Create an operations manual. It’s probably business advice you’ve heard on more than one occasion. If you’re like most solopreneurs, it’s one of the things you skip — maybe because admin tasks just aren’t what you got into business for, or perhaps because you’re not sure what it is or why you need one.
We’re going to fix that today. Even if you’re just starting out, you can benefit from creating an operations manual! Let’s start at the beginning…
What is an operations manual?
Think back to the last time you started a job. You probably received a company handbook. That handbook laid out the company’s mission, rules, and procedures. They’re a required read to learn about the company’s expectations for you as an employee.
That document was the company’s operations manual. They built it over time as the company grew, likely adding to it as they found information they need to reference and relay to other people. It helps ensure the people they hire know what to expect and do while at work.
Even if you’re a one-woman show today, an operations manual can save you time, money, and headaches down the line.
Why create an operations manual for your solopreneur business?
There are a few reasons an operations manual might be a wise addition to your solo business.
1. Increase productivity. As your business grows, you’ll find your responsibilities do, too. Keeping track of every task you need to do will become impossible if your brain is your only storage system. You’ll inevitably start to miss steps in tasks you do on a regular basis. You’ll spend hours looking for a document because you don’t remember where you saved it. Soon you’ll find you’re spending more time fixing mistakes than moving on to the next task. Creating an operations manual will ensure you never miss a task or a step to complete things, saving you time and unnecessary stress.
2. Get organized. Organization should be a top priority as your business grows. It’s inefficient to have the tools you need to run your business scattered across a variety of platforms, apps, and devices. You end up wasting precious time trying to remember where the thing you need is, then searching for it across all the places you use for storage. By creating an operations manual, you build a central hub where things are all in one place and easily accessible.
Prepare to grow. Your business goals include growth right? While growth comes in many forms, many times it means bringing people on to help you. These people could be employees, freelancers, or collaboration partners. An operations manual will help you bring them up to speed quickly on what your business is about and how you run it, saving time (and money) in the onboarding process.
Your operations manual can be as simple or as robust as you’d like. There’s no right or wrong answer here. Keep this in mind, though: As your business continues to grow, it is much easier to implement new ideas if there is already a record of how things are currently done.
I know getting started can be hard so I’ve put together a few suggestions to help you out:
The options for items to include in your operations manual are endless. Decide what’s important to keep your business running in top form and put it in your manual.
Where to create your operations manual
I recommend creating your operations manual in a system you already use. I like to access my operations manual from anywhere, so I built mine in Trello. You might find Google Drive, Evernote, Asana, or some other system works better for your business. If you prefer to use a non-electronic operations manual, a binder with dividers is easy to update and copy.
Start building yours today
If your business plan includes growth, it’s never too early to start creating an operations manual. Next time you write and upload a blog post, for example? Take note of all the steps you take. It may seem like a lot of work, but an extra hour or two now can save time in the long run — and who doesn’t love saving time?
Your days, back in your hands.
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Starting a business can feel confusing, and can quickly become overwhelming. For some, a business plan is the solution to all these problems.
I have to agree that, on paper, it does sound pretty good. But I’m here to warn you: A business plan is not always what you should worry about when you’re ready to embark on the entrepreneurial journey.
Back in my corporate days, I worked on more business plans that I’d dare to admit, and let me be brutally honest: they all ended up in a drawer, never to be used again.
You do need some sort of plan, though, so let’s jump right into why a business plan might be the last thing you need, and what can you do instead to set up your shop for success.
Why having a business plan is the last thing you should worry about
1. Things never go as planned (and it’s perfectly okay)
A business plan assumes that you know things that you don’t know yet — and that no one expects you to know yet.
It can feel a little like writing a travel diary before you’ve actually been on your holiday: you can guess what places you’ll be visiting and the food you’ll be eating, but you have no real idea of what the journey is actually going to be made of.
2. There’s no room for experimentation
Business plans have a very ”set in stone” tone, when in reality starting a business is more about making the best possible hypothesis (on your product, your prices, your audience), getting out there and testing it out, and then re-assessing and changing direction if needed. It’s all trial-and-error.
3. You’re a one woman shop, not a board of directors
Corporate business plans include things like loss and profit planning, key personnel to hire, and other metrics aimed at appealing investors, and creating consensus amongst all directors.
As a solopreneur who likely isn’t trying to appeal to investors or a board, any plan that you have should be customized for your situation. It has to be written for you, by you, and with your own words. Not for a bank; not for a board of directors.
Where does that leave us? We know that business plans can be a waste of time for solopreneurs. But, no plan at all is a five-star recipe for disaster. I have an idea.
The better alternative to a business plan for solopreneurs
Rather than a business plan, create a workflow that will allow you to focus on what’s important. Something that:
Makes sense for where you’re at in with your business;
Is actionable and revisable;
Won’t let you quit
Here are some ideas:
1. Use the “3×4 makes 12” rule
As a solopreneur, you wear two very different hats: the boss hat, and the employee hat. But it’s not always easy to know when to work for your business and when to work on your business. Hence, the 3×4 makes 12 rule — or, how to grow and reach your yearly goals.
12: Once a year, write down your objectives. This will take time, but it is crucial. Be as specific as possible. If one of your objectives is to increase your sales, note by how much? If you want to grow your email list: How many subscribers do you want to reach by the end of this 12-month period?
3×4: Every 3 months (so 4 times per year) look at your 12-month goals and ask yourself: What do I need to do in the next 3 months to get closer? This quarterly assessment allow you to stay focused on your yearly goals, while making room for experimentation.
