Archive for March, 2011
As I type this, I am currently sitting in the airport departure lounge of a small American city, waiting for my flight home to be called, having completed a whistle stop visit to the USA for a new customer project. Having spent a couple of days working with other American companies, I am struck how much easier it must be to be a freelancer or small business owner in the USA.
Here are my top 10 reasons why it MUST be easier to be a freelancer in the USA than in the UK:
The postal system is so much better – apart from having a massive range of postal options, the US postal service has decided to simplify their system by proving a range of boxes. Each box has a postal price – if it fits in a box, it ships for that boxes price regardless of destination or weight. Compare that to our UK system of weight, by size, by location. Plus, the US postal service will deliver the blank empty boxes to you, and collect from your door – no more queuing at the post office.
It’s an accepted way of Life – Being a freelancer or small business owner is not only a dream for Americans, it’s an accepted way of life. In the USA, if you say you’re a freelancer it seems to be regarded as the norm. In the UK, it is viewed with suspicion.
Free WiFi is EVRYWHERE – and I mean everywhere. Good, fast, secure and free – from the local bar, to cinemas, to restaurants and even on the road– it’s impossible not to be on line.
Office space is plentiful and CHEAP – This may not be true in big built up cities, but in the places I visited, there were plenty of short lease, long lease and rental office space. All were ridiculously cheap (we used a large meeting room for 2 days for less that £80 all in), and all are clean, modern and well equipped.
Fuel is at our early 1990’s prices – when I tell people in the US how much our fuel is, they are shocked. Fuel here is around £3.62 a gallon.
Americans buy American – Americans have pride in American products, and buy American whenever possible (even buying American cars when foreign are better). American flags are on most products. When is the last time you saw the words “Made in Britain” and felt pride?
Everything is delivered to your door – Nothing is too much. I stayed in a hotel, and had printing, pizza, drinks and software delivered right to my hotel room – not the lobby – but the room. It’s standard practice.
Web sites are geared for Americans – Lets be honest, the vast majority of web sites are hosted and run from America, which gives Americans the home advantage. I have lost count the times I have tried to work out the way to get a UK post code into an American zip code prompt.
No (little) Health and Safety Laws – In all the times I have visited the states, I have never heard the words “No, because Health and Safety dictates that….”. It just doesn’t happen. Health and Safety has handcuffed what we do and how we do it. But not in the USA. You want to plug your laptop into a wall socket in a hotel lobby or airport terminal – there is nothing to stop you.
Everybody has a Can Do attitude – Everybody in America really does have the Can Do Attitude. Nothing is too much trouble. Whereas in the UK, just try to get service in a shop by the bored teenage school kid part timing, and too busy talking about tonight’s party to serve you.
Does this man I want to move to the USA to run my business? No!! I love living in the UK. Its just that at times, we just make it so hard for ourselves. Things need to change.
Most (but not all) of my own personal marketing is currently through Google AdWords. I have other forms of marketing in play as well, but over the last 6 months, Google AdWords has pulled in far more new work than any other form of marketing.
Google likes to promote their Adwords service as easy to use, and it can be. But by being easy to use, it’s also very easy to get things wrong and to waste an awful lot of money on adverts that don’t work, or result in a high level of bounces (people who hit your web site and then bounce right back to the Google search results as they don’t like what they see).
One of the reasons I am having more success now than in my initial use of Adwords is through the tips and tricks I obtained from Perry Marshall’s book: The ultimate Guide to Google Adwords. It really has made a difference to the number of leads I have obtained and number of sales closed.
This book is packed with so much information, tips and useful resources that I updated my own campaign and straight away (or within a couple of days) I started to see the results. The book covers all kinds of Adwords related terms and tricks including:
- Peel and Stick: creating a new campaign for different sets of keywords appealing to different sets of searchers.
- Keyword selection, searching and linking to landing pages
- Using Negative keywords and exact matches, to improve your relevance, click through rate, your average position and reduce your cost per click.
- Split-testing, making sure you are always testing out which ad is better for your campaign by battling two against each other and testing their performance.
- Writing an effective ad- by promoting benefits first and features second.
