The Truth about Competition

the-truth-about-competition

If you’re running any kind of business chances are you have competition (unless your business is so incomparably niche that you’re totally on your own… there’re very few companies making literary inspired dog hats!).

I have “competition” in both parts of my business, from people creating awesome websites for creative entrepreneurs & small business owners, to other fantastic designers making jewellery and homewares.

Some of my “competition” achieves much greater sales and success than my business, and some is where my business was a couple of years ago. (Always someone in front, always someone behind). Most of my immediate “competition” is pretty much playing in the same league as me, though.

Competition is a made up concept to create mistrust, secrecy and dirty tactics in business.

At least that’s the way I’ve come to see it.

I don’t like the word or concept of competition. I don’t like seeing fledgling businesses thinking that “competing” with other businesses is the way to make their business stand out. And I REALLY don’t like archaic idea that your competition is your enemy.

Flashback Time

*Read this with a sepia filter*

A few years ago, when I first started doing craft markets and fairs for my jewellery, there was a bit of a culture of traditional competition rising in the ranks. People were very secretive with information, especially regarding on-the-day sales and how well they were doing. People would out and out lie to their “competition” about how well they’d done on the day. It made me uneasy. I didn’t know why back then, but I do now – it’s totally skeazy and such an old-hat way of doing business. They were trying to make other businesses, who they viewed as their competition, think the following…

“If they did so well and I didn’t, does that mean that my product isn’t as good as theirs?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered coming…”

“It’s obviously not a good fit for my product…”

“I should just leave it to them”

Trying to eliminate your competition does NOT increase your chance of sales.

Lying about how well they did on the day doesn’t stand to make them any more by way of sales, all it does is remove the discussion of “damn, if neither of us did very well, what can we do to make this better for both of us?”.

In the long run it just stands to harm what could be a thriving community of small businesses.

Luckily, I see this happen a lot less nowadays. People have started having each other’s backs again, and it’s fucking awesome.

Rearrange your view of Competition

Here’s how I like to view “competition”…

  • Competition is not the enemy, that’s number 1. Sure, they might be aiming at the same people, but there’s plenty to go around.
  • Competition increases your chance of business. Every piece of marketing they do for their business puts your industry in front of people’s eyes.
  • Competition helps you up your game. Can you imagine how complacent you’d be in your business if you didn’t have other people to look up to? It would be shit. You’d still be dragging your knuckles.
  • Competition helps you serve your audience. Your competition is you, you’d probably get on like a house on fire, what can you do together to serve your audience better?
  • Competition helps you understand your audience better. Seeing your audience interact with another business is enlightening, you can learn so much from them.
  • Wouldn’t you rather build your business based on value and awesomeness than competition? Being the best at what you do clears your field of traditional “competition” and lets you enjoy working alongside a bunch of equally successful and interesting businesses.

I’m not into woo-woo stuff, but I still believe that you’ll get so much more out of making friends rather than enemies. 

 

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11 Ways to Skyrocket Pinterest for your Creative Business

11-ways-to-skyrocket-pinterest

This week I attended a talk about Pinterest in Manchester, hosted by the lovely & super knowledgable Lizzie Sibley from Pinterest UK. I’ve used Pinterest for a while, but I’ve always been a little lazy with it, only recently have I really started putting any proper effort and strategy in my pinning. I learned so much stuff I didn’t know about Pinterest, so I thought I’d share it with you!

1 | Follower count doesn’t mean as much as you think it does. The majority of traffic on Pinterest is engaged with the search function rather than what’s on their home feed. Instead of concentrating on how many followers you have, concentrate on how accessible and search-friendly your pins and boards are. Pinterest is not a social media platform, it’s a “visual discovery tool”.

2 | Pinterest uses your board names, pin names and pin descriptions in its search. Be thorough and useful when writing your pin descriptions. Don’t be spammy with a multitude of hashtags, instead, write something meaningful and descriptive. You’re not restricted to 140 characters, so write away! Take care when writing your board descriptions, use plain English but be specific: “Casual Chic Style” would be more searchable than “Keeping it casual” and more specific than “My Style”. Always consider what people would be searching for when writing your board names.

