Ain’t No Shortcuts

Ain’t No Shortcuts

Ain’t No Shortcuts

After close to a decade in the creative marketing business, I realize that some of my observations may sound a little “Hey, you kids get off my lawn!”, but this is one thing that really grinds my gears so to speak, and I feel compelled to share.

When I meet someone who is a “consultant”, at a networking event or other function, they often have the appearance of doing very well–fancy car, nice suit. But when I ask what area of business they focus on, they generally always respond, “All of it.” Not sales, not finance…”all of it”. Questions about other specifics (“So, what’s your fee structure? Is it a percentage? A flat fee?”) are also met with vagaries.

What experience has borne out for me, in many of these instances, is that later on you find out that this individual was very successful in some single type of business–construction, maybe–and then sold the business for a solid profit, and now wants to make money consulting, since the perception is that consulting is easy money…just telling people what to do and getting paid for it.

It’s not uncommon to discover a year or two later that those (wannabe) consultants have taken another job for someone else; usually in sales. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Generalities aside, very often these scenarios come about because individuals want to take shortcuts. There hasn’t been serious work put into the “Why” of their personal success, there aren’t processes that have been codified that they can share. They may not even have a basic understanding of business as a whole, or how businesses that differ from theirs function, which seriously hampers your ability to guide someone who is in a field other than one you have personal experience with. (By the way, while I’m skeptical of business consultants, I’m a strong supporter of business coaches, as evidenced in the post Get A Business Coach.)

They may know some tricks, but there’s no professional cohesiveness, no firm foundation of business knowledge. It has an infomercial vibe.

I have had clients who have hired people like this, and then asked me down the road, “Why did you let me do that?”

While it bothers me as a general practice, the most troublesome incarnation of this phenomenon is when they attempt to “optimize websites” for clients…in a way that interferes with what I’ve put together for them. I’ve seen situations where a “business consultant” tells a client that we’ve built a website for that they’re going to amp up their SEO, and then do a lot of very shady work that causes more harm than help. 

That’s a big no-no.

Companies who trust people who are not experienced professionals to alter websites constructed by professionals often reap the whirlwind. (I have a client right now who trusted an individual who did this very thing, and we’re still trying to fix it. Very expensive mistake.)

There are no shortcuts to engineering powerful search engine optimization. It takes time. 

The things that work are simply the things that work. A website that is built for optimization. Relevant content that is optimized, social media that feeds your funnel. These are the building blocks, and yes, sometimes they take time to work. But…they work.

Shortcuts will simply take you back to the beginning…where you often have to pay to start over.

Confidence is necessary for a startup to be successful, and it’s necessary for a good business coach to lead others. But to think you know the most in the room, and not take into account the best practices (which are called that for a reason, by the way) of the various segments of business, especially SEO (which I’m particularly invested in, of course), is not good consulting. It’s not good business, and it’s not good leadership.

You have to see the industry as a whole to offer good solutions to clients.

Blind spots are especially dangerous if they aren’t acknowledged. Arrogance is a red flag, and it will keep people from working with you, because ancillary businesses that partner with you want to get paid. Arrogance and blind spots often lead to failure. (And unpaid invoices.)

The “Get Rich Quick” mindset and the wild west attitude don’t typically lead to a sustainable long-term business success. Sometimes they do, but I’ve been in business for a while, and that’s not what I’ve seen…and in my work I see a lot of different types of businesses.

Even with private equity funding. Angel investors. Still prone to flame out.

Don’t make the mistake of looking for the “hack”. Be humble. You may know a lot, but you don’t know everything, and being teachable will yield so much more than arrogance. If you’re not able to take advice from those who specialize in an area, or even the business people who might be older, and not tech-savvy, but people savvy…you’re not someone people will want to partner with.

Look towards building sustainability. Financials that hit targets. Strategies that make sense, and have the input of professionals, whether it’s marketing, sales, operations, or any other segment.

The growth may not be super fast, but it will be an investment. Look towards the next several years, not the next few months.

Just to show that I don’t hate all consultants, I’ll offer my thoughts about what makes a good one:

Number one…identify your key value propositions. What are the things you know the most about? The areas where you’ve excelled, that are applicable across all areas of a business? What is your formal system? What are the process steps?

It’s often more about the consultant’s sales persona, than the actual offering. How do you come alongside clients and help them get what they want?

Number two…there’s no replacement for putting in work. It’s fun to simply tell people what to do, but you have to have walked it out and seen that it works before you offer the advice to someone else. Build a team around you. Find partners you trust. Be sure you have relevant experience.

