Table of Contents
Self Employment Guide
There are two ways to escape the control of your boss and be free to work the way you want. You can put in the hours, network, meet your targets, then exceed those targets. After a few years, if everyone else does their bit or a vacancy opens up above you, you’ll get to move up a rung. You’ll take your boss’s job.
It will feel great — at first. Because you’ll quickly realize that you now have another boss, a higher boss, and you have to start all over again. If you’re really lucky, you turn out to be the very best person in your organization, or the best connected.
You might be appointed chief executive and you’ll get to make all the decisions. Well, at least all the decisions that the company owner or board of directors allows you to make. You learn quickly that even the people at the top of the ladder have people watching over them.
As long as you work for someone else’s company and they’re paying you a salary from their pocket, you’ll never be free. There will always be someone counting your hours, directing your work, judging your achievements and setting your priorities. As long as you’re employed by someone else, you’ll never have control of your life.
The alternative isn’t to replace your boss. It’s to fire your boss completely and be your own boss.
In 2020, it’s time to swap employment for self-employment, and it’s a huge leap.
You’ll be responsible for everything from marketing to production to delivery. You’ll have to manage the accounts, deal with clients, talk to customers and negotiate with suppliers.
If you need help, you’ll have to pay those staff members and freelancers, and you’ll need to make sure that you have the income to pay them. You’ll have to complete tasks for which you currently have no expertise. You’ll need to pick up that expertise. Instead of receiving funds from someone else’s pocket, you’ll be paying out of your own.
But — you’ll be free.
Self-employment is one of the most exciting, exhilarating, terrifying and rewarding moves anyone can make. You may be content to be a one-person shop working out of a desk in your bedroom. You may have a big dream to take over the biggest office building in your city then, expand around the world. But, here is the truth — you’ll be embarking on the greatest adventure of your life — and nothing else even comes close.
It’s an adventure filled with danger and traps and difficulties. But it also contains plenty of treasure and surprises and a sense of well-being that can’t be found anywhere else. There are no maps that will take you from where you are now to the successful, thriving business you want to reach. Every business is different and everyone has to forge their own path.
But the landscape is the similar for everyone. The techniques and the challenges are comparable for everyone.
In this guide, we’re going to describe that landscape for you, and point out the traps, the hills and thorny parts that will hold you back. You will be able to hack your way through this trench and reach your destination faster.
We’ll start with preparation. However much you know about your field, you don’t know enough and there’s plenty about which you know nothing at all. We’ll help you to discover what you know, point out what you don’t know and explain how you can fill in those essential knowledge gaps.
One of those areas of knowledge will be the bureaucracy that employees often ignore. Becoming self-employed isn’t just a different way of living; it’s a change in legal status. We’ll tell what you have to know and how to ask the right questions that will get you the answers you’ll need.
You’ll also need money. Few businesses are lucky enough to hit the ground with rivers of cash already flowing in. You have to invest to succeed, and most new businesses have plenty of out of pocket expenses before they start earning. We’ll look at funding resources and offer advice for ways
to save those early—and ongoing—expenses.????
Self-employment, like other employment, is made up of daily tasks and projects but there’s one moment that’s particularly exciting: THE LAUNCH. It’s the day you step out on your own and it’s a move that will determine the amount of momentum that will propel you forward. We’ll tell you how to rocket away from the launch pad.
To keep moving though your plan, you’ll need to keep marketing. For many new entrepreneurs, that’s a whole new world. Staff coders, designers and writers are used to having managers. These managers have fed them work that’s been hunted down by the sales department.
Suddenly, they find that they have to go out and find the clients themselves. It’s a whole new world. Fortunately, there’s also a whole new world of tools and techniques. These enhanced approaches can help even the most sales-shy entrepreneur build a customer base.
The best moments in the life of the self-employed should come at regular intervals. Every so often, you’ll get a notification that you’ve been paid. You haven’t just landed a client and completed the work. You’ve also done it to the client’s satisfaction so well that they’ve handed over the cash.
You’re up and running. But to get that cash, you have to ask for it, and that means using an invoicing process that makes sure every task is charged and paid. Every outstanding billing demand is followed up. We’ll give you the tools that make invoicing less of a chore than it has traditionally been in the past.
Some people are content to keep working by themselves. Other self-employed people want to scale, employ staff and build a business. Both are possible but growth requires a whole host of new skills and techniques.
We’ll describe the challenges involved in hiring help and how to turn one revenue stream into multiple revenue streams. We’ll reveal some useful shortcuts that can boost a business fairly quickly — without breaking it.
Follow the advice we include in these chapters, and your decision to become self-employed will soon prove itself. You’ll earn your income on your own terms. You’ll do the work that you want to do, and if you’re not doing the projects you want to do, you’ll have the power to make changes. You’ll be free because you are in charge. But, you’ll also have a whole bunch of new problems.
The first will be your ability to stay motivated. Employees have managers to tell them when they’re falling behind. They can win bonuses by exceeding their targets and they can use the fear of losing their jobs to keep them on track. You will have to stop the negative naysayer in your head. You will have to give yourself the, “You are doing fantastic,” speech. No one else will.
The self-employed have no bosses but themselves. No one will give them a dirty look if they spend the day goofing off on Twitter or procrastinating till the day is done. Finding your own motivation will be vital to your success as an entrepreneur. We’ll tell you where to look for that extra steam, and how to use it.
You’ll also have to worry about income because your income won’t be stable. In someone else’s company, salaries are the same every month. Stable and consistent salaries let you plan your financial future.
As an entrepreneur, your income will vary from month to month. You’ll have to plan for that instability. We’ll explain how you can reduce that variation and what you need to do to cope with the uneven money flows.
Finally, no one ever succeeds alone, and no team members are more important than your family members. They’re the only people who will always support you, be honest with you and trust you unconditionally. For every self-employed person, these background family and friends are the most important asset you have.
Please understand upfront, it is rare that you can make it without them. These people are the one basic you have to keep and protect above all else. We’ll offer advice about how to keep your family close even when your business demands your time and your attention. Yes, it’s hard.
Hopefully, after reading all this, you’ll still be keen to take the jump to self-employment and you will set yourself up in business with confidence. But we want to be sure that you know exactly what you’re getting into.
Being self-employed is wonderful, awesome and fantastic, but it can also be terrible, terrifying and horribly destabilizing. Before you walk into your boss’ office with your resignation letter – think — and then think one more time. Understand at a deep level that you’ll be entering an endeavor that has both pros and cons.
The Pros Of Self Employment
The benefits of self-employment in 2020 are clear. You can already sense them. You can feel the draw of being your own boss which is why you’re even considering it. But it’s worth exploring them in detail because within those advantages are also plenty of dangers and potholes as well as pleasure and satisfaction.
Self-Employment Gives You Freedom
The first benefit of self-employment is the one you’ll feel the day after you’ve left your J.O.B.. You’ll wake up in the morning and realize that you can roll over and go back to sleep. There’s no commute. There’s no one wondering why you’re not in the office yet. No one is going to give you a dirty look if you roll up at your desk at ten o’clock. No one is going to wonder why you’re wearing yoga pants or jeans instead of office wear or a suit. No one is going to be looking over your shoulder if you want to ease into your workday with a cup of coffee and ten minutes on Facebook.
Self-employment lets you do whatever you want.
If you want to work from ten till six instead of nine to five, that’s up to you. If you want to knock off at two when the kids come home then put in a few more hours after five when your partner can keep an eye on them, that would be your choice as well. You’re free to set your schedule any way you want.
And you’re free to reset that schedule. The stereotype of the entrepreneur or freelancer lying on the beach with their laptop and a pina colada isn’t very accurate. They’re more likely to be working in their home office with a tea-stained mug but it’s not impossible. Hubud, a co-working space, is in Bali and provides office space for self-employed people from around the world who want to work on a tropical island. There are similar places in Thailand, Morocco, Reykjavik and even on the Galapagos Islands. When you’re self-employed, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to take a vacation. You can buy a plane ticket, shove your laptop in a bag and head somewhere wonderful without missing an email. The opportunities that a connected world and office software have delivered are just waiting for the self-employed to make the most of them.
Self-Employment Gives You Career Control
Some people work for money alone but even the worst jobs deliver something more than a paycheck. Teenage burger flippers might have hot, smelly jobs that keep them on their feet through an entire shift, but they also spend that shift talking to people their own age. There are few closer cliques than those formed between wait staff in cafes and attendants in stores. Where the pay is poor and the work is hard, friendships bind people together.
And where the work promises satisfaction, the prime motivation isn’t a larger pay packet but more responsibility, a sense of a job well done, a feeling that the hours in the office made a difference. Those rewards are more valuable than any figure on a paycheck, however necessary those figures might be. They’re what employees work towards… and they’re only offered at the whim of the boss.
Surveys of worker satisfaction continually show that staff don’t leave jobs; they leave their managers. They leave when they feel micromanaged and burned out, and they stay when they believe they have the freedom to make decisions about how they do their work. Employees with access to professional development are more than 10 percent more likely to stay with their employees.
Nobody wants a job. Everyone wants a career, but for employees career development always depends on a decision made by someone else.
For the self-employed, career development is entirely in their own hands. If you don’t like the jobs you’re currently doing, it will be up to you to attain the skills and make the connections that will bring you the jobs you do want.
If you want to earn more money, it will be up to you to find higher-paying clients and create the conditions that allow you to charge those higher rates for more difficult work.
Part of the challenge of being self-employed is deciding where you want to end up. You have to figure out what you need to get there, and push yourself down that road. No one is going to open that path for you and the distance you do manage to travel will be entirely the result of your own efforts.
Self-Employment Removes All Limits
Not only is up to you to push yourself down your career path, but the choice of destination is entirely up to you. A graphic designer working for Google might be well paid, but they can take a look up the career ladder at the company and see where they’ll max out. If they do really well, they might make six figures. They might even end up with some valuable options. But they won’t become a millionaire. Their career path within the company stops before it reaches that point. They could move to a different company but there too the career path might be shorter than the designer’s ambition.
The self-employed are limited only by the size of their dreams. If that designer wants to run his own design studio, churning out new-look faces for Rolex watches or sketching the lines of the new Audi, they just need to figure out what they need to do to pitch for those jobs. That doesn’t mean they will, or that they’ll even want to. But whether they do fulfil that professional dream or not won’t depend on the size of the company that gave them a job or the opportunities it offers. It will depend only on their own choices.
The Cons Of Self Employment
Those benefits of self-employment are very powerful. They’re big enough to change a life, to turn working days from hustle and drudge to fun and satisfaction. But they don’t come for free. In this guide, we’ll look at in detail at some of the challenges of working for yourself but there are three major disadvantages that it’s worth knowing right at the beginning.
Self-Employment Is Non-Stop
There’s a flipside to having the freedom to work whenever you want: you also have the freedom to work all the time, and when you’re self-employed, you’ll want to! You have a business to run. All the benefits of that business flow to you. The more hours you work, the faster your business will grow and the more you’ll earn. When you work for yourself, there are no such things as weekends or holidays or sick days. While everyone else is celebrating the Christmas break, you’ll still be at your desk trying to make your deadline. No one pays you when you’re not working so there is no such thing as “free time.” Time not working is time not earning.
So while you could goof off in the morning and put in a few hours in the afternoon if you want, you’ll also be able to count the cost of the billable hours that you didn’t work that day. If you’re making $50 an hour and you spend four hours in the morning working on your tan instead of working on your business, no one will stop you. But that shade of brown will have cost you $200.
When you’re self-employed, that’s how you start to think. Time has a whole new value. There’s always something to do—if not project completion then marketing for a new project—and not doing it costs you money. Non-work activities suddenly look a lot more expensive.
The danger is that once you start counting the value of time, you spend all the time you can working. Unless your spouse closes your laptop on your fingers, you could sit at your keyboard until you fall asleep at the desk. When he or she wants to spend an afternoon in the park, you tell them that you’re too busy, leaving them to sit unhappy and alone on the sofa.
The most common reason for leaving a job might well be having a poor boss, but when your boss is yourself, you might well find that you’ve got the least sympathetic, least reasonable and hardest-driving boss in the world.
Self-Employment Is Unstable
You might well gain control over your career once you become self-employed, but that doesn’t mean the road will be easy or smooth. In fact, there’s no road at all. You’ll be hacking your way through a jungle with no map, no compass and the inability to see more than a few yards ahead at a time.
The result is that you’ll stumble. There may be periods when you find yourself with too little work to fill the time. There will be other periods when you find yourself with too much work, and you struggle to meet your deadlines and complete your work at the quality you want. You can also find yourself heading off in a direction you didn’t expect —and might not even want. When you’re self-employed, it’s hard to turn down work that comes in. Clients will give your name to their friends and you’ll want to help, so what looks like career control actually turns into the serendipity of your clients’ acquaintances.
Self-employment gives you control over your career, but luck and chance as well as your own decision-making will all play a role. Employment isn’t stable either but you’ll know from month to month how much income you’ll have and how you’ll be filling the days. When you’re self-employed, no two months are ever the same, not in terms of income and not in terms of work either.
Self-Employment Can Be Badly Paid
Sometimes, that income will be low, especially at the beginning when clients and customers are few and there are outlays to be made for marketing and advertising. Count the hours you spend at your desk and compare it to the amount you’ve earned and you may well find that you’re making less than the minimum wage. The barista who serves you your coffee in the morning (and gives you dirty looks when you’re still hogging the table with the electricity outlet three hours later) may well be making more than you, and when he knocks off at the end of the shift, he’s free. For the self-employed, the shift never ends.
One of the great and unpleasant surprises about becoming self-employed is the pay cut that many self-employed people take when they quit the day job. They gamble that earning less today will translate into much more in the future — and even if it does come to a little less, they accept that smaller pay will be compensated by greater freedom. But don’t be surprised to find that you total salary as well as your hourly rate is lower than it was when you were employed. Sometimes, you have to pay for your freedom.
Deciding to become self-employed is a big decision. It isn’t an easy decision, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a life-changing decision. In the next chapter, we’ll look at the preparations you need to take before you make the big move.
1. Planning Your Business: What Don’t You Know?
But there’s a lot that you don’t know because no one knows everything. Business owners employ staff not just because they don’t want to spend their time answering phones or dealing with customers’ questions but because they recognize that there are so many things that other people can do better than them. They might know something about marketing but they might not be as good at closing deals and finessing Facebook ads as someone who does it every day five, days a week. They might be able to read a line of code but writing one from scratch… that’s a whole other ball game.
As an employee, you’ll have benefited from that decision. Coders and designers at software firms and agencies don’t have to worry about meeting potential clients, making sales, negotiating prices and laying out the projects. The work just flows towards their desks, allowing them to focus on what they know best—and enjoy doing most.
When you’re self-employed, you don’t have that luxury, at least not at first. You may find that one day, you’ll be able to employ a team of marketing people and QA staff and assistants. (Although even then, you’ll also need to know how to manage those teams.) But initially, when you take that first step into your home office, you’ll suddenly realize that you know a lot about one thing… and very little about lots of other very important things.
Some of that knowledge you’ll pick up. You might never pick it up as well as someone who’s dedicated their career to knowing how to market or communicate with customers, but you’ll learn enough to understand it, to hire people who do know how to do it and to oversee their work. Before that happens though, you need to know what you know, but you’ll also need to know what you don’t know—and how you can fill the gaps in your knowledge.
What’s The Most Valuable Knowledge You Possess?
There’s one valuable skill that you possess and is easy to identify: the one from which you currently make a living. It’s the one that you’ve put the most time into learning, whether that was at college or in your spare time. It’s the knowledge that your last employer will pay for.
It could be the ability to sort through vast amounts of data, change the exhaust on a Ford Explorer, match life insurance policies to middle class customers or prepare taxes for small businesses. Out of all the things you know, that block of knowledge will be the one that’s given you the most income.
So before you step out of your boss’s office for the last time, happy and scared, you’ll already have a good idea of the specialist knowledge you’re going to sell. In fact, it’s possible that you’ll already be doing it. Not all moves from employment to self-employment are sudden breaks. Often there’s an overlap: a small freelance business on the side that suddenly looks like it could be a real going concern. All that’s needed to make it happen is the courage to take the leap do it full-time.
But it’s not quite as easy as that. First, the skill with which you use your knowledge might not actually be the most valuable asset you possess. A coder might be able to write an app that generates thousands of dollars a month, but he might also be a great teacher who can make twenty thousand dollars a month selling subscriptions to a coding class that helps other people to do the same thing. A designer might have spent her career building websites for small businesses but she might find that her understanding of SEO can bring in more work, more money and more satisfaction.
Sometimes a hobby can build knowledge for which there are few jobs but plenty of opportunities for people willing to strike out on their own. Robert Lang left his job developing laser technology for NASA not to become a freelance laser consultant but to become a professional origami designer. He’s not only held exhibitions of his work around the world and published some of the world’s best-selling origami books but his designs have also been licensed by businesses to fold car airbags and satellite solar panels.
Andreas Reinhold is an automotive engineer in Germany but he’s also an amateur photographer. After meeting a magazine editor at a car show in 2000, and showing him his car photos, Reinhold was commissioned by the magazine to conduct an automotive photoshoot. The magazine has since asked him to represent them at various automotive events where his knowledge of photography lands them good photos and his understanding of engineering enables him to ask the right questions and show off the magazine’s expertise. Reinhold has kept his day job but he now also runs his own freelance photography business, specializing in shooting cars.
Becoming self-employed isn’t just an opportunity to earn from your knowledge on your own terms. It’s also a chance to reassess your knowledge and see what else it can give you. Can you combine your professional skills with the knowledge you picked up elsewhere to give your career a whole new direction? Could you make more money teaching your skills than using them? What do you know that isn’t making you money yet—but which could make earning money much more fun?