3 | 80% of Pinterest users are using the app on their mobile or iPad, so if you’re trying to generate traffic to your website via Pinterest, then you’d better be damn sure your site’s mobile optimised (but we’ve already talked about why your website should be mobile optimised, haven’t we?).

4 | Don’t delete boards, just move them to the bottom of your profile. Some people might only follow one of your boards, so you don’t want to lose their engagement. Similarly, don’t delete pins — rearrange them, rename them, change their descriptions, and even their links.

5 | If you want to track your analytics on Pinterest (and why wouldn’t you?) then you need to register for a Business account. Don’t worry, you don’t technically need to be a business to use that service, and it’s totally free (just like Pinterest is and always will be!).

6 | Instead of just re-pinning content, be more active in pinning new things and creating new content to be shared on Pinterest. This is something I definitely need to get better at! It’s sooo easy to repin things, and even to change the description to fit with that you want to pin the image as, but it’s harder and therefore more valuable to pin brand new things.

7 | Start your “holiday boards” early — start pinning for Halloween in July and Christmas in August. Move these boards to the top of your profile during their active seasons, and to the bottom of your profile when it’s not their time to shine (remember, don’t delete them!).

8 | Make use of services such as Buffer to spread out your pins. This way you can avoid annoying your followers when you go on pinning splurges! You can also use services like this to un-annoyingly pin the same thing more than once, to different boards.

9 | Make sure that your site is Pinterest ready by using the variety of Pinterest tools available (such as the pin it button) and enabling Rich Pins on your site. If you’re using WordPress, so long as you have a decent theme and the Yoast SEO plugin installed then you should be good to go. If you’re on Shopify you’re also good to go. You simply need to follow the instructions on Pinterest to validate your site for Rich Pins.

10 | Vertical images perform much better than horizontal images, so make sure you’re creating your pinnable content with high impacting images. Using text on your images does deliver a higher pin-rate, but make sure it doesn’t look like a banner ad. List style posts & how-tos work really well when pinned on Pinterest!

11 | Don’t just pin your own content, that’s rubbish and boring, and totally not what Pinterest is about. I kinda like the Gary Veynerchuck way of marketing on social media (jab jab jab, right hook) and I think that works really well on something like Pinterest (maybe more like 9 jabs to every hook, though!).

And to help us all even further, I’ve started a brand new Pinterest board where I’m gathering useful articles related to Pinterest use. Click here to go straight to it if you can’t see it under this post… I’ll be adding content to this board regularly, so do let me know if you have a Pinterest article you’d like me to add there!

Let me know your Pinterest links in the comments so that I can follow you!!


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Should You Niche Down or Branch Out?

niche-down-branch-out

When I started my freelance web design business I was all about making bank.

I didn’t want to live on noodles and I had a mortgage to pay. I took on any scrappy bit of work that came my way, tried my hand at anything, and learnt a bunch of skills along the way. Over the past few years I’ve become a lot more selective with the work I take on, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try my hand at different things.

“Niching Down” is becoming a very popular career choice amongst web design freelancers. Choosing one particular route on which to focus their career (PDF/eBook design, websites for certain professions only, working with just one CMS or framework) and making it clear that they don’t do anything outside their realm.

How incredibly fucking boring.

For me, one of the most exciting things about being a freelance designer and developer is the ability to work on a variety of different projects. I get to work with interesting people in different fields, learn more about what they do, and build up my skills. I get to try out new CMSs, explore new technologies and future proof my career with a bevy of transferable skills.

Jack of all trades, master of none…

Are we really still banging on about that old adage?

Things are different now. Things are fluid. People expect you to have a variety of skills, especially as a freelancer, rather than just one core attribute.

I work with a lot of independent companies and one-person shops who want the whole shebang — branding, print design, web design and development. It makes it a whole lot easier for them to work with just me (and maybe another person) rather than having to hire 3 or 4 separate people.

Skills in the web design business are pretty transferable, we’re in a really good position to diversify and leverage what we know.