And if you’re looking for a consultant and they’re counseling you about a shortcut that sounds maybe a little too good to be true…just remember that shortcuts are very often time (and money) wasters. You may be at risk to lose way more than revenue through shady practices than you realize. You may damage your business reputation, which can be impossible to overcome.

Do the work, faithfully over time.

A Letter to My Younger Self

A Letter to My Younger Self

A Letter to My Younger Self

Day Creative just celebrated our 8 year anniversary, and as I reflect on almost a decade in business, I thought about my younger self, and what I would say if I could send a letter to that guy.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still in business (and doing this well). A little background; I don’t have a business degree, my education is in film. The worldview that I saw modeled, through parents and other adults, was, go to college, get a degree, get a job in the field your degree is in. Then go to work for someone forever, and hopefully they have good health benefits!

So that’s the route I started on. However I got to a stage in life where that paradigm just wasn’t working. At the time I was working for a corporation in Oklahoma City and living in Norman, so I was engaging in that typical rat race commute. We started having kids and I just felt like my family was getting my leftover energy, not the best of me. It wasn’t ideal. At the same time I started doing some design on the side to make a little extra cash, and then it occurred to me that I could build a business around this pursuit that I enjoyed, and have the added benefit of actually being around. 

The decision was made to turn the side hustle into a business, and it was exciting. When I made it to the one year mark I reached out to a business coach connection I had made and told him, “Hey! Can you believe it? I made it a year!” His response? “Call me back when you make it to year five.”

Uh, Thanks?

Statistically, the estimate is that about 20% of small businesses fail before the first year — most do make it to the point I was so proud to reach. However, only about 50% survive past five years and after that? Dismal chances.

We did survive, however, and now we’re at year 8! Those years have been full of lessons, and evolution. Even though we succeeded, if I could, I would tell my younger self a few things. Three, to be exact.

Build long term relationships

Owning a business is mostly relationship building. When I first started, the thinking was, “Who will hire me and pay me well and on time?” It was purely transactional. I would finish a job, get paid and move onto the next client job. What I didn’t realize is I had a giant hole in my business–I wasn’t circling back after the transaction portion of the relationship was done to find out their thoughts, future needs, or how I could do better.

Now, I’ve learned that I don’t just want the contract for designing their website, or other pieces of business. I mean, I do want that, but I want to understand their business so that I can offer guidance for the next project. “Have you thought about this? I feel like this would benefit you.” The goal is to be a partner; a trusted advisor. Becoming an outsourced marketing department is much different than simply offering a la carte services (which we still do, of course), and that’s our goal. We have a lot to offer, and while the business is still a business, it’s better for everyone if the relationship focus is kept at the forefront.

I’m happy to say that we still have clients that I’ve had since the beginning eight years ago — I have become a trusted advisor, and we’ve become friends. Attending games together, going golfing…that type of relationship is the best kind of business relationship because building trust means that you can provide more value. I’ve had clients build from simple services to assisting with bigger events–one company did a fundraiser for an employee that had cancer, and they trusted us to help. Longevity happens when people trust you, and they trust you by having multiple opportunities to see you perform in the way you promise.

Find a business coach, STAT

I would say this to any small business owner starting out (and do), but particularly to my younger self because I didn’t have a business background. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Someone with practical experience and knowledge to guide and inform me was valuable, and I think if I had engaged my coach sooner, I would have benefitted earlier. If you’re new to this (or even if you aren’t) you may have blind spots, or things you’re doing that you could improve that you can’t see yourself.

One of the first questions my coach asked was, “What does Day Creative do? What services do you offer and which ones give you the best margins?”

I didn’t even know what a margin was. Yikes. 

It’s hilarious in hindsight, but my first year or two with my coach wasn’t fun. It was a lot of tracking and examining data. I hated it! I’m a creative person. I don’t like sitting and crunching numbers, but as I looked at our data I saw the wisdom in taking all of this into account and it began to shape my decisions. Developing new revenue streams, improving efficiency…all of the things that lead to sustainable life for a small business, I understand now, and can enact them easily. All because I worked with a business coach.

Most local branches of the Small Business Administration can help you find a coach or small business incubators that offer free or scaled help for those starting small businesses…find one with experience that fits your needs. You’ll get more bang for your buck if you find one that has diverse experience, an understanding of all aspects of business. Sales, finance, etc.

Learn to specialize

This piece of advice that I would give my younger self is maybe a little unexpected. When I first started, my goal was to be a full-service branding agency. I wanted to specialize in great design, from logo and a branding systems to website design and all of the little corollary pieces that go with it.

