I’ve finally been slowing down and taking a few minutes to look back on 2015, as the year’s end often has us do. I rather like the end of the year because it forces me to actually stop for five seconds and take stock of all of my accomplishments over the previous 365 days. I know I’m very good at meeting a goal and the immediately setting the next one without any fanfare of what I’ve accomplished. I think it’s just part of being an entrepreneur. We have to self-motivate so we tend to go overboard. (File that away for another post.)
Anyway, I thought I’d sit down and share with my peoples (whoever you are) where I ended the year with Top Left Creative, the decisions I made, the lessons I learned, and what I hope to accomplish in 2016.
2015 By the Numbers
Top Left Creative ended the year with $113,788.82 in revenue, just over 22 percent higher than 2014. I was able to pay myself a decent salary all year long and even funded an awesome trip to Disneyland with James and I. I am loving having myself on payroll (thanks Gusto!) so that I don’t have to worry about my own taxes and they automatically issue my contractor’s 1099s at the end of each year. The company’s net income is still hovering around the same, about $5,000, but that doesn’t bother me because a) we’re still profitable and b) we’re still having lots of growing pains.
Our average monthly revenue per client grew from $114 to $565 which is fantastic. One of my biggest goals for 2015 was to work with fewer, higher quality clients. We’re well on our way to making that a reality. Our client count actually dropped as we became more focused in our product offering and our ideal client. We started the year at around 35 clients and currently have 21.
I was able to pay $15,184 to our contractors. I feel great about this because one of my reasons for having this business is to help support the businesses and lives of the people we care about.
2015 By the Team
2015 was definitely a year of hellos and a few good-byes as far as team goes. I started the year out solo as my one part-time employee Mikey left in December to take a full-time job with one of his freelancing clients. Because work was getting beyond my being able to handle it all, I started out by hiring a freelance writer, Sarah, who could help me with the many copywriting duties I had. I also added Phillip and RJ to the team on a freelance basis, taking over our web design and web development needs, respectively. I’ve hired Jeremy for some amazing photography work for a client, and I’ve also worked a little bit with Chris on some graphic design. All of these people have been instrumental in helping me simply stay caught up with everything. You definitely pay more for freelance contractors than employees, but they’re high quality, quick to startup, and they get shit done.
One of my biggest realizations of 2015 is that I’m a team player. I don’t necessarily need to be constantly collaborating, but having another person to bounce ideas off of and share in the duties and frustrations can really make a difference. It’s almost like being single vs. having a significant other. For the better part of the year, I was really struggling to figure out if I should find a co-founder, hire an employee, or keep going it alone—I was just tired of going it alone.
Because I’m also big in getting to know the people I work with, Sarah and I often talked about what she wanted to do with her freelancing career and what she was looking for in the long-term. In December, it became very apparent that Sarah was not only skilled in much more than just copywriting, but also was eager to contribute more to TLC and have more of an impact on the business. So we decided to take her from freelancing to a part-time employee just a few weeks ago. It’s very exciting to have another team member who’s not only invested in what we’re doing but also is there to bounce ideas off of and share in the woes of everyday business.
I guess I share all of this because it was so hard for me to finally get to this place. I didn’t have oodles of money to go out and hire someone full-time right away. I’m self-funding this entire business on revenue alone, so the company has to grow as revenue grows. It’s slow and it takes time, but that’s ok. I’d rather do it right than overextend and see everything come crashing down.
2015 By the Decisions
There were a number of big decisions in 2015 that definitely changed the course of Top Left Creative (for the good). First, we got very clear about who we are and what we offer. We were previously offering lots of things to lots of people for lots of different prices. This led to us feeling like every time we got a new client, we were starting from scratch, building a custom plan for them, quoting custom pricing, etc. I was officially over it. I want a systematized, repeatable business model where our clients know what to expect and we know what to do. So instead of having 20 different products and services, we now only have three. Each one has a specific purpose, follows a specific system and plan, and has allowed us to become much better (and faster) at what we do. We’re definitely still learning what works and what doesn’t, but we at least have a foundation to build upon and a system to refine.
The next big decision is that we got very clear about who we were offering our products to. Most of this grew out of a frustration with not always getting what we needed from our clients and having them fail to see that they needed to be part of the process, not apart from it. Much of what we do involves social media, and since social media is, well, social, we can’t help customers who don’t help themselves—especially busy, overtaxed ones.
So now when we’re vetting potential new clients, we have a good idea right from the start if our partnership will get results or not. We know our clients succeed best when they have a team or at least an assistant. They are usually boutique or independent agents/originators/offices who are producing at a high level but want to boost their production using new, online marketing methods. They’re reasonable, good communicators, are in it for the long-haul, and don’t expect results overnight.
2015 By the Lessons
Boy did I learn a lot this last year. Having three mastermind groups really forces you to think outside of your comfort zone and own your own bullshit and failures (thanks everyone).
I learned that things don’t happen overnight. Even once you’ve finally made a decision to move in a better direction, it still takes time to bring that into full force.
I learned that even when you make a decision, you’ll still second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixtieth guess yourself about whether you made the right one or not. The best thing to do is to push forward with it, give it some time, and then re-evaluate.
I learned that there are many ways to feel part of a team and involved with other people without actually having a team. Masterminds, groups of friends, co-working buddies, and contractors are all people you should lean on for support, advice, and collaboration.
I learned that I need to treat my business like a customer. Because a business only grows when its pipeline is continually fed. No new customers = no growth. You must make time every day for your own business. (By the way, I’m horrible at the execution on this, but I have learned it’s true. This will be my number one 2016 goal.)
I learned (and practiced) that it’s ok to not accept clients who aren’t a good fit, and it’s also ok to let clients go who are no longer working. In November, we retired some old products we were offering and essentially fired 15 clients at once. It was very scary (and a little liberating) and we’ve already more than made up that revenue with new clients who fit our new business model much better.
What 2016 Holds
My biggest goals for 2016 are to start taking a more active role in growing the business with new customers so that I can feed more work to Sarah and hopefully another employee or two. A big part of this will be content creation for TLC. It’s hard to practice what you preach to your clients for your own company, but it is critical to success.
I also want to continue to work and refine our three products, making sure that the offerings are in line with the needs of our clients and that they produced trackable and repeatable results. I want to be able to tell our clients that this much money and this much effort will result in this much business. This is a difficult thing to do when once the client fills out a lead form, the request goes offline and you can no longer track it all the way to closing. It takes lots of communication with the client to get it right.
It’s challenging being a business owner. The buck stops here. If something doesn’t get done, it’s you. Sure you can set your own hours, but those hours are long and tiring. But there’s also a lot of great stuff too. You get to work with great people, do work you love, and help grow businesses. I’m excited to kick some ass in 2016.