But just as your knowledge may have a value that you don’t know, it might also have costs that you aren’t aware of. Coders at companies get to use expensive software that’s licensed by their companies. They have access to servers, security, storage and other services that might cost an individual or a small business a great deal but are an incidental expense for a large firm, especially when bought in bulk. Someone thinking of setting up their own business as a landscape gardener will need a van full of shovels and rakes, but he’ll also need to know how much he has to pay for indemnity insurance as well as the amount he’s likely to have pay in gas as he drives from client to client.
As soon as you’ve figured out what knowledge you have to sell, you then have to calculate how much it will cost you to make those sales.
There are no simple answers to any of these questions, and they’ll vary from business to business. But you should have answers to them before you take the leap into self-employment.
Where Will You Meet Your Customers?
Unless you’re setting up a marketing business, you might have little experience of talking directly to clients. Someone at your company will have done that for you. They’ll have built the customer database, figured out the approach, networked at conferences and worked their connections. They’ll have decided on the company’s message and its branding, matched the clients’ needs to what the company can produce and, for at least eight hours a day, they’ll have thought of nothing but closing deals and extracting specs so that people in your department would have work to do.
One of the first things you’ll need to do when you set up your own business then is create a meeting point for your business and your clients. While the communication will take place by telephone and email, and perhaps in person, you’ll need a base where potential clients gain their first impression of who you are and what you offer.
So regardless of the nature of your business, you’ll want a website, if only because it’s essential for just about any business. But how will you create it? Can you build it yourself? Do you know who to hire to create one for you? How much can you budget for its creation and maintenance? These are small questions with easy answers; there’s no shortage of web designers who can give you a quote and get your site up and running. But you’ll still have to decide how you want that site to look, what you want it to contain and how you want it to work. Right from the beginning, you’ll be making decisions. You’ll be dealing with the first of many small, practical problems that fill the life of the self-employed.
Solving those problems, even when they’re easy, always takes longer than you think. They always cost more than you think. They never turn out quite the way you think. But when you’re self-employed, there’s no one else to make those decisions for you… and the decisions that are coming behind them will be much bigger and much tougher.
If you’re selling exclusively through a website, your problems may be relatively small and cheap, but they won’t be absent. You might want to make sure that your site has a store, in which case you should consider building a sales funnel and landing pages, and you’ll certainly need a way to accept payments, including from credit cards. If you decide that your business is going to be bricks and mortar, you’ll have even more research to do. You’ll need to find a location, figure out the costs, buy the furnishings and installations, and load up on stock if necessary.
And once you’ve decided where you’re going to sell, you’ll need to know how you’re going to sell.
What Don’t You Know About Marketing?
It’s not enough to know where you’re going to meet your customers. You also need to know how you’re going to reach them. That’s not the same. Knowing that you can advertise on Facebook or Google isn’t the same as knowing how to advertise on Facebook or Google. Both of those outlets have spurred a class of professionals who specialize in doing nothing but helping other businesses improve their online advertising. It’s a skill as valuable as coding or copywriting—and it’s a business opportunity for people who know how to do it.
When you’re self-employed, that customer outreach becomes an intrinsic part of your job. Even if it’s not something you want to do all the time, even if it’s a necessary evil that you only tackle so that you can do the work you want, you’ll still need a plan that will let you find and sell to new customers, especially in the early days of your business.
The good news is that once you’re up and running, you might well find that you actually need to do very little marketing. Clients and customers you served in the past will come back. Some will have regular work which will give your business a reliable foundation. They’ll pass your name onto people they know so that you’ll often find yourself with more work than you can handle. Your schedule will fill automatically, and you’ll be left wondering whether it’s time to scale, whether you should outsource work or hire help to increase your profits.
But it’s unlikely that you’ll start from that position. In the first months of a new business, you might have one or two projects to work on but you’ll also know that you need to line up more work and more clients as quickly as possible. So you can expect those first weeks to be filled with more marketing than any other activity, which means you’ll need to start that business with a marketing strategy already in place. If you’re not an expert in marketing, you’re going to need to become one.
Again, every business needs to create their own strategy so there’s no one answer to the question of the best way to reach out and find clients. But there are some general approaches you can take, as well as some general questions that you should be asking yourself.
That begins by knowing where you’re weak. Do you understand how to generate links for your business site so that it can turn up in search results? Do you know how to choose the right keywords and bid the right amount so that you can win a reasonable number of ad placements? Do you know how to create a Facebook ad and how to pick a demographic that’s likely to react? Do you know the difference between advertising on Facebook and advertising on Twitter, or any other social media channel?
Do you know where you can advertise offline and how you can produce the copy and creative you’ll need?
Again, these aren’t questions for which there are no answers. Amazon contains over a thousand books that claim to teach Facebook advertising. There are more than 600 books on the site about Google’s AdWords program. Each year, there are dozens of conferences and more webinars than you can count that teach marketing. You’ll be able to learn anything from guerrilla marketing to the latest techniques for advertising in iPhone apps.
That’s why you first have to know where your customers are likely to be located and the best channels to reach them. You’ll then need to set aside the time to learn how to reach them, how to catch their eye and how to talk to them.
You can hire a professional marketing company if you want, and if you have the funds. But even if you can outsource your marketing, you’ll still need an understanding of how it works so that you can tell the company what you want and judge the results.
There may be a temptation to put some of these questions to one side at the beginning. You might have a general idea of how you’re going to find new customers. Maybe someone will have assured you that advertising on Google or Facebook is always very effective, or recommended that you put an ad in the local newspaper or on Craigslist. Some of those ideas will work right away. Some will work… but only after months of trying and lots of dollars spent on tests and experiments. Other strategies won’t work at all, in which case you’ll need to try something else. The time to turn that intention into a plan and that plan into a program ready to follow in the first months and even years of the new business is before you really need those sales.
The preparation for becoming self-employed includes knowing where and how you’re going to make your sales.
2. Incorporation And Taxes: Doing The Legal Stuff
As soon as you go into business for yourself, you enter a legal maze that can be confusing and difficult. You’ll discover that you’re liable for a bunch of payments that you didn’t know your employer was paying—and you’ll also find that you’re ineligible for a great pile of benefits that you’d previously taken for granted.
Some of those benefits will be noticeable immediately. Say goodbye to the boss, and it’s likely that you’ll also be saying goodbye to your health insurance. Part of the research that you do before taking that step will be to know how much you’ll have to pay for your medical care access. If you’re starting with very little income, at what point will your earnings make you ineligible for assistance? How much will your deductibles change and will you have good options when you come to buy your own insurance? Your previous company will have done all that research for you. Now that you’re self-employed you’re going to have to do it all for yourself, and with healthcare in constant flux it’s something you’ll have to keep doing. The news suddenly becomes much more important when you own a business and become the boss.
Other benefits you won’t notice until you need them. When you work for yourself, there’s no calling in sick when you wake up with a fever and a blocked nose. Choose to take the day off, and you’ll experience that same degree of worry that your manager will have felt when they wondered how they’d meet their deadline with one staff member down. But you’ll also lose money. The self-employed don’t have sick pay so even if you don’t need to buy medicine, spending time in bed to nurse a cold could still cost you several hundred dollars.
And the lost benefits don’t end there:
- No overtime, no minimum wage.
As an independent contractor, your clients are not responsible for ensuring that you’re paid a legal minimum wage. Quote $100 for a job that ends up taking you 20 hours and your $5 per hour salary will be $1.25 less than a teenager makes flipping burgers. Sure, you could ask the client to pay more but don’t be surprised if he refuses. It’s up to you to estimate the amount of time a task will take and bid appropriately. (It gets easier with practice.)
- No workers’ compensation.
A builder who hammers his thumb might be due payment from the business that employs him, but there’s no compensation for the self-employed. Set yourself up as an independent contractor and your clients won’t have to pay for your squished finger. Feel the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome and website clients won’t be liable for those aches in your arm.
It will be up to you to buy insurance that covers you for injuries sustained during work, and which can pay you if you find yourself physically incapable of working. They might not give you sick pay but they should give you some sort of incapacity benefits. You’ll need to talk to an insurance broker to compare policies and find one that covers your risks at a price you can afford.
- No employee benefits.
If you were to be hired as an independent contractor by Google, you might be able to charge a decent rate. You might even be paid on time. But unless the company tells you otherwise, you won’t have access to the staff canteen and you won’t be able play foosball with the employees. Nor, unless you’ve negotiated for them, would you have the kind of options and shares and signing bonuses that Google’s employees might expect.
As an independent contractor, your only benefits are those you give yourself.
So being self-employed will have real and immediate consequences. But as we’ll see the difference between those two statuses isn’t always clear-cut and even self-employment can come in a number of different forms.
Business Structures For The Self-Employed
Self-employment can take no fewer than five different forms. The structure you choose might not affect the way that you work but it will affect the way the way that you pay your taxes, and it could have other legal considerations.
Leave a job and start working for yourself, and by default you’ll be a sole proprietor. It’s the status of most freelancers, and it requires no formal declaration and no paperwork to establish. You’ll have complete control over your business, and your taxes should be relatively simple too: whatever the business earns is treated as your income tax. You’ll be able to deduct your business expenses—including some of your household expenses if you’re working from home—but the profit is taxed in the same way as income tax.
On the other hand, you’ll also have complete personal liability. If a client sues you for the losses caused by your mistake, you could lose your personal assets, including your house. And if you want to grow, you’ll struggle to raise funds. There’s no stock to grant investors and banks are often reluctant to lend to sole proprietors.
Limited Liability Companies
Limited liability companies let you divide the business’s assets from your own; if someone sues, they might get your business’s office chair, but they won’t get your house. The precise requirements vary from state to state but you can expect to have to give the company a name, file articles of organization and perhaps create an operating agreement. But there’s still no difference between the business’s income and the income of its “members.” You’ll be taxed on the entire amount.
Corporations are legal entities owned by shareholders. Like limited liability companies, they separate the assets of the companies from those of the shareholders, and they’re relatively complex to set up. Unlike a limited liability company though, a corporation is taxed on its income. That may mean that a business’s earnings are taxed twice: once when the company generates revenue and once again when the shareholders receive their dividends. But it also allows the shareholders to leave money in the firm and taxed at the lower corporation tax rate. In general, expect to be forming a corporation if you’re planning to employ permanent staff and raise capital.
If you’re planning to go into business with a friend or two, a partnership might be the easiest option. Like sole proprietorships, partnerships draw no distinction between the income of the partnership and the income of the members for tax purposes. Nor is there are any limited liability, though the partner’s pooled assets can be used to satisfy any debts. The set-up is relatively straightforward.
S corporations function much like C corporations with the important difference that shareholders are taxed instead of the business itself. Shareholders have to be paid a “reasonable compensation” and it’s possible to combine an S corporation with an LLC. An S corporation delivers some tax savings, including the ability of shareholders to deduct business expenses from their personal taxes but they also have stricter operational requirements, and benefits such as health insurance might be regarded as taxable income.
We can’t tell you which of these structures would best suit your business, though it’s likely that if you work alone, you’ll be sticking with a sole proprietorship. An accountant will ask you what you plan to do and how you plan to do it, and will be able to advise you on the best format for the way you want to work. But you should now have a general idea of the options available, and you’ll be able to ask the questions that steer you in the right direction.
Taxation And The Self-Employed
The business structure you choose will determine how you pay your taxes. Unless you’re setting up a business, though, it’s likely that you’ll be creating a sole proprietorship or a partnership that makes no distinction for tax purposes between your business income and your personal income. That means that you’ll be liable for some of the taxes that would be paid by an employer.
In addition to your regular income tax, you can also expect to pay a “self-employment tax” that covers social security and Medicare. The tax is levied on the profit calculated by deducting your business expenses from your income, and it’s declared on a 1040 tax form. (Clients might ask for that form for their own tax procedures.) You can expect to be holding onto bags of receipts for your household bills.
Because you don’t have an employer to withhold your taxes for you, you’ll need to make quarterly payments based on your estimated taxes. You’ll also need to make an annual payment, and it’s likely that you’ll also have to file an information return.
If you’ve never worked for yourself before, all this stuff can look horribly complex. It isn’t. It’s paperwork. It’s worth taking the time and expense to meet with an accountant to know what to do. After that, you’ll be able to choose whether you want to collect the paperwork, complete your tax forms and file your taxes yourself or whether you’re prepared to spend the money, save the time and let someone else do it all for you. You might well find that a couple of hours of fairly mindless paperwork each month can feel fairly relaxing!
Are You Sure You’re Self-Employed?
In 2015, a labor commissioner in California gave a ruling that could have a huge impact on the more than 300,000 self-employed people who offer rides in their cars in return for payments made through Uber. The commissioner ruled that a driver who had filed a claim against the company was in fact an employee. She made clear that the ruling only applied to that driver and only affected the plaintiff’s car expenses, but in the commissioner’s opinion because Uber retained “control over the operation as a whole,” the plaintiff was no less an employee than a pizza restaurant’s delivery driver. Uber’s idea that its drivers are not staff was, she suggested, wrong.
But it’s not just Uber that struggles to differentiate between the self-employed and the employed. When adding a member of staff to the books forces a company to grant a host of expensive benefits, firms have a financial incentive to call workers contractors while treating them as employees. A 2015 report in The New Yorker described a Cornell study ten years earlier which claimed that about ten percent of New York state’s workers were miscategorized, particularly truckers, housekeepers and construction workers. FedEx drivers have successfully sued the courier company for misclassification, and in the nineties, Microsoft lost a lawsuit after labelling engineers contractors in order not to give them stock options and other benefits.
So where does the difference between an independent contractor and an employee lie?
The line isn’t as clear-cut as you might think. According to the IRS’s website, three categories determine whether a worker is working for themselves, and therefore responsible for their own taxes and benefits, or working for an employee, in which case the company has to withhold taxes and abide by labor regulations.
According to the IRS, a worker is an employee when the business has the right to direct and control the worker. The business might not actually control how the work is done but if it has the ability to determine which tools to use, when and where to do the work, where to buy supplies, the order in which the work is done, and who can help, then that worker might start to look like an employee to a labor court.
Similarly, the more detailed the instructions that the company gives, the more it looks like it’s hired an employee. And the same is true if the firm provides training or applies an evaluation system that looks at not just the final product but the way the work is performed.
In other words, the less freedom you have over the way you work, the greater the likelihood that you’re an employee and not in self-employment.
Just as a strong degree of behavioral control from a client might suggest that you’re still an employee rather than self-employed so the same is true of financial control. This is a little murkier. The IRS notes that while businesses usually pay for their employees’ equipment in some industries, such as construction, workers may have to expend a great of money on tools but are still considered employees. Other industries may require no investment at all and workers can still be considered self-employed.
The self-employed are also less likely to be reimbursed for their expenses and have a greater chance of making a loss.
Type Of Relationship
The IRS looks at the nature of the relationship between the contractor and the client but it would ignore the description written in a contract. Just stating in a signed agreement that you’re an independent contractor is not enough to prove that you are one. An expectation that the relationship will continue indefinitely is more likely to provide evidence of an employee-employer relationship, as is the presentation of a contractor’s work as a key activity of the business.
In short, the gap between self-employment and employment isn’t completely clear. Labor courts and the IRS have plenty of freedom to examine the relationship between the client and the contractor, and the way the contractor works, and rule on the worker’s employment status.
For someone who wants to be self-employed, though, the real question is whether you’re getting the benefits that self-employment promises. The self-employed give up a host of benefits in return for the freedom to work where, when and how they want. Usually, they get that freedom and are able to set their own schedules but it is possible to find yourself working for a single client with strict demands and close monitoring. If you’re not getting the freedom that self-employment promises, then you may as well be employed… and you may as well ask for those benefits back.
Becoming self-employed makes you responsible for your future but it also makes you responsible for all of the duties and obligations that may now be being met by your employer. Part of the shift from employment to self-employment involves learning how to meet those obligations. It’s not a huge obstacle. It’s not something that requires an understanding of tax law and an MBA. But it will involve a meeting with an accountant or a tax lawyer, and a willingness to do the paperwork.
3. Financing: Finding The Cash Before The Profits
You might be starting your business in order to earn money, but you’ll need money to start a business. You’ll need money to buy equipment, to pay for advertising and to pay yourself until the revenues start to flow. But as soon as you leave your job—or as soon as your job leaves you—the money stops flowing.
For any business, even if it’s just a one person marketing consultancy, money is like air. Your business can hold its breath for a while. You can attach it to a ventilator and you can give it mouth-to-mouth to keep it alive but at some point it has to take a breath on its own and keep breathing… or you have to declare it dead.
Knowing where that first breath will come from will be vital, and you have a number of options, from reaching into the loose change in your own pockets to taking giant sums from investors with hopes of buying an early ride on a unicorn.
Bootstrapping Your Way To Success
According to one study only 65 percent of 41 software companies that made the Inc. 500 list in 2015 were started with funds from investors. The remaining 35 percent were bootstrapped. They included seven companies with revenues of between $5 million and $10 million and one with revenues of between $15 million and $20 million. Their founders pooled their resources, took no money from anyone else and used whatever funds they had to make their business function.
It’s not a common way for large businesses to get up and running. Technology firms, in particular, often have to wait some time before the audiences they build turn into revenue. Until that happens, they still have to pay salaries, rent server space and buy marketing. To produce revenue, they sell parts of the future value of the company to investors.
That solution is much harder to use when the business is much smaller—or looks likely to stay smaller. Sole proprietorships, in particular, might provide a comfortable way for an individual to make a living but because their ability to scale is limited they’re less likely to be able to raise funding from investors and more likely to be built on a foundation of the founder’s own savings.
