I am in awe of my clients. That’s why I chose to represent small business owners exclusively. Because I get jazzed talking to entrepreneurs. Because I adore talking about the issues and practicalities and triumphs and failures these small businesses encounter every single day.
Want to know why I love my clients? I learn more about business from my clients than I ever could from a continuing legal education class on business law. And there is plenty to learn. I’m getting a street-level MBA! Here’s some advice I’ve learned and am now passing on to you:
It’s a Numbers Game. My clients taught me that running the back office is just as important – if not more important – than being good at the job. You can always hire another technician to do the work product and provide service to customers, but someone has to take responsibility for operations behind the scenes. Payroll. HR. Accounting. Billing. Business Planning. Marketing. Those are the underpinnings of a successful business. Any successful business. Yes, you can hire someone who can handle the bookkeeping and accounting and even the marketing, but ultimately you are responsible for the numbers. I have a client that can quote to me, on an hourly basis, his restaurant’s cash flow. Money in and money out is the key to survival in any business.
Partner Wisely. My clients taught me how to pick my partners. I mean “partnership” in the loosest, least-legal sense of the word. My clients taught me that my “partners” include everyone who is involved in running my business. My assistant. My bookkeeper. My accountant. My IT guy. My answering service. They all have an impact on how well I am able to serve my clients. My clients have taught me not to “partner” with anyone who isn’t on the same page as me.
Don’t Wear Too Many Hats. My clients taught me that every business needs three people in management: a Visionary – the person with the ideas for making the business better; an Operations Manager – the person with the ability to keep things running day-to-day; and a Numbers Gal – the person who knows what the bottom line is and can manage to that. You can be any or all three of those people at different times. Note that none of those three is a technician- the person that cranks out work product for the client. These are the different roles of the business manager(s).
Know Your Strengths (and Weaknesses). They also taught me you have to know your strengths. You probably are not as capable at one or more of the managerial roles to wear all of the business manager’s hats. If you lack the knowledge, skill or desire to manage all aspects of your business, educate yourself or hire people who can fill those roles and let them manage you. I watched many small businesses fail because the owners insisted on absolute control, even when they knew they were not good at one of these fundamental roles. I watched many small businesses succeed because the owners were smart enough to get help when it was needed.
Get It In Writing. One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my clients is that, if you don’t have it in writing, you can’t do anything about it after the fact. I know – shocking that a lawyer would have to learn that lesson from her clients. Yes, of course they taught us about contracts in law school. But it does not really sink in until you have to tell someone that they have fundamentally screwed up their business – often permanently – by not getting an agreement in writing. I have seen many handshake deals go south. I have a client, a producer, who failed to get a copyright work-made-for-hire agreement in writing and, therefore, lost the right to distribute his movie. I had another client who had no way to prove her former business partner was not a 50/50 owner of the business because they never signed an agreement. Your handshake deals are only as good as the paper they are written on.
You Are Your Brand. I do trademark transactions all the time, so I thought I knew everything about the subject. Hah! I had much to learn. For example, my clients taught me that the “goodwill” that we talk about being invested in a trademark or brand comes from within your business. It’s corporate culture that dictates the level of service customers can expect and what price they will pay for your product. It’s the way you and your employees represent your business to the world. How you act at a networking event affects whether a business owner will hire you. Those things form the consumer perception of your business. In short, you (and your agents) are your brand. How people see you is how they see your business.
One client that stands out is a local wellness center that is involved in every networking group and chamber of commerce in town. The owners are great guys: fun, laid back, friendly. But when they are out representing their business at a networking function, they come across as caring and warm but passionate about their business and always 100% professional. Make that 110%. My goal is to make sure I conduct myself in such a way that my clients see me at least as 100% professional, too.
Don’t Expect the Competition to Give You Business. I used to spend a lot of time at lawyer-only functions. But my clients taught me that networking with potential clients and referral sources outside of the legal industry are a better way to build my practice. A wedding planner gets her business referrals from florists and photographers, not other wedding and event planners. Don’t hang out at industry functions to get business. Go where your clients are and spend your time there.
These are just a few of the things my clients have taught be through the years. Every day, I learn more and more, and as much as I can, I try to pay it forward. Nothing is more powerful than entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and strengthen their communities.
If you need help growing your small business, please contact Meehle Law today to schedule a consultation. We’ve love to help.
Carlos Carbonell, CEO, Echo Interaction Group
Rob Henlon, Fierce Entertainment
Michelle Widmer, Founder & Director of Events, The Empress Table
Rodney E. Luke, President, Luke Brothers Custom Homes