- by Alyson Shane
What is Starling Social?
Starling Social is the name of my business. We specialize in social media management and copywriting (content marketing) designed to help our clients tell their stories and connect with their customers.
I started freelancing in the summer of 2014, and while working under my own name was great for a while, I realized that as my business started to grow and I began to bring on sub-contractors to help me manage my workload, that using my own name just wasn't going to cut it anymore.
I've been working on launching my new brand for the last half of 2016, so this feels like a really long time coming. I'm really excited to finally be sharing this news with all of you!
You can read more about Starling Social on our first blog post.
What Does This Mean for My Blog?
What it means is that I can (finally!) get back to the kind of writing that I enjoy: the kind which doesn't have to stick to a certain style, which discusses more of my life, opportunities, thoughts, and experiences.
One of the challenging things about being a freelancer was that I had to shift the primary focus of my blog to topics relating to my professional life. I've always been a big supporter of knowledge sharing, and by publishing content that was helpful and informative to others, it also helped demonstrate that I knew what I was talking about when it came to social media and content marketing.
While it was fun and refreshing at first, I quickly started to realize that the more I blogged about what I did, the less I blogged about who I am. What I care about, my values, and so on.
With this in mind, one of the biggest changes you'll notice here is that I'll be blogging more about my life. What I'm up to, my thoughts on being an entrepreneur and business owner, etc, reflections on my industry, and so forth.
What Comes Next?
You can follow along with everything that Starling Social is up to by visiting our website and blog, and following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
You can also sign up for our newsletter and get a FREE copy of my new ebook Get Social! Content Marketing for You and Your Brand.
And me? I'll still be here, blogging away like I always have.
So hello, and welcome back. I've missed all of you.
- by Alyson Shane
2016 was a whirlwind year, and now that I'm home from our holiday trip to Windsor to visit John's family I finally have a little time to think, reflect, and plan my next moves for the coming year.
I'm not a big believer in "resolutions" to be honest; I prefer to look at each new year as an opportunity to commit to doing more positive things in general, rather than saying "this year I'll read 50 books!" or "I'm going to enter a bodybuilding competition in 2017" (lols for days).
Below are a few of the intentions I plan to set for the coming year, and some tips to help you set (and really work towards!) your own:
Do more yoga
A few months ago my friend Jackie and I went to Moksha Yoga Winnipeg for some hot yoga, and as I sweated and strained I felt the same kind of runner's high that I sometimes feel during a particularly good run. I left the class feeling renewed, exhilarated, and sweaty as hell, and it was wonderful.
Since then I've been trying to work doing yoga into my regular workout routine; I've been doing this easy 10-minute video at home during my 'lunch break' each afternoon. It's fast, simple, and a good way to break up my workday and spend a few minutes in a (somewhat) zen-like state.
In addition to all the feel-good mental benefits associated with doing yoga it just feels good to connect with my body and stretch out muscles that I don't normally use while sitting at my desk typing to you.
Do you have any fitness goals in the coming year? Whether it's taking up running, swimming every day, or just stretching more during your linch break, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Costs. How much are you spending on fitness already? Are you willing to spend more? If you need special equipment, are you willing to invest additional funds?
- Time. Ask yourself honestly: how much time will this take each day, or week? Include travel time, changing, showering, etc in your estimate.
- Other obligations. Saying "I'm going to go to the gym every day!" is great in theory, but harder in practice. Block an average workweek out by hours, including commuting, meal prep, and other daily tasks to see how much time you reasonably have to meet your goals.
Delegate more (effectively)
One of my biggest learning moments came last year when I found myself looking dejectedly at the Crowdfunding Crash Course ebook I had been putting together. I'd spent heaps of time compiling the existing interviews, blog posts, and a bunch of extra goodies into an ebook format, only to totally and utterly lose steam when it came to designing the layout, which I didn't want to do.
I kept putting off the thing I didn't want to do until it felt like I'd put it off too long and the project felt irrelevant. I beat myself up really hard over it, and it's hard even admitting that I let it stagnate. However, it taught me an invaluable lesson: delegate tasks you don't like to the people who can do them for you.
That's why of my personal and professional goals is to delegate more of my workflow to others, and to learn to do so more effectively. Delegating properly and supporting the people who you work with means developing the proper systems to manage everyone's time and keep things on track, which I need to spend more time doing this year in order to meet this goal.
Whether you're working in an office, a stay-at-home mom, or a busy business owner, knowing where you need help and asking for it can go a long way towards good mental health. Below are some things you can ask yourself before you start pushing to-dos off your plate:
- What tasks or processes do I enjoy doing the least? We tend to put off and procrastinate on tasks that we don't enjoy. Identify the ones you like the least (doing your taxes, following up with clients, etc) and find people who can help you do them.
- Ask: can I trust this person to do a good job? Take time to talk to and properly vet anyone you're thinking of delegating a task to, especially if it's a business-related one.
- Let go. If you believe that you can trust someone to help you manage your to-dos then trust in their abilities and don't stress too much. Make sure to review everything they do, but give them the space and support to do it properly.
