Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! Thank you for the opportunity. My name is Sami Abid, founder and Managing Director of AYH Consulting Ltd. I started a service-based business in October, 2020 to help businesses automate their repetitive tasks and streamline their business operations using low-code applications e.g Airtable, Notion, Zoho, HubSpot, Knack, Zapier, Integromat and n8n. I am currently earning an average of $6k/month via retainer contracts and hunting for new business every month.
Initially this was a side-hustle where I helped small businesses in my free time but now I have slowly scaled my business and gone full time to serve small and medium-sized enterprises.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Technology has always fascinated me and its intersection in our lives.However, I began my professional career in 2008 as a knowledge worker. My first job was a library clerical assistant, it was stacking books all day at the Library but my most important learning came in the very beginning, although it took me a while to come to grips with it.
This job made me realise the importance of ‘systems’. Libraries function on systematically indexing knowledge via established cataloguing systems such as the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) and it serves as a bedrock of its operations, without such a ‘system’ a library would be non-functional. As technology fascinated me, I started exploring ways technology could help me at my job. Thus began an incredible journey of learning, trial and error, a lot of failures and most importantly solving problems.
I slowly began digitising some of the internal business processes within the department, digital form submissions, automatic email reminders, etc - basically anything that would help me and the team do our work in a more efficient way.
This proved to be an important learning curve and helped me find my passion very early on i.e implementing ‘systems’ using technology. I experimented with a lot of business applications, softwares, IT Solutions etc to streamline business operations and make things more efficient. I quickly earned promotions and moved through various jobs but the core aspect of each role remained the same - how can I make this work better?
I believe my pivotal moment came in the year 2016 when I discovered Zapier and Zoho Creator. That’s the year I was first introduced to the concept of Low-Code. As I was an orthodox IT professional with most of my learning on the job, coding was always my limitation. But low-code meant I needed to know very little or, in most cases, no coding knowledge at all to build systems and solve problems.
I started developing applications which incrementally improved efficiency within the organisation. I made a name for myself for ‘digitally transforming’ the operations in the wider business.
Things were going well, I earned a lot of recognition and respect for what I was doing and I felt comfortable in the moment. But all good things don’t last forever and I found myself at crossroads soon. SImilar to the rest of you, my life completely changed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While my job was safe, I was expecting a new-born to enter my life very soon coupled with some financial losses to people who I care about a lot, I soon realised that a cozy job was not enough to live the lifestyle I wanted nor it was enough to fulfill the needs of people who I dearly loved and cared about.
This has to be the biggest turning point so far in my professional career as I took a step further and began formally building my business and putting myself out there for people to see. I still needed a fixed income while I pursued my dreams so that would mean choosing something to sacrifice while I worked on building the life I wanted to live, and in this process I sacrificed my sleep.
So, I started working late nights to look for clients, submit project bids, build the business website and scroll through social media to build a personal brand. After gaining a lot of experience on various projects, getting client recommendations and burning the midnight oil, the results started coming in.
It began with minor projects valued at $200-$400, some months there was no earning at all or payments wouldn’t come through but I kept myself focused. Soon, the $200 contracts turned into $2000 and eventually I got into a position where I consistently started earning more money than my day job paid in a month. Finally, in January 2022 I took the plunge, quitting my day job and focusing completely on running my automation business.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When I first began offering my services through platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, I quickly realized that the competition was extremely high. There were a lot of people in the market offering the same set of services with varying charging rates. Initially, one would think that the easiest way to win the job was to bid lower on the projects in order to win clients. This strategy works really well in the beginning when you are building your portfolio but we have to remember that in a service based business, you are mostly selling your time to deliver a service to your client. You would want to be paid the best possible rate for dedicating your personal time and knowledge to somebody. I didn’t realize it either in the beginning and for the sake of getting more projects I did lowball myself. This resulted in some hard learning:
- Working with extremely demanding clients who won’t respect your work
- Having to spend an extreme amount of time on projects with very little return
- Sacrificing better paying projects because you are already tied up for time
Once I realized that, I knew I had to take a different approach to stand myself out of the crowd without having to sacrifice too much or not getting a fair amount for my work. In this process, I began remodelling my bids to clients. In a typical engagement, the client would expect a certain solution to be implemented and that would be the end of the project. But I added an additional layer of service in my offering - in my bids I advertised to my clients that I would not just implement the solution for them but I would also provide them with video recordings, help docs and knowledge libraries at the time of the project handover. This gave my clients a sense of ownership of the solution that was being delivered because at a later stage, not only can they look at actual implementation process but also have a set of documents at their disposal to help them tackle any problems that might arise in the future.
