B2B Lessons from 2020

Covid-19 forced all of us to change. Companies and employees who had resisted digital innovation suddenly had no choice. Some of the changes have created value and are worth keeping. Others not so much.

My company develops ecommerce systems for B2B merchants. What follows are pandemic-induced changes that, in my view, will likely become permanent. I’ve also listed a few painful B2B weaknesses that Covid has exposed.

Permanent Changes

Digital content is critical. This was shifting even before the pandemic. People are using online content rather than an in-person conversation. Even phone and virtual interactions are down in favor of digital self-service options. Companies in 2020 came up with new ways to build relationships, such as videos, articles, PDF guides, and other resources. Going forward, think about how a customer or prospect can interact with your company at midnight when no one is around.

More efficient processes. Doing more with less has become a higher priority. Tools that make key processes faster are essential, such as quickly answering customers’ questions, closing a sale, setting up an account, cost details, and shipping and arrival info.

Embracing online sales. For many of my B2B clients, ecommerce sales grew in 2020, even if off-line revenue was down. The pandemic demonstrated the value of digital transactions to organizations that were previously skeptical. Ecommerce is a benefit to a sales team, and last year proved it.

Ecommerce on a timeline. Many B2B ecommerce sites that had been held up due to an expansive scope got done quickly. Companies were forced to accept smaller, faster iterations and improvements.

New ways of communicating. In-person sales calls and trade shows turned out to not be as important as we thought. Our culture shifted as more people worked from home. We became used to seeing each other’s pets and being in each other’s homes. We were forced to re-examine our habits and notions of how things are.

New services or processes. An HVAC distributor, for example, can now offer dock-side pickup, similar to curb-side for retailers. Traditional B2B sellers have shifted to selling certain products directly to consumers. Manufacturers that once took complex orders only through a salesperson have created self-service digital ordering.

New skills. Many B2B companies shifted employees to digital-focused tasks. Experienced team members can offer valuable perspectives. Most are willing to learn new things to match the needs of the company.

Weaknesses

Challenging times can highlight our weaknesses. The pandemic did that for quite a few B2B merchants.

Outdated systems. In shifting to digital, some organizations found that their systems could not easily integrate. Examples are outdated administrative platforms or homegrown software for sales quotes. The digital transition requires a hard look at internal systems. Some will need to be updated.

Lost opportunity. Businesses with limited digital platforms suffered the most.

Culture turmoil. Many teams struggled because they weren’t prepared for or open to essential changes. Companies have learned the importance of a resilient, innovative, and adaptable culture. Employees who demonstrate an unwillingness to change are obstacles. Those who step up and lead are invaluable.

Unnecessary expenses. Some companies realized they were paying for outdated items that did not create value for the business or its customers.

2020 in Hindsight

Take the time to review how 2020 impacted your company. What lessons did you learn? What choices might you make going forward?

Dr. Squatch Scales to $100 Million with Natural Soaps for Men

In 2013 Jack Haldrup was reading “The Lean Startup” and pondering how to launch a business. He was seeking a niche based on personal experience versus market research.

“I had tried cold process soap, purchased at a farmer’s market,” he told me. “I really enjoyed it. I’ve always had sensitive skin and have been interested in those types of products. After using that soap, I thought there must be other guys like me who would enjoy it, too. So I decided to try to find those customers.”

Fast forward to 2021, and Dr. Squatch, Haldrup’s company, sells its own natural soaps and other grooming products for men. Revenue in 2020 was roughly $100 million, having exploded from $5 million just 18 months earlier.

How does a company grow from $5 million to $100 million in 18 months? I asked him that question and many more in our recent conversation.  The entire audio version of our discussion is below, followed by a transcript, which is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Dr. Squatch.

Jack Haldrup: We’re a men’s personal care brand. We focus on natural products for guys. Soap is our hero product. It’s what we started with, and it’s our biggest category. We’ve recently launched a deodorant that’s off to a good start. We try to create a product that is natural and formulated for men.

