I've recently been reading a new book called Company of One by Paul Jarvis and it explains some of the same ideas that I've been using for my business. He's a one-man-band as well. He earns enough money to allow him to live a comfortable life whilst ensuring that he also doesn't work too much. He also enjoys spending time away from work and because he has set up his company to allow him the free time to do it, he can.
Paul and I share many of the same reasons for setting up our businesses the way that we have. We also appear to share the same way of thinking in terms of working less, enjoying life more and ensuring we have more time away from work than we do at it.
Starting and managing a business is hard work but how am I able to run 10 businesses at once, on my own? I don't have any employees although I do outsource some work to freelancers from time to time. I don't have an office and to look at my business web sites, nobody would know that it's just me beavering away behind the scenes. I am able to manage more than most because of automation and efficiency savings, things that I set up when I first went self-employed and others which I've developed since understanding how the real world of business works.
I'm going to explain some of the systems I have in place that ensure I'm not wasting time on routine tasks but first, why 10 businesses and not just one?
I wrote this back in 2015 and I still believe that have more businesses is better than having just one. I'm not suggesting starting 10 businesses, or even two, at the same time is a good idea but once you have one up-and-running then why not start another? It keeps things fresh and exciting for you. We all know the feeling of being stuck in a job or working on a project and then losing interest. I certainly don't want the same feelings towards my own business. There any many good reasons for working for myself and I do not want to lose all of those benefits because of boredom. Having more than one thing to work on allows you to bounce between businesses and work on different things depending on your mood.
Another reason is that with additional, varied income streams you also provide yourself with some security. If one market starts to dip then income from other sources will maintain you until things pick up again. You're not putting all of your eggs in one basket, you are spreading the risk.
I am currently operating on 10 businesses which fall into four categories:
- Web site design - I run six web site design companies. Why six? They differ in the geographical areas that they target and the market (price range) of customers that each appeals to. Four of them I started myself and two others I purchased from others who wanted to move on to other things
- Hosting - I have a web hosting business which focusses purely on hosting sites and not building them. Most of the customers for this business were purchased from other hosting companies who were closing down
- E-commerce - I run two online shops. These are drop shipping businesses which means I do not need to stock any items myself and therefore I can operate them from anywhere in the world. Having physical stock ties you to one location
- Booking site - I'm creating an accommodation booking site which will allow B&B, hotel and guesthouse owners to advertise their properties for free - think AirB&B but without the large booking fees that the owners have to pay
Most of the businesses are very similar. Having six businesses that do the same thing (web design) makes life much easier, the only real difference with them is what the customer is charged.
Software and Automation
I use a piece of help desk software that provides me with an overall view of what jobs need to be done for each business yet from a customer point-of-view, they would never know that one business was related to another. Customers see branding for the business that they are a customer of - logo, telephone number, e-mail address, web site address etc. There's nothing that they can do to see that business A is also part of the same group as business B.
For me though, it means that everything is in one place. It's manageable because when I log in, I can see the jobs that I need to do each day. My to-do list isn't spread over 10 different systems, it's on one screen right in front of me. This is important for many reasons. The obvious one is organisation, it allows me to know what needs doing and when. Another reason is peace of mind.
I have made the mistake in the past of making it too easy for customers to get in touch with me. Like other companies I had set it up so that customers could contact me by phone, e-mail, text message, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter...
Whilst that made it really easy for the customer, it made things awful for me. I was constantly switching between apps to see if there was more work to do. Having everything in one place makes things a lot easier for me.
Now, back to the help desk system... Each time a customer e-mails in, a new job (ticket) is created in the software and it immediately jumps to the top of my list. That way if it's, for example, an order from one of my drop shipping sites, which has to be processed quickly, I can deal with it immediately. If it's something less urgent, I can change the due date to a more suitable time.
Previously tickets were just marked 'unread' when a customer replied and this meant I was constantly scrolling up and down, and through multiple pages of jobs to see which tickets needed my attention. By automatically having new or replied to tickets jump to the top of my list, I can see with a quick glance if there's any work that I need to do today.
Most of my businesses have telephone numbers that customers can use to get in touch. Because I like to work in different places or just ditch work and go out for the day, I need a phone system that can work for me.
