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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business

Offering resources to help streamline your home based graphic design and web design business so you can get back to what you do best… Designing!
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Resourceful Designer: Strategies for running a graphic design business
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Now displaying: March, 2022
Mar 28, 2022

I had a conversation recently with fellow designers over how we refer to ourselves. This conversation started when one designer asked another why they referred to themselves as a freelancer? We then talked about the impression and stereotypes associated with the word freelancer. In the end, the designer acknowledged that it was in their best interest not to use the term freelancer anymore when referring to themself. And it would be best if you did the same. Stop calling yourself a freelancer.

Why you should stop calling yourself a freelancer.

There’s a stigma associated with the term Freelance or Freelancer. In episode 17 of the Resourceful Designer podcast, I discussed how calling yourself a freelance graphic designer could hurt your business. I shared a story of when a company approached me for an in-house position. I turned them down, but I shared the name of a designer I knew would be perfect for the job.

The company’s CEO later told me the designer I told them about had all the right qualifications. However, The title she used on her resume was Freelance Graphic Designer, and they were looking for someone more serious than that for the position.

She didn’t get the job because she listed herself as a freelancer. I know it’s crazy, but it’s true.

You see, the term freelancer is popular among designers. When I was in school, my classmates and I talked about how great it would be to be a freelancer. But outside of our sphere of peers in the design industry, the term freelancer is not as familiar. Or maybe I should say it’s not as “prestigious” as we like to think it is.

The term freelancer is akin to being quick and cheap, which reminds me of episode 71 of the podcast Good Design, Quick Design, Cheap Design. Pick Two. For many business people, freelancers are people you hire if you want something done fast and for a reasonable price, not necessarily if you want something designed well.

For this reason, I tell designers who work for themselves to stop calling themselves freelance designers and instead say they run a design business. Even if you only do it as a side gig.

In an article titled Stop Calling Yourself A Freelancer, author Andrew Holliday says that a company commands more respect than freelancers. And that freelancers are perceived as commodities. Meaning they’re interchangeable.

If you need a quick design job, hire a freelancer. In the future should you require more design work, you could hire the same freelancer, or you can hire someone else. It doesn’t matter because freelancers are interchangeable. Anyone will do. And usually, the cheaper, the better.

Hiring a freelancer is kind of like purchasing fuel for your vehicle. You know that all gas or petrol stations are basically the same, so you pick and choose where to fill up based on price. That’s how many business owners perceive freelancers–as commodities.

However, if you want a partner to help you develop your brand and marketing assets, someone you can work with long-term, then hire a design company, even if that design company is just one person.

Holliday made another interesting point in his article that freelancers often fight for hourly work. Whereas companies typically get paid by the project. And therefore, your earning potential is much higher if you refer to yourself as a business owner and not a freelancer.

But don’t take his or my word on it. Earlier this week, I posted a poll in a large entrepreneur community where I’m a member. It’s a community made up mostly of solopreneurs to mid-size business owners. In other words, the type of people you want as design clients.

Here’s what I asked.

Who would you prefer to hire for design work:

A: A graphic designer who runs their own design business?

B: A freelance graphic designer?

I know. It’s a trick question since both answers are the same, but I wanted to see what people would say.

Two hundred four people responded. 176 (86%) chose A: A graphic designer who runs their own design business. Compared to only 28 (14%) who chose B: A freelance graphic designer.

What’s even more interesting are the comments on my poll.

Aren’t they the same thing? But if I had to choose I would pick A. It sounds more professional.

I would hire a freelance graphic designer. I’m just starting out and don’t have a large budget and option A sounds more expensive to me.

If I knew exactly what I wanted and just needed someone to implement it for me I would choose B. If I needed someone to help me develop new ideas I would choose A.

Isn’t hiring a freelancer kind of like hiring an employee who doesn’t actually work for you, so it’s less paperwork?

I think the difference between the two is confidence and trust. I could trust that a design business owner is competent and knows what they are doing because they took the time to start a business. I know they’ll be around for a long time should I need them again in the future. I wouldn’t feel the same way about hiring a freelance graphic designer.

I have a background in design, and I choose A. Most freelancers I know are only doing it until they can find a full-time job.