It’s the easiest way to get a business up and running. You won’t need to depend on anyone else. You won’t have to explain what you want to do or give away parts of your enterprise. Nor will you have to listen to the advice of someone who lent you funds and no thinks that they know your business better than you. Bootstrapping your own company will give you the most independence and the most freedom. But because savings are usually pretty limited, it’s also the hardest way to keep the business running. It means you’ll need to make some smart decisions very early.
First, working with a partner will double the amount of resources you’ll have available but you’ll need to choose that partner with great care. It will need to be someone who complements your skills rather than replicates them so that the overall business is stronger and can save money. Two designers, for example, who decide to set up a studio together would have a greater chance of success than one because they can share office equipment and marketing expenses. But they’ll have an even greater chance if they can also produce different designs for different markets and give the business a broader range of services.
Similarly, because funds will often be shorter than time, founders of small businesses often find themselves doing as much of the work as they can themselves in order to save money on outsourcing. When you’re bootstrapping your own business then, it pays to find a partner with skills that you lack—and you also need to be prepared to spend your evenings learning new skills and completing tasks that you know professional specialists could do faster and better.
And it’s a good idea to focus on revenues and profits right from the beginning. That might sound obvious but Amazon didn’t turn a profit until 2015, when it was 21 years old. (It made $92 million in profit that quarter; Google made $3.93 billion). Unlike a tech company backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, a bootstrapped business can’t be that patient. It can’t focus on building a customer base and worry about making the sales later, as companies like Facebook and Twitter have done. When there’s little money available for investment, the resources and labor that go in have to push money out as quickly as possible.
So you can expect to be taking on jobs that you’d prefer not to do. A self-employed architect might dream of one day designing a new skyscraper downtown but they won’t be in a position to reject any work at the beginning, including designing garage conversions and treehouses. Bootstrapping means a period of time in which you just can’t be choosy about the work you accept. Regardless of how high you might have been at your previous company, when you work for yourself, you’re starting at the bottom all over again—although at least you know that there are no limits to how high you can rise.
You’ll need to watch the dimes carefully too. That’s easier to do when you give your business its own bank account. You’ll have a clear view of the budget you have available to spend each month, the amounts coming in and the amounts flowing out. Even if it’s just a Paypal account, your business will be financially transparent. Your taxes will be easier to figure out as well.
But if there’s one characteristic that bootstrapped businesses share in the early months it’s penny-pinching. When revenues are still low and the business has yet to break even, every penny has to questioned twice and every saving has to be taken. You might not have to actually sleep in your car but working from home means that you won’t have to pay for office rent. Keeping your old Ford will save your car payments and lower your insurance. Using free open source software instead of high-end professional programs can save large sums and have minimal impact on the work you can do. OpenOffice has free versions of the entire Office suite that are little different to Microsoft’s products and are compatible with them. Clients won’t even need to know that you’re watching the pennies. The same options are available for just about all software, from coding to video editing. You don’t have to pay a fortune to use Visual Studio or Photoshop, even if you’re familiar with them and value them. There are plenty of free options that might not be as good but are good enough to get the job done until you can afford a bigger outlay. They’re good places to start.
But while watching costs is always a good discipline, it comes at a cost. The price you pay is in efficiency and productivity. Work at home, and you won’t have to pay for an office but you’ll be at risk of being disturbed and you’ll have all the distractions of a home environment. (You’ll also be at risk of making your home feel like an office instead of a refuge from work.) Those free, open-source software programs can be slower, lack functions and feel less familiar than the professional programs you might have used at your last job.
Fortunately, there are now some pretty good options that allow small businesses to enjoy all the benefits of an office with none, or few, of the expenses.
Walk into any café now, and you can expect to see as many laptops as cups of coffee. For the price of a Java, you can get a table, a chair and Internet access for a good two to three hours. It’s not something you want to overdo. Hold a table through the lunch hour on a single latte and the owner won’t be too welcoming towards you. The place will also start to get noisy. But grab a spot during the café’s weak hours, such as in the early morning or mid-afternoon, and you’ll help to make the place look busy. Tip generously, and the staff will be less likely to give you hassle and more likely to respond positively when you ask them to turn the music down. You’ll also get your coffee exactly the way you want it.
Use a café as an office three days a week, and you’ll spend about $50 a month for a good work environment—and you’ll also get to enjoy the feeling of being able to go and sit in a café in the middle of the day, which is priceless.
It’s also possible to use co-working spaces. These are common offices used by digital nomads. You can pay for a seat at a table, or even rent a small office for a relatively low fee. WeWork is a network of co-working spaces in 21 cities in the United States and in fourteen countries around the world, including China, the United Kingdom and Argentina. The company charges from $220 a month for a hot desk in a single location, and from $300 a month to reserve a desk. Your own private lockable office is available from $400 a month. You’ll be able to do printing and copying, and you’ll also have access to meeting rooms and workrooms if you need to meet clients or team members.
Best of all, you’ll get to network. As well as a work resource, WeWork is also a community of more than 80,000 members. Take a seat at a shared table and you might well find yourself surrounded by potential clients who need exactly the services you’re offering. It’s a good way to work, to find work and to meet people to work with.
Crowdfund Your Business Idea
The alternative to using your own money to fund your idea is to use other people’s money. The launch of Kickstarter in April 2009 opened an alternative route to people’s wallets. Instead of appealing to angels with lots of money to spare, begging executives at venture capital firms looking for the next big thing, anyone with an idea for a business could make a public appeal for funds. Anyone who found the product interesting could offer to support it.
By early 2017, the platform had raised nearly $3 billion from 13 million people who had helped to bring over 121,000 ideas to fruition.
Now, those funds weren’t raised to start businesses. They were raised to create products—video games, graphic novels, movies, smart watches. Some of those products though may well have turned out to be the first product from an entirely new business, getting the company off the ground and opening up a whole new opportunity for the company’s founders.
Long before Apple launched its ear buds, for example, Nikolaj Hviid, the former head of design at audio company Harman, raised $3.4 million for Bragi, his own set of smart wireless earbuds. The company was said to have sold 600,000 units by the end of 2016 and was expected to make a $100 million in revenue for the following year. Elan Lee, a game designer who had worked on the Xbox, raised nearly $9 million for his Exploding Kittens card game. The campaign sold 700,000 units before the product had even been built.
In each of those cases, Kickstarter became not just a way of raising funds for a business—Nikolaj Hviid supplemented his crowdfunds with venture capital—but a way to test the market. By telling the public which products they were planning to make and promoting those products with a video and public relations campaigns, the crowdfunders were able to see just how many people were willing to make a purchase. They were able to make sales even before they had started work and they were able to launch their business with money in their pockets, both for themselves and for the development costs.
But those stories were exceptional. The success rate on Kickstarter in 2016 was a little under 36 percent; two out of every three projects fail to reach their funding targets, which means they don’t get a dime. Of the 121,475 projects successfully funded by early 2017, the most common amount raised was between $1,000 and $9,999. Only 220 projects had topped $1 million. The most successful categories aren’t technology or crafts but music, film and video, and publishing.
And increasingly, the success of a campaign depends as much on the ability of the campaigners to raise awareness as it does on the quality of their idea. Fundraisers need to produce an eye-catching video, win publicity from media organizations and manage to land the kind of viral spread on social media that lets plenty of people know who they are. They need to be able to move beyond friends and family, a process that’s becoming harder. In 2012, Kickstarter’s success rate was about 10 percent higher than it is today. The thrill of finding a great product that no one else has thought of has faded as Kickstarter has become more familiar. Products like Skarp’s Laser Razor, which raised $4 million before Kickstarter shut it down for offering a product that didn’t exist, have also kicked at the confidence of donors to back projects with no guarantees of delivering a return.
As donors have become less generous, the competition for the funds that remain has intensified. Start a campaign on Kickstarter now, and it won’t be long before you start receiving emails from “consultants” offering to shoot your videos, manage your social media campaign and put the name of your product in the press. Some of those businesses are legitimate. They’ll have rich experience with crowdfunding campaigns and will be able to point to successful projects that turned ideas into business. But many others are scams that offer little more than a press release and a Facebook page.
It will be up to you to decide whether you want to run your campaign yourself or hire someone to put the parts together for you. It will be up to you to sort the pros from the scammers who can help you to reach audiences and bring in the funds. And it will be up to you to find either the time or the money to attract the investment.
In general, you can expect to need a well-made video; a prototype of the product you want to create; the ability to turn a Facebook page into a snowball of followers; and the ability to write press releases that will generate interviews with reporters from Techcrunch, Mashable and other outlets.
None of that is impossible. But if it were ever easy in the past, it certainly isn’t simple now.
Ask Your Peers For Loans
Crowdfunding is really a way for businesses to test the market. By showing people what they’re building and creating a promotional campaign to let people know it’s coming, small businesses are able (for a relatively low fee) to find out whether their idea has buyers or not. A campaign that succeeds starts with customers in hand. A campaign that fails is a business idea with no customers… or perhaps just a poor crowdfunding campaign, which is why the traditional money-raising methods still have an appeal. Banks still have business departments whose job is to review loan applications, assess business plans and credit ratings, and dole out cash to people who want to work for themselves.
The process is painful. Much depends on your credit score. You’ll need to be able to put up some collateral so that the bank can always get its money back (home equity will do nicely). Even if it works, you’ll be starting your business in debt to an institution with no sympathy at all for what you want to do and the chance of losing your home if it all goes wrong.
Recent years have seen the rise of alternative sources of business funding. Just as crowdfunding has allowed the public to put their money where their purchase choices are—even when there’s nothing yet to purchase—so peer-to-peer lending has taken the middlemen out of the loans industry. Now anyone can bundle funds with other small lenders, enabling businesses to access funds for relatively low rates and without speaking to banks. LendingClub, one of the biggest peer-to-peer lending organizations offers businesses loans of between $5,000 and $300,000. Repayment terms last between one and five years and total annualized rates can vary from 7.77 percent to just over 35 percent.
If that can sound steep when the Small Business Association is charging a top rate of 8.5 percent, bear in mind too that Lending Club also has some fairly strict criteria for its business loans. In addition to owning at least 20 percent of the business, having “fair or better” personal credit, and no recent bankruptcies or tax liens, you’ll need to have been in business for at least two years and have at least $75,000 in annual sales.
Other platforms might be more flexible. Prosper provides peer funded personal loans for business use that don’t require collateral or home refinancing. Like Lending Club, the annual rates for people with poor credit records can reach the mid-thirties percent though they start around 6 percent. Prosper does, however, market itself as an option for businesses that don’t yet have “a solid history of profit” or which lack the documentation required to obtain a bank loan.
On the other hand, because the loans are personal the business owner remains liable for them even if the business venture fails. It’s a high risk venture that shows that while peer-to-peer lending can be an option, it’s not a perfect solution. The hassle of applying may be lower than at your local bank, and the chances of receiving a loan may be higher. But you’ll be unlikely to walk away with a bargain rate and you’ll still be liable for repayment.
Before you take out any loan—and especially before you take out a loan to fund your business idea—you’ll need to be sure that you will be able to pay it back. Nothing tests the confidence you have in your business more than that moment before you agree to accept a loan from a lender. That’s as true of a peer-to-peer lender as it is of a traditional lender.
Get A Boost From Business Accelerators
The biggest challenge you’ll face when you start working for yourself might not be raising the funds. Look hard enough and be willing to take on a large amount of risk, and it’s likely that you‘ll be able to raise the money from somewhere, especially if you have a good credit record. The bigger challenge is that you’ll be on your own. You’ll have raised your cash, and it will be up to you to spend it in the best way possible.
And you’ll have one chance to get it right.
Make a mistake—waste money on an advertising campaign that doesn’t work or develop a product with the wrong feature set—and you could kill off that chance to build your business. You could land yourself with debts that you’ll be paying off long after you’re back working for someone else. You could ruin your enthusiasm for being self-employed.
And everyone makes mistakes. No one ever goes from zero to millionaire without putting a foot wrong or suffering a setback. But you won’t know whether your next misstep is the one that kills your future.
So whether you’re planning to stay alone or hoping to grow your small business into a large success, you shouldn’t be afraid to look for help. Ask other self-employed people how they handle their productivity issues, their marketing and their growth. Talk to other small businesses about hiring and office space. You can pick up some of that advice from friends and former colleagues, and you can also pick it up from other self-employed people at co-working spaces.
But the best advice and support for new business will come from incubators and accelerators.
These aren’t exactly the same. Incubators might cost money. Like a co-working space, they’ll provide office space but they can also act as connectors and a learning space. StartupHub NYC, for example, promises help with accounting and tax planning, competition and industry analysis, marketing and PR, lead generation and fundraising, and even immigration and visas for business owners coming from abroad.
Those benefits are valuable and are rarely covered by any fees charged by the incubator. Instead, they’re usually subsidized so businesses have to apply, and they’ll have to meet the criteria for the particular incubator. Applications are usually pretty competitive and stays are limited. SparkPlug, an incubator run by advertising firm Y&R helps “interesting companies and idea generators that may provide value to us or our brands.”
In return for the opportunity to review ideas and services that might benefit its own work, Y&R promises free office space, resources and benefits that include mentorships, demo days, hackathons, start-up seminars, client introductions, participation in innovation conferences, and even investment funding and acquisition discussions. The incubator only accepts five startups in every cycle and each cycle lasts six months.
As challenging as that limited access and limited time might be, accelerators can be even shorter and even more competitive. That’s because while incubators provide a space for businesses to grow, accelerators also provide funds. In return for money, accelerators will also expect to receive a share of the company’s equity. The Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, for example runs a four-month program that provides free office space, legal finance, accounting and other business service, mentorship… and $100,000 in funds in return for an 8 percent equity. The accelerator’s partners also add $360,000 of web hosting credits from Microsoft Azure, another $100,000 in credits from Google Cloud Platform, $50,000 in credits from PayPal Startup Blueprint, and a host of other benefits.
Y Combinator, one of the best-known Silicon Valley accelerators, responsible for raising companies as well-known as DropBox, AirBnB, Reddit and Docker, invests $120,000 in over a hundred companies twice a year. The businesses move to Silicon Valley for direct mentoring for three months, and to prepare a product that they can show to a select audience on Demo Day. The result of that demonstration may be more funding, and it’s often an early-stage acquisition.
It’s been hugely successful. Around 1,500 companies have passed through the accelerator since 2005 and those business have together gone on to be worth as much as $80 billion.
Accelerators and incubators often have a reputation for being aimed at technology companies, and while there’s often an emphasis on coding and soldering skills, programs are available for a broad range of industries. (Y&R, for example, is interested in businesses working in content, new formats such as virtual reality, product development, mobile, social media and non-profits.)
Drawing up a list of programs to apply for should be simple enough but be sure to look at who’s running the program. You’ll want to make sure that you’re receiving mentoring from people who aren’t just members of the local chamber of commerce but successes who understand your business and who still have the connections that can move you to the next stage. An incubator and an accelerator is only a springboard to your business’s next stop.
Pitch To Venture Capitalists
Accelerators might be opportunities for small businesses to access funds and connections, but they’re also ways for investors to identify opportunities, place some money in them and put them in an environment over which they have some control. A good accelerator might understand that firms do best when their founders get to make their own decisions but the atmosphere of the accelerator and the connections it provides increase the chances that their investment will yield fruit.
But accelerators aren’t the only way to prise investment money out of the hands of venture capitalists. In fact, the standard way for businesses to receive investments is to meet with VC firms, make their pitch and hope that they’ll be impressed.
In theory, you should be pushing at an open door, and there should be plenty of doors. According to the National Venture Capital Association’s annual workbook report, the US had 798 venture capital firms in 2015, who together ran 1,224 funds. Those funds raised $28.2 billion, only slightly less than the $30.1 billion raised ten years earlier by 1,009 companies, which suggests that while the generous funding of the bubble years are behind us, fewer companies are now controlling large sums of money.
Receiving funding from a venture capitalist means overcoming two challenges. First, you have to be able to contact the VC firm. The best method is always through an introduction—not an easy option for a business disconnected from VC firms and in particular the industry’s center in California. (Venture capital firms in California manage about 55 percent of the country’s VC funds.) But no one is ever more than a few steps away from someone who knows the right person, and social media makes those connections easier to draw. It was for entirely these kinds of links that LinkedIn was created. Attending business events, working in co-working spaces and visiting incubators can all help to open up those connections that lead to a venture capitalist’s door.
One of the first things that you’ll feel when you become self-employed is that who you know really is as important as what you know.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t cold-email VC firms. The businesses usually include their email addresses on their websites, and those addresses are there for a reason: they expect people to send in their pitch decks.
Clearly, a warm recommendation from someone they trust is always going to have more sway than a cold email from a founder they’ve never heard of but cold emails can still be effective. Aaron Levie, for example, sent a cold email to Mark Cuban explaining what his business was planning to do and asking if Cuban wanted to invest. Cuban sent him a check. When Levie’s cloud storage company Box went public in 2015, he was 29 years old… and worth $94 million.
The good news is that pitching by email doesn’t have to be hard. Venture capitalists don’t have the time sit and read through long proposals from people they’ve never heard of. According to Patrick Mathieson, an investor at Toba Capital, the email should:
- Start with a subject that includes the name of the business, the amount being raised and the funding series.
- Contain a quick, one-sentence introduction.
- Provide two or three sentences that describe the problem and how you’re solving it.
- Use number-heavy bullet points that show how far your company has traveled.
- Have a closing sentence with a clear request.
- Attach the pitch deck.
The ability to communicate clearly is vital, so the email should be short, no more than a couple of paragraphs. It should avoid clichés and vague descriptions; the investor will look at the idea to see if it’s interesting and at the numbers to see if they add up. It also needs to be written properly, free of errors and addressed to the right person.
