12 Things I Learned In 12 Years Of Freelancing
“…are these the only things that I’ve learned these past 12 years? Hell no! But when I strip away all the ego, pride, fear, and other dubious emotions that have clouded me regarding wanting to run my own business in the first place, these are the things that stand out…”
So, it turns out that my web consultancy Cogeian Systems recently turned 12 years old. I've decided to share some of my experience from these 12 years. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't...but I hope it does.
1) Sometimes turning down work is a good idea.
I am a firm believer that freelance and consulting work is like sunlight; there's enough for all of us to get a tan. But sometimes it doesn't feel that way. Sometimes you're up against a mortgage payment and the sales funnel is covered in dust. In these moments, a nightmare client will *always* appear, sensing your weakness and desperation, enticing you with a big fat check (but not as fat as it would be if you weren't desperate), if only you can accommodate their abusiveness, idiocy, or micro-managing.
What do you do?
Well, I'd never suggest that you blow off a mortgage payment, but I will suggest this - when you are confronted with a client who throws up big red flags in the initial interview, ask yourself how critical is it that you close this job? Sometimes you'll find that it's not critical enough to subject yourself to misery. I do realize this advice is easier to stomach when you have an established client base, and I sincerely hope you get to that point, look back, and laugh.
2) Sometimes firing a client is an even better idea.
Again with the turning away revenue? Yes. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - some clients are more trouble than they are worth. If you accept a client who goes sideways on you, you need to look deep into yourself and your business and decide what that client is worth to you.
Losing sleep? Constant anxiety? Verbal abuse? Slow pay? Constant hand-holding? Ask yourself, what's the opportunity cost of all this? What economically productive thing could I be doing with the time I spend all wrapped up in this garbage? Opportunity cost is huge, way bigger than most people give it credit for. Every minute you spend on a bad, soul-crushing or unprofitable client is a minute you'll never get back.
Don't waste your minutes on horrible clients. Be brave and make the break.
"Get as much help as you can afford to get, as early as you can..."
3) However much you're sleeping, sleep more.
This isn't a "freelancing" issue so much as it is a "maintaining sufficient health *to* freelance with" issue. So many things in your body depend upon getting good recovery every night, both physically and cognitively. Don't believe me? Go ask the scientists who figured out that sleep clears your brain of toxins and cellular detritus.
As a freelancer, your cognition *is* your work product, in a very real way. Don't screw with it. If you're 25 and are capable of pulling all-nighters with no ill effects, don't get cocky; we could all do that when we were 25, you're not special. But every time you do that, you're adding mileage to what will eventually be your 40-year-old, worn-out-feeling brain. Instead, develop good work and sleep habits. It pays off.
Just...take care of your damn health, OK, young folk? Now get off my lawn.
4) Stay technical; skill rot is insidious.
This one is going to be controversial amongst the "subcontract all your work to a VA and go sip tropical drinks on a beach somewhere" crowd, and that's OK. Different strokes, and all there. Here goes:
Consulting can be tough in terms of getting to play with the newest and most interesting toys. Most W2 jobs have either downtime or a training budget. If you're a busy freelancer or consultant, this may not be the case. You'll likely need to schedule in time to noodle around with new technologies, the same way you schedule paying work.
And it's good for you. Cognitively, staying technical keeps you sharp. Professionally, staying technical keeps you relevant. And if you're a born coder, staying technical keeps you interested. Bear in mind that this is *not* an admonition to ignore any other skills that you may need to run your operation; it is merely a suggestion to maintain a level of technical skill that will help you stay connected to the work.
5) Get help early.
Even though you're staying technical, that doesn't mean you should be the only - or even primary - technical resource working on client projects. Get as much help as you can afford to get, as early as you can get it. Wait too long, with too big a client-base, and you'll be so personally enmeshed with your various client projects that you won't have enough hours in the day to train anyone else on them; move too soon, before you have a good base of billables in place, you'll spend yourself broke trying to keep an employee or subcontractor busy.
There is a happy medium, and it's going to be different for everyone. If I had to do it all again, I would seek help WAY earlier than I did, and I would use the time it freed up to drum up new business and deepen relationships with existing clients. A lot of us wait too long to get help. Take the hint. You can find help on oDesk, eLance, any of the popular job and gig boards, and even by working your personal networks of LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter contacts.
6) Run toward revenue vs. running away from expense.
It pays to be frugal in business, it really does, and staying frugal (but not cheap!) will help you pay for help and grow in those early years. But at a certain point, you will find that you've established a minimum level of overhead necessary for your business to function. Cutting below that yields you nothing, and can actually cost you money in terms of time & hassle.
When given a choice between "I should cut expenses" and "I should drum up some new work", unless you're operation is straight-up wasteful, bias yourself toward bringing new work in the door. Revenue (well, cash flow) is the name of the game. You can cost-cut yourself right out of business, but you're not likely to have to shut the doors because you've accepted too many big checks.
"Being gracious does not mean you have to be a pushover."
7) Charge more.
I'm tempted to post a picture of Patrick McKenzie here, but no. For whatever reason, loads of freelancers are hesitant to charge a healthy rate. Part of that is the mistaken belief that undercutting the competition is the way to get business. Part of that is a widespread self-esteem problem amongst geeks who were beat up and/or stuffed into lockers in elementary school (like me). And part of that is this feeling that what we do is pretty easy, so it doesn't seem right to charge much for it.
