When I was approached by my first client back in January 2014, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would someday run an award winning agency. Fast forward three short years and that dream is now a reality, as last month we were listed as one of the best PR Firms in Seattle. How exactly did we get here, and is there a recipe to recreating our success?
In January 2014 I had recently graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in both Communication and Political Science and was working as a paralegal at a small boutique law firm. I began coding at 12, tinkered with websites all my life, and had even taken a few college courses in basic web design – but I had never built a website for someone else.
Along came a Seattle energy medicine practitioner named Travis Taylor. Travis tasked me with building a website for his new energy medicine startup. So I agreed to build him a website for a nominal fee to get my foot in the door. Travis and I still work together to this day and his site has morphed a lot since then.
Over that first year I continued to offer websites at a nominal fee to attract small businesses and solo practitioners who ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to afford fancy websites like some of their larger competitors. I learned a lot, and I’ve taken those lessons and created my own formula for success. Here are just a few of the lesson’s I’ve learned over the years.
1. If possible, prioritize organic growth over paid growth
When you start out it’s really tempting to invest heavily in advertising – but don’t! Seriously, as a service based business, your time and energy is better spent working hard to keep your existing clients happy – and when they are happy they will refer their friends and colleagues to you.
According to Iowa State University, most startups should plan to spend between 20 and 30 percent of their annual revenue on advertising. However, in my experience, the clients who know what they want and are serious about their project are not the ones paying attention to advertising. Serious clients usually ask their friends and colleagues for referrals when they need help. I’ve found that when I advertise, I end up with difficult clients who need a lot more hand holding and some who want you to discount your rates.
So instead of investing 30% of my revenue in advertising, I offer a referral program that provides my existing clients with $150 referral account credit for each client they refer me. This way I can focus on what I do best and let my work speak for itself.
2. Be efficient and frugal, but not cheap
The key difference between efficiency, frugality, and cheapness is that efficiency and frugality are prioritize quality, productivity, and value over quantity. Cheapness is overlooking quality in favor of quantity and cost savings.
There is almost always a reason why one service is free while another similar service charges. For instance, when I got started I decided to use a free accounting and invoicing software because I was a broke entrepreneur and didn’t want to invest in a paid accounting software. One day I started noticing that none of my clients weren’t paying their invoices. I kept sending reminders and yet I still never got paid. Eventually I needed to get paid, so I would email or call the client – who proceeded to tell me that they never received the invoice to begin with. Turns out, my free invoicing software was having issues sending invoices – and I didn’t even notice until months later when all of my invoices were past due. This is the kind of thing you get when you prioritize savings over quality. Just invest in a good invoicing software and this kind of thing won’t happen to you. You’ll thank me later.
3. Don’t nickel and dime your clients
Seriously, it takes 2 minutes to bill for a 0.1 or 6 minute increment. That means that for every 6 minutes you bill, you’re only getting paid for 4. Set a minimum billing and stick with it, and if possible just charge an annual flat fee for WordPress core, theme, and plugin updates.
4. Don’t charge your client to fix your mistakes
I know it’s tempting to charge your clients to fix your mistakes, but just don’t do it. It’s not good business.
Eventually you’ll get an email from a client saying “the changes you made aren’t working” or “you made a mistake”. If you think the mistake was in the content they sent you, then of course you should look back at the content they sent you to see if the mistake is yours or theirs. If it’s their mistake, then of course you should charge them. If it’s your mistake, then fix it, and own it.
5. Keep your business separated from personal
I’m notoriously guilty of accepting friend requests and going out to drinks with clients. From experience, I would advise that you approach these situations with extreme caution. A drink or two at happy hour is fine. Just don’t go getting wasted at the local pub with your client. It’s not good business.
If, like me, you tend to be super political on social media, then you should consider that before you accept a friend request from your client. If you decide to keep your personal profile separate from your business, then just explain that when you decline their friend request – and it’s best to explain it in an email. Don’t leave them to wonder why you declined their friend request – just be nice about it and explain that it’s your policy to keep your business separate from your personal life and that they are more than welcome to follow your business page.
This goes for emails and text messages too.
Generally, you should refrain from exchanging business related communication via text message. Why? Well, let’s say your client sends you both text messages and emails, and let’s say at some point in the future you need to go back to find a communication you had with them – but you can’t remember whether it was via text message or email – having all of your client communication via email would make it a lot easier to find in this circumstance.
6. Contracts contracts contracts
I can’t say this enough. When you first begin working with a new client, you should always always document the scope of the project in a signed agreement. This way if there’s ever a question of what you and the client agreed to, you’ve got it in writing to refer back to.
7. Lists are your friend
When I first started doing this work I was terrible about making lists when I met with a client. I thought I could remember everything they told me – I thought wrong. The one thing clients hate more than anything else in the world is repeating what they told you over and over again. Just write it down!
So there you have it. My 7 top tips for recreating the success we’ve seen at Sound Strategy. There’s a reason we were named on the top 20 list of Seattle PR Firms – because we focus on keeping quality clients instead of the quantity of our clients – and because we’ve learned from our mistakes and applied the lessons we’ve learned to create a more robust and successful business.
I’m sure there are others that you’ve found that work for you. If you feel so obliged, please leave your tips in the comments and we’ll add them to a future update.