- 1 The $1,000 a Day Process Server
- 2 How to Become a Process Server
- 3 Job vs. Self-Employment
- 4 Promoting Your Business
- 5 Working With Clients
- 6 The Future of Process Serving
- 7 A Final Word
Since 2012, I’ve blogged about how to become a process server.
In that time, I’ve received thousands of emails from people who want to start a process server business and work for themselves.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad information on the Internet, some even meant to discourage people from getting started in the industry.
I’ve created this epic guide to set the record straight, and to assure you there’s never been a better time to become a process server.
With the advantages of modern technology it’s easier than ever, and you won’t need much more than your smartphone and a stack of business cards.
In fact, I specifically recommend against investing much money into your business until you’re already making a profit.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
- We’ll start by taking a look at what successful process servers have in common and exposing the biggest myths about the industry.
- From there we’ll cover marketing and promotion, including the simplest way to find your first client and how to promote your business without cold-calling (because everyone hates cold-calling).
But first, I’d like to share a story:
The $1,000 a Day Process Server
Steve wanted to become a process server so he didn’t have to sell the best years of his life to a blood-sucking corporation.
He ordered a stack of shiny business cards, bought the latest gadgets, and spent hours researching civil procedure.
But the clients only trickled in.
Steve never built the business he wanted, and I imagine he’s now working a regular job somewhere.
What went wrong?
Steve pursued his dream and put a lot of effort into making it successful.
But his problem wasn’t working hard; his problem was working hard in all the wrong places.
And as the business failed, Steve became desperate.
The few clients he’d managed to attract began to sense his desperation and jumped ship (there’s a reason they call lawyers sharks, they can sense desperation better than a 14-foot great white).
When I tried to help guide him in the right direction, Steve got defensive and wrote me a long email about how the whole industry must be a scam.
And I never heard from him again.
Now let’s talk about Carlos:
Like Steve, Carlos wanted to become a process server and work for himself.
He jumped right in, pursuing clients from day one, and went after them with a ferociousness I’ve rarely seen.
And was Carlos desperate?
Did he low-ball his rates and kill his business?
Just the opposite: Carlos set his fees above-market and when things got too busy he raised them even higher.
Was he worried about losing clients?
Of course not.
New referrals were lining up and the clients happy to pay his rates were usually easier to work with (more on that later).
The last time I heard from Carlos he told me he was making $1,000 or more on a busy day.
And he hasn’t emailed since.
I figured he’s too busy making money.
What did Carlos do that’s so different from Steve?
And how can you apply his success to your new process server business?
Carlos focused his energy in the right places.
He wasn’t worried about knowing every obscure piece of case law.
And he didn’t let his doubts and insecurities get the best of him.
Instead, he focused on finding and attracting clients (because without clients you’re not in business).
He built a website.
He passed out business cards and marketing letters.
And with plenty of clients and money coming in, the rest fell into place.
Here’s the real secret:
You don’t need any experience, a fancy degree, or a lot of money to become a process server (you can even start part-time while you keep your day job).
Instead, you’re going to figure things out as you go, without knowing every little detail or fact about the industry.
Without knowing every law and statute in the books.
Without a masterclass in civil procedure.
And without fancy and expensive equipment.
Yes, it’s scary.
But it’s the only way.
Time and time again I’ve watched new process servers struggle and fail before they even get past the first step.
They send me long emails with every obscure question and legal issue they can conjure up.
And they waste their own time thinking they need to be a legal expert to become a process server.
- The client gives you the papers.
- Serve them according to the rules of civil procedure in your state.
- Sign and file the return of service or deliver it to the client.
- Get paid.
That’s all there is to it!
Of course, there are some important details along the way.
Have confidence you can figure them out as you go, and don’t be like the newbies who get bogged down in endless research before they even get started.
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How to Become a Process Server
I got started almost by accident.
A co-worker needed some divorce papers served on his soon-to-be ex-wife and I agreed to help him out.
I had no idea what I was doing.
But I was determined to figure it out.
I’ll never forget that feeling of serving my first papers.
In fact, my hands were shaking so badly, I’m pretty sure I was more nervous than the defendant.
The whole thing was over in less than five minutes.
