The 10 Golden Rules to Building a Better Client-Based Business

Declan Wilson

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The most ironic thing about leaving my full-time job is that on the very day that I left, I sold my first web development project to a client.

“This is too easy,” I naively thought to myself.

Things were easy, at first. Together we built and launched a really cool membership website, we lined up future projects, I even signed them onto a monthly retainer. Everything was gumdrops and rainbows until…

January 2, 2018. I received “the call”.

As soon as I saw the phone ring, I just knew. Their business was running out of money and would have to shut down our projects. That’s when the reality of running a client-based business hit me.

If I wanted to survive the ruthless and unforgiving landscape of entrepreneurship, I needed to live and die by a new set of rules.

Since that fateful call, I’ve pieced together for myself 10 lessons — or Golden Rules if I can be so bold to call them — that have helped me run a profitable client-based web development business.

The rules are divided equally between your client and your own success.

For your client’s success:
1.) Efficient communication (fast and organized)
2.) Keep long-term goals in scope
3.) Set realistic expectations
4.) Stick to deadlines
5.) They’re the boss, but you’re the manager

For your own success:
6.) Get paid
7.) Get it in writing
8.) Strive for boundaries, not balance
9.) Work on the business (not just in it)
10.) Don’t work with people you don’t like

Are these Golden Rules on par with the 10 Commandments? Probably not, but they are definitely in the same conversation. Let’s look at each one individually and cover why they are important to your business.

The 5 Golden Rules for Your Client’s Success

What’s the biggest difference between a customer and a client?

There are many differences but I’ll focus on one: Clients consistently pay you to relieve their unique pain points, customers do not.

A customer may buy your online course on how to grow an urban vegetable garden, but they wouldn’t pay you to plan, organize, and manage one.

That’s where clients come into play. A client is somebody who is busy with something much bigger (like building their own business) and requires someone to plug in and help them hit their goals.

In other words, your job as a client-based business is to step in and save your client time and effort by solving problems with your unique skill set. Here is how you do just that.

Golden Rule #1 — Stick to efficient communication

Efficient doesn’t mean replying to every message within an hour. The timeliness of your response depends on your line of work, however, efficient communication is a combination of a few factors.

  • Frequency —How often does your client want to hear from you? They’re busy too and probably don’t want to be bombarded with messages but they probably don’t want to be left in the dark either. Find a good balance.
  • Medium — What format does your client want to receive? Texting is ideal for small, quick requests or updates. Email is preferable for in-depth analysis, but sometimes a phone call beats both.
  • Clarity — Is the purpose of your communication clear? If you need your client to take action, make sure it’s spelled out. If you need information from them, make sure it’s obvious.

I have a few general rules with my clients. They are all aware I respond within 24 hours if they reach out to me. Instead of sending multiple messages with different action items, I will combine and summarize them in an email.

Most of the time, I will send an email with an accompanying Loom. Loom is a nifty little screen sharing tool that allows you to record you and your screen. I find it’s much easier to get my point across in a 2-minute Loom than writing a lengthy email.

Golden Rule #2— Always keep your client’s long-term goals in focus

My friend has a successful client-based business and when I asked him how he does it he said this:

“I find out what my client's long term goals are and I make sure every month I get them one step closer.”

Sure, your client might want you to build a website for them, but why do they need a website in the first place? How does it fit into their ultimate plan?

Understanding your client’s dreams, desires, and overall business is the key to ensuring your necessity as a freelancer. Remember, the goal isn’t to become just another business expense. The goal is to become an integral part of your client’s business.

In practical terms, when I send out my invoices, I don’t just send a bill. I use it as a monthly recap of the work we performed and goals we hit as well as plans for the upcoming month. It keeps both myself and the clients focused on the bigger picture.

Golden Rule #3— Set realistic expectations

I don’t like the whole over promise and over deliver advice that’s generally dolled out by gurus. It’s unattainable and a recipe for burnout.

