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Ten Smart Moves to Improve your Business

May 3, 2006

Ten things that can improve your business:

  1. Start a blog: I can attribute at least six figures of income to my blog (that doesn’t include the two decimal places!). Can you afford not to try it for yourself?
  2. Get good help: The first step is admitting that you have a problem. I suck at certain things, so I’ve found people to work with that don’t suck at those things to do those things for me. Pretty simple, isn’t it?
    I probably don’t need to say this but I’m going to anyway – if you get a great contractor working for you, do everything you can to keep them on board – you may never find another one. I am currently working with no less than 4 great contractors: one for content, one for design, one for coding, and another for testing. That’s called “how to get things done without doing them yourself.”
  3. Write with a twist: If you already have a blog try this with your writing: take a topic that everyone has already written about but add a new twist to it. Children and Accessibility: It Matters was one such piece for me. It was well received and got some attention, which has ultimately led to people contacting me for other work because they saw something different.
  4. Unplug your fax machine: Fax spam used to cost me more than email spam. Email spam takes a bit of time to manage, but I rarely have spam that gets through my spam filters (Spam Assassin on the server and Spam Sieve on my computer). Maybe 5 a week. Fax spam, on the other hand, uses paper and toner. It was utterly annoying any time a fax came in. My fax machine is now unplugged. We have achieved peace.
  5. Stay as small as you logically can: Small is flexible. Small can change direction in an instant if needed. I’m sure at some point my company will get bigger, but it won’t happen without good reason. Small is where it is at, baby (at least that is what all the other small companies are saying)
  6. Stay under the radar: I don’t send out press releases or try to make a big splash. I would bet that my local competition here in Ottawa doesn’t even know who I am. I focus on delivering a valuable service to my clients. Before you know it, I’d won a number of good contracts in town and my competitors didn’t even know I existed. Yes, I know this can only last so long, but milk it for all it is worth!
  7. Just turn email off: I can’t always do this, but what a liberating feeling to close my email client. My first thought is always “ok, now what?” That’s perfect. The only other thing to do is to work. And, yes, I believe that turning email off is waaaay more important than turning IM off. I find that most people are pretty respectful of IM. Either that or nobody wants to talk to me.
  8. Raise prices every year: Just do it. Tell people about it beforehand so that they are expecting it. I’ve heard before that if you have never had push back from your clients telling you “that’s too much” then you aren’t charging enough. I’m not sure how true that is, but I look at it this way: I get better every year, and with more experience I can provide more value. Higher value = higher rates. Just do it.
  9. Know when to throw in the towel: Have you ever had a project where you “know” it is dead and not going anywhere? I have. If you’re working too much for free, and don’t really have a passion to work on the project, then get out as quickly as you can.
  10. Get office space: Last fall I got office space outside the house. I spend roughly 3 days a week in the office, and the other 2 days working at home. I sometimes struggle with not having certain files with me as I haven’t completely moved everything out of the home office. That problem is fairly easy to work around though. Just do something else.

BONUS Smart Move #11: Make sure the core of your business is based on something that has real and lasting value for yourself, and for other people as well, if possible. If you really love what you are doing – and I mean really love it – your passion and enthusiasm will carry you far and give you lasting success. For me, it’s making the internet accessible – whether I’m developing a site or web application, teaching others how, writing or speaking about it… I. LOVE. IT.

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45 Responses

Comment by bruce — May 04 2006 @ 2:49 am

Great advice, which I’d be sure to take, were I ever brave enough to strike out on my own!

Comment by Nick Harris — May 04 2006 @ 4:17 am

All great advice, and I’ll certainly be referring to this article more than once! :)

Mind if I add another, though?

12. Surround yourself with good friends: I struck out on my own 6 months ago, and the biggest challenge I’ve faced is the hours of solitude. Make sure you have a circle of friends to alleviate the cabin fever.

Comment by Joe Rawlinson — May 04 2006 @ 9:05 am

Thanks for the sound advice.

How do you know when to make the leap to getting office space? And in your case, when/why do you work from home versus heading into the office?

Comment by Anton — May 04 2006 @ 10:18 am

#13 (if I may): Get a hobby! Eating, breathing, sleeping, and even crapping work will not only stress you out, it will negatively impact relationships with loved ones. Finding a small bit of enjoyment that can break up the week will not only get your mind completely OFF work, but may even inspire new ideas in your subconcious thoughts.

Great write-up Derek – I’ll be adding this one to del.icio.us as soon as I post this comment.

-Anton

Comment by Carl Smith — May 04 2006 @ 10:25 am

It’s rare that I agree with an entire post.

