The lessons I've learnt in my first year of business
Rock Rose Digital turns a big old ONE today! It’s a little surreal if I’m honest. Prior to Rock Rose beginning, I’d never contested the notion running my own business. It was born out of necessity, in a time of need to keep a roof over my head following redundancy, and mental health too poor to commit to a full time job. I had no goals or vision for what I wanted to achieve other than having enough invoices paid to get by. Now, a full 12 months on, I firmly consider myself as a business woman, with the most drive and vision I’ve ever had in my life and my mental health has been remarkably stable.
Of course, it hasn’t gone without bumps in the road, but each of those has been a lesson learnt. Lessons I’ve been grateful to make early on to strengthen my confidence, courage and processes. There's a lot of resources and advice out there about the practical sides to running a business. We all know we should be putting bits aside for tax and whatnot.
The lessons I want to pass on are the ones less spoken of. The emotional and more personal side to being a sole trader and freelancer. It can be lonely out in the world of business; but we’re all in it together and should be able to help one another.
1) Look after number 1
There’s so many cliches. You can’t pour from an empty cup, put your own oxygen mask on first…pick one and stick with it. Because, unfortunately they’re pretty relevant.
Running your own business, especially as a sole trader you have to look after yourself. After all, without you there is no business. Prioritising self care, in whatever form that looks like to you, is crucial. I’d go as far as saying it’s as important as doing your accounts and your client work.
Nourish your brain and body - breaks, water, fresh air, buy in healthy snacks, make sure you eat breakfast, get to the gym (if you’re into that kind of thing), get a pet (although I wouldn’t recommend fish, they’re not good at hugs). These bits of advice are all over-prescribed, but they work. Burn-out isn’t pretty on anyone.
This also extends to putting your business first. At a recent course, the tutor discussed a time management technique, for businesses to block in their work first - accounts, SEO, marketing etc. These are the immovable tasks in your diary, that no matter what, get done. Then you block in your client project work, with meetings going into any gaps. It’s a complete flip on the way the majority of people work, but since I’ve started putting this into action a month ago, it’s had a hugely positive effect on my outlook and output.
2) Set boundaries
Part of your self care and self preservation is setting boundaries. With clients, with working hours, with the work you’re willing to take on, travelling to meetings, and the energy you give to them. Setting your own boundaries and terms is key to keeping your sanity and a clear distinction between work you, and personal you.
Allow yourself proper time to switch off. Want to know a secret? I have pretty much all my notifications turned off. The only notifications I have on are Gmail and Whatsapp; and I turn my Gmail off at weekends. My personal time is sacred to allow me to be at my best.
Setting boundaries and terms of business are one thing, but enforcing them is another. Sure, I’d love to help people out of hours or pick up extra work on the weekends, but once that threshold has been crossed it can be extremely difficult to claw back when needed. I’ve learnt the hard way to be rigid in how I operate myself and my business; unfortunately there are people out there, even other small business owners who will take all of the miles when you give an inch. The standards and boundaries you set are the blue print for how others should treat you.
Another part to this is the power of saying ‘No’. There’s a specific kind of strength required to turn away a client or terminate a working relationship because it is detrimental to your health and other clients. Listen to your gut - if it doesn’t feel right, put yourself first.
3) The Power of Partnerships
The best way for you to get the best from me and vice verse, is for our client relationships to be more like a partnership. We have to be able to work together to get the results we both want; after all, your success is mine as much as mine is yours. Valuing me as an active member of your team is key to this - keeping me in the loop with information, decisions, coming to me with questions, asking for advice. The more I know about you and your business, the better the relationship we have, the better I can market your brand and the more fun we have working together. This is an investment of time I’m willing to make - and so far has really paid off.
There are some people who prefer to hard outsource, doing a “dump and run” with their content, with very little interaction or communication. This lends to a poor and weak working relationship, and just isn’t conducive to fulfilling work for me, something I now steer clear of.
