Supercharge your digital service business in 2016

Paul Boag

2016 is almost upon you. It is time to take control of your business. Time to decide exactly what it is you want and how to get it.

Last week I shared a post suggesting some things that in-house teams should consider doing in 2016. But what about those of us who run digital service businesses? Web design agencies, freelance developers, content strategy consultancies. You get the idea.

Over the last year I have spent much of my time coaching business owners just like these. As I have worked with these digital service businesses I have observed some re-occurring themes. I have found myself giving similar advice to many of these companies.

With that in mind I thought it may be worthwhile to summarise some of this advice. Hopefully some of it will help shape your business in 2016.

Clarify your goals

Let’s be honest, many of us are quite naive when we first set up a business. We have dreams of working less, earning more and escaping that evil tyrant of a boss. Others of us dream of an exit plan where we can sell the business and sit on a beach.

But as time goes by and the reality sets in we often lose our end goal. Instead it becomes all about feeding the monster. Keeping enough work coming in to pay the bills. We end up serving the business rather than the business serving us.

That is why every once in awhile we need to step back and ask ourselves what we want from our business. For example I encounter a lot of business owners who aspire to grow their business. Grow it by taking on more employees in expanding their client base. But when I ask them why, they struggle to give me an answer. Isn’t growing your business just what you’re supposed to do?

But growth is not always a good thing. More employees means more mouths to feed and clients to manage. It makes it harder to turn away work you do not like and leads to more administration. That is fine if you take pleasure from building a thriving business. But if your ultimate aim is to spend more time with your family or have a less stressful life then this might not be the right move.

In short, define what you want from your business and work towards that.

Focus your offering

Another example of how a lack of focus can be damaging to your business is in regards to your offering. Many business owners are so fearful of not bringing in enough work that they offer a huge range of services.

The problem with this is that you look like a jack of all trades and master of none. People have no reason to come to you over a specialist in the particular service they are after. More importantly, marketing your services is challenging when you offer so many different things.

One of the most important things you can do in your business is specialise. You can specialise in the services you offer (e.g. Drupal development) or the sectors you working (e.g. not for profits). This will allow you to focus your marketing efforts on a smaller audience and increase the likelihood that they have heard of you. It is better to be a big fish in a small pond when it comes to marketing.

I’m not saying you should turn down work outside of your specialism. I’m just saying that you need to focus your marketing efforts in one area. After all, you only have limited time and resources so let’s focus them where they can have the most impact.

Get serious about marketing

The majority of digital service businesses do not invest enough time in their marketing and promotion.

With so many digital service businesses around it is important to stand out from the crowd. Your reputation and profile are everything. This is especially true if you wish to pick and choose your clients or increase your profitability.

This means carving out dedicated time every week to commit to marketing. It means learning about marketing techniques and putting as much effort in as you would any other area of your business. It cannot be a second-class citizen and you cannot rely on word-of-mouth alone.

Revise your pricing

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that you do not have the time to dedicate to marketing. There is one simple reason for this. You are not charging enough.

When I set up my business I worked out my charge out rate based on me being chargeable only 50% of my time. That was not because I wanted to spend the rest of my time playing Fallout 4. It was because I knew I needed a large amount of time for administration, sales and marketing.

The truth is too many business owners under charge because they think they will be chargeable more hours than they are.

Many fear that the market will not support them charging a higher rate. But the only way to find out is to try. I’m not suggesting you should hike your prices overnight. But you can try increasing them for some new work coming in and watch what happens.

Increasing your pricing is often the only way of turning your business into something that meets your goals. That is worth a little risk.

Improve your customer service

Most digital service business owners believe that clients hire them to deliver a product (e.g. a website or mobile app). In truth they hire you to provide a service. The sooner you realise this, the sooner your business will prosper. Clients are buying your expertise as much as the final deliverable. That makes customer service of paramount importance.

If clients enjoy working with you they are more likely to recommend your services to others. They will also be more patient when the occasional problem comes up. More willing to compromise to make your life that little bit easier.

In 2016 spend as much time thinking about the experience of your clients as you do those of your end user. This is especially true for communication. Many digital service companies are terrible at keeping the client informed about their projects. Make sure you are not one of them.

Hone your business skills

As digital professionals we understand the importance of staying up-to-date in our evolving sector. We will spend time learning new coding techniques or attending conferences about design. But we often neglect essential skills we need to run our business.

I’ve already talked about the need to improve our marketing skills. But in 2016 we also need to improve management skills, understanding of finance and sales. We need to hone our pitches, improve our proposals and nurture our staff. We need to become entrepreneurs and not just web designers who happen to own a business.

2016 is an exciting opportunity

Many people sneer at things like New Year’s resolutions. After all it is just an arbitrary date. But it does provide an opportunity to step back and look at our business. An opportunity to ask ourselves what we want, and to become more strategic about getting it. Over this Christmas break I would encourage you to do exactly that. To see 2016 as an exciting opportunity to redefine your business and finally take control.