(ooooh yeah, the new year means motivational images like crazy)
Spend more time on business development
This dovetails into delegating more effectively; when you run your own business and are managing client expectations, pitching ideas, going to meetings, writing copy, and doing all of the other day-to-day tasks that involve running a business it can be easy to forget about the most important business you manage: your own.
I've asked many mentors and friends about this, and they all agree: the first thing to slip when you start getting busy is your own business development. However, ongoing business development is critical when it comes to long-term success, and in 2017 and the following years I want to make more time to focus on building my business as well as my clients' businesses.
Some steps I want to take in this area are:
- Redefining "work". Most people look at business development as work, but writing and being creative are things that I enjoy, and I need to start re-framing business development as things I like doing in my leisure time when I'm not taking care of clients.
- Delegate more effectively. This deserves a second mention because I struggle with it and it will be essential to finding time for business development. Being too busy blocks my creative process.
- Work in inspiring places. Sitting at home with my laptop on a Saturday afternoon feels a bit boring, so getting out to coffee shops and bars where I can sit and work outside of the house will help me feel invigorated and encourage me to be creative.
While my focus is on business development, the steps below are designed to help anyone with a creative passion that often takes a backseat to other things in life:
- Assess the benefits. Write down the benefits of spending time on your project. Some benefits could be "improve my craft or practice", "move my business forward", "earn more revenue" etc.
- Schedule in time. I talk about scheduling a lot because it is the most important way to stay on track. Look at your calendar and block out time to work on your projects or hobbies, and stick to them.
- Find mentors and inspiration. Talk to other like-minded people in your field, join an active Facebook group for people with similar interests, and read blogs and books about your passion or hobby to stay inspired.
Read more books
One of my favourite things to do is start my workday with a thermos of coffee and the front page of HackerNews (among others). I spend 20-45 minutes every day reading articles, bookmarking important information, and adding to my list of resources.
However, as many of you know there's a big difference between reading several articles a day and reading a good, old fashioned book.
Last year I read about a dozen books, which is pretty good, but I read pretty quickly and honestly there's no excuse other than I've chosen to prioritize other things. This article about finding time to read was a bit of a slap in the face, and has helped me decide to make reading physical books a priority this year.
Making time to read more can be challenging (believe me) but below are a few things you can do to make more time to sink into a juicy novel or two over the coming months:
- Schedule in time to read. I find that it's easiest for me to make time to read before bed, after my day is done and I can relax. If this doesn't work for you, make a point to read on your lunch break, during your commute (if you don't drive) or over your morning coffee.
- Make a list of books you want to read and review it often. Fill your list with books by people you admire, interesting fiction (reading fiction makes you a better person), and books that capture your interest and which you are genuinely excited to read.
- Prioritize reading. It's easy to get sucked into an Instagram black hole or get swept up with the latest mobile game, so put your phone face down and store your laptop out of view. Focus on your book (or e-reader) and nothing else for as long as you can. Trust me, it'll be hard at first but the more you do it the longer your attention span will get.
Forgive more readily
Forgiveness is hard. It's easy to stay mad at people, or to hang on to hurt feelings and resentment. I told my therapist today "it's easier to be angry than it is to empathize with someone" and it's true, but hard things are the things worth doing because they make us better people in the long run.
2016 was the year that I started to learn to forgive people: my parents and family who failed me, people who hurt my feelings, acquaintances or strangers who spoke or acted thoughtlessly, and, most importantly, myself. I started to learn to forgive myself.
With that in mind I'm going to do my best to be a positive influence on those around me, and to learn to forgive more easily and not hold onto anger, resentment, and guilt.
It seems like everyone has an axe to grind with 2016; whether it's the loss of a favourite celebrity, a personal issue that you haven't resolved, a conflict with a coworker, or something else, below are a few ways you can move towards forgiveness this year:
- Accept that you can't change people. Many of us spend heaps of time stressing and worrying about other people (myself included) but the key to letting go is to accept that you can't change how people think, feel and act. You can only do the best you can and hope that others understand your actions.
- Stop creeping. Social media has made it easier than ever to "check up" on people, but opening up that Incognito tab only helps hold on to any negative feelings you may be harbouring. It won't make you feel any better, so just don't do it.
- Recognize that you're doing the best you can. You aren't perfect. You'll say awkward things, unintentionally hurt other people's feelings, and misstep because you're human. It happens, so do your best to say "I made that mistake, but now I know and I can do better next time."
What are your intentions for 2017? Tweet at me or comment below and let me know what you're doing in the coming year.
- by Alyson Shane
One of the scariest and most challenging things about going from having an office job to running your own business is that you essentially go from having one boss, to having lots of mini-bosses. This means more deadlines, more phone calls and emails, more meetings... you name it, there's more of it. This also means that instead of one boss to keep happy, you now have three, or six, or sixteen, or sixty-six bosses to manage.
I'll be honest with you: if you run a client-facing business then there is a 100% guarantee that you will eventually have to deal with a tricky client situation (if you haven't already.) I can say this confidently because people are fickle and miscommunications happen.
So how can you manage your client's expectations? I'm glad you asked:
1. Keep your contracts clear
I cannot stress this enough. Don't just blindly sign, or skim over, an agreement between yourself and a new client. Contracts help keep you safe and can be instrumental to resolving disputes, clarifying issues, and other really important stuff.