I think all of your points are valid and make sense depending on what someone wants to do with their company.

The one I would add is never stop being a start-up. Always look at what your strengths are and adjust your offering/strategy accordingly. Always stay hungry.

And just because you get succesful dont stop bootstrapping.

Building Valhalla will not help your company.

OK, maybe that was more than one.

Thanks again for the great post.

Comment by Kelsey Ruger — May 04 2006 @ 11:11 am

It’s amazing how many people don’t get pricing. I have found several things to be true over the years in different roles. 1) If you provide a good service people will pay the price. 2) People attribute more value to higher priced services, even if this is not always true. 3) Pricing your service too low costs more than the additional revenue you miss out on. This is one of the reasons I think sales or retail experience is good for everyone. Both teach you not be be afraid to ask to for more money, particularly if it is deserved. Good post.

Comment by feather — May 04 2006 @ 11:55 am

@bruce: If you ever decide to strike out on your own? Just do it. you’ll never look back…

@Nick:

Surround yourself with good friends I struck out on my own 6 months ago, and the biggest challenge I’ve faced is the hours of solitude. Make sure you have a circle of friends to alleviate the cabin fever.

Good one, and I completely agree! I think that it also relates to the reason that I tend to keep IM open, but email closed. When I see people that I know around the world online, its like I’m not really alone, you know?

@joe:

How do you know when to make the leap to getting office space? And in your case, when/why do you work from home versus heading into the office?

I suspect that everyone has a different point at which they “know” they need office space. For me it was a combination of a few things: I needed to get out of the house, I started getting busier and could afford it, and the right deal came along.

As for when/where – it really depends on the week. For a whlie I tried working at the office Monday, Wednesday and Friday and at home on Tuesday and Thursday. That just didn’t work. Now I mostly play it by ear and work around client meetings and other errands. If I have a load of work to do I may get up at 5 am and start working. If that happens, I will generally work until I am done – so if its noon, I may just stay home because I see it as a waste of time to go to the office at that point.

@Anton: thanks for the compliment and the great tip. It really is important to have some kind of hobby. For me it is trying to get myself ready for triathlons. The exercise is great and it gets me out of the house.

@Carl: you make some great points as well… I especially appreciate “just because you get successful don’t stop bootstrapping.” I think it goes hand-in-hand with my “stay as small as you logically can.”

@Kelsey: great points there too! I’m particularly interested in what you say about “retail experience” and wonder how much of an impact it has had on me. I’ve never had a retail job, so I have no sales experience there whatsoever. Anything you can add on that front from your experience?

Comment by Steve Wallace — May 04 2006 @ 5:46 pm

All excellent ideas. Thank you!

Did you give up any tax benefits wrt home office space by obtaining commercial space?

Steve

Comment by RJ — May 04 2006 @ 7:19 pm

Some good, down to the ground, street smart, been-there-done-that and that’s how I know points.

Good points well made. Simply made. Sounds real and do-able. Much unlike what the, so called, gurus try to ‘drill’ into you.

Funny enough, only this morning I received an email from by father, (well into his 60s now – but don’t tell him, I said so!) – a person who has done everything that he did, well!.

[QUOTE]
…..whilst in libraray I came across a huge sign

“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

I always did. (My father added)

[UNQUOTE]

So, adding to the #12 suggested by Nick Harris above, I would add:

#13: Make and keep making courageous decisions

Comment by Zaigham — May 04 2006 @ 7:19 pm

Excellent thoughts and advices!

I am going to try them on myself. Thanks for sharing such a nice post.

regards,

Comment by Marketing Headhunter — May 04 2006 @ 7:52 pm

Gee, this is a really great post. Every bit of this advice makes perfect sense, and for some strange reason, I have heard none of it before; not a point. Well, maybe # 2. But it’s still a great list. Nice job!

Comment by Charlie Key — May 04 2006 @ 8:01 pm

Thanks for the advice, I am really working on the first one. Although I want to narrow down what I blog about or split my topics into multiple blogs. Great post.

Comment by Tim — May 04 2006 @ 9:50 pm

How do you attribute 6 figures to your blog? I don’t see any advertising. Is it just a tool that helps you stay in touch with customers? Please eloaborate on this. Thanks!

Comment by pat — May 04 2006 @ 10:16 pm

Re: #9

How can you ditch a client without damaging your reputation?

If you’ve made commitments shouldn’t you follow through?

If you’re delivering a product, should you expect to be compensated for your time invested, if this ultimately means that no product will be delivered?

Comment by feather — May 04 2006 @ 10:20 pm

@Steve:

Did you give up any tax benefits wrt home office space by obtaining commercial space?