What you do may not seem particularly challenging or valuable...to you. But you're not the one hiring you, are you? You're not the one struggling with simple things like SquareSpace and Twitter and FTP, are you? You're not the one twisting in the wind on important project because you lack technical skills, are you?
No! You're not! You're the one they call to fix those problems for them. Your client reaps the direct return on investment of your work, reaps the cost savings of your work, reaps the psychological well-being of having your work be helpful, reaps the benefits of your work saving them time. And those problems, my friend, have real worth to your client. Realize that worth, and then ask for it.
8) Be less available.
I can hear you already..."wait, be less available? Less available. Less?"
Yes, less available! Do you jump every time the phone rings or an e-mail comes in? Do you drop what you're doing when a client demands that you build/design/set up this thing they want RIGHT NOW? Do you find that your workflow is more driven by interruption than directed by your own best efforts?
Try being less available. It will help with your focus on whatever work you're doing, and it will strengthen your professional boundaries (see #10, below).
Professionalism requires that you say "no" sometimes, remember? That applies in a lot of different scenarios. That's what the client hired you for, to know better than they do!
Don't be too quick to jump when someone says so. It's your business, you know when it's the right time to jump. Hold on to the power to make that decision, because when it's gone...you'll have one hell of a time getting it back.
9) Be gracious...
This shouldn't even need to be said, but *sigh*. There are plenty of jerks in the freelancing and consulting world. Nobody like them; clients hate them, vendors hate them, the press hates them, and other freelancers hate them, especially the "bad-mouth other consultants to help myself get work" jerks. Jerk.
Try to operate with a sense of graciousness in all situations. Maintain a respectful bearing with the people you encounter in business and try to never lose your cool where anyone can see you; the relationships you make (or break) can end up making (or breaking) you down the road. Kindness costs you nothing, but being a jerk may cost you a huge opportunity - or a whole series of them!
10) ...but hold your boundaries.
Being gracious does not mean you have to be a pushover. You never have to accept transgressive behavior from clients, employees, vendors, etc - never.
Setting strong boundaries for yourself and your business - such as always charging for change orders and scope increases, or never working on weekends, or not putting up with certain behaviors from employees - helps to establish you as an operator worth respecting, and serves as a clear reference point for resolving arguments later.
11) Be patient, but do it with a sense of urgency.
Sounds contradictory, right? Think of it this way:
- Your actions should be driven by a sense of urgency
- Your outcomes should be anticipated patiently
You can - and should - exhibit plenty of hustle in the execution of your day-to-day business activities, but even if you do all the "right" things the "right" way, there are no guarantees that those activities will pay off as quickly as you want them to.
The cold fact is, the universe laughs at your planned outcomes. By all means, handle your business, but understand that you may have to do a LOT of pump-priming in this business before anything starts flowing out of it.
"Cognitively, staying technical keeps you sharp."
12) Remember to play.
All work and no play makes...aw, you know the rest. Don't let your work be the only thing you pay attention to in your life. Running a freelancing/consulting operation is hard, and it can entail a lot of ups and downs in terms of stress, freedom, financial stability (or lack thereof), people having their hands out when the money is flowing, people not taking your career seriously, crazy clients, etc.
If you're going to ride that emotional roller-coaster, fine. But please keep your soul/spirit/psyche/emotional core/[insert pesudo-spiritual noun here] in good shape by having a life that is full...just not solely full of work!
I've decided to make it a baker's dozen and give you this additional thing I've learned:
13) Get the hell out of your office and in front of your clients
Call it marketing. Call it making yourself known to the community. Call it making friends. I don't care what you call it, but as a the owner of a freelancing/consulting operation, you need to do it.
All else being equal, people hire a known quantity. People hire someone they like. People hire someone they trust. You need to be known, you need to be liked, and you need to be trusted, and to do that, you have got to interact with people. You need to be a part of what's going on.
You can visit your existing clients in-person just to keep that connection fresh. You can try marketing at-scale in the form of seminars in your local business community. You or your staff can volunteer at any one of the various charitable goings-on you may find in your town. You can donate. You can put your newsletter in front of your clients. Take a client out to lunch & ask them to bring a friend (but do NOT pitch the friend at lunch!). You can submit articles to your local paper. You can attend fund-raisers for whatever non-profit happens to be helping whichever people you want to help.
All of these things help to establish you as a piece of the business firmament in your local area, and get you out in front of potential clients. Plus they're good for you.
* * *
Are these the only things that I've learned these past 12 years? Hell no! But when I strip away all the ego, pride, fear, and other dubious emotions that have clouded me regarding wanting to run my own business in the first place, these are the things that stand out.
If I had written this 5 years ago, it would have included idiotic bullet points like "the biggest check always wins", "I haven't won unless you've lost" and "out-working the other guy is always the answer". Ugh.
12 years is a long time to be in the pressure cooker, and it's more than enough time to boil away a lot of the BS that surrounds operating a freelancing/consulting business. Some of the things I used to think were vitally important weren't, and a lot of things that I never stopped to consider as factors (hello, sleep?) turned out to be huge.
There really isn't any way to know what it's going to be like until you do it, and I sincerely hope my 12 years of experience benefits you in some way.
* * *
P.S. …learning to respect my own business and not let clients push me around has been invaluable to my freelancing business, so much so that I wrote a free, 10-part e-mail course on the topic. If you have *ever* been bullied or made furious by your clients, this course (launching next week) can help you learn to establish professional boundaries, resolve conflicts, get more respect, and earn more money.
Sign up for the early interest list now to be the first one notified when the course launches. You don’t have to feel helpless in your freelancing business anymore.
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