Bandholz: Folks might think that Dr. Squatch is a direct competitor to Beardbrand. But we’re side-by-side trying to take a chunk out of Procter & Gamble and all those mega-corporations.

Haldrup: Totally. There’s a lot to take there. The men’s grooming market is not as fragmented as other categories, including female-oriented products.

Bandholz: Take us back to the early days of Dr. Squatch. You’re essentially selling one of the most commoditized products.

Haldrup: I started the company in 2013. I’d been thinking about it for maybe six months before that. At the time I was reading “The Lean Startup.” I was looking to start in a niche related to my own personal experience. I certainly didn’t do market research and conclude that soap is a great category.

I had tried cold process soap, purchased at a farmer’s market. I really enjoyed it. I’ve always had sensitive skin and have been interested in those types of products. After using that soap, I thought there must be other guys like me who would enjoy it, too. So I decided to try to find those customers.

Bandholz: Was it purely online initially?

Haldrup: I was doing online, yes. But my business partner and I made a lot of door-to-door sales at local boutiques. That was a huge part of our business for the first year or two. It wasn’t sophisticated. We didn’t go to many trade shows.

We drove to Portland, Seattle, and down to California and solicited smaller shops to resell our soap. It was not the most efficient way to scale a business.

My partner was more of a sales guy than me. I was pursuing the online approach. He gave us a foundation to invest in ecommerce. But knocking on doors was definitely a learning process. A lot of people took a chance on us because we were there.

Bandholz: It sounds like he’s no longer your partner.

Haldrup: That’s right. He’s a good friend and has been for most of my life. But we had a different vision for the company. I started the company and then brought him on eight months into it. That lasted for two or three years. He was essential during that time, helping us scale. But he didn’t want to tackle the next phase of the journey in terms of growth.

Bandholz: What was that phase? Outside investors?

Haldrup: Yes, outside investors. We were entirely bootstrapped for the first five or six years. I didn’t want to continue down that path. I wanted to really scale it, or make it passive or find a new project to work on. I didn’t want to keep it small.

I bought out my partner a year and a half before we took outside money. I was essentially the sole owner then.

Bandholz: So you raised money and found the magic button to scale the business.

Haldrup: That’s right. There’s a lot to unpack here. First and foremost, I changed my vision for the company. I started thinking bigger. I evolved to be open to meeting investors and raising money. I met a handful of people and ultimately chose an investor that I felt would add a lot of value. The company is based in Los Angeles. They invest in consumer businesses. Their portfolio companies are a tight-knit group, almost like an advisory community.

It’s gone incredibly well for us. We had maybe five people on the team and roughly $5 million in sales at the time. And fast forward to today, a year and a half later, we’ve got 150 people on the team. We’ve built a manufacturing facility, and we’ll do over $100 million in sales in 2020. Paid media and video has been a huge driver of that. I have no regrets.

Bandholz: Going from $5 million in revenue to $100 million in 18 months is unreal. We’ve all seen your YouTube video with that bearded spokesman. Was that your best marketing channel?

Haldrup: We’ve used YouTube and Facebook, but that video put us on the map. We made the first video with that actor in 2018. I was in San Diego at the time. We were working with a marketing agency there, but we wanted something bigger and more impactful. So we decided to create a viral video.

The agency found him at a comedy show for San Diego’s funniest comedian. They approached him, and he agreed to do it. We had no idea what we were doing — just creating an experience with video.

That was before our outside investment. We were about a $3 million company then. We spent about $18,000 on the video. It was a massive expense at the time.  It was scary, actually.

Bandholz: So you put your faith in it and cranked it up from there.

Haldrup: Yes. We use a simple post-purchase survey to know where people first heard about us. We see a lot of attribution from YouTube that doesn’t come through on its metrics.

