In 2008, I juggled four paid jobs while developing a business plan to create a career doing what I love: photography and writing. At one point, I worked full time as a features reporter for a local newspaper while growing a portrait business and clocking hours at two local retailers in the evenings. I’d conduct interviews and work on article drafts between portrait appointments, then at 5 p.m., head over to the local pet store or photo lab to work another few hours.
On the weekends, I tackled entry-level freelance writing projects that paid pennies to get my name out there and build the foundation for the self-employed career I dreamed of having someday. It was grueling, but I knew I’d eventually be ready to make my side business my full-time endeavor.
During those hectic years, I gained the necessary skills to put together a viable business plan and eventually launch and grow my own business. You can, too. Here’s what you should focus on ASAP:
Create a Solid Foundation
Developing a business plan sounds a little old school when you hear about friends launching new startups every few weeks. But how many of them will still be running those businesses 10 or 20 years later? If you want to succeed, you need to map out your plan of action. I kept a Word file on my computer, which I’d add to after looking at other business plans online and in reference books. I was always refining and diversifying my potential revenue streams and adjusting my timelines to be realistic.
A business plan is a growing, living document. You don’t just type one up in a weekend to take out a small business loan, then tuck the plan in a desk drawer. Even now, I still take time each fall to review my business plan and create goals for the upcoming year. Did I reach my financial projections? Do I want to increase those for the next year? How can I work fewer hours and make more money? Were my marketing methods successful? Did the business grow as anticipated? I spend hours refining my business every single year.
Build up Savings
When you launch a small business, income trickles in. You won’t see a steady, reliable income until you grow a customer base and subsequent ongoing business. For me, it took about two years to make enough to consider my business earnings as a paltry, beginner full-time income.
I remember visiting with a work friend during a slow morning at the office and whispering to her I just landed an ongoing freelance writing client who offered projects paying more than my hourly rate at the newspaper. I was over-the-moon excited. I knew I’d be writing on my own — full time — soon. All the hustle and long days would finally prove worth it.
Whether you’re juggling multiple jobs like me or launching your business without a day job, you need to tuck away extra money to fill in the gaps. I found it easiest to put unexpected money in this account, including tax refunds and cash gifts from the holidays. A key part of your business plan is a projected income statement and how you can supplement that with savings or another revenue stream, such as a day job (or two, or three), spouse’s income or a small business startup loan.
Increase Your Business Knowledge
As you work toward a launch date, learn as much as you can about your industry and running a business. I focused too much on improving my writing and photography skills when I should have spent more time learning how to market my services, create enticing deals and nurture repeat customers.
But, I was proactive. I spent countless weekends at small business seminars hosted by the Iowa Department of Revenue at a local college. I learned about self-employment tax reporting, applying for retail sales tax permits and various types of accounting methods to keep my financial records in line for my annual visit with the bookkeeper.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the product or service you’re offering. Don’t forget to also polish your business operating skills.
Learn About Competitors
Keep your eye on the prize: You need to know what and who is out there trying to capture the attention of your potential customers. Your business plan should include a list of competitors. I used to take notes about what they did well for inspiration. I’d look at their websites, direct mail offers and what they were up to on social media. I tried to improve upon what I saw and then customize my offerings.
This summer, I’ll celebrate eight years as a full-time freelancer. Each year, my income has grown. My journey has required unwavering dedication, support from my family and more trial and error than I care to admit. Start developing a business plan today if you want to work the job of your dreams tomorrow.