Was it scary?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.
But I learned more about process serving in my very first case than most newbies who never make it past the “research” phase.
And a week later I got another call from my co-worker.
Turns out a friend of his also needed a good process server, and he knew just the right person for the job.
A business was born.
And the rest is history.
In business, as in life, there are dreamers and there are “doers.”
And the doers are the ones making progress, learning from their mistakes, and getting things done.
But now, something I’ve been dying to clear up:
There’s a nasty myth floating around the process server community that you have to be an “insider” to be successful.
Fathers teach the business to their sons.
Families work together to protect their closely guarded secrets, and no outsider has a shot in hell at getting their foot in the door.
This is bullshit.
Clients don’t care who your daddy is.
All they care about is getting their papers served in a timely manner by someone trustworthy and reliable.
Be that person and you’ll have all the business you can handle.
There are no secret circles, no Illuminati of Process Servers.
The field is open to all who wish to play.
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Job vs. Self-Employment
There are two main categories of process servers:
- Those who work for someone else, either as a regular employee or independent contractor.
- Those who are self-employed and own their own business.
Most process servers work as independent contractors for existing process server agencies.
You’ll see these positions advertised on job boards, Craigslist, or in the local newspaper.
The requirements are often low, and it’s fairly easy to get started.
The biggest advantage is that the agency supplies the work. You won’t need to worry about running a business or finding clients, and it can be a good way to get some experience before pursuing self-employment.
However, the pay is often quite low, usually about $12-$15 per serve, which means you’ll need to serve a lot of papers every day in order to make a living.
As with any job, the lion’s share of the revenue is kept by the owner, while they pay you only a small fraction of the revenue.
And there are some additional drawbacks:
- For tax purposes you’ll be classified as an independent contractor and will have to withhold and file your own taxes. Essentially, you’re in business for yourself and a small mistake could mean owing Uncle Sam a lot of money at the end of the year.
- You lack the security of a traditional job. If the agency you work for loses clients and there’s no work, your income will take a hit.
- Benefits are usually not provided, which means you’ll need to buy your own health insurance (and you can forget about paid vacations or sick days).
- In most cases, you’ll need to provide your own smartphone and transportation (including the cost of fuel and repairs).
The alternative to working for someone else is self-employment, and it’s easier than you might think to start your own process server business.
While you’re still responsible for withholding your own taxes and covering your expenses, you get to keep 100% of the fees you charge, so you have the potential to make a lot more money with less work.
Here’s a quick example:
Let’s suppose you work for a process server agency who pays you $15 per serve.
In order to make $200 per day you would need to serve at least 13 papers.
That’s a lot of fuel and time spent driving all over town (and remember that it often takes more than one attempt to complete a serve).
Now imagine you work for yourself and bill your clients $50 per serve.
You would only need to serve 4 papers a day to make the same amount of money.
In fact, you could work part-time while keeping your day job (at least in the beginning) and still make more than most people do in a day.
The choice is obvious to me.
But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
And self-employment just isn’t for everyone.
If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect of promoting your business and finding clients, then perhaps working for someone else is a good way to test the waters.
If on the other hand you’re like me, and you crave the freedom that comes from working for yourself, then it’s worth the effort.
This guide is for you.
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Promoting Your Business
You’re not really a process server until you serve your first papers.
And you can’t serve your first papers without a client.
Like Steve, the process server who never got his business off the ground, if you spend too much time on the details and not enough time finding clients, your business will go nowhere.
So who hires process servers?
Basically, our clients fall into one of two categories:
- Private individuals who need a process server for one case. These are often divorce or small claims cases, and the client is working with a self-help document preparation center or a no-frills attorney. When it’s time for their papers to be served, they look for a process server. I’m happy to serve these clients, but they rarely result in repeat business.
- Attorneys, landlords, and corporations who regularly file legal actions such as lawsuits or evictions. This is the bread and butter of our business, because if you can form a relationship with these clients they’ll generate a lot of repeat work.
While I recommend leaving some of your business cards with the local self-help document preparation centers (so they can pass them along to their clients who need a process server), the second category is where you should be focusing your marketing efforts.
