Business Building Essentials

While you’re thinking about how to give your business an injection of growth hormone, uniquely formulated to push your billable hours up and out of the doldrums, it’s also a good idea to reconsider some ground level business building essential practices that will confirm what you’re doing right and reveal what needs an edit.

Business founders must perfect not only the functionality and value of the products or services that are sold, but also create the organizational structure that will launch and support those products or services. You, founder and owner of the company, must ensure that you have your arms around each of these six elements discussed here. If ownership is shared by partners, then the responsibilities will be divided between you.

One division of labor method can be based on the percentage of the business owned, governed by abilities and preferences. Another method is to let ability and preference rule and choose a Managing Partner. That individual might own the largest share or the smallest share of the business, it doesn’t matter.

Managing Partners are compensated for the work they do, beyond the share of profit (or loss) that their ownership share entitles them to. Whether the business structure is Inc. or LLC, a W-2 salary can be paid to the Managing Partner. Discuss the matter of partner duties and compensation with your business attorney and put the agreement in writing.

A third option for monitoring and managing these responsibilities is to hire a W-2 employee or a 1099 Freelance consultant. There is no shame in calling in outside experts.

Positive cash- flow

The responsibility for positive cash flow belongs to the Finance Department, but the Sales Department is responsible for generating the revenue that keeps the business solvent. The Finance expert will monitor Accounts Receivable and Payable and enable a healthy cash-flow. In addition to generating sales, invoicing on time is critical to the process.

Operations

Inventory, quality control, managing employees and Freelancers, product manufacturing, delivery of core services, insurance and licenses and permits all land in this far- ranging category. IT, the telephone system and HVAC are other responsibilities that land in the Operations in- basket.

Operations functions are the nuts and bolts, where the rubber hits the road, hands-on aspects of the business. Excellent organizational ability is the key factor in successful operations management. Ownership of these duties can be assigned to whomever is best qualified to handle them. Sharing of theses duties by the partners and/ or hiring outside experts to oversee specific sectors will be wise.

Metrics to measure

The metrics used to measure business performance will change over time, but do some research of similar organizations and get insight into what numbers you should follow and the story they will tell, separately and together.

Plan to pivot

Doing business is so volatile now, it’s safe to say that a pivot is on your future, so why not anticipate it? Think about potential Plans B and C. Should your business venture falter, whether a flashy and well-funded competitor moves in or, gasp, you must contend with an unheard-of government mandated shutdown of your enterprise, how might your organization retool, pivot and survive?

You can help yourself by engaging and communicating with your customers to confirm why they buy from your company. You can also find out what competitive products and services may be appealing and why. In this way you can learn what you might adapt and hold on to customers should the business environment change. Staying abreast of new technologies on the horizon, new legislation, new competitors and even changes in local zoning

Culture and values

Bake into your business practices integrity, the expectation of excellence, first-rate customer service and, when necessary, the willingness to admit that a mistake has been made and an apology and/or a do over is in order. Let your customers, partners, suppliers, vendors, employees, Freelancers and most of all yourself see your humanity and your humor, too.

Coaching and mentoring

The founder(s), C-Suite leaders and staff deserve opportunities to sharpen their skills and even discover and nurture new competencies. Company sponsored professional development benefits a business in so many ways. Employees (and leaders) who feel confident about their skills and career possibilities and trajectories are nearly always happy to give back and do their best work.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark. Construction site on Ipswich Street adjacent to Fenway Park.

Coronavirus Cash Flow

Because federal and state governments chose to require most businesses to cease operations as a way to decrease public exposure to COVID-19, those entities have recently decided to throw a few dollars back at the citizens, to help us manage our financial obligations as the shutdown grinds on. As you may have predicted, the response may be inadequate and imperfectly distributed, but it will help a little bit.

CARES Act Economic Impact Payment

Every citizen and legal resident not claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return is eligible to receive an EIP, that is, a Stimulus payment of up to $1200 per person, or $2400 per couple, plus an additional $500 for each child.

Eligibility for financial assistance will be calculated from one’s 2018 (or 2019, if filed) tax filing, so make sure that one or both are completed and in the hands of the Internal Revenue Service and your state Department of Revenue. The new tax filing deadline date is July 15, 2020 for 2019 federal taxes and most states have assigned that date as a deadline as well, but I suggest you verify that ASAP.

Filing for extensions on the federal or state level remains April 15, 2020. To keep abreast of this fast-changing situation on the federal level, check in at http://irs.gov/coronavirus.

Single filers whose Adjusted Gross Income was $75,000, joint filers whose AGI was $150,000 and marrieds filing separately (head of household) whose AGI was $112,500 in 2018 (or 2019) will receive the full amount of the award (see above).