And there were many other comments just like these. And they all came to a similar conclusion. If you want someone cheap, someone you can tell what to do, and you’re not interested in building a working relationship with them, then hire a freelancer.

However, if you want someone knowledgeable, someone who can help you solve the problems you’re facing, and someone reliable who will be around for a long time, hire a designer who runs a design business.

I think these people make my point for me. Stop calling yourself a freelancer.

Let me simplify it.

Let me simplify it by creating another distinction between a design business owner and a freelancer.

If the projects you work on are for someone other than the person or company paying you, you are freelancing.

For example, if an agency contracts you to work on projects for the agency’s clients, you are working as a freelancer. They may or may not have in-house designers, but they need to hire you to fulfill their commitment to their clients.

It doesn’t matter if you work directly with the client or deal with someone at the agency as a go-between. If the end client is not the one paying you, then there’s a good chance you’re freelancing.

However, if a client hires you to do work for them and pays you directly for your services, you are not freelancing. You are running a design business.

Take my Podcast Branding business, for example. Podcasters hire me to design their artwork and websites. That’s not freelancing since the client is paying me. But I’m also the designer for a large podcast agency. This agency sends their clients to me for their podcast artwork. In this case, I’m working as a freelancer for the agency since they pay me to create artwork for their clients.

Another thing to consider is if you charge fixed, project-based or value-based pricing, then you are running a design business. Since freelancers typically charge by the hour.

And finally, If you don’t plan on ever being employed or working for a boss. Then you are running a design business.

It’s up to you.

In the end, you can call yourself whatever you want. It’s your career, after all. But I hope I’ve given you something to ponder.

I know I was surprised by the response I got from the poll. I figured Design Business Owner would prevail over Freelance Designer, but I didn’t know by how much. And if those who responded are the people who represent our ideal design clients, then why not heed what they are saying.

Call yourself a freelancer if you want. But if you take yourself seriously and, more importantly, if you want others to take you seriously, then why not drop that moniker. Stop calling yourself a freelancer.

Mar 21, 2022

On Monday, when I sat down to start my week, I had an email in my inbox from a client giving me their approval to launch their new website. I anticipated this, and the site was live within an hour and a half.

Satisfied with another completed project, I opened Plutio, my project management software of choice, to see what I was to work on next. And what I found was nothing. I had no website projects. I had no podcast cover artwork to design. My to-do list of client work was blank.

I can’t remember the last time this happened. I didn’t even have proofs out with clients that may come back. I had nothing, nil, nada, zip, zilch and whatever other ways I could say it. I had no client work.

It’s now Friday afternoon as I write this, and not a single new project came in this week.

For the first time in over a year, an entire week went by without a single order from my Podcast Branding website. For the first time in an even longer period, I didn’t have a client website on the go.

This lack of work is a situation that many self-employed designers may face. It doesn’t only happen to new designers trying to grow their business. It can happen to anyone at any time.

Maybe it’s how the planets have aligned, or Lady Luck decided to take a vacation. I don’t know, but it happens. It just happened to me. And it can happen to you.

But experiencing a lull like this shouldn’t make you worry. I’ve been in this line of work for a long time, and I can tell you, lulls never last. Give it a little time, and once again, you’ll feel overwhelmed from having too much on your plate.

What to do when facing lulls.

The best way to face lulls is by embracing them. Please take advantage of the time they provide you because it won’t last.

This past week was one of the most productive for me in a while. I had no client work to hold me back, allowing me to accomplish many things.

On Tuesday, my daughter asked if I could build her a website. She has an Etsy store but wants to move off that platform to one of her own. What she wanted was very simple. And there was no rush. She told me I could get to it whenever I had the time.

Well, guess what? I had the time. So I got right to it, and in a matter of hours, I had completed her new eCommerce website. I did say what she wanted was very simple. So it didn’t take long.

And the look on my daughter’s face when I showed it to her that same day was priceless. You got to win those parenting points whenever you can. Am I right?

But that wasn’t all.

I met with a client the week before this. They’re looking for a website redesign and expect a proposal from me.

I have a multi-page website proposal template, which makes submitting proposals very easy. I open the template, update the information about whatever project I’m proposing, save it as a PDF file and send it to the client. Easy peasy. I’ve been using this template for a few years now, and it was getting a bit dated. But I never had the time to update it until now.