I’m not 100% sure yet – when I said the price was right, I really meant it. Let’s just say that I have a client that owns a building and we came to a great agreement for office space.

@Tim:

How do you attribute 6 figures to your blog? I don’t see any advertising. Is it just a tool that helps you stay in touch with customers?

Its a number of things, actually: exposure to other web developers that refer projects to me, clients directly contacting me for contracts they would like me to be in on, as well as various writing, training and speaking engagements. I haven’t consciously used it to stay in touch with customers, but it has definitely introduced me to new ones.

Comment by Kevin from Canada — May 05 2006 @ 2:57 am

Hi Derek,

Great post. Regarding #2, are you insinuating that you “suck” at content, design, coding and testing? Uhh, what’s left?
But seriously, how did you find/hire your contractors? I’ve just recently starting working with a designer (a friend of a friend of a …) but was wondering how others find good people to work with. I’d love to find another designer, and a good coder would always be useful to know. Any wisdom you could share would be greatly appreciated!

Comment by Owen Cutajar — May 05 2006 @ 4:14 am

Some excellent advice there. My favourite is the bonus tip (#11). Computing has been a hobby for me since I was a kid, and now people pay me to do things I have a passion for!

Comment by Hermann Klinke — May 05 2006 @ 4:54 am

Very good tips. I have read many of these lists, but yours is one of the best. The only one that I have a problem with is #10. What is the advantage of having office space. I am afraid I did not understand your description. Could you please elaborate on that?

Comment by Dave Kaufman — May 05 2006 @ 7:35 am

14. Put it in writing. This is smart on 2 fronts. First it is impressive to get a PDF that is nicely formatted and has a cover letter, work arrangements, terms and conditions and a signature section.

Second it helps everyone understand exactly what will and won’t be done.

Work smart.

Comment by RJ — May 05 2006 @ 9:18 am

@ Derek

One very good source for ‘freelance’ programmers, coders, whizzkids is Rent A Coder . I know, the name sounds very much like the “Acme Emporium” of the RoadRunner cartoons fame. But the site, the process, payments etc are well-supervised. And the price/’project’ is much cheaper – if bootstrapping is the idea!.

I had a quote of approx $700 to create a blog as per my friend’s very particular specification (I was helping her out!), from a local design outfit. I put this out to Rent A Coder and the best quote I received was, from an accomplished (but working out of Phillipines) coder/designer, $100 all inclusive. It’s worth a look.

~RJ

Comment by RJ — May 05 2006 @ 9:19 am

Opps!! my bad!

I addressed my lost post to Derek.

Apologies!

It should have been addressed to Kevin who raised the query about hiring coder/designers etc.

Sorry

Comment by Mike Smith — May 05 2006 @ 9:58 am

Derek,

I really enjoyed your article. Especially the parts about “staying small”, “get good help” and “blogging”.

Since I started my business 4 months ago, without too much computer saavy, I have become somewhat hooked on blogs and the inexpensiveness of them. My Adword campaign continues to grow by the week.

Even though I have some products that could make a big splash, staying small and flexible is underrated luxury.

I am very fortunate to have a friend who is much more competent than I am in the bookkeeping/accounting department. I know of two small business’ that went under because of this problem.

Anyway, thanks for your time,

Mike

Comment by neteng — May 05 2006 @ 10:14 am

And, yes, I believe that turning email off is waaaay more important than turning IM off. I find that most people are pretty respectful of IM. Either that or nobody wants to talk to me.

Dude, no one wants to talk to you. IM is near the top of my list for interruptions! Though I find that if I mark myself Busy or Out to Lunch, I’m left alone a bit more… though I can’t leave this on all the time because people will just ignore it. :)

Nice article!

neteng

Comment by Carolyn — May 05 2006 @ 7:47 pm

@Kevin

There are a lot of sites that display the work of designers, some good, some great. I’d spend some time looking through them to see whose work you like. You might then look at their blogs or company sites to see what you think about their attitudes about a range of things, to see if it’s a good fit. Regarding another comment made here, to each his own, but I don’t believe in going to sites where people bid against each other. It degrades the profession and often takes advantage of desperate people who are willing to work for much, much, much less than a living wage. It’s also how you get yourself into situations where people promise the moon for an impossibly low price–what a surprise when they can’t deliver the moon for that price! It’s just like virtually every other profession: if you want professional work, you need to pay professional prices.
Now, for those sites. Look for the ones that are CSS-based. Your odds are much greater that the person is at least making an attempt at using web standards. Anything else is SO last century. :)
http://www.cssmania.com
http://www.cssbeauty.com
tom.ma/screenblog
http://www.stylegala.com
or go to forums at places like wordpress.org and watch what’s happening for awhile, or join a CSS discussion list. You’ll start finding people you like, and you’ll start figuring out who is smart and/or talented.
Hope this helps.

