I’m that person that spent a whole lot of time in school just to take a path other than the one that seemed obvious. The result is that I make more money, have greater flexibility, and have less stress than I would otherwise. My advice for getting where you want to be includes four things. First, focus time and effort towards your most profitable activities. Second, have an extreme focus on customer service. Third, be on a constant quest for improved efficiency. Finally, never stop learning as much as you can about as many subjects as you can find.
I graduated from law school in 2005. I started my own firm about a year later and did quite well. There was just one problem…….being a lawyer is a bad idea. If you’re thinking of going to law school then you may want to consider the fact that attorneys have high rates of depression and anxiety. Call me crazy – but that’s not the group of people around whom I wish to spend my time. Hence, I left the practice of law and started a web development company. I now make my living by providing web services, as a monthly subscription, to law firms. My strongest piece of advice, to those seeking a career, is to do something that you’re going to enjoy. Now let’s look at how you can take something you enjoy, and make it profitable.
According to Forbes, eight out of ten entrepreneurs fail in their first eighteen months. This might make it seem like starting a business is hard. I’m convinced that it’s not. The overwhelming majority of people fail because they simply didn’t stick to the right habits when running their business. I’m throwing around the word “habit” because it’s the key to success. Too often we look at successful people and assume that their glory is the result of inherent talent. While talent certainly helps, it’s not the deciding factor. Instead what you’ll find, if you study the great business builders, is that they share a set of traits that virtually all of them follow on a regular basis. In other words, those business builders are successful, by and large, because they all follow similar patterns. If you follow those patterns then you can be extremely successful as well.
There are four key habits which I strongly, strongly, strongly (strongly) suggest you adopt. They are:
- The need to work smart and hard (as opposed to “smarter not harder”)
- The need to have an extreme focus on your customers
- The need for a constant focus on efficiency
- The need to continuously learn about as many topics as possible
One big point I want to stress is that these habits should not be considered optional if you want to be successful. In other words, making these traits part of your routine can help you to look like this woman:
While not doing so is probably a sure fire way to wind up being like the eighty percent of entrepreneurs who look like this:
Let’s get to it.
Successful entrepreneurs work smart and hard by putting in the time and focusing on the right things
The idea of “working smarter and not harder” might be one of the most overused phrases in today’s workplace. Personally, I think the overuse of this buzz phrase has helped to create an idea that someone can achieve something truly special without working their butt off. The truth of the matter, however, is that successful people work both smart and hard. In other words, they “work smart” by focusing on high value activities as opposed to low value ones. They also “work hard” by putting serious time into those high value activities. Let’s put some meat on the bones of this concept.
At SEO For Lawyers we build and maintain law firm websites as an ongoing service (meaning we build and maintain products for attorneys on a subscription basis). Outside of that business, I also build websites for other entrepreneurs. In each of these ventures, I focus on high value activities and I put the time in.
Here are few of our business activities which I consider high value:
- Making sure that our client’s needs are met and being proactive in terms of dealing with issues before they become a problem
- Providing high level service to each of our clients (often by offering tid bits of service that go beyond our contractual obligations)
- Writing quality content for our blog
Why do I say these things are high value activities? Simple. First, as I’ll dive deeper into, on a subscription model business such as ours, it’s much more profitable to make sure current clients renew their contracts as opposed to constantly trying to hustle up new business. Being proactive and offering high level service helps to keeps the renewals a’ flowin’. Second, while there are many ways to market a business, we’ve found that our blog by far and away provides the highest return, in terms of potential customer inquiries, versus the effort we put into it.
An example of a low value activity would be soliciting law firms for their business through cold calls, emails, mailers, etc. I define these activities as “low value” due to the fact that, while they may bring in some business, we learned early on in our company that the return on time and investment isn’t close to what we see from investing time into our blog.
We realized early on that the best way to grow our business is by keeping our current customers happy and focusing on our blog. So we work smarter by focusing essentially all of our time on those high value activities and we put zero time into cold calling or other solicitations. This is different from what I see in a lot of small businesses; many entrepreneurs say to themselves “I’m getting business from activity ‘x’ and I think I’ll try to supplement it by trying activity ‘y.’” When “y” yields no results, those entrepreneurs then try to supplement “x” with activity “z.” Such companies, unfortunately, spend a lot of time and resources spinning their wheels. Our approach is simple. If “x” is working – then do more of it! Why try something else? This is what I mean by focusing on high value activities, avoiding the low value ones, and working “smart.”
It’s also important to work hard. Working on high value activities requires…….., well,…….work. Suppose my competitor, Joe, works forty hours a week doing the same thing I do. Now suppose that I’m twenty-five percent more efficient than Joe, meaning that I can get twenty-five percent more done in an hour of work. Well, if I only work thirty hours a week then Joe is still going to get more done than me even though I’m more efficient; my 30 hours and 1.25x productivity only equates to 37.5 (30 * 1.25) of Joe’s forty hours. So, if I don’t work hard and put in the time, Joe is going to beat me in the marketplace. In other words, if you’re not putting in the time then forget about it.