It would typically take me 20 to 30 minutes to complete a proposal like this one. Instead, I devoted a couple of hours to redesigning my proposal template before sending it to the client. I’ve been thinking of redesigning it for a long time, and because of this lull, I was able to scratch it off my to-do list.

I also had the opportunity to look at my Podcast Branding website and make many minor changes. I changed some wording here and there and updated a few of the images on the site. I also decided to eliminate one service I wasn’t keen on doing anymore. And I added some clarification to the other services to increase conversion.

I closed many of the browser tabs I had opened by reading articles I was “saving for later” or watching tutorial videos for various things. And I didn’t feel guilty about any of it because I wasn’t taking time away from client work. After all, I didn’t have any.

And of course, I did take the time to reach out to several old clients that I haven’t heard from in a while, to get in touch and let them know I’m still here should they need me.

Every day this week, I worked from 9-5, and I wasted none of that time even though I had no client work. I didn’t feel self-pity or down in the dumps. Because I knew this lull wouldn’t last, and I wanted to take advantage of every minute of it.

We often put off working on our own business. And then we forget about it when we have a bit of time we could devote.

I usually say you should treat your own business as a client and block off time to work on it. But a lull is the perfect opportunity to get as much of it done as possible.

It helps if you have recurring revenue.

I would feel much worse if I didn’t have recurring revenue streams in this situation. In episode 216 of the podcast, I talked about offering website maintenance to earn extra income. This service provides peace of mind for my clients since they don’t have to worry about the security or maintenance of their websites. If they have a blog or podcast, all they have to do is publish new posts or episodes, and I do everything else.

I have a virtual assistant who handles the weekly maintenance for me, so other than checking in once per month; I only need to get involved when there’s an issue. And to be honest, that rarely happens, thanks to the many preventative measures I have in place. But this also means that even though I had no client work this week, money was still flowing into my bank account.

Retainers are another form of recurring revenue that could help you get through lulls. I don’t currently have any retainer clients, but it will help you get through slow times if you do. Check out episode 32 and episode 255 to learn more about retainer agreements.

Lulls are a normal part of running a design business.

Lulls will happen. In your early years, you may experience them more often. As your reputation grows and you gain more and more clients, you’ll experience fewer lulls. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never experience any. I hope you don’t. But that’s the reality of our industry–There’s no guarantee of steady work or income.

But in my opinion, that trade-off is worth it so that you and I can do what it is we love doing, designing.

So the next time things slow down, remember these five things.

  1. Lulls offer an excellent opportunity to reconnect with past clients
  2. They allow you to work on what you’ve neglected in your business.
  3. They allow you to catch up on the many to-do items you keep putting off.
  4. They give you the time to improve your design and business skills.
  5. And most importantly, remember that lulls don’t last. So please take advantage of them when they present themselves.

Just because there’s no client work doesn’t mean you should stop working.

Mar 14, 2022

Don’t you hate that feeling when you can’t find what you’re looking for? It could be anything. You can’t find your wallet or your car keys. Have you misplaced your phone? Maybe it’s that scrap of paper you scribbled that critical information on that you can’t find.

Regardless of whatever it is you can’t locate, you’re left with an empty feeling inside—a feeling of unfulfillment.

A similar feeling occurs when you land on a website only to see those three words – No Results Found.

It’s so frustrating. Maybe you clicked a link in an article you were reading, anticipating a solution to a problem you’re facing, only to be disappointed by where it brought you. Perhaps you used the search field on a website hoping to find something only to come up short. Or it could happen while navigating a website, and you have no idea how you got there.

Regardless of the circumstances, you’ve landed on the dreaded 404 page. A page that mocks you with those three words – No Results Found. It might as well say - ha, ha, you lose, we don’t have what you’re looking for. It’s so frustrating.

Then what do you do? Do you go back and click the link again, hoping that you get better results this time around? Do you randomly start clicking around, hoping to stumble upon what you were looking for? Or, do you shrug your shoulders in defeat and close the page, or go looking elsewhere for your answer?

It doesn’t matter when or why. Landing on a No Results Found page is never fun unless the person who designed the website makes it fun for you.

You can customize the 404 page.