Once you have your 3-month plan (based on your 12-month plan), break down your objectives into small, actionable tasks organized by priority, and focus on doing.
2. Focus on what matters, not on what will matter a year from now
If you want to make progress in your business, you have to prioritize. It’s tempting to work on everything at once, especially in the early stages.
But the truth is: You don’t need to spend four hours on social media per day, while building your products, while setting up paid traffic campaigns, while trying to designing your website, while doing client work or fulfilling orders, while producing regular content. (Editor’s note:We promote sanity around these parts, not craziness!)
To avoid the frenziness, take a step back and ask yourself: What is important right now? Don’t get ahead of yourself and keep it simple: one little, but meaningful, step at a time.
The path to a profitable and successful shop is a different journey for every business. The key to doing what’s important right now is knowing what phase of business you’re in, and doing what makes sense in that spot. I’ve outlined a few stages and some ideas of what’s important in each, below.
The direction stage sets the base. By doing some research and strategic thinking from the get-go, you can be confident that what you build upon it will have a solid foundation.
The things you want to focus on here are defining your target market, business mission, vision and values. This is also a great time to take a look at the competition and understand your business landscape: are there any influencers or trends to know about? Finally, this is the time to evaluate your product idea before you dive in and create it.
This is the time to register your business, make sure you’ve got your legal basics covered, and set up a system for managing your finances.
This is also a great time to get a basic brand identity and website together. This can be tricky because it’s easy to get caught up in it and spend hours and money on more than you need right now. My advice? Start small. You’ll have plenty of time to expand this later on.
A basic visual identity with a logo, a color palette, and a couple of fonts is enough to streamline your brand without necessitating too much time and money. Same goes for your website.
Finally, this is the stage to package up your services or, if you are selling physical products, create a minimum viable product and price it.
This stage is about bringing qualified traffic to your site, marketing your products, and getting a few sales in.
Bringing traffic to your site and marketing your products can be done in many different ways. Using the customer research you’ve done in the first stage, pick the channels that are the most likely to bring qualified traffic to your site.
This stage is the hardest because it’s easy to feel like you have to do all.of.the.things at once. To prevent this, remember the 3×4 rule and pick only a few channels to focus exclusively on for three months at a time. Four times a year, re-assess.
Additional note: It’s normal for this stage to take a lot of time. Remember to re-assess every three months and stay focused, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
This, solopreneur, is where you’ll likely spent most of your business life once you’ve successfully set up shop through the first three phases. With traffic and a few sales, it’s time to tweak and improve what you’ve built, in order to improve your sales and your following, and to diversify your offering.
All these fancy or more complex things that you probably wanted to do right from the start (like playing with more social media networks than any normal human being can handle, testing and improving your conversion rate, and beta testing new products) finally make sense now.
Your support system
Yes, you need to pick a direction, have a vision, and build an action plan around it. But you don’t have to have a formal business plan. Knowing where you’re at in business and creating a plan that allows you to stay focused on what matters trumps a formal business plan any day.
We have a problem in the online business community: too much planning and not enough doing.
In an attempt to avoid being another wantrepreneur dreamer with big ideas and little action, many new business owners are diving head first into their work without taking the time to put together some thoughtful strategy.
While the advice to “start before you’re ready” is on point, you can get started in a smart way that allows you to set yourself up for success from the start.
A combination of planning and systems implementation will save you hours of heartache in the long run.
1. Get clear on your business model
The first, big-picture thing you should do, before planning out any systems or tools, is to get clarity on what kind of business you want to have.
Short-term, you may be focusing on 1-on-1 freelance work, and nothing else, which is fine.
But if you’re wanting to evolve quickly from a 1-on-1 model to an agency model or a products and courses model, you need to plan accordingly.
Map out your one-year plan, then set up the following systems with the long-term goal in mind. It will minimize the number of changes you’ll need to make as your business evolves.
2. Map out your project workflows
The next thing you should do is put together a rough outline of what tasks you’ll be doing, and in what order, to complete your work. For example, if you’re a copywriter, you may have the following workflow:
1. New client intake
2. Create first drafts
3. 30-minute client feedback call
4. Create second drafts
5. Final client approval
6. Finalize drafts
7. Copy delivery
8. Client offboarding
Now your initial reaction may be, “but why? I know I have to do that anyway.” And it does seem like something that’s easy to handle…at first. But as you get deeper into projects, it will be easy to forget exactly which stage you are in for each client.
In an interesting research study, a checklist system, inspired by the one pilots use before each flight, was introduced to hospital surgeons. Many surgeons were against the idea of being forced to use a checklist to do something they were experts at. The results, however, surprised them, and the researchers found that being forced to use the checklist brought the hospital consistently better surgery results.
When the 20% of surgeons who remained opposed to using a checklist by the end of the study were asked if they would like a doctor to use a checklist when operating on them, 94% responded yes.
So even if you don’t believe the checklist will help you, outlining your workflow for the client can give them peace of mind that you have a process they can rely on to get their deliverable. It’s a win-win.
In addition to delivering a good product in a timely manner, making your client feel taken care of from the minute they apply for a discovery call is a surefire way to ensure a smooth experience that results in testimonials and referrals.
Have you ever started work with someone only to have them forget to send you all the things they said they would — notes from your intake call, a contract, your invoice, information about how to schedule another call…?
It’s both maddening and disconcerting, because you’re not quite sure if this person knows what they’re doing.
Be certain you have processes in place for client onboarding that includes a welcome pack with:
Set aside a few hours in one block at the beginning or end of the month to create and schedule your social media, either natively within the platform (like Facebook) or with the free version of a tool like Hootsuite.
