7 Things One Year of Business Ownership Has Taught Me

If there’s one thing I am, I’m honest. Sometimes to a fault. If you want honest feedback on how a pair of pants fit, I’m not the person who will tell you that they fit great, skirting the point that they’re baggy in the butt and too tight around the waist. I’ll tell you to change.

I don’t think I was always like this. But for the last almost 1.5 decades, critiquing has just been an essential part of my line of work. I’ve learned to take it, and give it honestly, just the same. In critiques, the point isn’t to criticize the person or project or design. It’s to give good, intelligent feedback so they can make it better.

And like feedback for improvement, I also like to openly share my experiences. I don’t really feel they’re unique, but talking honesty about them may help someone in the same situation learn something new about theirs and make it better.

So here we are ONE YEAR after officially starting my business -albeit a side-hustle at the time - and I thought I’d share the top things that this last 365 days has taught me. It’s mainly so that others who have just started theirs, or are still just thinking about starting a business, can maybe learn from my mistakes and from my achievements.

1. Just start.

This is my first bullet because this is a motto I learned and I tell everyone who will listen. If you do not start, sure, you have nothing to lose. BUT if you do not start, you also have nothing to gain. So, just start. This time last year I still had the one friend I was doing a little logo work for here and there, but no “clients”. And I still wasn’t registered with the govt. (see below), BUT I consider this my anniversary date because this was the month I finally just started.

I took some cash I had saved (no debt in this business), and purchased my first year of website hosting and domain name with Squarespace, and started just writing up a list of tasks I could make a part of my business. Now I only do a handful of what I originally wrote, BUT that list got my juices flowing and helped me to continue to pull together my website. If I hadn’t just started, I’d still be without business, no Instagram, and no clients.

No cash saved? Ok, well work what little side hustle you can to start saving up, or you can get a free website, or even just a Facebook page. But excuses aren’t going to get you anywhere.

2. Getting legit is great, but paying taxes sucks.

It’s probably the sh*ttiest part of owning a business, but becoming a legal entity with your state not only makes you sound more professional (hello, LLC!) but protects your personal assets from your business assets in the event that god forbid you go bankrupt or get sued. The sucky part is that you gotta make sure you continue to put a portion of your revenue away for taxes. Of course, whether you register or not you still need to pay taxes, so make sure you plan accordingly.

My accountant (not necessary if you’re good with your books and organization, and you’re the only one getting paid), said to put away close to 50% just to be safe. It’s my first year, and since thankfully we’re not too dependent on my income, so it’s easy to do. But keep that in mind when you’re pricing a service or a product - close to half of what you pay yourself will need to go to taxes!

3. Have a few key systems in place before you get too busy.

I created a blog post a while ago with a list of tasks you should have in place before you get started, and I pretty much still stand by it. Wish I had them a little more cemented, and more of these in place before I started, but like my first bullet says, “just start”. So I did, and don’t regret it.

4. Get well organized.

I’m a really organized person. But for some reason, I didn’t really have a plan for how I was going to organize, save, and share back my client’s work. Once it started coming, I kinda just put it on my computer, and sometimes on my Gdrive too, but nothing was, and kinda still isn’t, consistent. Like my systems, I wish I had planned this out before getting too deep with too many clients, and now I need to go back and reorganize.

5. Really think about how much work you can take on.

Granted, I had 2 little kids when I started my side-hustle, while working a full-time job, and then baby #3 joined us pretty early on in my business venture, however, I did plan for how many hours I could take on each week (“Ok, so I can work evenings, when the kids are asleep, during naptime, and weekends…”) However, things don’t always go as planned. So with a baby who didn’t nap well, me being too exhausted to work too late, and at the same exact time Brooks was born, my husband’s workload increased substantially, I wasn’t pulling the hours I thought I would.

Thankfully, I didn’t have clients knocking down my door. I managed with what I had, and at a point, decided not to take on anymore new ones. But even today, I don’t work the hours I once thought I’d be able to - that is, not yet. As soon as this 6 month old starts dosing off for longer stretches I may be able to fit some more time in.

6. As long as you’re productive, it doesn’t matter how nice your office or your hardware is.

If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know my laptop is failing. I’ve been using it for as long as I can, but when it restarts itself during a video conference with a client, you kinda give it the last straw. You may also know my office is far from Pinterest worthy… BUT you know what? Besides a conference call delay, I’ve been able to get all the tasks I need to get done without problem. Sure, I may not have as many likes when I post a picture of my free IKEA desk I scored on Facebook, and it’s certainly not getting any re-shares, but I’m also making the same amount of money, and not spending it on new stuff for my office… yet. I do have plans to invest a little, but I’ll be using my husband’s old laptop (new to me) once I save everything over, and I’ll be painting and decorating myself.

