What are the most important lesser-known life lessons when you become freelance or self-employed?
I’ve been self-employed since I was 27, and honestly, it’s been a steep learning curve.
Some stuff is OBVIOUSLY stuff you’ll need to learn. Everyone who’s self-employed needs to know about taxes and invoicing and these sorts of things.
But today I wanted to share some lesser-known life lessons – the things that I’ve learned in 15 years of self-employment. Many of these lessons I’ve learned the hard way. And they were all things that didn’t really occur to me when I first started freelancing.
Customer Retention is More Important than Pitching
In the first flush of freelance excitement you’ll probably find yourself pitching like a weirdly enthusiastic market trader.
But did you know it costs something like 5 times more to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing customer?
Think about the amount of time it takes to pitch a new customer. Researching your target. Crafting that initial pitch. Then sending media packs, negotiating prices, getting set up “on the system” as a supplier. And you might get the gig one time out of five, if you’re lucky.
All that time has a cost implication for your business. So wherever possible, you want to prioritise keeping customers over finding customers.
In my line of work this might be about offering packages, and subscriptions. It might be about using my mailing list to stay at the front of people’s minds. Most often, it’s about just offering a more-than-minimum service, doing people the odd favour and just being nice to deal with. Which leads me to…
People do Business with People
There are people in my industry who are very successful. They’re well-known and considered “important”.
But I will always try to find someone else rather than work with them. Because they’re not fun people to work with.
They’re the people who are angry or unhelpful when a project changes direction (because, clients). They’re the people who never deliver a project on time, or ghost you when you have a follow-up question. They’re the sort of people who will spend 30 minutes arguing about that X isn’t covered by a contract when doing X would take less time than having the argument.
In the past, I’ve wasted a lot of time having debates with people over who is responsible for X, or why Y isn’t my fault. Stupid, stupid. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fault. In the game of customer retention, what matters is who fixes it. Be that person.
This Too Shall Pass
I’ve been freelance or self-employed now for a bit more than 15 years.
During that time I’ve seen two recessions, a global financial crisis and the very special treat that is Brexit. There have also been smaller shocks – deaths, illnesses, personal crises of one sort or another.
Basically, things happen. And it’s easy to lose heart when your new business pipeline dries up, or your biggest client goes bust. But a negative mindset is not helpful in terms of winning new business, or coming up with those essential new ideas.
Part of being successful in business is just being resilient (also known as: stubborn). Believe that it will pass, work hard, and more often than not, you will come out of the other side.
Don’t be Embarrassed to Talk about Money
When I first started freelancing, I did a lot of work based on what “other” people charged. Or sometimes I would meekly ask, “What were you thinking of paying for that?”
Now, I’m quite comfortable telling a potential client what I think is a fair price for a piece of work. That’s partly about the value of my time, experience and skills. But it’s also about the cost of delivering a service (things like hosting, freelance staff, premises and accountants don’t come for free) and what I think is a competitive profit margin on those costs.
Having a good understanding of WHY you charge X means that you know where you can offer a bit of a discount, and where it just doesn’t make sense. And if a client can’t afford our rates, I am always ready with a suggestion for something else we do that I think they CAN afford.
Time for one of the most important lesser-known life lessons for freelance types.
Until you’re self-employed, I’m not sure you can truly understand the pant-wetting stress of not knowing for sure if you can pay the bills each month. It sucks when you lose a contract, when a client pays late, when you have to fire someone you really like.
The flip side HAS to be that you enjoy the upsides of being self-employed. For me, I make the most of my flexible hours by travelling during the summer months. I take the odd afternoon off to see a movie, or lunch with friends.
More than that, I enjoy my job. I like the creativity of coming up with content campaigns. I enjoy planning events, and thinking of little details that people will enjoy, and remember. I am very competitive, so I even enjoy pitching for new business.
There are Friends and there are “Friends”
Mixing friendship and work can be problematic. Because being someone’s colleague and being their friend won’t always look the same.
I’ve been in situations where I should have fired someone ten times over but didn’t because they were a “friend”. It sours relationships, and breeds resentment.
I’ve had to learn (the hard way) that you can’t be friends with someone who is happy to take your money, half-ass their job and let you deal with the consequences. You can absolutely be friends with that person – just don’t work with them.
Similarly, a good friend doesn’t expect you to work for them for free, because you’re “mates” and because you’re basically “at home all day”. If you want to be friends with that person, explain that you’re sadly too busy to work with them just now.
Self-employment always seems to be feast or famine, and when times are good, it’s SO tempting to sit back and enjoy the ride. But this is EXACTLY the time you need to be thinking about what happens when your customers’ needs change.
That might mean looking into e-courses, printable assets, events, consulting. It might mean expanding outside of one of two social media platforms. Basically you never want to be caught out if ONE product or platform disappears overnight.
As an aside, a related lesser-known life lesson – when you try new stuff, sometimes it doesn’t work. That’s okay. Just because one idea doesn’t work doesn’t mean your next idea won’t be amazing. If you want to succeed as a freelancer, get very comfortable with the idea of failing, a lot, and hard. If every failure means you sit on the floor and cry for a week, you aren’t going to get very far.
If you liked this post, don’t miss my Tips for Freelance Writers.
For all the challenges, I can’t imagine NOT working for myself at this point in my life. How about you? What are the best life lessons you’ve learned as a freelance type?