Top Tips For Killing Your Business

I often write about how to create a business that supports you financially and that you love. But I’m feeling contrary today, because I’m inspired to offer my best advice for solopreneurs who aren’t interested in succeeding. If you want a business that doesn’t attract new clients, clients who are overly price-sensitive, or if all your marketing efforts are failing and if you want more of the same, then here are some tips for you, with tongue held firmly in cheek.

Be “nice to have” rather than “must have NOW”. Very few people will buy your services if you are nice to have because, frankly, there are lots of services out there that are nice to have… even some that are really really nice to have. Unless you are addressing one of your clients’ most pressing and urgent needs, you are going to be at the bottom of their priority list when it comes to allocating funds for projects.

Don’t bother learning about your clients. Every solopreneur thinks she understands her clients — often solopreneurs used to work with the people they now believe will become their clients. But unless you have conducted 8 or 10 successful Reality-Check Interviews, in which you find out what your clients really care about, you are basing your business on what are most likely incorrect assumptions.

Don’t ever fail. If you aren’t failing occasionally, you aren’t trying. The Silicon Valley mantra, Fail Fast, Fail Often, applies to solopreneurs as well. Expect to always have several marketing projects going, with the expectation that at least one of them will, after a full-out six-month effort, will not pan out. As long as you give each approach the time and resources to succeed and clear metrics on what you want to accomplish, you can try a wide range of approaches and learn from each of them.

Don’t blog or write a newsletter. Having a web site or LinkedIn profile isn’t enough to establish a relationship with your clients. Make sure you reach out to your community regularly with blog posts, updates on social media and a newsletter that delivers value to your readers. You have to earn your clients’ attention with content they care about.

Facebook? Forget it! You may think that Facebook is just for friends, but you are missing a big opportunity if you aren’t participating in that space. I am often surprised by the number of professional colleagues who like and comment on my Facebook posts; they may not be posting updates themselves, but they are out there reading what you post.

Focus on selling, not listening. Establishing a relationship with a client requires two-way communication, and that means more listening and less talking on your part. If your prospective client’s experience is only of you talking about your background and what you can do, the impression is that you are more interested in your own success than your client’s outcome.

Don’t have tangible metrics or goals. One of the dangers of being a one-person business is that it is easy to drift along, mistaking activity for results. Establish clear annual goals for your business that translate into success — revenue, number of new clients, percentage of repeat business, or whatever measurements help you gauge whether your business is on the right path.

Don’t push your comfort zone. For solopreneurs to succeed, we have to set ourselves apart from whatever solution our clients currently have, remembering that we are always competing with “good enough.” That means we need to discover what we can offer that no one else is doing in quite the same way, constantly updating our services to always meeting our clients’ most important needs today. That means constantly updating our services and developing new skills based on what our clients value most.

So, either follow these “tips” for failure, or consider how you can shift your approach to your business so that you are attracting clients who sustain you and with whom you enjoy working. And get your hands off that teddy bear!

Introvert’s Tips for Great Headshots

After having my Happy Hour Headshot, I thought back on what made it such a good experience, despite having arrived home from Australia less than 24 hours earlier and being someone who doesn’t enjoy getting her picture taken.
Let’s face it – some of us don’t naturally warm up and smile when a camera is pointed at us. That doesn’t mean we can’t take good headshots; we just have to approach the experience with a fresh attitude.

  • Look at the photographer and imagine she is a long-lost friend. You can’t help but smile – you are so happy to see her again.
  • Engage the photographer in conversation. Ask him or her what got them started in photography, or what their biggest challenge has been this year, or how they hope to change their business next year. Once you start chatting, you can relax.
  • Take a break after 15 minutes. Very few people can stay “on” for longer than that, and you need a few minutes to let yourself relax and go limp before starting another round of shooting.
  • When reviewing your shots, let the photographer make the first cut. It’s hard to look at lots of photos of yourself without obsessing about small imperfections, and a professional photographer can quickly identify the shots that best captured your genuine look.

You can see the shots I selected from my HappyHourHeadshot session here.

photo from

Happy Hour Headshot – solopreneur profile

I recently saw a blurb for a Denver photographer, Jennifer Buhl, who had an unusual pitch. If you need a professional, hip, affordable headshot in a convenient, urban location with a former paparazza, check out Now making Coloradoans look like celebrities!

