Unbelievably it's now ten years since I left corporate world and took the leap to do my own thing. Over that time I've often been asked by people who are about to take the leap themselves or who have just made the jump to give them some tips on what to expect and how to make it work for them. I never mind doing this but it occurred to me that there are some common pieces of advice that I give which may be helpful to collect together here. So here's a few things that I've learned along the way that may help:
- Find what works for you:- One thing that I didn't pay enough attention to before I made the leap was the fact that there are multiple ways of being a working for yourself or being a freelancer. There's the type of work where you get a lengthy contract and are in a company working in a team. There's the type where you do short-term contracts which has more variety but you still do one thing at a time. And there's the type where you're running multiple projects at once and juggling lots of things. There are pros and cons to each. The first felt a bit too much like being a full-time employee (FTE) for me, and I've ended up doing the last one so I probably run with about 5-8 projects/engagements at any given time. This comprises a broad range of consultancy, workshops, speaking, training, research, writing etc. I like this a lot but it can be stressful – work is not even which can mean some exceptionally busy times. The only way I can make this work is to have several clients that underpin consistent and/or regular work. So over the years I've actively tried to nurture more of that type of work to underpin income, and then supplemented that with lots of other one-off engagements and projects. No one way of working is better than the other, but it's important to recognise that there is more than one way of doing it and to do what feels energising and right for you.
- Grow with it:- Don't feel like you have to decide everything before you leap – as long as you have some financial cushion you can allow yourself to work it out as you go. If I'm honest, when I started out I didn't really have a completely clear picture of what I wanted to end up doing but I just iterated my way and I'm continuing to do that now. I like this way of working. The learning curve is very steep but I find that continually expanding the bank of experience and knowledge leads to more interesting work.
- It can be unsettling, but also wonderfully energising:- It felt like a huge leap into the dark for me (I'd been a FTE for over 20 years) so it was definitely unsettling but at the same time hugely liberating. I'd felt trapped in corporate world for too long so for me it was a real chance to live a different life. The best thing about it? Freedom, endless variety of work, feeling stretched in a good way all the time, continuous learning, control over your own time, the ability to say 'no' to anything you don't want to do and also to only work with people you respect. The downside? Uncertainty, up and down income (which if I'm honest still stresses me out). It's a roller coaster. But ten years in and I'm still enjoying it
- There's ups and downs of remote working:- There are days when I miss the team banter but for me the work is sufficiently broad to mean plenty of variety and I'm working with different people all the time. So I'm fortunate. But be prepared that it can mean a big change and it may a little lonely at times. At the moment I'm travelling a lot which can be good but also can be challenging from a home/life perspective – but it's all manageable. At the end of the day I still feel I can say no to anything if I have to and the flexibility/variety for me is a big upside.
- Value your network:- corporate world is so internally facing and networking feels so very, well, corporate. It's funny – back when I was in big companies networking was not my favourite part of the job but since doing it for myself it feels much more like I'm just meeting interesting people that I'm keen to talk to. And that's something I will always have time for. A network of friends/others-like-me is important to keep perspective and swap stories. Sometimes you get to work with these people which is always fun. It's worth remembering that business comes from many different sources so the wider your network the better. My two books have also really helped both from a credibility standpoint and also speaking/consultancy. This blog, Twitter, and my newsletter are all hugely valuable.
- Time really is money. No really:- sounds obvious, but it's easy to forget to value your time properly. Yet it is the most precious commodity that you have. When you work for yourself you suddenly become acutely aware of this. Someone said to me in the early days that it's easy to be busy but far less easy to be busy earning money. And that's true. So always pay attention to the value of your time, because (as the advert says) you're worth it.
- Business development is constant:- it's easy to focus on what's right in front of you, and on just delivering the work, particularly when things are really busy. But developing business is a constant thing that needs to somehow run alongside delivery. You should never stop thinking ahead.
- Don't work with dicks:- seriously. In corporate world you often have little choice who you work directly or indirectly with but you have a lot more freedom when it's down to you. So choose to work with people that you not only respect but who you will learn from. There's probably some truth in the old adage that you are the average of the people that you spend the most time with, and that includes work. Life is too short and the quality of the work too important to work with dicks.
- Blurriness can be your biggest enemy:- working for yourself blurs the line between work and life horribly. There's always some work thing that needs doing and the temptation is to just keep going. Particularly when there's a direct relationship between the time that you work and the money that you earn. Don't.
- Look after yourself:- I feel somewhat hypocritical saying this because I'm terrible at being disciplined about carving out time for myself but it's so important for your sanity. It's easy to forget that if you can't work for whatever reason then you can't earn. So keep yourself healthy, eat properly, sleep properly, fit exercise in around the margins, take a bit of time to stare out of the window or sit on a bench now and then.
- Get support:- the support of those around you, particularly your close family, is so important. They'll be the ones dealing with your stress as well as you. They'll be the ones to give you perspective and helping you to keep things real. Don't ever forget to keep investing in them as they invest in you.
- Think about logistics:- I set up Only Dead Fish Ltd and everything goes through that. You can set up as a sole trader but really it's better to have your own company. I have an accountant that sorts all my tax and VAT – I know many people use software to do this and I'm sure that works well but for me this was the one thing that I didn't want to spend time doing so its a personal thing. I've never had issues with getting mortgages but it's probably worth bearing in mind that lenders like track records and consistency. If you can, it's helpful to always maintain a month or two (or more) living expenses in savings as this helps mitigate the stressful side to it. It sounds obvious but when income and expenditure are less consistent you need to pay close attention to managing outgoings sensibly and being aware of what you need to make a month to cover it.
So knowing what I know now would I do it again? Of-course. Ten years in and I still love it. It's still challenging every day. It's still a roller coaster. It's still more stressful than I would like. But overall I think I would find it hard to go back. This is of-course a personal perspective, and I am only an expert on what has worked for me. But I hope that this may be of some use to you if you are considering making a change, or may have just taken the leap. God speed to you.