Figure 18 in a landscape with flowers
October 18, 2021

In October 2021, I celebrate 18 years of self-employment.  Making the decision to go freelance has allowed me to create your own career.  It’s not always as easy path, but I’ve found it exciting and interesting. To celebrate this “coming of age”, here are 18 lessons from my experience. I hope they will spark some helpful thinking, for you.

1. Get clear on what you want

.It’s important to get clear about what’s important to you, and know that this may change as the months and years go by. Having a clarity of purpose will help you succeed. It will provide a focus as you aim to create a job or business you love. And it will help you to navigate the downsides along the way. 

A job, career or calling?

A job will pay your bills. And all working lives comprise a series of jobs. But it’s difficult to stay motivated and deal with the inevitable challenges of self-employment, if it’s "just a job". 

Ideally you will be working towards taking on a series of jobs which build up to form a career. A career has a sense of progression. It means you are continually learning and improving. 

A career becomes a calling when you have a deep inner sense that you’re in the right field. You feel that you're doing the work you were meant to do. It can take a while find this vocation or calling. But when you do, there's a deep sense that you’re in the right place, and going in the right direction.  

And beyond even an inner calling is a sense of a higher purpose or mission. That you’re not only doing the right work for you, but you’re having the impact that you want to make, on the wider world.

My self-employment journey started with wanting to take responsibility for building my own career. I wanted a career where I could keep on learning and growing. My interest in learning has kept me motivated. And over the past 18 years, my inner sense of vocation and of being on the right path has    deepened. 

2.  Be open and willing to learn.

Self-employment is a continual process of learning. Not only do you need to be good at delivering your services, but you need to learn how to run a business and generate work. 

As a trainer, I discovered the challenge with learning my trade of training delivery is that you make your mistakes in front of an audience. Even when I messed up in the early days, I reflected, learnt, sought support. This helped me developed into a consistent and confident performer.

3.  Seek support from others: mentors, coaches, peers. 

Mentors tend to be people who are a few steps (or many steps) ahead of you. They can offer advice and guidance as well as encouragement, and potentially introductions. Coaches can help you identify and reach your business and personal goals.

It's also valuable to connect with your peers in mutually supportive relationships. This helps you to learn and develop alongside others in your field. It’s been vital to me that I had people who believed in me, especially in times when I was struggling to believe in myself. Peer-to-peer relationships have helped develop my skills, confidence and courage.

4.  Be wholehearted in saying “Yes”.  

To learn and grow, you need to take on projects that are a stretch. Projects where you know you have the potential to do well, but that will involve you growing beyond your current knowledge and skillset. When you commit, go into a project wholeheartedly. Lean into your potential, learn all you can along the way, and do the best job possible.

5.  Be willing to say no. 

When your business is about selling your time (or products that have taken time to develop), you need to be ruthless at times about saying "no". Saying no to projects that don’t play to your strengths or meet your vision, frees up time to focus on projects that meet your higher purpose or calling.

This doesn’t mean that every job will be your dream job. Sometimes you may need to take on work purely to pay the bills. In this case, do the job as well as you can. But if you can afford to, don’t fill up every hour of your schedule with work that doesn’t light you up. Keep some slack in your week. Use this for learning, and then if a great opportunity comes up, you’re more likely to be able to accept.

6. Learn to sell.

Selling skills are essential to freelance or small business success. And they are not rocket science. We sometimes shy away from the idea of selling. Perhaps the word conjures up an image of some sleazy car salesman talking us into buying a dodgy motor.  But ethical consultative selling is simply the process of finding out what a prospective client or customer needs and wants. And then, letting them know if and how you can help.  And if you can’t help, letting them know that too. Selling is helping people to solve their problems or achieve their goals. Sell with integrity and enjoy the impact you can have.

7.  Get to grips with marketing. 

Marketing is the process of letting people know what you do. This is partly the initial raising of awareness that you and your services exist. It's making yourself known to people who may not yet have heard of you. And it’s also about staying in touch with people who have worked with you. Showing them you value them, and updating them on anything else you offer that could be helpful.

Good customer care is marketing. Sharing helpful articles or information is marketing. Asking for referrals or recommendations is marketing. If you’re new to this subject, I recommend the book Watertight Marketing by Bryony Thomas for a comprehensive, ethical approach.

8. Turn on your BS detector. 

Whatever field you’re in, it won’t be long before the giants of the web find out. And internet marketers will start to serve you ads offering you easy ways to make a six figure income in your field using a few "simple" steps or so-called secrets. To save you time and money on these courses, here are some ways that you can increase your income:

  • Serve more clients.
  • Increase the volume of work you do for each client.
  • Raise your rates.  

There is no magic formula to guarantee success. But the following approach will help:

  • Deliver work to a high standard
  • Be consistent with whatever marketing channels you choose
  • Invite the right people into sales conversations
  • Charge a fair rate for your skills; don’t under-sell yourself
  • Ask satisfied clients for referrals or recommendations
  • Make sure existing clients know the full range of services you offer.