At a particular point my business coach and I were doing some work to pivot the business towards generating recurring revenue, and I found myself doing a lot of social media management. It was okay, but it wasn’t what I was best at. It was a good move because of the numbers, and it was workable, but I wasn’t happy doing it. My coach suggested only doing what I was good at – which sounded awesome, but I wasn’t sure how to grow revenue with this approach. But I trusted him and moved in that direction.

This had a couple of effects; one, when I focused on the work that I am the best at, it yielded success and provided opportunities to then grow the team at Day Creative by bringing in people who specialize in the other things I wanted to offer. It also made me happier because I was doing what I was actually best at – which yielded even more growth. Focusing on solving your customer’s problems is always the correct approach, and when you provide high quality work doing what you are best at it makes it even better – instead of trying to be something that you aren’t. 

Even in the last two to three years, we’ve transitioned to becoming more of a website shop. We have partners that handle the back end hosting, and we have a creative team that can produce a website that represents our client’s brand — it smells like them, it’s going to move the needle with their customers — and also provides all of the analytics and reporting data they need to grow the business. 

In the past 8 years we’ve gone from my original grand scheme to be a branding agency, to being content with being the best at creating websites and driving traffic to them. We provide growth for our clients by leading with what we’re best at. In the last two years, we’ve built partnerships with other agencies to produce their websites, where we become their go-to when they hit capacity. Specializing can open lots of unexpected doors.

Those would be my three main points, if I could send a letter to my younger self, starting my own business 8 years ago. Think about long term relationships, get a business coach as soon as possible, and find a niche.

Here’s to the last 8 years, and here’s to 8 more!

Lessons From Failure: Part Two

Lessons From Failure: Part Two

Lessons From Failure: Part Two

In Lessons from Failure: Part 1 we talked about lessons that helped DayCreative grow by finding our unique quality as a company and setting parameters for money matters. This time, we’ll delve into some different lessons we learned from mistakes.

Lesson 3: Sometimes You Fire the Client

It may seem counterintuitive; the whole point of business is that you make money. Getting clients is good, so you should do anything to keep them, “The Customer is Always Right”, etc.

Right?

Wrong.

Sometimes you need to fire clients. Disclaimer; in the almost eight years we’ve been in business, this has only happened twice. 85% of our clients are still with us. We have satisfied customers most of the time and we prefer to have a model based on sustained clients, not just one-time customers. But there have been two cases where it was just better for everyone if the client went elsewhere.

The first instance was a client who had a corporate background, and seemed certain that he knew how long media company projects should take and how much it should cost. (Instead of believing what we, the actual media company, told him it would cost and how long it would take.) 

On more than one occasion we would tell him up front the time expectation and cost, and he would repeatedly become impatient before the deadline, or question the price. This conversation happened over and over, until once we were working on a project that was more substantial. It kind of slowed down, due to some matters on his end, and to his credit, he came to us and said, “Hey, I’ve gotten bogged down, I know this has stalled, if you want to just bill me for the time you have in it so far, I’ll pay you and we’ll shut it down.” So we did. 

It was double what he thought it should be and he wasn’t happy. This was the most dramatic instance, but it made me realize that it stressed me out to deal with him. I felt anxious, it was crazy-making, so basically I fired him. I told him I appreciated the business he had given us, but he always seemed to be upset. His expectations didn’t match the reality of what our business does and was capable of doing for him. 

Since then I’ve done it one other time and that time…I did it sooner in the journey than I did the first time. Every once in a while, it’s necessary. Your productivity is enhanced by peace. You might think you can’t put a price tag on it, but you probably can. And it’s probably not as profitable as you think to have stressful clients.

Lesson 4: It’s Okay to Lose Winning Strategies

I started DayCreative in the fall of 2012, and six months to a year in I got involved with Henry Dumas, a business coach. (An all around great guy. We’ll talk more about Henry and business coaches in general in another post soon.) I told him I wanted to grow. I was hitting a ceiling, and needed to hire people to grow, but needed money to hire those people.

We came up with a plan to get clients on retainer, paying us regularly for a variety of services so that we could project our future finances. So I did just that, I performed a variety of services for clients, on a retainer model and…I hated it.

I had a developer working with me, but it was just me at the time. What I found was that people were willing to pay retainers, and it provided regular, dependable income, but it was for doing things I hated, things I wasn’t good at. I didn’t like it, but I thought, If I don’t do this, how will I grow?

During a coaching session with Henry, when I was complaining about this, he said, “Well, what if you just do what you’re best at?” He redirected me and we worked out an alternative route, and even though we weren’t doing traditional retainer work, we ended up getting repeat business for the things that I did want to do. The things I did best. That led to the same outcome I wanted before; reliable income.

