Running my own company for ten years
One of the think I believe we should all do to improve our lives is learn to celebrate the our successes no matter if they are big or small. Well, this month I have a pretty big success to celebrate and it gives me an excellent opportunity for reflection.
You see, back in early 2009, the company I was working for was in the process of raising capital, but as the financial crisis hit, there were no investment funds to be found. So after a round of layoffs, everyone who was left found out that the company was essentially bankrupt. Up until that point, one of my wife and I’s biggest concerns had always been to both get unemployed at the same time. Well that happened and, believe it or not, it turned out to be a great thing. That May is when I decided to start working for myself and founded my company. That brings us to today, May of 2019, and the 10-year anniversary of me running my own business. This big success I am celebrating!
One of my favorite blog posts that I keep coming back to is Sam Altman’s The days are long but the decades are short. While I’ve never thought about it in this context before, it sure applies to running my own business too. Sure, there have been some long days, but none the less, I find it just as rewarding today as I did when I started out.
Just like Sam offers some life advice in his post, I figured it only makes sense for me to try and compile some advice for you on running your own business and to reflect on what I’ve learned during these past 10 years.
10 years, 10 lessons.
It’s not for everyone. It might feel like a drag to open with a point like this, but there’s this ever growing assumption among a lot of people that freelancing (which is a word I tend to avoid, here’s why - yet I still named my book Mastering Freelance) is all play and no work. “You can decide on your own work schedule! ”, “You’ll get to keep all the money you make!”, “You’ll be your own boss!“. While all of these things are true, they all come with consequences. I can decide my own schedule, but in reality, the work often decides my schedule. I do get to keep all the money I make (well not really, since a huge part of it is taxes), but I’m also responsible for making sure that I make money in the first place. And if you think your boss is a pain, rest assured that clients can be just as… demanding.
Freelancing is tough. Even if you have all of your processes sorted out, there’ll be ups and downs…especially at the beginning.
I think courses have a responsibility to caveat their marketing with some of the realities of self-employment. Freelancing is all-too-often dressed up as some sort of magic pill to solve work issues.
Freelancers share the responsibility not to oversell the benefits of working for yourself, too. When we’re spreading the good word about self-employment, it’s easy to ‘forget’ the months when overdrafts have been maxed out or you’ve been worried sick about the impact of a late payment, especially when the times are good.Are you sure you want to go freelance?
You’re not going to make full-time pay until you go full-time. While I do think it’s a smart move to start small, perhaps doing work on the side before starting your own business, it’s important to remember that you’re not going to make full-time pay until you go full-time. This advice still stands after ten years, unless I work full-time it’s very unlikely I’ll make full-time pay.
Staying small by choice. For years, whenever I met someone, they asked how my company was doing and whether it still was ‘just me’. The notion has always been that bigger is better and it was even true to me for a while. When I first started out my plan was to eventually hire people too and build a team, but over the years, I’ve learned that the things that truly matter to me and that I value is the fact that it’s just me. It allows me to do things that would be impossible even with 2 or 3 people more, let alone hundreds.
“Small companies can do things big companies can’t do. Everyone wants to get big, but the big guys wish they could get a little smaller. I want to be small still.”Jason Fried
Financial goals can be great, but don’t let them guide you. For nearly 9 years, I had a financial goal of wanting to reach ~$200k in revenue. For years, I chased that goal and made financial plays with only that in mind. A little more than a year ago, I realized that it’s only a vanity goal because it doesn’t really tell me anything (revenue and profit are two very different things). Turns out, being a little bit more relaxed about the goal turned out to be a great thing because this is the year I reached that goal!
Success is staying in business over time and staying profitable. The words are Jason Fried’s but as I’ve seen businesses come and go during my decade of work, I’ve realized that whatever profit I end up with is a sign of success. It does not have to be a gazillion dollars to be a success. If I know how much I need to make the living I want to live and then end up with more (even if it’s just $10), then that has to count as a success. Be content with enough.