Single filers whose 2018 AGI was between $75,001 – $99,000 and marrieds whose AGI was $150,000 – $198,000 will lose $5.00 for every $100 that their AGI exceeds the $75 K and $150 K single or married filers thresholds. Regarding those whose AGIs are below the thresholds, there doesn’t appear to be a plan in place.

Children who qualify for the Child Tax Credit can help their family receive an extra $500 each. Dependent students aged 17 – 24 years will not bring the Stimulus benefit to the family but working students aged 18 – 24 years who file their own taxes and are not listed as a dependent on the tax return of another are eligible to receive a Stimulus payment for themselves.

The Department of the Treasury prefers to send Stimulus payments electronically so if you’d like to receive payment more quickly, make sure that your bank or debit card info is on file. If the IRS does not have direct deposit information for you as a result of previous tax refunds, there will soon be a website to allow filers to add that information.

CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program

This program was originally created to help business owners who employ fewer than 500 workers to retain their employees in those essential operations that are sanctioned to remain open during the shutdown. The PPP is technically a loan program that has the potential to become a grant. Those who apply need not prove any lost income or financial hardship. It’s recommended to apply for the loan through your business banker.

If 75% of the loan money is applied to payroll expenses and 25% is used to pay operating expenses such as rent and utilities, the loan will then be forgiven and essentially become a grant. If that formula is not followed, the business owner will pay a 1% interest rate, payable over two years, with the first payment not due for six months.

Freelance consultants benefit when the payroll portion of the loan calculation is instead applied to our revenues as determined by one’s “net earnings, wage, commissions and/or income from the self- employment venture.” If the Freelancer employed any full or part- time workers, they must remain on the Freelance entity’s payroll for a minimum of 8 weeks, at the original rate of pay, in order to qualify for the loan, as is the case with typical business owners. If the Freelancer hired other Freelancer contract workers to help out on a project, those contract Freelancers are not covered in the PPP calculation; they may apply on their own for the benefit and include that income.

FYI, PPP loans may be administered only by a pre-approved list of banks and the word is that for the most part, only existing business banking customers will be approved for the loan.

There are now millions of Freelance workers in the U.S. and the demand for PPP loans, which if handled as described above can become a grant, is high. It’s rumored that Congress is weighing the possibility of adding $250 million to the original $500 million appropriated for PPP, so that the Small Business Administration can expand the list of approved lender banks. To be continued.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark. Shopping at the South End Whole Foods Market in Boston, MA.

Business Failure: Autopsy and Recovery

Failure and setbacks in a business venture can take many forms, from a botched new product or service launch, to cash-flow insufficiency, losing the lease on the perfect storefront or office location, to the appearance of an aggressive new competitor. Business failure is painful and humiliating.

Even if the pre-launch planning and start-up capital are inadequate, significant research and planning and usually a large sum of money (that may have been borrowed) are nevertheless invested with the hopeful intention of bringing a new product, service, or company to life. If things don’t pan out, it’s inevitable that those involved feel crushed and demoralized.

The intricacies of launching and operating a business can cause any venture to falter, even if the founder is not directly responsible for the downfall. The many moving parts of a new venture can cause the founder to overlook essential factors, resulting in a failed launch.

Yet, in some cases,  it’s possible to recover and relaunch after an autopsy has been performed and you and your team (if there is one!) have figured out why things unraveled and how to avoid that problem and maybe others, too, in a second attempt. Common stumbling blocks include insufficient operating capital, an ill- conceived business model, an inadequate assessment of what target customers value and improper pricing.

Many Freelancers and entrepreneurs, after allowing themselves to grieve the loss, are able to move forward with determination and a better plan (and additional resources, most likely) to do much better in the next iteration. Take a look at these common causes of business failure and make note of the lessons to learn:

Unanticipated start-up costs and low sales revenue

Whether you self-financed and bootstrapped your business or borrowed from a bank or investors, you can find yourself in financial quicksand if your projections of start-up costs were underestimated and expectations for customer acquisition were blue-sky optimistic. It’s very easy to rack up big credit card debt and then succumb to panic that leads to making reckless decisions, such as second- mortgaging your home or borrowing from friends and family, as you struggle to successfully launch and create adequate business revenue. Unfortunately, you might find yourself unable to repay as expenses mount and customers are slow to arrive.

THE LESSON IS, do your homework. Thoroughly research the amount of money that will be required to launch your new business, or new product/ service, and make a rational plan for how to acquire the funds, whether you go to the bank, self-finance, ask to borrow from selected family and friends, or take on partners.

