13 Lessons Learned From Consulting In 2015
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to create more valuable content in the coming year. In addition to my annual post-mortem, I wanted to share some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned throughout the year so that you can apply them to your own bootstrapped or creative service business.
1.Hourly Billing is Toxic.
I knew hourly billing was bad. I have been trying to remove it from my business since the start of 2015. Towards the end of this year, I’ve finally removed all accounts of time spent on my tasks, and it’s the greatest change I’ve ever made. Working in a results-based business instead of a costs-based business is night and day. Everything from the day-to-day process to client conversations to how I sell deals and prices are focused on the value provided and goals achieved, not on costs of goods sold and time spent on tasks.
2.How to Launch a Product
This year I launched the second edition of my book, The Project Estimation Guide: How to Deliver Software On Time & On Budget (look for the 2nd edition, Dependable, March 2016). I did this as part of Gumroad’s Small Product Lab, a challenge to conceive, product, market, and sell a product in just ten days. In a moment of kismet, this came along right when I had a lull in my schedule, and just after reading Amy Hoy’s Just F$%^# Ship.
I tackled the challenge and released the book. I learned the importance of setting deadlines and constraints. Tasks you plan to get done ‘one day’ never do. The combination of a time limit and the support of a community (particular shout out to mentor & podcast host Chris Hawkins) got me to finally ship my first product. Sales weren’t great, but it’s nice to get the first time out of the way. “Launching a Product” does not feel as big and scary as it used to.
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3.The Importance of Focus & Discipline
As an entrepreneur, there is an infinite amount of work to pursue. To get anything done, you have to decide what’s truly important and make the decision to work on it exclusively. I’ve become a big fan of an exercise I learned about from James Clear: Write down 25 things you want to do, then pick the five most important. Work only on those 5; Ban the other 20 from your life. Those 20 tasks are the most insidious form of procrastination: The kind that feels like working.
Also, another habit I have found useful is setting a list of tasks every day, no more than 5, and working on finishing that list. It sounds simple, but it’s crazy useful. It gives you a win every day, and helps you build momentum. Success does not come in year-long project plans but daily forward motion. I realized that to think big; I have to think small, show up every day and do the work.
4.How Inbound Sales Work Front-to-Back
I had messed around with various forms of inbound marketing: email, blogging, giving talks, guest posting, etc. I wasn’t until this year it finally ‘clicked’, and I could see how the whole funnel works. You build interest with content such as articles and promote them with links, social media, syndication, and direct outreach to get viewers. From there you provide more value in exchange for an email. From there you can build and nurture a trusting relationship over time, eventually leading to a good sell.
5.The Power of Asking the Right Questions
My favorite way of interacting with my audience is to send a thought provoking question out there and see what comes back. These have lead to some fascinating conversations.
In a more formal manner, I’ve started working surveys into my workflow ever since I read Ask By Ryan Levesque. I recently performed an end of the year survey and created a client feedback survey I send to my clients after projects. I’ve also been experimenting with using similar forms for client onboarding.
6. Taking Care of Myself Mentally & Physically
Despite my best efforts, In 2016 I’ll be turning 30. It’s made me realize that if I want to start taking care of myself, then I need to start doing that now. I started running because it combines my desire to exercise with my love of podcasts and outside. I also made more of an effort to take care of myself mentally. Two habits I’ve worked on are morning meditations and journaling. There are a lot of journaling techniques out there, but I keep things simple and just use it as an exercise to work through or get persistent thoughts out of my head.
Since starting both morning habits, I’m able to go into work feeling more refreshed, relaxed, and focused. Your business starts and ends with you. If you are struggling professionally, is it possible it’s because you aren’t taking care of yourself physically or mentally?
7. The Many Different Ways to Streamline Processes
I started 2015 with the goal of getting more streamlined processes in place. Initially, I looked at these as writing ‘Standard Operating Procedures,’ which are Google Docs explaining in detail how to perform a task. After starting there, I realized that streamlining processes didn’t have to be in such a rigid format. Other ways I’ve streamlined:
- Creating Zapier tasks to automate rote work.
- Creating Email and Document templates to speed up proposal writing and client communication. I use MixMax for emails.