9.  Build your network. 

A network needs both breadth and depth. Knowing more people opens you up to more opportunities. Deeper relationships increases the chances of receiving quality referrals or offers. And be willing to refer work to others, when you can.

Supporting other business owners and freelancers is worthwhile for many reasons. It supports a viable small-business sector; it feels good to help others; and it builds your own reputation for being helpful and generous.

10. Work with others

Collaborating on projects or join ventures has many benefits. You get someone to bounce ideas around with. You have a wider marketing reach. You may bring complimentary skillsets. You can give and gain mutual support through difficult times.

One of the best moves in my independent career was setting up Stepping Up Training with collaborator Maggie Piazza. We're an approved ILM centre, and help managers achieve professional vocational qualifications.

11. Be flexible and open to change. 

As we all know from Covid (if we didn’t know already!) the operating environment can change very quickly. And there are slower changes - less dramatic, but they mean the world of today is very different to the world of five or ten years ago.

When lockdown was introduced, I was able to adapt quickly and enthusiastically to online delivery. This flexibility allowed me to grow some aspects of my business during this period. To give an example of a slower change: when I set up as an independent consultant, there was more public funding available for projects in my sector. This meant more work for freelancers on delivery of some of the elements of these projects. As some of these funding streams ended, I needed to find other ways to generate income.

12. Learn to set time boundaries.  

For example, time-box projects by giving yourself a set time for completion. Avoid having too many projects on the go at one time, diluting your attention. Use deadlines to motivate yourself. This may include client deadlines, but also deadlines that you set yourself. Congratulate yourself when you meet them. Protect other areas of your life, such as time for family and friends. Be disciplined about giving yourself time away from technology and social media. I have all notifications turned off on social media, and choose when I login. I know someone who deletes social media apps from her phone at the weekend.

13. Outsource and delegate

Consider outsourcing the jobs that don’t play to your strengths. Self-employment involves numerous tasks that you can’t charge for directly. Some of them will need to be done by you,  others can be delegated, to free up your time. There are freelance virtual assistants who will take day to day administration off your hands. You can delegate bookkeeping. You can ask someone with design skills to help you develop a professional brand image.

Delegate tasks for which you have no aptitude, or that you dislike. I quite enjoy the admin side of maintaining my business. I have the skills, and it’s a change from the design and delivery aspects of training. But I have limited design flair, and prefer to outsource this type of work where possible.

14. Allocate resources for your own learning. 

When you are your business, it’s essential to develop your knowledge and skills. Make wise choices on where to invest your resources. The best development opportunities are not necessarily the most expensive. Professional development webinars or conferences, reading books and sharing ideas with peers are all hugely valuable. And make time for reflective practice such as writing down what you’ve learned through an experience.

One approach which takes the principles of reflective practice, but applies them more widely to business development and thinking is the WriteBrained method, devised by Alison Jones.  

When you invest in professional training, do your research before committing your money. And when you decide to commit to a significant CPD programme, make the most of it by giving it the time it needs. 

15. Build a financial buffer

Be prepared for ups and downs financially, and think about how you’ll manage quieter periods. Building a financial buffer if you possibly can before going freelance, in the form of cash savings. And don’t rule out part-time employment, maybe a day or two per week to give you a baseline income.

And look for retained or associate work as well as building your own client base. I remember being advised to ensure you have three pillars of income in your business. I’ve kept this in mind ever since. At least three strands of income from different sources or clients.

And make sure you're protected with professional indemnity insurance, and other insurance provision that reduces the risks associated with self-employment.

16.  Reflect and review

Take time to reflect regularly on your freelance or business journey. Notice to what extent you’ve developed your skills and knowledge. For example, consider how you’ve developed as a person, in the way you view the world. Notice when your confidence has expanded as you’ve overcome challenges.

There are many ways to do this. Join a group of other business owners and meet informally over coffee. Or gather more formally as a community of practice to share experiences and learn from each other. Work with a coach or thinking partner. Use reflective practice methods such as journaling and keeping a learning log covering both your formal and informal learning.

17.  Celebrate successes.

It’s so important to regularly pause and celebrate your achievements. This may include external "wins" such as signing up a new client, receiving great feedback, or completing a piece of work. 

I believe it’s also important to celebrate internal successes, when you’ve stretched yourself and tried something new or brave, even if it didn’t work. Can you celebrate your courage or willingness to experiment?

18.  Keep an eye on the future

Whatever stage you’re at, in your freelance or business journey, keep thinking and planning for the future. Here are some questions that might be helpful:

  • What is currently attracting your interest? 
  • What would you like to learn more about? 
  • What type of work or projects do you currently enjoy the most?
  • Are there any aspects of your work that you’d like to give up?
  • What help and support do you need at this stage of your career or business?

Over to you...

Have you been in business for a while? What tips would you add to this list?

About the Author

Felicity is a writer, facilitator and thinking partner. She is interested in ways to develop ourselves, and deepen our connection with others. Our self-awareness, personal resilience and communication skills provide the foundation for effective leadership and living in our complex and ever-changing world.

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