So it was September of last year when I formed my LLC and officially launched my freelance writing and media consulting business. I freelanced as a sideline for about six months before I was able to quit my corporate job and become a full-time entrepreneur.
It was the single best career move I ever made. I. Love. My. Job.
Since this month is my official one-year anniversary, I’ve been doing a little reflecting on how things have gone so far. It hasn’t all been sunshine and roses, but for the most part, it has gone much better than I could have ever imagined.
One of the smartest things I did in preparation for starting a business was informal market research. In other words, I asked a shit-ton of questions, specifically of other writers and consultants who are making a really good living working for themselves. Their advice was priceless, and I continue to put much of it into practice every day.
In recent months, several of my friends have taken notice of my success (not to mention my unabashed joy) since going out on my own, and they have asked me to share how I did what I did, and continue to do what I do. Since similar counsel was given so freely to me, I am more than happy to pay it forward.
I’ve still got a lot more to learn, I’m sure, and I am nowhere near the level of success I would ultimately like to have. But so far, so good. I have a small cache of loyal, fabulous clients, and I am able to pay my bills on time, despite my sporadic income.
All in all, life is damn good, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
That said, here are three lessons I have learned during this first year that might help another would-be entrepreneur.
1. Hours. Treat your business like a regular job. A good friend of mine in Chicago called me a month or so ago after he landed a position that he learned would be home-based. He knew I had made the transition from a downtown office building to the comfort of my Highlands bungalow, and he wanted to know if I had any tips to share about staying on track. He is a musician and was worried he would be tempted to pick up his guitar during a lull in his workload, and then end up pissing away an entire day.
I am much more OCD than ADD, so I don’t tend to get distracted as easily as my friend might, but I still find it necessary to treat my Monday through Friday like a real workweek, setting aside nearly all household tasks during the normal 9 to 5 as if I weren’t home. If I am in my home office, I am focused on work. That said, it sure is nice to be able to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day on a Tuesday.
I set an alarm, make my bed and (eventually) get dressed every day. I also knock off as close to 5 p.m. as possible. Some days it’s 4 p.m., other days it’s closer to 6.
Psychologically, I have found that it is really important for me to set some pretty solid boundaries between work and personal time, else I end up working all the friggin’ time. I rarely work nights, and I never work weekends.
There were times this summer when I went to Lakeside at noon on a Thursday, stayed for three hours and then made up the lost work time that evening, but those occasions were rare. I’m very efficient, so most afternoons (and there were at least half a dozen of them) when I went to the pool during the week, I treated that time as a reward because I had kicked ass and rocked out at work that morning.
The bottom line for me was that I have to set normal business hours and stick to them as much as possible. I didn’t go into business for myself so I could work all the time… So I don’t.
2. Limits. Don’t impose any restrictions on what your business “should” look like. One huge lesson I learned in the past 12 months is to expect the unexpected. I went into business thinking I would get a certain type of work from certain industries and certain, specific clients. Boy, was I wrong.
Sure, some of the work I am doing today is predictable – I am freelancing for Business First, after all – but a lot of the clients I am working with, as well as the work I am doing for them, came from places I never would have expected.
I did a boatload of networking early on, reconnecting with a lot of old business contacts and making a bunch of new ones. About 75 percent of the people I talked with in those first few months never gave me the time of day after we met, much less threw me a project. No, it was the 25 percent who I didn’t think would have any interest in my services that have become my most dependable client base.
My media consulting services have been in as much demand as my writing, which has been a huge surprise. Also, there were certain high-profile networking events that I thought would net me a ton of viable contacts but turned out to be big fat flops. Mostly, it has been the smaller, more intimate groups that have netted me the best leads.
(FYI, business development is constant, and you have to keep active at it. I try to get to one event a week, or at the very least, schedule a meet-and-greet with a new business connection a couple times a month.)
The pretty picture I had in my head at the beginning of this journey of what my business was supposed to look like has faded away on the proverbial canvas. I have learned never to discount anyone I meet, no matter how unlikely they may seem. One guy I almost didn’t call back has become my favorite (and most lucrative) client.
3. Pricing jobs. This is still a work in progress for me. There are some projects I do over and over for multiple clients, and I have arrived at a price on those projects that makes sense to me, and to them.
I know how to price blog posts, for example. And press releases. And one-source, 800-word articles or marketing pieces. I also will be doing some PR for a Derby event again next spring, and I have a MUCH better idea of what I should charge for the second go-around than I did when I took it on initially.
But when a client asks me to do a job I have never priced before, I am pretty much shooting in the dark. I try to look back on similar work I did in the corporate world, but I didn’t have to track my hours then, so that’s not always a helpful point of reference.
I have found, though, that it’s better to over-estimate than under-estimate. That way, if it takes less time, my client is pleasantly surprised. And it keeps me from getting screwed, too. But really, it just amounts to trial and error, and then learning from experience.
As for my hourly rate, I am so grateful that a writer friend told me early on not to set the bar too low so that it didn’t get stuck there permanently. I’ve got almost 16 years of experience, I am good, and I am fast. So I am worth a higher pay grade than what some hack fresh out of college might command.
Yep, it feels SO good to finally be getting paid what I am worth. That may be the greatest lesson I have learned so far.
Anyhoo, these are just a few of the many things I have learned since I jumped into self-employment with both feet last September.
It has been a joyous ride so far, and I am hopeful that I’ll never have to get a real job again.
OK, now that this blog post is out of the way, I guess it’s time to get dressed.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After nine years, she's still just saying.