How to make yourself competition-proof

unique-ccI was chatting with a friend the other day who, among other things, is a professional wallpaper installer. A local hotel had contacted her and asked for a bid to redo all the wall coverings in their halls. She knew that her price would be higher than others in town; in fact, she knew that her client was getting competing bids. But as we talked, she thought through what her client was actually paying for.

  • She has 25 years of local experience with other hotels in town, all of which can confirm that she is professional, prompt and pleasant to work with. They have seen her show up in the middle of a snow storm or work late at night in order to get a job done as promised. They can vouch for her reliability and commitment to her clients.
  • She is friendly, quiet and courteous to hotel guests. She minimizes disruption and treats the hotel’s customers as her own. She has never had a guest complain about noise or inconvenience during her projects.
  • She does not advertise; she gets all of her work through word of mouth, so her business model is built around a commitment to providing high-quality work at a fair price and treating all her clients as she would like to be treated. Her business succeeds when her clients are delighted with her work.

She and I reflected that as we become (ahem) chronologically gifted, our value to our clients increases. We know that our most important asset is our reputation, which we have built over decades. Sure, our clients may be able to find someone who does what we do for a lower price, but they can’t find anyone with our track record and personal investment in delighting every client.

What are you doing to build and strengthen your professional reputation in ways your clients value?

[photo “Unique” by Jiří Zralý is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

How to talk about price

man recoils in horrorOne of the scariest things a solopreneur has to do is start the discussion of how much a project will cost. You might be having a great conversation with your client, in which you learn everything your client needs and you figure out how you can delight your client with your deliverable. Then comes the big moment where one of you has to start talking about cost….

Do you choke?

I used to. I would stutter and ramble and eventually get around to saying “Well, I guess we had better talk about how much this is going to cost.” It would feel awkward, especially when the client would turn around and say “What do you think it should cost?” and I would have no idea what to say next.

Now, I have a better way to handle the discussion of price – I own it. During my conversation with a client, I focus on what her goals are and how she is going to measure success in this project. I listen for opportunities to offer something she didn’t think to ask for that would really enhance the outcome. I focus entirely on what my client is trying to accomplish, not on what specifically I’ll do. (The description of the deliverable will be in my proposal.) After I have a really good sense of my client’s biggest needs in this situation and how I can amaze her with what I provide, then I just ask the next question.

“So, what kind of budget do you have in mind for this?”

Just like that. Then I shut up. Virtually every time, clients share with me what they expect to spend for this project; one recent client told me his entire marketing budget for the year and said he just wanted to have a little left over after my engagement for one other expense.

If a client hesitates, my response is along the lines of “Knowing how much priority this has in your overall budget helps me understand what level and depth of work is appropriate. Rather than my trying to guess a number and then design a deliverable around it, I can know exactly what this is worth to you and I’ll show you how much value I can pack into that budget.”

In my experience, after I have proven that my focus is on my client’s best interest and not just my own bottom line, clients are more than willing to share with me what they plan on spending. Every once in a while, they truly have no idea what a project will cost. In those cases, I am happy to spend the time required to scope out several options. But in most cases, when I write up a proposal, I already know how much my client values the solution to this problem and I can design something that they can’t turn down.

Think like a rock climber

rock climberI’m from Boulder, where there seem to be more professional rock climbers than people like me who like our feet planted firmly on terra firma. Whenever I drive up a canyon, I can see the tiny figures of people halfway up a sheer rock face, appearing to defy both gravity and common sense.

Our local newspaper has a regular column for rock climbers and a recent one caught my eye. Chris Weidner, in “Don’t just get stronger, get smarter“, offers four tips for mental toughness that seemed directed at us solopreneurs as much as it was to those about to scale the side of a mountain.

1) Make learning your goal, not achievement. While it’s important to focus on what you want to accomplish, pay attention to the landscape and signposts along the way. If you are too attached to meeting your goal by using a specific technique or by marketing to a specific market, you won’t see the indications that you need to veer off in a slightly different direction. Stay flexible and always open to taking in new or unexpected information.

2) Free yourself of wishing behavior. For rock climbers, wishful thinking sounds like “if only that foothold was better” or “if only I were a little taller”. For solopreneurs, it might be “if only the business environment were better” or “if only my clients had more budget”. Instead of putting your energy into the things you have no control over, focus on what you can control and affect. Your attention is one of your most strategic resources, and it needs to be focused on what you can accomplish.

3) In the midst of doubt, come back to what you know. It is easy for solopreneurs to feel overwhelmed; we are responsible for every aspect of our business, and its success or failure is on us. Sometimes we listen too much to our doubts instead of our strengths. If you feel like you don’t know what to do next, take a deep breath and think about your focus. What is one thing you can do to understand your situation better? What one step can you take that gets you in the right direction?

4) Get out there and try hard. I have always believed that failure is a sign that I am stretching myself and expanding my possibilities. Some of my business efforts have worked surprisingly well; others have failed miserably. If I defined myself by my failures, I would have closed my business years ago. Instead, I know that I always have to be pushing my comfort zone, and doing something slightly beyond what I see as my capacity.