7. Do what’s right for you and your business.

Let me say it this way:

Name the top 3 closest grocery stores to your home. For me, it’s a Klein’s Shop Rite, a Safeway, and another Klein’s Shop Rite. But you know what? Today, I drove all the way to Aldi’s Grocery because they’re WAY cheaper, and have just as good produce as anywhere else. (WAY cheaper meaning my grocery bill is only 2/3 what it was, even with Walmart, and most of which is healthy veggies!)

“OK, so what?”, you say. “They’re a cheaper grocery store.” Yeah, but do you know how they get their prices so much cheaper? 90% of their products are Aldi branded but meet big brand standards, they have a cart “rental” system so they don’t need to hire someone to continue to collect carts, and encourage customers to bring their own bags by charging for their paper or plastic bags, all of which create savings that are then passed onto the customer.

My point? They are running a grocery store - one of the most common and long-time businesses there is. BUT they’re doing it differently, and the customers notice!

There are tons of others out there doing services or selling products that are similar to yours. Trust me, I’m right there with you. Figure out what sets you apart, and what’s right for your business, and of course makes you happy. However, I’m pretty sure if it makes your customer’s happy, it’ll make you happy too

For me, it’s that I have a strong love for branding, but I have the long-term professional experience to back it up. Not many can say that. So sure, I can do graphics, and social media, and websites, but I understand how to make it cohesive, and how to incorporate and strengthen your brand. How many can say they worked with well known brands for 13 years?

I hope this information has taught you something, or if anything given you a heads of of some things you might encounter on your first year of business. Have you started yet? Or are you in your first year? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email - I’d love to hear and respond to you.

 
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7 Tasks To Complete BEFORE You Get Your First Client

Clients, clients, and more clients.

Read any Virtual Assistant support page and you’ll see post after post of VA’s of all experience levels asking how they can get their first, or more clients. It’s not an outlandish request. Of course we want clients. Clients = money. It’s the reason we do Virtual Assisting. We as VA’s offer services and get paid in return.

The thing is there is no clear or right way to score clients. Sure, there are 100’s of tips and suggestions, pins and workshops, freebies, and posts in the blogosphere marketing promises of increasing your client base. But even if you follow them religiously, actually getting clients isn’t guaranteed. What works for one person, may not work well for you.

Besides, shouldn’t clients be coming to you? Isn’t that the ideal way this is supposed to work? Do you have services soliciting or cold-calling you (not commercials) asking if they can provide their services? Would you want that? I don't know about you, but other than Girl-Scouts, I'm not a fan of people selling items at my door.

The big question you should be asking yourself isn't "How do I get clients?". It should be “are you really ready for clients?” Have you set yourself and your business up to succeed? Do you have all your processes in place? When your first client actually does come to you you, can you give them the best and smoothest process possible?

You could get 10 client leads in your inbox tomorrow, and if your on-boarding process isn't ready, those 10 leads won’t turn into 10 clients when they won’t hire a VA that doesn’t have a professional system with a professional look in place.

And here's some good news. Believe it or not, if you’re starting out new without a list of clients in place, don’t fret! You’re in a great position. You have plenty of free time right now that isn’t being put to client tasks. Use it wisely! Focus on finalizing your on-boarding process instead of worrying how to get your first client. Stop updating your website, and tweaking your logo and brand colors for the 100th time. Those will come in due time, and honestly never seem finished. Let’s get down to the real business!

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Services + Rates:

First, before you do anything, make sure you have a good understanding of what specific services you and your business are going to provide, and what rateyou want to charge for those services - whether by hours or packages. Sure, you may want or need to fluctuate and change here and there, but having a general list of services and the cost associated with them is going to be your solid foundation. After all, how will clients know what they need from you and how will you know how to sell yourself? I guarantee, one of the first things a client will want to know after they figure out what services you offer, is how much they need to pay.

For pay, I’m not talking about guesstimating what you think is a good rate based on what others charge, although that’s certainly a good reference to keep in mind. You need to actually do math and calculate:

  • First, decide how you want to calculate your payments - monthly or weekly. It's easier for me to calculate monthly because typically mortgage, bills, etc. all run on monthly too. 
  • Second, figure out how much money you need to pay yourself to live on and cover your own expenses, for that duration you chose above. It could be $400 a week if you have minimal expenses, to $6000 a month. Make sure you account for everything you need money for like gas, bills, food, etc. Having a personal budget helps with this. 
  • Third, add about 30% in taxes (this is an estimate)
  • Next, add how much money you'll need for business expenses in this time period as well. Maybe it's applications or services your business pays for, or maybe it's internet. 
  • Divide the final number of that month or week cost, by the number of hours you plan on working in that time period (see next section). This will be your base, minimal hourly rate to charge clients. If you are a professional, or have more experience, you charge more. It’s pretty simple.

