Most small businesses don’t fail, they fade away.
Starting next week I’ll be starting a new position, I’m super excited and will share more about it at the end of this post.
But as I close my consultancy after a couple of years in operation I thought I would share some of the key lessons I’ve learned. With a few new cartoons of course.
Lesson 1: Sell the bread, not the baker.
If you are a great baker, you can start a bakery. At that bakery people will buy your bread for a set amount. If you sell enough and make more money than it costs to bake, you will earn a profit.
If you are a great baker, you could also become a consulting baker. But no matter how many people love bread, few are likely to have the money to pay you for your baking expertise. It’s a totally different market and a totally different product.
I spent a lot of my time exploring and selling hours for dollars in different, sometimes unrelated, markets. If I were to go back, I would develop a few core consulting products (specific fee for a specific service) and grow the business accordingly.
Lesson 2: Exploring markets.
There is a cartoon illustration market. It’s competitive and low paying, with free or cheap stock options cutting out the bottom of the market. If you love it, and are willing to focus specifically on the market, you can do alright. But the business of cartoons brought my love to just a like.
There is a report design and infographic market. It’s competitive and slightly higher paying than the illustration market. But there are an increasing number of DiY alternatives to hiring a designer that keeps market rates low. That and an increasing global economy brings fantastic designers who are just economically more affordable.
There is an online video market. It pays more than the illustration market, but often takes a good bit more time. So it’s not always worth the bump. The growing demands for video is also making higher rates unsustainable, and sparking the introduction of new alternatives.
There is a web design market. It pays fairly well but there is a lot of competition. The most business savvy designers are finding ways to do more for less, offering ongoing subscription services and promising a lower cost website to earn new clients.
There is an online course market. It pays better than the web design market and there is less competition. You have to know more about curriculum design and content generation. There are also a large number of old school eCourse businesses not keeping up with new technology. This is a growing market, and I expect to see it expand fairly rapidly over the next decade.
There is a data dashboard market. The number of people who understand data, have interactive design expertise, and know the technical aspects of interconnecting mixed data sources is incredibly low. If I were to go back in time, I would likely focus almost entirely on this market.
Lesson 3: Farming versus hunting.
I never minded hunting for work. But over time, when the hunt seems never-ending, it gets old.
Farming is better but you need a bigger operation. It’s why so many consultancies, even small ones, end up growing to at least a handful of people.
So there comes a point where you make a decision. Keep hunting, start farming, or join someone else’s farm.
Lesson 4: The pain in weathering the unexpected.
When I started my business my daughter had four grandparents. Now, two and a bit years later, she has two. It’s no surprise that unexpected loss takes its toll on a family. But when your livelihood relies completely on your time, it takes its toll on a business as well.
Out of the blue my father-in-law developed a neurodegenerative disorder causing the healthy 61 year old to rapidly lose everything of himself before dying several months later. My father-in-law was the best kind of father-in-law anyone could hope to have.
His diagnosis and death came during a particularly critical time in my business. It took some time, but I finally got back on my feet.
Then not even a year later, right after Thanksgiving, I lost my dad to an unexpected heart attack at age 67. Then a couple weeks later, over Christmas break, I found myself crunch time working to finish a project made late by the situation. For a client who I eventually needed to spend months of back and forth, and even threaten a lawsuit, in order to get paid.
Flexibility for me came with a price. I could be there for my family in times of need on short notice. But with that I spent almost all hours of each day with my business on my mind.
Lesson 5: Healthcare concerns.
The biggest thing that could be done to support small business would be universal healthcare. It has been, by far, my biggest expense as an independent consultant.
And the healthcare you can get, isn’t as good. For all that was made available through Obamacare, some of the major healthcare players in my area were not covered in any of the plans. Yes, they were blue cross blue shield in name, but the plans were exceptions for doctors’ offices across the region.
One alternative, it turns out, is paying to join an HR support plan (i.e. TriNet) that can negotiate benefits on your behalf. And when times are slow, as they always are from time to time, sometimes it feels like you are only working for the healthcare.
On Monday, September 24 I will be starting a fulltime position as Senior Visual Design Specialist at a Rockville, MD based consultancy called EnCompass. For those in the evaluation world EnCompass’ CEO is upcoming AEA president Tessie Catsambas. I will be working as part of the communications team under the direction of Beeta Tahmassebi. It’s an awesome company and the position/culture feels like the perfect fit for me at this stage of my career.
For those of you who know me from my consistent presence at the Frontier in RTP, not much will change. This is a remote position and I’ll be staying in Cary and working out of the Triangle for the foreseeable future.
And for those of you who know me because of this blog. You may expect to see more of me than you have in the last couple of years.