Business tips for surviving your first year and beyond.
So, we’ve made it to our first anniversary! 🙂 I can’t believe it’s already a year since I started Big Bear, a small but powerful design studio specialising in design and branding.
I’d like to say I had big plans for the company when I first started out, but that’s not strictly true! 😉 When my husband and I had our first child (a little boy called Noah) I decided to leave my job at an award winning design agency, to gain a better work life balance and to leave behind the 2 hour commute, long hours and stressful workload so I could be closer to home for our new family.
I had a few days childcare a week and my aim in the first year was just to fill those hours with client work. It’s been a crazy year and I’ve learned a heck of a lot, but I’m pleased to say I’ve now taken on more childcare to cover demand, and my husband Dave (a web designer and user experience expert) has recently given up the day job to come and work with Big Bear full time.
Starting my own business was a massive learning curve, and it’s hard work too, although if you can get it right it’s well worth it! A year on, I’m still learning as I go along – and I’m sure I always will be – but thought I’d share with you a few of the things that I’ve found helpful, and some advice that helped Big Bear thrive during the first 12 months.
Be realistic about your time.
So I started Big Bear with 15 hours childcare a week – as I had 15 hours, I foolishly thought I’d be able to fit in 15 hours of client work… I was wrong!
The reality is that running a business is not just about doing client work – there’s a lot more to it than that! I had forgotten to factor in time for updating accounts, client meetings, quoting, invoicing, socials and marketing – amongst other things. I found myself working in evenings / weekends to keep up with everything – not quite the ideal I had in mind of working 15 hours per week!
I think the main thing is to plan for these things and then you should have a more realistic idea of how many hours you’ll have for client work.
At the end of each week, I update my schedule and plan the week ahead (including marketing, socials, accounting, meetings, etc), so nothing gets overlooked. It also helps me to work out how long certain projects take, so I can make sure I’m quoting accurately.
Know how much you’re worth!
When I first started out, I fell into the pitfall that I think many freelancers do when they start out. I didn’t realise how much my work was worth and sometimes even felt guilty charging for the work I did – it’s a confidence thing! The problem with this, is that if you don’t charge enough for your work, certain clients will use you because you’re cheap, and won’t realise the value of your time. You’re effectively charging for your experience and expertise as well as your time. Plus you actually need to charge enough to make a living at the end of the day! It’s worth doing some research into the hourly rates charged in your industry and then taking your own experience and level of service into mind, in order to make sure you’re in the right price range for what you do.
Embrace tools that make life easier
I use a few online tools to make the daily running of Big Bear Creative much easier to manage. Many others are available of course, but these are a few of the ones I currently find useful:
Use a CRM
I currently use Capsule, an online CRM that allows me to plan my schedule / workload, and also helps me to store all my business contacts in one place and keep track of my sales pipeline so I remember to chase things up.
Schedule Social posts (where appropriate)
Social media is something that can get put to the back of the queue on busy days. However, it’s important to post regularly and as I’m often out of the office, I find scheduling posts can be helpful. Hootsuite allows me to schedule a certain amount of posts at the start of each week, and then I can pop online when I have a few spare minutes to reply in realtime and add further posts.
Keeping track of your accounts
I use Quickbooks to keep track of my day to day accounts, as it allows me to keep everything up to date and in one place.
I can upload receipts for each business transaction and it also gives a good idea of business earnings in the current tax year, plus how much you need to put aside for tax.
I also love that I can log all my mileage on there – you can download the app which tracks your journeys, so you just need to mark whether each journey was business / personal.
As I previously mentioned, there is much to more to running a business than I originally thought. It’s tempting to try and do everything yourself in order to keep costs down, especially in the early days, but outsourcing certain tasks will allow you to spend more time on paid client work, and increase your enjoyment of what you do with your working hours.
A VA (virtual assistant) can help with certain tasks on an adhoc basis so you don’t need to employ someone full time to help, unless you’re ready to do so of course – I can recommend a brilliant VA if you need one.
Get some advice
I got lots of advice from other freelancers, a freelance mentor and a business advisor in my first year, and it really is priceless! Asking others who’ve been there and got the t-shirt can help with lots of aspects of your business and it’s also a good way of feeling like you’re not alone!
Don’t just sit in your home office alone all day and not see anyone else – get out and meet other business people, go networking, try out co-working spaces or an office share. This can really help with the isolation of working for yourself and it’s a great way to meet others in a similar situation to you, and to make business contacts.
If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be going networking (and actually enjoying it) I’d have laughed at them! But actually once I got over the initial reservations and got myself along to a few groups, I found it was a great way to meet other like-minded business people, get my business out there and get to know others on a personal level. I’ve made some great contacts, collaborators and clients over the past year through networking.
There are lots of groups locally, and it’s a good idea to try out a few groups and see which you prefer / what works best for you. I’ve tended to stick to a few more casual networking groups local to St Ives, Huntingdon and St Neots so far, but I’m hoping to broaden my horizons to Cambridge and a little further afield this year.
Co-working is also a great way to network. Alongside the co-working facilities, they often run networking, talks and support for freelancers/small businesses.
One of the great things I’ve gotten out of networking is to make contacts who compliment my own services. I met a social media expert and PR & Marketing specialist at one networking group, and we now collaborate on client projects, and recommend clients to one another when they need additional support. This works well both for us in bringing in new client work, but also for our clients – being able to recommend experts we know will look after our clients and do great work for them is important as bad recommendations would affect our reputations in the wrong way!
Do Great Work
As a small company, we do our upmost to provide a top class service to our clients, and make sure they’re more than happy with everything we do for them. After all, happy clients will come back time and again and will be great brand ambassadors for your company.
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from your clients
We ask most clients for feedback on our work and how we were to work with. Don’t be scared to hear any bad points, as well as the good ones – it will help you to iron out any issues that may be standing in your way and may even highlight new services / products you could offer / collaborate with others on to give a better service.
So well done of you’ve made it through all my waffling! 🙂 I hope these points have been of some use to you for your own small business – here’s to another year of Big Bear success and the lessons and experiences it will bring!
If you’d like to share any of your own tips and experiences please do, I’d love to hear them!