In my experience I find that it's easiest to provide my clients with a contract for them to review, since I know the deliverable specifics that I need to include. It also means that I get to set the tone moving forward, and it's up to the client to make any revisions to my proposed contract, which is easier for me.
Thoroughly read through each and every client agreement and make sure that it clearly identifies the following:
- Your deliverables (monthly, per-project, or otherwise)
- Client deliverables (eg: are you waiting on information each month to create a newsletter?)
- Deliverable specifics
- Deliverable timelines, if necessary
- Payment schedules (eg: will you be paid monthly, as specific milestones are met, etc)
it's okay to go back and forth on a contract with a client. Remember: this is a negotiation, and it's better to hammer out specifics up-front so that there's no confusion about what your role is, and what you need to do for them so that you're all on the same page.
2. Under-promise and over-deliver
I'm not saying that you shouldn't go above and beyond for your clients, but giving yourself buffer room and quoting longer deadlines than you actually need can be an absolute lifesaver during busy times, or when complications arise with a project you're working on and revisions need to be done.
Not only does buffer room help you stay within a proposed timeline, but if you finish the project earlier than you quoted your clients will be over the moon for you.
3. On-board like a boss
On-boarding is critical to bringing on new clients seamlessly and make them aware of what to expect from you.
One of the things that I do to help manage client expectations is to provide a document that outlines my on-boarding process from start to finish. This document outlines the following:
- What they can expect to discuss at our each meeting/phone call
- What I need from them (eg: fill out the Brand Audit Worksheet)
- What I'll do post-meeting (eg: prepare a quote, send a contract, etc)
- Tasks, broken down by:
- Daily tasks
- Weekly tasks
- Monthly tasks
This is an approximation, as each client I work with is slightly different, but it's general enough that they know what to expect from me.
4. Set boundaries and keep them
Even if you work for yourself, keeping regular office hours is an easy way to manage client expectations. Let them know that you're at your desk from 8am - 4pm Monday - Friday (or whatever works for you) so they don't get upset that you didn't reply at 11pm on a Sunday.
I can't stress this enough: if you don't set boundaries your clients will dictate your life. Having regular office hours works for me, and I've been working towards only checking my email twice a day (it's harder than it sounds!) so that I can focus on doing work for my clients instead of spending all day replying to emails.
If you have a client that loves to get in touch after-hours (and some do) then let them know that you'll do your best to address their concern the next chance you have. This obviously doesn't apply to emergency situations, but day-to-day your clients should understand that you have a life outside of your work and should be understanding if you aren't available right that second.
Taking the time to set up a system that your clients can understand, and managing their expectations from the start is the easiest and best way to take care them and ensure that you have a positive, productive professional relationship for years to come.
Do you have any systems in place to keep your clients happy? Tell me in the comments!
- by Alyson Shane
A few weeks ago I passed a significant personal and professional milestone:
June 30th, 2016 was my one-year anniversary as a full-time business owner.
The past 365+ days have been an incredible journey; I've learned a lot, made mistakes, discovered a lot about myself and my life has changed in so many ways that it felt appropriate to share some of the things I've learned this past year with all of you:
It's okay to not be a "good employee"
I'll be honest with you: I used to get depressed when I thought about my career. Even after going to university and working roles that were actually in my field (instead of being an accountant, oh my god) I'd still hadn't found a job that did it for me. I'd think of all those years ahead of me, likely spent in dull offices, trying to find a position or organization that hopefully wouldn't bore me to tears after six months and it was so depressing.
I also had a lot of anxiety around being a "good employee." I didn't like sitting at a desk for a pre-determined amount of hours, asking for permission to take an extended lunch or book an appointment, taking a vacation, or playing office politics (ugh). I'm also not afraid to stand up for myself and point out when I think something unfair or just plain wrong, which doesn't bode well in the world of 9-5's.
So what feels different? The biggest thing is that while I'm beholden to my clients, and I technically have more "bosses" now than I did before, we have a mutually respectful relationship which can be hard to find in the office world.
I'm honest with my clients, and they rely on me to create the right content and steer them in the right direction, which results in a level of respect and collaboration that I was never able to enjoy when I worked for someone else.
Your value isn't just tied up in your qualifications
Before I went to university the advice everyone gave me was "you have to go to university! You'll never be able to get a decent job if you don't go to university!" So that's what I did. I spent three years at the University of Winnipeg earning my Bachelor of Arts, and you know what? Not one of my clients has ever asked me about my formal education.
To be clear: I am in no way saying that getting an education isn't worth it. University was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot, but when it comes to running a service-based business my experience has been that it's more important to be able to demonstrate your value and your skills than it is to have a piece of paper that declares it for you.
Instead, people look at my website, blog, social feeds, and where I've been published or asked to speak to see examples of my knowledge.
You can say no to things that you don't want
One of the most empowering things that I've learned in this past year is to say "no" when something doesn't make me feel good. I don't take on projects that I don't want, and I don't work with clients that I don't like.
This is incredibly hard to do; we're conditioned to believe that every opportunity that comes our way may be the last, and especially when you're new to being a solo business owner it's hard not to think "if I don't take this, will I regret it? Why am I turning down money? Who in their right mind turns down money?!"