The 404 page is something that every website in the world has, whether the site owner knows it or not. And it’s a page that’s landed on more often than you would think. And yet, very few websites take advantage of this “popular” page. And you should take advantage of it. Whether it’s your website or sites you create for your clients.

You may or may not know this, but you can customize the 404 page on a website. If you’re a Divi user, it’s as easy as creating a new page layout in the Divi theme builder and assigning it to the 404 page. That’s how I do it for the sites I build.

Other WordPress themes and builders, as well as platforms such as Squarespace Wix, Weebly, etc., should allow you to do so as well. If not, you can install plugins that will enable you to edit the 404 page.

Why should you customize the 404 page?

But what’s the point, you may ask? The fact is, the default 404 page is a stepping-off point for some visitors. When someone arrives at the No Results Found page, it’s a signal for them to leave the site. And no website owner ever wants visitors to leave their site unsatisfied.

But if you customize the 404 page, you can improve visitor retention by giving them something to do other than leaving the page. And this goes for your website too. Do you want visitors to your site who happen to stumble upon your 404 page to leave? Of course, you don’t. So give them an incentive to stay.

Look at the Resourceful Designer 404 page, for example. I’ve designed the 404 page to capture visitors’ interest in the site.

Upon landing on the 404 page, the first thing they see is a whimsical “Oops” image. Followed by the heading: “Looks like someone forgot to proofread.” The paragraph below says, “The page you are looking for is nowhere to be found. Not to worry, there are plenty of other great pages for you to see. Here are some popular posts that may interest you.”

A list follows, showing three popular podcast episodes and three blog posts that may interest visitors to the site. I also ask them if they want a copy of my Four Week Marketing Boost and provide a way to acquire it.

So even though someone arrived on this page because the content they were looking for isn’t available, they still have something to engage with. And you know what? It works. I track where people sign up for my Four Week Marketing Boost, and many of them came from my 404 page.

I made it a bit simpler on my Podcast Branding website. The page shows an image of a man, seen from behind, scratching his head in confusion. The heading reads, “Uh oh!” followed by “I don’t think this is what you were looking for, was it? No worries, if you’re starting a podcast or you’re looking for help with your show’s visual branding, you’re in the right place, just not the right page. Why don’t you click this button to see how Podcast Branding can help you?” Then, a button labelled “LEARN MORE” takes them to the home page. It’s simple, and it works.

Do you get my point? You can make the 404-page look however you want. The point is to give visitors something to do instead of simply leaving the site.

I like to have fun with these pages by making them whimsical. I put a photo of an older woman holding her hand up to her ear on a hearing aid website as if she couldn’t hear. The heading reads, “Say that again, I didn’t quite catch it.” Followed by a search field.

On a tech and electronics site, I wrote, “It looks like we have a broken circuit.” and provided a few links visitors could click.

Give visitors something to do other than leave the site.

Visitors are already frustrated when they land on a 404 page since they’re not finding what they wanted, so why not inject a bit of fun and give them something to do.

If you don’t customize the 404 page on your or your client’s websites, you’re doing the site visitors a disservice. Create something that will engage them, and make them want to stay on the site. After all, isn’t that why you built the site in the first place?

Did you customize your 404 page?

Show it to us by leaving a link in the comments for this episode.

Mar 7, 2022

Wants and needs. What an interesting juxtaposition.

I want a new sword for my collection. But I don’t need another sword. I want a cheeseburger and poutine for supper. But I don’t need all that fat or those calories. I want enough money to do whatever I want in life. However, I only need to make enough money to cover my expenses.

Wants and needs. They govern a lot of our decisions, don’t they?

Your clients’ wants and needs.

What about you and your design business? How do wants and needs factor into what you do for your clients?

As a design business owner, your goal is to make money. After all, a business that doesn’t make money doesn’t remain a business for very long. Sure, it’s great to do some pro-bono work from time to time, but I don’t know of any designer who cherishes working for free. No, you want to make money so that you can pay your bills, support your family, take vacations, and perhaps indulge yourself from time to time.

To make money, you need to charge your clients for the services you offer. And the more clients you have and the more design work you do, the more money you earn.

As a design business owner, it can be tempting to simply give clients what they want in order to make a sale. Like when a client comes to you with an idea in mind and asks if you can design it for them. You know you can, and it would be easy money. And so many designers across the globe work this way. They do exactly what the client wants.