When I started advertising this in my services, I immediately saw an increase in the number of meetings I could set up to discuss the project with clients. Surely, this meant a bit of extra work upfront but it saved me tons of hours in the future where clients would have to come back to ask basic questions about the implemented solution.
Building an Invoice automation solution for a client
An automation solution to enter Facebook leads into a CRM system and send notifications to end users
Describe the process of launching the business.
After building my portfolio and getting reviews from clients on Upwork, I began formally registering my business and establishing my brand. As the nature of my business is selling services and digital products, luckily I did not have to bear the expenses of renting office space, prepare physical sign boards etc.
I looked at different countries that allowed legal business registration without the need of a physical workspace. I eventually registered my business in the United Kingdom with the Companies House, U.K. as the process seemed fairly straightforward and there seemed fair policies around taxation as well as legal protection for the business.
I used 1st Formations, an agent service company, to register your business. I could have done this process on my own however, it felt easier and time-effective to use an agent service. I provided them with all the necessary documents and they took care of everything - registering the company, providing a registered address, tax registration, etc.
Surround yourself with positive people who will support you, and who will push you to be your best.
In the next step, I started building my business website to advertise the services I was offering to my clients. I used WordPress to host my website and used free imaging services for using graphics and logos. As I was bootstrapped at this stage, I was looking for the cheapest possible options to advertise my services. I paid for everything using my personal credit card and my checking account.
I did not spend any money on advertising instead I took a completey different approach to advertising my services. I asked my friends and family to spread the word about the services I was offering, I spent time on community forums and social media channels of platforms I work with (Zapier, HubSpot etc) answering questions from users and solving minor problems users would face. This effort did not have any instant returns but gradually people started looking at my suggested solution and began reaching out for paid engagements. To this day, this has been my greatest source of obtaining new leads for the business.
I also reached out to all my previous clients I had worked with and informed them of the full time services I was now able to offer. In some cases, previous clients opted for those services or they referred me to other businesses who needed them.
An important lesson I learned here was that peer network and previous client work act as great referral points when looking for more business.
Here’s a breakdown of the cost:
Company registration - $250
Website and hosting - $70
Other legal fee - $80
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
If I was to summarize this question in one sentence, I would frame it as follows “Provide the best possible service to build a base of loyal, satisfied customers who keep coming back to you for their needs”.
The above has been my mantra since day one when I stepped into this business. Through dedication, hard-work and a streamlined internal process system I have tried to keep my customers satisfied at every touch point of their journey when they are in business with us. From customer onboarding to project handover, I keep my communication clear with the client to ensure their demands are met and they are well informed about the progress of the project.
In my line of business, which is a fast-moving tech world, I have to keep up with the latest trends in the industry and keep myself aligned with the changes the platform providers are making to their product. Alerting the clients in-time about these changes or informing them of newly available enhancements has been well appreciate by my clients and I have often ended up earning more work from them by simply informing them that a new feature is available on the platform which might address any fresh pain points in their business.
In the service business, the client is reaching out to you to solve a specific problem so it’s our job to ensure we are touching their relevant pain points in the business by asking good questions, probing the expected solution and ensuring the client realises the value of the implemented solution both in monetary and non-monetary terms.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
At the moment, the business is very stable as I have been able to secure retainer contracts, which is my primary source of income. In a retainer contract you are expected to ensure your delivered work works as expected and if there is scope for any additional development then I am available for x number of hours as per the retainer agreement. This allows me to worry less about hunting for new business every day and instead focus on adding value to my services. I still actively look for new business however if I don’t end up signing a client, it doesn’t bother me too much. I keep striving to provide better services to my existing clients.
I am fortunate that this is a digital business, which means the running cost is extremely low. I am yet to set-aside any budget for paid marketing so the only real expenses are the software/tools I use to operate the business, hiring contractors for sub-contract work and accounting agent fee. The total monthly cost comes down to around $600 for all services.