I tend to keep my clients in mind outside of their scope of work; with an eye open for opportunities, link up to contacts, even sending relevant articles, blogs, podcasts and social media posts I think they’ll enjoy or are reflective of something we’ve discussed. It’s amazing the things that have risen from being mindful and thoughtful about the wonderful people I work with. Helping me to help you not only means you have a pink haired social media nerd in your pocket, you’ve also got a business peer, a sounding board, a confidant to vent to, a cheerleader, a brand advocate and a friend who’s always up for a brew and a cake.
4) Find your tribe
The world of self-employment, especially freelancing can be really lonely. Not only a lack of connection, there’s a lack of a support network, someone to ask for feedback, work on ideas with, rant at. Building a tribe of like-minded folk around me, both online and in real life has given me motivation, inspiration and helped me dodge some bullets in my own growth.
Networking is a great way to do this. It can take a bit of trial and error to find one that works for you - not all are created equal. You’ve got to think about their style (formality), their format, their size, the time of day, the location, the price, the types of other industries and people there. A good networking event should be as equally beneficial to your business as it is to you personally.
Back at the start of my freelancing journey, I was really lucky to meet with the incredibly inspirational community of women, Business Sorority. Based in Manchester, founders Heather and Jen focus on support, collaboration and nurturing real relationships - not a business card in sight! The format and the other girls involved are perfect for me and exactly what I need. Then I left ‘The North’ and I’m now in ‘The Shire’, which is a completely different world. Initially, I think I was a bit spoilt by the strength of Business Sorority and I really struggled to find another group locally that worked for me. In lieu of discovering anything close, I have set up my own women’s co-working and networking community, Ladies, Laptops and Lattes. In just it’s second month and 'I’m really excited for everything we’ve got coming up in 2019. You can request to join >> HERE <<
Having an online community is just as important as real life connections. There’s no need to get out of your pyjamas and leave the house for a start, something us freelancers are wary of doing and you get to eat your own choice of biscuits! I’ve found Freelance Heroes and Independent Girls Collective to be hugely supportive and full of all-round good eggs, as well as the Being Freelance community and #ContentClubUk chat over on twitter. Find yourself a good community and you’ve bagged yourself some long-distance colleagues.
5) Honesty is the best policy
We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all can become ill or have an accident. We also all have complicated entities within our lives which can complicate matters at any moment - kids, partners, pets, cars, dodgy boilers. It’s inevitable that a time will come where something happens and it gets in the way of a scheduled meeting, or hitting a deadline. The trick is to not fluff it up with excuses, or shy away from whats going on; even more important when you throw mental health into the mix.
I know I said earlier that my mental health has been the most stable its been in a decade, but that doesn’t mean I’ve gone without a wobble. Being completely honest - there’s been 2 times I’ve had to push back on a self imposed client deadline because I was in a “funk”. There’s also been one time where I struggled through, did the work (badly) and then quickly told my client to ignore it because I knew I could do a better job in a day or two. All of these instances I was honest, and now me and my clients have a stronger and more open relationship because of it.
Most people are decent and understanding. If you have an issue or something going on, tell them and they’ll understand. If they have a problem, then they might not be the kind of people you want to be working with anyway.
I also believe this to be true if I spot a bottle neck in my clients processes. If something isn’t working or restricting their strategies from really maximising on their opportunities I’ll let them know, leaving them to make a decision. I know it’s a level of business peer support I’d really appreciate.
6) Never stop learning
I have never professed to being an expert and I never will. Beside my knowledge and skill-set being far from that status being warranted, it’s a term horrendously over-used in this current climate, often by those whose following on social media has been dubiously acquired. Whatever happened to being humble and smashing expectations hey!? Anyway, it’s only a matter of time before the bubble bursts, they’re found out and they’ve only got one way to go. Even people who are ACTUALLY at the top of their field don’t call themselves experts - Gary Vee and Matt Navarra being two who I follow avidly.
What I do profess however, is that I will never stop learning and pushing myself. In this industry and current age of information, if you blink you’ve missed an update or a key trend everyone’s talking about. As relentless as it can be sometimes, I love my job for keeping me on my toes, always striving to learn and keep my finger on the pulse of digital marketing and the wider world.
