At the end of 2018 and start of 2019 I had a really slow season in my business. It was crickets, I had not had a new project enquiry in a couple of months and I had really started to panic.
I set my business up in 2016, but I did some full-time and part-time design agency work alongside it for a while. 2018 was my first solo year and I earned only half (about £12k) of what my full-time ’employed’ salary had been.
It all came to a head in January when I seriously considered getting a part-time job to supplement my income, or completely quitting altogether. I felt so lost and completely stressed out.
Thankfully, I didn’t quit. In hindsight we all go through slow seasons in business. Truth bomb – sometimes it’s our own fault. Sometimes it isn’t and it’s just the way the market goes, but sometimes it’s definitely our own fault. We can be our own worst enemies.
I realised that my own slow season had been my fault because I’d just been drifting along. I’d got too comfortable in the easy-ness of clients filtering through to my website via Pinterest and Instagram. I’d got lucky that my work had been popular on the two platforms and I kinda stopped working for it.
I hadn’t sent an email to my mailing list for months, and I had taken down my opt-in freebie – I can’t even remember why. Probably imposter syndrome about it not being good enough. January put things into perspective, and I realised that I love my work and owning my own business too much to quit and I just needed to find the magic again.
I needed to explore what I really want this business to become in the future and how I could start to be more intentional about the way I was working rather than just drifting along expecting the work to keep on coming to me.
Here are a few things that I worked on, and that you can do too to get the momentum going again if you find yourself in a slow period.
First things first – don’t panic.
Most of us are really lucky to have family and friends as a support network, so do not panic. The mindset you’re in when you’re panicking is not helpful to anyone. You’re not thinking clearly or rationally and you’re likely to start looking up jobs at the local Aldi like I did. I’m sure working at Aldi is lovely, but you’ll have much less time to do the work you love. Maybe a part time job is the answer, but it doesn’t have to be the only way.
Ask for help if you need it. Paying bills is more important than your pride.
Take some time to get your numbers in order.
Instead of panicking, sit down and work through some numbers. How much have you got in the bank, how much do you need, what bills are due soon? Facing the numbers head on is the only way to move forward. How much do you you need to earn for the year to be comfortable?
Work backwards from that and see how much that equates to each month. How many products do you need to sell to hit that, or how many projects do you need to book in?
As a small business owner you probably have some kind of accounting software (I use freeagent* – it predicts my tax bill, my bank transactions get added automatically and I can file my self assessment return directly through it ?) or an accountant, but I find it’s good to have a separate spreadsheet somewhere on my computer where I simply track my cashflow each month – the money that is actually coming into my business bank account.
At the top I write my income goal for the year, along with a stretch income goal. I write Jan-Dec down a column on one side and add up exactly what goes into my bank account each month and write the values in the next column. I can see at a glance how far along I am to hitting my yearly goal each month.
Accounting software is fine and necessary for logging business bills and invoices and you can pull reports etc. but there’s just something different about having a super simple spreadsheet that I open often which gets me used to looking at my numbers.
Remember to work out how much tax you’ll owe on your income goal and have that value written somewhere so you can set money aside accordingly.
Because I book projects a few months in advance I ask for a deposit to book, and then ask for two payments during and at the end of the project. I have a section on my spreadsheet where I write how much each client is owing so that I can add all that up and see at a glance what is projected to come in over the next few months or for the rest of the year.
Again, all stuff my accounting software or project management software can do, but the act of typing it all in and looking at it on at least a weekly basis means I am more intimately aware of my money situation. There’s also a section with my (small) credit card debt – the act of reducing the number each time I make a payment makes me feel good.
Seeing all these various numbers together in a file I can just open quickly has majorly helped to keep me on track and stay motivated this year. If less has gone into my bank account than a previous month it’s in the forefront of my mind rather than buried somewhere in my accounting software.
I’m not saying you need to become numbers mad because there is much more to life, but do look at your numbers often. I also feel like it’s a bit of a manifestation tool, but let’s not go into detail about that in this post!
Nurture your email list
Here’s the thing. It’s a bit weird to talk about ‘owning’ people, but, you do not ‘own’ your Instagram or Facebook following. They are amazing places to build community around your brand, but if one of them goes down forever, or your account gets hacked and you lose your following, where would you be?
This is something I am still learning myself, I rely heavily on Instagram for business, but we all need to make sure we have a business and a community outside of these platforms. Your email list is important because it’s a list if people that have let you into their private inboxes.
You can export that list of emails at any time and move to a different email provider. See the difference? These people are really valuable to you, so nurture them.
During my slow season I created a new freebie download for people who signed up to my list. I made sure it was really valuable and jam packed with information and I released it to the world. I said “not today, thank you” to imposter syndrome and just did it.
I placed the ‘download my free branding guide’ button in prominent places on my website and I promoted it (and continue to promote it) on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.
Social media is fun and necessary, but try and use it to drive people onto your website and email list as often as you can, rather than just being happy with a growing social following.
With an increasing email list comes the need to nurture that list. Most mailing list providers will allow you to set up a sequence of emails that get sent out automatically when people sign up at any interval you choose. Set up a sequence of emails with some valuable content that goes out automatically, and then email your list at least once a month with updates and helpful things to build that sense of community with your audience directly.
Work on your client or customer experience
A sure-fire way to get people talking about your business and create a buzz around your brand is to provide a top-notch client or customer experience that wow’s people. It’s not just about delivering a great end product, it’s about each touchpoint with your business being professional, or beautiful, or personal – whatever suits your brand.
For me this meant making booking easier, especially for oversees clients where it’s not as easy to just bank transfer money, and thinking about how I could better explain the process to clients in the beginning. I set up a template web page with all the information they would need for their project once they’ve booked in.
Now I duplicate the template page, change names and timeline dates etc, and send the link off to them. They feel that they have a personalised, dedicated space where all their project info lives and I also add all the work I do to the page so that it’s always in the same place and no one has to go hunting through emails to find things.
I did some research and got my brand discovery questionnaire up to date so that I’m asking the right questions at the beginning of projects – this means I can deliver thoughtful and well considered design work that hits the mark more often than not on the first concept.
If in doubt, research, refine, and improve. None of the changes I made to my client process cost any money – just my time and effort which I had plenty of during my last slow season ?
Get your website up to date
Got projects you’ve done but not blogged about yet? Get those case studies up on your website and promote them like crazy. Research what other people in your industry are blogging about, don’t copy, but it should at least give you some ideas of what you could blog about yourself.
New blog posts means there is new content on your website which Google likes. I am no SEO expert, but what I do know is that the Internet likes websites that are kept fresh with interesting new things to read. Don’t let your site get stagnant, even rewriting your homepage or services page is helpful.
Repurpose content you’ve sent out to your email list into blog posts. Repurpose instagram posts on the same subject into a blog post. Whatever you can do to get more content on your website, do it. Promote. That. Content.
Think about spending a little bit of money on a website audit if you need help. It doesn’t have to be expensive and sometimes you just need a helping hand. You can get pointers on what to improve with the user journey and the flow of the site. There is a lot of information out there on the Internet about SEO, do some research and try to improve things yourself, or speak to an SEO expert.
All these things that I worked on helped to build my confidence back up. I gathered momentum and soon I was receiving lovely replies to my newsletters, people were enquiring about working with me again, and I managed to book projects in for the remainder of 2019.
Remember that nothing changes if nothing changes. Do the work, try something new, and stay positive.