It’s the full-service divorce attorneys, real estate attorneys, landlords, and collection agencies who generate the most work.
What Clients Really Want
I’m going to let you in on another secret:
Unfortunately, there are a lot of really bad process servers out there.
At best, they fail to follow up and bounce from client to client.
At worst, they act like tough guys, and get a kick out of banging on people’s doors.
You know the type.
They’ve got all the latest tactical gear and read Soldier of Fortune magazine.
Let me tell you, attorneys hate these types.
They’re a liability.
And there’s nothing attorneys hate more than liability.
Imagine for a moment you’re a lawyer.
You’ve spent weeks, maybe even months, preparing a big case and now you’ve got to hand the paperwork over to a process server.
Everything rests on this person’s ability to do the job.
Do you want a tough guy, or do you want someone reliable, smart, who can be counted on to serve your case with ethics and integrity?
Of course, the choice is obvious.
Fortunately for us, these bad or just plain incompetent process servers create an opportunity, because if you inspire confidence in your clients and act with intelligence they’ll choose you every time.
But don’t get me wrong, not all process servers are incompetent.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Our industry is filled with diligent, honest, hard-working people who give it their best everyday.
So how do you compete in such a market?
The single most effective way to differentiate yourself from the competition is to be expensive.
Resist the urge new process servers have to set their rates too low.
In most cases, law firms don’t even pay for the process server.
They pass the expense along to the client and may even charge more than what the process server bills, profiting from the difference.
Attorneys don’t care what you charge per serve.
What they care about is getting their case served in a reliable, timely manner by a professional.
When you set your prices too low, it looks needy and amateurish.
It’s a red flag.
Believe me, attorneys can spot needy people.
Above-average rates project confidence and a full schedule.
You’ll also attract better clients who appreciate your time and personal attention.
But it goes beyond the client:
To make $200 a day at $35 a serve, you would have to make six serves per day.
At $70 per serve you only have to make three good serves to break $200.
That’s half the drive-time, half the gas money, and half the effort to make the same amount of money.
So even if you charge more and serve less papers you can still come out on top.
Know Your Competition
Here’s something you can do in the next thirty minutes:
Head over to Google and search for process servers in your town.
Spend half an hour exploring what other process servers in your area are doing with their businesses.
Have fun. Who doesn’t love a little harmless snooping?
You’ll likely find a range of businesses from high-volume firms with multiple employees (or contractors) to single-person operations being run from a home office.
Here are some things to note:
- The types of service each company offers.
- Whether or not they post their rates online—if so, what are they?
- Features of each website that you find appealing—which ones improve the company’s image and which make it worse?
- How are the process servers building trust? Is it effective? What makes them seem untrustworthy?
- Do they include a phone number or a web form?
- Are they using client references and testimonials? Do they have any photos? Do they hurt or help their image?
- And anything else you find noteworthy or compelling.
The goal is to understand your playing field. That way, you can stand out from what others are doing and develop your own position in the market.
One example of this is what Apple did with the iPod.
Before the iPod we all carried those big floppy CD cases (I remember bragging to friends about having 240 CD’s in my car).
And before that we had tapes and records.
I’m not saying there weren’t other .mp3 players when Apple released the iPod. There were. But most of them were unreliable and cheaply made. And the software needed to “sync up” was usually pretty spotty.
Apple saw a hole and filled it.
They made it easy for the average, non-technical person to download an album and have it playing from their iPod in minutes.
And people loved it.
Although the marketplace has shifted and Apple has many emerging competitors, their position as the innovator behind the iPod contributes to their brand today.
Even the massive success of the iPhone can be traced to the now-humble iPod. It set the tone for things to come.
The process server market in your area is no different.
It has gaping holes just waiting to be filled. As you survey your competitors (and now colleagues) consider how you might fill one.
Take ten minutes and brainstorm a short list of the unique strengths and advantages you can bring to your business.
Also, consider how those strengths can benefit your clients.
Do you have a background in customer service? Then offer the best service in town.
Are you experienced in a similar field? Maybe you’re a veteran or retired police officer?
Or perhaps your strength and tenacity come from being a single mom?
It’s going to be different for everyone.
You’ve just got to be creative and dig a little.