While you may never be climbing a rock face, consider adopting the mental toughness required of serious rock climbers.

Even the Death Star is client-focused

deathstarIf you are a true Star Wars fan, you know who Colin Cantwell is. For the rest of us, let me introduce you to a concept designer whose ability to be entirely client-focused landed him a really awesome gig.

George Lucas discovered Colin Cantwell after seeing his special-effects work on “2001: A Space Odyssey”. They met and, according to a recent interview with Cantwell, he and Lucas discussed a project that turned out to be the first “Star Wars” movie. Yes, this is the man responsible for designing the Death Star, the X-wing starfighter and lots of other amazing vehicles and ships.

How did Cantwell land this plum assignment? As he was sketching out ideas, he kept asking Lucas what needed to happen, what needed to be the audience experience. He didn’t talk about how great his work was on “2001”; he didn’t try to talk Lucas into anything. He just showed that his priority was to make sure his client achieved his goal.

You may not be designing the next Death Star and your next client may not be George Lucas, but you can maintain that same lightsaber-like focus on your clients’ key goals. May the Force be with you.

Using Google Trends for CI

On Nov. 25, the Wall Street Journal had an article about finding the best “door-buster” items for Black Friday and Thanksgiving weekend sales. A graphic accompanying the article caught my eye – it showed dramatic spikes in Google search activity for a particular brand of women’s boots every year at the end of November… just around Black Friday.

This graph was generated by Google Trends and, while it wasn’t the focus of the article, it got me thinking about the usefulness of Google Trends in identifying marketing opportunities. Imagine what you would learn if you searched for your key products or services, or those of your competitors. If you learned that your customers were looking for information about a competing product during a predictable time period, wouldn’t you want to time your communications to be talking with your market right then?

 

How’s your solopreneur mindset?

I have often wondered about why some people succeed as solopreneurs and others don’t. Almost everyone I run into has at least the basic skills needed for their business; it isn’t that they can’t do the work. Rather, I see attitude and approach as the distinguishing factors between successful business owners and those who never seem to get the traction they need.

Successful solopreneurs become accustomed to living outside their comfort zone. They regularly scare themselves silly. They know that having a great idea is easy; it’s putting that idea into action that requires guts. They may not be natural extroverts (in fact, most of them probably describe themselves as introverts), but they figure out how to act like an extrovert. They learn how to network in ways that are both authentic and effective. They practice their public speaking skills until they can at least convey the impression that they’re enjoying themselves. They hone their writing skills so they can effectively communicate and engage with their market. In other words, they learn to operate while scared.

Successful solopreneurs always think from their clients’ perspective. When they are negotiating a project budget and scope, they always find out what their client’s most important goal is and figure out how they can have the biggest impact on their client achieving that goal. (See my article on Successful Client Needs Interviews for more discussion about this.) They go the extra distance for a client, whether that means adjusting timelines or priorities, creating a new deliverable, or spending more time to make sure the job was done right. They are committed to having every client be delighted with the outcome of their engagement.

Successful solopreneurs ask “why”… a lot. They question the status quo. When they’re told that no one has ever done it that way, they ask why. They will try something new if it might achieve better results than the way things are currently done. They shake things up and assume that whatever they are doing now will need to be changed within a year. They put a sunset clause in every service and product, and re-examine their usefulness, relevance and popularity regularly.

Successful solopreneurs are future-focused. They listen to their clients to identify their most pressing concerns. They proactively seek out opportunities to create value for their clients rather than just waiting for business to come to them. They aren’t afraid to fail; in fact, their philosophy tends to be “Never fear making a mistake; just don’t make the same mistake twice.” They learn from every experience, and focus on solving problems rather than complaining about the current situation.

And finally, successful solopreneurs are committed to having fun. They start with the intention of creating a business that lets them do what they love and that lets them integrate their work into the rest of their life. If something isn’t fun, they figure out either how to have fun doing it or what to do that accomplishes the same thing and is more fun.

As you take an end-of-the-year look at where your business is and where you want it to go, consider how many of the following characteristics sound familiar — or at least attainable. What can you do now to enhance your solopreneurial mindset?

Logo or no?

I used to advise new solopreneurs to invest in a professionally-designed logo – something that reflects well on their business and conveys a certain permanence. And while I have one that I use for invoices and proposals on letterhead, I haven’t used a logo on a business card for years.

Why? A couple of reasons. First, my goal is always to be building my word-of-mouth referral network and that means people remembering my name. I cannot think of an instance in which I remembered a professional because of the person’s logo. In fact, I often can’t remember a person’s business name, but I always remember the individual’s name. So I want to make sure that what my contacts remember is my name and not just a splashy logo.

Second, customized business cards are getting better and better. I order new cards every six months or so, based on my marketing focus and what events I will be attending. Sure, I could slap my logo on a card and just keep printing copies as I run out, but I really like the designs available through companies like VistaPrint.com and MOO.com. The layouts are clear, the designs eye-catching and professional, the options for card stock almost limitless.