Comment by Kevin from Canada — May 05 2006 @ 8:33 pm

@RJ,

Thanks for the suggestions. I’d visited Rent a coder before, but never did anything beyond browse. Have you used them yourself?

@Carolyn,

Thanks for your suggestions too. When it comes to what I’m looking for in a designer, I don’t necessarily need someone who is capable of building the design in (X)HTML and CSS. (That’s the part I like to handle myself.) All I want is a layered Photoshop comp that I can take apart and put back together using web standards. Perhaps I should start checking out some Photoshop-related sites or blogs. Anyone have other suggestions?

Comment by feather — May 05 2006 @ 9:40 pm

@pat:

Sorry – I missed your comment earlier… you said:

How can you ditch a client without damaging your reputation?

If you’ve made commitments shouldn’t you follow through?

I’m not necessarily talking about paying clients here – there are loads of projects that people take on regularly that they are doing for low to no cost where they eventually lose the passion. Like I said – if you’re doing too much work for free, and don’t have a great passion for it, get away.

Comment by feather — May 05 2006 @ 10:07 pm

@Kevin:

Great post. Regarding #2, are you insinuating that you “suck” at content, design, coding and testing? Uhh, what’s left?

Oooooh. Good point. That was definitely not what I was trying to insinuate. Ultimately my point is that while I could do those things, I’d much rather get specialists. After all – I would recommend they do the same when it comes to accessibility and user experience. As for the coder and tester – I’ve been working with them for a while and they do a lot of the work that I either: don’t have time to handle, or can’t do myself.

But seriously, how did you find/hire your contractors?

Well – for me it has been pretty straight forward. They are all connections that I have made through other people (a friend of a friend of a friend) and they are all from the web. Two of the people are local here that ultimately came my way from the local college, and the other two are in various parts of the US – met them at conferences and online. I didn’t have scientific formula or anything, but I went more with a “feel.” You’ve really got me thinking about it though, and i’ll have to post some more about it…

Comment by ellenweber — May 05 2006 @ 10:51 pm

Great article and I identify with most of the suggestions, especially with ‘do what you love!” Thanks… and I have a question: How would you suggest that a person shares ideas that are new — or that have had limited exposure in the marketplace.

My work connects the brain with better business practices, for instance, but such connections are new to some business leaders. While people tell us they really like these brain based ideas whenever they encounter them, I’d like to find ways to share the ideas interactively so they get better known. Do you have any ideas that would help to do that better? Thanks in advance…

Comment by feather — May 05 2006 @ 10:52 pm

@Hermann:

What is the advantage of having office space. I am afraid I did not understand your description. Could you please elaborate on that?

There are a number of advantages to office space for me – it gets me out of the house and away from all the things that can so easily distract me. I also seem to work more reasonable hours – when I was working exclusively at home it was almost too easy to work too many hours in the day. The final thing for me was that my office at home is in the basement and when i was here there were times where I would go almost a full week without leaving the house. That was not good.

Comment by Hermann Klinke — May 06 2006 @ 2:23 pm

I guess you are right. I am also working from home and I am spending way too much time in front of the computer…

Comment by Carolyn — May 06 2006 @ 6:04 pm

@ Kevin
I would try graphic designer forums, such as the one at How Magazine. There are others…just start at Google. Then you’ll have a chance to look at portfolios, see if you like people, ask people who they recommend, and so forth. The sites that I listed earlier (the ones submitted to CSS galleries) may also be able to recommend designers. Not all of the people creating these sites are doing every aspect of site development. Some are in the same position that you are.

Comment by Neville Franks — May 06 2006 @ 6:25 pm

Derek, Good post. I’ve been working from home for around 15 years now and wouldn’t have it any other way. Not working is a problem, as there is always so much to do and I want to keep my customers satisfied and continue to grow my business, especially with my latest software product.

I started a blog last year and find it very rewarding, as do my customers.

I need to do more of 2 & 8, but will never do 10. :)

Re. Rentacoder. Speaking from a professional software developers point of view I’ve heard quite a few horror stories of developers getting really screwed over. No personal experience though.

I’ll leave you with this tip: Lift above your weight.

Comment by Dane Carlson — May 08 2006 @ 8:24 am

Excellent post!

Comment by Udayan — May 10 2006 @ 1:58 am

Excellent stuff, Derek! I would just add one more: Spend atleast an hour every day on business networking. It helps.

