Earlier this year, I closed my eyes and took a leap into solopreneurship. While working for myself was something I always had on my mind, the timing of this particular venture was not entirely planned, but that’s a story for another time. Regardless, I figured that I could either spend my time chasing jobs online or I could take control of my career and work the way I want to work.
At that point I had spent more than 15 years in the private and public sectors and carved out a niche for myself in the area of internal communications. I even dabbled in HR and learned to speak the language of company culture, engagement, and organization development, areas that companies were paying more attention to given the impact they have on business results. So, I decided to go it alone as an internal communications and employee engagement consultant.
Once I decided what I’d focus on, I put myself out there and let people know what I was up to. My personal and professional network was tremendously supportive and I was able to make connections that resulted in some very interesting projects across different industries. But working on projects is only half the battle. Managing a business, because ultimately that’s what you’re doing, is a much bigger challenge. I’ve learned a lot in a short time and much of it has been from rookie mistakes and oversights I’ve made along the way. Here are a few tips, based solely on my own experience, that I hope will help if you’re considering starting out on your own, whether you’re an entrepreneur, solopreneur, freelancer, contractor, or anyone trying to make a professional go of something you enjoy.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer, financial advisor or accountant, so it goes without saying that if you intend to make self-employment your long-term career, then you should consult with those experts.
DO put it in writing. Once you agree to take on a project, make sure to capture it in a simple, yet all-inclusive statement of work (SOW). This helps you and your client establish a mutual understanding around the service you’ll be providing, as well as the support you need from them. An SOW sets expectations, parameters, deadlines, cost of service, payment terms, among many other things, and comes in very handy if you need to have those awkward conversations about scope and budget. The good news is that you don’t have to be a lawyer to create an SOW - there are many free resources and templates online from Google, Freelancers Union and other sources. DON’T estimate, approximate, or guess. If you’ve ever been through a home renovation, you know that there can be many unexpected surprises (and costs) once you see what’s behind the walls. So unless you know exactly how long a project will take you to complete or how much it will end up costing, do not throw out a ballpark figure. Perhaps the project requires more background research, or the client makes additional requests along the way. Instead of guessing, be specific about the steps the project will entail and the considerations that might need to be made.
DO know your value and DON’T work for free. You are not a used car. Your time and expertise are valuable. Establish your billing rate based on your qualifications, experience, and diligent research into your industry and market. Do not undersell yourself, even if a potential client promises you more work for a lower rate. On that note, don’t give your work away for free. Some clients may ask you to complete a “sample” project so they can determine whether to move ahead. While this may be ok for big-budget agencies that have large teams and can afford the investment, it’s not ideal when you’re self-employed and making every minute (and idea) count. Spending your time and energy creating a new product does not guarantee that the client will continue to work with you. Instead, direct them to your solid portfolio of work and references, which should be more than sufficient for gaining an understanding of your work.
DO be your own C-suite. This is the part of managing a business that may not be as enjoyable for some. While you might prefer focusing your time and energy on doing creative work, you also need to plan for things like, oh, I don’t know… getting paid, marketing your business, securing new projects, and paying taxes. It’s not enough to send an invoice each month and wait for the check to come. You need to track your billable time, keep meticulous records, manage your own marketing and PR, develop your skills, and continue to nurture your network in order to sustain your business. This can take up most of your time. Fortunately there are helpful and free! tools and services like online time tracking software, networking events, industry conferences that are always interested in new speaker proposals, and of course, LinkedIn.
Most importantly, DO be prepared. Working for yourself, whether for a short time or your entire career, can be very rewarding. I’ve been exposed to companies and industries that I never thought I’d be involved with and gained many valuable skills that I’ve previously written about. Best of all, you’re doing it on your own terms. But it’s not without its challenges. I don’t mean to trivialize the stress that it can have on your finances and on your sanity when you’re thinking about landing your next project and whether the next month will be as productive or profitable as the last. The most important thing you can do is to have a solid plan of action going into it, a cushion to support you, and another plan if things don’t work out.
Again, I don’t claim to be an expert in self-employment, and what works for one person may not work for another. Only you (and your network of advisors) can determine for yourself whether it’s a leap you want to take.