Profit buys you time and flexibility. Profit is the ultimate flexibility because it buys you the ultimate luxury: time. As long as you remain profitable, you can go in any direction you want and take as much time as you need. But if you can’t generate enough of your own cash through operations, and you have to go outside to borrow or sell off pieces of your company to generate the cash you need to continue, then the ones you owe are the ones who own your time. If someone else owns your time, you aren’t free. And if you aren’t free, you can’t be flexible. We value flexibility above almost anything else.Why we choose profit
Be clear on deliverables. One thing that I tend to over communicate when talking to potential clients is what I’ll deliver and when I’ll deliver it. Why? Because these are the two biggest concerns most clients will have. What will I get? Will I get it on time? In this sense, running a business is very much like designing an application. You want to remove as much friction as possible and plan for a smooth ride. No matter how much you’ll communicate deadlines, if you don’t keep them it doesn’t really matter and, no, it’s not always the clients fault.
Invest in your office. From the very first day, I’ve paid for an office space outside our home. While I still occasionally work from home, I love having the option of having a dedicated space for work. Since two years ago, I have my office just 500m from my home. One of the very first purchases I made for my company was my Herman Miller Aeron chair. I bought it second hand so it was far from retail price but still, for a newly started company, it was a notable expense. Ten years later, I’m still using the same chair and it’s just as perfect now as ten years ago. I’ve probably spent close to 50.000 hours in that chair so the price spent per hour is basically nothing at this point.
This isn’t always easy when starting out, but it’s essential to have a space that you can feel productive in and a setup that’s ergonomic. Laptops can be killer for your neck, and even a desktop or external monitor can be too low, so experiment. Also, make sure you get a decent chair – Herman Miller’s are fantastic and can often be picked up second hand for a more reasonable price.Five years of freelancing
Whatever service you provide, you’re also now in Customer Service. One of the things I personally always think is money well spent is wherever I get excellent, personal service. Whether that’s at a hotel, a restaurant, a store or with a freelancer, I’m always on the lookout for small things they do that I could add to my service. It’s usually small things that are marks of great service, not the grand gestures. For instance, my wife and I love going to Eden Roc in the south of France. When we make a dinner reservation, they ask to make sure that my wife is still allergic to nuts. While it might come across as a silly thing to ask, it shows that they care and that they note special requests. There are a lot of freelancers that could be better at simple things like this.
Remember if you’re a designer or developer, you’re providing a service. We’re in a service industry and with that comes Customer Service. I know it may sound a bit trite, but treat clients as you would like to be treated. Treat them with respect and never lose sight of that fact that they are paying the bills.Designing for the Web - Ch.5 - Working for yourself
Be open and transparent. I get extremely restless when I’m low on work. While I’ve learned that I also need low periods to fuel up for the next intensive period, it’s still one of the hardest things for me to accept. That said, I do have some time available from August and forward so if you want to grab one of these spots, now is a great time to reach out if you want to work with me.
Busy-ness is not a badge of honour. It’s great to be busy, but there’s nothing wrong with sharing that you have time for some additional work. It’s not uncommon for potential clients to think that a freelancer may be too busy to take on their project, so don’t hide your availability if things are looking a little lean.Five years of freelancing
Be polite. Be fair. I have three post-its sitting firmly attached on my computer screen that I use as guidelines in my daily work life.
The first one says: Is this the kind of work I want to do? to remind me that I am in control of choosing what kinds of projects I want to take on and why I should take them on.
The second one says: It’s not personal. Even after ten years I occasionally struggle with taking feedback on my work too personally.
The third one says: Be polite. Be fair.
I’m a firm believer that one of the reasons that I’ve stayed in business for this long is my ability to be polite and nice to clients while always choosing to be fair. Clients can usually tell if you’re just sugar coating them or just plain sucking up (and the clients that prefer that from you aren’t the clients you should keep). At the end of the day they are hiring you for your competence, so be honest and don’t be a know-it-all. Be polite, be fair is the advice everyone should live by a little bit more.
Be nice to people. Business doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Treat people how you expect to be treated. Be fair, professional and above all, polite.Designing for the Web - Ch.5 - Working for yourself
Throughout these ten years, I’m extremely grateful to all of my clients that have worked with me whether they are super big or a one-man company. Whether it was for a one-off project or recurring work over many years. The companies that I’ve played a minor, minor part in their huge successes and even more, the companies that I will help shape in the next 10 years. Thank you for everything!