Except money isn't the key to happiness. Instead of chasing money, I chase value. I've turned down opportunities that could have resulted in a nice boost to my bank account, but which would have made me miserable, and I don't regret them at all. Instead, I focus my energy on finding opportunities and work that are more suited to my tastes and personality, and it feels amazing.
Irregular income takes some getting used to
Before I started working for myself I would say things like "I could never go from biweekly payments, it's so scary!" and you know what? It is, and it takes some getting used to.
Being paid on a monthly or irregular basis means that I have to pay more attention to my bank balance than I did before, but since I was planning to leave my 9-5 I spent a few months building up a nest egg which rolls over from month to month. That way I know that I have enough to cover my living expenses for a few months if a bunch of work dried up at once.
However, I think that this is worth mentioning: even though I get paid irregularly, diversifying my income feels more secure than a single job ever did. When I worked for someone else if I lost my job 100% of my income was gone, but now if I lose a client I just hustle a bit harder and find another one to replace that dip in my income.
Also, as I said above since all of my earning potential is wrapped up in how hard I work it often means that I make double or triple one month what I made the previous one.
The freedom of managing your life is the most worthwhile thing
This is the single biggest takeaway that I can share with you.
I grew up believing that my work was just a means to an end; that I shouldn't expect to like my job or my work and that sitting at a desk doing uninspiring things for 40 hours a week was all I could ever hope for out of my life. This is such utter bullshit, you guys.
I've enjoyed a year of having the freedom to choose the work I want; to take an afternoon off to go shopping with a friend; to work on a Sunday or during the evening; to take a 3-week vacation to Central America and to work on the road.
I do what I want and am building my ideal life on my terms, and I get to grow something amazing and completely my own all from scratch. The work I do is fun and rewarding, and most importantly it makes my clients feel good, too.
Personal takeaways from 365+ days
I used to feel trapped by my life.
I didn't know what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go professionally, and I felt shackled to a corporate work and life that I resented and which, frankly, wasn't a good fit for me. It wasn't until I started building my client list and hanging out with other creatives and entrepreneurs that I realized that doing the thing that you love for a living is the key to being truly happy all the time.
The past 365+ days have been an exercise in un-learning a lot of things that I thought I knew about my value as a person and a creative professional. I've also learned so much about myself and have developed such a deep appreciation for my life that I can barely put it into words. It's been an exciting, challenging, and rewarding experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.
Thank you to my fantastic partner John, my incredible and supportive friends, and to my clients who do me the honour of working with me.
- by Alyson Shane
Earlier this week I got together for a mini-tweetup or sorts with some local ladies that I know through a Twitter chat that I participate in. We had some lunch, enjoyed some laughs, and got to know each other a little better.
That experience got me thinking about the value of Twitter as a social network, and how easy it can be for people to find each other, create connections, and even grow their businesses.
As many of you know, Twitter is my favourite social network and I believe that the community I found online helped shape me into who I am today.
With that in mind, I wanted to share some benefits that I believe Twitter can have for you and your business, so let's get started:
Interact with real people
One of the biggest objections I hear to Twitter is "I'll never meet real people! It's just brands and businesses!"
Not so, young social media Padawans. Not so.
One of my favourite stories to tell about social media was how I met my good friend Colin. I was pretty green to Twitter (circa 2009 or 2010) and I tweeted out something like "are there any meetups for creative types in #Winnipeg?" Colin tweeted at me, we proceeded to meet up at the next Secret Handshake meetup, and we've been friends ever since.
I talk about this a little bit more in my post How Social Media and Blogging Helped Me Discover Who I Am, but it's worth repeating here that Twitter is an excellent conversation tool because it democratizes your feed.
Currently Twitter's timeline is largely comprised of people you follow and you see their tweets in chronological order, allowing you to tweet at basically anyone you want, anytime. This means that you can connect with a celebrity, talk to a brand, or just reach out and start chatting with other people from your hometown, and you're all on the same playing field.
Create genuine, real-life connections
One of the secrets to using Twitter isn't to just tweet and expect people to find you. Sure, replying and RT'ing is a lovely way to let people know that you're out there, but finding twitter and participating in Twitter chats is one of the fastest ways to start seeing connections grow.
Essentially a Twitter chat is a chat hosted on Twitter which uses a chat-specific hashtag (this thing: #) to help users identify and respond to one another. Twitter chats tend to be grouped around themes or topics and can range from chats about beer, to parenting, to disability rights, and more!
One of my favourite weekly chats is #wecmchat, which is hosted by the Women's Enterprise Centre of Manitoba, and focuses on fostering discussion about business ownership and being a woman in business. I've met lots of local lady business owners in the year or so that I've been participating in the chat, and some of us even got together to grab lunch at a burger joint just outside the city:
What's great about this chat is that I've met other like-minded people (my "tribe") and have formed connections with them that may not have existed otherwise, and gotten to know them in ways that I may not have if we'd only run into each other face-to-face.
This is the power of Twitter chats: to be able to get to know other people with similar interests, goals, and beliefs in informal and regularly scheduled times.