Now, instead of getting bogged down in an endless cycle of daily social media, you take care of it in one day and just check in and respond to messages throughout the month!
If engaging in Facebook groups is on your marketing to-do list, set aside one to three 1-hour long blocks each week to check in and offer advice or feedback to others. Put it on your schedule so that it’s an appointment, not just something to get around to when you’re bored, and you’ll treat it like a real marketing task instead of a time suck.
5. Schedule time away from your business
That’s right, the best system you can implement in your business at the start is one for self-care and balance. The 80-hour weeks can be necessary at times, but time to recharge is always necessary.
Your turn: What do you think you need to make your business successful from the start?
Congratulations! You decided to leave your 9-to-5 job to open your one woman shop. But, unlike a corporate job, solopreneurship doesn’t include a formal orientation with Human Resources. (Which were pretty boring anyway, right?)
So today, I’m going to answer your questions about solopreneur retirement options — because being on your own means shouldering the weight of setting up your retirement options. Even so, it doesn’t have to be draining. To make it more enticing? Take my view and think of it in terms of your “financial independence.”
The best definition I’ve read of financial independence comes from Matt Becker of Mom and Dad Money (he’s also a fee-only financial planner). He defines financial independence as “The freedom to make decisions based on what makes you happy instead of what makes you money.”
When you’re financially independent, you can choose to spend more time with your family, travel, or volunteer. You can choose when to work, and how you work. Unlike your 9-to-5, it’s all up to you. But unlike your 9-to-5, you’ve got some decisions to make. Let’s begin.
What do I do with an old 401(k) or 403(b)?
One of the first questions I get from solo business owners, or anyone who’s changed jobs for that matter, is what to do with their old 401(k) or other company-sponsored retirement plan. As tempting as it may be to cash out and use the funds to grow your new business, I wouldn’t go that route. Yes, investing in your business is a good idea, but there are additional taxes and penalties for tapping into your 401(k) before age 59½. An early distribution will generally be subject to both ordinary income taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Plus, you lose future tax-advantaged growth.
You have three good options when it comes to your old 401(k), 403(b), or other company-sponsored retirement plan: do nothing, roll the funds over to a Traditional IRA, or roll the funds into a solo retirement account. Let’s explore those options:
1. Do nothing and keep the funds in your prior employer’s retirement plan
Pros: This is the easiest option, but if your account balance is less than $5,000, you might be forced into taking action. Additionally, you may have access to certain investments (think institutional funds with potentially lower expenses) that might not be available outside of this retirement account.
Cons: You’re limited to the investment options chosen by your employer. Additionally, you’ll be unable to make additional contributions. If you can still make contributions, they’ll be restricted.
2. Roll the funds over to a Traditional IRA
Pros: You typically have access to a wider range of investment options, including mutual funds and ETFs (exchange-traded funds) as well as individual stocks, CDs (certificates of deposit), and bonds. Additional contributions are allowed and you have the option to move assets to a future employer’s plan. In addition, if you already have a Traditional IRA, all of your retirement assets will be in one place.
Cons: You can’t take a loan, but I wouldn’t recommend a 401(k) loan even if you had the ability to take it. Also, certain 401(k) investments may not be available.
3. Roll the funds into a solo retirement account like a solo 401(k) or SEP IRA
Pros: You can make contributions — and employer contributions are considered business expenses. Loans may be allowed.
Cons: Potentially limited investment options. This isn’t so much of a con, but a consideration. Depending on your solo retirement account type and size, you’ll need to file forms with the IRS.
Another consideration to make note of: If you rollover to a SEP IRA and hire employees in the future, you’ll have to contribute to the SEP IRA on their behalf if you also contribute for yourself.
Whichever route you take, pay attention to the fees and expenses associated with your old and new retirement accounts. Sometimes it makes sense to keep your money in your old retirement plan if the fees and expenses are much lower than a new retirement account.
Additionally, if you plan on rolling over your old retirement plan into another plan, make sure the new plan is set up first. Consider requesting a direct rollover, right to your financial institution. This is also referred to as a trustee-to-trustee rollover, and it can help ensure that you don’t miss any deadlines.
Maybe you’re not coming from a former employer with a company-sponsored retirement plan. No problem — there’s no better time to start investing (and saving) than now! Here are a few options for you, solo biz owner:
1. Traditional or Roth IRA
One way an individual with earned income can start saving for retirement is by contributing to a Traditional or Roth IRA. Individuals have until April 15, 2017 to make a contribution for the 2016 tax year. For 2016, individuals can contribute up to $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re age 50 or older) or their taxable compensation for the year, if their compensation was less than this dollar limit. However, a Roth IRA contribution might be limited based on tax filing status and income.
Roth IRAs are great because you can withdraw your money tax-free when you’re in retirement. Contributing to a traditional IRA, on the other hand, earns you an income tax deduction. However, that deduction may be limited if you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work and your income exceeds certain levels. Review the IRS guidelines for more details.
Also, if you’re a new business owner, you may find yourself in a lower tax bracket than when you were at your corporate job. (Not for long, I hope!) That means it might be a good time to convert an old 401(k) or traditional IRA into a Roth, where you can capture lower taxes today and withdraw that money tax-free when you’re in retirement.
If you have more money to contribute to retirement than $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re age 50 or older), then you may want to invest in one of the following retirement accounts.
