Scale Up Your Service Business

Building up a service business can be tricky. These tips can help you gain clients and increase your profits.
August 24, 2012

It’s a good problem to have. You’ve built your business to the point that it’s thriving. Now it’s time to think bigger and find ways to “scale” it up.

But if you happen to run a service business that’s heavily dependent on labor-intensive custom jobs—whether you’re involved in marketing or Web development—taking that next step isn’t as easy as it sounds. You may have to think creatively to take your business to the next level.

Here are some ideas from entrepreneurs who are scaling their own businesses.

Rethink your brand name. Sure, you’re the brains behind the business, as well as its heart and soul, but if you’ve named the company for yourself, that can work against you. For one thing, clients may feel they’re getting short shrift if it’s not you, but rather one of your employees, who works directly with them on projects. Looking ahead, it can be hard to sell a firm that is heavily associated with one owner. (There are notable exceptions of course, as in fashion design and motivational speaking.)

Caroline Ceniza-Levine and her partner, Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, avoided associating their brand too closely with themselves by not using their own names when coming up with a moniker for their New York City career coaching firm. “We didn’t want to have a Martha Stewart problem,” Ceniza-Levine jokes. They called it Six Figure Start in keeping with the fact that it initially targeted early-career professionals. And though they’ve since branched out to helping professionals who are deeper into their careers, the name still carries the right connotations. The brand is now associated with “former Fortune 500 recruiters who are going to give you the inside track,” says Ceniza-Levine. The six-figure part attracts the attention of clients seeking jobs with substantial salaries.

Hire outside help. The explosion of inexpensive digital technologies has made it easier for microbusinesses to reach a bigger audience than ever before—but typically if you’re going to expand your offerings in a service business, you won’t be able to do all of the work with your existing team. “You can only make so much money selling your individual time,” says John Paul Engel, founder of Knowledge Capital Consulting in Sioux City, Iowa. Engel has found that hiring a freelance programmer and graphic designer and building a markup for their services into his fees has given him the ability to tackle much bigger projects than he could in the past.

Analyze a client's potential. When considering new jobs, don’t just evaluate the pay involved. Look at whether that customer will help you meet new clients. Engel has found that producing a newsletter for one organization has given him exposure to all of that group’s members. “Every one of them is a potential source of other business,” he says.

Earn more from the work you’re already doing. Rather than focusing on writing business reports for individual clients, which he once did intensively, Engel shifted his focus to more general-interest reports that can be sold to multiple clients in a given industry. “Every time we sell a report, it’s scalable, like a book is scalable,” he says.

Finding ways to package and re-sell knowledge-based products—whether it’s an ebook on the marketing strategies you recommend or a DVD on your best career coaching strategies—can be a great, and lucrative, way to reach a broader audience. And you only have to create the product once.

What creative ways have you scaled your business?

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist and editorial consultant who specializes in small business, entrepreneurship and careers. A former editor at Fortune Small Business magazine, she has written recently for Fortune, Money, Crain’s New York Business, Working Mother and many other publications. She is co-founder of $200KFreelancer, a community for freelance professionals, and, for homeowners looking to sell.