Monday, 24 September 2012

Business Start-Up: Getting Paid

We’ve talked about finding the customers; we’ve looked at getting the work (i.e. the writing) done. Now we’re going to focus on the third element: getting paid. Talking about money is something which new business owners often find very difficult.  However, no-one will think badly of you for charging a fair rate for your work.  After all, that's what they are doing, whether they are running businesses themselves or working for someone else.  So here are my tips for how to get paid:
·       Do make sure you have a system in place to collect money, which means keeping a record of what you’ve done, invoicing at an appropriate time-period (weekly, monthly or at the end of the job), and chasing invoices if they are not paid on time. Otherwise not everyone will be honest enough to pay up — and that will be very bad for cash-flow.

·      Try to negotiate at least some percentage of the money in advance.  This is especially important if you have to buy materials or incur travel or other expenditures in order to do the work.  However, it is also a way to reduce the risk that you will not get paid.  Unfortunately, there are people out there who will take your work and then refuse to pay.

·        If you suspect that there is going to be a problem with payment, then cut your losses and walk away.  A customer that doesn't pay is not a customer that you need (or can afford) to keep.

·       At the end of the financial year, many organizations, particularly public ones, are looking to spend excess budget money, on the "use it or lose" basis.  So the last couple of months of the financial year could be a good time to prospect for work.  Even if they don't need the work done until the next budget cycle, they may be willing to make an advance payment for services to be supplied later.  Now that's a really good way to "borrow" money without incurring interest payments.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Business Start-up: Doing the Work

[There was no post last week, due to long weekend in Paris, and just a quickie today, as I’m in the middle of extended celebrations for a BIG birthday. Normal service will be resumed next week. J]

Once we’ve got our customers, we must satisfy (or even better, exceed) their expectations.  If we do, they are likely to come back to us next time they need the same service and also recommend us to other people.  [In fact, it is a good idea to ask satisfied customers to pass our name on to their friends.] So here are some of my top tips for getting the work done.
·       Any business needs premises from which to work. As writers, we are lucky that we can work more or less anywhere, especially in these days of mobile technology. The first option should always be to work from home or from the customer's premises.  It's the cheapest option and there will be no extra facility costs involved.  If you are working from home, you may be able to offset some of your household bills against your income, although this is a tricky area where it is worth taking professional advice. 

·       If you feel unable to work from home, then try to find options other than renting or buying.  Maybe there is a local business that has spare space they are willing to let you use.  If you can agree a barter deal (where you provide advertising copy or press releases for them in lieu of rent), even better.   Investigate your local libraries or internet cafes. If you do decide to rent premises, then investigate local schemes which support start-up businesses. 

·       Make sure you have the time to write. This is your job as well as your business and this means it must take priority. You will need back-up systems such as child-care arrangements and may have to consider contracting out housework etc. If you worked for someone else, you wouldn’t be able to drop everything each time there was a problem at home; so why should you be expected to do so when you work for yourself?

·       Especially if you are working from home, make sure people understand that you are not available for coffee or chats during your working time. Again, they wouldn’t interrupt you if you had a ‘proper job’, so why should they do it now?

·       You will need the right equipment to do the work. That’s a bigger topic, so we’ll come back to that at a later date.
·       Finally, you need the will to get on and write. So many of us complain of having writers’ block; losing the muse; being too busy doing other things [see above!] and therefore not getting anything done. At the risk of repeating myself: this is your job, not just your business. Write through the block; use trigger to wake up the muse; stop doing those other things — just get on and write.
·       Bearing in mind my opening note: don’t forget to have fun along the way. Otherwise, why be in business for yourself; you might as well go out and get a ‘proper job’. Right, I’m off to open some more cards and presents - have a good writing week.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Business Start-up: Reaching the Customers

Setting up a successful small business is a major step — and is not one we should take lightly. It’s also a huge topic, so I’m going to cover it over the next few weeks. Note my use of the word ‘successful’. I’m going to start with the assumption that our small business will be successful. Anyone starting a small business hopes it will be successful, but only a small percentage of the businesses set up each year actually succeed.  So let's start from the belief that our business of writing will survive.

For our business to survive, there are ONLY three things that need to happen: we need to get customers; we need to satisfy the demands of those customers; and we need to get paid.  Everything else is window-dressing.  So, let’s start by thinking about those customers and how we are going to find them.

If we start by brainstorming all the different types of customer a writer might have, we come up with quite a long list (and I’m sure your list would be even longer than mine). For books, whether fiction of non-fiction, the traditional customer is an agent or a publisher; however, with the growth of e-publishing and self-publishing, the reader is much more accessible as a direct customer. Additionally, there are newspapers, journals, magazines, both hard-copy and electronic. Thinking slightly outside the box, every company in the country is publishing something — whether it’s the annual report of a major multinational, or a simple website for the garage down the road — and not all those companies will have the writers they need on the payroll. There are also professional associations, sports organisations; the list goes on and on. Think about your own interests, experiences and expertise: where would you go to find out about any of them? Once we’ve identified our potential customers, here are some tips for how to reach them (and it you’ve got any other suggestions, leave a comment, so we can all share them):

  • Network 1: For people to become your customers, they need to know you exist.  So get your name (and contact details) out there.  Spend as much time networking as you can.  Tell everyone you know (and everyone you don’t know, but just happen to be talking to) that you are a writer.
  • Network 2: Don't underestimate the size of your indirect network. Every one of your family and friends has their own circle of contacts. Ask them to pass the word around. Next time someone says to them “I wish I could find some one who could...” they will think of you and pass the word on. 
  • Network 3: Print some simple flyers or business cards and leave them with local shops, restaurants and bars.  With today's technology, you can do this yourself, without incurring huge printing costs and still put over a professional image.
  • Network 4: As a writer, your customers don’t have to be just around the corner. Having dealt with the local opportunities, it’s time to turn to the rest of the big wide world — and that’s where the internet comes in. The power of electronic networking was brought home to me when I joined LinkedIn a few years back — at the time, it was the best option for my professional networking. Initially, I only had 11 contacts in my network. Yet the third degree network that opened to me (contacts of my contacts' contacts) was more than 182,000 people. Today, I have more than 500 contacts and my third degree network runs into the millions.
  • Network 5: Today, the options for electronic networking are much wider — and frankly confusing: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Youtube plus others. I’m not going to attempt to unravel that particular tangled ball of wool here — although we may return to it in a later post. I recently had the chance to hear the inspirational Rebecca Woodhead speak (see Authorpreneurship and Fishnets:Swanwick Day 4). My suggestion would be to go to Rebecca's website and start learning about how to really network.
  • Making Contact 1: Make sure you are contactable at all times.  The best ways to do this are by email and mobile phone.  When you are starting out, you can't afford to be choosy over when you work or when you talk to people.  You are there when they need you - or you are not there at all.
  • Making Contact 2: Establish a presence on the Internet.  That doesn't mean spend huge amounts of time or money developing an all-singing, all-dancing website.  That can come later.  For now, all you need is the equivalent of an electronic business card.  Invest a small amount of money in a suitable domain name.  It makes the business look bigger than it is and allows you to have a suitable email address.  An address like is a dead give away that you are a small outfit.  An address like looks more professional.  Use the templates and site-builder software that come with many of the web-hosting services.  You can develop a simple, professional-looking site in less than an hour.