2. The Solo 401(k)
The Solo 401(k) is a traditional 401(k) plan covering a business owner with no employees, or that person and his or her spouse. A business owner can make the following contributions:
Elective deferrals of up to 100% of earned income up to a maximum annual contribution of $18,000 in 2016, or $24,000 in 2016 if age 50 or over; plus
Employer non-elective contributions up to 25% of compensation, with total contributions not to exceed $53,000 for 2016.
Note that these elective deferral limits apply per person, not per plan. So if you’re also participating in another employer’s 401(k), say if you’re starting your business while still employed at a corporate job and making 401(k) contributions to take advantage of an employer match, these will count against the limit for employee contributions to an individual 401(k) or IRA.
Also: A Solo 401(k) plan is generally required to file an annual report on Form 5500-SF if it has $250,000 or more in assets at the end of the year. A solo 401(k) with fewer assets may be exempt from the annual filing requirement. If you choose to go this route, your solo 401(k) must be set up by December 31st and funded by your tax return due date in order for contributions to apply for that year.
3. Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP IRA)
A SEP IRA is like a traditional IRA, but it is funded solely by employer contributions. A business owner sets up an IRA for each qualifying employee and can contribute up to 25% of each employee’s pay (and 25% of net self-employment income). Annual contributions are limited to the smaller of $53,000 or 25% of compensation for 2016. There are no “catch-up” contributions like the solo 401(k).
The SEP IRA is a great option for those who do not qualify for a solo 401(k), or who have employees and are looking for a retirement plan for their company. Business owners just need to file a form with the IRS (Form 5305-SEP) and open a SEP IRA at a bank or financial institution
How to choose your retirement account as a solo business owner
Which tax-advantaged retirement plan should you use? That depends on the nature and size of your business. (Do you plan on hiring employees in the future?) Additionally, you need to consider your tax filing status, age, and participation in other retirement plans. Since some plans require more administrative and fiduciary responsibilities, you may want to chose one retirement plan over another due to simplicity.
Pay yourself first!
Finally, in order to reach your financial goals, start by paying yourself first. This is important even if you aren’t a business owner! You can achieve this by setting up automatic transfers to your savings, retirement, and/or investment accounts. As an entrepreneur, your income may vary, so allocate your savings based on percentages instead of dollar amounts. For example, make it a goal to set aside 5% of every client payment. This will automatically help you save more dollars when your income is higher and keep you from overextending yourself during leaner months.
The client intake process can be a bore for users and a pain for the service-based business owner to create because there are a lot of moving parts — gathering pertinent client information, handling the legal documentation, collecting payment, and scheduling the actual client calls.
Yet the upfront time spent creating your client intake workflow can set you apart from everyone else, while also being beautifully branded and making the process easy for your clients. Your clients will thank you, and you will love having all client information in one document.
Set the tone from the beginning
Before building your client intake form, make a list of all of the information you need to gather from potential clients. Depending on your type of business, you might need:
client’s name and contact information
event date, time, and location
client’s website URL
who referred them to you
client’s expectations, struggles, or goals
Be sure to also consider anything that you will need from the client to begin your work with them. For example, you might want to create a contract for your client to sign, you might need to collect payment, and you might have pre-work for your client to do prior to your first meeting.
As soon as a client decides to hire you, be sure your initial email includes all vital information including:
link to intake form
a one-page FAQ or “what to know” info sheet
a link to schedule their initial call/consult
You want to alleviate a long email exchange and get right down to business, but you also want to make it clear to your potential client as to how you run your business.
Can one intake form do all this? Absolutely.
Building a comprehensive client intake form
The goal for your intake form is to gather all pertinent information from your client in one form. But keep in mind that this is the first professional interaction your client will have with your brand, so you want to leave a good impression.
For an all-inclusive and easy-to-use intake process, I recommend Typeform Pro. You may be familiar with Typeform as a way to survey to your readers or create pretty questionnaires, but there is so much more to Typeform.
You can easily create fields to gather basic information like your client’s name, contact information, and URL, but there are other fields within Typeform that will allow you to do more to really flesh out your client intake process. Here are a few examples:
Legal information: Use the “Legal” field to add your contract to the intake form. You can make it “required,” which means your client will have to agree to the contract prior to proceeding with the remainder of the form.
Be sure to include a note that lets them know that by agreeing to the contract in this form, they are essentially signing the contract. You can also include a copy in the “Files” section of Typeform, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Payment: Connect your Typeform account with your Stripe account and easily collect payment on your intake form.
Typeform also has a feature allowing you to set different prices based on your client’s selection of your products or services, calculating the total amount due at the end. Clients will be able to securely enter their credit card information directly in the Typeform and Stripe handles the payment.
File upload: Easily provide your clients with a PDF of your legal information, as well as any pre-work or other important documentation right there in the intake form.
This is also a great opportunity for you to include a copy of your FAQ sheet. As solopreneurs working with clients, we tend to get asked the same questions repeatedly. Encouraging our clients to read the FAQs ahead of time will help alleviate some of these questions, freeing up more of your time to devote to the actual client work.
Thank you page: Typeform’s thank you page allows you to give clients further instructions or notice of what to expect next. You might want to let them know to expect an email that confirms your receipt of their intake form, or provide them with a link to a specific website that allows them to schedule their initial meeting with you.
Respondent notifications: After building and designing your intake form in Typeform, you will need to configure the respondent notifications. Essentially, this is the email each client will receive after completing their intake form. Typeform allows you to add specific responses to this email, which I use to create an email receipt of their payment. It looks something like this:
Hello 1 – [Your name:]
Thank you for your submission! I’ll be in touch with you very shortly with the next steps based on the service package you have selected. If you have any questions or concerns in the meantime, don’t hesitate to hit “reply” on this email. I’m happy to help, and appreciate your business!