Grow your business
Twitter can absolutely convert those conversations to paying customers, but you have to put in the effort. Twitter doesn't have a quick ROI, so don't expect to go from 4 followers to 4,000 overnight unless you bought them from somewhere, which is a whole other topic in and of itself.
That being said, Twitter's power lies in its ability to let a business act like a human being. Unlike on Facebook, where business pages can't interact with personal profiles, businesses can Tweet to personal accounts. For example, if you tweet out "today is my birthday!" your local pizza place may tweet back "happy birthday @yournanehere!"
By engaging in conversation with other users businesses can use Twitter as a way to remind people that their business is there, and to create feelings of familiarity and trust as they engage in casual, positive, and non-salesy conversation.*
(*This is super important! While it's okay to tweet out about sales, special promos, and the like, it's bad Twitter etiquette to tweet anything prompting people to buy from you.)
While Twitter may have a slower ROI, it can absolutely land you clients. I can say this with absolute certainty because I've met clients who have followed me on Twitter and decided to use my services as a result. The more time you invest in talking to others and building connections on Twitter, the better your results will be.
If you're still totally baffled by Twitter check out my Twitter Crash Course post series. I'll walk you through setting up an account, to connecting with your first followers, understanding your analytics and more!
When it comes to any social network the most important thing to remember is this: everyone else is there to make connections, just like you. So jump right in and start tweeting!
Do you have any questions about Twitter? Tweet at me or ask me in the comments!
- by Alyson Shane
Recently I received a phone call from my alma mater asking for donations to their Faculty of Arts, where I studied when I received my BA. She asked me for $5 a month, or "the cost of a single Starbucks coffee" (well played, University of Winnipeg, well played).
I'll be honest with you: I declined to give back to the university for the time being. My business is still in it's infancy, and saving money is pretty important to me right now. However, this conversation got me thinking about the ways I work to keep costs low for myself during this stage (even if that means saving that $5 a month), and I thought I'd share some of the things I've learned:
One of the most interesting assumptions that people have started to make about me since I began running my business is that this is the lifestyle I lead:
This is, much to my chagrin, not how I live my life. In fact, it's a little more like this:
Don't get me wrong, I'm doing just fine financially, but I'm not baller status quite yet. As a result, here are some of the areas where I cut costs or try not to indulge in order to keep my business expenses low:
Buying or renting space you don't need yet
One of the easiest ways to save a few hundred dollars a month (minimum!) is to avoid buying a brick-and-mortar store or renting office space for as long as you can. This, in my opinion, is the single biggest benefit to working from home.
Sure, there are benefits to an office or renting a desk in a co-working space, such as access to a board room, printing area, etc, but unless your business has grown to the point where you need those things on a consistent basis, having client meetings in coffee shops should be fine for now.
Spending on expedited shipping
Unless it's a business emergency (ie: your business will shut down without this parcel/package) you can wait the extra day or two.
Additionally, if the shipping charges for a particular item are outrageous, ask yourself: do you really need that beautiful embossed day planner that badly? Odds are, you probably don't.
Custom website design
I get it: you want to build a website that stands out from your competitor's. You want something that is completely yours, and is an accurate online representation of your business and your values.
However, what's more important is simply having a website, rather than worrying about whether or not it's built custom from scratch. Many people choose to work with existing Wordpress or Squarespace templates, which are easy to alter and personalize without the investment in a custom designed site.
I'm a firm believer that the best thing a person or business can do for themselves is to start to build a positive reputation for themselves online. What's great about this is that social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest (the biggest and most popular ones for businesses) are all free to join.
This means that if you do hustle a little bit (or hire someone like me #ShamelessPlug) you can start to build a name for yourself and your services without having to invest in paid advertising just yet.
Not only does putting off doing paid advertising beneficial because it keeps costs low, but people will appreciate that you're connecting with them on a real, human level, and not just sending a barrage of ads their way.
Office supplies you don't need
Confession: I LOVE going to stationery stores. Every time I step into Tiny Feast here in Winnipeg my heart starts going pitter-pat and I start imagining how charming my desk would be with all those fountain pens, notebooks, staplers... you get the drift.
As much as I would love to take everything from Tiny Feast home with me, I have to ask myself: how often do I use a stapler (never), how often do I use paperclips (also never), do I really need a handmade mug to store my pens (not at all)... you get my drift.
As tempting as it may seem to try and pimp out your desk with heaps of Pinterest-worthy goodies, resist the temptation for now. You can always indulge in that gorgeous cork-top desk in the future.
Subscriptions for software you don't need
This one always gets me. I pay for a few subscriptions to various content scheduling and monitoring services (HootSuite, Buffer, etc) and it sucks to pay the monthly fees... but without them I would go absolutely bonkers and not be able to manage my shit. So, for me they are a necessary evil.
However, unless you're in the digital marketing business odds are you can avoid a lot of these monthly expenses by using free software to do what you need. Some great options are:
- Insightly (CRM system)
- Freshbooks (accounting)
- HootSuite or Buffer (free versions - social media management)
- Toggl (time management - I'd be lost without this tool)
- Trello (project management)
- Dropbox (file sharing)
It may seem tempting to invest in expensive software, or to buy a bunch pf products up-front "just in case" but if you aren't using the tool on a daily basis, and if it isn't something that your business can live without (eg: I would be utterly lost without Buffer, for example) then consider sticking with the free version, or finding a free alternative until the time comes when you either a) need the service enough that you should pay for it or b) you can afford to invest in it.
