The pace of work is dying down as we head into Christmas - I'm still chasing some case study material, but some of those I need to speak to have already clocked off for the festive season and won't be seen again at the end of a business phone line 'til 2010.
Like many, I'll be very glad when 2009 is over. Too many people have been far too euphemistic when describing this year's business performance. I won't: for me, right up to November, 2009 was pretty disastrous. My fee income dropped by almost half; projects that were slated never happened and others were slimmed down considerably from their original scope.
My business is now almost 10 years old but by about July, it was on life-support. I was offered, and very nearly accepted, a full-time role, but couldn't quite bring myself to throw in the towel. I'm glad I didn't. the 'role' became a project that kick-started some other activity, and while September-October were still pretty grim, the first signs of recovery reappeared in November and have carried on into this month. Clients I hadn't heard from all year reappeared, and the kind of projects that simply weren't happening in the first half of the year have just started to be talked about again.
The pipeline for January isn't great - but clients are making the right noises about some new projects, and I've had a couple of interesting conversations this month about potential link-ups with other small businesses in the New Year.
2010 has to be better than 2009 - quite simply for this micro-business because it couldn't get any worse!
So what have I learned in 2009? First, never again will I turn down any work. Since I started Leapfrog in 2000, I've had the luxury of being able to pick and choose the projects I've worked on. For much of the time, work has come to me and even when the pipeline has looked particularly thin, something's always turned up. Often I've been able to pass work on to associates or bring them in to work on projects under the Leapfrog banner.
At the start of 2009 I turned down a couple of projects I didn't feel were quite right for me on the expectation that I was about to start on a large piece of change work. That change work didn't come off, and the clients for the other pieces sourced the work elsewhere. Work for the next six months was either linear or non-existent. I filled the gap with working hard on my MA - and that resulted in a Distinction - but that should have been secondary to keeping my business going, not some kind of a justification for turning down work.
Second, for all the hype around social media, much of my best work has been around face-to-face communication. The lesson for me is that social media gives us new tools to get people talking, but they replace neither the existing communication toolkit nor the outcome-delivering-content we should be focused on.
I've worked with a couple of organisations battling to stay afloat this year. What has worked for them is having a clear set of values and beliefs; strong leadership and an ability to listen, learn and respond quickly. Some of the new social media tools have helped widen the involvement of the organisations in riding out the economic storm. But nothing has replaced the benefit that comes from a Board director putting the miles in on the motorway network to get around their branches and offices and spend high quality time with their people, talking through the issues the business faces and coming up with ways forward that everyone can own.
Social media will grow and evolve. It may well become a crucial part of the communications mix for many - but it's not a panacea.
My final lesson this year has been finding out who my friends are - the clients, suppliers and fellow independents who've been prepared to help keep me in business this year - and the few who've been oblivious to the plight of microbusinesses. On the plus side, I'm heartily grateful to my accountant for delaying his invoice; to my book keeper for dropping her fee; to the agency which paid ahead of terms and to fellow freelancers who put leads my way. I've less time for the couple of corporates which moved their payment terms out to 60+ days - and were still late paying; to the largeish agency which suddenly adopted a 'pay-when-paid' policy (after agreeing to my T&Cs) and still won't pay and to the other agencies that just stopped talking - I can think of three that haven't even been bothered to reply to emails for the last six months. I know times are tough for everyone, but for communication businesses to stop communicating is a pretty poor show.
It has pained me that I haven't been able to put out work to other people this year, and it has pained me more to see good people disappear from our industry. I hope 2010 will be better for us all.