Bandholz: We use a wonderful post-purchase app called Grapevine for $3 a month that allows us to ask that one question of how people find us.

Haldrup: For sure. Grapevine is incredible. I recommend it to everybody. I was blown away at how simple and impactful it is.

Bandholz: You guys are heavy on subscriptions. Is that a big part of your business?

Haldrup: It’s definitely a big part of our business, about 30 percent of overall revenue. Every business that sells a consumable product should offer subscription enabled ecommerce. There’s no downside.

Certainly we have customers canceling. They have too many soaps, or they don’t like the product. But it is still is a valuable part of our business.

Bandholz: You’re running Shopify and ReCharge, but you have a custom flow for people with the subscriptions.

Haldrup: Yes.

Bandholz: What percentage of revenue comes from your website versus Amazon?

Haldrup: We get about 85 percent of our revenue from our site and the rest from Amazon. We have boutique retailers that sell a bit here and there. We’re hoping to expand into larger brick-and-mortar retailers over the next couple of years.

Shopify is a great platform. We moved from Cratejoy in February of 2020. We saw dramatic improvements in terms of on-site performance, as well as on the backend, dealing with the data. We’ve experienced no massive challenges with Shopify thus far. We have no plans to change.

Bandholz: Are you still working with the marketing agency? What is the agency’s role?

Haldrup: Yes, we’re still a client. We do all of our own paid media buying and paid media optimization. We have an internal team focused on that. For content, it’s a mix of internal and external. The agency brings a lot of creative stuff to life. They also have the expertise in terms of shooting and editing the video.

It a retainer-based relationship, plus an added amount for the video work.

Bandholz: Where can people follow your company and purchase products?

Haldrup: The Dr. Squatch Instagram presence is pretty entertaining, as is our YouTube channel. Our website is DrSquatch.com.

When To Say No To Freelance Projects

A lot of feel-good life advice encourages us to say yes to new things whenever we can. This philosophy of openness can sound pretty enticing when you’re a freelancer or consultant just beginning to stand tall on your own — or riding a high of a string of good projects.

And it’s true that saying yes can help you grow! Saying yes to new clients, projects, and partners helps you make connections, build your portfolio, and evolve professionally. Saying yes can also lead to paying jobs, which lead to even more paying jobs.

But saying no — at the right times — can be just as critical to the success of our self-employment. Building up the ability and skill to say no is part of a career evolution and, in my opinion, one of the ultimate goals for successful freelancing.

It’s not always easy to decline work, though. We can feel reluctant to turn things down because we want to make clients happy. We also need to feel secure with our income and prospects, and saying no can certainly feel risky when we want to be sure our bills will get paid.

In this article, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about the importance of recognizing when it’s better to say no to a freelance opportunity. It can feel scary to pass work to someone else, but it will be okay and you will garner a solid sense of self-understanding in the process. The information in this article is mostly about saying no to new projects, but can also apply to saying no when a current client asks for more work than you’ve already agreed to do.

The Importance Of Saying No

Saying yes often leads to surprising, exciting outcomes, but so does saying no.

Before we get deeper into details of when and how to say no to freelance opportunities, think about how this kind of selectivity may impact your wellbeing. Imagine only working on things you love? Committing to lackluster projects or unpleasant clients means you might find yourself unavailable when a perfect project shows up in your inbox. When you say no to projects that just aren’t right, you save time and headspace for things that you will want to say yes to.

Saying no also helps you avoid or recover from burnout. Most freelancers will experience burnout at times. Burnout happens when we work too hard and run out of steam — often because a client is bad for us, or because we take on too much, or both. Taking breaks and being deliberate about taking time off (meaning, saying no sometimes) is a valuable pursuit for your personal wellbeing, not to mention your long-term professional output. It’s okay to say no to something when you don’t have the passion or energy for it. Be kind to yourself.

How To Decide Whether To Take On A Project

Is The Project A Match For Your Expertise?