Sure, I get new headshots every 5 or 6 years, and they generally look pretty standard – me in business attire against a neutral background. But I have come to realize that many consultants’ web sites now have multiple photos of the principals. Now I see shots of the person in action – teaching a workshop, inspiring a group of people, or just looking a little less formal and posed.

The premise behind Happy Hour Headshot is that you meet Jennifer at a downtown restaurant, she spends 15 minutes shooting you outdoors, then you two sit down with a drink, review your photos, and select the one(s) you want. She does light editing and you get your shots in a couple of weeks. The cost is $85 for the shoot and one photo; additional photos are available at a discounted rate. It’s an unusual model, and the session had a very different vibe from the usual headshot experience – fast-paced, fun and relaxed, rather than an hour of “Now turn your head an inch to the right. Now smile. OK, and again…”

So I signed up for a headshot (great experience, and I wound up with five photos I really like!) and also had a chance to chat with Jennifer to find out more about her approach to her business.

One of her challenges, of course, is that anyone with a camera can call herself a photographer, regardless of their actual skill in capturing a subject’s essence. Jennifer’s bread-and-butter work had been creating baby and family portraits at Jennifer Buhl Photography, but after five years she found that she was getting push-back on her professional rates when families would compare her price to part-timers and hobbyists who just want to make enough money to pay for their avocation. She also missed the fast pace of a paparazza, and was looking for a way to expand her business into other areas.

She launched Happy Hour Headshot earlier this year, and enjoys the accelerated pace of taking just 15 minutes to catch people looking their best. As she was talking with her clients, she found that many are solopreneurs and small business owners, and she realized that they were likely to need to improve the visual content on their web sites and social media pages. She launched Buhl Business Photography to provide the more in-depth photography required by companies beyond headshots of their employees.

As Jennifer told me during our shoot, “Everything is visual now. People realize that their workplace has to look genuine on their web site; their work product or process has to look good. My job is to visually convey what it’s like to work with the company, to reflect who the business is. If you’re a small business, you need to look solid in your collateral, but you don’t have a $100,000 budget for commercial photography. That’s where I come in. I really enjoy going into, say, an orthodontist’s office, see how it’s run, talk with the staff, then photograph them doing their jobs. The end result is a set of photos that show the authentic company.”

I was struck by the evolution in Jennifer’s business, in a profession in which she is competing with many others who charge far less for a different level of service. She could have continued spending her time trying to convince families that a great shoot was worth $900, or she could expand her business into new areas that played to her strengths and interests.

She gets to do what she likes and finds stimulating, she has a more flexible schedule, and she is working with clients who see her as a business expense rather than a luxury purchase, so she is able to price her services fairly. Her experience as a paparazza taught her how to get high-quality images in a short period of time, so she can set herself apart as offering a very different headshot experience.

Her biggest challenge right now is efficiently getting the word out about Happy Hour Headshot. I heard about her through her participation in a Boulder-based network of media women, and we met for our shot at Galvanize, a local co-working office full of start-ups, both settings in which she successfully promotes her service. She is also considering marketing through LivingSocial and through local Meetups.

What ideas do you have for Jennifer to get the word out about her Happy Hour Headshot business? Post in the comments section below.

Short ‘n’ Sweet SWOT
Happy Hour Headshot

Strengths: fast-paced experience, unique photos, modest price, work she enjoys, business is word-of-mouth-friendly

Weaknesses: clients want to linger over the photo selection process, managing client expectations regarding editing

Opportunities: connect with local groups for efficient marketing, expansion of business photography

Threats: difficult to scale while retaining Jennifer’s unique style


When is a headline not a headline?

I’m one of those people who still reads newspapers. Even worse, I still get the print newspaper delivered to my doorstep every day. I could wax eloquent about the tactile pleasure and serendipitous delight of paging through a print newspaper, but I’ll spare you.

Often, I find an article thought-provoking enough that I want to share it and my thoughts to the world. Easy – I pop online, find the digital version of the article, and no one needs to know I saw the article first on a dead tree.

