Getting paid can be a nightmare for any business, but dealing with accounts receivable can be particularly harsh for sole proprietors. Focusing on collections means losing out on billable hours. Soloists can learn a lot, however, from the methods of Rosemary Sadez Friedmann, who owns an interior-design business with $2.5 million in revenues in Naples, Fla. She's been on her own for 19 years, dealing with a high-end crowd that can be particular about what it's paying for.
Friedmann's first principle is to stagger the timing of all her long-term jobs. Ideally, if she's working on three projects simultaneously, at any given moment she'll be starting one, in the middle of a second, and concluding a third. That way, she has to worry about collecting from only one customer at a time. "If a big job has to be done immediately, I usually have to beg off," she says.
Her key to successful staggering is limiting herself to four large-scale projects a year. She's learned from experience that any more of a workload is all-consuming and compromises the time management benefits that the staggering was designed to create. Friedmann maintains her pace by practicing a crucial soloist art: staving off customers without actually saying no to them.
With rare exceptions, Friedmann meets with all prospective customers, as a visible attempt to work their needs into her strategic scheduling. If the scheduling proves impossible, she often compensates by offering to work as an hourly consultant, thus generating good word of mouth without overlooking her major project commitments. The initial interview also allows her to screen customers. If they don't seem like trustworthy payers, she can decline to do the job or offer to do it only if the customer signs a property lien.
Friedmann hasn't lost out on a payment in more than four years. And just as important, she's managed to stay solo for all that time, when many with her income might have splurged on an employee to handle the headaches. "I often think, 'Boy, it would be so much easier if I had someone else who could just make phone calls,' " she says. "But the other side of the coin is, I'm in tune with every side of my clients' accounts. And there's nothing that's going wrong."