Don’t get me wrong, It’s awesome to specialise in stuff (I specialise in Web Design, WordPress development and Shopify), but don’t disregard new opportunities to learn and experiment — who knows, you might find you really do enjoy making interactive PDFs.

Along with specialising, you can cherry pick projects that appeal to you more and tailor your portfolio with the work you really enjoy.

But doesn’t niching down mean I can charge more?

Yes and no.

If you become the best PDF designer, then yeah, sure, you can charge more than the other PDF designers out there.

But here’s the thing…

A client comes to you wanting a PDF for a new service they’re offering. They want to use it as a free promotional tool to gain sign-ups. Sure, you say, and get underway with the project, finish it in no time (you’re the best, after all!), and the client is super happy.

However, you’ve just served your client what they asked for, rather than solved their problem.

Your client wanted a promotional tool for the new service they’re offering, they’re looking for a PDF because that’s what they think they need. It’s what everyone else in their field is doing, so it must be the thing they need too, right?

Your job is to figure out if it actually is what they need. Maybe they’d be better served with a small information website? Or a social media campaign? Maybe there are other things you could bolt on to what your client initially wants to more successfully solve their problem.

Having a broader knowledge of the different ways you can solve your client’s problem will serve them better, and they’ll pay even more for that.

Here’s what I think…

Niching down in such a strict sense closes a lot of doors, doors that hide some really interesting and exciting projects. When you niche down you get comfortable and complacent, which is a very dangerous place to be in a fast-moving business like web design (and other design fields, for that matter).

Having a broad skill set can really help to future proof your career, if you’ve devoted yourself to one CMS, or PDFs, or even a particular profession, what would you do if that CMS became obsolete? If a brand new universal document format took over? If the work there suddenly dried up?

If you enjoy the variety that freelance work provides (and I mean, who wouldn’t?) then why restrict yourself by niching down? I much prefer the idea of specialising, a route that leaves you & your business in a flexible and agile position.

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How to Get Paid

how-to-get-paid

When you’re a freelancer or solo-worker, one of the most important parts of your job is controlling cash flow. Getting invoices paid can sometimes be a pain in the ass, especially when you’re working with smaller companies and new clients.

Over the past few years I’ve managed to keep a good cash flow with only a few late payments, here are my top tips for making sure that you get your invoices paid in a timely manner.

Start with a contract

As with everything related to business, you should start with a contract. My contract has a section devoted to payment terms and a payment schedule. I only contract for my web design business, it’s not a normal thing for smaller wholesale orders.

Get a deposit

For my service based web design business I take a 50% deposit upon the signing of the contract. The projects I work on are generally around the £2-3k mark, so I really need that initial investment & security from the client.

I’ve never had a problem with getting this deposit from the client, it’s pretty standard practice. You can be flexible with your deposit terms if the client isn’t super comfortable with dropping the full 50% in the first instance – I’ve split the full project cost over various deliverable points of a project before (25% on contract, 25% on wireframes + design, 25% on development and the remaining payment on “go live”).

I’d also say that in the case of large wholesale orders for product based businesses (the kind where you have to heavily invest in raw materials) then definitely get a deposit! Why shouldn’t you? I’d also suggest sorting out a contract for those orders, too. Cover your damn ass!

Send out your invoices straight away

It goes without saying that the sooner you get your invoices out, the sooner you’ll get paid. You might want to send your invoice as soon as you finish up on a project or send out a contract, or you might keep a list to send out all your invoices on Friday morning (oh, is that ever a good end to a week!). Either way, make sure you’re prompt with the sending of invoices!

Make sure your invoicing system leaves no room for confusion

I use an accounting system that includes a really neat invoicing set-up. It alerts me when invoices are overdue, it numbers invoices appropriately (so that I can reference which invoices are outstanding), and it lets me keep track of the accounts of each client. Kashflow gives me a really quick at-a-glance look at who owes what and leaves no room for confusion between me and the client.

If you’re sending out a lot of invoices it can get quite confusing very quickly, make sure you have a system in place so you can easily see what’s what with your outstanding invoices.

