It was fantastic to see how much the conference has grown in just a couple of years. The event was a huge success, and I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to give another talk. The topic I chose was somewhat-loosely titled “The Business of Software: Lessons Learned So Far”.
Taking some time away from the day-to-day running of business is a crucial - but also incredibly difficult to do when there is so much else to be done “in the business”!
In writing and practicing the talk, I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences so far running Plymouth Software, and take some time to think about the bigger strategy moving the business forward.
Here I’ve summarised some of the key topics from the talk.
When I first started the business, I made a point of writing about my experiences. I really enjoyed the process of writing about my business highs and lows “in the open”. I was inspired by people such as Nathan Barry and the team at Basecamp (then 37signals), and countless others.
However, as time when on two things happened that reduced the frequency of (and eventually stopped!) these posts :
- As things got busier, I didn’t devote as much time to blogging (and marketing in general - a big mistake); and
- The more I was learning about the running business, the more I began to feel the effects of imposter syndrome.
Both of these are still the case - business is running well at the moment, and I have some ambitious growth plans for 2019-20; and to some degree I still spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing things “the right way” to build my business (whatever that may be!)
In 2020, Plymouth Software will turn 10 years old. That alone is worrying, as it really does feel like I’m just getting started.
But as I came to terms with this whilst writing my talk, it seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learned, and things I wish I’d have known when starting out.
It turns out there are so many things I could have spoken about. There were so many things I feel I’ve learned (but not necessarily taken action on!) that it was impossible to squeeze them all into a 20-minute session.
So instead, I focussed on four of the “headline” lessons I felt summed up where I’ve been, and where I want to be.
Build Your Audience
Quite simply, a business should have the biggest audience possible.
Most advice out there is to niche, and that is important, but I think - especially when starting out - you just need to gain exposure for your business.
With the wealth of networks (both on- and off-line) that are available nowadays, audiences will naturally build around the content you are delivering.
Whilst I’ve spent many years trying to remain “small” and focussed, I’m now trying to grow the businesses audience as much as possible.
“Obscurity is your Enemy” - Grant Cardone, The 10X Rule
As soon as I heard this quote by Grant Cardone, it resonated immediately. I realised that was describing how I’d been running my business - remaining obscure and trying to fly “under the radar”, rather than thinking about growing awareness of the brand and building an audience.
Rather than worrying about niching, just try to attract as many people to your brand and content as possible. You will naturally niche your audience by attracting people with whom your content resonates.
One of the most important things I missed for several years was to build an email list. A well-managed, quality email list gives you an audience of people who are interested in, and have given you their permission, to talk about your business, products, and services.
In the early days, I started with an email newsletter using Mailchimp. But, after sending a handful of newsletters, the “news” dried up!
Nowadays, I build knowledge-based email courses using ConvertKit*. Building courses and sequences in this way provides genuine value to new and existing members of the list.
The primary course I offer is the free Keep Your Rails Apps Healthy Course, which gives practical guidance on how to secure, monitor, maintain and optimise Ruby on Rails applications (You can join for free at https://healthyrailsapps.com).
Whichever tool you use (ConvertKit, Drip, Mailchimp, etc.), the important thing is to build in valuable content and set up automated sequences to help automate a big section of your marketing.
I talk a lot about value pricing, but pricing is only a small part of the story. The bigger goal is to shift your mindset away from providing a service towards providing a solution.
Yes, providing the highest quality of service is critical - but only as a means of delivering solutions to your clients’ business problems.
I spent years talking about the tools and technologies, processes and methodologies I’d be using to work with clients. It’s only natural, as developers, that we focus on the code (and editors, frameworks, servers, and so on…)
But that is generally not relevant to a client. There are exceptions, but a client who comes to you with a business problem (as opposed to a client who is simply looking to outsource an employee’s role) is interested in solving that problem using the most effective, efficient methods possible.
It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this, but good clients shouldn’t be as interested in how well-formed your code is (or worse - how many hours you’ll be at your desk!) as much as they are by how effectively you can solve their business problems1.
Ultimately, the client is focussed on their problem, and how you can solve it.
Jonathan Stark talks about trying to talk new clients out of working with you. This is a great way to ensure your sales process is truly about the value you can deliver, and that the client has a real interest in engaging your services.
If your potential client is able to exhaust all your reasons for not working with them, you have a pretty strong case that you can deliver a solution, and that they will value your work.
Bringing together the previous two lessons - building an audience, focussing on business problems, and ultimately extracting common needs, leads to productisation.
Productising services is really the key to shifting away from a service provider model to a solution provider.
The goal is to identify common needs and requirements amongst your audience and customer base, and begin to extract common activities that deliver results.
These activities can be documented; in fact, the more you can put into step-by-step instructions, the better. Whilst there are apps out there that will help you build these standard operating procedures (SOPs), I find that Google Docs or Evernote works just fine.
As you build more and more systems and processes in your business, you can document, repeat, delegate and ultimately scale.
This was the big lesson, that feels like it sums up my current thinking.
It’s the inevitable result of the other three, especially productisation. The mindset shift from employee/freelancer/contractor/consultant to business owner is huge, and probably one of the most difficult things to do when you’re running your own business.
As a solo consultant, you wear all the hats in your business, from big-strategy direction through sales, project management, and operations to payroll, bookkeeping and ordering the coffee (one of the most critical roles).
The biggest lesson, then, is perhaps to let go of certain tasks in your business. Accept that you cannot do everything yourself, and look for ways to delegate the repeatable parts of your business.
As more of your business becomes repeatable - more systematised - you should be able to start focussing more on the more valuable parts of your business. Delivering on the stuff that gives the greatest, most beneficial return to your clients, and thinking more about the bigger strategy rather than worrying about the minutiae.
That pretty much sums up where I feel I am now. It’s taken me a lot longer than it should to realise, but I feel the time is right to grow the business, by starting to build a team, focussing on our core services, constantly improving what we offer to clients, and growing the overall number of clients we serve.
Running your own business gives you incredible freedom and flexibility, but also brings with it huge challenges, worries, highs and lows.
It seems strange to say after so many years, but it really does feel like I’m just getting started. Whilst I’ve learned so much, I know that there is so much more and there are new ideas, opportunities and lessons in the years ahead.
I can’t wait to get started.
Caveat: Obviously, your code should be well-structured, architected, fully tested and compliant with best practices, but that should be implicit as part of you providing a professional, high-quality service to clients. ↩