Regarding target customers, your first task is to figure out who will buy what you propose to sell, whether products or services. Is there a viable and growing market? Moreover, can you access those prospective customers, something that can be a challenge in the B2B sector.  Realistic financial projections will protect you, especially a Break-Even Analysis, which helps you predict when customer sales can be expected to pull into profit-making territory.

Finally, develop a profit-making business model. You must anticipate the start-up costs, be able to access the targeted customers, you must have the right method of delivering the products or services and pricing must be acceptable to the customers and profitable for the company.

Receivables collection problem

“They’d take sometimes 3 – 4 months to pay and it was killing my cash flow,” she said. “I couldn’t pay my suppliers without difficulty. (The company) refused to pay with a credit card. I was trying to get paid.” Lara O’Connor Hodgson, Co-Founder of the NOWaccount

As counter-intuitive as it seems, a business owner can have orders flying out the door and be totally broke. The problem, as described above by Lara O’Connor Hodgson, is that customers can be slow pay and the difficulty in collecting accounts receivable has put many businesses under.

THE LESSON IS, healthy cash-flow is essential to sustaining a viable business. Investigate the NOWaccount, which guarantees that invoices will be paid on time and in full (both you and the customer must have good credit). Those in a service business (me!) are advised to ask clients who contract to pay a project fee for an assignment to pay 15 % – 20 % of the total fee at the contract signing and link additional payments to project milestones or specific dates (at 30 day intervals, for example). The final payment owed should be no more than 25 % – 35 % of the total fee. In this way, you will receive regular infusions of cash and be much less vulnerable to a payment default by ghosting.

Powerful competitor

Facing a big new competitor is scary, but take a couple of deep breaths and take heart. If you’ve been in business for at least a year and managed to attract customers and deliver your products and services adequately, then you have a chance to hang on and continue with a growth trajectory. Just don’t panic; shift your adrenaline to market analysis instead. In reality, your competitor probably does not offer better quality products or services but rather has resources (like a generous advertising budget) that your organization lacks.

THE LESSON IS to 1.) analyze your competitor’s operation and determine the obstacles you need to overcome or what you need to do differently, i.e. smarter; 2.) refresh your customer knowledge to learn how their expectations and concerns may have changed to make them susceptible to switching their business to the competition; and 3.) avoid competing on price, which is usually an unwise strategy for smaller operations.

Larger companies have more money to work with and that allows them to hire more employees, offer a wider range of products and services, roll-out splashy marketing campaigns, stock more inventory and more flavors or colors and also offer lower prices because they can afford to buy in volume from the wholesalers.

Your defense is to brand your business well and customers reasons to think twice about opting for the competitor. Because no two businesses are alike, you must define for current and prospective customers why they’ll do better by doing business with you.

The heart of branding is defining and constantly communicating a company’s unique selling points, so you must 1.) understand the competition’s unique selling points and 2.) learn to clearly define and articulate your organization’s unique selling points so that you can build on the attributes that set your company apart and potentially make you valuable to customers.

When you understand your competition’s unique selling points and update your customer knowledge to learn as many specifics as possible about what resonates with them, at least theoretically, about the competitor’s unique selling points, you’ll see how to tweak your offerings in ways that reflect your company’s “house style.”

New and small businesses should definitely put an emphasis on excellent customer service. The digital revolution has not meant that customer interactions aren’t essential, even though face-to-face communication has become more limited for many.  To the contrary, customer service is even more vital in today’s business world.  Present a customer first attitude and create a pleasing customer experience. Go the extra mile to surprise and delight and your business will quickly become trusted and loved.

If you have employees, you also want to ensure you are the best employer in the industry. Having motivated and skilled staff will provide benefits for your customers and that will translate into benefits for your ability to successfully compete.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have suffered the frustrating experience of a business failure. For Scott Adams, creator of the world-famous Dilbert cartoons, life’s path wound through many jobs, failed startups, useless patents he applied for and countless other indignities. In his memoir, Adams shares lessons learned about keeping himself motivated, healthy and happy while racking up the failures that ultimately led to his success.

It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”  Bill Gates, Co-Founder and former Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Corporation

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood (1891 – 1942 Anamosa, Iowa, USA) courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting depicts an Iowa farmer and his daughter.

Negotiate Your Way into Healthy Cash-Flow

Lovely summer is here, generously rewarding us with warm breezes, long days and abundant sunshine.  Summer gives us many gifts but unfortunately, a generous amount of billable hours may not be one of them.  Two possible solutions to the impasse are to step up your networking activity starting in early spring, to help yourself meet and connect with potential clients who are in hiring mode and to let family, friends and referral sources know that you’re looking for projects.  Don’t be shy!

As a self-employed professional, you are the captain of your ship and it is your responsibility to take all reasonable measures to improve your financial position.  Your survival depends on it.  Smart marketing and prudent financial management are the foundation of a successful enterprise.

