This past year, news about the economy has been a mixed bag for the hard-working American middle-class. On one hand, the DOW reached its highest in history at 18000 points while the House of Representatives refused to pass the minimum wage increase bill. The employment rate has been growing at a slow but steady pace and consumers’ confidence in on the climb.
If you are a small business owner like me or you are just starting one, trends have been a little better. According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the “Optimism Index” has almost risen to historical levels before the Great Recession, which means entrepreneurs are hopeful that two developments will take place: the business conditions will improve and their sales will increase in the next six months.
So now that the recession is not a justification for failure or low business performance, you got to play ball. It is time to start solidifying your finances and weeding out old habits replacing them with new and productive ones. After all, the end of the year is the time to think of “New Year’s Resolutions.” Why not make them all about growing your business and personal finances?
Here are some tips that have served me well through the years. I did not change my old behaviors in a day or two but I wanted to share these thoughts to see if you find them familiar:
- Stop doing the same thing expecting your finances will change. If your business is not growing at all or as much as you would like it to, sit down and think in terms of the big picture. What are you doing that is preventing you from acquiring economic power and growing your business to the next level? What are your financial goals and how can you improve your enterprise and your personal life? What have been the main problems or mishaps in your business in the last three years? Make a fearless inventory of your activity and put it in writing. After all, taking a good look at your problems is the first step to find solutions.
- Stop refusing to manage your life in numbers. Oh, I was great at that! I was a “concept woman” with great ideas and little regards for my finances. I used to think that if I had the next creative idea, did a good job and worked hard, money and recognition were going to follow. Well, it doesn’t happen that way. Every project, every idea and every business decision has to have a set of numbers attached to it in order to plan and create the financial environment for success. Don’t be afraid of thinking in terms of money. Your work has two values attached to it: one is the good it does; the other is the money it makes –which in turn helps you do more good if you so choose to. Unless you are volunteering your work, both have to grow together to produce results.
- Value your work in a dollar amount. When we start a new business or a new project, we tend to disregard the value of our work in terms of numbers. How much is the time you spend and expertise you apply in setting up your business worth? Do you know how much is your hour of work worth? I discussed this issue once with one business owner I was mentoring. I suggested she joined a professional association but she felt that paying a membership was too much money to invest– in an organization that would have provided her contacts, peer discussions, resources, etc. However, she was spending hours and days of work in trying marketing strategies that were unsuccessful. When we figured out how much those hours were worth in terms of a dollar amount, she realized that the price of the membership was pennies compared to the time invested in unproductive hours. Come up with a dollar value for your hour of work and make a note of how much money you invested in your business at the end of each week and compare it with results –sales, revenues, etc. Give it some time and then evaluate if what you are doing is producing results or you have to try something else.
- Good credit is your starting point and your only hope. Managing your credit is one main issue that will assist you in achieving economic empowerment. I cannot stress enough the importance of having good credit. It can mean the life or death of your business –and your personal finances. Unfortunately, we live in a society that regulates our lives with the “money stick” and if we want to play, we need to play by the rules. Monitor your personal and business credit as closely as your accounting. You can request a free annual copy to each of the credit bureaus and see if there are mistakes or errors to be fixed that are lowering your scores or affecting your credit. You can then work with the bureau to fix those errors –not a complicated process; it just takes time and persistence.
- Promise half, charge double. I learned this lesson way back when I started my translation side-business. In the eagerness of getting the contract, I used to promise the world to attract new clients –low rates and short turnarounds without charging extra. There were two problems though –and lessons to be learned. First, clients looking for a cheap translation –or work of any sort– are not loyal to your service but loyal to their budget. They constantly shop around for low price without giving quality a consideration. Second, maybe I could deliver what I had promised if the job solely depended on my skills but if I had to hire a copyeditor, they did not necessarily lived by my rules and I would end losing money or giving the job away. Charge the right price according to the quality of your work, and let the client ask for discounts without volunteering them up front. There is always time for negotiation and you would be surprised how good clients agree to your price and conditions once they respect your work.
