As a newly founded business, it’s so exciting to start seeing income from your services! Maybe you’re working with “real” paying clients for the first time… or maybe you finally quit the nine-to-five and filed your paperwork to start your business. Maybe you’ve been doing all of that for a few months, or even a year… but you know there’s still work to do in legitimizing your brand.
Today I’m covering a few of the things you must have if you want to look professional in this industry. The earlier you can check these items off your list, the better!
These tips are especially helpful if you’re in those early stages of business—when you’re transitioning from free or discounted work for friends into services for paying clients. Emerging designers often ask me about this: how to start charging for their work, especially among friends and family who have previously received free or discounted services.
Establishing a certain level of professionalism in your business is a great way to make that leap. A professional email address, invoicing system, and contract set the expectation for a professional client relationship.
Presentation matters. Part of appealing to a high-end market is presenting yourself as a polished and professional business. If you want to book quality clients, you need to present a quality experience. It legitimizes your business to both clients and industry peers.
So with that in mind, let’s dive into these top 5 essential things you need to make your business look professional:
01. A professional email address.
I’m just going to be transparent about this one: a Gmail address does not look as professional as a custom domain. If you want to appear professional, it’s time to upgrade to a professional email address.
If I receive an email from someone with a Gmail address, I generally assume they are not very established in their business yet. That’s fine—it’s totally okay to be new and growing. But it does convey a message that you are in an early season of business. If you’re ready to present yourself as a more established professional, it’s time to get an email address with your own domain name.
It’s easy to grab a custom-domain email address through G-Suite ($6 per month). You can also set this up through your current hosting provider.
02. A professional invoicing system.
Running a business means collecting money for your services. Sending invoices shouldn’t be a pain point—for you or the client! This part of the process should be smooth and professional for both parties. I love Honeybook for easy invoicing; additional options include Dubsado or Tave.
When you’re just starting out, it can feel a bit uncomfortable to request money for your services (especially if you were previously doing work for friends for free)… but I think a professional invoice actually makes it easier to accept money.
An invoice makes it clear that you are a legitimate business providing legitimate services (not just a friend asking for money). It takes the emotion out of the equation, setting a professional tone. This should be a seamless process—so the client can easily submit payment in the form of your choice.
On the backend, invoices are essential for bookkeeping. You should accept all income in one place, with detailed invoices for your records.
You should not be accepting money for your business on Venmo; it feels too informal, and it is not an accurate record of invoice numbers for your bookkeeping. PayPal is okay when you start out, but in general it does not provide enough protection for small business owners; it allows a client to dispute any transaction and receive a refund without your consent.
03. A good contract.
If you are in a service-based industry, you absolutely need a contract to operate your business. This will serve a few purposes: 1) a good contract will protect you and your client in the event of a worst-case scenario. 2) A good contract will set clear expectations for working together, including healthy boundaries.
Sending a contract is not cold or condemnatory toward your clients in any way; rather, a contract is a healthy way to establish professional expectations for the project.
Honeybook includes free generic contracts in their platform; this can be a great starting point. I highly recommend something a bit more detailed and tailored: The Creative Law Shop is my trusted resource for reliable business contracts. (you can use my code for 10% off: SARAHANNDESIGN10)
04. A professional headshot.
As a small business owner, it’s important to show your face so clients can get to know you better. You need a headshot—and it shouldn’t be an iPhone photo snapped by a friend.
Get a professional headshot that you can put on your website, social media, and / or email signature. I recommend looking straight to camera: eye contact is powerful, even through a screen.
When you’re able to invest in a full brand photoshoot, I highly recommend it! Bookmark this post to help you capture brand photos that will add impact to your website design.
Our industry is FULL of talented photographers who can help you with this… reach out to one of them! Invest in your fellow creative entrepreneurs. If you can’t make a financial investment right now, see if one of your connections is open to a trade of services.
05. A consistent brand.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased here… but I truly believe in the importance of presenting yourself well. Part of that presentation is your brand: the first impression to potential clients.
Even if you are not able to invest in a custom brand at this stage of your business, you can still develop style and cohesion. Consistency goes a long way! Try to implement the same fonts, colors, and style of imagery with as much consistency as possible.
Your logo should be present at every touchpoint: website design, email signatures, invoices. Consistency helps build brand recognition and professionalism across every step of your client experience.
Implementing each of these things will help you will legitimize your business and create a professional client experience. If you are lacking in any of these areas, I challenge you to take a first step toward changing that this week. Your business will thank you for it!