Do you have any money-saving tips for small businesses? Is there something that you wish you had learned when you were starting out? Tweet at me or tell me in the comments!
- by Alyson Shane
Let me tell you a dirty secret: I hated building buyer personas when I was taking my business courses in university. I thought they were useless, frivolous, and something that marketing agencies could charge exorbitant fees to their customers to develop.
Then, as it so often happens in the world of Being an Adult, I started running my own business and learned that I was totally wrong.
In fact, understanding and developing buyer personas was, in fact an integral part of understanding a businesses' target audience, and how best to communicate with them.
As I so often say when it comes to advice I dole out on this blog: do as I say, not as I've done. Learn from my mistakes; understand what a buyer persona is and how it benefits your business, and use it to the best of your abilities.
Not sure what a buyer persona is, or how it can help your business? No worries, I've got you covered:
What are buyer personas & what do they do?
At it's core, a buyer persona is essentially a portrait of your ideal customer.
In terms of content marketing strategy, having a comprehensive buyer persona helps businesses (or people like me!) deliver content which is timely, informative, and that your audience actually want to see and consume.
Different people respond differently to various kinda of images, messaging, and communication, and it's important to take these perspectives into consideration while figuring out how to best serve your customers.
For example, a 20-year-old Snapchat user who is starting university and has very little disposable income will have respond to different messages, and will have different motivations, goals, and purchasing power than a 45-year-old father of two who is a CEO at his company and has lots of disposable income. Now, your business may not be trying to appeal to both of these extremes, but what this is meant to illustrate is that you need to know who your ideal buyers are, why they should care about your business, and (more importantly) how your product or service can appeal to them or make their lives easier.
How can you build buyer personas that really work?
The key to building effective buyer personas is that you have to make a bunch of them. This may feel like tedious work (my university-era self would agree) but creating a few personas can help you develop well-rounded ideas about the kinds of people you want to communicate with, and who you think are the ones who would be interested in buying what you have to offer.
You don't have to get super specific, but identifying the following areas are generally pretty useful:
- Name. This isn't technically necessary, but I like naming my buyer personas. I find it helps with keeping track of who they are, and makes them feel a bit more "real".
- Job title. Are they CEOs? Mid-level management? Students working at Starbucks? Like I said earlier, where they are in their professional life will influence their purchasing power.
- Details about their job title or role. These flesh out their day-to-day motivations at work and help inform what they may be looking for professionally.
- Age. Different generations and age brackets have different motivations and priorities, and it's important to identify what they are in order to figure out what they want.
- Gender. Are you marketing your products to men, women, both, or otherwise?
- Location. Where your ideal customers are can make a huge difference on how you craft your message to them.
- Salary. Lots of people are afraid to talk about money and finances, but let's be honest: how much your buyers have to spend influences whether or not they have monty to buy your products or services.
- Education. People's level of education shapes a variety of areas such as their level of employment, salary, interests, and much more.
- Family. Are they single? Married? Do they have 2.5 kids? Are they close with their extended family? Their ties to their families and those obligations will influence their purchasing power.
Values & objections
- Values. What are the things that your buyers believe to be important or valuable? Eg: buying local; investing in secondhand or slow fashion; or driving an expensive BMW.
- Objections. What are some objections that could come up during the sales process? Eg: your product is too expensive; too niche; too complicated for a layman to see any value, etc.
(do your buyers shop like Kanye or like Macklemore?)
This area can change a bit depending on what your business sells, but generally some other areas which can help build an accurate buyer profile are:
- Computer literacy. Do your buyers go mining for Bitcoins, or do they struggle to find the Any Key?
- News sources. Your customers' values will likely be different depending on whether they get their news from Fox News or Al-Jazeera.
- Hobbies. How your customers spend their free time can help you understand more about their motivations and values.
- Interviews and real-life examples. If you already have an existing customer base, take a look at your reviews and customer service experiences. How do people talk to your team, or speak about your business?
Sussing this information out
Figuring out all this information by yourself may seem like an impossible task, but it isn't! There are actually a variety of ways that you can find the information you need to build a series of effective buyer personas, which are:
- Asking your team and colleagues. As I said earlier, if your business is already customer-facing you can speak to team members who interact with your customers to build complete profiles.
- Check your website stats. This should be obvious, but if not some things to look for are: keywords people used to find your website, where your visitors came from, and the actions they took while they were on your page. If your website doesn't have Google Analytics installed, back the hell up and install it before coming back to this article. Your analytics tool is one of the best tools at your disposal for understanding customer behaviour.
- Use social media. Look for services or products similar to your own and spend some time analyzing the discussions happening on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and on blogs. People are more likely to share negative experiences than positive ones online, which can provide you with important insight into the areas where your buyers feel your industry could be doing better.
Why does this process matter?
