Snazzy new logo? Check. Website? Check. Solid business plan? Well, sort of.
Just over six months ago, I started a freelance communications business. With two decades of industry experience under my belt, including 7 years owning an agency, I was ready to truly work on my own. When I shared my plans to go solo with acquaintances, the response ran the gamut from, “You’ll be surprised how hard it is to make a go of it” to “They’ll be lining up to pay for your services as soon as you hang out a shingle”. The advice was well-intentioned but not particularly helpful as the people who provided it were speaking from their personal experiences which were informed by the economic environment in which their own freelance endeavours had flourished or floundered.
I didn’t prepare a formal business plan when I started and it would have been a waste of time if I had because the ups and downs of these two quarters have helped me clarify the kind of work I truly enjoy, the emerging trends I need to focus on and the amount of hours I want to spend building my business and more importantly, my personal brand. I also know that meaningful freelance work will always be a part of my life, even if I choose to become an employee or take a contract somewhere.
As I completed my own mid-year review, I challenged myself to write the five most valuable lessons I’ve learned so far. Here they are:
1. Flex time isn’t free time – As a freelancer, you need to be hyper-vigilant about carving out, organizing and protecting your work time. Sure, you can do your grocery shopping on a Wednesday morning but in order to meet client deadlines, you’ll probably spend a sunny Saturday afternoon holed up in front of your computer. The ability to work when and where you want is a selling feature of the freelance life but if you’re easily distracted, it’s probably not the life for you.
2. Do what you do best – When you freelance, there is no workforce, team or department to share your mistakes, absorb your poor judgement or fix your mediocre work. It’s just you and while it’s tempting to be a jack of all trades, you need to zero in on your strengths and build your business around them. Work only with clients who are a good fit with your skills, approach and expertise and only accept assignments you know you can excel at.
3. Build your brand relentlessly – If a potential client Googles you, what will they find? If you’re a freelance communicator, their search should reveal a current website, a showcase of your content in the form of a blog or newsletter, a professional presence on Twitter and Linked In, examples of how you give back to the industry through volunteering or mentorship. You need to make time to cultivate a professional reputation that goes beyond your paid work.
4. Network strategically – As a sole practitioner, you can spend your life in coffee meetings. A few will yield paid work eventually. Others will spark new friendships. Some will frankly be a waste of time – time that could have been spent meeting deadlines, building your brand or learning something new. Networking is imperative to your success but decide how many hours you will devote to it and be judicious about how you approach it.
5. Learn to say no – The word “no” is a freelancer’s best friend so learn to use it and use it with conviction. Say “no” to people who want you to work for free, family members who need you to pick up dry-cleaning, work that doesn’t fit your abilities, and endless, drawn-out RFP processes with minimal chance of success. Learning how to effectively say “no” will enable you to say “yes” to more of the things that will make you happy.