Get all that right and you’ll have… a small chance of receiving a positive reply but you will have a chance, and that’s something. All that lies between you and the support of a major venture capital fund isn’t your lack of ability or your missing connections, it’s only your willingness to put together your pitch deck and craft the email that an investor wants to see.
The biggest opportunity of your life is never more than an email away.
The other challenge is the pitch deck itself.
A pitch deck is a collection of slides, usually nothing more than Powerpoint slides, that explain your business, what it does and what you need from the VC firm. There’s no shortage of pitch decks on the Internet from companies that picked up giant investment checks and went on to make zillions. There’s also plenty of advice from investors who will tell you how many slides you need to make, and what should be on them.
Guy Kawasaki, for example, argues that a pitch deck should contain no more than ten slides. (“If you must use more than ten slides to explain your business,” he says, “you probably don’t have a business.”) The text should be both big and minimal. If you’re reading from the screen, the audience will read ahead of you. The text should only contain the highlights and the figures.
After the title, which puts the company name and contact details on the first slide, the remaining slides should:
- Describe the problem you’re solving;
- Explain the value of your solution;
- Show your special technique, ideally with a prototype or diagrams;
- Lay out the business model;
- Map out your marketing plan;
- Reveal the competition;
- Introduce the management team;
- Forecast revenues;
- And explain where you are now.
That’s all there is to it. It’s not much, although it will feel like a lot when you’re trying to cram your entire business idea onto a single slide. But it’s also not the only way to create a pitch deck. There are almost as many approaches to creating a pitch deck as there are VC firms waiting to receive them, and there’s no shortage of successful decks that followed none of those formulae.
But if you’re going to pitch to VC firms, you’ll need one, and it will need to lay out what your business will do, who’s going to do it and how much it will be worth.
Money—and the lack of it—is always going to be a vital part of starting to work for yourself. Until the revenue is starting to flow, the clock will be ticking. The more funds you have available, the more time you have to get your business up and running, and the more room you’ll have to experiment and make mistakes.
If you’re starting a company, with partners, employees and the hope of scaling, there’s no shortage of opportunities to access funds provided the idea and the team are strong enough. It won’t be easy but an infrastructure is in place to guide founders to funding.
For people who are looking to do nothing more than work for themselves, take on clients or sell their own products, money will be harder to find, although it is available in the form of loans. An alternative solution is also available in the form of penny-pinching and slow growth from a low base.
How quickly that growth happens though, will depend on the launch, and that’s what we discuss in the next chapter.
4. The Launch: How To Rise With Momentum
We’ve seen that the line between employment and self-employment is less clear than it sounds. But it’s not just the legal definition of employment that makes the line blurry, it also the feeling that comes with the transition. Whether you’ve left your last job willingly and with a long-formed plan for the next stage of your life, or whether your last job left you and you’re now planning to enact an idea you’ve been dreaming of for a while, nothing’s happened. The sun is still shining. You’re still the same person. Nothing in your life has changed.
And nothing will change until you launch your new venture. You need to let the world know what you’re doing, the services and products you’re offering, and make clear how customers can make their purchase.
That’s a big switch. It’s like changing your relationship status on Facebook from Single to It’s Complicated. The launch of your business venture, even if it’s a switch to nothing more complex than freelancing, is a public announcement of a change in who you are. It affects how people see you.
To people who have never had the courage to make the change themselves, it can appear as a brag, a reminder of their own timidity. They’ll wonder who you are that you think you have what it takes to make it on your own, and they’ll secretly hope for your failure. Others will admire your boldness and they won’t just hope that you’ll succeed, they’ll also want to help make it happen by letting their friends know that you’re available for work.
You’ll find more of the latter than the former, but you can expect to find both, and you’ll experience a change in the way you see yourself. You’re now the boss, the person you always thought you could be. Whether you were right to think you could be the boss is something you’re about to put to the test.
That test takes the form of the launch and what happens afterward will determine whether your new venture gets off to a flying start or whether it drags along the ground for a while before it finally finds its wings.
A Soft Launch Or A Hard Launch?
The first decision you’ll need to make is how you want to launch. You have two options: a soft launch or a hard launch, and the difference is important.
The aim of a soft launch isn’t to get the business up and running as quickly as possible. It’s to collect information. It’s to test the market, figure out what works and flex your muscles before you take on more than you can handle.
It’s worth remembering that Facebook started with a soft launch. The company didn’t come flying out of the traps with an appeal to a global market; it started at one university then spread to other universities. It was a good two years before Facebook was available to anyone who wanted to join, by which time the company had reams of data about the sort of content that people wanted to share, how many servers they needed and which features they should offer. By the time it opened up to everyone, it was in a position to accept members numbering in the hundreds of millions.
A soft launch also has the benefit of giving more chances of success. Release a product generally that fails to do everything it should and you’ll break your customers’ trust. Having bought a poor product once, they’ll be harder to persuade to buy again. Release to a small portion of your potential market first, and you’ll be able to make any fixes then release to the rest of your market without having first poisoned the well.
On the other hand, if a product does well within your market, other people will hear about it and want to use it. You’ll have created pent-up demand that’s ready to be released as soon as you’re ready to release the product. Instead of working to generate interest after the launch, you’ll have a market keen to grab your product as soon as it hits the shelves. Anticipation can be a powerful marketing device.
And a soft launch can also be cheaper. You’ll be able to pick your first customer base, focus your marketing on that small area and spend fewer advertising dollars than you would if you were aiming at everyone.
On the other hand, your growth will be slower. A slow launch has to be followed by a hard launch that puts your product in front of more people. You expose your product to competitors who might be able to learn from your mistakes, move faster and reach the parts of your market that you’ve chosen to ignore for now.
Soft launches can be cautious moves at a time you need to be bold.
When a hard launch works, it can take you to your destination at full speed. It’s a more efficient use of your marketing budget because you’ll be pushing your business in front of as many people as possible instead of focusing only on a small number. You’ll also know immediately whether your business idea has legs. If the launch doesn’t gain traction, you’ll have your answer right away.
There’s no straightforward answer to the kind of launch you should use but there are some general principles you can follow. Software products tend to soft launch with betas because their producers expect things to be wrong. The products are so complex and are used in so many different ways and on so many different platforms that there are always bugs and compatibility issues that they can’t predict. Releasing the software to a limited beta group grants the members of that group a first look at a product they’ll want to use, and it allows the company to test the product in a variety of different real-world settings. In effect, it turns the first customers into a large quality assurance department.
If you’re releasing a product that could be as buggy as a piece of software, it’s worth opting for a soft launch. Identify a group of people who will be the most enthusiastic users and who will be willing to give you feedback. Make sure that you have a system in place to receive that feedback, even if it’s just a customer service ticket platform. Limit that group to a small number to prevent the details of the product leaking too far—and to build up desire in those left out. You can even collect in advance the email addresses of people interested in joining the beta so that when you’re ready for the hard launch you’ll have buyers already in place.
Similarly, if you’re worried about bugs in the production, rather than in the product itself, you also might want to stick to a soft launch. The alternative can be very painful indeed.
At the end of 2014, Torquing Group, a company based in a Welsh technology park, turned to Kickstarter to boost investments that had already been made in Zano, its miniature drone. The company was looking for an additional $190,000 to go into full production. The campaign video showing the tiny drone following a mountain biker and snapping a group of drinkers in a pub. Kickstarter highlighted the product… and the donations flew in. By the time the campaign closed on January 8th, 2015, Zano had raised almost $3.5 million from 12,000 backers. By the time the company went into liquidation in November 2015, it had delivered no more than 600 drones and few of those had managed to fly more than a few centimeters before crashing.
It was one of the platform’s biggest disasters, and Kickstarter hired Mark Harris, an investigative reporter, to look into what went wrong. In a 13,000-word Medium post, based on five weeks of investigation, Harris concluded that:
The massive success of the Kickstarter campaign (20 times Torquing’s target) caused enormous difficulties for the Zano team, obliging them to develop additional features, as well as scale up communications and production by an order of magnitude…
Torquing directors made a series of serious errors in committing the business to extremely high levels of stock in the absence of proven production models, or even fully functional prototypes.
It’s possible that had Zano launched softly, allowed itself time to iron out the bugs in its hardware and software, and only disappointed a few early beta buyers, the company might have managed to avoid bankruptcy and offer a product that worked.
But if your product is now functioning as well as it will ever function, if you can cope with even large numbers of orders, and if you’re worried that a competitor might be able to copy your product and steal your market before you have time to scale up, then a hard launch might well be the way to go.
The Essential Elements Of A Successful Launch
What you put into a launch will depend on your product and on your brand. Not all companies can book a hall, fill it with the world’s journalists, live stream their product announcement to audiences of millions around the world… and then pull one more thing out of their pockets. They don’t all have big industry fairs at which they can pull the sheet from a secret project and announce it to the world. Nor is a big publicity event, complete with celebrities and fireworks, either appropriate or affordable for every business. Some companies just have to work much harder to attract the attention of the media, of influencers and of customers.
But it is now easier than ever for a business with a genuinely good product or service to launch. All the tools you need are at your fingertips, easy to use and relatively inexpensive.
Start with the most obvious launch engine: social media platforms. Facebook and Twitter both have the ability to spread a message across the Internet in record time. Whether that message is embedded in a video, a post or an image, even a small direct audience can soon develop into a massive potential audience as people hit the share button, add a hashtag and tell their friends.
Some marketers will argue that virality is down to luck. You can launch a thousand campaigns and never see more than one or two go viral. But professional viral marketers know that you make your own luck. Viral campaigns are usually the result of careful planning and well-made content seeded through connections with influencers who have large audiences of their own.
Viral commercial content rarely spreads spontaneously. Work starts early with a Facebook page built up long before the launch itself, interaction with a community interested in seeing what you’re producing, and relationships with other pages that are willing to share content.
The nature of the content is important too. When Doritos launched its Roulette brand, the snack company ran a live video competition on Periscope with prizes that included a gaming console and wireless speakers. That’s the sort of marketing content that professional marketing companies can produce for a (high) fee but even a small budget can produce viral content as long as it’s smart, witty and reaches audiences who will spread it. You’ll need to look at plenty of examples of recent viral campaigns, understand what characteristics of the content led to the multiple shares, and try to figure out where the viral spreading started.
Soft launches might take time to roll out but even hard launches can take time (and money) to prepare.
The rise of social media has gone a long way towards putting businesses in charge of access to their own audiences but no one can manage a relationship with the public better than the press. Land a write-up in the media and you’ll immediately reach a large number of people on a page that can generate discussion and be easily shared.
And reaching that page isn’t as hard as you might think. Reporters have always depended on businesses to send them press releases to tell the public what’s happening. PRWeb, an online press release distribution services, receives more than 150 releases each week telling reporters about the launch of a new product, service, office or anything else.
And most of those releases are ignored.
That’s because reporters aren’t interested in telling their audiences what’s happening at a business. They’re interested in telling their audiences what’s about to happen in their lives. Press releases always have to be about the audiences, and never about the business that’s offering the release. The business, and its product, will land a mention in the article. And because a reporter has discussed it, that business appear more important than a mention in an advertisement but the release can’t be about the business because no one cares about a business. People care about their lives. They want to know how that business or that product will affect them.
When Apple makes a press announcement, journalists report it because lots of people either own an Apple product or want to own one. If Acme Robotics makes a press announcement, the public (and reporters) won’t care unless they can see how that announcement affects them.
So instead of writing a press release with the headline:
ACME ROBOTICS LAUNCHES NEW UNDERWATER DRONE
The business would do better writing:
NEW UNDERWATER DRONE GIVES KIDS SWIMMING SELFIES
Because readers can see why the product is important, they’d be more likely to read it and reporters will be more likely to cover it.
Sending press releases to reporters should always be a part of a hard launch and while it’s never a reliable way to spread the word about your new venture, it is an option whose success rate you can influence even if you can’t control it.
A PR campaign can be a lot of work though. In February 2015, a company called Newark element14 wanted to launch US sales of Raspberry Pi 2, a $35 computer mounted on a single electronics board. It’s become hugely popular in the United Kingdom with students and hobbyists. The company turned to WalkerSands Communications, a professional PR firm to raise interest. According to the PR company’s case study, the firm needed to “launch the new board on a global scale, capture share of voice over its competitor, and drive sales of the brand’s exclusive accessories and add-ons.”
The product had already been launched in a different market so there was no reason for a soft launch; it had been tested and found to be a huge success. The PR firm could go straight for a hard launch. That launch consisted of three elements.
First, Walker Sands pre-selected “early adopters, journalists, and other influencers to interact with the new product and share their experiences… through non-traditional channels.” It gave away boards on social media and sent samples of the board to YouTube vloggers so that they could make unboxing videos.
In other words, the company made a list of people who already had an audience who might want to buy it, put the product in their hands and trusted them to rave about it.
Second, Walker Sands also worked with traditional “top-tier media outlets” covering technology and engineering, and offered them one-to-one interviews while carefully embargoing the content to make sure that any coverage of the new Raspberry Pi included details about the retailer.
That traditional coverage is easier to do when there’s already built-up interest in the product (something a soft launch can create) but even without that interest, non-traditional channels can still create a buzz.
And Walker Sands kept the momentum of the launch going by creating a giveaway with Engadget, and promoted content about Raspberry Pi on the retailer’s community site.
The result of that campaign was a 67 percent rise in sales. It also generated stories in outlets that ranged from The Verge to The New York Times, as well as more than 60,000 YouTube views.
The strategy wasn’t complex. It did take a bit of effort and planning and while it’s something that’s easier for an agency to do than for the owner of a small business, it’s not something that’s impossible for anyone to attempt.
Public relations campaigns depend on third parties with access to large audiences to spread a business’s message. It’s relatively low cost but in return for the savings, businesses give up control. They’re dependent on the reporters and influencers to discuss the product in the way that they want. If the vloggers who had received the Raspberry Pi 2 had been critical of the board, the PR company would have had no recourse other than to make sure that they didn’t send that vlogger products in the future.
Advertising retains that control. You’ll always be able to decide the message, and you’ll always have access to an audience. You’ll just have to pay for it. And you’ll also have to overcome the resistance that people naturally feel when someone throws an advertisement in front of them, especially when it interrupts what they were doing.
Fortunately, the development of advertising over the last few years has been a combination of better targeting and less interruption. Advertise on Facebook and you’ll be able to use articles and videos to build up an audience that might be interested in what you have to offer. Because they’ve chosen to see your content, their resistance to an advertisement will be lower than the negative responses that advertisers have had to struggle against in the past. Google, which has three-and-a-half times the revenue of Facebook, focuses on interest, and places ads on sites across the Internet as well as in search results.
Both platforms take time to master and require experimentation. Part of the preparation for the launch will be making sure that you understand how advertising on the platforms work, building an audience and understanding your demographic, knowing which keywords you want to target, with which ads, and to which landing pages.
It’s complex, which is why the people who know how to do it have been able to set up in business for themselves. Facebook advertising experts have learned how to use the platform’s “Power Editor” to run broad tests with carefully controlled costs before piling their money onto the copy and demographics that they can see perform the best. According to The New York Review of Books, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Donald Trump’s digital team was spending as much as $70 million on digital advertising, most of it on Facebook. The campaign would run 40,000 to 50,000 different versions of ads, adjusting the formats, adding or removing subtitles, running static images and videos, and so on. On the day of the third presidential debate, the campaign had as many as 175,000 different ads running on Facebook, tweaking them to identify which produces the best results.
That level of A/B testing isn’t something that most business are going to be able to do, and not just because they don’t have budgets of $70 million a month. But any business can do it on a much smaller scale. Running small ads with limited budgets before scaling up is a challenge that anyone can meet. It takes a little knowledge and effort, some expense, some patience and practice, the willingness to make mistakes, and the time to learn and fix them. But it can be done.
And just because Facebook and Google now dominate online advertising doesn’t mean that they’re the only advertising options you need to consider. Local businesses might do better to chat with a local journalist, pay for a page in a local newspaper, or distribute fliers through complementary stores. A designer who wanted to work for herself as an art tutor might well find that she lands more clients by talking to a local community center and leaving fliers at art supply stores than she does through her Facebook page.
And for small businesses in particular, one of the most effective ways to make sure that everyone knows that they’re open for businesses is simply to tell everyone they know… and encourage them to tell others. LinkedIn is a good place to start. A change of status or a quick post to tell people what you’re doing can be enough to bring in your first two or three clients, depending on the size of your network and who they’re connected to.
Word of mouth marketing might not be the fastest way to launch or the most sophisticated marketing channel in the world, but when you’re looking to grow at a pace you can meet, it works.
The Two Constraints Of A Successful Launch
“The sky’s the limit!” people will tell you as you prepare to launch your business, then remind you that somewhere above the sky, a bunch of astronauts are floating around in a space station. There are no limits at all then! Today, you’re on the verge of self-employment but this time next week, next month or next year, you could be running a giant corporation while overseeing the construction of your country mansion and being chauffeur-driven to your office in your brand new Bentley.
That might happen one day, if that’s the sort of self-employment journey you’re hoping to take. But it won’t happen immediately after your launch.
That’s because every launch has two constraints.
The first will be your budget. Every launch costs money and takes time—and because time is money, spending a lot of time on a launch means spending a lot of money on it. There’s no way around it. The less you spend on your launch, the smaller it’s likely to be.
That doesn’t mean that a small launch can’t have a huge impact. Occasionally some quiet announcement will turn into a giant story that sends products flying off the shelves. But those stories are the exception that proves the rule. The rule is that the size of your business after launch will be proportional to the amount that you spend on the launch. As you make money, you’ll be able to spend more on outreach, but the smaller you start, the longer it will take you to grow.
