2020 – the year that no-one will ever forget, even though most would like to.

Some birthdays can be like that too, bringing back not-so-good memories of the previous year. But even with the shitty parts of a year, which almost everyone on the planet has endured this year, birthdays are still a celebration of the good stuff that life offers. And in a year like this, a lot comes down to an attitude and approach to things you can change, as well as those you can’t.

This was something I was keenly reminded of a few weeks ago when my son turned nine, at the same time as my business turned six. Despite a global pandemic that has brought the world to its knees, this tiny microscopic virus was no weapon against his excitement and anticipation of the big day. He celebrated like every nine year old should, from daily countdowns to tearing open his gifts, choosing his favourite take away (luckily restaurants still serving take away food during Victoria’s stage 4 lockdown) and zoom birthday calls with friends and family. There was so much that he COULD do, and every ounce of his energy was on exactly that, rather than what he was missing.

His palpable excitement was pretty contagious and exactly what I needed as I reflected on my sixth year business birthday that occurred at the same time as he was turning nine. For it reminded me that no matter what, I have full control over how I choose to react to situations. Birthdays are somehow an automatic time for reflection,  and so, as I have done when my FoodBytes business turned one, two, three, four and five, I reflect and remember the moments that made the past year what it was and ten lessons from the sixth year of running my own business. Despite the world being turned upside down, this sixth birthday was certainly unforgettable in all the right ways. And if a nine year old can choose to focus on the good things in life, then I sure can too.

1. Just wait!

Every small business owner knows that opportunities don’t come knocking, they have to be hunted out. However, even the best hunter needs to be patient, sit still and let the universe’s plan unfold. About 11 months ago, just after my business turned five, I lost one of my bread and butter retainer clients. It wasn’t a bad relationship break up, but rather that the value I had previously provided was no longer needed due to changes in the business structure. I immediately decided I better get a job to replace the lost revenue and secure a guaranteed income. I signed up with recruiters, started prowling LinkedIn ads and patiently waited for the phone to ring. Little did I realise how competitive the job market actually was, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I know my desire was not to go back to being a payroll employee, and all I was trying to do was plug a revenue gap in my business turnover. Fast forward just a couple of months and my consulting work became busier than ever. In fact, this past 12 months has by far been my most financially lucrative year since starting my business six years ago. Now this may not be the case next year and I can’t be 100% sure that I will never get a job in the future as my needs and goals may change. But when I look back, I know my decision to get a job was based on fear rather than strategic career planning, and my biggest lesson from this experience is to make sure that emotions are not in the driver’s seat when it comes to change. It’s so important to allow enough time to let new changes settle down. So my new motto….”just wait!”

2. The altruistic freebie

As a new graduate dietitian I did a LOT of stuff for free. From writing articles to attending trade shows and everything in between. These days I am far less generous with my free time, yet I believe there is always a time and place to do things for free. The key is to know how to be free in a selfish way (or to make it sound more enticing – an altruistic way). So that means doing stuff for free that will repay you in other ways. A few months ago I wrote an article for a digital publication and following the article publication, a dietitian contacted me to enquire about my services to help them create a digital business asset (something I had written about in the article). Another time I was interviewed for a retail podcast which led to a cold call by a brand who contracted me to develop recipes for their products. There are also many other examples where I have provided my time and expertise for free and it has not led directly to a paid contract. But that’s not the point. The point is to see doing something for free as a marketing investment in your own business. Too often small business owners only associate marketing with paid activities such as Google search or printed brochures. Just like any marketing activity, you are not going to be 100% sure which provide the best return on investment, so you need to learn from experience and invest your time wisely. How do you know whether or not to do something for free? I suggest keeping three things in mind. First, volunteer to do things that you feel good about. Second, volunteer to do things that will be learning experiences and help you develop professionally. Third, don’t volunteer in a way that makes you somebody’s sucker. So don’t volunteer to do things that won’t add to your skill set, won’t increase your value, or won’t be appreciated.

3. Hourly rate vs total cost

I have written about money in almost every birthday blog post as it is a critical element of any small business. This year I want to share my learnings on the pros and cons of providing a fixed cost verses an hourly breakdown. I have done both and in my experience, it is almost always better to provide a fixed project fee. Most of my clients want to know the total investment required to receive a specific service. It is up to me to determine the fee based on my hourly rate and a best guestimate as to how long the project will take, but that is information clients don’t usually want or need. On occasion I have provided a breakdown of each service and this is when I often get push back on hourly rates or number of hours. Unfortunately, fees in the nutrition consulting industry are not standardised and there can be a big discrepancy between service providers. However, like many things in life you get what you pay for. Whether or not I quote in hourly rates or fixed fees, something I keep reminding myself is that if I do a job in one hour, it’s because I have spent 20 years learning how to do that job in one hour. So a client is actually paying me for the years, not just the one hour.