One of the first things to think about when considering a freelance opportunity is whether it’s a good match for your skills and your level of experience.

I’m a UX consultant and I like doing a lot of different things, but my core expertise is user research. If a potential project is not an exact fit for my skills, or if it’s not something I enjoy, I will typically decline. For example, if somebody asks me to do an accessibility review for their website, I know there are a lot of skilled freelancers who can do a much quicker job with it than I would. I might refer somebody if I know they are interested.

Similarly, an ideal project should match your level of experience. If the work is too far below your experience level, it might be boring and likely not pay enough. If it’s too far above, you might find yourself too stressed out and in over your head. For me, if a company is looking for a UX freelancer to “make wireframes” without digging into research or design strategy, I know that’s probably a job for somebody more junior or with different interests.

Think of it this way. If you say yes to a request that isn’t a good match, you may feel resentful about it. You might spend too much time on it. You might even deliver results that aren’t great. So although saying yes can be a strategy for developing skills or learning new things, it only works if the project is in line with your goals and doesn’t stretch too far beyond what you know you can do well. Otherwise, it might be a bad experience for you (and maybe the client, too).

Is The Budget Enough?

If a project doesn’t pay enough, ask for more or say no. Simple!

Well, okay, I know it’s not that simple. Sometimes we need the money. But it becomes easier to say no to low-paying jobs when you 1.) are knowledgeable about your worth and 2.) have a financial cushion. Either of these things may take time, but the goal is to say no to projects that are below a minimum amount that you will consider. Along those lines, you don’t want to devalue your worth by saying yes to too many out-of-scope extras.

Pricing is its own beast that I won’t get into here, but once you know your worth, stand strongly with it! Over time, the prices you charge can increase with your value, and eventually, you may pass work down to more junior freelancers. Also, remember that you are a professional who represents your industry, and when freelancers continuously say yes to very low prices for our services, it can impact everyone else in that specialty by devaluing our skills or expertise overall.

So, don’t make it a habit to accept projects that pay below your value unless you are purposely working pro bono for a good cause. Of course, again, sometimes we might need to take on low-paying work just to “keep the lights on” with our business, and that’s okay. Having a financial cushion eventually helps us say no to these gigs and hold out for better-paying opportunities. For me, it helps to keep my living expenses low so I feel more confident letting work opportunities pass by.

Does The Project Fit Your Schedule?

When your schedule is busy, it’s easy to decline an unwanted project. But what if you aren’t currently busy with work? Consider your pipeline, upcoming schedule, and financial cushion to decide whether a mediocre project is worth doing. If you have plenty of time, it might make sense to say yes to something even if it’s not a great fit.

And alternatively, what if the project is something you actually really want to do, but time is tight? Think carefully about your current commitments and deadlines and whether a new project is doable. If not, you may need to regretfully decline or ask for an alternative timeline. Saying yes to a project you don’t actually have time or energy to do well — as much as you may wish you did — is unfortunately a recipe for late nights or disappointed clients. And remember, having the time and energy to say yes to good projects is another reason to say no to bad projects!

Sometimes whether a project fits in your schedule depends on whether you can work something out with the client. A clear project scope (knowing specifically when you are needed, and for what) will help you plan your time and make decisions about taking on new things. When it comes to scope, also consider whether the client’s proposed timeline is too short for the amount of work required — this is super common, and it’s okay to offer to do the same project on a longer timeline, or a smaller version of the project within the proposed timeline, so that it becomes more manageable to fit into your schedule.

The reality of freelancing is that it’s often a guessing game when it comes to pipelines, scheduling, and balancing your workload. But if you know a project doesn’t fit into your schedule, make sure you say no quickly. You can always let the requester know when you expect that your schedule will free up, and maybe another project will work out later.

Does The Opportunity Align With Your Values?

In addition to the expertise needed, budget offered, and time required, check in on whether the project is in line with your values and goals. Think about your gut feelings here. What are some industries or companies you want to avoid? What kind of projects make you happy? Turn those gut feelings into a concrete list.