Crafting Your Unique Selling Proposition
Suppose you’re at home watching the boob tube and enjoying your favorite take-out.
Suddenly, you bite something hard. Really hard. Pain sets in…then more pain.
First it’s just your tooth, but within moments it’s spread through your jaw.
Your eyes are watering.
Your head is pounding.
Who do you want to call?
The cosmetic dentist who promises “a million-dollar smile” in his ads?
Or how about “the friendliest dentist in town?”
They’re not terrible choices.
Both might be able to help you (good luck getting the cosmetic dentist on the phone after five o’clock).
But imagine you spot the following ad:
Severe tooth pain? I can help.
Emergency and after-hours dentistry.
Call Dr. John Cavitt: 303-555-0168
How does that strike you in the moment?
If it were me, Dr. Cavitt is who I would call because his unique selling proposition (help with severe tooth pain) appeals to my urgent need at that exact moment.
So what is a unique selling proposition?
In simple terms, it’s what you’re known for.
It tells a potential client what you’re all about and what you’re going to do for them.
Think back to the example of the dentists.
They’ve all been to dental school.
But each one presents their business in a unique way that features their strengths and attracts the clients who are looking for what they offer.
Take the list of strengths you brainstormed earlier and use them to craft a unique selling proposition of your own.
It’s a common mistake to think including your personal touch makes something unprofessional.
In fact, the exact opposite is usually true.
Giving the clients a real person to connect with goes a long way towards building trust and it’s central to creating a business you’ll love as much as your clients do.
I once met two process servers in Colorado who were both veterans, so they worked that into their USP. They feature their military service prominently and target attorneys who also served. It’s unique, it’s who they are, and it builds trust.
One of my favorite stories is the California process server who pedaled from law firm to law firm on his bike billing himself as “San Francisco’s Greenest Process Server.”
In San Francisco (known for progressive politics), he appealed to a whole bunch of “do-gooder” attorneys and he did quite well.
Not only did he meet their primary need (reliably serving papers) but he did so in a way that was memorable and appealing to his clients.
Success comes from satisfying your client’s needs in a way that no other process server can.
Scratch that itch and you’ll have clients coming back for years to come.
One question I’ve heard over and over is, “What’s the best way to get my first client?”
The fastest, cheapest, and most direct way to get your first client is to introduce yourself directly to law firms in your area.
Law firms are the bread and butter of our business. A small firm might only need you here and there, but a large firm could mean dozens of papers to serve each week.
Either way, repeat business means you score the client once and keep getting paid for months or years down the line.
So how do you introduce yourself?
It’s as basic as driving around to law firms in your area and handing out business cards.
Of course, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way.
It’s important not to think of this as selling.
You’re not a commissioned salesmen peddling the latest copy machine or a subscription to the newspaper.
Sales people annoy the heck out of law firms, especially the legal secretaries and paralegals that staff the front desk.
The wrong way is coming in with a polished script and shiny postcards that scream, “Toss me in the recycling bin!”
Instead, it’s a totally casual approach.
With no immediate commitment the pressure is lifted.
And it’s amazing what can happen.
Like Bradley’s story.
Bradley wanted to become a process server but he’d never served papers before.
So he decided to start by visiting 10 local law firms in Arizona.
The first few were unproductive, but he kept going.
Somewhere around the 4th or 5th firm he scored big.
The attorneys were practically jumping for joy to see him.
They had a huge case—13 separate papers—and were unhappy with their existing process server.
Not only did they hand Bradley 13 papers that day, but they went on to refer him to several other firms.
Bradley was ecstatic.
It’s a great example of how finding just one client can springboard your success.
Be like Bradley.
He didn’t have a website, or an office, or anything more than a basic understanding of civil process.
But he focused on the results, and found his first client in less time than it takes most newbies to file a small business license.
Bradley used a marketing packet—a business card stapled to the corner of a simple cover letter and rate sheet.
Here’s an example cover letter (feel free to rip it off and adapt it for your business):
January 21st, 2019
Dear legal professional,
My name is Richard and I’m a local process server in Denver.
I understand that finding a good process server can be tough. Problems range from high staff turnover to downright lousy attitude and customer service.