From this book, it is very easy to see why Perry Marshall is the king of adwords and is well-renowned around the world. Both new and experienced Adwords users should consider buying this book. Just one of his tips can make a huge difference to your sales and therefore to your bottom line.
The only word of caution I would offer is that some of the ‘add-on value’ (outside of the printed page) is very American and geared towards selling you more information and courses. The book is great, but I just didn’t like the add-on ‘benefits’.
But if you want to land more customers, I can recommend Adwords. And if you want to get the most of adwords, I can recommend this book.
Sooner or later, no matter what your industry, you will encounter the project assassin. These are people working in key (but not managerial) positions at the customer’s site, where their only joy in life seems to be to create problems for you. I have encountered such individuals 3 or 4 times in my career, and have found there is only one sure-fire way to deal with them.
First Understand your foe
To be able to deal with the assassin, it is important to first understand the assassin. Assassins are not generally born project assassins. The need to hinder and hamper projects is etched into them over time through a series of missed opportunities.
The most common reasons why you may have an assassin gunning for you and your project may include:
- The project was originally their idea, but the management team went outside the company and brought you in
- They had attempted the work and failed. Now, should you succeed, this will only underline their original failure
- They resent their job, and you coming in as a freelancer may highlight how unhappy they are
- They are scared of change
The Assassin’s favourite method of ‘the kill’
The assassin will generally use whatever it takes to ensure that the project fails – as long as they does not risk their own safety. Assassins generally are not confrontational, but prefer to produce long complex emails or reports detailing why your techniques are wrong, outdated, will lead to failure and should be rejected.
How not to deal with the assassin
Before we look at how to deal with the assassin, let’s deal with how NOT to deal with the assassin. Whilst it may be very tempting to react to any and all accusations, this will only lead to war. When an email of ’10 reasons why the project is doomed’ appears, it’s very tempting to create your own war and peace in response, counteracting every point and argument with indisputable evidence. This will only antagonise the assassin (how dare you challenge his authority?!?), and for every counter argument you raise, 3 more will come back. But this time, you won’t be included in the response; it will only be circulated within the company. This in turn leads to feelings of doubt, project insecurity and possible project cancellation.
How to deal with the assassin
The strange thing is, I have found that the best way to deal with the project assign is to befriend them. As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Include him or her in key decisions, ask their advice, keep them posted on progress. But here is the key part – only ask their advice on the things that really don’t matter. Painting a wall? What colour should it be assassin? (who cares?!?). Writing some software? Should we deliver it to you assassin, or somebody else? (like it matters). It also helps (but can hurt deep inside) to talk the assassin up in meetings (‘oh yes, the assassin has been most helpful in….’) – take the high ground.
The point is, by including them, they feel involved, they feel important, and it removes a lot of their objections. But more importantly, it puts them in a position they can no longer snipe at the project. After all, if they are involved and they raise objections or problems that cause it to fail, then it becomes their problem. And they don’t like that!
As a company, I love Amazon. They grew from nothing, they offer a great service, they keep their stock/systems/prices up to date, and they even managed to come through the DOT COM bubble fairly unscathed. When you think of Amazon, it’s also very hard to think of another online competitor. In short, they are a great company.
But, they still make mistakes. Silly, stupid, obvious mistakes. Mistakes we can learn from.
One of their biggest is their automated emails. That is a classic mistake. You go onto Amazon, you search on Widgets (whatever your particular form of widget may be), you buy one, you don’t buy one – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that 48 hours later, you get an email from Amazon telling you about the Widgets they stock. Which is great, but in my view, it’s most likely you have purchased that widget – either from Amazon, Widgets.com or Widgets-Are-Us.Net. I don’t need to purchase another Widget.
So where is the email from Amazon telling me about the products that compliment my Widget. Where is my widget duster, my widget carry case, my widget extended warranty or my widget club membership. In short, well is the add-on sell?
Are you following up your sales with widgets, widget add-ons, or nothing at all?
Yesterday’s entry was a bit of a landmark on this site/feed. It was the 200th entry. I have no idea how this happened – I started recording my business tips and before you know it – entry 200.
