Learning the ropes: 8 lessons for the newly self-employed

Just over a year ago I was toying with the idea of starting my own business. Around the same time I was offered a job with an exciting company, full of cool kids in the skinniest of jeans and sporting perfectly manicured beards. It was exactly what I wanted to do – but the salary was super low and I’d still have to battle the morning commute, applying eyeliner with someone’s armpit in my face.

So, I jumped. Nose first, brain later. I wanted to be in charge of my own little world and create something from nothing. And I wanted to set my alarm clock for 8.30am instead of 7am. I busily started to design my website, work on a logo and appear like I knew what I was doing. Cue the magical appearance of grey hairs, additional frown lines and general neurosis.

But here we are, 12 months later. I’m in one piece. I’ve paid my mortgage, been on holiday and have managed to build a customer base. I’m actually busy. So, what have I learnt? Well the simple answer is: a lot, so much my brain aches.

Below are the top eight lessons I’ve learnt from my first year as a freelance copywriter/teeny-tiny business owner.

  1. Think big, dream a lot, do your utmost

Currently you might call me a freelancer, or a consultant. And that’s fine, for now. The aim isn’t to stop there, even if I’m sometimes not sure whether I’ll make enough money to buy my morning Weetabix.

As you start the wonderful world of self-employment you will be swamped by moments of self-doubt, floored by black clouds of anxiety and spend some nights in a panic, but ultimately if you breathe through those moments and stick to your goals, you’ll achieve a semblance of whatever it is you’re aiming for.

In a year, I’ve gone from my sofa, to a desk (I built it, so obviously it wobbles) and now to co-working space which is brand spanking new and in Zone 1, London (BDC Works in Angel, it’s amazing). Next stop, exposed brickwork office, super sleek office chairs and Ska Content’s name above the door.

The only thing that can really stop you is your own lack of confidence. That’s not to say I’ve transformed into an egotistical maniac, but a healthy dose of “OMG look what you can do” goes a long long way.

  1. Networking is a weird and wonderful world

You know that snuggly comfort zone? Well when you start a business you need to get the hell out of it. Now no one would ever call me shy, but 12 months ago the thought of standing up in front of a room full of people I’d never met, pitching myself and my business to them got my armpits sweaty and my heart pounding. Now I do it as often as I can.

I had no idea what business networking was before starting Ska Content. I thought you met people and they magically became customers. But no, there are super helpful groups of business owners out there who will support you, applaud you and even use your services.

Don’t blag it though, there’s nothing worse than listening to someone at a formal networking event who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Be you, but multiply your personality by at least 10. If you don’t believe in your skills and experience no one else will either. Look up the The Athena Network, I joined this amazing group of women and haven’t looked back.

  1. Everyone has advice. Listen to it, don’t live by it

As with every walk of life, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes they matter, sometimes they should be left to fizzle out like a sad sparkler on Bonfire Night. Ultimately, you know what you can do and what is right for your business, as long as it feels right, go for it.

For example, within the first few weeks of my new venture, I was told that as a copywriter I needed to establish a niche so that people would understand what I do and use me. Now, this isn’t bad advice per say, but at that early stage and even now, I love writing about random subjects and will niche when I need to niche. I believe in taking baby steps, and the more you take you’ll learn which direction suits your business best.

  1. You will rarely stop thinking about work

This could be considered a downside. I left a very demanding career behind because it made me physically ill with stress and I could never stop thinking about it. Now, I still think about work constantly, the difference being I’m slightly in love with what I do. I have lovely clients and am writing daily. It’s sort of a dream come true.

Yes, there are many nights when I wish I could switch off my brain and stop thinking about intros to a blog about wedding cakes or how to enhance an extremely dull executive summary, but otherwise I am perfectly content being a small business owner. It’s mine. No one tells me what to do (although they do tell me when to do it by). I take pride in my work and enjoy it thoroughly.

  1. Know what you’re good at and find help for the rest

While I might be good at words, I can’t count. My 8-year-old nephew recently beat me at a times table competition. Long division? Errr….you’re having a laugh. As a small business owner, you wear every hat imaginable. You sell, you work, you market, you network, you do it all. So, it’s been with a certain amount of guilt and embarrassment that I’ve had to admit I can’t do my accounts. They are scary, there are many many numbers, and I find excel as interesting as daily episodes of Emmerdale ie. not very.

So, I’ve paid for an accountant. It does feel like a luxury, but ultimately my brain is at ease and my wallet will only ache temporarily. Do what you can, but know that sometimes you’ll have to pay out for services you think you should be able to do yourself.

  1. Procrastinate at your peril

Candy Crush is the enemy. Remember that when you log onto level 2,301 (my current level, yes, I’m a Candy Crush loser). When you’re not working on a client’s order, there’s always something to do. Sounds tedious, but honestly, it’s better than sitting at home watching Loose Women.

In the first four months of work, my orders suddenly dried up. It was deathly quiet. There was no one to write for, no beauty blogs to plan, no SEO keywords to research. I was terrified.  I dived under my blanket and watched five seasons of a Netflix show while crying into my poached eggs. What should I have been doing? Definitely not isolating myself and lamenting the lack of work. Self-employment can be lonely. It can be really quiet and a bit scary. Get through that and you’re already winning. Sit on the sofa and watch crap TV like I did and you’re going the wrong way about things.

Now I have established a daily rule. Even if I’m just walking down to Poundland to buy dishwasher tablets at least I’m still interacting with the world. I might live on my computer and work for myself but seeing and speaking to other people is so important for your sanity.

  1. Not all your clients will like what you do

As a writer, I’m a bit precious. I like people to like my work. In fact, I like people to love my work. So, when I completed an order recently and the client hated what I’d written, I was crestfallen. Shattered. While this has (thankfully) never happened before, I have always offered to rectify problems free of charge, but this client decided it was better if they wrote it themselves.

So instead of crying and pulling out my hair, in my new enlightened state, I took a step back and asked a few other people to read what I’d written. They all liked it. I asked someone in a similar field as my client to read it, she liked it. While this interaction knocked my confidence, ultimately, I had to move on and quickly. Writing is subjective, most creative fields are. The aim is to satisfy 99% of your clients and not let the 1% shatter you.

  1. Don’t be shy to talk about pounds and pence

I hate talking about money. I hate asking for money. But when you run your own business, if you don’t ask you definitely won’t get. This might seem silly, but I’m definitely not the only one who suffers from ‘hate-talking-about-pricing’ syndrome. When you start working for yourself you have to get over your fears and value yourself. Trust me. I have definitely learnt the hard way; lack of payment, pricing myself too cheaply, endless weeks waiting for an invoice to be cleared. Thankfully I got over this hurdle and quickly. But it’s definitely been a steep learning curve.

If you’re an established business owner, these points aren’t going to seem very ground breaking, more ‘business for dummies’ than deeply insightful. But for anyone in their first year of self-employment or thinking about starting their own venture, keep going! It’s definitely a time of self-discovery and learning to push yourself but if you love it already, you’re half way there.