In February 2008, I started working for myself as a digital marketing consultant. I didn’t know exactly what digital marketing was, but I had three year’s experience with digital communications, as a Public Relations consultant working closely with a multinational client, so I thought I could figure out the rest.
Within three months, I was earning the same as my PR salary, with a few committed clients, for whom I provided regular content marketing. (This was before social media was really a thing.) I spent my days researching, interviewing, writing and publishing articles (later, this would be called blogging, or ghost blogging) for clients and writing and distributing their email newsletters.
So here are 12 hard-won lessons over the last 12 years in business – I’d love to help you avoid or minimise some of the (many) mistakes I made.
1: There are no rules – and few precedents – so stop worrying
For years and years, I kept looking for standards or benchmarks against which to measure myself. I wanted to know where my skill set was in the general market, where my gaps were, and whether I was any good. I wanted to know how other people made money, how much they earned and spent, and how many hours they worked.
This information is difficult to find and there’s a lot of hype, exaggeration and outright lies.
The best place I found to get the inside information on other people’s businesses was podcasts, like the awesome Get Paid podcast, as well as getting drunk with fellow self-employed people and asking all those audacious questions.
Most everyone wants to talk honestly about money. And most people are too embarrassed. So that’s why I’m keen to answer questions, stop rampant undercharging, and help lift the bar through plain talk on money.
As I’ve learnt, there’s no ‘right’ way to run a business – you can make money in 243,859 different ways, most of these invented in the last 10 years. So stop worrying and let’s get earning.
2: Self-employment is self-development
I studied Comparative Religious Studies at university so that I could do good and be good and know the meaning of life. While I learnt a lot, it turns out that, after many years of seeking, self-employment is the most accelerated form of self-development there is.
Your visibility – on the internet and in your community – is your first big confrontation. Self-confidence is your next big hurdle. And it never stops. The more you progress in business, the greater you’ll need to push yourself – psychologically and spiritually.
Some people do an excellent job at burying their head in the sand. But if you tackle things head on, you’ll become far more skilled at uncomfortable feelings, difficult conversations, anxiety and stress. Burying your head in the sand will likely be far more painful in the long run.
3: Passion isn’t enough
I love passionate people. My ideal clients care deeply about their impact in the world and are in business for social change and for good.
And yet. Passion won’t pay the bills. Passion can kill your empathy, which makes it difficult to market to your audience. And passion can be weaponised against you – when unscrupulous people manipulate your passion to get you to do what they want.
Passion needs a lot of things to be sustainable, including money, sleep and support from others. In other words, don’t let passion blind you. You need passion to get you out of bed, but you need hustle to feed you, sustain you, and ensure that you’re using your brain, not just your heart.
4: Every day I’m hustling
I learnt this lesson fairly early, and I’m grateful for that. In the early years, I lost big clients who, at the time, were giving me 30-50% of my income. But I was always meeting people, following up, and marketing my services, so I always had other options.
Far too many self-employed people only do marketing when they’re desperate, which is the worst time to do it. And many more feel exhausted thinking about this constant need to be finding leads.
If this is you, and you find marketing or business development exhausting, check your attitude. It’s a privilege to make money from our own sweat and smarts. It’s a privilege to create a flexible lifestyle and to get to choose our own path. There’s no shame in it (and you’d be pretty privileged to indulge this).
Marketing and business development are inherently social, and as such, generous-spirited. You don’t want to be the friend who only calls when they want something. Instead, your marketing should be about regularly keeping in touch and offering value through useful, valuable, relevant information.
5: You name your price
Your price is arbitrary. You’re the boss. Stop trying to compete with McDonalds and start focusing on communicating your value, building your network, and using your branding to position your business for your prospects.
And for the love of hot chips, stop asking strangers in freebie Facebook groups how much you should charge. This never ends well.
6: Your attitude is a bankable asset – take it seriously
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take your attitude seriously.