But the problem is, clients don’t always know what they want, or what they think they want isn’t the best option because they don’t know any alternatives.

Adopting this strategy of doing what your client wants is not conducive to growing a successful design business. You may get work. Maybe even lucrative work. But your business will eventually reach a cap if all you ever do is what your clients ask you to do.

To be successful, you need to figure out how to deliver what your clients need, not just what they want.

How do wants differ from needs?

Now don’t get me wrong. You’ll have clients whose wants and needs are in line with each other—those who are business savvy and understand what is required for their businesses to grow. You’ll enjoy working with those clients because you’ll be able to communicate with them on an even level.

However, many clients don’t understand that their wants and needs may differ.

I find this especially true with newer entrepreneurs–people who have left corporate life to start their own businesses. They’ll often get their ideas from what others are doing and falsely think they’ll experience the same success if they do the same thing. They see someone else grow their business by sending out postcards, so they believe they should send out postcards as well.

That’s not the proper way to think about or grow a business. Giving clients what they want might make them happy in the short term, but they’ll eventually realize that it doesn’t solve whatever problem they’re trying to fix. And clients always come to you, a designer, to fix a problem, whether they know it or not. That’s what we do as designers. We’re problem solvers.

Just doing what a client wants can lead to unfulfilled expectations and frustration on the client’s part. “I spent good money on these postcards; why aren’t they working?” It’s because postcards weren’t what the client needed.

Your job as a designer is not to fulfill your client’s every desire or cater to their every whim; it’s about understanding their needs and addressing them in a way that meets those needs and exceeds their expectations.

When you give your clients what they need, you are helping them achieve their goals and solve their problems. When you manage that, your clients will view you in a whole new light, and they’ll want to work with you more.

Do you ignore what a client wants?

Does this mean you ignore what the client wants? Of course not. The key is to balance what the client wants and what will work best for their business. For example, a client may want you to redesign their website because they’re not getting enough traffic and low sales. They think that getting more traffic to their site will increase sales and solve their problem. When more traffic isn’t the solution, better-qualified traffic is.

Having 1,000 random people visit a website probably won’t increase sales as much as attracting 100 targeted visitors. The client wants more visitors, but what they need is better-targeted visitors. And it’s your job to explain this to them.

My own experience.

One of my clients is a hearing aid clinic. When they first opened and were trying to build up their client list, they wanted to get as much exposure as possible. One of the marketing strategies they wanted to explore was placing ads in local magazines.

The salesperson they contacted at a nearby distributor represented several magazines. He convinced them that they would get the most exposure by placing an ad in a local outdoor life magazine that covered hiking, bicycling, canoe and kayaking, snowshoeing etc. It was a newer magazine with a circulation of over 500,000 copies delivered every month.

He told my client that it was a new magazine, and they were offering special discounted prices on ads. He assured them it was a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime deal to put their name in front of half a million local people. The clinic asked me to design a full-page ad, excited about all the exposure it would give them.

When I received the ad specifications from the distributor, I saw on the sheet that the exact specs were used by other magazines the distributor represented. One of them was a senior living magazine.

For the fun of it, I contacted the distributor, not telling them who I was, and asked for details on placing a full-page ad in the senior living mag. I found out that the distribution for this magazine was 100,000 copies, and the price they quoted me was almost the same price that the hearing aid clinic was paying for their ad in the outdoor life mag.

I then called my client and explained that according to the documentation I received, the outdoor life magazine targeted people ages 18-40 who enjoyed an active outdoor life. The senior living magazine was geared towards people 55 years and older who still want to get the most out of life.

I explained to my client that yes, the senior living mag had a distribution of one-fifth the size of the outdoor magazine, so they wouldn’t be seen by as many people. However, those 100,000 people who received the senior living magazine were probably in or at least approaching the target market of people who require hearing aids. In contrast, most of the outdoor life magazine’s target market won’t be interested in hearing aids for many years to come.

The client wanted me to design an ad for an outdoor life mag, but I convinced them that they needed an ad in the senior living magazine. And they agreed.

And you know what? Within weeks of their ad appearing in that senior living magazine, their phone rang off the hook with new clients saying they saw their ad.

Listen to your client to figure out what they need.