That might not be a bad thing though because the other constraint will be the scale of the work that you’re capable of accepting.
We’ve already seen how growing too fast can kill a business, so if you are starting small, be grateful that you’ll be growing at a pace you can manage. There may be a period of frustration initially, especially if the work or the sales come in slower than you’d like, but initially, it is better to be underworked than overworked. You’ll have time to overdeliver, to understand the business and the market, and to improve your productivity so that as your marketing improves and your business grows, you can handle that extra load.
It’s easy to assume that you want your launch to be as big as possible and for your business to rocket to a large size as quickly as possible. It’s more sensible though to plan in advance where you want your business to be in a month, six months and a year, and to build your launch to hit that target.
Launches For Solopreneurs
That capacity issue will be particularly important for solopreneurs. Not every self-employed person wants to employ others. Many are happy to remain lone wolves working not just for themselves but by themselves. They have no responsibilities, no payroll to meet, and no obligations to anyone but themselves. It’s a great way to live but it does make high productivity and scaling difficult.
As always with small businesses, that limits the size of the launch.
Service providers and freelancers might even want to keep their launches as small as possible. Instead of blasting out an advertising campaign, their launch could consist of little more than a website, complete with rate card and portfolio, a request for recommendations from friends and colleagues, and pitches on freelance job sites like Upwork. That launch might not be enough to create a complete agency, and it might not even be enough to fill a weekly schedule but it will be a start.
Freelancers are always in the business of selling hours—hours that they’ve filled with their skills and their talent—but there are only twenty-four hours in a day and far fewer in a workday. Stock is limited and once you’ve sold three months’ worth of it, you’ll be sold out for a while.
Product sellers have it slightly easier. If you’re selling a digital product or driving sales to affiliate sites, then your own scaling problems will be the ability of your server to handle all the site’s visitors. That’s easily fixed with a quick call to your server company. For self-employed Internet marketers then a big launch can work, and it might even be vital to ensure that the competition don’t start undercutting your price or trying to steal your customers.
A time-limited offer will help to create urgency, and setting up deals with affiliates of your own before the launch will help to ensure that when the launch day arrives, everyone is blasting out their offers and sending the sales your way. That flow won’t last long though. After that dramatic launch, you’ll need to prepare another one for another product, but at least you won’t have scaling problems.
The launch should be the most dramatic moment of your new business venture. It’s the moment you step up, throw off your employment costume and reveal the real you. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Even NASA doesn’t come up with a new idea then fling something big and impressive straight into space. The real work comes before the launch. You might be keen to bring in those customers and clients as quickly as possible, but you’ll have a lot of preparation work to do first.
Some of that will be the straightforward stuff of building a website and putting up a dedicated social media page but you’ll also need to drive traffic to the site and build a following on those social media pages so that when you do make your big announcement, there are people to hear it.
That preparation takes time and content—and content itself takes time to create and disseminate, and neither a small amount of website traffic nor visitors to a Facebook page bring in revenue themselves. So you’ll be doing that preparation work at the same time that you’re burning through your reserve cash, and wondering when your business is going to start earning money.
In practice then, the official launch of a new business venture can sometimes happen after the business has been operating at low level for some time. You might have already taken on a handful of clients, and you might already have already made a number of sales. The launch isn’t always from a standing start. Often it’s just a way to turbo-charge your growth.
And once it’s in the air, you have to keep that business flying. That’s what we’ll explore in the next chapter.
5. Marketing: How To Find And Keep Your Customers
Your launch should put your business on a firm footing. After a period of experimentation and preparation, you’ll have made an official declaration that you’re open for business. That should lead—at the very least—to a flurry of additional work. Even a small launch should bring in a few more clients and a big splashy launch should bring a large number of clients or sales.
The next challenge will be hold onto those clients, and to build on them so that the business grows.
That’s necessary even if you’re setting up as a solopreneur. A freelance designer might come away from a grand opening announcement with work for the next few months, but she’ll want to keep those gigs coming in even as she’s sketching, coding and designing for the clients she’s just picked up. And she’ll want to do it as efficiently as possible. The less time that she has to spend looking for new clients, the more time she’ll have to create the designs that she loves putting together.
But she’ll always have to invest that time. Successful businesses hold onto their clients. Those clients keep coming back, filling the schedule and giving the business the stability that comes from regular work. Those clients may make up 80 percent of the business’s income. The other 20 percent though should bring the challenge of working for new clients and the opportunity to work on bigger, more interesting and more lucrative projects. That 20 percent that’s constantly changing is where the growth comes from, and it flows in through active marketing.
No one is ever immune to the constant need for marketing and sales.
Every business will have to produce their own marketing plans, and work their own marketing channels. Different strategies will work differently for different industries just as different messages will work on different audiences. But there are some general tools that work for every business and for every self-employed entrepreneur, and we’ll explore them in this chapter.
You Are Your Brand
Whatever the nature of your business, you won’t be alone. A freelance designer will be competing for work from among thousands of other freelance designers. An affiliate seller of digital products will know that he has to grab eyeballs from thousands of websites offering similar products with a similar appeal. A digital agency will be offering the same services offered by dozens of other companies to exactly the same group of potential clients.
Customers and clients will make their choice based on a number of different factors.
Pricing will always be important. No one wants to pay more than they need to, so rates need to be competitive. But price isn’t just a way of sorting out clients with small budgets or sellers with low efficiency. The rate selection also says something about the business. A company that goes below the market average is selling itself as a budget option.
There may be a good business case for that decision. Budget airlines have stolen many customers from major airlines and are influencing the way those airlines work. But it also tells potential customers how you see yourself. When Michael O’Leary set up Ryanair, he made a conscious decision to create a low-budget, bare-bones company instead of a luxury outfit. That wasn’t only because that was where he saw the gap in the market. It was also because that was what suited him best. His low tolerance for customer service demands wouldn’t work at a company whose customers paid top dollar.
Charge higher than average market rates, and you’ll be positioning yourself as a luxury brand catering to high-end clients. Those clients will be smaller in number and they’ll be more demanding, with higher expectations but they’ll also pay more and may produce more challenging work.
Whatever you choose, your pricing decision won’t just determine your revenues; it will also contribute to the image of your company and the way that it operates. There’s a big difference between selling cheap handbags at a market stall and serving designer bags for thousands of dollars to customers who expect to be pampered. Your choice of pricing might determine your profits but it also sets the nature of your business.
Your range of services will also matter. A one-person shop may only be able to offer a single service while an agency could offer a complete solution. Your decision to sell just one part of that solution might come from necessity but it will contribute to your image as a specialist rather than a generalist.
It might also determine your marketing strategy. A copywriter who specializes in Web content might not be able to supply complete SEO or website building services, but they could offer their skills to an agency that’s better at coding and link-building than writing. They could contract for the agency, enjoying the benefit of the agency’s marketing and creating one reliable source of income. That’s easier to do if you’re helping a larger supplier rather than being large enough to compete with them.
Your niche, of course, will matter too. It makes up another form of specialization, and that specialization can happen unconsciously. A client passes your name to a colleague in the same industry who gives it to a couple more colleagues and in a short space of time, your portfolio is starting to look homogenous. You’re building a name in one sector, and while that can help you to dominate that niche and provide a stable source of income. It can also make growth difficult. Businesses can suffer from typecasting in exactly the same way as actors. When customers and clients see as specializing only in one particular task, you can be overlooked for other more interesting and more lucrative projects.
In the first months or years of a business, that’s not a terrible thing. It tells potential clients who you are, and makes it easier for them to make a choice. But bear in mind that it can be difficult to break out of. You’ll have to work harder to show that you can take on a different role and win the trust of clients and customers who are used to seeing you in a particular way.
Location could matter. Even for digital services, customers and clients may prefer to work with businesses that are close by… or at least in the same time zone, if only for practical reasons. The location of a business can also affect its style. An advertising agency in New York might have a different feel to an agency in Texas or Los Angeles.
Some places also function as hubs that make marketing, outsourcing and growth easier. There’s a reason that tech companies continue to set up in Silicon Valley even though the cost of living is so high. It remains the best place to find the talent, funding and infrastructure they need to survive.
And while customer service might not be something a client will experience until after they’ve made contact, they should be able to tell whether they’ll be dealing with an individual who’s doing everything and is dedicated to their success or whether they’ll be calling a hotline in Bangalore where someone will read them scripted answers. Zappos built an entire multi-million dollar business selling a product offered at thousands of other stores on nothing more unique than the quality of its customer service.
All of those elements together make up your brand. They determine how you appear to customers, whether you look like a small, local business or a large, national company; whether you understand their industry or need to have it explained before you can put your skills to work; whether they’ll be able to pick up the phone whenever they have a question or whether they’ll have to trust you to produce what they want. Those messages have to be present in your design and in your content. That choice of branding will tell leads exactly who you are.
Tasks such as the design of your website, its images and language, may feel like questions of aesthetic choice but they tell leads where you stand in the marketplace. Every choice you make communicates how you see your business and influences how clients see you.
It’s unlikely you’ll be able to do that branding by yourself. (Even professional designers can benefit from the view of an objective eye) but you will need to be able to tell your designer what messages regarding, price, niche, services and of course, market, you want your brand image to communicate.
Social Media Ads And Video Ads
That branding will extend beyond your website and stationery into your social media presence. Accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and even Instagram and Snapchat have now become essential tools for just about any business operating in any field. While your personal Facebook profile might have a picture of your family across the top, your business page needs to have an image that continues the impression created on your website.
The real benefit of social media sites, though, is the combination of audience-building and advertising, especially on Facebook. While Google will let you target search terms, Facebook gives you access to the people who might be interested in doing business with you. It’s remarkably powerful. Chris Meyer, a self-employed wedding photographer, used Facebook’s targeting tools to focus his ads on engaged women within an age range that matched a first marriage and within fifty-mile radius of his studio. He was able to see returns as high as $220 for each dollar he spent on placements.
Facebook has become much more sophisticated since then. In addition to simply choosing target audiences by demographics, its tools easily enable advertisers to find audiences similar to those who have already likes your products. You’ll be able to gain unique insights into the sorts of people who might become your customers or clients, and you’ll be able to use those insights to find more people like them.
In theory, those tools should give you much of what you need to keep your business growing and to keep new customers and clients coming in at a rate you can manage. In practice, though, as always, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. As we’ve seen, it will take time for you to identify the demographic that will have the best response rate, and it will take time for you to figure out the best ad copy to reach and engage that audience.
That time costs money and while the budget you spend on your launch will be a one-off cost, the funds you set aside for your marketing will be ongoing. That investment, though, will give you real intelligence. It will show you exactly how to reach your market and what to say to it to pull it in.
It should set you up with a pipe that will let you draw in new customers whenever you want.
You’ll have to mix it up, but once you’ve bought that understanding of your audience, whenever you feel space opening in your schedule or whenever you want to bring in new projects, you’ll be able to knock out a new ad and run it to your target demographic.
To get there though, you’ll have to spend money, and you’ll have to spend it right at the beginning when you can least afford it. You can even speed up the learning process, and regularize your new client intake by outsourcing the Facebook advertising to an agency. You’ll pay more, and it’s only worthwhile if you have a large advertising budget, but you’ll reach your target audience faster. Even if it’s not something you want to do right at the beginning when money is tightest, it might well be worth considering once the business is up and running.
The alternative—or, more likely, the complement—to opening a budget to advertise on Facebook is to produce a regular stream of free content. Again, that takes time and when you’re self-employed, time spent writing a post, designing an image or filming a video is time not spent doing something billable for a client. And you’ll need an audience for that content, which takes time too, both to create the content that builds the audience and to broker the content-sharing deals with other producers that pull in more followers.
So you’ll have something of a Catch 22: building an audience and creating a successful advertising campaign on Facebook take money. But you won’t have spare cash to pay that money until you’ve built a successful campaign that’s brought paying clients and customers.
There is a way out. In the first days, weeks and even months of your business, it’s likely that you’ll have some clients but not enough to fill your entire schedule. You won’t have spare cash, but you will have some spare time. That’s the period to get into the habit of creating social media content and building your following. Set aside a morning each week for audience-building and content creation, whether you’re writing a blog about your latest project or sharing your knowledge on Twitter. It will be a good habit even as your schedule fills.
As your income grows, you’ll be able to start building a budget for advertising that can boost your content and increase your customer base. It happens slowly. It requires patience. But social media marketing does now need to be a part of every business’s growth.
Video Ads And Video Content
Facebook, and to some extent Twitter too, has moved away from static content such as text posts and even images, and towards video content. The company uses an algorithm to determine which pieces of content reach a member’s news stream, filtering out all but the items it believes the member would find most interesting.
Facebook does this in part to ensure that members aren’t given content they don’t want to see but it also does it to encourage brands to pay for extra reach. Without a willingness to dip into their pockets, a business page might only be able to reach as little as one percent of the followers that it’s put so much effort into building.
Facebook’s algorithm examines the degree of engagement the post generates and measures the relationship between the publisher and the member, but it also takes into account the format of the content. Facebook grants a bonus to video content uploaded directly to the platform to allow more followers to see it for free.
Since the end of 2016, all major social media platforms have also placed a strong emphasis on live video content. For Facebook, Twitter and also Instagram live video provides a way to offer audiences an experience that they can’t find anywhere else. Even when audiences can watch a recording of a live video (an option that isn’t available on Instagram), that recording delivers a different experience. There’s no interaction through comments that the broadcaster can see and reply to, and no anticipation about what might happen next. Hitting the “Live” button on the Facebook app produces an experience that users have to visit Facebook to enjoy at that moment.
That’s good news for Facebook but for the business making the broadcast, live video also offers a number of important benefits. They can actually talk to customers, answer their questions and interact in way that they can’t through any other channel. And when the broadcast begins, followers receive a notification on Facebook telling them that someone they know is now live. So to the urgency of a live event, Facebook adds the immediate interruption of telemarketing.
Live video is still fairly new, and businesses are only now beginning to work out what to do with it. Mark Zuckerberg got the ball rolling by taking his followers behind the scenes at Facebook, showing off his desk and giving viewers a tour of the company’s new offices. Those behind-the-scenes videos have proved popular with other businesses. Grazia, an Italian fashion magazine, even moved the entire editorial team to Facebook’s offices for a week and broadcast the publication’s editorial process. They found that broadcasts of between half an hour and an hour give audiences time to build without losing them to other content.
Straight-to-camera conversations are the easiest forms of live video but a long, live selfie is also the least interesting even if the rolling out of 360-degree live video in the spring of 2017 has helped to make them more visual. As they’re listening to you offering your free content, viewers can scroll around the scene. Shoot straight to camera in a park instead of an office, using a simple 360-degree add-on for your mobile phone, and you should find that you land higher engagement without too much effort.
Other businesses have gone even further. Doritos has run live contests for its followers and Benefit Cosmetics broadcasts a weekly chat show in which presenters talk make-up and shoot the breeze with followers.
You don’t have to do any of that if you don’t want to. But other businesses are doing it, and the rise of social media over the last few years means that even the smallest of self-employed businesses now have access to some of the most powerful marketing tools businesses have ever been able to enjoy. You can use those tools to build and engage an audience for free. Or you can use them to pay for targeted advertising. Both will help to bring you new clients and new customers.
Build Your Own Community
Social media lets you find people who might be interested in your products and services, and bring them together. But that coming together will only happen on that social media platform, and the communication is always through you. Customers can only communicate with each other through comments or on a group page, not directly.
Creating your own community gives your customers independence. It gives them the space to talk freely about your product and the industry it serves. They come together under your roof, where they see your brand, and give you ideas that will improve your products and services.
Building your own Facebook site might sound impossible but users of WordPress can use plug-ins to build their own social media extensions to their websites. They’re often free for the basic services, letting you experiment before paying for extra functions like groups or messaging. But they’ll give you complete control over your social media marketing. Instead of paying Facebook to broadcast your ads and your content to a small part of its billion-plus audience, you’ll be able to reach everyone you want for free on your own community site.
Building the site itself will be fairly straightforward, though as always, the time you spend perfecting it will be time you won’t be spending servicing clients or doing other marketing. You’ll also need a way to bring people into the community, persuade them to open a profile and contribute content. But if you’re hoping to service a tight niche such as bikers or sports fans, then building your own community site may well turn out to be the easiest long-term marketing solution and much more cost-effective than throwing more money into Mark Zuckerberg’s overfilled bank account.
Collect Email Addresses
The attention paid to social media marketing in recent years has crowded out discussions of other forms of marketing. But it shouldn’t have done. Just because social media has become the flavor of the day, it doesn’t meant that older marketing channels have lost their effectiveness. The importance of building up a good, well-segmented opt-in subscription list is still as strong as ever.
Every time someone visits your website, you should be trying to collect their details. You should be asking for their email address so that you can chase them down long after they’ve left the site.
There are other ways to do the same thing. Both Google and Facebook have options that let you target ads at users who have visited your website. They can be very effective and allows you to keep pushing a message at people who have already shown an interest in your services. Booking.com, for example, notes the hotels users browse on their website then offer those same hotels again when the users open their Facebook streams, whether they open them on their computers, the tablets or their mobile phones.
But while that system allows brands to reach their leads on social media platforms and, with the help of Google, when they browse other websites, businesses have to use the format created by the advertising firms. They have to be able to squeeze their message into the size of a Google banner ad or into a Facebook post. And they have to compete with other content on the same page—content that the lead would likely prefer to see.