This may seem like a lot of work (and trust me, it is!) but taking the time to investigate and research your potential customers and to create well-rounded buyer personas can go a long way towards helping you understand your businesses' strengths and weaknesses. Spending time on this process helps your business provide a better experience for your customers.
Still want a little more help creating an effective buyer persona? Check out these free buyer persona templates from HubSpot. They're what I use day-to-day, and I'm sure you'll find them to be invaluable, as well!
How do you create buyer personas for your business? Do you have anything to add to what I've outlined in this post? Tweet at me or tell me in the comments!
- by Alyson Shane
Let's face it: there's nothing worse than feeling like you're stuck in your job.
I'll be honest with you: I was pretty unhappy at my old office job, and the biggest thing that kept me going there day after day was knowing that I could go home and work on my business.
Knowing that I could go home and pour my energy into something personal that mattered to me kept me going on a lot of days when I wanted to throw in the towel.
However, whether you're building your biz on the side, hustling your freelance gig, or working on other creative projects, it can still be tough to be able to put the effort in when you spend the bulk of your peak productivity hours at the office.
If you're serious about accomplishing your goals outside of your 9-5 then it's time to start planning, getting organized, and taking steps to make the most of your out of office hours.
Luckily, I just went through this experience, which is why I'm here to help:
Figure out how much time you have (and be honest!)
So we already know that you have -40 hours a week to work on your side project, but it's also important to factor in other important areas of your life that can't be avoided and take up your time. Some of these can include:
- Commuting to and from work
- Going to the gym/general fitness
- Preparing and eating meals
The easiest way to figure out how much time you really have is to map it out so you can get an accurate look at how much time you really have, and how much time you can realistically spend each week.
I know that a few hours here or there may not look like a lot, but don't get discouraged! Make every hour count.
Plan, plan, plan!
Your time is limited, and if you're working on a particularly large goal, or something with lots of steps to complete it can feel like an impossible task to fit it all into your after-work hours. Don't sweat it, baby, it can be done! It just takes a little planning and preparedness.
The first thing you need to do is figure out what your goals are. They can be as vague or as specific as you'd like, but the most specific you can be, the better.
Some examples are:
- Write and publish an ebook
- Redesign and launch your website
- Put together an e-course or workshop
- Hustle your side business and grow your client base
These are all top-level goals: they're the end result, but to get there will take lots of smaller, much more manageable steps. What I used to do was sit down on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and figure out what I wanted to work on that week, and focused my attention on competing those tasks.
Prioritize and re-assess often
Once your top-level goals are in place and you've mapped out how and when you'll be taking steps to get there, it's time to prioritize your time. When you're doing lots of stuff and living a busy life it can feel hard to know what to start with (believe me!) so I find it's helpful to determine what "priority" tasks are. This is what mine look like:
- Client work and tasks that generate income
- Time-sensitive tasks, or tasks on a schedule (my newsletter, for example)
- Work that needs to be sent to someone else so they can move forward on their end
- To-dos on my business development goal list
It's important to take this seriously! It's way too easy to get wrapped up in small details, or to waste your time on something that doesn't really matter. Remember: your after-hours time is at a premium, so treat it that way.
Schedule similar tasks together
After a long day at the office it may feel like it makes more sense to say, write a blog post one night and draft your newsletter the next, but practicing "batch scheduling" can help you optimize your time and get more done.
"Batch scheduling" is exactly what it sounds like: grouping similar tasks together to optimize your time. This is especially important when doing tasks which require you to get into a "flow" such as writing or other creative pursuits. It takes time to get in and out of flow, so it makes more sense to group similar tasks together so you can stay in that mindset as you move from one task to the next.
It's also important to try and schedule your after-work work on nights when you aren't feeling mentally worn-down. You probably won't feel like sitting down and working on your financials after a busy day of meetings at the office, for example, so try to schedule mentally taxing tasks on days when your 9-5 is more low-key, and vice-versa.
Take time off
When you're hustling on the side of your 9-5 it's really easy to fall into the habit of working 24-7 (trust me on this one, I know it all too well) but if you don't schedule in time to rest and recharge your batteries you will burn out. Not only will your side projects begin to see the strain, but your productivity at your 9-5 will begin to slip as well, and that's not good!
With this in mind, schedule time to catch up on the latest Game of Thrones, go for a hike with your friends, or basically do something that isn't working on your side project when you're not at work.
Taking the time to look after yourself ensures that you'll have the steam to keep firing on all cylinders, both at your 9-5 and at your side gig, for a long time.
Do you have any tips for working on your side hustle while keeping a day job? I'd love to hear them!
- by Alyson Shane
Regardless of how much you love what you do, there are inevitably doing to be times when you're feeling down, or uninspired, or are simply suffering from a lack of motivation (I know those feels).
When I'm feeling down I like to find a fun project to work on (like doing some writing, editing photos, etc) and put on a good TED Talk to listen to while I work. I love hearing other people's thoughts and stories, and have actually been using TED Talks to get inspired since 2007, when I worked a mind-numbingly dull job as an accounting assistant in a government office. I hated my job, and listening to people with big ideas, dreams, and goals made me feel a little less crazy for being underwhelmed with my current circumstances.
