21 years ago (almost to the minute at time of writing) I took the decision to become self-employed and quit the design firm I was a part of. It was time, I was sick of commuting, sick of doing work for the sake of working. So I headed home and set up Denial Design. 21 years ago.
Being self-employed is hard work, very stressful at times and despite what many, many people say, it is not an easy life where you can do as please. At least not at first!
The first few years were very, very hard. I was massively in debt, bordering on the poverty line more times than I care to remember. Some weeks I was surviving on a bag of rice with soy sauce and some smart price biscuits. If I could scrape the change together! On the plus side work was usually enough to keep me occupied all day (sometimes 16 hours a day or more) and just cover the bills but there were many months (usually around Christmas and school holidays) where work would unsurprisingly dry up. And with no savings in the bank getting through these months were very rough, financially and mentally.
More recently I have a great stable of regular clients and a much better financial footing! There’s still the odd quiet week or month but it’s no longer a disaster.
So what have I learned in the last 21 years of being my own boss?
Meetings are a waste of time.
I stopped doing meetings, chats and even phone calls about 15 years ago and never regretted it. Every single meeting I had in the first 6 years of running my own business and the 4 or 5 years before that working for design agencies made me realise that nothing was being said in these meetings that couldn’t be said in a very short email. Every. Single. Meeting. Same with phone calls. On the plus side you and the client both have a written record of what has been asked for with emails that both of you can refer back to. I also stopped collaborating with clients over instant messenger as it’s way too annoying working on something and the client’s chatting away asking for a dozen changes on different pages whilst your still working on the first change they asked for! So, IM, Zoom, Phone, Meetings, all gone.
Also bear in mind that this meeting time is time you could be spending doing something productive to bring in money to your company. No more spending an hour travelling to see a prospective client, an hour meeting and an hour back only to find out the client changed their mind a week later and decided not to proceed with the project and you’ve wasted 3+ hours (plus travel expenses) that you could have spent working on something that’s actually billable!
Keep the lights on.
Prioritise your bills. If neccessary put off anything that won’t keep the business going. That means keep the electricity and broadband on and a roof over your head. Everything else can wait a few weeks (or months if need be!). Extreme, but it got me through many tough months. I spent a long time catching up with bills when work picked up though! Cut back on everything you don’t absolutely need. If your clothes still fit and aren’t full of holes you don’t need new ones!
Take a break now and again.
Going for a quick walk can unblock most problems. If you’re struggling to work out a piece of code or other problem, leave it alone for half an hour or so. Do the washing up or go for a walk or do the shopping. Your unconcious brain will figure it out most of the time whilst you’re doing something else.
Make time for family / friends.
Spend some quality time with those you love. It might just keep your marriage intact. If you’re starting a new business the chances are you’ll be stressed about a whole heap of things, money, bills, not enough work, too much work! Don’t take the stress out on your family, use them to unwind a bit.
Word of mouth is the best form of advertising. By far.
I’ve tried print advertising, newspapers, flyers, Google Ads, business forums, meet-ups, social media, salesmen, the works. Hardly any of it works, if at all, and usually costs a fortune. Hey, even this site is basically a vanity exercise!
The best way to get work is to do a good job and let your clients spread the word. Businesses deal with other businesses who are all looking for someone reliable to work with. Same with non-business people. How many times have you been asked if you could recommend a plumber, electrician, plasterer, garage, etc? Word of mouth rules.
Keep your customers happy and they’ll keep coming back. For years.
Most of my clients keep working with me for many, many years. I’d estimate at least 7 years on average. Then circumstances usually change for the client either professionally or personally and they’ll move on. Sometimes they’ll tell you they’re moving to a different firm, sometimes you find out the hard way! Sometimes they come back though!
If a client needs a small change making on job, like 5 minutes or less, just do it. It’ll take you longer to invoice them than do the job and the client will be happy. Just make sure they don’t take the piss!
Respond quickly and courteously to emails. Tone of voice is very important in written communication as you have no visual signals to pick up on. So be polite, clear and concise. It’s very easy to upset someone with the wrong phrasing. For example “Can you please fix this issue?” can come across as angry (“Can you please fix this issue?”) whereas “Can you fix this issue, please?” is less difficult to misconstrue.
Don’t do work for free.
I know this contradicts the point above about doing small jobs for nothing but in this case I’m talking about big jobs, full projects. Don’t do anything because “it will look good in your portfolio.” You’re better off taking a “lesser” job that actually pays. Your “portfolio” won’t keep the lights on.
Contracts are usually a waste of time.
Get a clear idea (or even better a full written brief) for a job and deliver on the brief and you’ll get paid. Be clear upfront about your costs. I charge 50% up front that’s non-refundable to cover the time I spend on a job. If the job gets cancelled after a week or two that’s up to the client and they’re out of pocket and you’re not. Balance payable within a week of the site going live (longer for regular customers). No contract needed. Ever.
So there we are, 21 years of self-employed “wisdom”. It’s still long hours, a lot of effort and people still ask when I’m going to get a “proper” job, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It was the best decision I ever made.