- Creating template projects in Asana and copying them when a similar project arises (example: writing and publishing a blog post)
Doing all of these reduces the number of decisions I have to make each day, reduces errors, and helps me get more done in less time.
8. How to Say ‘No’.
When I first started freelancing, I would be grateful to anyone that was willing to give me a shot and let me work for them. These days, I’m still grateful to my clients and thankful for the life I get to lead, but now I am a lot pickier with clientele. This year I put up a velvet rope: I’m only working with B2B businesses, and only in a results-oriented fashion.
Are you a startup with zero customers? Sorry, can’t help you?
Need a website for your restaurant? I’m not a good fit.
Are you looking for a 40-hour week contractor to grind out the code for the next nine months? Be honest and call it a ‘job’.
The real freedom of business is that your business can run exactly the way you want it too. This year I’ve made it a point to be assertive and only focus on work that I both enjoy and feel it’s somewhere I can bring real value to a business.
9. How to Write a Compelling Sales Page.
Between considering productized services, building a newsletter, and launching a product, I knew I was going to have to write landing pages at some point. The best guide I’ve found on the subject is The Brain Audit by Sean D’Souza. It taught me how to people’s minds work when going through the buying process. In short, present a problem, show them the solution, sell the bridge between the two, all while overcoming objections, building trust, and reducing risk.
I could spend years writing sales letters and still have tons to learn about the craft. But for now, the Brain Audit has given me a solid framework for putting together landing pages. Here are some examples written by myself and other fans:
10. How to Write Valuable Proposals
I used to take entire days writing proposals. I once put one together, sent off my detailed proposal for with a $20,000 estimate attached, only to hear the client say they were thinking of a budget more like $400.
A proposal is kind of a landing page for one person that only has to make one sale, and The Brain Audit of Proposal writing is Million Dollar Consulting Proposals: How to Write a Proposal That’s Accepted Every Time by Alan Weiss. In this book, he explains how business proposals should be like marriage proposals: Don’t ask unless you are sure the other part will say “yes”. I realized that proposals should come only once the client and I have a clear idea of the project and are ready to move forward. Then, the proposal is just a brief summary of the project and terms. Takes about 45 minutes. I’ve also made my proposals look slick as hell using Remarq.
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11. How to Amplify The Impact of What I Write
My first blog was in 2008, A horrible little thing. Since then I’ve worked out in the open and sharing what I’ve learned in a way to help others. It hasn’t always been successful, but I feel like I’ve started to find a groove with publishing. I’ve found ways to make the content more substantial, get more traffic, and build more leads based on that traffic. Here’s a quick collection of resources I’ve found useful:
- Dan Norris’s book Content Machine taught me how to make content more impactful.
- The humungous post from Copyhackers, a book in blog post format, gave me structure.
- Grammarly affiliate link helps me catch typos and passive voice.
- Content Upgrades from AudienceOps helps me share resources while building my audience.
- How to get more traffic by following a process based on Content Promotion Checklist.
12. That Customer Service is a Part of Sales
When I was first starting a local mentor taught me an important distinction between marketing and sales: Marketing is what gets people interested and generates leads, while sales are the process where leads become customers. If you are struggling to find more clients, it’s worth noting: is it because your sales calls aren’t going well (you have a sales problem), or you don’t have enough sales calls to begin with (marketing problem)?
I knew that customer service was important, but I saw is as separate from the other two. This year I realized that a happy one-time customer will become a multi-time customer and a champion of your products and services. I’ve reshaped my customer service policies to maximize customer happiness and give them plenty of opportunities to share the word and continue to get value if they choose.
If you want to hear more about this, and also swear words, check out this episode of the MFCEO podcast.
13. Don’t Do Two New Things
I recently started working on building a Chrome application for a client. It was the first time I have ever created a Chrome application. I want to learn about React and its kin. However, I decided to go with AngularJS for this project. One of the other developers from the company asked me about my decision, and I told him my favorite piece of advice from The Secrets of Consulting:
Don’t do two new things.
New things have a tendency to fail, especially the first time around. Doing two new things in one project multiplies the chances of that project being a failure exponentially. Whenever I start a project, I have a string ‘one new thing only’ rule.
And on to 2016.
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