Email advertising though remains highly effective, returning an average of $38 for every dollar spent. Lists need to be segmented, so that you’re always sending the right messages to the people who are most likely to respond to them. They also need to be personalized, including the recipient’s name and making the content as close to the recipient’s experience as possible. Studies have found that emails with personalized subject lines are 26 percent more likely to be opened while some marketers have seen a 760 percent increase in revenue from segmented campaigns.
Like any form of marketing, those benefits don’t happen overnight and they don’t happen for free. But once the system is up and running, it doesn’t require a great deal of ongoing effort. You’ll need a large enough traffic flow to your website to catch those emails, and it might be a year or more before the list becomes long enough to be meaningful. You’ll also need to incentivize people to hand over an address that they know will add emails to their inbox. An information product can do the job, promising value to the recipient and showing off your own expertise. But you’ll need to create it—or at least commission someone who can create it for you, an additional investment.
The result though should be a long list of people who have shown interest in your services, perhaps from different landing pages or different adverts. You’ll be able to feed those addresses into an email automation system, guiding those leads automatically through a funnel to a sale. And you’ll be able to contact them whenever you wish in order to promote a special offer or tell them about a new service you’re offering.
Email marketing might appear old school at a time when Facebook Live Video can give you minute-by-minute feedback on the emotional reaction of audience members but it’s still effective. As soon as you’ve put up a website and are starting to drive traffic towards it, you should be offering an incentive and collecting those email addresses.
Search Engine Optimization
The biggest benefit of email marketing is that it allows you to continue to reap benefits from a previous marketing effort. It extracts a little more from your search engine optimization.
Some of that optimization you’ll do as you’re building your site. It’s worth taking the time to add the meta tags and include keywords in your pages. But while the mechanics of Google’s ever-changing algorithm for ranking Web pages are complex, they ultimately come down to winning lots of links from other websites with high reputations.
Again, that doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen without effort. You can always throw money at the problem and hire an SEO firm to create the content and build the backlinks for you. Or you can throw time at the problem and do it yourself gradually. You’d need to add pages to your website regularly, promote those pages on social media to win shares, comments, views and ultimately links. And you’ll also need to make sure that the content that wins those links targets the right keywords.
And you have to do all this while servicing your customers and your clients.
It’s not as terrible as it sounds. In practice writing the occasional post on your business website can feel therapeutic. Even if it’s an hour not spent doing something billable, sharing your valuable knowledge—a good way to win those links—can help you feel that you’re doing something meaningful and giving back to your community.
Your first articles might feel like they’re disappearing into the ether but if you keep going, you’ll start to see feedback, both in the comments under the post and on the blogs of other people in your industry.
Those reactions are a useful reminder that you’re not operating in a vacuum. People are watching what you’re doing, and it shows you that what you do influences what they think. Over time, it doesn’t just push the site up the lists in the SERPs, it also builds your reputation which leads to more business in the future and helps you to hold on to the business you’ve got.
SEO is rarely fun. Fiddling around with tags and keywords can be tedious. Measuring your placement can be a lesson in despair. It can often feel far easier to throw some dollars into AdWords and pay to appear high in Google’s search results, a strategy that can certainly have a good effect.
But if you’re considering writing content anyway, then it’s worth putting in the little extra effort to figure which terms you should target and what you need to do improve your rankings.
There are so many different ways to market a business to keep it growing, but in the end you may well find that the most important tool isn’t what you know about your industry, or even what you know about Facebook advertising or Google AdWords.
As it’s always been, the most important factor is who you know.
Your first clients, the ones that give you the courage to quit your job and work for yourself, are likely to be people you knew. Your next set of clients could well be people those people know; referrals are always a great source of business. The more you put yourself out there, the more hands you shake and the more small talk you make, the more opportunities you’ll open yourself up to receive.
That might not be what you want to hear. For some people, walking out of their jobs means that they get to spend their days in their pajamas, cranking out designs or copy, or building their affiliate networks, and communicating with people they’ve never met by email or nothing more personal than Whatsapp. It can work but it’s limited. People always like to do business with people they like, and to really like people, it helps to meet them. It’s that personal connection that’s also more likely give them the confidence to make introductions and offer referrals.
So to grow your business, you’ll need to be prepared to get away from the desk—or even the café. Even something as simple as spending one day a week at a co-working space can help. Make it a regular thing. Take a spot at the communal desk. You’ll find that you do get chatting to other people. Those people will hear about your skills and your talent, and they’ll want to introduce them to people who need what you have to offer.
Take the time to attend business conferences. Not only will they boost your education and keep you up to date with industry trends, but the time spent drinking stewed hotel coffee in the lobbies and dining areas will bring you the connections that can form the basis of your business.
You can hide yourself away. You can land a handful of regular clients and customers, and rely on them. But winning new clients and customers always means first making sure that people know who you are, then winning their trust. Only then can you win their business.
That’s much easier to do if you’re willing to get out and meet them in person.
Marketing is an essential element in any business. Unless you’re moving into self-employment from sales, it might feel an unfamiliar part of your business. You’ll suddenly find yourself wondering what you need to put on a website; how to build a following on a Facebook page; what to put in an ad on Google; why your email marketing list only has a dozen email addresses in it (and half of them don’t work); why your site doesn’t turn up anywhere in the search results for exactly the service you’re selling; and where you need to go to meet the people you really want as customers.
You’ll come across terms like funnels and landing pages and data analytics and ROI that you might never have heard of before. You’ll wonder how little of that stuff you need to know in order to do the things you really want to do: which is serving your clients and selling your products.
And the answer to all of those questions is time. When your business opens, you’ll know nothing except for the skill on which you’re building your business. In time, you’ll come to know a lot more. By the end of the year, discussion about ROI and PPC will totally make sense to you. Your email subscription list might still be a bit paltry but you’ll be sending out emails and seeing the results. The followers on your Facebook page will be interacting and commenting, and even looking forward to your posts. You might still wonder about upsales and down sales but your business will be stable. It might still have a long way to go, but it will be growing and you’ll be earning.
Now you just have to be able to collect that money. That’s what we’ll discuss in the next chapter.
6. Billing: Taking Your Cash
Businesses have entire departments dedicated to handling accounts. They might use customized software to track the amounts owed. They’ll know who they need to charge and for what amount, and they’ll also know where they need to turn in order to obtain the right signatures from the right executives.
To an outsider, it can look like a pretty arcane place, a web of bureaucracy staffed by people who really like doing paperwork.
The accounts department might also be the most important department in the company. It’s the department that converts the labor of the company’s employees into the cash that pays their salaries, covers the overheads and leaves profits for shareholders.
When you’re self-employed, you are the accounts department.
You’re also the sales team, production team, customer support and chief coffee maker, but that accounts work is going to be pretty important. So you need to understand the ins and outs of invoicing and billing… but mostly what you need is an invoicing system that makes the process as easy, painless and fast as possible.
What Is An Invoicing System?
An invoicing system doesn’t have to be a complete banking system but it should be more than a way to demand payments from clients. Since its launch at the end of 1998, Paypal has grown from an online payment system into an online bank. Keep your money in their hands and they’ll pay you interest. They even have an option that lets you get paid right away while clients have up to six months to pay invoices of more than $99.
Those might be useful services, and investing the funds that flow through its books is clearly good business for Paypal. But it’s more than you really need from an invoicing system and it’s unlikely that the interest that Paypal gives you will compete with the returns you might be able to earn from a bank or your own savings account.
- An invoicing system doesn’t have to be as complicated as Paypal.
- It has to give you a way to create and issue professional-looking invoices.
- It has to let you review those invoices so that you can see which clients still haven’t paid.
- It has to be able to collect the funds and it has to be able to pass those funds on to your own bank account.
Those are the basics. They’re what an invoicing system is for: detail the bill; request payment; accept the payment. And you need one.
Why You Need An Invoicing System
You don’t need an invoicing system to do your banking for you. But you do need it to do a number of tasks that just can’t be performed any other way. There are four reasons that you need an invoicing system when you become self-employed.
- You Need To Get Paid
The most important reason, of course, is that you need to be paid. You need a way to lay out the work you’ve completed and send the details to the client. They need those details for their own paperwork.
But it’s not enough to just ask for the money. The request has to look like it’s serious.
When we designed Due.com, we put a great deal of effort into making sure that users could add their logos and customize the invoices. That wasn’t just in order to make the invoices look pretty. It was also to make sure that the invoices look professional.
When a client receives an invoice, he should be able to read the details and the request, and understand that the invoice contains an implicit “or else.”
He might not need that threat. In general clients don’t. Do good work for them, and they’ll be happy to pay you for that work. But when you’ve been working for yourself for a while, you will come across clients who are quick to demand revisions and slow to hand over the fee. One survey by the Freelancers Union found that nearly half of all freelancers had experienced difficulties in getting paid. Members of the union are said to be owed more than $10,000 in unpaid invoices and spend around 36 hours tracking down missing payments.
You will always have a strong incentive to close down as many ways out of payment as possible.
And one way to do that is to make sure that your invoice looks professional. It should have a logo at the top. It should be properly laid out. It should tell the client when payment is due.
It should make the client believe that the next document they’ll receive if they fail to pay is a letter from a lawyer.
A good invoicing system doesn’t just let you demand payment. It also helps you to actually receive that payment.
You Need To Track Down Late Payers
Ideally you’ll send out your invoice, tell clients that they have to pay within 30 days, and before the month is up, find the funds sitting in your bank account. Often, that’s exactly what happens.
Inevitably, sometimes it won’t. You’ll send out a bunch of invoices at the end of the month, and see a flurry of money come in. In the meantime you’ll continue working, managing the following month’s projects. Only at the end of the month, when it’s time to send out the next set of invoices will you find that there are still some amounts due.
You have to be able to find those outstanding invoices easily. They need to jump out because when you’re working for yourself, you really want to spend as little time as possible reviewing your account details and playing with the invoice settings. You’ll want to spend as much time as possible doing the things that actually bring in revenues.
If you’re trying to send out your invoices yourself, maybe using a design in Word, not only will that invoice look unprofessional and amateurish, with no sense that it’s supported by a company with an active legal department. It will also make it hard to see which invoices have been paid and which haven’t.
You’ll need to create some sort of calendar to note which invoices have gone out, when they were sent and when the payments were due so that you can check them off as the payments come in.
It’s much easier to just use software that lets you see every time you log in which invoices are still pending so that you can send your reminders and make sure that nothing falls too far behind.
You Need To Keep Your Paperwork In Order
Each invoice you send to a business client is a deductible expense. It’s money off their profits that they have to show to the inland revenue to reduce their own taxes. The clearer and more professional-looking the invoice, the easier it will be for the company to do its own accounts and persuade an auditor that those expenses are genuine. Creating proper invoices helps your clients.
It also helps you. When it’s time for you to declare your income, you don’t want to have to dig around in various files to find your payment requests. You want everything organized and on-hand so that you can see clearly what work you did and how much you were paid.
That makes your tax-paying easier and it also makes it easier to track the growth of your business. As you build your business, you’ll want to make sure that your income is growing year after year—and if it isn’t you’ll want to be able to dive into your data to find out what’s going wrong. You’ll be able to match any dips in income to events that affected your productivity or to marketing campaigns that failed to follow through.
Similarly, when you see a spike in income, you’ll be able to match those lucrative periods to particular projects or to messages that you were broadcasting on social media. You’ll know what you need to say and do to maximize your income.
Using in an invoice system that shows you clearly how much you earned each month is an important part of keeping organized books. It saves you time and it boosts your business.
- You Need To Make It Easier For Businesses To Pay You
The most important reason you need an invoicing system though is to make it easier for clients to pay you. You don’t want your clients to write back to you with questions. You don’t want someone from accounts to call you and ask for another invoice with a logo. You don’t want to give them any excuse to delay their payment.
You just want your clients to get the bill and hand over the money—and you want them to do it as soon as possible.
A professional invoicing system should give your clients everything they need to pay you as soon as they receive your message. They should be able to see how much they need to pay, why they need to pay it, when they need to pay it and where they need to pay it.
Most of the invoicing systems available should be able to meet those basic needs. But when you’re assessing the different invoicing systems available, there are a few extra things that you really do need to look out for.
What To Look For In An Invoicing System
The invoicing system that you use to bill your clients needs to do more than just mail out your money requests. It need to include a whole bunch of features and extras that you might not consider and might not see, but which are vital for any invoicing system.
High Level Security
A business invoice contains confidential information. It holds details about your bank account. It reveals how much a business is paying for your services. And it indicates how much you’re earning. It’s not something you want just anyone to see.
And if you’re using an invoicing system like Due, which can also receive the payments on the invoice, you certainly don’t want the funds to be hijacked en route.
The finance industry has a set of standards that payment platforms must follow. At Due, we follow all the requirements laid out in the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). It’s a framework that ensures standardized practices for all processing, storage, or transmittal of credit card information to protect cardholder data. We take payments by credit cards so, like any other credit card payment system, we have to make sure that all of the date on the credit is kept safe.
We also have additional security standards for processing transactions and payments made online. We have 256-bit SSL encryption and certification from security leaders including VeriSign and Norton. We recognize our need to remain up to date and to make sure that we’re always using the latest security.
An understanding of the need for security has to be the minimum that you expect from an invoicing system. You don’t need to know what all those initials and encryption systems mean. But the invoicing system should know. These are financial documents, and you need to be able to trust the system you use.
An invoicing system is just a way to create invoices and send them to clients. But you also want to be able to accept payments. When a client receives your invoice, you want them to be able to simply push a button for the money you’re owed to make its way to your account.
So an invoicing system shouldn’t be just a fancy Word template and a spreadsheet of invoices sent and paid. It should be embedded into a payment platform that’s capable of accepting funds and passing them on to you.
It doesn’t have to be a bank in itself. You have one of those. It just needs to be able to accept the payments in whatever form the client sends them, and pass them on securely, quickly and reliably.
Some of those payments might be from clients around the world. Today, it doesn’t matter where your clients and customers are—or where you are. You can be working from a beach hut in Bali, a sauna in Norway or treehouse in Kenya. As long you can reach the Internet somehow, you can supply work and you can ask for payment for that work. But you also need to be able to accept payments that cross international borders.
That’s not straightforward. Various money-laundering laws can make it difficult to accept payments from some locations. China’s Great Firewall and the lack of compatibility with its credit card system can create real obstacles to getting paid if you’re working for a company in Beijing or Shanghai. And even if you don’t have clients or customers in those locations today, you want to have the option of expanding there in the future.
As you’re assessing your invoicing system, be sure to take a look at which countries it accepts payments from, and make sure that you’re not cutting yourself out of opportunities because your payment platform makes it hard to accept funds from some regions.
Credit Card Payments
There are all sorts of ways that clients and customers can give you their money. You want to accept as many of them as possible. The easier it is for clients to pay you, the faster they’ll do it and the soon you’ll get paid. So whether they prefer to pay online with a digital transfer, by sending a wire transfer, a digital check or even by credit card, you should be able to say: “Sure, that will be fine.”
The payment platform you choose should be able to accept at least Visa and Mastercard.
Credit cards might not be the most popular way for clients to pay; they can be expensive. But they will be an option that some people will want to use so you should be able to offer it.
The big advantage of being able to accept credit cards is that you don’t even have to send invoices. If you can embed payment buttons on your website, you can sell directly online and take the money automatically.
Again, this isn’t a solution that’s going to benefit every business. A one-person graphic design firm, for example, might have little that it can sell from its website. The owner of that business is likely to be more interested in persuading clients to pick up the phone or send an email than make a direct purchase. But if you’re planning to sell anything online—and just about anyone can sell something online—then being able to place payment buttons on your site will let you make passive income. It’s a great additional revenue-generating tool to have in your tool box.
Nor is it that difficult. Installing a payment button usually just means adding a few lines of code to your Web page. The invoicing and payment system that you choose should be able to supply those lines of code so that you can just copy and paste. You might even be able to play around with different designs and choose a button a color and shape that wins the most clicks.
The reliability of your invoicing and payment system isn’t easy to assess but the provider should be reputable. You don’t want the platform to go down while a customer is attempting to pay their bill. And you certainly don’t want the company to go down, taking your business’s invoicing history—and any funds that you have sitting in the account—with it.
If you haven’t heard of the company, take the time to do a little research. Check out the quality of the businesses they service; if they serves big companies whose names you know, you’re more likely to be on safe ground. Talk to other self-employed people to see if they’re familiar with it and have used it.
Fintech isn’t a particularly easy industry to break into and it’s not one known for fly-by-night companies. But if you can see that a service has a poor reputation for server downtimes and a lack of responsiveness, then you should give it a miss. The aim of your choice of invoice and payment system will be to save time and make your life easier so that you can spend more time on production and less time on paperwork. If you’re battling with the service provider, it’s not doing its job.
That’s what makes support so important. Ideally, you don’t want to spend any time at all talking to your invoice and payment provider. You just want to be able to send the invoices and get the money. But it’s almost inevitable that over years of running your own business, you will run into problems. Clients will dispute payments. There will be chargebacks on credit cards that you just don’t understand. You’ll wonder why it takes so long to send your money from your online account to your bank account, and you’ll want answers.
Some of those answers you might be able to find with a little digging online. (The time taken to transfer funds to a bank account, for example, changes with use. It’s a factor of the payment system’s trust; the more you use it and the larger the amounts you transfer, the more it can trust you and the faster the transfers will take.) But when you do need to send an email or make a phone call, make sure that the company has a support process that’s helpful, knowledgeable and fast.
Ease Of Use
An invoicing system can be complicated. It has to complete multiple functions: create invoices, deliver them, provide a record of payments requested and made, insert different kinds of tax, deduct discounts, and so on. Whatever you want to do when you open your invoicing program, whether it’s to demand a new payment or send a reminder to someone who hasn’t yet paid, you want to be able to do it easily. The software should have been designed with the user experience in mind. It needs to be easily navigable by a user who isn’t a professional accounts executive but the owner of a small business who just wants to get in, get out and get back to their real work as quickly as possible.