The most critical aspect of financial management for Freelance consultants and small business owners is to collect accounts receivable as quickly as possible, so that adequate cash-flow is maintained and accounts payable, employees and subcontractors can be paid on time.  Regarding your accounts receivable, I recommend that you take the following actions to encourage on-time payments:

  1. During the project specs discussion propose a payment schedule, perhaps tied to the timing and achievement of certain project milestones.
  2. Request a down payment of 20% – 35% of the total project fee and unless you’ve previously worked with the client, don’t start the project work until it is in hand.
  3. Invoice according to the agreed-upon payment schedule.

I cannot overstate the importance of these three actions.  Accountants estimate that in a given year, 5% – 10% of professional services providers’ invoices will be uncollectible.  The client is not always entirely at fault.  Freelancers must demonstrate that we intend to get paid and that’s done by being serious about the project payment schedule, requiring a project fee down payment and on-time invoicing.

Another helpful tactic is to make money by saving money.  Examining your accounts payable might help you gain a few dollars each month.  The number one accounts payable tactic is to avoid paying late fees by any means necessary.  Several years ago, many companies recognized that late payment fees are a very lucrative passive revenue stream and so they doubled, or even tripled, their penalties.  Some also shortened the length of their grace period window, when a late fee could be avoided.  Defend yourself from this predatory practice by flagging all accounts payable with their due dates as they arrive and make every effort to pay on time.

Another reason to pay on time is that a good payment record can sometimes be used to negotiate a lower credit card interest rate or request that certain fees might be waived or reduced at your bank.  While you’re on the phone and in the mood to negotiate, call your cell phone company and internet service provider and see what they can do to lower your monthly bill.

Adequate cash-flow is the life blood of every business, required to finance all business operations, including marketing campaigns, technological upgrades, professional development and other activities that support the venture.  No business can function effectively, much less grow and thrive, without healthy cash-flow.  Your diligence and negotiation skills can contribute substantively to its maintenance.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: The Fruit and Vegetable Seller (1631) by Louise Moillon (France, 1610 – 1696) Courtesy of La Musee du Louvre, Paris

Will That Be Check or Credit Card?

As every Freelance consultant knows, it is our pleasure and privilege to perform interesting and often mission-critical projects for clients whom we like and respect.  However, getting paid is the endgame and without exception, we all breathe a sigh of relief when the check arrives.  One vital element of maintaining adequate cash-flow in your business is to invoice on time, a topic that I covered a while back  Invoicing Inertia: The Cure .

Invoicing is only half of the battle, alas; it is smart and proactive cash management to make payment of invoices as swift and seamless as possible for the client.  In good economic times and bad, every once in a while clients will experience constricted cash-flow, even if they are the larger entity.  The ability to use a credit card to pay one of your outstanding invoices can be a great relief to them and could get accounts receivable into your hands as many as a few weeks earlier.

Let’s explore the basics of accepting credit cards and how to get started as a merchant who accepts the cards.  Twenty years ago, I spent a couple of years as an independent merchant payment services agent, selling Master Card, Visa, Discover and American Express processing services and card terminals to small business owners, so this topic is a nice walk through history for me.

Let’s start with some likely good options for a Freelance consultant.  Along with credit cards, you will also want to accept debit cards and eChecks.  You’ll choose the card not present processing option, so that clients can call you when the invoice arrives and phone in payment.  You may also decide to accept mobile payments, meaning that you will be able to accept client payments through your smart phone or tablet while you are at their office, or other location and to make that possible, you’ll also select the card present option.  In all scenarios, 48 hours post-transaction, the payment will be deposited into your business bank account.  You may not choose to invest in a (costly) credit card terminal unless clients visit your office.  Your card present transactions, if you do them, will most likely be mobile device payments.  You may decide against accepting American Express cards, since its processing fees are at least a point higher than Visa, MasterCard or Discover.

Call your business bank to get information about processing fees (about 2.5% of the transaction amount and 3.5% for AmEx cards).  There is also a separate fee called a transaction fee.  Freelance consultants will process few credit card transactions in a month and your transaction fee will be higher as a result.  In addition, there will be a service initiation fee and maybe also an annual fee.  Finally, there will be a statement fee if you’d like to receive  the hard copy of card, eCheck and mobile payments that you accepted.

The merchant approval process will center around an evaluation of your credit history and credit score, so if you need to pay down/pay off bills to improve your financial picture, do that first.  The associated merchant services fees will probably be impacted by your credit score.

