In June last year I went back to school at a boot camp for entrepreneurs, to brush up on the practicalities of running a business. As well as making new like-minded friends and exploring necessary evils (tax), what really interested me were presentations from successful entrepreneurs. People who’ve already navigated the rocky road along which I now find myself hurtling.
A talk from guest speakers Plus Minus Design got me thinking: if I was invited back years later, what would I say to fresh-faced entrepreneurs? What golden nuggets of advice could I impart to a crowd of ambitious new start-ups who choose not to adorn the shackles of salaried employment?
So this post is pitched somewhere between catharsis and helpful advice, it’s a work in progress too. Self-employment is a steep learning curve, but thankfully it’s one that’s been surmounted by countless successful individuals, some I’ve met, some I’ve read about and whose sentiments I’ll now attempt to echo in my own words.
Keep the faith
Sustained belief in an idea is tough. Especially when you’re faced with others who’ve been executing it for longer than you and have a big fat portfolio of clients to prove it. It’s also easy to start doubting your abilities when comparing yourself to others, especially in creative disciplines like copywriting and photography. I’m reminded of a line from a piece of prose that’s been stuck to the back of my Aunt’s toilet door for as long as I can remember:
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
OK, so Desiderata is a bit preachy, but the message is clear. Use the work of others not as a benchmark, but a stepping stone: the next level to strive for. It’s also important to remember that our incumbents and competitors sometimes use smoke and mirrors: they’re still human, they make mistakes and they too had to start somewhere. As long as you’re learning and pushing yourself that’s all that matters.
Confidence is the fuel in any entrepreneur’s furnace, it’s the drive that’ll propel you through the feasts and the famines of self-employment. Plus, if you can’t be confident in your abilities and achievements then how can you expect prospective clients to be?
Working from home is probably the most seriously underestimated challenge to the self-employed individual. During the infancy of a venture, you’re living hand to mouth and one of the easiest ways to keep overheads down is to seal yourself off from the world in the spare room. But that’s exactly what’s bad about it: you’ll be locked away from serendipitous run-ins with potential leads, the comforting buzz of a creative workplace and healthy social interactions with other humans.
We’re social creatures, we need opinions and sanity checks from other people as well as the natural breaks provided by friendly conversations. After a long spell of working at home I was lucky enough to get a coworking hot desk at NTI Leeds but there are plenty of other business incubators in Leeds, like the Round Foundry, QU2 and The Unit for example. There are always cafés with wifi too.
It takes time
And how. When I’m hand-holding clients through the intricacies of social media, I begin with this quote:
“Social media reflects real world relationship building and like real life it takes time to build trust and experience mutual benefits.”
Getting on people’s radars takes time, patience and perseverance. There’s also something in there about if you shout loud enough and for long enough someone will eventually hear you. Networking is a real slow burner. But just when everything seems quiet, someone somewhere might be talking about your work, recommending you and everything could change with just one phone call.
Adapting to the pace of business start-up is tough too. Especially if you’re used to having instant access to workload, colleagues and information in an employed capacity. And it’s tough too after the excitement wears off and the dust has settled. But that’s when keeping the faith really counts.
Push your luck
A natural successor to the previous point: fortune favours the brave. When I was a lowly cold-caller many years ago, I pretended I knew MDs to get past gatekeepers and talk to decision-makers. Of course I’d never do that now, but sometimes to get noticed you have to be a bit cheeky, force yourself upon people and pester them. Try different things, even if they defy your normal rules. Here’s a great quote I read on Twitter recently:
“You cannot grow AND hang on to your comfort at the same time.”
Since becoming a freelance copywriter I’ve worked the occasional 14 hour day quite happily. Why? Because it’s under my own steam and on my terms. There’s something deeply liberating about being your own boss. Suddenly no one is making you do anything, you choose how and when to work on the things that you enjoy the most. Sure it’s sometimes not very well-paid or even not paid at all, but everything you produce will be a creation that you can wholeheartedly put your name to.
Be prepared for the long-haul too. Every self-employed person I’ve spoken to has told me to be in it for the long run. Some have suggested it can be a year or two of less-than-ideal work before things really take off. That’s pretty daunting if you’re faint-hearted. No wonder so many ventures fail or don’t even get off the ground at all.
Do you have any advice?
You’re welcome to add your own tips or tear mine apart. I’ll follow this post up with new thoughts and observations as I ride the self-employment roller-coaster. And for your home work, read the 10 Business Commandments for Entrepreneurs.