Life happens. And the moment you over promise and under deliver is not a moment you want to find yourself in your career.

Here’s a common expectation that’s often not met: timelines.

When a new client asks how long a project will take to finish, it’s tempting to look at the deliverables and imagine a best-case scenario such as:

  • The client promptly supplies you with everything you need for the work on your end
  • The client doesn’t want to add additional features half-way through the project
  • The client has no questions, requires no training, nor has any follow up requests once you hand over the deliverables
  • You aren’t distracted by 100 other things in your business and can focus on just this one project

Set realistic expectations with how long something will take to complete. If something is above your level of expertise, be realistic about it.

Stay consistent. Promise what you can deliver and deliver it.

Golden Rule #4 — Set deadlines (even if they are arbitrary)

The thing you’re working on for your client probably isn’t their entire business, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Therefore, they are most likely to become distracted by other things.

If you want the project to move along, it’s important to set deadlines — even arbitrary ones — and enforce said deadlines.

No matter the scope, your project will probably take longer than you expect because of all the unforeseen situations (see Golden Rule #3). However, notice the difference between the following statements:

  • I’ll have the staging site built and ready for a demo on July 2nd so please send over a sample course file for me to test the uploader by June 30th at the latest
  • I’m almost finished with the staging site and should be ready for a demo within the next few days. Send over the sample course file when you can.

Can you guess which freelancer will finish their project sooner? (aka get paid quicker)

Don’t hedge. Set deadlines throughout the project and do your darndest to stick to them. Yes, you might just be a freelancer, but be the freelancer who acts like a project manager and keep the project moving forward.

Golden Rule #5 — They’re the boss, but you’re the manager

Maybe you’re a graphic designer and all you do is create graphics for a few clients.

The client pays you to create graphics. But what if they didn’t have to think about graphics? What if instead of waiting for them to ask for more graphics, you proactively delivered them?

That’s where you separate your business from all the rest.

If you can find a way to manage every aspect of your output and anticipate your clients’ needs, you’ll have yourself a successful business.

It’s tempting to see the client as your boss (and in reality they are). Instead, change the dynamic by trying to see yourself as their manager and acting like it. You set the pace and they follow.

The 5 Golden Rules for Your Own Success

So far we’ve covered the five Golden Rules to ensure your client’s success. Now let’s look at you and your business.

First, ask yourself what kind of business do you actually want? I have a friend who has run his own client-based business for the past three years. He makes a butt-load of money but admittingly hates it.

The next five golden rules are dependent on what type of business you want: one that is profitable but sucks up most of your time or one that makes good money and provides you with adequate work-life balance.

I lean towards the latter, however, these rules are applicable to all situations.

Golden Rule #6 — Get paid

The last thing you want to do after finishing a long project is to chase down a client for payment. If you want to run a successful client-based business then you need to get paid on time.

There are other more in-depth articles out there to help with small business invoicing, but generally, you should follow a few guidelines:

  • Set shorter payment terms (7–14 days is becoming the new normal)
  • Use an invoicing tool to help with sending automated payment reminders
  • Spread out payments for longer projects (25% upfront, 25% halfway, 50% upon completion)
  • Don’t procrastinate, send out your invoices as soon as possible

These tips are great and all for short term success, but if you truly want to change your client-based business for the better, consider adopting the ol’ razor and blades business model.

It works like this: Start with a simple project for a client. Upon completion of the project, aim to convert your skills into an on-going service for the client and sign them as a retainer.

Projects may bill more, but retainers are the life-blood of a client-based business.

Golden Rule #7 — Get it in writing

Before doing any work with a client, get it in writing.

When I was first starting out, I was always nervous to send over a project agreement to new clients. I wanted to seem like the cool, laid back kind of entrepreneur. Hey, we agreed to it in an email, isn’t that good enough? I used to think.

Do yourself a favor and at the very least sign a project agreement before offering your services. Hopefully, you’ll never need to use it in a court of law, but it’s nice going into a project knowing your butt is covered.

