Small Business Blues - How to get through the slow beginning
November 20, 2011 2:55 PM   Subscribe

Advice for getting through the suckiness of the first several months or even year or two of starting a new business?

In the past 6 months I started two new businesses. The first business is to market myself as an independent contractor to other law firms/attorneys and I've been doing well enough to pay my bills and then some. But the second business is my own solo law practice, and I feel like I'm in a very long tunnel with possibly no light at the other end. The economy is crap especially where I live and it seems to take forever to develop a "presence" either online or offline among the dozens of other law firms. On the other hand, it's always been my dream to have my own firm, to choose the clients I want to help, etc. Plus the older lawyers will, at some point, die right? And someone needs to take their place. ;)

How have other small business owners gotten through the rough beginnings? Did you feel like it was going nowhere and how did you decide to keep pushing on or to quit?
posted by KimikoPi to Work & Money (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I have been there. I'm a few months shy of the six year anniversary of starting my own small firm. I started with just myself; now I have four employees (I've had more than four at various times in the past).

I look back at the early years and really shudder at how hard it was; I don't think I realized exactly how hard I was working in those early years. The hardest part was having to learn, pretty much on my own, everything. But it got better. It's still really hard but I do feel like an expert in my field, and I show up at work everyday feeling competent to handle everything that comes up.

Here are things that I think helped me get the firm on solid ground:
(1) not skimping on technology. I spent a lot of money early on, purchasing practice management software that I still use. I got a bulk mail license for advertising and a good postal metering setup. I bought a decent copier and fax machine. I spent many thousands of dollars on this stuff when money was tight, but it was very worth it.
(2) I hired a receptionist as early as I could. A good receptionist adds to the professionalism of your firm, frees you up to practice law, and keeps you organized. It was well worth it.
(3) I was pretty aggressive in introducing myself to attorneys at court, and wasn't shy about asking for help from attorneys who were relative strangers. I made many good friends that way, and those attorneys have become a professional network who have helped me avoid costly mistakes over the years.
(4) I did a lot of reading on the nuts and bolts of law practice management, trial practice, etc. I became able to self-educate myself and be more resourceful.
(5) I was really quick to "go where the money is." I can't emphasize the importance of this enough. As you develop your practice, if you're alert you will see opportunities to make money that were not immediately apparent. Be always alert for them and seize them.
(5) Focus on a specific area as quickly as you can, because being a generalist is far harder and more stressful than being a specialist.
(6) Don't think twice about turning down difficult clients or cases. Insist on a decent fee. Don't be afraid to talk frankly about money; you have to as a solo practitioner.
(7) Show up for work. Don't leave early. Working regular work hours does something good for your practice. The solos I know whose practices fail tend to be ones who enjoy the freedom of self employment a bit too much and knocked off early or came in late. If you're doing it right, self employment is a hell of a lot harder than working for someone else, and the hours are worse. For me, the overall autonomy that I enjoy makes it worthwhile.

If you keep working, it will all come together and get a lot better after a couple of years.
posted by jayder at 3:32 PM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

god, google adwords is everything--I have a national practice, so it helps. but really that just brings the clients in.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:37 PM on November 20, 2011

Remember every day that no matter how hard it is, it is infinity times better than working for the hateful corporation with hateful people and soul crushing everything. You get to make your own hours (even if they are 14 hour days 7 days a week at first). You get to decide which projects you take on (be discriminating even in the beginning). You have the potential to make a lot more money solo than you ever would have at a salaried job where you get paid a fixed rate no matter how many extra hours you work. You're accountable only to yourself and every success is far more enjoyable when you have done it all on your own.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:10 PM on November 20, 2011

You have to have a business plan, and follow it, although of course it has to be flexible.
posted by theora55 at 4:19 PM on November 20, 2011

I'm just past year two myself, and jayder's comments look useful. I'm a patent attorney, so I already had a fairly specific focus area; if you follow up with your area of law, you may get more targeted advice. For example, I got absolutely nothing from Google AdWords or Avvo. It could be that I didn't use them correctly (or long enough), but whatever the case, they were worthless. Fortunately, my business has now grown to the point that brand-new contacts aren't critical -- most of my new clients are referred by someone I've worked for in the past.

The first year was lean and scary, but things have picked up enough so that I spent a fair amount of time this year with my accountant, figuring out how to take advantage of the tax provisions the wealthy have purchased for themselves. That I can do that fills me with Montgomery-Burns-level glee.

I'm not sure you need a business plan -- I don't have one, and even now, I don't think I could write one that would be useful given the variability in my queue. You do, however, have to pay careful attention to work volume and deadlines -- don't fall into the trap of maxing out your own bandwidth before hiring or contracting help. New people won't work anywhere near as effectively as you can, so you'll have to have headroom available to manage them. If you don't, you'll lose cases, clients and/or reputation.

Good luck; as misanthropicsarah says, it's infinity times better than the alternatives.
posted by spacewrench at 4:53 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, not specific to a law firm, but to business generally: find a good accountant as early as possible and rely on him (her) for everything accounting- and tax return-related.

You want to focus on building your business, not dealing with reams of paper and arcane accounting issues or tax laws.

(This is true even if you're a tax attorney.)
posted by dfriedman at 5:02 PM on November 20, 2011

The one thing that kept me going is the fact that I really wanted it. I wanted it so much that I didn't notice the hours I put it. It was new, liberating, I got to make up company policy, I was always getting to figure stuff out, seo was fascinating (back in the day)...

It's the reasons you started this. Whatever yours may be. Keep them strong in your mind. Fantasize about the end result. Imagine how your business is going to be better and why. At the start all possibilities exist (and if they ever go away, you have to keep bringing them back). Stay focused on that. Let your mind imagine it every day.

Also, coming from the opposite view, imagine having to work for someone else forever. The shudder that thought causes should be enough to keep you going.

Don't look at it as creating a new business, but creating a new life for yourself.
posted by Vaike at 9:07 AM on November 21, 2011

I think you have to have a bit of blind faith that the business *will* eventually come. I switched from big firm practice to small firm practice, a small firm where my income was strictly based on my collections (i.e., no collections = no monthly check for me). It took about three years before I felt like I had enough of *my own* business to really support myself. Everyone kept telling me, hang in there, it will come, just by virtue of being in the community, the slow spread of my name through clients, etc. I had a lot of doubt. But sure enough, at some point I started getting more and more phone calls from people I hadn't heard of, who had heard of me through some other attorney or client.

Early on, I found it hard to turn down work that I probably should have turned down. Don't just take anything that walks in the door. Only very rarely did anything good come out of taking those cases that I had no interest in taking but "hey, its work, and any work is good for now." Difficult cases create unhappy clients no matter what you do. Also, don't take cases where the client can't realistically pay you, on the premise that you are at least "getting your name out." In my experience, clients who can't pay don't generate the referrals you want.

A great way to full up your time in these lean early days is to sharpen your expertise. Write for yourself a series of "how to" manuals. Pick some narrow topics you know little about and educate yourself. If you are pleased enough with your work product, you can parlay these into blog posts and market your expertise. Put together some canned presentations (like a CLE presentation) and find yourself a forum to address a target audience of clients. These are the sort of marketing things that you will have a lot more time for now since you have less paying work. I have yet to meet anyone in solo or small firm practice who said, "I wish I had done less marketing."
posted by chicxulub at 9:12 AM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

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