I am now exploring the digital product category to diversify the income stream of the business. I will likely go down the route of introducing some sort of SaaS model or perhaps publish learning material that could be useful for customers who are looking for DIY guides on building solutions. I am also looking into the prospect of offering my customers with a unified dashboard to provide a bird's-eye view of their daily business activity.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Starting my own business has been an amazing learning experience. I've had to wear so many hats and learn so many new skills, from marketing and sales to financial management and solution development. It's been a lot of work, but I've also gained a lot of knowledge and insight that I never would have otherwise.
One of the most important things I've learned is the importance of focus and prioritisation. With so many things to do and only so many hours in the day, it's essential to identify what's most important and focus on that. I've also learned the value of delegation and partnerships. I can't do everything myself, and I've had to learn to delegate tasks and collaborate with others in order to get things done.
There will be days when you will feel that this is bad idea or things are not going your way, but take it on the chin and look forward to the next day. Each day gives you a fresh start with a new set of opportunities, you can make your own luck by adopting a good routine, being persistent and learning from your failures.
I believe the key to my success has been consistency, I kept knocking on every possible door and jumped at any opportunity to have a sales conversation. You have to be a shameless plug. Secondly, having a good system and processes in place goes a long way in sustaining your business because, we do not rise to the highest levels of our imagination, instead we fall to the level of our systems.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
From the very beginning, I began systemising my processes in the business so that my own internal operations are streamlined and automated. As I was juggling between a full time job and side business, time optimization was of utmost importance to me. I deployed various tools and automated most of the repetitive stuff like invoicing, proposals, email reminders etc so that I spent most of time un delivering the actual solution to the client instead of doing mundane administrative tasks.
Here are some of the tools I use daily for my operations:
Notion - as a knowledge hub to take notes, maintain company knowledge base, write proposals
Fantastical - managing my calendar and letting clients book calls with me for consultation
Airtable - Using it as a CRM to capture and track leads progress
Xero - For accounting and invoicing
Toggl - To record time spent on all client projects
Google Docs - Writing docs and blog posts
Google Drive - Storing all internal documents (invoices, expense receipts)
Namecheap - Domain & hosting
Make (Formerly Integromat) - to automate all of the above systems
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have a curious nature for learning new things which always keep me engaged in reading or listening to a lot of resources. I also have a knack for self-improvement so I moatly listen to topics related to productivity, automation and self help. During this journey, below are some of the resources that really inspired me to reach my goals:
Atomic Habits (by James Clear) - One of the most defining reads of all time for me personally. This book talks about building sustainable habits through various scientifically proven techniques. As a business owner, our biggest strength is consistency and this book helps you in determining sustainability behaviors that can be consistently carried out daily.
The One Thing (by Gary Keller) - Gary Keller talks about an approach of the ‘One Thing’. He mentions that most of his huge successes came when he narrowed his concentration to one thing and put all his energy into it.
Find your why (by Simon Sinek) - Whether you are starting a business, setting up a goal for yourself or looking to achieve anything in life it is important to define the ‘Why’. Why are you starting a business? Why do you want to run a marathon? These questions help you find your true purpose and motivations behind your goals.
Show your work (by Austin Kleon) - Kleon encourages sharing your creative work and process as a strategy to learn, find your audience, and improve your work. He provides practical advice on documenting your process, teaching others, and becoming a better storyteller to help you share the work you love with a like-minded community.
Building a Second Brain (by Tiago Forte) - Tiago Forte is my productivity guru. This is another life changing discovery for me. Building a second brain is a productivity system that helps you take control of your digital life, identify patterns, connect the dots and build this master knowledge hub that is completely in your control. It helps you identify the important tasks you will be working on and releases you from the stress of always remembering things. Instead you store and categorize the important pieces of information in this Second brain, readily available at your fingertips whenever you read it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you're an entrepreneur who's just starting out, or who wants to get started, here's some advice: It will not be easy, but it's worth it. You're going to have to work hard, and there will be times when you'll want to give up. But don't. Believe in yourself, and believe in your idea. Stay focused, and let nothing or anyone derail you from your goals. Surround yourself with positive people who will support you, and who will push you to be your best.
Within your area of expertise or business, try to network with your counterparts as much as you can. Just like yourself, they are most likely going through the same challenges you are, or they have already gone through those challenges. In the age of the Internet, there is an online community for everything these days. Take part in these communities, chat to people.
Share your work! That’s one of the best ways I learnt new things and ended up partnering with people for more business.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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