30 Tips I Wish I Had Known Before Starting a Small Business

When you come from a family of entrepreneurs, at some point the self-employment bug bites you too. Dad’s been a realtor and appraiser since I was born and four of my siblings run small businesses. It’s been a wild ride for every one of them! So, in 1997 I took the plunge! 

30 small business tips

Laura’s Mom and Dad on their 50th Wedding Anniversary – one wild ride!

(Photo by Eric Schickler)

I took classes from the Chamber and Small Business Development Center, interviewed others who had started companies and read a lot of books. But there were things I never learned back then that would have saved me immense amounts of time, money and emotional energy. So allow me share a few. These may be especially helpful for freelancers, consultants, coaches, or anyone with a regular job who plans to go out on their own sometime soon. They may also come in handy if you were downsized, can’t find a comparable job and figure maybe it’s time to hang up a shingle.

So, in no particular order, 30 small business tips:

  1. Buy your name as a domain name and never let it go. Also buy the .com version of your business name and/or a relevant keyword phrase that describes what you do. You can “point” those extra domain names to the one that you use for your website. The .com is the best way to go if you can find the right one.
  2. Create a customer and prospect list. This is hugely important! Get ACT or another contact management software system, then build it up and back it up. You should have an “A” list of people you never want to lose track of. And this list may be very different than the one you have for your email newsletter or your LinkedIn contacts. What will you do if LinkedIn crashes one day or they start charging you to access your contacts?
  3. Build a following of people who love you, value what you do and pay attention to what you have to say. THEN create a product or service they want (and will pay money for). This happens one person at a time. You don’t need sky high numbers in order to make a living. All you need to do is keep your ears open and pay attention to what they say they want, need or appreciate from you.
  4. Build an audience of blog/newsletter readers around shared interests (gardening, fishing, hunting, skiing, camping, etc.) I’ve heard it said, “The riches are in the niches” and I believe it’s true. Find a way to blend your interests and your business. Go deep and narrow.
  5. Sign up for Seth Godin’s Udemy course for freelancers. Find it here: https://www.udemy.com/seth-godin-freelancer-course/. I found this course to be a great investment and it won’t break the bank. (I get no money for recommending it.)
  6. Buy the book, Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port and concentrate on the first half of the book. It’s very useful as you’re defining your positioning and marketing.
  7. Don’t wait to start your business until everything is perfect. Start and then adapt as you learn what people want and need. I once knew a woman who kept fiddling with her business card design and wouldn’t open her business until it was just right. In the meantime, she could have been making money. Sometimes waiting to get it perfect is a way to postpone taking the risk and starting.
  8. Put a “proof of performance” page on your website in the form of a Client List (if it’s appropriate), descriptions of the projects you’ve worked on, testimonials, photos of your work or a Media Page where you link to every podcast, article, blog, magazine where you’ve been interviewed or featured. You’re going for the “wow” factor – when people see the amount of work you’ve done, they’ll say “wow”!
  9. You will get rejected – often. Gird your loins and expect it to happen. Then you say “next” and move onto the next project. Get yourself a friend who will give you a kick in the pants or offer encouraging words when you need it. We all get discouraged once in a while and you will too. Important: don’t let this keep you from doing your work. Start again fresh the following day and remember, there are plenty of people out there who will appreciate you and what you offer. Don’t cheat them by giving up.
  10. Try not to make assumptions when a prospect or client doesn’t get back to you right away. They might have budget problems. Perhaps a situation in their family has come up. It’s not always about you, so try not to conjure up a story in your mind.
  11. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission or (like Seth Godin says) to “pick” you. Create the work you want to be part of. Pursue the clients you feel connected to and who can pay you. (That last part is important!)
  12. Cut your clients some slack. Hang in there with them during their “dark days” and work out payment plans or give them a discount for being a loyal client. They will never forget your understanding and flexibility and one day you might need that kind of grace too.
  13. Some people will say they want to do business with you but they really want to: A. find out your pricing structure because they have a friend who is a competitor, or B. get a “third bid” so they can meet purchasing requirements. You will get wise to this and be able to detect when someone is pulling your chain. You may make a business decision to decline requests to submit a bid and accept only “sole source” offers for a project. Yes, it’s possible you might miss out on some work, but there’s nothing more frustrating than getting the sense you’re being used. Consider it part of the learning curve.
