In the latest in a series of posts on going it alone Barry Adams of SEO consultancy Polemic Digital looks at one of the toughest issues faced by successful small businesses – how to scale up. You can find all of Barry’s other posts in the starting your own business series here.
It’s been just over a year since I decided to start out on my own, and nearly 10 months since I left my steady job to embark on this big adventure of self-employment. I’ve been very lucky it’s all been going really well – so much so that soon I’ll have to make some important decisions about scaling up the business.
So far I’ve been doing nearly all of the work myself. I like it that way because it means I get to keep all the money too. I’ve used a few third parties to do bits and pieces in areas where I’m not strong myself, but overall my outsourcing has been fairly limited.
In the past few months there have been a few times when I’ve been overwhelmed with the work I needed to get done. I’d simply taken on too much, and wasn’t able to deliver it all on time.
Increasingly these periods of high workload are becoming more frequent. It’s come to the point where I will have to reject new work in favour of getting existing client projects done. That’s not something I want to do, of course.
So it’s time to take a long term view and start planning for the next phase of my business. Several options are available to me:
The obvious solution is to outsource the work to other freelancers. While I’ve used some outsourcers here and there, this has all been for work that can easily be outsourced, such as content writing.
However, most of the work I get is the kind I don’t want to outsource; in-depth search engine optimisation (SEO) analysis and strategic planning. It’s important work that clients rely heavily on, so it needs to be top notch.
While I know a lot of great freelancers who could do such work to a high standard, I don’t feel comfortable outsourcing to external parties the client has never met. When I recommend a certain SEO strategy to a client, I need to fully endorse that approach. That’s not something I can do if someone else has put it together.
But at some stage I might have to do just that, if only to keep clients happy and deliver projects on time. It means I need to find a great talent in my industry that’s close to my level of expertise and capable of delivering the kinds of output I generate myself for my clients.
Fortunately I know quite a few people in the SEO industry (that’s where my networking efforts have come in handy), so I’m pretty confident I could find the right freelancers without too much hassle.
But most of these freelancers are based in mainland UK, which means the rates that they charge are often a notch or two above the prices I can charge here in Northern Ireland. This makes outsourcing these jobs financially unfeasible.
Another obvious next stage would be to simply start hiring staff. By recruiting the right talent I can bring fresh expertise and capabilities in to my business, and deliver more client projects to my own high standards.
Especially if my recurring outsource cost gets to such a level that it more than covers a salary, it would make financial sense to get bums in seats and become an employer.
Having said that, employing people is something I want to avoid as long as possible. Taking on staff and, in effect, becoming fully responsible for their income – their livelihood – is a major step. So many things will come in to play: proper HR procedures, company accounts, legal responsibilities, office space, etc.
Moreover, it also means relinquishing a great deal of the freedom I enjoy as a sole trader. I won’t have the luxury of picking my own clients and passing up on jobs I don’t have a good feeling about. I’ll have to keep the bottom line in mind with every business decision I make, because another person’s income depends on what I do and the work I can bring in.
The step from sole trader to employer is a huge one. Suffice to say it’s not something I’m hurrying to do. I’ll postpone it as long as I can, though I fully expect to have to take on that mantle at some stage. For now I’m quite happy with the sole trader situation where I only have to worry about myself.
A different option is to find another SEO expert in Northern Ireland and partner with them, offloading work to them that I can’t do myself and vice versa. Such a quasi-merger of two freelancers is an appealing option to me, as it allows expansion while maintaining high quality output.
If I find the right person, it also means I can also remedy one of the main drawbacks of working for myself: the lack of people around me to bounce ideas off of and discuss SEO tactics and trends with.
This option does rely heavily on finding that right person who is successful in their own right, but who also struggles with scaling their business, and is open to collaborating closely with another freelancer. It would have to be an equal partnership where neither is too reliant on the other for work, and where each has their own expertise and clientele to bring to the table. I would be keen on finding someone who is as passionate about SEO as I am and shares a lot of my views on entrepreneurship.
In theory such a partnership could in due time lead to a full merger, where the both of us combine in to one agency and then grow the business from there.
I haven’t found that person yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open. I think such a partnership is the ideal solution for the foreseeable future, allowing me to continue growing my business without having to worry too much about outsourcers and the potential of hiring employees.
For now I’m content to endure the odd period of stressful workload, because the benefits of staying a sole trader outweigh the benefits of taking the next step. But I’m an ambitious man, and sooner or later I’ll want to grow the business to a higher level, and I hope I’ll be able to make the right decision.
That’s why I feel it’s important to contemplate the possibilities early on, so that when the time comes to decide I’ll have given sufficient thought to all my options and their consequences.