However, I ran into problems recently when I looked up the online version of a Wall Street Journal article and couldn’t retrieve it by searching for the title. Eventually, I found it; my problem had been that the digital version had an entirely different title than the print. Curious, I compared a week’s worth of print and digital headlines of WSJ articles and found that fewer than a quarter of the headlines were the same. While some of the titles were similar (“Boeing Scrambles to Get Key Part” and “Boeing, Supplier Wrestle to Produce Key Component”), others were entirely different (“Bye, Boss, Let’s Stay Friends Forever” and “How to Leave Your Job Gracefully”).

When I asked Dow Jones about the discrepancy between print and digital headlines, I got the following not-entirely-satisfying response:

At the Journal we are constantly refining our approach to headlines to ensure that our readers are automatically drawn to our work, whether printed on a page or comprised of pixels.  We often fine-tune headlines in order to reflect developing news and improve SEO, but at the end of the day we are always looking for the best blend of digital optimization and smart journalism.

HERE is a table of the headlines from my one-week sample. Lesson: to find the digital equivalent of a print article quickly, search for a few unusual or distinctive words in the text rather than for words in the headline.


Using Social Media For “Real” Research?!?

In preparing for one of my presentations at Web Search University, I was asked whether social media could actually be used for “real” research… that is, to support strategic decisions and better outcomes. And what about the concerns of some researchers about privacy in social media?

My response was that yes, I used to be somewhat skeptical about the value of information found on social media, probably because it looks so different from what we info pros get through traditional information sources. But I was curious, and started seeing what I could user social media for. While there is a fair amount of noise in the social sphere, I can find information in LinkedIn or Twitter that I would never have been able to find using our more traditional online resources. And the data-mining I can do in social media gives me new ways to create insights for my clients. Granted, regardless of the kind of research you are doing, you have to think like a competitive intelligence professional. It’s all in knowing what you are looking at and recognizing warning signs or clues in amongst the likes, shares and retweets.

And regarding privacy concerns, I think the issue is overblown, particularly for us information professionals. We know how to modify our privacy settings to ensure that we are not leaving footsteps behind. We know what and how much to share on social media. And we have the information-evlauation skills to assess the value and reliability of what we find. Info pros can see beyond the hype and can see social media resources as the valuable tools they are, while remaining mindful of privacy and security concerns.

Watch my Speaking Extras page for the slide deck to this presentation, and check out the materials from some of my other recent presentations.

Earning word-of-mouth referrals

Maybe it’s because I was getting ready for my webinar, From Zero to Clients: Starting (or Re-starting) Your Word-of-Mouth Referral Machine, but I reached out to my network several times last week, asking for referrals for various jobs I needed done. What I experienced showed me just how critical these referrals are for solopreneurs and how important it is to excel if you have been referred to someone.

I needed to find a copy writer to help me promote my online courses. I asked a colleague who was active in the local chapter of the Business Marketing Association, who asked the chapter’s executive director. The person they both thought of came with glowing recommendations. He is great at calls to action, great at copy writing, always delivers when promised. Another colleague gave me the name of a consultant who had done work for her start-up and by all accounts had been great to work with. I had a brief conversation with each person and was struck by the difference in the two conversations. The one recommended by his peers in BMA was direct and to the point. He followed up with samples of his work and a proposal that focused on specifically the job I needed done. I spent half an hour with the other consultant, talking about my business and where it was going. I emphasized that I really just had a straightforward assignment for a landing page; she sent me an in-depth proposal to address all my marketing communication needs for the next six months. While it was a great proposal, it didn’t address my needs, and I went with the one recognized by his peers as being right for the job.
Lesson learned? Referrals from peers and colleagues are sometimes better than referrals from clients (whose needs may differ from mine). As a solopreneur, I want to make sure all my colleagues know who I am and see me as someone worth referring others to.

I had two less-satisfying experiences with other referrals. I was looking for a WordPress consultant to migrate this very blog over to my server. It’s a small job, but one for which I don’t want to invest the time for my learning curve. A colleague gave me the name of her tech consultant with a glowing referral. Not once but twice, we agreed on a time for a Skype call and he didn’t show up, didn’t explain, didn’t apologize. My colleague was embarrassed and I was disappointed.