Here are a few factors to think about:

  • Does this project help move you toward a bigger goal?
  • Do you find the project personally interesting?
  • Do you believe your work on the project will help people in a meaningful way, or do some kind of social or environmental good?
  • Is this project supporting an industry or company that you consider unethical? (Kelly Small talks about seeking ethical work and saying no to unethical work in their book The Conscious Creative!)
  • Do you prefer working with startups or established companies?
  • Do you prefer working in small teams or big ones?
  • Do you prefer remote or in-person work?
  • Do you prefer subcontracting with other agencies or do you prefer direct clients?
  • Have you worked with this client before and what was that like?
  • Will having a good relationship with this client potentially lead to other good work?
  • Does it seem like the client will respect you?

You can create a personalized checklist or rating sheet to help you identify whether a project is worth doing. Burnout happens a lot quicker when our work is emotionally taxing, so take into account your personal values and preferences when deciding whether to say yes or no to opportunities. After all, working for yourself ideally means you get to call the shots.

Decline Assertively (But Kindly)

When you’ve decided a “no thank you” is in order, it’s important to be clear that you are declining while still keeping the mood light and productive (unless they have egregiously offended you, I suppose).

First, I recommend expressing gratitude for the opportunity. Thank the requester for thinking of you, going through the interview process with you, or whatever they have done. It takes time and effort on their end to hire freelancers or consultants.

Second is the important part: saying no. Be clear that you are declining. You can briefly explain why if you’d like, but you don’t have to explain your reasoning if you don’t want to. Just respond in a timely way so the client can move on.

If you worry about offending someone, please don’t! Be assertive so that when you say no, the answer is firm. If you think about the three main communication styles — assertive, passive, and aggressive — the idea is to be clear (assertive) while avoiding coming across as too passive or aggressive.

Most people will respect a clear and honest answer. I’ve only once had someone respond rudely to an email in which I politely declined to meet, but that aggressive response cemented that I likely saved myself a lot of aggravation by not working with them.

Third, once you’ve said no, you might offer some next steps or alternatives if you think it’s appropriate. If you are open to discussing future work, let them know. Be clear about the conditions under which you might be more likely to say yes — such as after a certain date, or if they have a need for a different area of your expertise.

You also might suggest other freelancers if you know anyone who may like to take on the project, or who might be a better fit than you are. If you don’t have specific names to offer, you can suggest resources to find freelancers, like listings for professional organization members. You might also offer to share the opportunity with other freelancers in your network, such as on social media or in Slack groups.

Here’s an example of how an email declining a project opportunity might look:

Hi [name],

Thank you so much for thinking of me for [project description]. This project does not seem to be a great match for [my experience level / my current interests / my schedule / etc.] so I am declining, but I can [share it on LinkedIn / connect you with another freelancer I trust / etc.], if you’d like.

Also, if you have future opportunities for [something else you’d like to do / something after a certain date / etc.], I’d love to hear about it. Keep in touch!

Conclusion

Saying no is a skill. Saying yes to the wrong freelance opportunities can lead you toward misery and burnout, and we could all probably improve how mindful we are about our work, partners, and clients.

Remember, if you’re not sure whether to accept a project, think through:

  • General Fit
    Is the project a match for your skills and your level of expertise?
  • Budget
    Would you be selling yourself or your field short by taking on the project for a low price?
  • Timeline
    Would the project conflict with your existing commitments? Is the client wanting too much in too short a timeframe?
  • Values
    How good would you feel about this project? Is it in line with your values, goals, and preferences?

Consider everything together. A low-paying job might still be a good fit if it’s for a good cause, or if it gets you critical experience to move toward a bigger goal. Consider making your own personalized checklist or rating sheet to help you rate past, present, and future projects and get a better understanding of which opportunities should be left on the table.