- Plan ahead and save. When money is short, it is hard to think of saving it. As with any diet, sooner or later a person will feel deprived of the food they crave so they might go on a binge. Haven’t taken a vacation for a long time? Your car visits to the shop got more frequent? Is your computer ready for retirement? Before disaster hits –or you feel you cannot take it anymore– and blast your credit cards, plan ahead. You won’t believe the power of small automatic payments to a savings account; $50 every two weeks –the value of a dinner out– can land you $1200 at the end of the year without much pain. Can you save more? Better yet. Open a savings account for each goal and set up payments you can afford with your goals in mind –one might be $50 bi-weekly and the other $40 monthly depending on time of need. There is a great sense of accomplishment and little pain in saving small amounts of money and you pay cash for your goods with no interest!
- Get rid of high yield credit cards and loans. This is difficult to do but not impossible. High interest rate credit cards are easy to get and hard to pay. When you need to access capital or consolidate your debt, shop around. Easy to get loans usually charge the highest interest out there. Check cooperatives and small community banks, they have small business programs that might help you with a more personal service, more flexible conditions and lower interest rates. If you have extended debt and cannot consolidate it, then make a list of all credit cards starting with the highest interest rates to the lowest. Make higher payments to the top of the list first and cut the card with scissors. Continue with the second and third. Beware of services that help you negotiate credit cards –check if they are reputable but keep in mind that even if they help you, your credit score will be affected.
- Educate yourself as much as you can. Learn from others, read as much as you can even if you do not seem to grasp much at first. Do not dismiss the value of self-education. Attend seminars and participate in all activities at your professional association or chamber of commerce. There is a wealth of resources –usually offered for free– at your disposal. Read industry magazines and digital publications and follow the news. Isolation does not provide any good advice; on the opposite, it prevents you from understanding the conditions surrounding your business and what you need to do in order to keep it going.
- Make a list of goals you’d like to happen in your business. Do you want to increase your sales/revenue? How can you decrease cost and expenses? Do you need to raise prices or improve your margins? Do you have extended debt at high interest rate? You need to improve your cash flow or plan for certain payments at certain times of year? Be specific and be detailed. Write down one by one and analyze what you can do to fulfill each one. Brain storming is a good way to go; do not dismiss any ideas even if they seem to be “out of the box.” Many times, that is exactly the kind of ideas you need!
- Set your goals for 2015 in writing. Better yet, tell them to someone you trust, discuss them with this person and verify if they are realistic, especially those related to your business. Realistic does not mean you cannot have high expectations for your business or yourself; it simply means you need the right strategies for whatever you attempt to accomplish.
If you are a business owner or an aspiring one, keep in mind that discipline is the key to success. Yes, owning a business gives you some freedom –for me, especially, having control over my time and my life is essential. However, it doesn’t mean I have little discipline. Control means I can plan my day to achieve my goals in a way that is suitable for me, my interests, my energy levels, etc. I was never a 9 to 5 person –although I did it for many years– but my biorhythm does not follow the regular corporate schedule. So you might find me writing or preparing work at 10 o’clock at night when phones are not ringing and Twitter is calmer. I also like to travel so I expanded my business to several states and had the opportunity to visit many places. Thirdly, I like to make my own decisions, which can be difficult at times, but I have learned to handle the risk by surrounding myself with people I can trust and to whom I can ask for advice.
At a business presentation I recently attended, the speaker –a businessman who has made several million dollars in his trade– said something that caught my attention, and I paraphrase: “The color of opportunity, access and justice in America is not white or black or brown or yellow; it is green.” I believe his words were aiming at the center of the problem. We can only build opportunities for ourselves, our families and our children, when we become financially solid and independent. Let’s work together, then, to make 2015 the year of economic empowerment.