Since I design websites for my business, I use this non-legalese project agreement template.

Depending on your business you might want to look around for other options. However, any agreement should cover the following:

  • Scope of the project
  • Cost and payments
  • Timelines
  • Deliverables
  • Dispute resolutions
  • Limitation of liability

Finally, once you have everything together, send over the documents for your client to digitally sign. Docusign has a free version you can use but they like to keep it on the DL.

P.S. — I’m not a lawyer so please don’t take this as legal advice but rather general advice.

Golden Rule #8 — Strive for boundaries, not balance

For those who are experiencing work-from-home mandates for the first time, creating balance between work and life is tricky. It’s especially tricky when you’re building your own client-based business and want to uphold a few standards of professionalism.

I left my full-time cubicle job in 2017 because I wanted to build my own business from the comfort of my own home and spend more time with my kid (now kids).

I’ve learned that work-life balance is unattainable. There will be an overlap between your professional and personal lives. The goal is to make sure they don’t overlap too much, or what I call setting work-life boundaries.

  • Create physical boundaries within your home as to where you work
  • Create time boundaries in your schedule between work and life and protect them
  • Create mental boundaries to ensure you leave “work at work”
  • Create distraction boundaries by turning off notifications when you work (actually, just always turn off your notifications)
  • Create communication boundaries with clients (ie. times of the day you are not available)

You might already subconsciously set similar boundaries but it’s extremely helpful to sit down and purposefully implement them.

Golden Rule #9 — Work on the business, not just in it

As a client-based business, the majority of the time your “work” will be doing whatever your client needs.

But don’t forget you have your own business to run. This means managing the boring admin stuff like paying taxes and sending invoices but also the important stuff too, namely, finding new clients.

Even if you have a healthy Rolodex of clients at your disposal, marketing your business is still vital. The marketplace is not stable ground, no matter how stable it may seem.

Therefore, without running Facebook ads or cold calling in the middle of the day, keep the following practices in mind.

  • As for testimonials from past and current clients
  • Have single-source hub for your business — aka a website (I’ve written extensively before on how to create a proper small-biz website)
  • At the very least, create written content to showcase your expertise
  • After finishing a project, ask for referrals from your clients (offer a referral bonus to incentivize them)

It's easy to become distracted by your clients’ needs, but remember to service your business as well.

Golden Rule #10 — Don’t work with people you don’t like

I’ve saved the best Golden Rule for last. Allow me to illustrate its importance with a true story that happened to me.

Shortly after losing my only two clients early in my new business (I hadn’t quite followed rule #9), I desperately needed to find new projects. Someone I knew recommended a small business owner who was looking for “basic” web design work.

Perfect, I thought. I scheduled an introductory phone call to hear what they needed. On the outside, everything checked out. Except for a nagging feeling — something didn’t feel right.

Because I was desperate for new business, I took the project. And thus began the worst client-relationship I’ve ever experienced.

At one point they told me, and I quote, “Put the baby down and get your head in the game!” The baby was of course my newborn son, as I was also juggling my new responsibilities as a stay-at-home parent.

I should have listened to my gut. For some reason, I knew I would not enjoy working with this person and it cost me. After we cut ties “amicably” I was terrified to take on new business. Mentally, I haven’t been the same.

Now when I take on new clients I look for the following signs.

  • Desperation — Are they looking for too much?
  • Unrealistic Expectations — Are they looking for too much too soon?
  • Financial issues — “I was thinking I can pay you after this thing takes off” or “We can split the commissions” is never a good sign.
  • Bad attitude/personality —Bad vibes make for bad clients
  • Overconfidence — What are they hiding?

In other words, don’t work with people you don’t like. The money isn’t worth it.

Now go forth and be better

There’s no need to overcomplicate things. All 10 golden rules can be summarized by one premise: do the small things well.

If you don’t have a client-based business, I encourage you to build one simply for the learning experience.

If you have a client-based business, focus on the small things and be better.

Good luck out there.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD
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