I had a similar experience with finding someone to clean out the crawl space under my house, where a critter had set up residence. I asked a friend who owns an environmental consulting firm for a recommendation, and she pointed me to one of her regular contractors. As with the tech consultant, my critter consultant arranged twice to meet me at my home, and twice failed to show up. My friend was so annoyed that she decided not to stop doing business with the consultant; his lack of attention to a prospect meant that he lost a long-time client. My friend called another consultant and made him promise to come over to my house and take care of the problem before giving me his contact information. (He worked out great, but his specialty is meth house clean-ups, so I hope to never have to use him again! But if you have a meth lab problem in Colorado, I’ve got your man.)
Lesson learned? When people refer you to others, their reputation is on the line. If you let them down, they remember not to use or refer you again. As a solopreneur, I know I have to be extra-responsive if someone has been referred to me.

Just a dog-walker, or “compassionate companion-animal care”

couple of boxer breed dogs walking outside on the green grassRecently, a friend told me about her dream of leaving her corporate job and finding a way to make a living doing what she loves — in her case, caring for people’s pets. She already had a name picked out, “Caring Hearts Dog-Walking” and was thinking about how many of her elderly neighbors might want her to walk their dogs.

After we chatted for a while, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to make much of a living if all she did was get paid to walk dogs. Sure, she would be more reliable than the kid down the block, but her neighbors won’t be willing to pay more than $15/hour for her services.

I reminded her that she had just completed her certificate in dog massage and had experience with special-needs pets, and encouraged her to think of herself as a trained professional who brought a range of skills to each companion animal. She isn’t just a dog walker; she provides services that support the pets her clients love.

She decided she would have an informational interview with a friend of hers who is a veterinarian, to find out how she could best support people whose pets were recovering from an illness or injury, medically frail or just old and in need of special TLC. How could she enable people to keep their pets who otherwise would have not been able to provide the support their pets need?

By focusing on where she can offer the most value, she builds a business on clients who would never consider using anyone else for their pet care. She becomes competition-proof, because she offers a level of service that people who see themselves merely as dog walkers never think to provide.

Having trouble getting paid?

One of the scariest things about being a solopreneur is wondering if you will get paid by your client. Some people can get 100% of their fee up front, but most of us don’t, so we are always taking a risk that our client will decide not to pay us once the project is done.

I was “fortunate” to have gotten two deadbeat clients within the first few years of my business, and I consider myself lucky. They were both small projects, I learned something important from each one, and — surprise! — both clients eventually paid me. First I’ll tell you a little bit about each situation, then I’ll tell you what I learned from each one and how I now avoid repeating my mistakes.

Client A was someone I had worked with in my last employee job. He was a nice guy, and he launched his business as a competitive intelligence consultant about the same time I started my research business. My policy for new clients was (and still is) that I either get a credit card number or prepayment of a certain portion of the anticipated budget, usually 25% or 30%. Client A refused to give me his credit card information and didn’t want to prepay a portion of the job. “I’m astonished that you would ask me for a deposit! How insulting!” Against my better judgement, I agreed to waive the usual prepayment — hey, I knew him from my last job, so of course he’ll pay me. Well, he didn’t; he just ignored all my invoices, phone calls, and letters. I eventually wrote off the invoice and sent him a letter saying that I didn’t want the debt staying on my books and that I forgave the debt. Twelve months later, he sent a check with full payment.

Client B was someone who found me on the web. In retrospect, he sounded like trouble… He started the conversation by asking me for a discount, he constantly criticized his clients, and he complained to me about hard it was to make a profit. While he did pay a deposit for the work, he just never get around to paying the final invoice. He kept putting me off, saying the check was in the mail, saying that he was waiting to be paid by his client, and several other excuses. Again, I sent him a letter forgiving the debt and a year later, he paid up.

But since then, I have always been promptly paid in full by my clients. I realized that it’s my responsibility to manage my client’s expectations, to listen to my gut, and to be very clear about payment terms. Here are the things I do differently now that ensure I get paid every time:

I require prepayment at the start of every project for a new client. I accept credit cards and PayPal, I handle bank wire transfers, and I have never lost a client because they couldn’t find a way to pay a deposit. I’m taking a risk by working on a job without a guarantee that I will get paid (because pursuing a deadbeat client through the court system is not worth the expense), and it is reasonable that my client share the risk.