Every week, I set aside time for R&D of all kinds. Reading books, blogs, articles, listening to podcasts, audio-books, watching TedTalks and webinars. Whatever I can get my hands on to nourish those brain cells and keep pushing myself to be and do better. I think it’s important to note, learning about industry relevant stuff is just as important as learning and developing personally. As freelancers, our clients invest in us as much they do our expertise; I have to be able to stay at the top of my game and my head as “funk free” as possible.
7) You can’t please everyone…
…and you shouldn’t want to.
There’s that saying about trying to please everyone, leads to pleasing no-one and it’s so true. As an empath and someone with a previous career in hospitality, where it was my job to people please, this has been a big lesson to learn.
Some people won’t like you, and that’s OK. Some people won’t understand what you’re doing and that’s OK. Some people won’t like how you’re doing it, and that’s OK. And some people will change there mind…and you guessed it. Do you know why it’s OK? Because they’re not your people. Learning to not please everyone saves you so much time and energy, which you can channel into the people who do value you and want to work with you.
8) Get up, dress up, show up
There’s a stereotype surrounding freelancers, that we all have lazy lie-ins, work from bed, live in our pyjamas, don’t leave the house, surviving entirely off caffeine and biscuits. Truth is, only half of that is true and as much as it sounds lovely it’s not sustainable, good for productivity or mental health. (Disclaimer: this was written from under a blanket, eating leftover Christmas chocolate for breakfast)
I’ll admit this phrase ‘Get Up, Dress Up, Show Up’ probably first came into my life on a wanky instagram inspirational post, deep into a scroll hole. Nothing saying #mondaymotivation like a cringey quote, right! But, I’ll take wanky instagram posts if does the trick! So here’s what it means to me
GET UP - no excuses up at the same time every morning. No phone, no emails until I’m at least half human. No-one and nothing needs my attention before than happens.
DRESS UP - at the very least, I’ll upgrade to my ‘day-time comfies’. Just the act of getting dressed gets you into that mindset ready for work - plus you never know when someone’s going to ask for an emergency skype call!
SHOW UP - as a freelancer, to be seen I have to be visible. Whether that’s online making sure I’ve done an instagram post or at a networking event. Showing up is the least any of us can do - a little progress is better than none after all!
9) Listen to advice, but act on your gut
Starting up and into your first few years of business, there’s a lot of people drowning with constant out-pours of advice and recommendations - a lot of them being conflicting. It’s daunting and intimidating, with so much information and so many crucial steps to get correct. The best thing I found to do was to hear people out, take on board what they said, write it down, research and come to my own conclusion.
No-one knows my full story, has had my experiences, shares my learning style, my requirements, my desires, my skill set, so it’s important to do what is right for me and my needs. If I make a mistake, I can always go back and try again - mistakes aren’t failures, they teach us lessons. The thing not to do is start comparing to other people or brands. It’s impossible to judge your entire journey on someone’s highlights - stay in your own lane. Sure, take inspiration from others, but make it your own. Don’t forget, comparison kills creativity and drive.
10) Cherish the simple things
I know I’ve mentioned it already, but loneliness is one of the biggest struggles freelancers and sole-traders face, especially if you’ve come from a business with loads of colleagues and “top office bants”. It’s not just the lack of connection, but the opportunity to share in the little joys and nuances of working with a team.
I’m a big observer and have long relished the pleasure in the simple things in life; even more so now I work by myself. Remembering about a mug of tea to find it’s perfect tea temperature, a good laugh with a client, a silly meme off another freelancer, a blooming good biscuit, the sunshine coming through my office window, gorgeous lunch time walks, a text saying thank you.
I see myself as extremely privileged for having this opportunity, to create, grow and nurture both for myself and other wonderful business owners. I have a flexible life, allowing me to prioritise my health and the things that are important to me. Sure, we’d all love to have numbers in the bank and be winning awards. But is that what success really looks like, or is it more of a feeling? For me, I’m feeling pretty successful in having got to here.
I’m so crazy proud of all I’ve achieved so far, and I am so excited for where my journey is going to take me this year.