We came to know that we could put this client or that down for this amount on an annual recurring basis, and that gave us the financial ability to build a team to do the things that I wasn’t great at. Once we offered those services, done by skilled professionals, in addition to what I did best…we grew even more.

Sometimes a practice makes sense financially, and allows for growth, but the real power of a successful business is people loving what they do, and being good at it. That should be the ultimate goal, and if a strategy works on paper but takes energy away from everyone doing the things they do best, it won’t be a winning game plan long term.

And the best strategy isn’t just the one that wins, it’s the one that allows you to keep winning.

Lessons From Failure: Part One

Lessons From Failure: Part One

Lessons From Failure: Part One

In business (as in the rest of life) some of the best lessons you learn can come from mistakes.

Our next two posts will feature some ways that we at DayCreative have learned specific lessons from a few key mistakes, and how those “failures” have translated into better business decisions; moves that have made our company stronger.

 

Lesson 1: Find Your Uniqueness

When I (Matt) first started out, one approach I took early on to find clients was reaching out to business incubators. I remember making a call to one of these incubators somewhere in a different part of the state, and while I was talking to the decision-maker about who I was and what services I was offering, she asked me, “Well, who are you? Why should I use Day Creative?” No one had asked me that. I stumbled through an answer, something like, “We’re great, we’re affordable…” and her response is, “Well, we have someone great and affordable doing that already.” I fumbled a response, “Well, keep us in mind!” and that was that. 

But that was the impetus for my consideration about what makes DayCreative different. It forced a question on me that was necessary, and that helped me define what differentiated us and articulate it for the next prospect. It also gave birth to a hallmark of the way we operate; part of our discovery process for clients is helping them discover what makes them authentically unique, in order to bring that out in their design and their marketing endeavors to help them grow.

I bombed on one phone call. But it brought growth that developed my business in a big way.

Lesson 2: Set Parameters for Money Matters

Dealing with issues about payment and how that relates to creative endeavors like marketing can be tricky. Some of my most poignant lessons have to do with money, and one in particular came from a time when I quoted a prospect totally wrong. He was a craftsman, and I was excited to work with him; he did great work, and had beautiful products. I gave him a quote, didn’t really give a timeline for it, and through the course of a year, we went back and forth a little, never really going anywhere, until finally he contacted me and was ready to do it.

I was running a special at the time, and he had made his decision based on the percentage this sale would give him off of the quote I’d made initially, almost a year prior. I went back and looked at the quote and realized that for me to do the project in the present, as opposed to when I’d quoted it at the time (with what my overhead had been back then) it would actually cost me money. I had to tell him I couldn’t do it, and I also started putting time limits on quotes.

Some other good money lessons have led to changes in how we receive payment for work we do. In the beginning my contracts called for 50 percent down, and 50 percent at completion at completion of the project. Seems straightforward, until you realize that very often in this process, the client is the one who ends up holding up progress. Whether it’s reviewing content, getting customer reviews, or something else, we may have finished as much work as we can, and then end up waiting for the client to do their part.

Generally the process of our website completion takes six weeks; when we had the 50 percent down, 50 percent at completion model, we had projects that were taking 6 months. In discussions with my partner about how to mitigate this slowdown, he suggested changing to a model where 50 percent is paid up front, and 50 percent is due in 30 days. When the process is paid for, clients are less likely to delay measures to get the project finished. We get paid, the project is completed quickly…everyone wins.

Clients may not realize initially that’s what they agreed to, or get a little grumpy about paying before completion, but years of struggling to pay people (and myself) to finish projects taught me that it’s worth the grumpiness in the beginning to provide quick completion and great results. Good work finished quickly can take away the sting of paying upfront.

Another issue related to money is setting time parameters on projects. (Time does equal money in business.) Some clients have the view that contracting us means that we’re employees and they can indefinitely tweak the project without consequence, because we’re working for them. Until we modified the way we make contracts, that’s exactly what happened much of the time; we repeatedly got stuck because of not having limits on revisions. I don’t like putting hard limits on revisions (and a good process for figuring out what the client wants before you start will forestall a lot of the need for endless revisions), but our contracts do reflect that after a certain point, if it’s substantially increasing time, then they’re subject to extra cost.

Our goal is happy clients, and completed work makes for happy clients. Honing the discovery process helps streamline content creation and design, and this can reduce revisions (and cost). These lessons not only taught us about ways to protect our business and be as profitable as possible and value the work of our team members appropriately by setting limits, it also helped us refine the way we work, and increase our client satisfaction.

Everyone wins.

Next time; Lessons from Failure, Part 2