To celebrate the fact, I have taken all the posts, squeezed them together, and they are all available as a free ebook. The formatting is not great, some of the pictures are a little large, and all the typos that were in the original posts are still there! :-) However, if you have just started reading and want to see what you have missed, they are all here.
I was chatting over a coffee (tea in my case) with another small business owner and he asked my advice. His problem was he was struggling to find his direction, he was reading lots of books, reading lots of blog posts, and whilst they had some good ideas, he still didn’t have an idea of how to grow or what direction to head. Lots of reading resulted in very little change. He asked what I did in those situations.
My Answer : Just Do It, or Skip It
I read a lot – I read business books, business blogs and business articles on twitter. Some of them give me ideas, some don’t – it’s as simple as that. Those that don’t, I skip them, forget them, don’t waste any more time on them. But now and again, one will trigger an idea – something new to try, or a new direction or something to change in some way.
When this happens, I stop, add it to my do list, and move on. Then as I do my normal work, when time allows or I am in the general area of the idea, I implement it. Then I monitor it for a while. If it works, great, I keep it – if it doesn’t, I take it down, delete it or don’t do it any more.
By making small changes, by taking small steps, and by making small course changes towards my goal of a better stronger business, by business will evolve. I am not looking for the BIG IDEA – the idea that changes everything overnight – the small changes will do just fine
And I do this by taking action – noting it down – coming back to it when time allows – and just do it.
“What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and fed back gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated”“
– John E. Jones – Noted leadership trainer
In the past I have talked about timesheets, recording time and tracking this against your projects. Whilst timesheets can be a pain, they can provide really useful information. In fact, as I type this now, I have a timesheet widget running that is recording the time I spend on the blog, checking that it does not take me over my ‘blog budget’.
The advantage of timesheets is when it comes to chargeable work. If you quote that something is going to take you 5 days to complete, tracking time allows you to see how good your estimate is. If it actually takes 6 days, you know in future that you need to increase your time estimate, and hence will make a profit rather than a loss.
Last week I found a new system for recording time called Toggl (yep, the “e” is missing in the name). It’s a time recording system that allows you to toggle between activities – rather like the toggle of a chess clock (I guess that’s how it got its name).
The reason I recommend this service is based not only on the fact that it is FREE (always good), but that it has time recording systems based on the cloud (where everything is stored), a Windows desktop recorder, an iPhone app and a Googles App. No matter where you are or what you are doing, recording your time takes seconds.
The web site provides a multiple array of stats, graphs, reports, and interfaces. There are also Pro (paid) features for printing timesheets with your logo, invoicing based on hourly rates, etc – but the Free is all I need.
Now if only it could interface directly with Freeagent for pulling in projects and sending out time, then my world would be complete.
Cost of Sales! Those 3 little words have a lot of meaning for bigger companies. It describes with all the time, the costs, the work involved in making a sale – both before and after the contract is signed. When a company employees a salesman, all their salary and bonuses and commission is a cost of the sale.
So when you’re a small company, a freelancer or a contractor and you have to visit to make a sale – should you charge for it? For contractors, the interview is effectively the sales meeting – should you charge for that? What about travel expenses getting to the meeting/interview?
There is no right or wrong answer. But for me, there is a point of time when I start charging – and that point is the delivery of the proposal. When I am meeting a prospect for the first time, or scoping out work, or attending interviews, for me this is true cost of making the sale and so I don’t charge (at least, not up front- I may factor it into the final quote).
BUT, the moment the quotation is delivered, explained and is with them, then it becomes chargeable. This includes meetings with my customer’s customers (which happens a lot).
So take an example where I meet with a customer, and they give their requirements and I spend a day with their team fleshing out the scope – this is all cost of sale. But, if they then have to sell this to their own customers, or want to refine the quotation, or even step through it with me, then I generally will say the time is chargeable.
What about you?
I have just completed a review of my companies Terms and Conditions and found that I was missing a Kill Clause. Without this clause, I was at risk of loosing a lot of money if a customer cancelled a project after I had started worked. Luckily for my company, this has never happened, but of course that doesn’t mean that it could not happen in the future.