Comment by Rick — May 13 2006 @ 6:30 pm

How about “Keep every promise or don’t make it!”? I’ve got a guy that’s just starting into his “revenue phase”. I just got him hooked up with two gigs that could be repeatable, monthly, high profile, appreciated opportunities. He’s so busy “selling”, that he blew the first deadline on one of the gigs and has broken the same stupid little promise three times on the other. If it’s not better by Monday, he’s gonna lose both.

So, I suggest that, “Think hard before you promise and only promise if you’re going to deliver.” should be on the list.

Comment by Kevin from Canada — May 14 2006 @ 2:01 am

@Carolyn again,

Thanks for the tips. Looks like I’ll be spending even more time on the web reading forums, blogs, etc. With Pixelingo, are you a one person company that does everything yourself, or do you have other employees and/or contractors?

(I apologize if I’m taking this off topic. BTW, is it proper etiquette to ask questions of other comment posters, or should questions be directed at the blog owner only?)

Comment by Nick Toye — May 15 2006 @ 5:33 pm

I totally agree with 9# Know when to throw in the towel.

I have a client who I did work for free when I first started out, now I don’t need the client anymore because I have enough business and when they come back for a free update/redesign, its hard to have the passion to do it, or even prioritise the work around paying customers.

I also had a bank business manager who wanted a free website for his weekend business, crazy advice from my business manager. Having agreed, and provided a psd for them to look at, they have not come back to me in over a month, so that decision to can jobs when they don’t seem worth it has now become an important factor in my business model.

I also had a client who was very pedantic, and wanted a hell of a lot of work for hardly any money. I went along with it, because a colleague who I was working with, didn’t want to damage his reputation. I actually felt it was more damaging to appease a poor paying client as it is, to know when to stop doing anymore work. Suffice to say the client decided to call it a day this afternoon and paid us for the work. Music to my ears.

Comment by Mike — May 22 2006 @ 8:20 am

No. 10: “Get Office Space” caught my eye since I just moved into my new office a couple weeks ago.

I decided it was time to get office space when I was tired of seeing the look on my potential clients face when I admitted that I worked out of my home. Regardless of how professional you are, clients will still look at you as an amateur if you work out of your home. The image they visualize is someone working in their pajamas with some ridiculous day time tv program blaring in the background and who wont be around next year.

When a couple clients cancelled their meetings after learning the the meeting would be in my home I said that’s it and started looking for a place. I lucked out and found a great space for $350/mo. Not bad.

Comment by Greg — May 23 2006 @ 9:21 pm

I agree with Tim, could you elaborate on #1??

Comment by Heather D — May 24 2006 @ 1:19 pm

This is such a relevant “top 10″ tip list. Each tip is thought-provoking and some were really, really timely for me. I also enjoyed reading all of the comments as well since many who have commented deem to have similiar curiosities and business demands that either constrain or catapult us to the next big thing. Thanks again!

Comment by gorgeoux — Jun 14 2006 @ 1:11 am

Thank you, Derek. Although Romania hasn’t been introduced to fax spam, I’d still say don’t buy a fax machine at all. There is electronic fax, and that you can control from your PC or mobile. And by all means, do rise prices every year.

Comment by Manny — Jul 15 2006 @ 10:10 pm

Nice advice Derek! I can see that you have a quality that is needed in small business owners – a sense of humor. I’ll be watching your site. In my consulting practice, I have seen too many small businesses die an early death because they were so deep in the trees that they did not see the woods. You need to know what you’re good at and then deliver excellence in what you do every time – sounds like you get that. Keep it up.

Comment by Erwin Heiser — Aug 21 2006 @ 12:15 pm

Nice article and some solid advice! I’ll especially take the accounting to heart as I suck at those things :)

Comment by Casandra, web developer — Aug 22 2006 @ 3:13 am

Just a few words about blogging. Nowadays it’s become a new standard for people sharing ideas and information. Hence companies may be afraid that they won’t be able to keep pace with the changing world issues.
The content of the blog is the most important thing to care about. If your content is not up to dated blogging won’t be a plus but a minus to your company. Having debated all pros and cons in their minds a lot of companies just don’t bother to enter the world of blogging cause the profit of entering seems to be much less than expenses.

Comment by Dimitar Yanev — Dec 17 2006 @ 8:42 pm

Wow, nice post. Actually I’m already doing most of the things you said, except blogging and switching off my email client. Blogging is something that takes time and I prefer spending that time developing my next project.. about switching off the email client – i don’t think that i’m ready for this, hehe.