The need to work hard is why I make sure I work a minimum of 43.3 hours each week. I came up with this number through simple math (inspired by a speech I heard from Elon Musk). The math is this – if I work 43.3 hours each week, and the average person works 40 at the same level of efficiency, then it will take them thirteen months to accomplish what I accomplish in twelve. In other words, you give yourself one more working month per year by simply adding 3.3 hours to your work week.
Want to be successful? Work smart and hard by putting in the time and focusing on high value activities. This is something you will continuously hear from all of the great business builders.
Successful entrepreneurs have an obsession with customer service
Think of the companies which you are a fan of. How many of them provide a good customer experience? The answer is probably “all of them.” As explained above, our company works on a recurring revenue model. Our customers sign a one-year contract and may renew in one-year intervals. It’s much better for our bottom line if our customers renew. This prevents us from constantly building out new products and having to chase new business. We take a lot of pride in our renewal rates and we credit this to the high level of customer service we provide. The simple fact is that the time we put into providing extra service, to our customers, winds up paying a huge dividend by fueling our high renewal rate.
The quality service we provide has also resulted in referrals to our company. I’m a big believer that no business (I don’t care what industry you’re in) can survive without referrals and repeat business. So if you’re not providing your customers with the absolute highest level of service then, as far as I’m concerned, forget about it.
What are some examples of quality service? Respond to your customers immediately, with a substantive answer, when they have a question. If you’re not going to get back to them immediately, due to another obligation, then shoot them an email letting them know when you will get back to them. Also, always give your client’s realistic assessments as to when things will be ready and meet your deadlines (in other words, due what you say you’re going to do). Also, work hard to understand your customer’s situations, anticipate their needs, and offer an unsolicited solution to problems they haven’t even presented you with yet (meaning you have to anticipate customer needs and meet them in advance). Also, offer an additional service here and there just to show you care. As an example, even though we manage websites, we always offer to audit a client’s IT infrastructure and assist with any one-time improvements at no charge.
Want to achieve exponential growth in your business? You need repeat customers and referrals. You get those things through quality service. Do you know who has an extreme obsession with customer service? Jeff Bezos. I think things have worked out pretty well for him.
Successful entrepreneurs have an unending focus on efficiency
It’s one thing to bring in revenue. It’s another thing to earn income. If all of your revenue is going out the door for unnecessary expenses then you won’t make any money, regardless of how many customers you have. This is why I wrote on the topic of how freelancers can better manage their taxes. Few things kill profits faster than inefficiency. This is why it is important to assume that you can always be doing things more efficiently, no matter how streamlined you believe you have your processes. In other words, always be looking for ways to improve your processes and to accomplish “x” in less time and with fewer inputs.
Every time you complete a project then it’s good to go back and look at where you could have saved time in the design process. Look for how steps could have been eliminated completely, if any parts of your process could have been automated, or if you could have completed everything in fewer steps by redesigning your workflow.
Great business people are always looking for better ways of doing things. If you look at Elon Musk’s career you will see this pattern over, and over, and over from both Space X and Tesla.
Successful business builders learn about as many topics as possible
If you study any of the great business builders, regardless of what fields they’re in, then you’ll see that they make continuous learning a priority. This makes sense when you stop to think that there’s a lot more than just coding, which is going to go into any development business. I’m not saying that you need to be like Bill Gates, and average a book every week, but you need to always be educating yourself. This is why I devote a minimum of forty-five minutes to reading every morning. A few topics that I would suggest learning about immediately are basic accounting, how to use Quickbooks (or something similar), as well as both personal and business finance.
Here are a few suggested readings:
- Small Time Operator: How to Start Your Own Business, Keep Your Books, Pay Your Taxes, and Stay Out of Trouble – to learn some accounting basics for your new company
- The Millionaire Next Door – to learn some personal finance tips
- The Everything Store – to learn about Jeff Bezos’ “customer first” focus
- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future – to learn about Elon Musk’s ability to do more with less
- Steve Jobs – to learn about the fact that anything worth doing is worth doing well and the importance of working with “A” players
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life – for tips on winning over and influencing people
One other benefit that comes from being a lifelong learner is that you’ll gather new perspectives which, in turn, will help you with your business.
One point I want to close out on is that successful people aren’t just simply smarter or better. They are successful because they do the types of things described above. If you think you’re going to be successful without working, without focusing on your customer, without focusing on efficiency, or without learning then you have a tough realization coming.
I started SEO For Lawyers as a freelance business in my living room in 2014 and it’s gone extremely well. I don’t say that to beat my chest – I’m offering that personal information to say that I credit success to the principles described above. Again, I think these principles are true regardless of what business you’re in. As an example, I recently built a website for an Oklahoma City attorney who decided to shift the focus of his practice to a new area. He’s seeing good growth in his new area. I also built, as a side project, a website for a Dayton real estate agent. Even though she’s a new agent, her business is off and running. Both of these successful professionals are in industries completely different from mine. They credit their success to the types of concepts explained above. These ideas work regardless of what profession you’re in.
Want to be successful? Make the above concepts a habit and stick with them. If you don’t want to be successful then…….don’t.
Luke Ciciliano is a web developer who writes on how entrepreneurs can grow their business and otherwise excel. You can follow his ramblings on Medium.