So today I added an additional clause to my Terms and Conditions with a Kill Clause as follows:
3. Project Cancellation
In the event that the Client cancels the project before completion, the Company shall deem the project completed and will invoice for the outstanding effort, time and expenses up to the point of cancellation. This effort will be calculated as the actual time spent on the project up to the point of cancellation, and will be calculated using the daily rates agreed as part of the original quotation, rounded up to the nearest half day.
What this clause is effectively saying is that if you order work, products or services from my company and then just before delivery you cancel the project, you can expect an invoice for the work and expenses spent on the project up to that point.
I also have an abridged version of my Terms and Conditions, so I am also updating this version to include a Simple English version which simply says:
If you decide to cancel the project before it is completed, we will raise an invoice for any outstanding work effort and expenses up to the point of cancellation.
Do you have a Kill Clause in your Terms and Conditions?
As my business starts to really take off, it is beginning to dawn on me that I am close to dropping the ball. I don’t mean in terms of the service I provide to customers – I know what I am doing there – but in terms of keeping on top of enquiries, quotes, chasing new work and closing the sales – there is a lot going on when my main job is doing the technical thing.
Of course, for large companies, this is where Customer Relationship Management comes in – CRM. CRM in a nutshell is a central store of contacts, quotes, emails, calls, appointments and everything else that makes up the sales process. In the past, I have looked at a number of different CRM systems, and to be honest – I wasn’t impressed. I looked at products such as Salesforce.com (good, but way too pricey) and the frankly awful Microsoft CRM product.
Two Useful CRM products
However, I have come across two good looking and potentially useful CRM packages. Zoho and SugarCRM. Both have very similar functionality, both allow Cloud based access, and both are presented in Freemium format. The advantage that SugarCRM has over Zoho is that there is a light open source version you can download and host on your own server free of charge. If you are a small business, freelancer or one-man-band, it may be worth looking at the free accounts on both systems.
Both products offer a range of features. You can set up leads (both people and companies), add them to campaigns, record activities (calls, meetings, schedules, emails) and tasks. As you convert leads into prospects (when you generate quotations), you can track the chasing of the lead to order or rejection. The software tracks events, todo items, projects, and you can email the prospects through the software. It then keeps a records of the email going out (it can’t keep a record of replies as these go to your normal inbox).
Both products have all the major features you would expect including a dashboard of things to do (people to chase, upcoming tasks, calls and activities), todo items, emails to send, outstanding quotes, and a pipeline (or funnel) of potential future orders. All figures are based on chance of a win, and a whole host of reports makes keeping track of the details and activities easy to do.
Both systems also include a basic support system, so you can see when talking to a prospect, if they have any support calls open or questions outstanding. However, as most companies will be using a dedicated support system, this may not be a useful part of the services.
It should be remembered that both CRM products are just information tracking systems. Whilst there are buttons to make a call – it will just pop up your contacts phone details and allow you to record the outcome – it won’t do anything beyond that – you still have to do the actual sales work. Whilst they can send emails or produce mailshots, the bulk email generation for sales campaigns is restricted to the paid version. To be honest, the email layout can be fairly simple, so for mass email marketing you may be better off with one of the stronger email services (constant contact or MailChimp).
Also, both CRM systems have overlap. If you don’t have an alternative system, they can produce quotations, but if you use an online accounting system such as Freeagent, you will only ever want to generate the quotes in Freeagent, and enter the summary information here.
There are data import options in both products allowing you to bulk import or export leads, prospects, quotes and such. There are also paid per month/user, integration bolt-ons for Microsoft outlook and other email tools which allows diary entries, todo, contacts and emails to be synchronised. Finally, both products have web based APIs for feeding data in and out, but in order to use this you will need to code some integration between this and whatever other systems you use. Saying that, manual entry of the data is not a problem in either system.
If you are generating lots of leads and prospects for your company, this could be a very good way of keeping track of records, leads and prospects. With my own business growing, I will certainly start using Zoho (the one I personally prefer) to keep track of all my activities. However, as I have better support systems, quotation generation and ToDo management, they will be used just to make sure I am keeping on track with my prospects.
But both are worth taking a look at for their free offering.