The enterprise SME

I love Google Adwords. Buying a few dozen keywords, writing a few headlines, a day’s monthly monitoring and optimising, and a monthly budget around £1000 brings in as much business as I can handle. Combined with business networking sites like Ecademy, I’ve got a list of great, interesting clients that have expanded my experience and kept me solvent since the day I arrived in London.

But Adwords is symptomatic of a much larger trend: the availability of enterprise-level solutions to tiny businesses like mine. Used smartly, these solutions let an individual execute work you’d have needed ten times the manpower for just a decade ago.

It starts with the web itself, of course; my work site brings in business from across Europe. PayPal is almost as good as taking credit cards; online banking gives me instant statements and a payments in/out mechanism, while the UK’s government portal – one of this government’s few well-executed ideas – lets me pay off VAT and taxes with ease, if not with enthusiasm. Still, it beats waiting at the post office.

Adwords gives me a footprint across the UK; I’m not limited to people passing by my front door. And I can analyse, chop and change those campaigns based on management information available instantly – marketing tools that few companies outside the fmcg sector use effectively.

Even desktop apps make a difference. Outlook and gmail let me schedule meetings and keep them scheduled, across the entire calendar; hundreds of little contracts between contacts that keep the sales pipeline stuffed and life connected and rewarding.

When working for clients (rather, the larger clients I’m attracting these days, instead of day-rated copy chasing) all I need to execute marketing plans like this is a CRM app like Salesforce.com. My ‘ideal’ client, an SME with a budget under £250K, gets a proper, quantified marketing cycle that’s concrete enough to make financial projections with.

Collaboration tools like basecamphq or the Corrobbo project I designed years ago let me manage a team without needing employees; the only gaps are in the relationships between people. (Almost any collabware will work if people just use it; the breakdowns in virtual teams are all due to poor co-operation between people who don’t have enough of a stake in each other.)

As a result of these enterprise tools being available to my one-man company, I’ve decided to change my business model.

Right now all my income comes from straight fees, a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Making me philosophically no different from the union man in the works canteen. I haven’t expanded because I don’t want employees, for reasons explained elsewhere. But it’s meant that – this financial year, which ends this month – I’ve hit the ceiling of what it’s reasonably possible to earn. Which means my next year’s target will be missed.

All’s not lost, because between my client roster and the freedoms of the web, a third way has opened up.

Here’s the lightbulb-over-the-head idea: my answer to the ‘people gaps’ – the delivery requirement that isn’t met by technology and is usually met by employing people – is to use my existing clients to deliver.

Within my client roster I’ve got all the resources of a full-service pan-media marketing agency: strategy, planning, design/write/code, even a call centre. People I know and trust, and who know and trust me. Some I’ve worked with for years. The sense of shared responsibility among these people is at least as great as in a team of employees. Everyone has a stake in the outcome – because we’ve got a stake in each other.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’ll take project management. And some hard rules. To make a profit this way I can’t tolerate wayward thinking, so all the outsourced tasks will need to be minutely-briefed and the expected outcomes crystal-clear. But that’s what I’m good at. Concepting, outlining, writing things up: all my core skills. But without the red tape of employment legislation to deal with.

So, the new business model. Starting Nov 1, I’m throwing out the day rate and executing an agreed marketing plan for a set annual budget. The goal: 5 clients with budgets around £100K. I’ve got the first and am talking to the second.

Onward.

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