This week, I am pleased to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Grassroots Online. Having started this on my own in May 2009, I am quite happy with the way the business has evolved over the last five years, the wonderful clients we’ve had the privilege of working with and the files we have been able to participate on.
The last year also saw Grassroots Online add a partner in Mark Hardwick and help launch a new advocacy platform. So, there is a lot to reflect in the last 12 months of operation. After four years in business, I published 4 lessons I learned along the way. This year, I’m going to list five important lessons I have gathered over my five years as a business owner and entrepreneur.
The last round was largely focused on my philosophical approach to how I run my business. This year’s version is more focused on practical lessons that I have learned, often the hard way. It is my hope that these pieces of advice help you in some small way to build your company or organization. More successful small business owners is a good thing. Small businesses that turn into big ones is even better.
1. Look Big, Even If You Aren’t (Yet)
As I stated last year, trust is crucial. But trust is also expressed as confidence in you and your outfit to get the job done. Most clients have very tight budgets and don’t want to dedicate those funds to a vendor or partner that can’t deliver. You can, of course, combat that with a solid plan on how to achieve the client’s objectives, but it also needs to be provided in a context that says: “this isn’t our first rodeo”.
There are many ways to present yourself as a serious organization without outlaying a ton of cash. Get a (real) website. Lose the @gmail.com email address. We have a 1-800 number that begins with a prompt from our “receptionist” and offers extensions to each team member. I also invested in invoicing software (Freshbooks) and a proper contract that demonstrates we are a serious organization servicing substantive clients. Further, make sure to score testimonials and write up case studies as you earn them. No one wants to be a guinea pig; make sure prospective clients know they are not.
2. Stay Top Of Mind
Not every sale or contract happens immediately. Sometimes, a budget hasn’t been approved yet or the timing is down the road. I’ve had files move forward years after they were first proposed. That doesn’t mean time connecting with potential clients is wasted. As a start, it is important to let prospects know what it is you do – don’t assume they know. Give them an solid overview so they know who to call when those kinds of services are needed.
But once that happens, it is important that you stay top of mind. I have found the best way to do that is by producing content on a regular basis. Yes, yes: you never have enough time in the day. But you think that because you don’t see this activity as business development. Here at Grassroots Online, we blog regularly, produce videos, we have a weekly newsletter (subscribe here) and we produce weekly podcasts. We also taking speaking engagements and comment in the media where possible.
All of this helps to remind potential clients about what it is we do, but it showcases our knowledge/familiarity with the subject. Not to mention that this content helps those who publish it rank higher on search engines. I have secured at least three clients directly from my newsletter list alone. Do you still think it is a waste of time?
3. Create Systems For The Future
Is it so easy when you are first starting out to design your systems to reflect where you are as an organization. You provide work, you invoice the client. Simple. But as you start growing, that simplistic system you developed on your own won’t necessarily work as well. You should be developing systems that scale, where they are flexible enough to integrate new (and more complex) scenarios.
With a smaller client list, I used to be able to keep mental notes on every file and know exactly where things were at any given time. Now that our customer base has expanded and the demands on each file have increased, it is difficult at times to keep things straight on every file just by keeping track in my head. So we have had to implement file management protocols, vendor management and accounting structures to properly service our clients and the files we work on. Plan for those systems before you need them.
4. Define What Makes You Different
If you have no competition, that means that there is either no money in your niche or it hasn’t been around long enough for competitors to show up. If (like most firms) you do have competition, then it is important to help prospective clients understand what makes you unique (read: where you add value). If you don’t, the decision point will often come down to who has the lowest quote or who has better connections to the prospective client. Never good.
Back when I first started, it was at first enough to differentiate Grassroots Online by focusing on online public affairs versus general social media. But in the five years since, I have found that every passing year brings with it more firms selling “digital public affairs”. So, two years ago we started focusing on mobilization specifically: building platforms and services that mobilize target audiences to take action.
It is important that you define and promote what you bring to the table that is special and unique, whatever that is.
5. ABI: Always Be Innovating
In keeping with the value added theme, it is absolutely critical that you live like a shark: if you stop moving, you die. In the technology field, innovation is a must. There is always new ways of doing things, new platforms and new tools to help you service your clients better. Our platforms are light years from where they first started because our team has always been looking at ways to improve upon what we already have.
Part of that is due to our intentional strategy of linking up with clients and partners who are just as interested in pushing the edge as we are. We look for complex problems to solve, which present an opportunity to find new ways of doing things. These kinds of files inevitably bring more stress and risk, but they also ensure that you are always one step ahead of the competition.
I hope these 5 lessons provide some insight into building and maintaining a business. While the road is often bumpy and uncertain, it is also just as often challenging and rewarding. If you have any of your own insights and tips, please share them below.