Include all the key information on your invoice

Make sure that everything, EV-ER-Y-TH-IN-G, the client could possibly need to question is available on the invoice:

  • The project reference
  • A breakdown of costs (if appropriate to the project or order)
  • Your address
  • Whether you’re VAT registered
  • Your company number
  • Your payment terms
  • The payment reference
  • A purchase order (if appropriate)
  • The invoice date
  • The due date
  • Your bank details
  • Other payment options
  • Your email address and/or phone number

Make it as hard as possible for your client to claim a lack of information as a cause for late payment

Know your Net 30s from your Net 60s, and find out your client’s usual terms

My payment terms are generally Net 30 for product based orders, but a little different for my service based stuff. I ask for my deposit invoice to be paid ASAP after the contract is signed, and state that work can’t started until the deposit is in place (although to be fair I sometimes start anyway for clients who I know are good for it). My final invoice after the “go live” part of the web design process is contractually requested to be paid no more than 14 days after the invoice is sent (I sometimes change that depending on client discussion).

Make sure both you and your client are aware of the payment terms, and make sure you’ve discussed any different terms with clients. I have some wholesale customers who work on 60 day terms (ouch!), but I know they’re good customers and will pay, so I’m okay with it. Don’t let lengthy terms ruin your cash flow though, 60 days is A LONG time not to get paid for something.

Email your invoices and prompt the client the day after late payment

I send all my invoices by email. It’s 2015, people, no one needs a paper copy. Kashflow lets me send my invoices directly from the dashboard, which is super convenient and I can keep track on when I’ve emailed invoices to the clients.

If an invoice is overdue I tend to send a friendly reminder email (and another copy of the invoice) the day after the payment was due to arrive. I’m not a dick about it, things happen, people forget, it’s usually an innocent mistake and people are mortified that it’s slipped off their radar.

Stand your ground

Sometimes people are wankers and don’t pay, though, even after your friendly reminder. Every attempt at contacting leads to silence, and you can try calling, sending out paper invoice, and they still don’t pay.

It’s time to bring in the contract they signed at the start of your project. It’s time for strongly worded emails and a mention of claims and lawyers. It might even be time for naming and shaming (but be careful there, don’t do anything rash that might invalidate any claims/get you in hot water).

You can start introducing interest on to the invoice once it’s gone beyond its payment date, and you can start to look at more serious routes of claiming the money that you’re owed.

Here’re some helpful links for when things go really sour:

Have you ever had to chase a late payment? Do you have any tips for making sure you get paid on time? I’d love to hear them!

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Why I moved my online shop to Shopify

why-i-moved-to-shopify

The best thing about running a blog, a product based business and a service based Web Design business, is that I can shower my clients with my own personal experience. With the clients I work with, and the majority of projects I work on, I’ve actually been there and done that, reaped the rewards and trudged through the failures. I can tell my clients what’s worked for me, alongside giving them advice seated in experience rather than speculation.

Recently I’ve been working a lot with Shopify, both for new clients and existing clients. In the past I might have suggested other ecommerce solutions to my clients, in fact I’ve built a fair few ecommerce sites on Magento, WordPress (with Woocommerce and Jigoshop), Big Cartel, OsCommerce… you name it!

I’ve enjoyed working with Shopify on my client’s shops so much that I decided to move my own shop over there, too. I was previously on Magento and not really enjoying it, before that I was on Zencart. While both served their purpose, I’m super glad that I’m now running through Shopify.

