertise. Of course, this post is not meant to provide legal guidance or serve as a substitution for professional counsel. Whenever creating or signing any legal document you should consider consulting a trusted legal professional for guidance. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Nellie Akalp, CorpNet CEO

Nellie Akalp is a serial entrepreneur, small business advocate, speaker and author.  She is the founder & CEO of CorpNet.com, an online legal document filing service, where she helps entrepreneurs start, grow and maintain a business.

Four Tips To Help You Stop Running Your Small Business In Circles

As we start and grow our businesses, many of us adopt practices and take on administrative baggage that might hold us back fromFrustrated child at desk working toward our goals and vision. With the vast majority of 2016 still ahead of you, now is the time to take an honest look at your business and ask yourself, “What should I be doing differently?”

 

So, where do you begin? Here are a few simple ideas to get you started…

 

Four Ways To Save Time And Streamline Your Small Business

 

  1. Focus!

 

If you think you’re doing your business a favor by multitasking, think again. A Stanford University study revealed that multitaskers have a hard time filtering out irrelevant information, and they’re more distracted and less productive. Give up on trying to multitask—it’s a surefire way to mess up. Focus on one thing at a time to get more done, more accurately, and in less time.

  1. Use your own photos or source from a site that has clearly stated attribution information.

 

When you pull images from the Internet for your blog and social media, you may or may not easily be able to tell who they belong to, what rights you have to use them, or what attribution requirements apply. Avoid running down a rabbit hole to chase the information you need by using your own photos or finding an online source of images that has very clear use and attribution rules. When I’m not using my own photos, I use freedigitalphotos.net (they have large selection of free photos). I also regularly purchase images from Canva—at $1 per image, you can’t beat the economy of their offering.

 

  1. Don’t let paperwork pile up.

 

Even though we live in a digital world, we still have a lot of cold, hard sheets of paper floating around our offices. In fact, approximately 50 percent of the waste generated by businesses is from paper. Many of us still keep printed copies of client agreements, invoices, receipts, and other documentation.

 

If you let your paperwork pile up, the process of filing it in its proper place can become a gargantuan endeavor that requires hours of your time. The bigger the pile, the more work you’ll have on your hands because you’ll need to sort through and organize it before you can actually put it in its place. Instead, place it where it belongs within hours or just a few days of when it hit your desk to avoid a marathon cleanup session down the road.

 

  1. Give your business a raise.

 

Many of us grandfather long-standing clients into rates from years gone by. It’s a wonderful way to show your appreciation for their continued business. Unfortunately it can cost you when your services are in greater demand and you discover your time spent on lower-paying clients doesn’t allow you time to take on more lucrative work.

 

If that’s the case, you may want to consider raising your rates to existing customers. I recently did this and found that overall my clients (with one exception) were fully accepting and understanding. Just be sure to review the contracts you have in place before taking that leap. And give your clients plenty of advance notice and an explanation as to why you’re increasing your pricing.

 

Running a more efficient small business doesn’t always require making big changes. Little tweaks can mean a world of difference in how much you can accomplish and how smoothly you can tackle your day-to-day to dos.

 

What changes will you make this year to streamline your business and make it more successful?

 

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net