I have to admit, I started 2016 with a bit of trepidation. After three years as an employee, I was working for myself again. Older: check. Wiser? I think so. But also more set in my ways, and even less eager to suffer fools. I wasn’t sure how this return to freelancing would go.
Now that 2017 is right around the corner, I can officially declare 2016 my best work year ever. I’m earning more, swearing less, suffering through fewer meetings, and building a broad client base. I’ve even (gasp) strayed outside the marine industry. Best of all, I’ve kept learning, helped clients meet a wide variety of challenges, and improved my office efficiency.
So as an end-of-year gift to anyone who might be worrying over the same leap into the unknown of self-employment, here are 12 lessons I’ve learned in the past 12 months. Happy New Year, and thanks so much for following along on this incredible journey!
1. Have a passion project.
A passion project is something you’re eager to work on even though you’re not getting paid for it. As Albert Einstein said, “All we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” Once you have another focus besides work, a slow month of billable hours becomes cause for celebration rather than concern. I’m writing a fourth novel, but it could be pretty much anything that gets you away from mindless web surfing: rebuilding a porch, bird watching, learning to like lentils. All that matters is that you care enough about it to invest your own valuable time.
2. Get out of the office (#1).
Last July, I didn’t have quite enough work lined up for the summer. Instead of sitting at home worrying about it, I decided to leave town for a month (something I had never done before). Though I worked a few hours most days (see passion project, above), the change of scene gave me a chance to explore a new area, reconnect with some old friends, and establish a few new patterns. As a result, it sparked ideas for several blog posts.
3. Build trust by being trustworthy.
Treat ALL company information (especially an overheard bit of office gossip) as proprietary—even if you haven’t been asked to sign anything.
4. Get out of the office more (#2).
Schedule a fun adventure every week. Even if it doesn’t take you too far from the office, it reminds you that you’re in control of your own schedule.
5. Let me repeat: You are in charge of your own schedule.
When clients ask for meetings, don’t be afraid to counter-offer. Practice saying, “That doesn’t work for me; do you have any other time available?”, because that sounds so much more professional than “I have to take my cat to the vet tomorrow morning because she’s throwing up.” No one needs to know how you spend your time between appointments.
6. Nobody’s watching.
Routines are great, but changing them up can leave you refreshed and maybe even inspired.
7. When in doubt, err toward too professional.
Whenever I try to imagine how people envision freelancers, I’m reminded of an old TV ad. A woman working from home is on a video conference call, sitting at a desk and dressed in a suit jacket—and then the camera pans down to show her feet in their pink fleecy slippers. Clients probably assume we all work in our pajamas, and most don’t care—as long as we never show up in their offices dressed that way. When in doubt, step up the formality—if only to surprise a potential client.
8. Keep track of your overhead.
We have many masters, and every job will be a little different, so keeping tabs on all the details will take some time. Make sure you factor the hours you can’t bill for into your labor rate.
9. Don’t overshare.
Those of us who work for ourselves usually work by ourselves, and we often get hungry for human interaction. That does NOT justify boring a client with too much information about your wacky schedule or latest computer frustration. (If this is a challenge, you may need to reread “Get out of the office more #2.”)
10. Take initiative…
My clients hire me for my writing and editing skills, but they also appreciate my ability to focus. When they walk out of a meeting with me, they often walk right into another meeting on a totally different topic. Meanwhile, I can move forward right away on the project we discussed. Don’t wait to hear back if you can get something started on your own.
11. But: don’t color outside the lines.
Initiative is good… but it’s important to stay within the bounds of your assignment. Sometimes your perception of the most important problem to solve is quite different from your client’s, and they get to decide their company’s priorities.
12. Set a labor rate and stick to it.
If you don’t value your own time, nobody else will either.