11 lessons from my first year in business
Last week I celebrated my first year as a full-time freelancer (happy dance)! I have just relied on my mind and skills as a marketing geek and copywriter to pay the bills! It's been a wild ride full of doubt, growth, failure and high fives. And while there have been some shitty and challenging times, I'm certainly a lot wiser for it and wouldn't trade it for the world. Here are eleven lessons I've learnt that might help other start-up businesses, solopreneurs and freelancers take that fearless leap to be your own boss.
#1 Relationships Matter
The majority of my clients (probably 90%) have come from people I know. I'm talking past employers, colleagues who have moved into new roles, and people I've connected with at networking events. I reach out to them every now and then to ask about their business and say hello. This often leads to new work or a recommendation! So treat your contacts like gold and never burn a bridge. The ripple effect of good relationships combined with being a good human and doing good work is invaluable.
#2 Time Really Is Money (So Nail Your Processes)
I spent 10-ish years in the corporate world. If you had a shitty day then, you still got paid. As a freelancer, nobody is paying you but yourself. This is why processes and templates are your best friend because how you choose to spend your time can be the difference between making money and not. There are many tasks that will repeat in a business like proposals, quotes, emails and invoices - so take time to set up a system that makes rolling these things out easy. I use a paid client management tool called Dubsado which has been a gamechanger when it comes to workflows and automation. But you can also nail your flow for free. Just list out every step of the client journey, know what actions need to take place when, and prep your templates. Having good processes can take time to set up but will free you up in the future to connect with clients and get on with the work you love.
#3 You Are A Brand
I've had opportunities to pick up some dream-worthy clients. I've won a couple and I've lost a couple. And losing sucks. I realised a lot of it came down to my branding and how I came across to that potential client. My website was confusing, my proposals were plain and not representative of me at all and my social media had been coasting along. So think about how you present yourselves online. As a freelancer or service provider (or any brand for that matter) we are in the 'trust building' game. So if you can shortcut that road trust and build credibility more quickly, do it. Great branding is an awesome way to do. Knowing who you are as a brand, what you stand for, and making sure your marketing material reflects that will always put you one step ahead.
#4 Set Boundaries
The toughest lesson of them all! I see it happen all the time with newbie freelancers, we undercharge, we say yes to clients that we don't really love, and we let scope creep because we "need" the work. But doing this is a fast-track to hating your new found freedom. No one wants to feel undervalued. So get clear on expectations with your clients. Invest in a formal 'services agreement', add a clause that lets you charge for time delays and most of all, protect your time! That means making your working hours known to clients crystal clear (no weekends for example). Tell them what happens if they miss a deadline or pay an invoice late. There are always consequences, and these will impact your bottom line.
I actually heard something on the Your Creative Start podcast that gave me an idea - we should not only write a contract with our clients but write a contract with ourselves. It's something the sisters behind The Beach People did with each other to help set boundaries for their family and relationship. I love this idea! It means you can get really clear on what you will and won't accept and you'll become a better business person for it.
#5 Learn The Art of Resilience
Shit is going to happen. People will say no to you. The highs and lows are inevitable. And there will be times when you find yourself scrolling on Seek looking for a 'real' job. While those regular paychecks are a mighty tempting when you're eating 2-minute noodles for the fifth night in a row, I honestly believe that resilience is the single biggest trait any business owner or freelancer needs. Building this means we can continue pushing, getting back up, adapting and growing to be our best selves in life and in business.
I've been trained as a marketer and have been blessed with the opportunity to work across the entire marketing mix, but this meant that when I started freelancing I had no idea what to focus on. I cast the net wide and offered bespoke services bespoke to every client. I realised this was taking up a lot of time and meant I couldn't ever really be known for one thing. Think hard about what you love and stick to it. One year later and I’m finally honing in on what I love doing and my true zone of genius. For me, that is brand foundations, strategy and storytelling. And I predict I will probably narrow this focus down even more so in the future. The more simple the offering, the more you can nail it, the more recommendations you will get and the more skilled you will become!
#7 Trust Your Gut
If a client is bargaining you down on price or just doesn't seem to gel with you, proceed with caution. You might have felt that icky anxious feeling in your stomach when on a call or in a meeting (or even that really amazing butterflies excited feeling). Listen to this. It’s scientific, it's reliable, it's your nervous system trying to tell you something. So when you are onto a good thing chase it, when things feel off - they probably are. It’s a really tricky balance when you need the cash or you want to build your portfolio, but if you only choose the things that genuinely feel right, they are likely to be the best choices for you. And by saying no to something that doesn't fit, you are creating space for more of the right clients to come along.
#8 Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
It’s so easy to compare. When you see others getting ahead and feel like you are treading water, it can be paralysing. But it seems that while everyone looks cool on the surface, they have their fair share of challenges behind the scenes (just ask any startup or entrepreneur).One way I get out of this comparison trap is to remind myself that "no one will ever know what you know". We each have a completely unique life experience and skill set - if we can own that we'll all be just fine. Oh and don't forget that you can choose who to follow on Instagram or what email lists you subscribe to - if they are making you feel shit about yourself, time to unfollow.
#9 Collaboration Over Competition
I am a massive fan of community and collaboration. The industry is too small to battle against those in your field. And from what I've experienced, there is always enough work to go around. I treat my fellow marketers and freelancers like colleagues. We can bounce ideas, refer work and send virtual high fives on social media to support each other. Believe it or not, there will be times when you are too busy to accept a new client or perhaps you aren't quite the right fit - refer it to someone in your network, your client and freelancer pal will be stoked that you've helped them out. That's what Cool Wow Collective is all about. Your network is everything!
#10 Charge More
Setting your rates is one of the toughest things to do when you start. Generally speaking, most freelancers undercharge as they want to stay competitive or genuinely don't know if their work is valuable enough. Let me tell you, it is! You might quote for the time it takes to complete a task, but do you factor in calls, meetings, research, changes and contingencies for anything that might not go to plan (tech people I'm talking to you). I always quote for the time it will take me to do the project then add a project buffer (or profit margin) between 10%-30% depending on the complexity of the job and the particular client. If you feel like you're working hard but not making ends meet, maybe it's time to rethink your prices. Feel free to get in touch with me if you want an exercise that I've used work out a good rate for myself and other freelancers.
#11 Be Kind To Yourself
You have to stop and remember what a cool thing you're doing. You are chasing your passion, developing your skills and designing a job you love. How cool is that? It is a journey, it is meant to be fun and challenging. I try to remember to do one thing at a time, water the flowers not the weeds, sleep in sometimes, go to the beach, and actually enjoy the perks of this path that I have chosen. And remember, you are doing just fine!