The Art of Business: Nine Simple Rules for Sustaining Success

By Eric J. Adams

What separates a successful creative professional from a not-so-successful one? More often than not it’s business savvy rather than native talent. Whether you go it solo or run a small firm — even if you work within a department of a large corporation — it makes sense to reconsider these rules, as simple as they are effective.

1. Deliver as promised. Running a business means having to make lots of promises. Sustaining a business means keeping those promises. Make promises carefully and keep them always, even if it means a loss of margin or time. Word travels quickly when you fail to keep your promise. Your reputation is your greatest business asset. Protect it at all costs.

2. Devise a game plan and stick with it. A Web development job here, an identity job there, waiting for the phone to ring — if you’re conducting business reactively, it’s time to get proactive. A game plan starts by defining your strategic position. What is it that differentiates you from others and makes your services worthwhile? To determine a strategic position consider how you can capitalize on recent industry trends and developments, competitive opportunities and openings, changes brought about by new technologies, and most importantly your strengths and interests. Next, turn these advantages into a strong marketing message that’s clear, precise, and repeatable in your sleep.

3. Cuddle your current clients. If you haven’t heard it a million times by now, it’s worth repeating: Your current clients are the best source of new work. Maybe your client has a project on the back burner or a project percolating for which she doesn’t realize you’re qualified. Don’t be afraid to ask what other projects are in the pipeline. I like this line: “What other design or marketing challenges are you struggling with?”

Current clients are also great for alerting you to other in-house projects in faraway departments. Don’t wait for an invitation. Ask if there might be colleagues in the company who could benefit from your services. Finally, your current clients can help you locate work outside of the company if you’re bold enough to ask for outside referrals.

4. Market incessantly. Creating a marketing plan is the easy part, making that first cold call is the difficult part. Here’s the good news; If your marketing plan is filled with relationship-building opportunities and exercises, there is no cold calling. It’s all warm calling to potential clients whom you’ve already had the pleasure of making acquaintance with at seminars, conferences and classes, friends, colleagues, clients.

5. Mind your cash flow (in and out). According to the Small Business Administration, more businesses fail from cash flow problems than any other reason. Make sure that money keeps coming in clearly by stating payment terms in all contracts, staggering payments through the course of the project, billing promptly, and staying on top of your accounts receivables. Never let an invoice go unpaid for more than 30 days without at least one telephone call or e-mail, 45 days without a few phone calls and e-mails, and 60 days without sending out the Light Brigade. The protocol is particularly important on jobs for which you’ve shelled out cash for vendor services. Cash flow is a two-headed monster. Purchase strategically, spend wisely, and negotiate well.

6. Value your talent. The tendency in difficult economic times, or when just starting out in business, is to negotiate your way into a contract via concession after concession. While competitive bids are important, it does little good to slash your fees now. For one, rarely will you be able to renegotiate significantly higher fees later with this client, and secondly you may find yourself booked up with low-paying work when a sweet job rolls in. Establish your absolute minimum; take jobs for less only when they offer a clear strategic advantage, like an entry into a new industry or an opportunity to expand your skills in an area that makes sense for you and your company.

7. Subcontract for value not cost. Printers, Web developers, prepress shops — there’s always someone somewhere who is willing to take on a subcontracting jobs at significantly reduced rates. It’s an attractive proposition; you charge your client for premium subcontract work and you pay with less-than premium dollars, pocketing the difference. But unless you’ve rounded up a rare talent, the strategy had the great potential to backfire, leaving you with less-than-superior final product, a workflow nightmare, and unforeseeable headache that will never be worth the money you save. Find a good deal? Take it as long as it’s understood that quality is never negotiable. Otherwise, subcontract for expertise or expediency.

8. Partner strategically. Many professionals enter into partnerships to reduce workload or for camaraderie. Good reasons, but not reason enough to enter into an informal or formal strategic relationship. You want someone who is willing to work as hard as you and has a proven track record. That special someone should have business, creative or technical strengths that complement, not mimic, yours. Many a superb friendship has been ruined in partnership. If your partner ends up being a drain, you will suffer emotionally and financially and run the risk of losing clients — perhaps to your former partner. Do your due diligence on your potential partner just as you would on any investment in your future.

9. Practice the fundamentals. There’s a reason they’re called the fundamentals. It’s because they truly are: professional work habits, excellent customer service, best face forward, win-win partnering, appropriate use of time and technology for each project, answering the phone, responding quickly to e-mails, rectifying errors with a smile. They’re fundamental and they work.