It’s essential to listen to the client and understand what they think they want. This will help you to figure out what they need. Then it’s up to you to explain to them that there’s something else they need that they don’t see.

I had another client who started a subscription box that offered science experiments for kids ages 3-8 years old. It was two moms, and they wanted me to design their marketing material. The sketches and layouts they presented of what they wanted me to create were juvenile. When I asked about them, they said they wanted something that appealed to young children. They had even asked their own kids’ opinions on their sketches.

I asked them how many 3-8 years old could afford to spend their allowance on a monthly subscription box? They looked at me like I was crazy. Then one of the ladies explained that the kids weren’t paying for the subscription box. Their parents are. To which I replied, “Exactly. So why are you marketing to the kids when you should be marketing to the parents?”

Instead of explaining to young children how much fun they’ll have doing these monthly science experiments, they should explain to mothers how their subscription box offers something constructive for kids to do. It’s an educational pastime that doesn’t involve kids looking at a screen. It’s a bonding experience between them and their child. And it will improve the child’s knowledge of science which will help them in school.

You know what? They had never considered marketing to parents and thought it was a brilliant idea. Now imagine if I had simply designed what they originally wanted when they first approached me?

What clients want and what they need are often two different things.

What clients want and what they need are often two different things, especially when it comes to graphic design and website development.

Clients often come to you with an idea of what they want their finished product to look like. They might have images or a style in mind, but that’s usually where their ideas stop. It’s often hard for clients to see the bigger picture.

They may want a flashy website that is all about them, or they see something on another website and want it on theirs, but they may not need all of the bells and whistles.

As designers, we need to interpret what our clients want while still giving them what they need. And often, what clients need is someone like you who can take their vague desires and turn them into a functioning reality.

Sure they want an attractive website, and you can do that, but what they need is a website that functions for their business. This means striking a balance between the two and creating something that meets their wants and needs. It can be a challenge, but it is essential to create a successful final product.

It’s not always easy.

With some clients, this will be easy. With others, it might be more difficult.

Sometimes it’s as simple as suggesting different fonts or colours than they originally had in mind.

I recently designed podcast work for a client and submitted two different ideas. He liked the layout of option one but preferred the font I used in option 2. He asked if I could use the font from option 2 in the first one. I told him no. The font from option two wouldn’t fit the layout of option 1. What he wanted wouldn’t work.

Or you might need to steer a client away from using too many images, making their website too busy or convincing them to eliminate things that don’t help them.

Other times you may need to suggest alternative or innovative ways to accomplish something the client might not have thought about.

A recent website client wanted me to create a page on their site to list all the books they recommend. They wanted a page they could edit whenever they wanted to add a new book. They would add the latest info and format it to look like the rest.

Instead of doing what they wanted, I added custom fields to the website and created a section to enter book information quickly. Now, whenever they want to add a new book, all they have to do is click a “Create Book” button I made for them, fill out a simple form, and the information will automatically show up on the page already formatted.

The client can’t believe how much easier this method is than what they were doing before and has thanked me several times for designing it that way. It wasn’t what they wanted. But I figured it was what they needed. And I was right.

The point is that you need to adapt your designs to fit the client’s needs, not the other way around. That doesn’t mean you never have to do what the client wants, though. It is a compromise. And on some occasions, if you’re lucky, what a client wants and needs turns out to be the same thing.

Conclusion

When you give a client what they need, especially when it’s not something they considered initially, they are more likely to be satisfied with the work you do for them. They’ll appreciate your out-of-the-box thinking. They’ll feel like you took their needs into account and over-delivered.

Remember, good graphic designers and website designers take the time to learn about their clients and what they’re looking for before starting any project. Use your skills and experience to figure out what your client needs and deliver on it. This helps ensure that the client is happy with the final project.

This may be harder for newer designers. Knowing what clients need comes from experience. Often, ideas for new clients come from interaction with past clients. The more you work at this, the easier it will become. At that point, you truly become a problem solver, and not just a “yes person.” meaning someone who simply follows orders. And that opens up a whole new opportunity for your design business.

Remember, your goal as a design business owner is to make money. And when word gets out that you can take what a client wants and turn it into what a client needs, clients will be lining up to work with you, and the money will start flowing in.

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