Here’s what I offer:
- A personal relationship: Your phone calls are answered or returned by me, not an answering service.
- Accountability and trust: I’m responsible for every completed serve. Problems and concerns are handled directly, never passed off.
- Friendly and efficient service: You relax. I handle the details. Simple online invoicing makes managing your bill a snap.
Contact me directly at 303-555-0168 to see if we’re a good fit.
Include a basic letterhead and print it on standard white paper.
Clean and modern is always more appealing than fancy design.
It’s important to remember that some legal practices generate a lot more cases than others.
For your first pass I suggest targeting divorce attorneys.
- Divorce attorneys are plentiful in most areas (just a reality in our modern society).
- They generate a steady flow of papers to be served.
- The defendants are easy to locate—the divorcing spouse can usually tell you right where they work.
- If the law firm doesn’t arrange for service of process (usually the case with self-help legal offices) they’re often open to referring clients to you.
The market might vary in your area.
You could have more success with real estate attorneys.
But divorce attorneys are a great starting point.
You can always expand out from there.
Don’t even waste your time with criminal attorneys. We’re dealing only with civil cases and there’s a clear distinction between criminal and civil attorneys.
Your initial goal should be to visit ten or twenty law firms in your area. By that point you should have several good leads or even one or two clients lined up.
Here’s another big secret they’re not going to tell you:
A surprising percentage of process servers are terrible at what they do.
Some are just plain lazy or don’t follow up with clients, others have the wannabe cop attitude I touched on earlier.
Savvy attorneys aren’t buying it.
And process servers come and go.
There’s always some new upstart or poorly-paid independent contractor ready to take the place of the last one.
So don’t be surprised that attorneys and paralegals have one eye open for a reliable process server.
Present yourself that way and they may give you a case or two to test the waters.
Your job is to prove yourself so indispensable they have no choice but to give you all of their work.
If you live in a big city, you already have an advantage because of the large number of law firms.
But if you live in a smaller city or town, consider teaming up with a process server in the nearest big city and exchanging work. Refer any work in the city to them and in exchange they refer any serves in your area back to you.
And don’t despair, because even small towns have law firms.
Position yourself as the go-to process server in the local community.
Sometimes being a big fish in a small pond is a good thing—all the minnows you can eat and no sharks.
Marketing Your Process Server Business with a Website
For those of us who hate cold-calling and going door-to-door (myself included), promoting your business with a website is a great option.
These days, not having a website is the same as not being in business, because the majority of people looking for a process server will go straight to Google.
I recommend building your website before printing up any business cards or marketing letters, so that you can list your website’s address on your marketing materials.
Either way, having a professional website boosts your image with potential clients and gives them a great way to contact you.
You might think it’s tough to build a website, or that you need to hire a designer.
I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.
It’s never been easier to create a professional website, even with no experience or design skills.
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Working With Clients
Your ability to work effectively with clients is just as important as your ability to promote yourself.
In fact, it’s even more important.
Because one good client can be worth thousands of dollars in revenue (even tens of thousands).
Think about it:
What do you get from one serve, maybe $40-$150 depending on the market you’re in?
Now imagine that same client gives you 10 papers to serve each week at a rate of $50 per serve.
10 papers x 52 weeks = $26,000 per year.
Focus on building strong relationships with your existing clients, so they give you work over and over again, possibly for years to come.
And even better, they refer you to their colleagues and you continue growing your client list, so that instead of spending all your time marketing you’re out making serves and earning real money.
This is why I remind new process servers to be patient in the beginning.
It’s tough when you’re just starting out and the money isn’t coming in, but if you can secure even just a few good clients you can build a real business with the potential to provide for you and your family.
Alternatively, if you’re not taking care of the clients you manage to attract they’re going to jump ship and take their business elsewhere, and you’ll spend all of your time with your wheels spinning in the sand.
I’m reminded of Mark, a process server I used to work with a few years back.
He was a hustler.
And the guy knew how to get clients left and right (I think he’d even sold used cars for a few years before getting into the process server business).
He’d spend all day on the phone calling law firms, and when he was finished with a serve he’d drop in on nearby firms and work his magic.
It was great.
