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What Have I Learnt from My Biggest Small Business Failure?

I’ve been running my own business for over 17 years, and I’ve had some awesome highs and some terrible lows.

Stellar successes along with failures that felt like hell at the time we were in their midst. I’m going to share one of these today and what we learnt from it. Interestingly, all our failures and losses in our business have shared one common element, so a learning from one, is a learning for all.

And just in case you think I’m a slow learner, that may be the case, but failures come in many forms with many discrete personalities, even if overall the theme is the same.

And what is that overarching theme? Communication. And a failure thereof.

The situation I want to share was the failure of a client to pay a $20,000 debt to our fledgeling marketing business. A debt which cost me another $10,000 to chase, was never recovered and took us probably 12 to18 months to recover from.

Here’s how it happened. We were running the marketing program for a client with a building product they had licensed to distribute in Australia. We had completed a marketing plan and sent our final invoice for that project and in the meantime had been engaged on a monthly retainer as the marketing manager for this business. Our payment terms were 30 days from invoice, and we delivered the first month of retainer when the first signs of trouble emerged. The client called and said they needed more time on the plan invoice, but not to worry, they were selling two franchises that month and would have more than enough cash flow to cover all our invoices the next month.

Being young business owners, we thought ok that’s fine and continued working. Now six weeks into our retainer agreement; still no payment. After working two months of our retainer agreement, now with three invoices outstanding and no payment, we were strung along for another two weeks, at which time I told the client we weren’t going to continue our work and sent a payment demand for the outstanding three invoices.

Long story short, they never paid; we chased ourselves for a while, then engaged a lawyer, who charged us $10,000 over two months for their time in chasing and it got into a tit for tat battle between two lawyers.

Apart from learning that no-one wins in a battle between lawyers, except the lawyer, my biggest lesson was to never let things go too long before handling them.

We’ve had communication issues with clients, we’ve had delayed payments, we’ve had staff problems, and any time I leave them too long, they end up costing even more time and money to handle.

Our successful actions in handling issues like this now include the following:

1. Credit checks.

We research new clients to find out if they have a bad history of not paying debts; any issues and we’re unlikely to take them on as a client in the first place.

2. 50% commencement invoices.

No work is done on any new client without a 50%-part payment being made.

3. Up-front conversations on payment terms.

We give clients leeway but urge them up front if they have problems in payments to let us know in advance. In which case we say we can always ‘pause’ our work until they get sorted, which is much nicer than having to ‘stop’ it and then fight over delayed payments; we know sometimes clients do get into cash flow issues.

4. Exposure.

We never let our business get into a situation where one client makes up more than 20% of our overall revenue. And if this does happen in the short term, we push our new business activities into high gear to solve it as soon as possible.

5. No lawyers.

Unless absolutely necessary, if we can’t get payment we don’t engage lawyers, we move on. With the above, we’ve usually minimised the amount due anyway, and additional costs chasing overdue money usually doesn’t result in success anyway.

I’ve also learnt to trust my gut and to communicate with clients anytime there is more than a three to four-day delay in payment of an invoice. Sometimes it’s a short-term issue, and they are open about it and get it paid, sometimes it’s an oversight. But if they start hedging or won’t return phone calls, I put a stop to work immediately.

Communication or lack of it is always a good indicator if the problem is minor and short-term, or something more serious.

Originally published on Smallville.

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