Do you wake up feeling good? Do you have energy to get through the day? Are you regularly excited about things you’re doing? Are you enjoyable to hang out with? Are you sleeping well? Do you see all the strengths, opportunities, privileges and luck that is all around you?
A buoyant attitude makes you resourceful. A poisonous attitude only sees hindrances, shortcomings, and lack. Your attitude will be reflected in your bank balance. Invest in it. (I lost my mojo for 18 months. This was a hard-won lesson.)
7: You need people
Especially if you’re the independent type, you need people in business. Your competitors are also your colleagues who refer business to you (and you to them). Your clients are your biggest advocates. Your great Aunt Jill can talk you up to whoever she meets (if only she knew what you did).
Take your people seriously. Stop hiding. Reach out to interesting people and introduce yourself. Find your ecosystem of support.
8: Don’t take it too personally
Flattery and insult should both be taken with a grain of salt. I know that’s easy to say and hard to practice. Try anyway.
Some people are your people and some people aren’t; some people you instantly love and some you instantly distrust. If someone is giving you a hard time, it’s likely their problem, their bad mood, their crappy attitude. Move on – you’ve got bigger fish to fry. Focus on your Ideal Clients.
9: There are many different ways to get where you’re going
I wasted so much time, effort and money thinking there was only one way to do things (case in point: formal education). I’ve had amazing opportunities when I’ve come in the side door, hopped through the window or shimmied down the chimney. (Quick tip: speakers always drop out of conferences at the last minute, so this is a perfect time to pitch yourself.)
Don’t get too wedded to your fantasy of how your wonderful future will look or you’ll miss the opportunities all around you. Resourceful and creativity go hand-in-hand. Keep following up. Don’t swallow your words. A no from one person one day is a yes from another the next day.
10: You have to get used to talking about yourself
There’s a big difference between someone who assumes everyone is interested about them and never shuts up, oblivious to the people who are tolerating their company, and someone who responds to others’ interests by talking about themself.
As a small business owner, not only will you need to talk about what you do – simply, elegantly and appealingly – but you’ll also have to field questions about your background, expertise, opinions, and other things.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing a hundred or so people for the purposes of writing their bios. With enough digging, everyone has an interesting story. And the vast majority of people don’t recognise this, and don’t know how to make it relevant and valuable for their marketing.
We are all interesting. We all have stories. The skill is to understand what other people find interesting about us and connect this to our business mission.
11: Writers write, painters paint
If you want to do something, do it now. If you can’t see how you’re going to get paid for it, do it for free. The first client I got was because, when he asked me, “so what do you do?” I answered, “I’m a writer.” “That’s great,” he replied. “I’m looking for a writer.”
Had I answered, “I don’t really know. I’ve just lost my job. I’m not sure what I’m doing but I’m thinking about starting a business but I don’t know yet, I haven’t written a plan and I don’t really know what I’m doing” then nothing would have happened.
What do you want to do? What part of it (or whole of it) can you start doing now? There’s no time like right now to take the first step. Stop waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder. Tap your own goddamn shoulder.
12: Everything is better after a good night’s sleep
Mindset is an inferior, overly-simplistic word. I prefer to say attitude, perspective, beliefs and buoyancy. Mindset assumes something is fixed. But if you’ve ever gone to bed with the weight of the world on your shoulders and woken up feeling like a million bucks, then you know just how fickle we all are.
I’ve lost money, clients, hope, dignity, joy. I’ve had sky-high expectations of a launch and had not a single person buy. I’ve woken with anxiety at 3am repeatedly, to go through my list of things I have to do.
But everything is better after a good night’s sleep. And sometimes you need a good run of good sleep to get your mojo back. And now if I can’t sleep, I’ll happily take Melatonin or Restavit or whatever else I need (and the hot bath, yes, and the novel-reading) because sleep is that important to me and to my work.
So take this seriously. You’re not a robot and you’re not the exception to the rule. We all need sleep and lots of it. Because we have important work to do and many more years in which to do our best work.