Here’s why Shopify is winning for me at the moment

  • Ease of use. Compared to Magento, and even Woocommerce, Shopify comes out on top for me (and for my clients) because its admin area is bomb-awesome. It’s really easy to use, both for seasoned web people and for those with just a little web knowledge. If you can send an email, you can use Shopify’s admin area.
  • Security. I’ve had a few issues with Magento over the past few years, and even with the strictest security settings I had a client’s store get hacked last year. There seemed to ALWAYS be security patches and updates coming through for Magento, which didn’t give me much confidence in it. Shopify, however, is hosted on their own servers so you don’t need to worry about security – you’re paying them to deal with that for you! You also don’t need to worry about purchasing an SSL certificate as the payment system is all taken care of on the Shopify side.
  • Templating system. For me, the templating system on Shopify is really easy to use. I won’t get too in depth about it, but I will say that it’s a lot more flexible and easy to understand than the system for Magento (and even Woocommerce).
  • Updates. With any hosted ecommerce solution (Woocommerce, Magento) you’re going to need to run updates. With both Woocommerce and Magento, I’ve had some seriously shit experiences (Magento was determined to break every. damn. time. an update was run, and Woocommerce would update and break the theme). Shopify, however, runs all of its updates on its own server, so you don’t need to do anything. It’s bliss. BLISS.
  • SEO. Since moving to Shopify I’ve definitely noticed an increase in SEO. The site load time is really fast, which I think is a big contributing factor, and I was sure to use a theme that was well made for SEO.
  • Updates Pt 2. Shopify is continually rolling out new features. I kept seeing all these cool new things appearing with my client’s shops, really great features that make the day-to-day running of the shop really fun. There’s even a really cool new feature where you can sell directly on Pinterest using your Shopify store as a feed (not yet available in GBP, unfortunately).
  • Choice. Shopify does have a monthly cost attached (I believe it’s totally worth the fee), but you can choose between three levels of subscription, each one with different benefits and incrementally lower fees. I have clients successfully running stores on all three levels, and one of my clients has even gone so far as to use Shopify for her brick-and-mortar POS. I use the Professional (middle) level subscription, which gives me more than enough features for my needs.
  • Apps. The Shopify App store lets you add “apps” to your shopify shop to extend its basic functionality. Some of these are free and others are premium, but they let you customise your shop to your own specifications. It’s not as in depth as customising with Magento (you can really get into the nuts and bolts with that one), but that might be a good thing!! My “go to” apps are Mailchimp, Product Reviews and Order Printer.
  • Support. I’ve found the level of support for Shopify to be superb, and that’s just from me requesting features from a developer point of view. They’re always quick to respond on email, and really want your input on making their product better. My clients have also been in touch with the Shopify support team and had nothing but good things to say.
  • Community. There’s a great community forum around Shopify, and chances are if you’ve got a question, it’ll have been answered there.

These are the not-so-good things I’ve found about Shopify

Unfortunately it can’t all be smooth sailing, and there are a few little irks that frustrate me with Shopify. I’ve notified the Shopify team about a few of these and as they’re always rolling out improvements for the system, I’m hoping that some of them will be addressed soon. None of these were game changers for me, but they might be for you…

  • You can’t have sub-categories (or “collections” in the Shopify vernacular). This is a bit of a bummer as I really wanted to subcategorise my jewellery “Jewellery > Necklaces”, “Jewellery > Brooches”. Instead, you need to create all collections as top-level items and then just fib a little in your navigation.
  • The front-end (admin facing) theme customiser isn’t as good as it could be. This is just me being a spoilt and picky developer, but I can certainly see room for improvement here.
  • The basic order printer is very basic. I use integrated labels to ship items (so I print out an order on one piece of paper that has labels for you to peel off with the address) and needed a way of customising the invoices to work with this. In the end, I needed to use an (albeit free) app to achieve this level of customisation.
  • Email isn’t supported through Shopify so you do need to have email hosting elsewhere. You can either use Google Apps, or a small hosting package through a host of your choice (I always recommend Krystal or A Small Orange).
  • The blogging system on Shopify isn’t that great, but it’s not built to be a blogging platform after all. For my clients I tend to build a blog subdomain running WordPress.

So there you go! That’s why I moved my shop to Shopify and why I’m very happy with the service they provide. I’ll continue to recommend Shopify to my clients, and hey, if you want to hire me to help you set-up your own Shopify store (even if it’s just getting you going with a default theme) then do get in touch!

Disclaimer: I’m a Shopify Partner, this means that if you sign-up for Shopify through any of my links then I stand to get a monetary bonus. I do honestly love the service though, which is why I use it for my own product based business. 

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