If mobile payments will be explored, I can almost guarantee that Square will offer good service at very competitive processing rates  https://squareup.com/  You can also call Discover, Visa and Mastercard directly and find out what they’ll charge for your chosen merchant services.  Your bank may be where you buy eCheck processing services but then again, you may be able to negotiate a good merchant services package with your bank and get all that you want in one place.

Then there is the matter of security during the age of hacking, phishing and data breaches. If you belong to a business networking group, find a colleague who does internet services and ask how you take security precautions on your end.  The merchant services industry stays on top of security matters, but they are not infallible.

To sum up, be advised that although the various merchant services fees are an issue and you’ll want to secure the most competitive processing rates, good service and convenience matter.  As much as the process of expert payment transactions, you must seek out a system that will be reliable and user-friendly for both you and your clients.  A positive, glitch-free experience and excellent customer support are usually worth somewhat higher fees.  Consider it the cost of doing business. Getting paid by clients ASAP is, after all, the endgame.

Thanks for reading,

KIm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invoicing Inertia: The Cure

Freelance consultants are no strangers to cash-flow crunches and as quiet as it’s kept, the problem can be of our own doing, or not doing.  The reason for our cash-flow problem could be a slow-paying or, horrors, a non-paying client (an acquaintance who is a business accountant estimates that 5-10 % of professional services providers’ receivables will be uncollectible in a given year).  But we can be our own worse enemy in these matters and it is time to tame our invoicing inertia.

As example last week, I sent an invoice to a client that was worth four figures and was four months late.  Why was I so negligent, when I had important accounts payable to resolve? Why is it so hard for so many small business owners and self-employed professionals to stay on top of our accounts receivable and send out invoices on time?

In my consultancy, and I imagine this is true for most, client work, both performing it and networking to bring more of it in, are the priorities.  Billable hours are the name of the game. Then there is content marketing activity (this blog!) to send to my preferred social media platform (LinkedIn) and my website.  Other revenue streams—teaching twice /week, which entails responsibilities to my students, and producing a monthly post for the online magazine for women entrepreneurs where I am a staff writer—claim another chunk of time and creative energy.  Being in business requires considerable mental and physical stamina.

The invoice was for hourly work, rather than a project fee, meaning that detailed information was expected (and not unreasonably so).  The very thought of generating the thing nearly made me nauseous, so I found several avoidance-behavior activities that on the surface appeared to be ambitious, but in reality served mostly to enable my procrastination.  Then the client asked me about the invoice.  I was so embarrassed!

As I worked on the detailed, multi-page invoice, I thought about what I might do to simplify the process, so that I could easily generate scheduled invoices and would be motivated to do so.  Invoicing for a project fee is much easier than the hourly rate version and it was project fee invoices plus the job income  that sustained me while I neglected the hourly invoice.  Here’s what I recommend (my business accountant friend approves):

Collect in advance

Whether the assignment is paid by hourly rate or project fee, collect a percentage at the contract signing or email-documented agreement (20 % – 35 % of the project fee, or an estimate of the first months’ billable hours).  Discuss with the client a mutually agreeable invoicing schedule and honor it.

Create two all-purpose invoice templates

In the top left of a Word document, type in your name and/or DBA as the vendor, tax I.D. and contact info. This will become the permanent part of your template.  Below that, type in separate lines  for the client name, date, project deliverables, total amount of the project fee and the amount of the invoice.  All you’ll need to do is copy the template, drop in the specifics and presto! You’ll have an invoice to send.

The hourly rate template will have a cover sheet that is similar to the project fee template, but with the lines for rate (the dollar amount you’re charging/hour) and hours (total billable for this invoice) substituted for the project fee info.  A second page of the hourly rate template will have lines for four “week of” headings, ready for you to insert the dates and specifics of your weekly client work.

Either invoice can be used for retainer contracts.  If you are brought in to work a standard number of hours per month for a particular client, or you’re asked to perform predictable functions as needed throughout the year and you can reasonably estimate how often you’ll be asked to perform those services and your cost to provide them, then you can calculate invoice amounts in advance and determine a retainer fee.  If this is the case, then suggest a retainer arrangement at the next contract signing and bolster your income security.

BTW, it is not unusual to invite a client to pay the year’s (or quarter’s) retainer in advance. Offer some attractive incentives for yearly or quarterly advance payments, like a good discount or service add-ons.

On all invoice templates, indicate how the check should be made out (your name or DBA) and indicate that the invoice is due immediately (although it is accepted practice to pay invoices within 30 days). Finally, state that it is a pleasure doing business with your client.

Invoice on time

Whatever the agreed-upon payment schedule, be sure to follow it (not more than one week late). When you honor the invoicing schedule, you communicate to clients that getting paid within 30 days, if not sooner, is what you expect and deserve.  Timely invoicing also benefits your clients, who will be able to better manage their own accounts payable and cash-flow.  If you start to bring in more lucrative assignments, investigate the process of accepting credit card payments.  You’ll be paid faster, but a small processing fee will be deducted.