I make sure my clients understand what the payment terms are. I spell out when payments are due and I check with the client’s Accounts Payable department to find out what information they need in order to set me up as a new vendor. If I am working as a subcontractor, I make sure the prime contractor understands that he is my client and that I will get paid within 30 days regardless of whether he has been paid by his client. personal.

I listen to my intuition more. If something just doesn’t sound right, I keep the conversation going until I am sure that the client understands and agrees to the payment terms. If a prospective client asks me “Do I still have to pay if I’m not happy with your deliverable?”, everything comes to a screeching halt. I spell out the scope (and limits) of the project, assure her that I am committed to providing the deliverable agreed upon, and make it clear that payment is not optional. And if I still feel uneasy, I gently tell her that I am not the best person for their specific needs and, if possible, refer her to a colleague who might have better rapport with her.

I never invest more in a prospect than I can walk away from. When a prospect keeps asking me for more information, an additional proposal, an interview, and maybe another modification of the proposal, I step back and reassess the likelihood of this project ever coming to fruition. I want to make sure I am never in a situation where I feel like I have spent so much time trying to land this sale that I have to take whatever terms are offered, even if that means a very low hourly rate.

And finally, I let go when it’s clear that my client does not intend to pay me. If I open my accounting software and see an invoice six months or more past due despite my best collection efforts, I could get aggravated about the client and my inability to manage the situation. Instead, letting go of the unpaid balance means that I can free up that time and energy to get better clients who value me and are happy to pay.

From Zero to Clients: Starting (or Re-starting) Your Word-of-Mouth Referral Machine

Forget cold calling! Learn how to get pre-sold clients calling YOU!

Join MARY ELLEN BATES for another dynamic 60 minutes of learning in this LIVE WEBINAR.

Whether you’re just starting out or expanding into a new market, getting clients is one of the hardest aspects of being a solopreneur. In this webinar, Mary Ellen Bates will give you the tools to kick-start your most powerful marketing tool — your word-of-mouth referral network.


Date: Thursday, August 20, 2015

Time: noon EDT / 9am PDT / 4pm GMT

Duration: 1 Hour

Cost: $20

Can’t attend live? Register now and get access to the recording at the reduced $20 rate. (Archived webinars are $29.95)

You’ll learn:

The secret to word-of-mouth success You don’t need a fancy business name or killer tag line, but you do have to be memorable.

The 5 word-of-mouth essentials You have to be the first “mouth” in your word-of-mouth network. Learn how to get those first referrals.

Turning colleagues into allies Find out how to turn your competitors into valuable allies.

Working your existing network Even people who aren’t your prospects can be effective word-of-mouth marketers for your business.

Getting powerful testimonials Learn what questions elicit the best testimonials from everyone you know.

Don’t miss this webinar! Thursday, August 20 — noon EDT / 9am PDT / 4pm GMT

Fishing in the Right Pond

One of the secrets to success as a solopreneur, and to building a business that is competition-proof, is to make sure you are fishing for clients in the right pond. The sweetest words out of the mouth of a prospective client are “I had no idea there were people out there like you!” I can offer these clients a service they may not have realized they need, and for which they don’t know where else to turn.

What pond you go fishing in will depend on your specialization, background, existing network, and interest, of course. One way to develop good, on-going clients is to look for people in the revenue-generating aspects of their organization, people who are taking a risk, or people who are making strategic decisions. It can be challenging to find these folks; they don’t respond to direct mail or sales calls, and they won’t find you by surfing the web… they don’t have the time and are not likely to find professional services from a web search.

The best way to cultivate the kinds of clients who will sustain your business is to take the long view with your marketing. Identify the professional organizations your clients belong to, and volunteer to serve on the board of directors or on a high-profile committee. Go to the local – or national – meetings that your clients attend for professional development.

And, perhaps most importantly, listen and pay attention. When I ask a new acquaintance about his or her job, I will often identify a way that I can provide a service, even if my contact doesn’t see the need yet. Just as the serious anglers would never dream of telling you their favorite fishing hole, don’t expect prospective clients to tell you exactly how to pitch to them. You will discover this by establishing trust, asking questions and watching for clues. Your reward may be a pond that supports you well.