For receipt purposes:
You signed up for the following service(s): [name of service package…]
For your records, you paid [price]
Thank you & have a nice day!
Typeform fills in the name, service package, and price based on the responses in the intake form.
You may also want to include links to your FAQ sheet and scheduling tool in this email as well, just in case your client skipped over the thank you page in your Typeform.
As I mentioned earlier, an FAQ sheet is a great resource for your clients and helps you alleviate the back-and-forth email exchange that tends to happen. It’s also a great way for you to set expectations and guidelines for your client interaction. In addition to the questions you frequently get asked, consider including:
Your work hours: Let clients know upfront that you will only be available via email/phone during specific office hours. If they contact you outside of these office hours, let them know the average time it takes for you to get back to them.
Your email policy: Be very clear about how many emails are included in their service package with you. Advise them to send one comprehensive email each week, rather than a series of short emails throughout the week.
How meetings take place: If you meet with clients via Skype, Google Hangouts, or over the phone, let them know this upfront and provide a bit of direction in case they aren’t familiar with the platform you use.
Reminder of pre-work: If you provided any pre-work, remind your client that this needs to be done prior to your first meeting.
If the work you are doing for this client is dependent upon the client completing certain tasks, be sure to mention that, as well. For example, if you are designing a website and need images from the client of their products, be sure to let them know that you can only complete your work on time if they follow through with specific tasks based on the timeline of your project.
Streamlining your scheduling
If your client work involves working 1:1 with the client in a meeting, whether that’s online, over the phone, or in person, you will need to provide a way for your client to schedule their time with you.
Calendly is a simple scheduling tool that syncs with your Google, Office 365, or Outlook calendar. Create one type of event for each of your service plans and allow clients to book based on your availability. They can select which date and time works best for them, and the event is added to your calendar. You will be notified of this event when the client schedules with you.
Acuity Scheduling is another powerful scheduling tool that operates in a similar way as Calendly, allowing you to sync your calendar and create multiple types of events. Acuity, however, also allows you to accept payment from clients. This might come in handy if you accept a deposit via Typeform, and need to collect payments each time your client books another event with you.
Acuity also integrates with email service providers like ConvertKit and MailChimp, dropping your clients into your email list automatically, and allows you to schedule group events like webinars or workshops. If you use Quickbooks or Freshbooks for business accounting, payments received through Acuity can be automatically added to your ledger.
What a streamlined client intake process gives you
Eliminate the back and forth, so you have less headaches. Streamline the intake process, so your client knows exactly what to expect. Despite it taking more time to set up, it’s a win-win that you won’t believe you lived without before, service-based biz owner.
Now that your client intake process is streamlined, you have more time to actually work with clients, helping your business continue to grow.
We are affiliates for a few of the services mentioned above. As always, we only promote products and services we truly believe can benefit your business.
You have something powerful to offer – I just know it. And you want to more people to know about you and purchase your products and programs.
You’ve probably done a lot to get the word out about your business, but how can you market yourself more quickly and easily?
If you were to focus on one high-impact strategy, I would recommend creating relationships with referral partners.
What exactly is a referral partner?
A referral partner is simply someone who refers clients or customers to you.
For example, if you’re a health coach, you might form a connection with an acupuncturist who’s eager to refer her patients to you, so they can get support on improving their diet.
To give you another example, let’s say you own a yoga studio and you want to get more people into your classes. You might partner with a local juice bar that’s excited to email their list of customers a special offer for a free yoga class or a discounted offer.
Referral partners are like GOLD
Word of mouth recommendations hold significant weight.
When I was a health coach, and then again in my current business, I’ve noticed that whenever a potential client was personally referred to me by a colleague, the potential client almost always signed up.
More than that, they came to me ”pre-sold” and were eager to start working together. Nice, right?
Who do you want as a referral partner?
Now that we’ve established why you want referral partners, let’s discuss who would make a good referral partner.
This will obviously depend on your business, but the important thing is that it’s someone who serves a similar audience as you, but does not compete with you because they offer different services, products, or programs.
For example, if you’re a nutritionist specializing in working with new moms, potential referral partners could be OB/GYNs, midwives, doulas, and fitness program providers targeting new moms such as Baby Boot Camp.
But it’s not just about the type of business they’re in. They should have a strong client/customer base, which will help to ensure that they can actually refer people to you! (Editor’s note: What makes a strong base? It’s not just about the numbers — sometimes, a smaller, but more engaged audience is worth more than list sizes of triple digits.)
You might think that you don’t know anyone who could be a good referral partner. But, if you start to pay attention to the places (in person or online) you frequent, other business owners you interact with, and your friends/contacts, I promise that very quickly you’ll be able to identify 3-5 potential referral sources (if not more!).
#2 Network (with a twist)
Most people use networking groups to meet potential clients. This can work well, but what I’ve found more effective is to use these groups to connect with potential referral partners.
When I was a health coach, I was looking to meet other wellness practitioners and people in the fitness world who also worked with women in their 30s–50s. At one of the first networking groups I attended, I was thrilled when I met Toby, the owner of a large acupuncture clinic. We hit it off and she became a good friend and a great referral partner.
#3 Ask for a connection
Know the type of person or business you want to form a relationship with, but don’t have a personal connection to them? Ask people you know to connect you.
This means tapping into the connections of your friends, family, and colleagues. Don’t forget about reaching out in any online groups you’re a part of (such as Facebook groups or other online networking groups).
For example, if you want to connect with a personal trainer, ask your friends, contacts, and the people you’ve met through networking, “Do you know of any personal trainers in the area?” If you’re more focused online, you can ask “Do you know any online fitness gurus?”