4. Never leave loose strings untied

Like many consultants, I have lost count of the hundreds of times I have been contacted to pitch or quote for a job that hasn’t converted into a paid opportunity. But I have not had a single instance when I did not follow up. I have a simple strategy where I diarise a note for myself to follow up in an appropriate and timely manner depending on the situation (sometimes the follow up could be within a few days, other times weeks or even months). What surprises me is the number of small business owners that don’t do this. I use a few contractors to provide services to my business and there have been many times where I have received a quote for a service and then not heard another peep from that particular contractor, nor any follow up to see if I want to go ahead. Sometimes a busy client just needs a simple reminder and they will sign off on a job. Other times you may follow up and never heard anything more. But without trying, how would you ever know?

5. Do the hard yards wherever possible

In the ideal world, a client provides a detailed brief, outlining everything from project objectives to time frames, available budget, reference materials, etc. But if there is one thing 2020 has taught us more so than any other year, is to prepare for every eventuality. Busy clients don’t have time to write detailed briefs. I have a client who will brief me by organising a meeting where they rattle off what they want and I furiously take notes. I then invest the time to create a reverse brief, which I send to them for approval. Yes this takes extra work and time before they sign off (with no guarantees that will happen), but I see my job as making things as easy as possible for my clients, and if that means writing the brief myself, so be it. You can’t just expect things to fall into your lap, you have to create it yourself most of the time.

6. Go the extra mile

There is certainly nothing wrong (in fact I would encourage it) in requesting extra budget when project scope has definitely been exceeded beyond what was agreed. However, I strongly advise discretion in charging for small amounts of extra work as doing a little bit more will pay you back in leaps and bounds, and almost always guarantee future work. This past year especially, I have found going that extra mile has meant so much to businesses and especially the humans that work there, when things have been so tough with COVID. Whether that is making a small adjustment to a nutrition panel on a recipe and not charging, or offering to write extra content for free when I have had spare time, my clients have appreciated these genuine offers in so many ways. Plus, you know what they say about kindness, it makes the giver feel good about themselves too!

7. Know someone’s name

Towards the end of 2019, I welcomed a big new client to the FoodBytes client database of food companies. After a couple of video calls with the client, they flew me to Sydney to present to the broader team. Prior to the meeting, I looked up all meeting attendees on LinkedIn to match their name to their face and get a better understanding of their role within the organization. When I walked into that meeting, I was able to address each of them directly using their name, and also relate the information I presented in the context of their different roles. So do your research before you meet new clients as a personal attention goes a long way.

8. Read the fine print

Non-disclosure agreements and legal jargon contracts are a mandatory part of consulting gigs. But even the boring legal stuff needs attention, so you can be very clear on the rules of play. When COVID hit this year, one of my retainer clients called to say that due to the business going downhill (thanks COVID), they had to terminate my contract with immediate effect…as in that day! I was a bit shocked to discover there was zero notice period, and when I reviewed the signed contract, I realised that was the case and yet I had not been aware of that small, yet oh so significant, detail until it was too late. In hindsight I should have absolutely read the fine print and at least tried to negotiate a longer notice period. But we all know what they say about hindsight!

9. Network both ways

Networking is simply jargon for “meeting new people.” A professional network is like a bank – you need to make deposits before you can make withdrawals. This means allowing yourself to “be networked,” too. For me, this included two sets of mentorship programs I have been part of this year, working with two new graduate dietitians mentees to help them progress their career goals.  It also means making time for people who reach out for a chat or a coffee and paying it forward. Networking is sometimes the simple task of showing gratitude and respect. A colleague of mine recommended my services to a potential client. Even before I knew whether or not I had secured the client project, I reached out and said thanks for the referral. A simple thank-you can go a helluva long way.

10. Make friends, have fun and believe you can do this

Since I started FoodBytes six years ago, I have learned that you have to be real. For when you are real, people will gravitate to you for who you are and you will most certainly have fun whilst at work. Your reputation is your most valuable assets. You want to be the kind of person who makes people think, “Oh, she’s (or he’s) great! I’d love to work with her / him.” So be the person who is there when your client needs you and the person they can count on. Your clients will remember, and they’ll tell others.

Don’t let the pursuit of money or ideal visions of success block out other opportunities to  enjoy life. Whether that be traveling, learning a musical instrument or any other worldly pursuit – spend your time doing things you’ll be talking about for years to come. You’ll also find that you get some of your best ideas when you give your brain a rest and do something else. I have always wished for some type of gadget that can capture my best ideas that occur when I am out running on a beautiful trail.

The utmost critical part of being successful at growing a small business is knowing you can do it. In some ways, if you don’t succeed, it will likely be either that you didn’t believe you could or you didn’t want it badly enough.