These are the results of a study we did during 2010 to better understand how self employed use their working time and what challenges they face. Additionally, it covers important tasks during the first 2–3 years of the business and how to balance between business planning, administrative tasks, sales and marketing, and paid customer work.
Most self employed go through a similar life cycle that is central to understand when you start up your business. Without this, it is challenging to anticipate where to put focus in the early stages. We acknowledge that your personal experience may differ slightly from our results depending on the industry you operate in but we still believe these results reflect the small business community over all.
The research results are divided into 3 separate phases with concrete advice for both new and experienced small business owners.
1. Test your business plan early with potential customers
The very early stage, already before you have officially registered you business, your working time is dominated by business planning and market research. Don’t overdo the planning. Instead, test your ideas as early as possible with real people and update your draft business plan based on the feedback. Beware of what we call call the eternal planning mode, i.e. entrepreneurs that fill their day planning for every possible future scenario and try to solve challenges that they may encounter years ahead. It is important to realize that not everything can be planned for in advance and the best way to proceed is to create a good enough business plan with concrete goals and deadlines for the business over time.
What you really need to do is get out there and test your products and services in the real world. The best way to develop your business plan is to ask potential customers if they are willing to buy your products. If not, ask them why and they will tell you what you need to change. It is easier than you think.
2. Market your business and exceed client expectations
The second phase is crucial for developing and growing your business. It is really about learning how and what to sell and to get to know your target market and potential customers. History shows that few entrepreneurs get their products, services and pricing right on their first try.
The first months are all about gaining visibility for your business. There are hardly any silver bullets in small business marketing, the key objective is to make sure as many people as possible hear about your offering to them. Start with approaching your own personal networks, either offline or online using tools such as Facebook or LinkedIn. Approach them, tell them about your new business and ask them for help in the form of referrals, recommendations, or possible sales leads. If you are hesitant to approach your friends you probably need to re-evaluate if you really believe in your own business.
In addition, you should talk about your business whenever you have an opportunity to. Ensure you have proper online presence as most people do a Google search on you before buying from you.
When you get your first customer orders, make sure you serve your clients extremely well. Listen actively to your clients, don’t overpromise and always aim to exceed their expectations. Use the feedback you receive to further improve your services. Happy customers help you build a good reputation for your business and are more likely to recommend your services to their friends.
Your own clients recommending your business to others provides the absolutely best marketing channel for you.
3. Minimize your amount of non-paid work
Your business will start growing when you are able to provide real value and have satisfied customers. Your working day is limited and it easy to fill your calendar with tasks related to non-paid work when you really should try to maximize paid, client-related work. As the chart shows, entrepreneurs already work almost 20% more than regular employees on average, partly due to administrative tasks (data collected in Finland in Northern Europe).
There are great tools available for self-employed on the web that also people with less computer skills can use with ease. Some of them are even free to use. Take a few moments to find these tools already in the early stage when you have time to do research. The best tools offer a wide range of functionality such as time tracking, invoicing, expense management and financial reporting. Understanding the financial situation of your business is often underrated. You’ll appreciate financial insights when you need to invest in your business or want to take a few days off.
Another common mistake is to rely completely on manual tools such as Excel and Word templates. These are perfectly viable when you have just few customers and a lot of spare time during your working day. The situation changes quickly when you become busier serving customers. The required effort using manual tools will become a burden for you. Working late nights and weekends can easily turn into a habit without you even noticing. Keeping a good work and life balance is key for your wellbeing, your friends and family, as well as the long term success of your business.
Here are some key points that you should keep in mind when starting as self employed:
- Set clear goals for your business and acknowledge that you can not plan for every scenario in advance. Instead, start doing, listen to your customers and improve on the way.
- Make sure a maximum amount of people know about your business by using your personal networks and maximizing your visibility both online and offline. Build a strong reputation that leads to recommendations.
- Don’t create heavy processes in the early stage that need to be maintained when business is picking up. Instead, find a cost efficient tool and enjoy the free time you have in the early stage!
Helsingin Sanomat, 2011, http://bit.ly/j6mLKO (in Finnish) Suomen Pienyrittäjät ry. & Ventrado Oy 2010: “Hyvä Yrittäjä”-market survey