You might search for “web developer WordPress women entrepreneurs.”
When you find someone who looks like a good fit, turn them into a warm lead by…
following them on social media and sharing/retweeting their stuff
opting in to their list
reading their blog and commenting
connecting with them directly via email
How to approach potential referral partners
Now that you’ve identified or been introduced to potential referral partners, how should you approach them (without sounding selfish or overeager)?
The goal is send them an email that gets them to reply.
I often find that people send introductory emails that are too long – including all the details about their offerings and their lengthy story. People don’t have the attention span to read through a long email, so make it easy for them by sending short and sweet email with a simple request.
In the email, be sure to focus on them — what you admire or like about them and your desire to support them.
Sample email template – feel free to steal this!
Hi xx, I’ve been following your work for a while and I love what you’re up to. I love how you [insert something you love about what they do/their approach, etc.].
It looks like we serve a similar audience. I’m a [insert what you do] and I specialize in [insert your specialty]. My clients are often looking for support with [insert their profession or what they specialize in – example “My clients are often looking for a chiropractor they can trust”] so I’m excited to have found you!
I’d love to find a time to connect for a few minutes about how we can support each other. Do you have any time in the next couple of weeks?
Let’s say that you have a referral partner and they’ve started sending you clients. How can you show reciprocity?
You have a few options. What you choose will depend on the nature of the relationship.
A wonderful way to show reciprocity is to promote your referral partner to your tribe. This may mean hosting them on a webinar, emailing your list about their programs/services, and/or individually referring your clients to them (when you feel it’s a good fit).
In most cases, you’ll want to pay the partner a commission for any sales they send your way. This can be a flat fee or a percentage. If your referral partner isn’t looking for a commission, send them a thoughtful gift or, if they’re local, take them out for a meal to thank them and build the relationship.
Developing relationships with referral partners can be fun and rewarding. Especially in the online world, it’s easy to feel isolated. (It’s what groups like One Woman Shop are for.) Creating relationships with supportive like-minded colleagues is not only great for your bottom line, but it’s also wonderful for your spirit.
Apps like IFTTT (short for “If This, Then That”) allow you to set up recipes that automatically connect one app to another. You can set recurring tasks to be taken care of automatically, or with the simple push of a button. Think of it as outsourcing your least favorite tasks to robots (and then feel like a genius).
Whether you’re a veteran IFTTT user or you just hopped on board, you might be overwhelmed by the vast number of recipes available. You need your automation workflow to save you time, not distract you while you search for the best recipes!
Try these 8 best IFTTT recipes for solopreneurs to get you started.
Imagine being able to share quality content with your followers with just the click of a button. That’s exactly what this recipe does for you. Now when you come across an actionable article you know your tribe would love, all you have to do is add it to Pocket, and IFTTT will automatically add it to your Buffer schedule.
Don’t use Buffer? You can also connect Pocket to Asana, Evernote, or Google Drive to quickly gather all those shareworthy articles in one location. Then you or your VA can easily batch your social media sharing for the week in one sitting!
Hashtags are a great way to categorize information, but they don’t do you any good if you don’t have an easy way to refer back to them. This IFTTT recipe fixes all that by automatically adding any usage of a specific hashtag on Twitter directly to a Google Spreadsheet.
These are just some of the Twitter hashtags you might want to hang onto for later use:
Your brand or product’s custom hashtag (like #OneWomanShopLife!)
A Twitter chat that always shares helpful insights or resources
A Twitter chat you run yourself
A hashtag your dream clients use repeatedly
Hashtags prospective clients use to post job listings in your industry
All you have to do is check your spreadsheet to keep up with your favorite hashtags — and they’ll be saved there forever, so there’s no fear that you’ll lose them in your fast-moving Twitter feed.
Let’s be honest: LinkedIn is very few people’s favorite social site. But regularly sharing your posts there can go a long way toward landing new clients! Having an active LinkedIn profile shows that you’re invested in your career, and your latest posts will immediately display your skills and expertise to anyone who stumbles upon your profile.
This recipe is the easy way to keep your LinkedIn profile current and your connections up to date on your recent work without your having to lift a finger.
Ever wonder how many hours you really put into your solo biz? Most of us are bad at estimating how many hours we work in a week, which is a problem when you need to calculate an accurate hourly rate to base your project fees on.
Logging your time manually can be tedious, but this IFTTT recipe makes it a snap to track your work hours. This recipe doesn’t track the specific task you’re working on, but it can help you notice important patterns in your work day. Most importantly, it will tell you without a doubt how long you spent on the clock on any given day. (Goodbye, 16-hour days! Maybe…)
All solopreneurs have goals both within and outside of their business. This IFTTT recipe lets you keep a tally of anything you choose and store it in Google Drive with the single click of a button. This is a great way to aim for more self-care activities or fewer distractions in your day.
This recipe can help you track almost any goal or activity, but these are some of my favorites:
Finishing a glass of water
Getting up from your desk to stretch and move around
“Quickly checking” social media
Switching from one task to another, even if it’s just for a moment
Connecting with someone, whether online, in person, or over social media
Evernote is a big player in many solopreneurs’ day-to-day organization. Now you can use it even more efficiently thanks to this IFTTT recipe. Starring emails and then archiving them is the easy way to get your to-do list out of your inbox and into your actual to-do list in Evernote. Inbox zero, here we come!
Solopreneurs can use Craigslist to find everything from a great deal on office equipment to supplies to be used in their products. You can even find the occasional client on the Craigslist job board!