The business was coming in left and right, and it looked like there was a lot of money to be made.
But Mark had one fatal flaw.
He was terrible at working with the clients he’d already lined up.
He didn’t return calls, didn’t respond to their needs and concerns, and they’d begin to question their business relationship.
Of course, he’d make some small talk and smooth things over.
At least for a while.
But it didn’t take long before they took their business to another process server, and Mark was back on the road hunting for new clients.
It was frustrating, because while Mark was great at bringing in new business, it was always slipping out of his fingers.
So what can you learn from Mark’s story?
- Always over deliver with a new client, especially if it’s your first client. This means serving the papers quickly, with as little hassle for the client as possible.
- Stay in touch with your clients! Provide them with regular updates on their cases, particularly if it’s a difficult serve and taking longer than usual (there are specialized apps for process server that make it easier than ever, but nothing beats a good old fashioned phone call).
Follow these two simple rules and you’ll have clients giving you their business for a long time.
And in the end it’s your bottom line that will benefit.
Billing & Payments
Part of working with clients is creating invoices and getting paid.
In our digital world, paper invoices just don’t cut it. People are used to paying online with a few clicks, and making it easy for your clients to pay means you get paid faster.
If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find quite a few websites that make it simple to bill your clients and get paid, but the one I use is called FreshBooks.
For a low monthly fee (starting at $15 a month as I write this) you can create professional invoices for each of your clients and accept credit cards with FreshBook’s built-in payment processing.
There’s no need for a separate merchant account or payment processor, and your clients will love the detailed invoices.
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The Future of Process Serving
The legal system in the United States has been largely consistent for hundreds of years, and the process server is a part of that system.
It’s a field that won’t disappear anytime soon.
But it’s evolving to keep up with the times, just like any other industry.
In the last few years we’ve seen service of process via electronic means, such as email and even social media, become accepted by courts when other, more traditional methods of service, have failed.
There was even a recent case in New York where service was made by Facebook.
While this is a new phenomenon, and personal service still accounts for the majority of serves made, it’s wise for any savvy process server to keep an eye to the future.
It’s likely more clients will request this type of service, and you may even consider specializing in alternative service to expand the revenue of your business.
But keep in mind that while non-traditional service is becoming more accepted, and will continue to grow in scale, the same rules apply:
Service must be made by a process server who is not a party to the case, who is legally authorized to serve process in their respective jurisdiction, and who will complete and file a return of service to the same standards as any case.
This means even with the changing landscape, the need for process servers won’t disappear.
And instead of spending our time driving all over town drinking to much coffee and eating far too many donuts, we’re more likely to find ourselves working from our laptops and iPads, more like a web developer or coder.
There will even be the opportunity to work remotely and in more than one state.
Can you imagine serving papers from home in your underwear or next to a beach somewhere?
It’s coming sooner than you think.
Another point worth making is the new requirement springing up in places like New York that all serves are date, time, and GPS location stamped.
Courts have grown frustrated with the problem of sewer service and require more than just the process server’s word that the papers were served correctly.
And there are some process servers complaining about this.
They see it as an intrusion into their business and a burdensome requirement.
But it’s actually a way to protect yourself.
In fact, some process servers even mount a digital camera in their vehicle or wear a small body-cam to record their serves.
In the event you’re questioned about the validity of a serve, wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to prove you did the right thing?
Process Server Apps
As a response to the GPS requirements, a number of companies have developed apps for your smartphone that automate the process of recording your serves.
You can take a picture of the address where you made the serve, and the app will record the date, time, and the exact GPS coordinates of your location.
Even better, many will send an automatic email or text message notification to your client when service is complete.
Each app has its own advantages and disadvantages, so I’m listing a few of the more popular ones for you to compare and decide which works best for you:
Paper Tracker: https://papertracker.biz
TriStar Software: https://tristarsoftware.com/process-server-software/
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A Final Word
If I could only leave you with one piece of advice it’s not to get sidetracked by the small stuff.
Despite the wealth of information I’ve provided in this guide, process serving at its core is a simple business.
Figure things out as you go.
Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.
And stay focused on finding your next client.
If you can do that, you’ll build a business that will outlast the trends, and provide for you and your family for a long time.