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One year on in business: Here’s 5 things we learnt


Written by Simon Geraghty.

What have we achieved?

  • Our first website design for Totally Dublin won the Online Publication of the year at the 2012 Irish Web Awards.
  • We were nominated for business blog and blog post of the year at the blog awards.
  • We’ve worked with an amazing list of clients, the high points were eircom, Totally Dublin and MCI Group.
  • We were invited to speak in London, Killarney and at the Digital Hub in Dublin, where we are now lecturing once a week.
  • We’ve built a small but talented team of freelancers.
  • We moved to our first offices in Block T, located in the newly buzzing Smithfield area.

So it is with this in mind that we decided to put pen to paper, or apply repeated finger pressure to keyboard, to list out the top 5 things we learnt in year one on our steep learning curve as a start up business.

1. Your time as an owner is one of the most precious assets.

Use it wisely.

Look to establish the difference between “Money Work” and “Busy Work” as quickly as you can. It is easy to feel that the day has flown by answering emails, calls, tweets, chasing clients or suppliers on the phone.

Take a few minutes to sit back and ask “am I spending my time on billable work?” We were lucky to get this sound advice early on from a former colleague, Sarah at Blossom.

Ask yourself “Is what I am spending time on now contributing to a retainer or closing an action or a task?”

Sure, spending time networking is necessary, but be disciplined, try to minimise the number of full or even half days you are out of the office. Business lunches are nice, we all need to eat after all, but how many times in one week are these necessary?

2. Devote time to your invoicing

Speaking of billable hours, this is all for naught if you don’t actually, you know, ehm, bill for them! If you don’t happen to have an accounts team, or a book keeper on your books, you need to spend a morning a week, an evening a week, or time over the weekend, whatever works with your schedule, doing it yourself. It is best to devote this time exclusively to generating and following up on invoices.

We naively expected that once an invoice was submitted, with the accompanying purchase order if required, that it goes into someone’s in tray and it would get spat out into your account 30 days later… How wrong were we! The approach is more along the lines of “how about I just ignore your invoices until you are sitting in the dark without power or broadband?” (editor’s note I may be laying it on a little thick).

Make sure you run a monthly statement for any clients on retainer. The following is an article worth reading with good tips for getting your invoices paid which we highly recommend (full disclosure, DotDash co-wrote the article!).

3. Stand your ground on negotiation but get your pricing right

At the start we had to (actually, more like decided to) settle for a low cost play to get work in the door, build a body of work that we could proudly point to as our own and build the DotDash name.

Now we always look to maintain a good daily rate but slightly underestimate the time the job will take. This is a science, because if you totally under estimate how long a project takes you will have disappointed clients and disgruntled freelancers or team members. So it is important to ensure you have been as accurate as possible when you price a job in terms of the time and effort involved.

The big watch outs are scope creep on a project and/or poorly defined client briefs. The tighter you nail down the requirements up-front the more realistic your pricing will be.

In terms of negotiation, be prepared for variations on the following themes:

  1. You know there will be a lot more work down the road?
  2. Think of the exposure you’ll get to our clients!
  3. BTW can I pay you in ten instalments to bamboozle you? (OK I invented the second clause in that sentence).

It is rare these additional benefits materialise, but you need to make those judgement calls yourself. There’s always the chance that one of the above does occur!

4. But then deliver over and above the requirements

Give the clients over and above what they are looking for. Try to be as responsive as you can, exceed expectations where possible. If they want a website give them one they feel should be entered for an award. If you are writing a blog article channel your inner Joyce, Ballard or Kerouac.

The more your product or service stands out the more likely your clients are to recommend you to others (whether via LinkedIn or actually recommend you in the offline world).

We found that by working with some smaller businesses and building our experience, we can now to point a body of work that will impress larger companies when these opportunities present themselves.

5. Persistence pays – win fast/ win slow v lose fast/ lose slow

A month after launching we attended a sales pitch masquerading as a learning event. One of the speakers did deliver some sales tips for businesses. The speaker broke sales opportunities out into four quadrants:

  1. Win Fast
  2. Win Slow
  3. Lose Fast
  4. Lose Slow

Numbers 1 and 3 were optimum as you clearly knew where you stood in the shortest space of time. We used that advice to bow out of a pitch when it became clear there were other criteria beyond price and the ability to deliver on the original brief, given that brief was fuzzier than a student’s head upon awaking on a Saturday morning, we were relieved to get off at the next stop on that journey.

Losing fast is beneficial as you don’t sink a lot of time and effort into something that you are unlikely to land, but identifying a tyre kicker from a real opportunity isn’t always easy and we’ve definitely been wrong on a number of occasions. Some current clients appeared to be tyre kickers at first glance and we are now developing, hopefully, a strong lasting relationship, while on the other hand prospects that appeared to be sure shots turned out to be anything but.

We aim to treat every opportunity equally. At the same time there have been instances when we definitely thought an opportunity was over the hills and far away when an enquiring email converted into new business 9 months after our first meeting with that client.

What’s the moral of the story? There’s no such thing as losing slow, the client might not be ready to move as soon as they had anticipated, or the business may go elsewhere in the short term but you’ll be amazed at the opportunities seemingly lost or dwindling that land back in your lap. Savour these when they come and make sure you bust a gut on each and every one.

So what is your advice for new businesses?