Invoice as marketing collateral

To date, my invoices are created on an unembellished Word document, but that is about to change.  I plan to align my invoice design with my other marketing collaterals.  Very soon, I’ll design an invoice PDF that contains a scan of my (lovely) business card, that will appear at center top.  All the other info will be written as described here.  You can also investigate free invoice templates in an online search.

In our hyper-competitive business environment, where clients hold the keys and seem to be looking for reasons to cancel projects that Freelance consultants depend upon, it is imperative that we project professionalism.  All interactions with clients, from the first meeting, to the excellence of our work and concluding with an accurate and timely invoice, must reflect well on our brand.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

Doing Business As

To forge a successful career as a Freelance consultant requires courage, resilience, possession of marketable skills, relationships with people who are willing and able to help you get hired into one money-making opportunity or another, an affinity for selling, the discipline needed  to set goals, a talent for big picture thinking and setting strategies, and an understanding of human nature and motivation. The ability to attract good luck and dodge bad luck helps, too.

Precious few Freelancers are able to just “go to the office” everyday and take on the usual work.  In order to generate an acceptable number of billable hours, we understand that multiple revenue streams must be created and that we must learn to recognize the marketability value of segments of our overall skill set and learn to  package, promote and sell those segments to prospective employers, as well as target clients.

Take my revenue streams, for example. When asked, my short form elevator speech is that I’m an external consultant who provides business strategy and marketing solutions to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. What that means in reality is that I’ve facilitated strategic planning meetings at not-for-profit organizations; edited a book and also served as its photo editor and project manager (it was published by the sponsoring organization); developed curriculum for a series of 90 minute sales skills training workshops; periodically teach business plan writing; and was made a staff writer at an online magazine targeted for women entrepreneurs.

Yes, I continue to do the business strategy and marketing assignments, but the fact is that there are always assignment gaps and I’ve learned to branch out and offer related skills that enhance my brand as they allow me to make some much-needed money.  In my experience, it is the ability to leverage your additional competencies that help a Freelancer to create and sustain a profitable business venture.

My friend Adela is a busy educational consultant who works with college bound high school juniors and their parents to first identify suitable colleges for the student and next to navigate the application process.  Her business seems to be quite lucrative, yet she nevertheless teaches Spanish at a local college (Adela was born and raised in Mexico and came to the U.S. to attend Harvard University).

Jackie, a friend of many years, launched a small, full-service fitness center that became very successful in that highly competitive market.  Yet Jackie has continued to teach fitness classes and train clients at a large downtown gym. Why? Not only does she earn a few extra dollars that a mother of four can always use, but also gets to observe sophisticated fitness center management from the inside and also receive instructor training in new fitness techniques that she can evaluate for inclusion in her own gym. Sometimes you can get paid to research the competition!

My friend Carole toggles between Freelance marketing for technology companies and corporate positions in that sector.  She’s a Lotus alumna who’s also worked for tech giant EMC, distinctions that command respect and open doors in the tech industry.  In between corporate gigs, Carole goes out on her own to develop marketing strategies for tech start-ups.  A couple of years ago, she was offered a position as director of marketing at one of those start-ups, but when the inevitable reorganization occurs, she’ll re-enter the Freelance life.

Now you, Freelancer friend, what else can you do to create additional revenue streams for yourself and if possible, enhance your skill set or obtain useful competitive information?

Sometimes an opportunity that is outside of your brand and strictly for cash-flow may present itself and I suggest that you discreetly take it anyway.  As long as running into prospective clients is not a danger, if time and energy allow, a pragmatic Freelancer understands the necessity of promoting cash-flow whenever possible.  Build up your retirement account, or use the money to attend seminars that provide professional development and potentially good networking.  It’s all about doing business as a solvent and successful Freelance professional.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Fatal Flaws in Your Business Plan

A business plan is the blueprint, or road map, that guides aspiring entrepreneurs as they build their business venture. Business plan writing is about getting the details right as you keep in mind the big picture.  I’ve taught business plan writing since 2008.  I was invited by the program manager of an SBA-affiliated women’s business development  organization to teach a 20 week course that met once a week for three hours and students wrote their plan week by week.

A couple of years later,  I developed a six hour workshop that does not ask students to write their plan but rather, I present material that shows them the information that will be included in a good business plan: a marketing plan (including customer identification, branding and pricing), financial projections, operations processes and other elements.  We talk about how to do research and how the information discovered will help them build a successful business and if desired, attract investors as well.

