5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Service Business
In an ideal world, we’d have all the time we needed to fully plan our ventures. We could cross all the Ts and dot all the Is before going full bore. The real world has no time for such careful planning, though. Oftentimes we have to launch our business before we’re completely ready.
For years I’d wanted to turn a hobby of mine, home repair, into a business that could help support my family. In my spare time I’d go over certain aspects of how I wanted the business to run, and those sessions got me excited. Problem was, moments of spare time came infrequently and were generally brief. When you and your husband both work 9-to-5 gigs and are raising small children, spare time comes in unpredictable and short bursts.
Seeing the mental, and even physical, toll my job was taking on me, my husband came to a resolution. We sat down late one month, and he told me that he wanted me to start the business. He’d take over the bulk of the child-rearing. I, in turn, would take some vacation time from work and put in long hours during those days I still had to go into the office. He then gave me a copy of Ready, Fire, Aim by Michael Masterson (and the The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman), and told me to get to work.
And so I did.
A month later, I had the beginnings of a business. A year later I was able to quit my day job and do home repair full-time. In that first year, though, I had to work through many frustrating moments. The Ready, Fire, Aim mentality allowed me to actually start the business I’d dreamed of for years, but it didn’t prepare me for the realities of business.
As the saying starts, “if I knew then what I know now.” Here’s how I would have operated just a little differently. While you might not aim to start a home repair company, these lessons apply pretty universally to service businesses.
1. Prioritize finding lead sources
Service businesses are built on people. Without clients you have no business. Without leads, it becomes exceedingly difficult to find clients. What I didn’t want was to set up a web page and rope in clients through Google searches and other internet marketing methods. I wanted this to be a local business in the traditional sense — to this day I don’t have an actual website for the business, but rather a blog that acts as a business card.
Because there were so many traditional business aspects to consider, I didn’t work on generating leads until after that trial month had expired. Since I had built the framework for the business my husband was satisfied and I continued. But it took a long time to find that first client — it ended up being a friend of a friend.
Later I connected with my local chamber of commerce, and also with a number of realtors in the area. The former helped me forge connections, which sent me leads. The latter served as a great source of leads — people always need routine home improvements when they’re selling their houses. Had I thought about this more, I would have made lead generation my first priority. Without that, I had nothing but a business plan.
2. Pick an accounting system early
During my month of business planning, I didn’t pay much heed to accounting. Since I was starting small I figured I could just as easily use a spreadsheet and be done with it. Oh boy did that turn out to be a mistake. By using a mere spreadsheet, I failed to prepare for growth. When I did eventually grow, I found that accounting became one of my business’s most difficult aspects. Transitioning to real accounting software was a process that had me burning the candle at both ends.
After researching the market I settled on software for small business by QuickBooks, because it offered a complete suite of exactly the software I needed (including TurboTax, a springtime lifesaver). I can access the data from any computer with an internet connection, so I can check the books at any time. It also allows my accountant (described below) to access the system without having to come into the office. After installing and using this software I really smacked myself for not doing something like this earlier.
3. Incorporate before taking a client
While the ready, fire, aim method allowed me to jumpstart a business that had been lingering in my mind for years, it also enticed me to take some shortcuts. One of those shortcuts was incorporation. Since I was working solo, I didn’t feel incorporation was necessary, at least at the start. After doing some cursory research, I registered as a DBA. That came back to bite me in the bottom a few months later, when I started contracting a few additional workers.
Chances are you don’t have the time or expertise to file your own incorporation paperwork. Thankfully, there are businesses that will do it for you. Since each state has its own incorporation guidelines, the service you choose will vary by state. Registering as an LLC works well enough, and the fees are usually reasonable. You’ll have to pay the company on top of the state fees, but that’s typically a small portion of the overall payment. Just make sure you do this first. Otherwise you’ll be like me, someone who had to wait on incorporation papers to clear before hiring someone.
4. Work only during working hours
By reputation, entrepreneurs work long hours. There’s always something that needs doing, and entrepreneurs feel the responsibility to do it themselves. I didn’t understand this at first, coming from a traditional 9-to-5 background. But within the first few months I found myself working with every spare minute the good Lord gave me. My husband had allowed for that during the month it took to set up the business. Since he also came from a 9-to-5 background, he did not understand my compulsion to work on the business with all of my spare time.
While a startup is your baby, it simply cannot take all of your time and attention — especially if you’re raising a family. After my husband noted that I wasn’t spending any time with him and the kids, I took a step back. Setting working hours was the biggest step towards liberating myself from the business. Whatever needed doing could wait until I returned to work the next day. The result was a much better home life, which put me in a great mood to work each day.
5. Outsourcing can be valuable
To repeat for emphasis, entrepreneurs are the ultimate DIYers. Perhaps that comes out in me to an even greater degree, because my business was built off a DIY mentality. Unfortunately, the DIY mentality takes you only so far in business. Entrepreneurs should be focused on the highest level tasks only. That’s where they’re needed the most. For smaller tasks, outsourcing is the key. For startups, outsourcing can mean something far different than the mainstream definition.
Most startup founders need an assistant, but assistants cost money that the business might not have. Taking a page out of Tim Ferriss’s book, I settled on a virtual assistant. It felt odd at first to work with someone remotely, but after a month it became second nature. I also outsourced my accounting to a contractor who came in twice a month to balance the books. I have even outsourced the job of answering the phones to a few local college kids; it’s easier than ever now to route calls to different numbers at different times.
All of these services cost me a little money, but they’ve paid off enormously. They have freed up much of my time, and it turns out that my time is much more valuable than I had originally thought. Not only does it mean more time with my family, on which you cannot put a price, but it also allows me to focus on top-level priorities that help grow the business.
Thankfully, none of these early gaffes ruined my business. Some of them, particularly the incorporation issue, delayed projects I wanted to start. But I got lucky, I think. Any one of these issues could have buried me before I had a chance to succeed. I urge anyone aiming to start a service business to pay mind to these five aspects I’ve described. I imagine that many businesses have failed prematurely because of one of them.