Here's an example:

Sarah wants to pay herself and calculate her payments monthly. She needs to pocket (after taxes and business fees) $2500 a month to pay her bills, expenses, and have some money for her own personal savings. 30% of taxes on top of that is $750. That's $3250. Plus she adds her business expenses which are only $150 a month for her Quickbooks account, and for office supplies. That totals $3400 for the month. In that month time period for which she's calculating, she can spend 20 hours a week on paid client work (see next section on hours), and hopes to get booked out. That means she needs to charge at least $42.50 an hour to get by ($3400 divided by 80 hours a month). 

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Hours:

Going hand-in-hand, once your services and rates are in place, you need to define your working hours. This includes what times each day your office is “open” for calls and general inquiries, but you should also really think about how many hours you honestly can give to your clients and business.

If you’re just getting started and you still work a full-time job outside this new side-hustle, maybe it’s only 12 hours a week for which you’re able to commit. This means you may only be able to take on one client who needs you 10 hours a week - and leaves you 2 hours a week to build your own business (answer emails, market yourself, etc.). If you’re ready to jump into this full-time, and have no other commitments, you may be ready to take this on a true 40+ hours a week, with office hours 9-5pm.

Regardless of what you’re able to commit to, make sure you know and stick to your hours. Otherwise you will become over-committed, overwhelmed, and burn out very quickly. Clients should be made aware of your availability as well. You don’t want a 10-hour retainer client calling you at all hours asking questions, taking up valuable time. Be transparent, direct, and clear.

Terms and Conditions:

Although not the most fun part of running a business, having your terms and conditions written out for all your clients and potential clients to see protects you and filters out any potential clients that may have a problem with any of them before reaching out to you. I strongly suggest you get legal counsel to review your actual terms and conditions. However, I started my rough draft by using another’s VA page page as a template for my own, editing where I saw fit. Put the terms and conditions on your website, maybe important ones in your proposal, and definitely in your contract. The more information the better.

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Website/Page:

These days if you don’t have a website, or at least a free Facebook page for your clients to find information, you’re truly missing out on a much preferred way to connect. Customers prefer to browse and research prior to making any interactive decisions, including email and phone. Plus having a website is a great place to ‘home’ all of your contact information, services, hours, and maybe even your rates (some prefer it, some don't). The use of photos and videos is a huge selling point you just can’t get with a phone call and a business card. Some other options? An "About Me" page with background information of you and your qualifications, a portfolio, and maybe even a blog. But stick to the important points first. 

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Proposal:

Congrats! You finally have your first lead. Now what?

Well, you may have already communicated back and forth with an email or two, set up a Discovery Call or video conference to find out more about your client and their needs and to distinguish if you’re a good fit for each other. Now comes the hard work. If you  used your pre-client-time wisely, you created, edited, and finalized your Proposal Template, and are ready to start filling that baby out with your new lead’s information, problems, and proposed solutions, which isn't that hard after all. If you didn’t get your Proposal Template in place, you’re probably now scrambling to come up with something very quickly. And on top of that, you’re trying to make it look professional and consistent with your branding. How stressful. What fun is that? Potential clients should not have to wait more than 24-48 hours after a Discovery Call to get a proposal. Remember, quick and organized = professional. 

Get your proposal in place BEFORE you get your first client. Fill out the template, and send it off right away. Let your client know you’re ready to go for whatever they need. 

Contract:

Ditto on the contract. This should definitely include your terms and conditions too, and be revised by legal to make sure it’s water tight.

You’ll also need to know your process for getting the contract signed. Whether through email-printing-scanning, or with applications like Hellosign.com, which have both free and paid plans, have a plan in mind when your client is ready to sign on the dotted line!

If you’re really on your game, and maybe still have some time, create a Welcome Packet too. Include all of the specifics information your client will need to work with you. This may include applications and log-in info, scheduling, and your process. Anything you didn’t include before would go here, along with a nice specific welcome letter to the client welcoming them on-board.

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Process and applications:

Behind the scenes, many VAs use specific programs for their services and general business. This may be as simple as having a separate (yes, separate!) checking account with your bank to collect your payments (necessary), to something more technical like an Acuity Scheduling application or a Dubsado client management system account (optional based on needs). Make sure you don’t pay for programs you aren’t using yet (most have trial periods or free versions), and keep your processes and applications as simple as possible. One of my favorite applications is Trello. I use it with all my clients to organized thoughts and tasks. For me, it's really the main and only application my clients are requested to use from me (besides, paying an invoice). Clients shouldn’t be overwhelmed by working with you, as it’s your job to make their life easier!

As you can see, there's plenty to be working on and getting done. If you don’t currently have any clients, don’t be discouraged. Get yourself set up and running right now as you won’t regret it later. Once all your key components are in place, you're able to actually freely start marketing yourself to get clients. And when you do get leads, you can smoothly and quickly propose to them, so you'll nab them up with a contract right away. Now, get to work!

 

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