Scouring through Craigslist can be time consuming. This recipe takes care of the work for you by emailing you when a new Craigslist post matches your search criteria. So the next time you’re in the market for a used printer, you can wait for the perfect match to find you instead of the other way around!
If you’re regularly using Trello to organize your solo biz, you’ll love this recipe. Most of us have recurring tasks that happen on a daily or weekly basis. Save yourself the time it takes to manually create those Trello cards each week and let IFTTT automatically do the job for you! Any recurring cards will be ready and waiting in your Trello board with no extra work on your plate.
Which IFTTT recipes keep your solo biz up and running?
Did we miss any IFTTT recipes for solopreneurs that you can’t live without? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!
As business owners you want to make money and get paid (right?)…but most solopreneurs don’t take the time to back up to confirm that their pricing strategy has them set up to make money.
Which means oftentimes, there’s a better option.
And it’s worth looking into, when a better pricing strategy means you get paid more or more consistently so you can make those adventure plans happen, enjoy friend dates to the movies, go camping with the family and/or buy that new ‘thing’ you’ve been lusting after.
In this post, I’m digging into the most common pricing strategies: retainer, project, and hourly pricing; peeling back the layers of each one to understand the pros and cons, keys to success and views from the client side.
Let’s get started.
Pricing strategy #1: Retainer-based pricing
A retainer is a pre-set fee for a set period of time. The fee holds a set number of hours to do work during a specific period. Retainers generally don’t specify the type of work to be done. Virtual assistants, graphic designers, and website maintenance professionals frequently use a monthly retainer for a set number of hours.
Virtual Assistant: 10 hours a month, $200
Graphic Designer: 5 hours a month, $300
Pros, as a biz owner:
You can predict your hours
You can rely on steady income
You can work with clients consistently and build longer term relationships
Cons, as a biz owner:
Multiple clients may all request use of their hours at the same time
Vacation, illness and time away coverage is essential since your time has been committed and paid in advance
Projects may require more hours than the retainer covers since clients may be uncertain what projects would be needed or how long it takes
Without proper planning, you may not know what type of projects you’ll be asked to do can lead to projects outside your expertise
View from the client side:
Great for routine activities
Predictable monthly expenses
Use or lose: may not use all the hours purchased
Key to success with retainer-based pricing:
Set clear guidelines on how you’ll work together and your work hours (which may not include email requests at midnight or phone calls at 7am). This avoids clients who expect you to be ‘on call’ for those hours they’ve purchased.
Pricing Strategy #2: Project-based pricing
Project-based pricing: a pre-set fee for a specific product or package with a defined set of components. This pricing strategy is based on delivering an agreed-upon result regardless of hours or costs it takes to do the work.
Squarespace website set up with four page layouts, $1,500
E-course content development with 10 lessons, 5 worksheets and 3 videos, $997
Pros, as a biz owner:
Ideal for routine types of projects when you can easily calculate the time required
Increases ability to predict income
Incentive to minimize your time, be efficient and still deliver a quality result
Cons, as a biz owner:
Difficult to estimate pricing if you haven’t completed enough similar projects
Have to manage client expectations for elements not included in the defined project (scope creep)
Projects may take longer than you estimated, which means less profit for you
View from the client side:
Easy to know and plan for the project cost
Lack of transparency to the level of effort required for the project
Project definition may not exactly align with what they need
Keys to success with project-based pricing:
Be diligent in defining what’s including and not included in the project and how requests outside the definition will be handled
While perhaps not the most advantageous, hourly pricing is by far the easiest to implement and is, from my experience, the most commonly used pricing strategy. Hourly pricing is simply the price charged for each hour of work.
Pros, as a biz owner:
Easiest to use
Increases likelihood of being paid for all the hours you work (if you estimate well in your proposal)
Great approach if you haven’t done many projects
Easiest for managing time off
Cons, as a biz owner:
No incentive to be efficient with your time
Requires you to work a set amount of hours to reach your revenue goal
Difficult to incorporate value as part of price
View from the client side:
Most transparent pricing
Easiest to compare between competitors
May not get most efficient work from you
Keys to success with hourly pricing:
Ability to provide a solid estimate of the time required for a project
Clarity on what’s included in the scope of work for the time and price and how requests beyond the scope will be managed
Choosing your pricing strategy
What makes the most sense for your business where you’re at today? Consider your ideal clients, your specialty, and the results you can deliver. Know yourself and your ability to estimate time. Give your ideal clients the best opportunity to say yes(!) to working with you.
But perhaps most important to know is this: You don’t have to pick only one pricing strategy. Offering a combination approach may make the most sense for you and your client. Have a routine set of activities you offer? Consider project-based pricing, with hourly pricing for additional, ad-hoc requests. For highly customized and tailored services, retainer and hourly rates may be ideal. Offer a retainer package of hours then add in hourly rates for unexpected needs.
(What you should charge for your services is a separate and super important topic, too. Be sure you understand both your pricing strategy and what you should charge, because they go together like wine and chocolate or peanut butter and jelly. Yum.)
The easier you can make pricing for your clients, the easier it will be for them to say yes. It makes it easier for you too, so you can spend less time on preparing proposals and talking about pricing, and more time doing the work and growing your business.
PS: Want even more on pricing? Rebecca Tracey’s Get Paid (How to Price Your Services + Programs) e-course will be in this year’s Solopreneur Success Bundle! Head over to the Bundle page + sign up to get notified when it launches in September.
As a one-woman shop, I know how frustrating it can be to develop your service packages. When you have so many aspects of running your business that are constantly vying for your attention, it’s easy to bundle up your offerings and call it a day.