When envisioning a potential business concept or writing a business plan, it is possible that unrealistic expectations or flawed thinking could influence the process.  Sometimes, one is just so excited about the great business idea that has surfaced that the adrenaline “rush” distorts clear thinking, such as the ability to see potential stumbling blocks that would require precautions to avoid.  Below are a few scenarios that entrepreneurs-in-the-making should beware.

Unrealistic expectations about the need and value of your products or services

While it is sometimes true that starting a business with yourself as the profile that represents the target customer is a smart idea, since you understand the value and availability of that product or service,  you may misinterpret the size of the market and the traction that can be achieved beyond a select group of true believers.

Insufficient information about target customers

Whether or not the target customer is modeled on you, research must be done to verify the number of potential customers who have the money and motive to do business with you,  regardless if this is a B2B or B2C enterprise in the making. You must identify the need for your products or services—what problem will you solve, what solution will you provide?

Furthermore, you must understand the buying process—who is the usual decision maker (the COO or the head of maintence?),  how will purchases be made and what is the tolerable price range? Lastly, from whom are your potential customers obtaining these products and services now? You must also identify and investigate competitors.

Vague about how to access customers

Especially in the B2B sector, access to customers is everything.  Some fields really are a closed shop. You may know who the ideal customers are,  know and describe well how your products and services fit their needs and know how to price and deliver them.  But if potential customers do not have the confidence to do business with you because you have not received an endorsement from a source that they trust, you will starve.

Overestimating cash flow

Usually, a business does not achieve desirable gross sales, and hence will not show a net profit, in its first year of operations.  Businesses that require high start-up costs especially will require a longer ramping-up period. The business plan must acknowledge the potential for negative cash flow and demonstrate how fixed and variable expenses will be met during that period.  One must know how inventory will be financed,  how payroll will be met and how the store or office rent will be paid.

When writing a business plan,  conservative financial projections are strongly advised.  Acquisition of paying customers may take longer than you expect and the size of their purchases may initially be small and infrequent.  Moreover, it is entirely possible for a venture to be profitable on paper and still suffer from cash-flow problems, because customers do not pay their bills on time.

Underestimating start-up costs

Developing a reasonable estimate of how much it will cost to get the venture up and running is essential.  If certain permits must be in hand, if certain tools or equipment are must-haves, then you must know the costs of securing all of the above.  If you’ll need to hire employees,  it’s essential that you have a good idea of the staffing needs up front (you can always hire more as customers increase).

“Magical thinking” business model

The business model is the design for how your venture will become profitable.  Well thought-out interactions between marketing, financial and operational processes will promote and sustain profitability and you must map out how these will occur. The business model describes the core fundamental actions of the venture.

The value proposition of your products or services will be described.  The resources that your enterprise will have to promote and defend the value proposition— the intellectual property that you’ve developed,  or patent rights, key relationships, or capital—will be accounted for.  Sales distribution channels will be detailed.

Getting to Plan B, a 2009 book by Randy Komisar and John Mullins, describes key business model components and advises business plan writers to segment the business model chapter into sub-headings such as:

  • The revenue model,  which describes what you’ll sell, the marketing plan and how you expect to generate revenue.
  • The operating model, which will detail where you’ll do business and how the day-to-day will function.
  • The  working capital model, meaning your cash-flow requirements.  Cash-flow means that you’ll know when money will be in hand to meet expenses like rent and payroll. It is subtly distinct from revenue.  The business can generate adequate revenue and still suffer from intermittent cash-flow problems.

Your business model keeps you organized and your priorities realistic. Matters such as quality control,  collecting accounts receivable,  inventory management and identifying strategic partners mean much more than your number of Facebook followers, for example. Best of luck to you as you work to launch your new business!

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Transition: Employee to Freelancer

Happy New Year! Is your number one New Year’s resolution to establish your own entity and become a business owner or Freelance consultant? Are you planning to abandon the “safety” of a traditional job to directly market and sell your products or services to customers with money and motive to do business with you?

Going out on one’s own is a thrilling and sometimes frightening prospect. Those who take the plunge eventually discover that many resources that are casually taken for granted while working in an office are not readily available to those who step out on their own.  As you weigh your options and prepare to write your business plan,  be aware of a few changes and expenses to expect should you join the self-employed sector:

No paid days off

It is now Winter and there will be days when extreme snow fall could make it impossible to meet with a client or otherwise work.  Further,  regardless of the season,  there will be no more paid sick days,  vacation days or personal days.  In particular for those who own a small B2B or B2C venture where the business model requires you or your employees to visit a customer location (e.g., cleaning services),  or customers to visit your location (e.g., a laundromat),  snow days = no revenue days.

