Halloween was a scary date for me as it spelt one thing -- company year end. It was Halloween 2003 when I setup Rockall Design ltd and so is also the day my company accounts for the year gone are due.
As with any birthday it's always a good time to take stock and look both forward and backward. With that in mind, here's a chart of company turnover for the last 6 years.
Somehow it has kept on heading in the right direction and during the last year I seem to have been unaffected by the "credit crunch". Although I'm not confident that the same will be true this year, but, like every year gone I have little idea what the one ahead holds. Therein lies the joy of "going it alone".
Things I've Learnt
Every now and then (although not for a long time) I get asked for advice on setting up and running your own company. To which my answer is normally that I can't advise as my case isn't exactly normal and so I'm not the best person to ask. By this I mean that my business model is based on people wanting me to work them having gotten to know me through this site first of all.
Unless you also have a blog with lots of readers then I can't advise on the initial start-up of a business. I have no idea how you'd go about getting new customers. All I did was make it public what I was doing and slowly but surely work came my way.
But what have I learnt in the last six years? Hmmm. Still don't know if I can offer any meaningful advice or business tuition, but I am definitely still learning as I go. I just think it has to be a personal thing. How you run your business is down to you and depends on your ideals and philosophy.
What I would say is that you often need to swallow your pride, but you should always keep your dignity. Oftentimes I've had to bite my tongue and I have a Drafts folder full of emails I never sent. Never ever write a reply to a customer that's made you angry without first walking away from it, calming down and re-appraising. That's normally when I decide not to send it and there are some emails in my drafts that I'm sooo glad I never did.
Above all just keep the customer happy! Without customers your business is nothing. Although they're not always right it's good to let them think they are. Do whatever it takes to keep them.
Knowing What Not To Do
My new company year resolution is to start turning work away when I know it's more hassle than it's worth. Often it's the little jobs that take the longest! The less people seem to want to pay the more they seem to want in return. Probably the same of all trades I'd guess?
In the first year or so of Rockall I'd do literally anything to earn money. As they say: "No job too small". From now on I will still do the small jobs but will have to charge a premium to cover the admin aspect. While a customer (who may well be a developer) may suspect the work to take "a few hours" I have to factor in the initial emails about the work, the work itself, raising the invoice, chasing the invoice etc etc.
The smallest job I will do from now on is a day's work at my daily rate. No matter how small the job is. If it takes 10 minutes to code it will still cost a day. Otherwise it's just not worth it.
Not that I don't want small jobs. To a degree I like the little jobs - thinking of them as "pocket money", sometimes I'll do a job and think "Right, that's paid for the broadband for a year...".
While doing the little jobs I try to think of them as a potential foot in the proverbial door. Provide good service and they might come back for more (and hopefully bigger) jobs doing.
While I have no regrets I do wonder if the money and time spent on "marketing" have been worth it. By this I mean the company logo and website. While they might give the right impression I'm never sure if they've helped secure any work.
Although I know for sure that the money I spent on a set of 500 letter-headed A4, business cards and compliment slips definitely was a waste. Especially as the company I bought the 0845 phone number listed on them all has since cancelled my service. I still have about 490 of each left.
As with the last six years I have no idea what the one ahead holds in store for me. This fills me with as much a sense of fear as it does excitement. Especially when Karen is going on another maternity leave in five weeks' time.
Luckily, over the years I've managed to keep a handful of key customers without whom I'd be back on the job market. By keeping these customers happy I've kept myself at home, able to help Karen out, spend quality time with the kids and free of a daily commute. My dream is to never have to return to office-based employment.
Over the last year or so my most significant customer has been making more and more noise about dropping Domino. To counter the potential loss of business I've been trying to make it clear to them that I'm not just about Domino and that, whatever they choose, I can learn/do that too. Even if it meant learning as I went and taking a hit financially to do so, such is my desire to hold on to the customers I've had over the years.
Some proportion of what I did over the last year was non-Domino based and I'd imagine this trend will continue. I'm expecting SQL Server, ASP and .Net to play a part in the years to come.
One thing is for sure - I can't just rest on my morals and think that being a well-known Domino expert will keep a roof over our heads indefinitely...