  14. Write. Write articles, blog posts, tip sheets, white papers, newsletters, opinion pieces in the newspaper – anything that will help you educate others while showing your knowledge and experience. Try to repurpose your content so you’re not recreating the wheel every time. Ex: Create a tip sheet, then turn each tip into a chapter for a book. Turn talking points from a podcast interview into a number of blog posts, etc.
  15. Most people I know don’t do just one thing. They piece it together. They set up multiple streams of income, all designed to serve one market. Each time a customer asks, “Can you do X?” figure out a way to support them and add it to your list of services. (One warning: don’t get too diversified or you’ll lose focus.)
  16. Keep your eyes peeled for people you’d like to do business with who can support you, such as a virtual assistant, accountant, graphic designer, IT person. You will need them at some point. Some of them may still be gainfully employed, but would be open to picking up some work on the side. You never know until you ask.
  17. Don’t get intimidated by those who have established businesses with many clients in the same industry or line of work. They have worked hard to get there and were once where you are now. Just like your parents didn’t start out married life with their dream home, your dream business will take time to grow and develop. Be patient.
  18. Leverage your personality, even if you are a bit quirky. Don’t try to blend in and be like everyone else. Let people know you are an introvert, you love bears or you make fabulous margaritas. Give them something positive to remember you by along with your business expertise. (I’ve been called “Cabin Mama” because I used to live in a little log cabin.)
  19. Get rid of that yahoo or hotmail email address and use a professional one, like BillSmith@BugZappers.com or Mary@BBQTips.com. Avoid info@XYZ.com – email distribution systems like Constant Contact will not like it and people won’t trust it.
  20. Buy small amounts of business cards so you don’t feel wasteful when you decide to change something on them – you will end up throwing them out. Put your social media profile address on the card so people can find you, friend you, follow you.
  21. Don’t use a free blogging site (like Blogger) to host your website or blog. At some point you will realize you don’t own that real estate and it’ll be a pain to move everything over to your own self-hosted site. I highly recommend WordPress, which is a free web/blog authoring software you can download when you set up your domain name and hosting package. There are great tutorials online. It’s not too hard to learn the basics, even for non-tekkies. 
  22. Pay off as many bills as possible before you start your business. Cut your monthly expenses. Learn how to live on less. It would be great if you had a savings account to see you through the lean times. You’ll sleep better at night.
  23. Serve on a committee, a council, a commission for your community or industry. Not only will you do some good and learn some things, but you’ll forge relationships that might benefit you (and them) in the future. Even better if you can match this volunteer work up with one of your personal interests or causes.
  24. Be picky about the work you accept. Your reputation and sense of self-worth is on the line. A mentor once told me, “Never be afraid to turn down work from someone you don’t trust.”
  25. Re-purpose work you’ve already done. Create systems. Most of us aren’t creating from scratch. You can still customize while working from a template.
  26. Commit one afternoon a week or hour each day to professional education. Listen to business or industry podcasts, read blogs and trade magazines, attend webinars.
  27. You don’t have to be a social media wiz kid to have it work for you. Have patience. Be friendly. Pick one or two channels and forget the rest for now. Invite people to friend or follow you. And don’t get hung up on the numbers. Be in it for the long haul. Social media should be interactive, so give it some personal attention vs. scheduling all your tweets and posts. And please don’t blast the same post out to all your social media channels at the same time. Each audience is different. Customize your conversations as you would do at any networking event.
  28. My motto: It’s never JUST business, it’s ALWAYS personal! Mix it up. People want to know the person within the business. Be sure to put your photo on your About Page and tell folks a little bit about your story. There’s nothing worse than searching all over a website to find out who’s behind it and coming up with nothing more than corporate-speak and stock photos.
  29. Be there for other business owners. Being self-employed can be tough. You’re usually in it all by yourself. Be generous with your encouragement and support.
  30. Remember, one phone call or email can change everything. Just because you’re struggling this month doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Every day you get a new opportunity to make things better, do good work and help someone out.

Know someone who’s thinking about starting a small business or a friend who already has? Feel free to forward this article to them and share on your favorite social media site.