It might take you a little time to get used to a new invoicing and payment platform but after that adjustment period, if you still find yourself confused about where to click and how to perform the tasks you want to perform, you might be using the wrong service.
Finally, pricing will be a factor. Invoicing and payment systems have to charge for at least some of their services, though it’s surprising how little of the many fees stay with the invoicing company. At Due, we don’t charge for echeck or ecash payments so you can accept money from clients and customers easily and cheaply. For credit card payments, the fee is a flat 2.8 percent.
That’s a highly competitive rate. It will be hard to find fees lower than that because most of those funds go not to the invoicing and payment platform but to the banks and the credit card companies. The bottom line fee that you’ll pay to accept a credit card payment is actually made up of as many as a dozen different fees that range from the Interchange fee to Payment Gateway fees, PCI fees and AVS fees.
But where there’s little flexibility in the base level of credit card fees, there is some flexibility in the amount that platforms can charge for other services—and in the amount that they pile on to those fees charged by the banks and the credit card companies.
Hopefully, you’ll be taking a lot of money through your invoicing and payment platform, so do payments sure that you check the fees that the company is charging and that in return for those funds, you get the service you need.
Requesting—and receiving—money for your work is always a golden moment. It sparkles even more when you’re self-employed. You’ll know that everything you earn is down to you, from the production and the marketing to the delivery and the customer relations. There’s no clearer example of your skills and your talent than the moment you receive money for them.
If all goes well, you won’t just be sending invoices and receiving money. You’ll also be sending more invoices and receiving even more money. You’ll be growing. That’s what we’ll explore in the next chapter.
7. Growing Your Business: From An Entrepreneur To An Empire
Many businesses start as sole proprietorships. They begin in a spare bedroom or an a desk in the garage. Silicon Valley is filled with houses whose cars are parked on the street because a coder has taken over the car’s home to build the next Apple, Google or Facebook.
Most of those businesses will never leave the garage. Not every business idea is a good one. It can take several attempts at business building before you hit on the formula that lets you keep going and continue earning. And some of those sole proprietorships will stay that way because the business owner wants them to stay that way. Growth doesn’t just bring more revenues and greater challenges. It also brings more responsibilities and less freedom. When you’re running a company rather than completing a gig, people depend on you. They want your time, your ideas, and your input. They need you to be in certain places at certain times. When your company has a board of governors, a CTO, a vice-president of sales, investors who need charming and regulators who need meetings, you can’t pack your laptop and head off to work on a beach in the Bahamas for a couple of months. You’re as tied down by the business as you were when you were an employee. The business might be yours and you might be the person making all the decisions, but there’s always the risk that you’ll be working for the company instead of owning a company that works for you.
For some self-employed people, that sounds like a nightmare. But for others, it’s what setting up their own business is all about. They want to do more than complete gigs for other companies and provide services, or sell the products that they can create themselves. They want to see how far they can go. They understand that they won’t be walking alone. They might be starting their business with a partner or two—or more. They’ll have to find help to make sure that their production levels aren’t limited by a single pair of hands. They’ll need specialists to take on some of the tasks that they can’t do at a professional level themselves. They need to find ways to scale.
There are plenty of ways to do that, from hiring freelancers to franchising, affiliating and spreading around the globe. In this chapter, we’re going to look at the different options now available for scaling, and explain how to choose the right solution for your business.
Hiring freelancers is always the easiest and the most tempting option for new businesses. You’ll only have to pay for the task you’re giving the freelancer so you won’t be responsible for any of their benefits, and when the project ends so does your commitment. You won’t have to worry about making payroll. You won’t need to rent an office and give them a desk or a computer. In short, you’ll have no more additional responsibilities but you’ll still be able to scale your business.
Although most companies still prefer to rent office space and employ staff on-site, an increasing number of firms now allow at least some of their staff to work remotely either as freelancers or as remote employees in a virtual company. Flexjobs, a telecommuting jobs site, estimates that the rate of telecommuting more than doubled in the decade before 2016, and believes that half of people in the country will be working remotely, at least occasionally, by 2020.Flexbojs itself is virtual, with its team scattered across different sites.
It is possible now to build a large business, with dozens or even hundreds of freelance and remote employees, and never have a full-time workforce larger than one or an office larger than the spare bedroom.
It’s possible… but it’s unlikely because hiring freelancers comes at a cost. While you can save money by only hiring freelancers when you need them, that freedom comes at the price of a loss of control. Freelancers will have other clients to serve, so the work that you need to complete has to wait in line. Freelancing is an unreliable solution when you need to complete projects quickly and on short notice.
Managing those freelancers is difficult, too, when they’re sitting on the other side of the planet rather than in the office on the other side of the corridor. Problems that affect the project might only be visible when the work is delivered. Deadlines can come and go with no communication from the freelancer. Emails can take a day or more to land a response so a discussion that could have been completed in half an hour in a meeting room can take days to come to the same conclusion.
Freelancers are also less integrated into the company culture than full-time staff. They may be less aware of the product’s development and their role in that development. Because they have a smaller view of the company, they’ll do exactly what they’re told—so you’ll need to know exactly what to tell them—but they won’t do more than that because they won’t know more than that. One of the differences between a good employee and a great employee is their ability to think big and understand why they’re doing what they were asked to do. That’s hard to find. It’s even harder to find in a freelancer because freelancers lack the specific company knowledge to do it.
But the biggest challenge in hiring freelancers is finding good ones. Freelance sites contain millions of people who live in places from India to Indiana. Many of them are professional and talented and will deliver exactly what you want at a price lower than you could find locally. A company in Palo Alto looking for a full-time Ruby developer is likely to have to pay a six-figure salary and throw in healthcare, free food and a foosball table. Hire a Ruby developer in Estonia and you can pay as little as $30 an hour, only pay for each project and get the same product at a fraction of the cost.
That’s a huge benefit… if they do the work. But business forums are filled with stories from entrepreneurs who paid money in advance to a freelancer in Siberia, only to never hear from them again. Or worse, they delivered some sub-standard work then only intermittently sent in more code, leaving the business owner to wonder whether they should cut their losses or plough on and hope the freelancer improves. Hiring a freelancer can be a risky business.
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to cut the risk and make the most of the opportunities that building a virtual team offers.
First, when it comes to hiring, look for recommendations first. You’ll be much better off working your network and hiring friends of friends than picking a complete stranger off a freelance site based on their price and their portfolio. You can still get good results with a random search; freelance sites take great care over rankings and feedback to reduce the risk for employers. But a personal recommendation will always give you much more reason to trust your new hire.
Once you’ve made a decision, provide as much information as you can about the project and what it’s for. If you were hiring a full-time employee, you’d expect to give them some orientation time. They’d meet the members of the team, be given time to play with the product and get up to speed with the business. You wouldn’t expect an entirely new employee to be able to hit the ground running on their first day in the office.
But that’s exactly what needs to happen when you hire a freelancer. They have to be able knuckle down and get to work as soon as they receive the specs. So make sure that those specs are as detailed as possible. Give the freelancer access to your product. Show them samples of the sort of result you want to see, the style you want the product to take and the way you want it produced. The more information you can provide, the better it will be for both of you. The freelancer will have a better chance of nailing the project with their first attempt, and you’ll need to ask for fewer revisions, saving you time and effort explaining what needs to be fixed.
One way to reduce the scope of those revisions, and to remove risk on both ends, is to set milestones. Instead of waiting for the complete project to come back, only to find that it’s all wrong, divide the project into parts and ask to see each part as it’s completed. You’ll be able to stop any problems before they grow big and difficult to fix, and if you pay for those parts as they come in, the freelancer will be confident that they’re being paid for their work. They’ll have an incentive to work faster.
The price you pay will also be a factor in the quality of the freelance work you receive. Look on freelance sites such as Upwork, the biggest freelance marketplace, and you can find a huge range of different rates. You’ll be able to find coders in India willing to work for a handful of bucks an hour. You’ll find designers who’ll deliver an entire website for less than the price of a frappuccino. You’ll also find quotes from other coders and designers and service providers of all sorts that are the same as those of any other professional.
When it comes to freelancing, a general rule is that you get what you pay for.
Coders in Estonia know how much their service would cost from an equally skilled counterpart in the United States, and while they’ll apply a discount for the distance and the lower cost of living, they understand how much businesses are prepared to pay for a good, reliable programmer. Good freelancers know their value—and smart business owners understand that value.
It can be tempting when you’re starting out and money is tight to choose a low-baller. You believe you’ll be able save funds and top up the small fee with extra patience to guide a less capable freelancer through the project. But what you save in money you make up for in time and aggravation. You’ll get much better results and grow your business much faster by choosing the best freelancer you can afford, and paying the price they demand, without negotiating.
Freelancers find it hard to turn down work, even if it’s lower than their usual rates. If you offer a lower price, there is a good chance that they’ll take it. But your work will be a lower priority than the work of other, higher-paying clients, and the freelancer will also make the job fit the price. They’ll work on it faster, giving you a lower quality result. Push down a freelancer’s fee, and you’ll also be pushing down the results.
The only exception to this general rule is new freelancers. Because freelance sites rely so heavily on feedback and ratings, people who are new to freelancing will sometimes try to buy those ratings with low offers. They might have years of professional experience but to win their first jobs, they feel they need to lower their price.
For the freelancer, it’s not always a great strategy. While it might land them some work, the low price may also put off businesses looking for reliable, high quality service providers. They’re usually better off using their profile to stress their long experience and mention that they’re new to the job site. If they can collect testimonials to put in their profile, they can go a long way towards filling the gap left by missing ratings.
But for businesses looking for low-cost, high quality freelancers, those new self-employed providers can represent a good opportunity.
The most important thing to do, though, comes after you’ve found a good freelancer: hold onto them. The longer you work together, the better they’ll know your business. You won’t have to take risks with new hires. You’ll know exactly how much you’ll have to pay and how long they’ll take. Your business will become as predictable as working with an employee.
Outsourcing work to freelancers can be a great solution for the new self-employed but it only works when you pay well and think long-term.
Growing Through Affiliate Marketing
The rise of ecommerce has created a raft of new opportunities for the self-employed. Anyone can now deliver their products and services online. They can create a website, promote it to leads around the world and build an international business from their spare bedroom. But ecommerce brought it with not just a way to create a business, but also a way to grow that business more rapidly than ever before.
Affiliate marketing is similar to the multi-level marketing long favored offline by tupperware and cosmetics companies. In return for pitching a company’s products to people they know, affiliate sellers get a share of the sales price. It’s a very easy way for a business to build a commission-based sales team.
Implementing an online affiliate program is as simple as choosing your program and adding it to your website. There are multiple platforms available, including third-party add-ons for sites like WordPress. They’ll have a range of different features, including banners and sales buttons that affiliate sellers can place on their own websites, a tracking system so that you know which affiliates have made which sales, payments based on percentages, formulas or fixed prices, and sometimes even a built-in payment system.
If you’re selling a product from a website whose production can be ramped up easily in line with demand, such as a digital product, implementing an affiliate system will be simple. Your growth potential will be limited only by the number of affiliates you can recruit and the efforts the put into making sales.
Both of those will require a bit of effort, and there’s a reason that large online businesses employ dedicated, professional affiliate managers. Managing an affiliate system takes time, work and knowledge.
First, you’ll need to make sure the your prices allow enough space for a middleman. The size of affiliate commissions vary tremendously. It’s not unusual for some affiliate sellers to give away more than half of the sales price while a few even give away all of the sales price, using the delivery of the product as a way to build their market. Amazon, the Web’s leading retailer, can afford to be much less competitive. The company’s sales commissions start at just 1 percent, rising to 10 percent for a small class of products. Most categories generate just 4 percent for the seller, allowing Amazon to keep its prices to customers lower than those of other sellers. Because customers prefer to shop at a store they know and trust, affiliates have to accept those low rates.
You’ll probably have to pay more than Amazon to encourage affiliate sellers to market your products instead of someone else’s. That means either reducing your own take or increasing your price to take those commissions into account.
But the real challenge of growing your business with an affiliate system is managing your affiliates. First, you’ll need to find those affiliates. That might mean spending time on online marketing forums and pitching to online sellers. You’ll have to persuade them that pushing your products to their audiences and their subscriber lists will please their markets and give them sales. You’ll have to compete against rivals pitching for the same spot in their email burst or on their Facebook page.
Those affiliates will be looking at the size of their commission. They’ll be looking at the subject of the product to make sure that it suits their audience. And they’ll be looking at the price so they know how much they can expect to earn. Pitching to affiliates is as much a skill as pitching to any other market.
Once you’ve recruited affiliates, you’ll then need to keep them motivated and informed about the sales techniques that work best. Most affiliate-based businesses, like other businesses, find that most of their sales come from a small number of sellers so you’ll need to keep those sellers motivated in particular. You’ll need to create an email list of your affiliate sellers, and send out regular updates and advice.
All of that activity is work that doesn’t produce more product. Unless it’s a continuation of the job that you did in corporate life, it’s going to feel like work. But for self-employed people selling digital products online, it’s a simple and now well-established way to go from a one-person business to a team with dozens of people pushing your products.
And you can employ the same idea to offline businesses. Affiliate selling was pioneered by companies like Avon, and it can go back to doorstops and Tupperware parties too. You’ll need to be able to scale your production level to match growing sales, something that’s much easier to do with digital products delivered on demand than with real-world items that have to come from a factory. And as your network grows, you could find that you’re spending more time developing the sales network than improving the features of your product.
But whether you’re selling online or offline, there is an established way to grow your sales team with plenty of effort but little risk or expense.
Franchising And Licensing
The properties of many of the world’s fastest growing businesses aren’t owned by the companies themselves. They’re franchises. The franchisees pay a fee to the owner of the brand to run a business that follows the brand’s business model closely. The rules can be very tight. It’s in the franchisor’s interest that outlets are almost identical, the product the same and the design easily identifiable. In return for a loss of freedom in choosing how to manage their own business, the franchisee gets a business-in-a-box. All they have to do is pick a location, manage it properly—and pay a fee to the franchisor.
For a small business, franchising can lead to rapid growth. Particularly popular in the food industry, it’s the model that’s powered businesses as large as McDonalds, and it’s given Starbucks more than 22,500 outlets around the world. Other industries that have used franchising to power their growth include the automotive industry with companies that include Jiffy Lube; healthcare, including supplement firm GNC; and even education with businesses including Once Upon A Child. Restaurants might be the best-known industry using franchising but it’s a model that covers a wide range of businesses.
Turning your business into a franchise though, isn’t straightforward. In fact, buying a franchise is likely to be much easier, and possibly much cheaper, than selling one.
Before you can start offering franchises, you’ll need to wait until you can see that your business is working smoothly. That can take time. You’ll need to know how it’s affected by seasonal changes and what other influences can impact sales and revenues. Your franchisees won’t want to be surprised, and neither will you. When they buy your business idea, it should would for them right out of the box. Some franchising experts recommend giving your business at least three years to work out all the issues before you even begin thinking about growing through franchising.
That wait will give you time to save money—and you’ll need it. The rules of a franchise are based on a regulatory document that has to be drawn up by a lawyer and have to meet the requirements of the Federal Trade Commission. Hiring a lawyer to prepare those documents will cost money, as will putting together the products that the franchisee will need to buy from you. Throw in the marketing you’ll need to conduct to find franchisees, and you can expect to cough up somewhere from the high five figures to the mid-six figures just to begin franchising. And while selling a franchise will give you some cash in hand, the real money comes in the regular flow of royalties and licensing sales that will take time to come in.
Finally, in addition to continued expansion, you’ll also have oversee those franchises, making sure that no one is damaging the brand, everyone is following the rules and each franchise is making the most of its market area. Franchising a business idea turns you from a product-maker into a business manager.
None of that means that franchising might not be a solution for you. It could well be, and it could turn a single outlet into multiple outlets with branches around the world within just a few years. But don’t expect to do it immediately. Set yourself a goal of being ready to franchise within a few years, and use that time to understand what franchising your business will involve and save the money you’ll need to make it happen.
An alternative to franchising is licensing. This growth method has picked up a bit more attention since the election of Donald Trump whose business is now mostly licensing. As many as 33 of the properties that carry the family name aren’t owned by the Trump Corporation but pay to use the name and employ the Trump family to market it. It’s an option that’s available to self-employed people with very strong brands. Instead of allowing your growth to be restricted by your ability to raise funds to support your next project, you can earn a little extra cash and spread your name by selling its attachment to someone else’s project.
Clearly, this isn’t going to be a solution for everyone but it can be a solution even for people who aren’t as well-known as Donald Trump. If you’re making your name as a personal brand or marketing your business on the strength of its brand, then looking for partners in your field who want to user your name to get a head start on their marketing could be a good way to grow.
Building Your Workforce
Hire freelancers and you’ll get more hands without the responsibility of meeting payroll. Expand through affiliate marketing and you’ll get a sales team without the need to build a permanent workforce. Aim to franchise or license your business and while you’ll probably need a team to get yourself into a position in which you could sell franchises and licenses, you could still be one person in a spare room, making sales and reaping the cash.
For some people, though, that’s just not enough. They want the office. They want the office building. They want their name on the office building, and they want floors full of staff who work for them and who are helping them to build a business with no limits.
It’s an impressive goal, and it’s one with which the owner of every large business began. From Google to Exxon, all businesses started with an idea, a self-employed person and perhaps a partner or two. At some point, either right at the start of the business or after it had been running for a little while and had started to make some progress, the company hired an employee. Then it hired another employee, and so on, until that one-, two- or three-person business was employing a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand staff doing jobs from sales and marketing to production and backroom tasks.