Establish business credit

For tax purposes,  it will be useful to open a separate business bank account and also apply for a business credit card or two.  There will be business expenses to write off and you want to make it easy to monitor spending.  Do yourself a favor and check your personal credit ASAP and correct any errors.

Financial management

Financial management will assume more than one form.  As noted above,  you’ll need to establish credit for the business,  so that you can order inventory and supplies without immediately impacting business cash flow,  for example.  Those are Accounts Payable items.  You will also need to ensure that clients pay on time,  or at all,  and that is an Accounts Receivable function.

Maintaining sufficient cash flow is crucial to the business’ survival and your own ability to keep a roof over your head,  food on the table and your car on the road. You must develop a business budget and plan for the purchase of equipment,  licensing costs (if applicable),  insurance (if applicable),  professional certifications (if applicable),  or space rental (if needed).

In addition,  you may consult with a business attorney or accountant to discuss the legal structure of your venture: Sole Proprietor,  Corporation (chapter S or C),  or Limited Liability Company.  The type of business that you’re in and your exit strategy will play a role in choosing the legal entity.

Paying for office supplies

Free scanning and photocopying will be over.  When you need to staple a few pieces of paper together,  you must buy the stapler and the staples and you’ll buy paper clips,  photocopy paper and envelopes,  too.

There will likewise be no meeting space or audiovisual equipment for you to reserve.  You’ll have to meet at the (prospective) client’s office,  or at a coffee shop or other restaurant.  Privacy might be an issue and arranging a Power Point or other visual presentation can be awkward as well.  A lap top computer or tablet are must-haves.  It will be imperative to possess the tools of your trade and to always appear as a competent and prepared professional as you develop your reputation and build your brand.

Next week,  we’ll look at more unexpected challenges that await those who choose to launch a business venture.

 Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

 

Staying Alive: Business Management Technology That Works

Business ventures new and old can fail for many reasons and small businesses are especially vulnerable to all manner of threats.  Even outrageous good fortune can kill a business,  when customer demand far outpaces the ability to effectively fulfill the demand. Fortunately, some challenges can be overcome through sound business practices that are aided by technology hardware or software that are not terribly costly.  Here are areas where technology can help Freelancers and small business owners get arms around common business stumbling blocks. There are also sales forecasting and business analysis tools available, typically by contract through a business services company. Are you ready to trade-up from your Excel spreadsheet?

1.  Operational efficiencies Efforts to deliver core products or services can fall short in under-staffed, under-capitalized organizations, especially when the CEO is inexperienced and overwhelmed.  Orders can be incomplete, late or lost altogether.  Payments to suppliers or sub-contractors could be late.  Invoices may not be sent at the agreed-upon time and as a result cash flow will be diminished,  which leads to all manner of problems, including the inability to make payroll, purchase inventory and other vital supplies, or meet work space rent or utilities payments.  There can be quality control issues with the products and services.  Customer service can be tone-deaf or unresponsive.  Employee skills and time may be inappropriately utilized, resulting in burn-out or wasted time.  Fear not, for there are readily available and typically affordable solutions.  Billing software can generate professional looking invoices quickly and accurately as well as manage common bookkeeping functions easily. Other business management tools can help the CEO to analyze key performance indicators that identify seasonal peaks and valleys that can be used to plan staffing needs, inventory and supplies purchases, or other necessities to meet increased or decreased demand.

2.  Mobile workforce Mobility is a must in today’s business world.  Not having access to client information while you’re on the road, perhaps while meeting with the client, is inexcusable and makes it impossible to uphold the quality of your brand. Invest in a tablet computer or  notebook computer that along with your smart phone will be loaded with apps and software that allow you to demonstrate that you are able to service client needs and answer questions wherever and whenever.  Mobile friendly business management tools allow you and your team to be equally effective in or out of the office.  Also, make sure that your website is converted to a responsive design format, so that it can be easily viewed from a smart phone or tablet.

3.  Manage growth Growth is always the goal, but it’s sometimes like drinking from the fire hose for a Freelancer or small business owner.  Serendipitous growth sounds like the answer to our prayers,  when the orders just fall into our laps,  but the concomitant follow-through can trip us up and burn us out as it rolls through like a tsunami.  Resource utilization— time, talent, staffing, money— all change as the business grows. The best growth is planned, which allows for budgeting and incorporation of the right technological tools, staffing, product or service delivery systems, quality control measures and customer service procedures that make us look like a pro and live up to the brand promise.

If you choose a business management platform that will allow you to perform forecasting and analysis,  be careful of the organization that you choose to work with.  Avoid long-term contracts and look for flexibility that allows you to get into and out of management platforms relatively quickly and inexpensively.

Thanks for reading,

Kim