I’m now more than halfway through my first year working only for myself and I’m quietly optimistic about the prospects for the business.
As with anything, things have developed and changed so I’ve had to adapt the balance of what I do. For example, the business is called Your Virtual PR because I anticipated providing my PR skills to small and medium businesses. But one of the things which has brought me the most work so far has been copywriting. I love writing, so doing the work isn’t a problem, it’s just not what I envisaged I would be doing.
You will may have heard about portfolio careers. It’s the new buzz phrase for people who choose to have a number of different specialisms, or who re-train and effectively have several careers instead of doing the same thing. I’m starting to think that I can apply elements of this approach to my business.
I have effectively compartmentalised the skills I have – my knowledge of the media, of how to effectively target certain customer groups, my writing skills, my coaching skills – and packaged them up in a number of different ways that people want to buy.
I’ve also thought carefully about the model for the business in terms of retained, regular clients versus one-off projects. I have a small number of retained clients and clearly these are the ones which provide security as they sign up for six or twelve months. But the project work can help supplement this and is the start of a new relationship and an opportunity to showcase my skills, so it is just as important.
I’ve never been afraid to adapt, and I view my first six months in business as a good way to test what people are receptive to. I guess the sensible approach would have been to do all of that market research before I launched the business, but hindsight is 20:20 isn’t it? I did do some research, but as the business has matured, so has the concept. I’m still being true to my values of providing flexible and great value communications services, there’s just more emphasis on one skill than others at the moment.
Networking: It’s not what you know…
I’ve been doing some more networking, dipping my toe into as many different types of groups as I can. I’ve not settled on anything that I feel should be my only networking solution just yet, but I’ve been surprised at just how many options there are out there.
I’ve also been surprised at the massive potential cost – £500 a year up front plus £50 a month in some cases. It’s not a cost I’ve been able to justify, so I’m sticking to the groups where you can just turn up and pay for that session or, even better, the ones which are free.
I’ve also tried to think a bit more creatively about what networking opportunities are available to me and have been attending a lot of free events in order to build up my contacts. I’ve got more strategic about who I want to target at those events, but I’ve also just enjoyed chatting to anyone and everyone who is in business locally.
It’s been a mix of targeted approaches and just speaking to people and thinking “How can I help this person?” Often that has been about me referring them to someone else, not just about what I personally can do for them.
As a result of the networking I’ve had a number of meetings with designers that are now starting to bear fruit.
What I’ve learnt about networking is:
- Time is precious. You could genuinely spend all week networking if you wanted (and could afford it) so carefully check out any opportunities before you go along
- Test the water. So many networking groups are keen to sign you up but there are infinite formats and philosophies on networking and not all of them will work for you. All of the groups I’ve come across let you go along at least once before committing, so make the most of these opportunities even if you decided not to sign up.
- Have a plan. It’s great to speak to everyone and build up a contacts book, but it’s also effective to think about the kinds of businesses you particularly want to speak with
- Tell people it’s your first time. With the more formal groups, saying you’ve not been before is an easy conversation starter and people are keen to help introduce you to others and make you feel comfortable.
- Follow up. If you meet someone you think you could work with, a dedicated meeting is often a great next step. That way you can research each other a bit more and have a plan for how you could work together and give you an opportunity to get to know them better.
- Informal networking is just as good. Networking doesn’t have to be about everyone in the room standing up and having a minute to pitch. Make the most of other opportunities to meet and talk to people.
- It takes time. I’ve just started work on a project with a company I first came across in December. Networking is about building up the contacts, you shouldn’t expect to walk out of the door with new business (although that’s happened to me once and it was great!).
- Keep at it. Just because you’re busy now doesn’t mean you can take your foot off the networking pedal. Continue to make time to do some networking, even in a scaled-down form, while you’re busy as you will need a new batch of work to start on.
Having the right tools
Running a business is expensive, isn’t it? But I’m a firm believer that you have to have the right tools to do the job properly. In my case that means subscribing to a service which monitors the coverage I secure for my clients and to another on which journalists post their enquiries so I can respond to any that are relevant to my clients.
Both of these services are relatively expensive – in my view. Yet they are necessary for me to provide a professional service to my clients. So while I’ve got a tight grip of the money I have to pay out, these are expenses I can’t afford not to have.
In the last six months I’ve had to be at my most resilient to weather the ups and downs of running my own business. I’m sure you find that too.
I hadn’t appreciated the sheer extremes at that you can swing between – sometimes within a matter of days.
My coach urged me to get myself a notebook and keep a diary of the good times so I had something to read in the difficult ones. Being a sucker for pretty stationery I took myself off to buy something beautiful that I would really cherish. I’ve never kept a diary before, but I’ve found it really useful in helping to remind me that I can do this and that, when the going gets tough, there have been great times too.
I’ve also used the diary to set some targets for myself and the business and am keeping track of how I’m doing. In particular I have a page with a list of clients on, which I add to every time I get a new one. I’m really enjoying seeing that page fill up with names. It’s a visual representation of how far I’ve come.
So what is the plan for the next three months? Well, the whole idea of me starting the business was to rebalance the ratio of life and work in our household. So as we approach the school holidays I’m working as hard as I can to make sure that I’ll be able to ease off a little while the children are off school.
September will bring a new routine as my youngest starts pre-school, and that also means I’ll have more time to work. I’m making plans for how I can more effectively spend that time as well as looking forward to not working quite so many evenings and weekends.
Which brings me on to my final piece of learning – the value of boundaries. Running a business from home can mean that you never really stop working, so you don’t get a proper break or chance to recharge. While the necessities of my family routine mean I have to work some evenings and parts of the weekend, it’s also important for my sanity that I draw some boundaries.
For me this means I try not to work on Sundays so I get at least one day off and that I close the door on my office when I’m not working so I don’t feel like – or create the impression for my clients – that I’m constantly on the clock.
If you have any views or words of wisdom that you want to share, I’d be really pleased to hear them.