But, as time passes, you find that you’re not bringing in as many clients as you’d hoped. So you tweak your offerings or your prices, trying to find that sweet spot.
This is the trial-and-error method of packaging services that so many solopreneur use — and it’s time to put an end to it. I’ve got some (good) news for you: There’s a better way.
In user experience design (UX), there’s a process for developing a viable product that I’ve found useful for developing packaged services as well. UX isn’t just for start-ups and techy people; it’s a set of practical processes for how to best serve your users (and turn browsers into buyers).
The product/package development process consists of five steps:
That’s a lot of validation. Let’s break down each step.
1. Customer validation
It starts with an idea. You have an idea about a problem that your target client has and an idea about who that target client is. During the customer validation phase, you make sure that both the target client and the problem exist. This can be done by what UX designers term “contextual observation,” but I like to think of it as “listen-only mode”.
When you’re in listen-only mode, that means you’re visiting relevant Facebook groups, Twitter chats, or forums to listen for what problems your target audience is facing. I say “listen-only” because you’re not there to self-promote, network, or even answer questions. At this point, you’re just observing that the problem exists for a certain person or group of people.
2. Product validation
Once you’ve validated that your expected problem exists for your target customer, it’s time for the product validation stage. The title of this one can be a little misleading, because you’re not actually introducing a solution to the problem yet (no, this is not when you beta test).
What you’re looking for in this stage is to learn the extent of your target client’s problem and her willingness to solve it. What products or services is she currently using to solve this problem? If she hasn’t purchased any solutions, what other means is she using to alleviate that pain? A couple of UX tools you can use at this stage are diary studies and customer interviews.
Diary studies are pretty cool, because you’re able to get the first-person language of your client during the moments when they’re experiencing the problem. During a diary study, you gather a small group of participants and ask them to write briefly about what they’re experiencing at certain defined times (these can be scheduled times or triggered by certain events, such as “write a few sentences in your journal whenever you get stuck when working on your website”). The participants should do this for 5-7 days and you could collect the responses digitally (in a Google doc or form) to make it easier for you to analyze.
Customer interviews are self-explanatory, but not to be confused by surveys. It’s best to speak face-to-face, via Skype, or over the phone. When you interview customers, here are some good questions to ask:
“Tell me about a time when you experience [your problem]?”
“Why was it hard?”
“How did you solve it?”
Remember, you can always ask “why?” to get deeper into the reasons behind their responses.
Now that you’ve got a thorough understanding of your target client, her problem, and the current solution she’s using, it’s time for concept validation. In this third stage of product development, you generate your conceptual solution (your service package). It’s important that you don’t let yourself get bogged down in all the details right now, because you’re only testing the concept.
To determine viability of your package concept, you essentially pre-launch it. Set up a landing page for your service and start directing traffic to it (this can be through social media campaigns, webinars, or targeted advertisements). Basically, you want to make sure that your service package is going to sell before you get into all the nitty-gritty of designing it.
4. Experience validation
The fourth step in the process is experience validation, which means that, after you sell your service package, you continue to make adjustments based on client feedback. This can be gathered in client surveys, emails, or from informal conversations. At this stage, you know that you have a viable package, but you can continue to improve it by making minor tweaks to better suit your clients’ needs.
5. Technical validation
The final stage, technical validation, isn’t as relevant in this case, but should still be considered. It’s more about making sure that all the bugs are worked out of your process and no tech glitches get in the way. Go through your own “run-of-show,” from the moment a potential client finds out about your service to the actual purchase, to the service itself, and the final sign off on the work. The idea is to test all your systems throughout the process to ensure a seamless client experience.
Using UX principles to design your service packages
The UX industry likes to put technical terms on everything, but it’s more than just jargon; it’s really an intuitive process of gathering relevant data and developing a solution in a way that limits your risk of failure. The idea is not simply to create a service package based on what you can do, but based on what problem you can solve for the person you most want to work with.
Which is something we all want to do as service-based solopreneurs, am I right?
Welcome to Shop Talk! While we love providing you with jam-packed, actionable posts, we also wanted to share quick, thought-provoking snippets here and there — from our brains to yours.
Back when I (Sara) was a starving grad student (okay, I wasn’t starving — but I was pretty broke), I took on a gig pouring wine for a Finger Lakes winery, bringing a selection of their wines to stores in my local area to taste. I would often share the feedback I got from customers with the winemaker, and was always hesitant to tell him when a wine didn’t go over well — though he could always tell by the amount that came back.
One day, he said this: “Different tastes make the world go round.” He went on to explain: “If everyone had the same palette, I wouldn’t be able to experiment with different grapes. If everyone liked the same wine, I wouldn’t have a place in this industry.”
Mind = blown. Here was a winemaker in what has quickly become a near-saturated industry in the Finger Lakes, welcoming competition and feeling entirely confident in his ability to find his place because he knew the one secret that we often forget: Different tastes make the world go round.
So, solopreneur, next time you’re wondering if you’re really the best person to be recording a podcast/writing that ebook/hosting that webinar, or when you’re entirely doubting your ability to stand out and are concerned with adding to “the noise,” remember this: Different tastes make the world go round.
Yes, there are thousands of copywriters in the world. Web designers? Yup. Business coaches? Better believe it. But whether you realize it or not, there are certain things about the way you do what you do that make you unique. Maybe it’s your snark, or lack thereof. Maybe it’s your straight-talk, or maybe it’s your woo.
Focus on what makes you different — because there’s someone out there whose palette is waiting for it. Cheers.