Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Starting a Business

Starting a business. Two young men sitting on a sofa in a skyrise office looking at a laptop.

An old friend wrote me the other day. He started his own business last year, and although he loves the work, he’s struggling with business development. Boy, do I know that feeling. I worked my tail off during the first year that I started my company. But I didn’t feel that the business was actually sustainable—whether financially or otherwise—for a couple of years after that. These days, I feel the opposite. I still love my work, but now I’m in the position—for the first time ever—of turning down work I either don’t want or don’t have time for. It’s a wonderful feeling. It made me realise that I really have learned a thing or two about this whole entrepreneurial thang. With that in mind, I thought I would re-share a post I wrote several years ago with five tips for starting a business.


On occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I started my new communications consultancy almost a year ago. Since then, I’ve been hard at work delivering a combination of mini-courses, workshops and one-on-one coaching. What’s odd is that although I’ve worked as a freelancer before, I’m learning a whole new set of skills this time around.

This post is aimed particularly at those of you who’ve always dreamed of starting a business. Here are five things to bear in mind:

a. Negotiate your deliverables in detail. That might sound obvious, because, hey, what are contracts for, right? I’ve got news for you:  contracts can be super vague. Trust me, I wrote them all the time in my previous job. And especially if you’re working with a client you know well – deliverables can be vague and fuzzy. Because, hey, we’re all friends, right?

The only person who benefits from a fuzzy deliverable is the person paying for it. It gives them leeway to claim that whatever they are asking you to do—including work neither of you initially discussed—plausibly falls within the contours of the agreement. So be precise. Super precise. And if they ask you to do something that doesn’t match the original deliverable, ask for more money. Which brings us to money.

b. Always charge more than you think you should. A year or so ago, when I was still in the concept development phase for my new company, I got some great advice from the women in my Ellevate squad: if a client accepts your budget up front, you’ve charged too little. Damned straight. Entire books have been written on how to sort out our collective discomfort with asking for money (The Soul of Money is top of my list… ). But once you work throught all of that, you need to remember that you are running a business and that time is money. So there are two reasons to ask for more than you think you should.

First, however high you come in, they are likely to come back with a lower offer. So adjust for that in advance. Second, when you’re starting out, much of what you’re offering is new. If, like me, you’re delivering workshops or mini-courses, you need to factor in not only your delivery time, but your prep time. This doesn’t meant you can’t charge less than your day rate, once you’ve determined what that is. The project might be for a client whose name you’d like to see on your resumé. Or it might piece of work you’re so passionate about that you’re willing to charge less. Or, because you’re just starting out, you might decide that you’d like to demonstrate how much value you add—and get some testimonials under your belt—before raising your rates. Whatever you do, remember that failure to talk openly about pay usually translates into lower rates.

c. Learn to say no.  When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to say yes to everything. But—take my word for it—saying yes can quickly erode any balance you might be hoping to establish in your life. Just as there are good reasons to accept work that doesn’t pay as well as you’d like, there are equally good reasons to turn down work even if you have time. It might not be something you enjoy very much. So the opportunity cost of doing it is higher than for other jobs you might take on. You might not need the money all that much. Or you might foresee that it’s going to be way more work than you bargained for, and will simply amount to a headache.

d. Fake it Til You Make It. A year or so ago, a friend of mine who’s a seasoned communications consultant gave me this piece of advice: “Never tell people you ‘could’ do something. Always say that you ‘can.'” And how. Before they hire you, people want to know that you can do something. And chances are, you can, even if you haven’t. So while I never accept work that I don’t think I can deliver to the very highest standard, I have been in the position of saying “Yes, I Can.” It’s amazing how empowering those three little words can be. And guess what? Once you’ve done it, you can do it!

e. Learn when to give up. Much like asking for money, it can be very uncomfortable to pester someone for work. So, how often should you ping? I used to approach people only three times before giving up. I assumed they just weren’t interested, but were too awkward—or too busy—to bother telling me “No.” Then I started asking around. One colleague told me that the magic number is seven:  assume your name has  filtered to the bottom of their inbox and that they need a quick reminder. Seven sounded high to me, but I tried it. In one instance, after five tries, I got a gig. Another colleague told me that his approach is to “Bug them until they either give you work or tell you to F#$% off.” Works well for him! I personally couldn’t do it. My view is that if someone has made it clear to you that they just aren’t interested, leave them alone. If you push too hard, it can be off-putting, and alienate them permanently.

My best advice is to be patient. You won’t make a lot of money during your first year while you build up your services and client base. But if you remember that “Every Day is Groundhog Day” and persevere, you’ll likely end up very happy that you took the risk.

How about you? What advice would you give your newbie entrepreneur/freelancer self if you were starting a business today?

Image: Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

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