These days I certainly feel a lot better about what I do day-to-day, there are still times when a little verbal pick-me-up is required to get those creative juices flowing again. With that in mind, I wanted to share some of my favourite talks to help you stay motivated:
*I also happen to have ASMR, and for those of you lucky enough to experience the same lovely sensations when listening to people speak, I've put a little asterisk next to the ones that give me the best kinds of brain-tingles.
I'm a sucker for a good cheesy talk, and nothing snaps me out of a funk faster than listening to a few talks about dreaming big and going for it. In particular I'd recommend checking out Amanda Palmer's talk; hearing hers was pivotal for me in learning to ask other people for help and admitting that (gulp!) maybe I don't know everything.
Business & Success Talks
I've been listening to talks about business since... well, long before running my own business ever crossed my mind. In particular I'm drawn to talks that tackle issues like healthy workplaces, finding work that matters to you, and spreading your ideas successfully.
Creativity & Happiness Talks
Two of the talks in this category are ones I've been listening to for several years. They're always good to come back to when I need a refresher that creativity isn't something that just disappears (though sometimes it feels that way) and that I have to actively work at being happy.
General Interesting Talks
Below are a few of my favourite talks that didn't really fit into any of the above categories, but I find myself revisiting again and again because they're just that good.
Do you have any favourite videos that you play to stay motivated and find inspiration? Tweet them at me or tell me in the comments!
- by Alyson Shane
Today I did a "big kid" business owner task and complied all of my information to send to my accountant for tax time. It was stressful, a little bit chaotic, but ultimately felt good to be done and over with.
The reason it took me so long (and caused me more than a little anxiety) is because when I started my business a year and a half ago I didn't expect it to scale so quickly, and as a result I kind of floundered through the first few months of it without real systems in place to help me stay organized.
Now, boy do I know better.
Largely what I know has come through trial and error, but I've also had some great discussions with friends, colleagues, and mentors who have helped me figure this stuff out and get on the right track. And, since sharing is caring, I figured I'd share a list of 5 of the most important thins I've learned with you:
1. Every day is unpredictable
This is probably the biggest understatement of the century! I do my best to be as organized as possible and use checklists and planners, but sometimes a client throws a curveball my way which eats up my entire day.
As a result, I've had to learn to be a lot more flexible. Not just with my time, but with my expectations of what I planned to accomplish during that time. Clients will often send pressing need-to-handle emails moments before they actually need something, or someone will call me while I'm in the middle of writing an in-depth piece, or any variety of things. Whatever the case, be prepared for the unexpected.
2. Developing your systems early on is a lifesaver
Believe me, you'll thank yourself later. Like I mentioned at the top of this post, when I first started freelancing I didn't give much thought to how my folders were organized, where my invoices went, how I tracked my time... you get the drift.
Do as I say, not as I do. Here are some tips to develop strong systems:
- Pick a file structure and stick to it. Be consistent in your folders and sub-folders!
- Use invoice numbers to keep track of your invoices, and use a spreadsheet to track what's outstanding and what has been paid (I recently started doing this thanks to a conversation with my friend Elise and it's a lifesaver)
- Track your time. I use Toggl to keep track of everything I'm doing, and review my logs often to figure out what I'm spending the most amount of time on.
- Use the heck out of your calendar.
3. You'll think about work constantly
When you own something and you're trying to build it, it's almost always on your mind, and that's totally okay!
In fact, it's probably the thing that is going to make you successful and keep your business from going under, because if you're always thinking about it, then you're more likely to come up with new ideas, systems to streamline your processes, and ways to hustle your product or services.
I'll be honest: if you're the kind of person who wants punch the clock and then forget about everything you did Monday to Friday, then this isn't the lifestyle for you.
4. You'll always have stuff to do
This can actually feel overwhelming from time to time, because even when I've checked off all of my client "to dos" there's still a long (looooong) laundry list of things that I need to take care of to make sure my business is running smoothly. This could be anything from developing new products, to researching a new social trend, to filling up my content calendar... there's never a dull moment.
There are definitely times when this can feel overwhelming, but that's totally normal! Just take a deep breath, grab a glass of wine (or whiskey), pump some music and push though the first few items on your to-do list. Trust me, once you've checked a few off you will feel a million timed better.
5. You'll feel guilty when you "switch off"
(but do it anyway)
It's important to have rest days and days where your eyes aren't glued to your computer screen, or you don't set foot in your store (if you have a brick-and-mortar business) because - trust me on this - you will burn out, honey. Even if you can't entirely unplug, set aside a few hours of "me time" and take a bath, hit the gym, grab a greasy burger with your besties... whatever you need to do to unwind and recharge your batteries.
When I was on vacation in Central America for three weeks I definitely had bouts of "oh my god, will my business be there when I get back?!" but you know what? Being away from the day-to-day tasks helped me come up with some really terrific ideas, and when I came back I felt 100% refreshed and ready to dive headlong into things. I highly recommend vacations, even short ones, specifically for this purpose.
The truth of the matter is that there are a million other things you "need to know" about running a small business (which I'm sure I'll get around to blogging about at some point!) but what it really boils down to is that it's a crazy, intense, rollercoaster of fun, stress, and good vibes.
All my luck to you in your small biz adventure!