I was surprised when I was showing some colleagues my latest business card and, after handling the heavy card stock, rounded edges and thought-provoking quotes on the back, they all asked for a card to keep for themselves. They all knew who I was and how to get in touch with me, but the card felt like something worth keeping. (It was MOO’s “You Can Quote Me” design.) Note that the design and layout are eye-catching enough that I didn’t need a logo to make the card worth keeping.

So, while a logo is nice to have, I would probably invest more on business cards you really like and less on a fancy logo that you don’t use much.

 

 

Improving your ca$h flow

Summer is a slow time for many solopreneurs; our clients are on vacation or taking Fridays off, and they just aren’t calling as often as they do during the rest of the year. That means that many solopreneurs are facing a cash crunch this summer. Our recurring expenses — utilities, ISP, health insurance, etc. — still need to get paid, but the income isn’t coming in. If you were able to anticipate this slow-down, you put money aside to cover your basic expenses when your income is not coming in. But even with preparation, it’s nice to get the cash flow going again. The following are a few thoughts on how to ease cash crunches.

  • Request prepayment of all projects. Many of us do this routinely, or at least get a certain percentage of the not-to-exceed budget up front. However, if you really don’t want to wait for payment 30 days after the end of the job, consider offering a 10% discount for prepayment in full.
  • Learn the name of the Accounts Payable person for each of your clients and contact him or her to find out what you can do to expedite payment. Is there a billing number or cost center you should reference? Do they prefer the invoice electronically? I have found that the smaller the client, the faster I get paid, as long as I’m on a first-name basis with the A/P person.
  • If you don’t already, obtain a merchant account so that you can accept credit card payments seamlessly. Many companies offer this service now, including PayPal, Square and Stripe; while they charge a fee of a few percentage points, you get the money in your bank account within a few days.
  • Include bank wire transfer information when you send your invoice. Your bank or credit union can provide you with this information, and many Accounts Payable departments prefer paying electronically.
  • Pay your expenses with a credit card instead of a check as long as you can pay the credit card bill in full every month. Not only does this postpone payment, but it is much easier to get a refund on a purchase if it was paid for by credit card. Of course, this assumes that you are not carrying a balance on your business charge card. If you have a balance on any of your credit cards, cut up the card and focus on paying down the balance before making any other discretionary purchases.
  • Pay invoices just before they are due. The most efficient way to ensure that no invoice slips through the cracks is to pay bills at single sittings, either weekly or semimonthly. Set up automatic payments when feasible.
  • Don’t take any actions that would suggest to a client or vendor that you are short on cash. So, for example, don’t cancel your business phone line, your web site or any online services that you depend on. You want to always present yourself as a business that will be around a year from now. And remember that your revenue will rise in a couple of months. If you have to spend time re-establishing accounts you canceled, you haven’t saved much in the long run.
  • And finally, take this time to work on some of your long- and short-term marketing projects. If your business is slow, then you have plenty of time to focus on creative ways to remind your clients of why they can’t live without you.

A tag line that works

cleaning-fairiesI just saw a car with a large sign for a local housecleaning service, The Cleaning Fairies/ The tag line was perfect:

We give you your weekends back !

I live near Boulder, and there’s nothing Boulderites value more than free time we can spend in the mountains — skiing, hiking, kayaking, climbing, biking — anything to enjoy our 300+ days of sunshine every year. (And yes, when I saw their car, I was playing hookey and on my way up to the mountains, just because I’m self-employed so I can.) The message I took from the tag line is “I know how much you value your free time, and isn’t that worth way more than the cost of a cleaner?”

What better way to sell the value of your service than by reminding people of a better way they could be spending their time?

How do you describe your service to prospective clients? Do you talk about what you do or how you do it, or do you talk about the amazing thing that happens when you are done? And see this post about understanding and speaking effectively about your value.

 

Who’s showing up for work?

We solopreneurs are CEOs of our business, but that stands for Chief Everything Officer. We are responsible for everything from strategic planning to marketing to sales to accounting to – oh, yeah – whatever it is that we charge our clients for.

As I plan out my day every morning, I make sure my most strategic self is showing up. Since I’ve found that my most creative time is in the morning, I schedule my Business Analyst persona for uninterrupted time from 9 until to noon most days. After lunch, my Accounting alter ego may appear to handle invoices and bills, or the Writer will come on the scene to queue up some blog posts and a newsletter article. Some days I need my IT skills to troubleshoot the video editing software, or my Marketing self to work on a new outreach effort for AIIP.

If I approach each day’s tasks with the question “who is the best persona for this job?”, I am more likely to be operating at my peak. If I am dealing with a technology issue, I marshal my forces — my Troubleshooter, Creative Problem-Solver, and We Can Do It personas step up to help me figure out a solution. If I have to conduct some primary market research on my own business, I call up my Explorer, Listener, and Open-minded personas to enable me to find out what I don’t know I don’t know yet.

When you tackle something, particularly when it’s not tapping into your strengths, run an inventory of your internal personas and see which ones you can bring to the job.