All of my numbers are VOIP numbers. This allows me to direct all calls to the landline at my house. The landline phone is programmed with each of the business numbers and so using called ID, when someone phones the number for Business A, 'Business A' comes up on the display. This is crucial because you need to know which business the customer is calling - for no other reason than if it is a new customer, you need to know what you are going to charge them. If you're like me and have six businesses all doing the same thing (web design) but the prices vary considerably, you need to know how much to quote for your services.
My phone system also comes with an app for my phone which uses GPS to detect my location. Normally all calls are routed to the house phone but as soon as the app notices that I am out of the house, it automatically redirects all of the numbers to my mobile. This means that I can head out without worrying that a customer is trying to get in touch with me. It also means that I can just drop everything and leave the house without having to manually reroute all of my numbers. When I first set up my phone system I did not use the automatic redirection and I quickly became tired of constantly having to change the settings to route calls depending on my location.
A basic one but still worth mentioning. I have all of my e-mail accounts set up on my laptop which is my work computer. I also have the same e-mail accounts set up on my phone, too. This means that I can pick up messages anywhere I am without having to pull out my laptop each time. Because the accounts are set up as IMAP accounts it means they are synchronised so any time I receive an e-mail it is delivered on my laptop and my phone, each time I delete a message from my phone, it is removed from my laptop and visa-versa. I realise most people use IMAP accounts now but I still come across plenty of people who don't know the difference between POP and IMAP. IMAP is far superior to POP so I cannot think of a single reason why anyone would still use it.
Each business has its own invoicing software. Payments can be made to each business via PayPal, credit / debit cards or Direct Debit. In each case, there are accounts set up for each business meaning I currently have ten PayPal accounts, ten card processing accounts etc.
Having a different invoicing system for each business is a pain and something which I would like to resolve. Ideally I would like one piece of software which can have sub-accounts which can be branded for each business. As yet, I haven't found anything.
The only common part of the finance systems is that they all pay money into one bank account. Banks charge for each account and managing ten different ones would be a nightmare. Instead what I've done is set up one account with HSBC because they allow you to add multiple trading names to your account.
For the web design and hosting businesses there are usually recurring costs to customers. This means that I generate a lot of invoices each month and without an automated system, I would quickly become lost at sea with the shear volume of them. Instead I use QuickFile which allows me to set up recurring invoices. The software then automatically generates the invoices each month and e-mails them to customers. I've linked each QuickFile account (one for each business) to its own PayPal account and Stripe account. This means that once the payment gateway detects that a payment has been made, it marks off the invoice for me.
This saves me a lot of time generating invoice, chasing payments and then manually telling the system that a payment has been received.
The system also sends reminders automatically if a customer has not made a payment. Another useful bit of automation which saves me a lot of time.
Once a payment has been received, it is automatically deposited into my bank account.
Invest Where You Need To
I am determined, perhaps over zealous in keeping my business outgoings to the bear minimum. My fixed costs on each of my businesses are ridiculously low, some as low as less than £20 a month. My outgoings only increase (variable costs) as I get more customers. That said, I do invest in things when needed.
There is no point keeping your costs low just for the sake of it. There has to be a reason and likewise, if you need to spend money in some areas there should be a good reason for it.
Two areas where I have recently spent money are good examples of when and why investment can be worthwhile.
As my business has grown over the last six years, my hosting needs keep increasing. I started with a basic reseller hosting package at £20 a month. As I took on more customers, I moved up to a Virtual Private Server (VPS) which cost over £100 a month. I'm not hosting hundreds of sites and spends thousands of pounds a year on dedicated servers. Why? Because the previous services no longer fit my needs. My customers expect their web sites to run fast, they expect to have excellent spam filters and most of all, reliability.
I could easily spend a lot less each year on hosting, moving all of my sites over to a slower system without all of the safeguards built in but by spending a bit more, I have to work less. Why? Because I do not spend hours replying to e-mails from customers complaining about the service or troubleshooting issues. Instead, I pay a little more and it provides me with a lot more free time. The cost / benefit is obvious.
Another area which I've recently invested in is a new computer. My old one was slowing down and causing me more and more frustration. I hadn't realised quite how slow it was until I bought a new one and moved all of my files and software over. I'm now working much faster and getting more work done simply because I'm not being held back by a slow machine. Again, the investment was worthwhile because I am now able to complete my work much quicker so I'm saving myself hours each week. I'm not doing more work, just the same work at a faster speed.