The process itself feels natural. You understand that you need a coder, for example, and you recognize that a freelancer just won’t cut it. The demands of the work make the job full-time so you may as well bring your new coder in-house and enjoy their complete focus.
That first employee is likely to be someone either you or your partner knows, and they’re likely to be joining a team consisting of no more than two, three or four people.
Before you can make the hire though, you have to be able to pay them. That means you either already have the revenues to cover the employee’s salary and benefits, or you have enough funding to cover their cost for a year or so and enough optimism to believe that you’ll have the revenues by the end of that time.
You’ll also need somewhere to put your new employee, which might mean moving to a new office. And you’ll need hardware for them to use, which could mean more expenditures on furniture, a computer and a monitor.
The move won’t feel quite as strange as hiring a complete stranger. That first employee is likely to have a personal connection that brings with it a degree of trust. But it’s still a change. For the first time, you’re handing over control of an important part of your business to someone else, someone who doesn’t share your passion for the business. Sure, they’ll want your company to succeed. They’ll want it to grow and do well so that they can grow with it, but if it fails, it’s not their problem. They’ll just find another job. And if it succeeds, they won’t get the glory that comes from building something of their own from scratch. That glory belongs to you. For the first time, there is someone in your business for whom the stakes and the motivations are very different.
As soon as you hire someone full-time your job changes. You’re no longer buying a service from a freelancer in the same way that you’re paying a plumber to fix the sink. You’re paying to someone to work with you, to think like you, to see the same goals as you and be able to work towards them.
You’re not just the owner of your own business. You’re also a manager. You have to be able to listen, motivate, train, assign responsibilities and review the employee’s work. You might have done that before at a previous job but now the buck stops with you, and when the company is still small, a mistake in personnel management can affect a quarter, a third or even half the company.
And that’s just the first step. As the business grows and you hire more people, those management tasks come to take up more of your time. It’s not something that’s suitable for everyone. Silicon Valley is littered with the hulks of companies founded by programmers with great coding skills but minimal people skills. They found themselves frustrated by their inability to spend their days looking at the screen and incapable of adapting to the need to spend more time in meetings and explaining tasks to teams.
For business owners who can get through that stage though, a reward awaits. In time, the company develops new layers of management. Instead of telling new hires which buttons to push, you get to explain a vision and discuss with senior management the path to implement that vision. They then translate those paths into plans for middle managers who turn them into instructions for lower level staff. As the business grows outward with more new staff, it also grows upwards, adding more managers—and pushing the owner of the business even higher.
A self-employed person who starts a business by themselves or with a friend, and begins by doing everything, can eventually find themselves completely uninvolved with the production of the product. Their job will be to reassure investors, negotiate acquisitions and think about where the business will be in five or ten years’ time. Look at pictures of the offices used by the chief executives of most large companies, and you’ll notice that their desks are usually empty. That’s not because they’ve been tidied up for the shoot. It’s because their work has morphed from doing to discussing. Instead of writing, they’re reading, and instead of creating, they’re instructing. As you’re considering how to grow your business, it’s worth thinking about whether that’s the destination you want to reach.
The stereotypical image of a successful business owner usually shows them stepping out of their monogrammed helicopter as it lands on top of their office building. But there’s more than one way to go from self-employed to employer and to build success in the way that you want. As you start building your business, you’ll soon find the growth channels that suit you, and the growth targets that you want to meet.
8. Motivation: How To Crack The Whip When You Have No Boss
You’ll know that you’re self-employed every minute you work. You’ll know because you’ll feel that there’s no one looking over your shoulder. Sure, the lack of a commute is great and the sense of control is wonderful but all of that freedom pales in significance compared to the awareness that no one is watching your work. No one is grading you. You’re not going to be reviewed. You’re not going to be called to account. At no point will you be invited into an office and forced to explain why you missed your targets by someone who has no idea of what’s involved in hitting that target.
You’re not accountable to anyone but yourself.
That’s liberating. But it also means that you’ve lost one powerful source of motivation. Those reviews and grades and targets meant that when you worked for someone else, you were always aware of the consequences of slacking off. Someone was always watching you.
You couldn’t pull up Facebook in the middle of the day and see what your friends were up to. You couldn’t run out to the grocery store in the afternoon or take an hour off to pick up your kid from school. All of those chores that get shoved to the evenings and weekends are now an option for you to do any time you want, because no one is watching. No one will block your career progress, and certainly no one will fire you if you decide to take an extra-long lunch break.
That’s a danger. There’s a risk when you’re newly self-employed of letting your productivity slip. With no one to crack the whip, you dawdle instead of race.
Fortunately, there are a few things that will keep you moving.
Clients And Customers Are Your New Bosses
To say that a self-employed person has no boss isn’t quite true. In fact, he or she has multiple bosses. Every client and every customer is a boss. Those clients and customers want their product created in a particular way. They want it delivered at a particular time. And they want the entire process to keep to a particular budget.
And if you don’t do what they want, they’ll fire you.
They’ll take away the trust they gave you and the promise of the money they want to give you, and they’ll give it all to someone else. Whatever you do, there will always someone else waiting in line for your clients’ and customers’ business. Fail to meet their expectations, and you will be fired and replaced.
When you have lots of clients and customers, that doesn’t matter quite as much as being fired by a real boss. When you lose an employer, you lose all of your income. Lose one client or one customer and you’ll only lose a fraction of your income.
One of the benefits of being self-employed is that once you’re up and running, you’ll have much more stability than an employee. You will lose clients and you will lose customers. It’s inevitable and it’s a part of doing business. But you’ll also replace them—and often with someone better.
It’s hard to say “no” to new clients, and it’s hard too to fire clients when they don’t pay enough or pay late or deliver projects that are dull and unchallenging. It’s always easier to just take whatever cash comes in and keep going.
So often when a client does say that they no longer want your services, it comes as a relief. You haven’t lost a job, you’ve lost a J.O.B., and you now have a gap in your schedule that you can fill with something new and better. When you’re self-employed a short talk with a boss usually has its upsides.
But that doesn’t mean you want to lose clients and customers all at the time. Finding them takes effort and usually money too. When you’ve found one, especially when you’ve found a good one, you want to hold onto them as long as possible.
So when they tell you how and when they want their product, they’re the boss. And this time, the boss is always right because the boss is also the customer.
That’s a big change, and it’s one that many freelancers in particular notice. They might have been difficult employees who argued their opinions constantly with their superiors, but once they work for their own clients and customers, that willingness to fight frequently disappears. Bosses can be wrong. They might have the wrong idea about what a customer will want to buy and what the market will want. Opinions in a company might differ.
But when you’re talking to the customer or client themselves, what they want goes.
They still might be wrong. If a buyer turns to you to create a product for their market, they might still have the wrong idea of what their market wants. But they’re still likely to have a better understanding of the market than you’ll have. They work with that market full-time, while you only deal with it indirectly and through that client. They might get it wrong, but it’s their product and you have to trust them—and usually you can trust them.
And ultimately, the client or the customer is the one paying. The product you’re creating for them might not be exactly the one you think should be created, but this is their baby. You’re just there to help deliver it. You get to offer advice and suggestions but the client or the customer is the one who gets to make the decisions.
Argue with them and while you might be right, you might not be paid.
Firing your boss and working for yourself removes your immediate boss and takes away those performance reviews. But knowing that your chances of being paid depends entirely on your ability to satisfy a bunch of other people makes for a very effective replacement.
Count The Money
The money that you’ll receive at the end of the project or when you hand over the product is a powerful motivator. But that final payment might not come for a while. More immediately, each day and each hour you work has a value. Counting that value can also help to keep you motivated.
One strategy is to set financial income goals for each stage of the day. You can tell yourself, for example, that you want to have worked $150 in billable hours before you take lunch. As your stomach starts to rumble, you’ll work harder and faster and with more focus to reach that immediate goal. You can set similar goals for the day, the week and the month.
The problem with that method is that days rarely work out that way. Monthly incomes are averages. Not all hours are billable. You will have to spend some of your day writing emails and talking to leads, not all of whom will become clients. Research and ongoing training are all necessary, take time and can’t be charged to anyone. Inevitably, there will be hours in your day that don’t contribute immediately to your income, and you’ll reach your lunch with little to show for your efforts in earned income. There might even be days that you need to spend doing research with nothing to show for your efforts but a pile of notes.
That makes the next few hours or days even more important. If you haven’t made your morning revenue target because you were doing something that didn’t produce income, you’ll hustle to make it up in the afternoon. And if you don’t succeed, you’ll work even harder over the next few days so that the average makes up for that morning’s loss.
As long as you don’t accept that that lowest hourly income is the most you can expect to earn, those missed targets will become powerful motivators that push you harder. You won’t need someone to crack the whip. You’ll be too busy crunching the numbers and cracking the whip yourself, if only to catch up.
Structure Your Day
Counting the money you earn each month will put a value on each hour. Sometimes that value will be zero. But sometimes it will be very high indeed. There may be times when you’re super-productive and are able to knock out an expensive product in record time.
That doesn’t happen often and it doesn’t happen out of the blue. It’s usually the result of careful preparation—those hours in which you earned nothing. But you’ll naturally wonder why you can’t do that all the time. You’ll ask yourself why you can’t always work with that much focus or why all your projects can’t be so lucrative. If you’ve achieved that earning level once, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve it again.
You can achieve it again, and you will, but you’re unlikely to achieve it all the time. When you’re not being paid a global salary, each hour will bring in a different amount of money. Your annual income will be the average of all those hours. Understanding that a large amount you make one day will be offset by a small amount made on a different day will make little difference.
You’ll still set yourself impossible goals, hustle to reach them and beat yourself up when you don’t. It’s part of being your own boss.
So you’ll also need a mechanism to cope with that ongoing disappointment. You’ll want to avoid falling into despair at your failure to reach the unrealistic goals you set yourself.
Much of that mechanism will develop naturally. While you might set yourself an impossible hourly goal, you’ll soon find that you repeatedly fail to meet it, and you’ll adjust. In practice, you’ll find that you’re working to two goals: the amount you could make if the project and the conditions were perfect; and the minimum you’ll accept earning if you’re to remain self-employed. As long as that minimum remains a floor and not a target you’ll keep working for yourself.
But part of that coping mechanism means building a structure. You’ll need to plan your day so that everything gets done at the best possible pace and in the best possible way. Few people enjoy the luxury of being able to work on a single project the entire day.
There are a thousand and one ways of planning out your work. David Allen’s Getting Things Done scheme is a popular method, particularly among nerdy types willing to use his techniques of multiple folders and checklists. But there are plenty of others and they all have the same goal: they bring structure to a day. They make sure that what needs to get done is done.
At its simplest, your structure doesn’t have to be more than a daily list of tasks. Gmail has a built in task list that you’ll see every time you check your mail, and Microsoft has released a To-Do app intended to replace Wunderlist as the task management tool for business owners. It’s unlikely to persuade software companies—they’ll continue to use Slack—but for small companies those simple checklist apps can keep you focused.
Whichever system you use, at the end of each day, you’ll be able to list the tasks that you need to perform the next day, and tick them off as you complete them.
If that sounds too simple—especially in comparison to the complexity of GTD systems—remember that your productivity system should meet two goals. It should make sure that you stay on top of what you need to do; and it should make sure that you always feel that you have something to do.
That second point is crucial. When you’re working for yourself, there will always be something else to do. There will always be another task, some more work, another email to write. Even in quiet periods—and all businesses have periods of relative calm—you’ll have marketing tasks to perform in order to turn that quiet period around.
But there will also be times when tasks have no immediate deadlines. No one is going to question you if you decide to launch your new Facebook advertising campaign next week instead of this week. No one will invite you in for a chat if your website takes a bit longer to prepare than you thought it would.
With no one watching you, you’ll be able to take your time, and at that point productivity meets a kind of Boyle’s Law: work expands to fill the time available. When you don’t feel pressure, you work slower, and that costs you income.
Your to do list doesn’t just show you what remains to be done; it acts as a visual reminder that there is lots still to do. It shows you each time you open your inbox or check your list that if you don’t focus, you’re not going to make it through everything that needs to be completed today. You’ll end the day with tasks unfinished, and those unfinished tasks will roll over into the next day. You’ll fall further and further behind.
Give each day its own structure, even it’s as simple as “Morning: Task 1; Afternoon: Task 2; Last half-hour: Send emails.” You’ll always know that something is waiting for you, and that awareness will force you to work faster, to make sure that you’re ready when you have to change gear and move on to the next task.
Not all small businesses like to work this way. Not everyone likes to juggle multiple projects in the same day. Some self-employed people prefer to line up work one after the other across the calendar. They’ll work on a single project and declare themselves unavailable until they can see a clear gap in the calendar. As that gap approaches, they’ll start to market harder to fill it before they reach it.
That system works too, in fact it works in exactly the same way. Instead of filling a day, it fills a few months. You’ll still feel that there’s another task waiting, and you’ll still feel the pressure to keep going so that you don’t cause any delays.
The goal is to create a sense of busyness. It doesn’t have to be a sense of hyperactiveness, not all the time anyway. But as well as improving your efficiency, the structure you bring to your day should also carry with it a sense of urgency so that you’re always grinding away and always working at your most productive.
Set Career Goals
So you should structure your day. You should also structure your life.
This is harder but it’s no less important. When you first become self-employed, you’ll struggle to look beyond the end of the month. Each month that you get paid will feel like a victory. Each time you send out your invoices and see money come flowing back will be a reminder that you did it. You’re there. You’re working for yourself and you’re making things happen.
After a few months though, you’ll start to take that mini-miracle for granted. Of course, you got paid this month; you did a ton of work! And now you have customers and clients lined up for the next three months, and you can actually feel reasonably confident that as those months draw to an end, you’ll have more sales and more projects to work on. You’re going to be super-busy and your business has a firm foundation. You start to believe it.
And now you can start to wonder where it’s all leading because being self-employed is a good beginning. But where will it take you?
We’ve already discussed growth options. We’ve talked about outsourcing and employment and turning a sole proprietorship into a multinational corporation.
It will be up to you to decide which path you want to take.
Your decision will be based not just on your ambition and your vision but also on the kind of life you want to lead. Not everyone wants to be a tycoon. Not everyone wants to be the boss of others or have investors to please. Some people prefer to keep their independence even if that means staying small. Whatever the choice, you’ll need an idea of where you want to be in two, three, five and ten years’ time.
And even that won’t be sufficient. You’ll also need to know how you’re going to get there.
You don’t need to lay out a complete day-to-day plan, not for a long-term goal. But you should have milestones and you should know how you’re going to reach those milestones. If your goal is to turn a one-woman graphic design business into a comprehensive creative agency, you’ll need an idea of where you’re going to find those clients and how you’re going to do the copywriting, the video production and the distribution without paying salaries before you’ve got the business. You’ll need an idea of where you’re going to look to find those first employees, and you’ll need to know when and where you’re going to start.
It’s all too easy when you’re working for yourself to focus on the short-term. You know you have a deadline coming up, a product to create or a launch to prepare, so you don’t think beyond the immediate work. You tell yourself that when you reach the end of this current project, you’ll have time think about and plan the next stage. But the end should never come. Each product should be followed by another, and while that’s satisfying, it can put you in a rut that’s difficult to extract yourself from. Five years later, you could find yourself doing exactly the same work that you’re doing now. There’s been no progress and no career advancement.
When you work for yourself, you can’t depend on pleasing a boss in order to win a promotion, and you can’t knock on the door one day and ask for a raise. It will be up to you to make that career progress happen. That means that in addition to being your own manager, you’ll also need to be your own mentor. You’ll need to make time for tasks that push you out of your comfort zone, introduce you to new people and broaden your skills. You’ll need to make those activities as much a part of your work life as sending invoices and emailing clients and customers. You’ll need to fill your calendar with career moments as well as deadlines.
Make them regular. Set aside the last two hours of the week or the first hour of the day or whatever it might be to work towards a long-term goal. That time will lower your productivity. It will cost you money in unbillable hours. It might be only a fraction of what you need to reach your destination. But working steadily towards a distant milestone is the only way to eventually get there.
Mark those moments throughout the week and throughout the year, and keep them in your mind as you work your way through the month. It’s another level of pressure that will keep pushing you forward.
Riding The Highs And Lows
It would be great to be able to say that being self-employed is like chaining yourself to a rocket. As soon as you walk out of your employer’s office for the last time, there’s one trajectory: upwards and onwards.
It doesn’t really work that way. What you’ll find is that you’ve chained yourself to a rollercoaster.
You’ve probably heard that metaphor before but what you might not have heard is that just as on a rollercoaster the drop is as exciting as the climb, so a decline in business can also be exciting to the self-employed and just as much a part of the experience.
There will certainly be times when you crawl your way to the top and you think the rise will never end. The view gets better and better, and you’ll wonder just how high you can go. And then things will slowly grind to a stop. You’ll tell yourself you’ve made it. You’ll look around and see the people a long way beneath you and remind yourself that you were down there just a short time ago. And just as you’re feeling satisfied with the distance you’ve traveled and the heights you’ve climbed, you’ll feel things start to move.
Initially, the movement might be small. It might even be welcome. You’ve been sitting still for too long, and when you’re at the top of your business, you’re likely to be working all the hours you can find just to be able to stand still. A little less pressure, even if it means a slight decline in revenues, might come as something of a relief. As the work falls off, you get your weekends back. Your workday stops at six instead of seven. You can take a little more time with projects and clients, and not feel that you’re always struggling to meet impossible deadlines. Life feels a little better, even if it is a little poorer.
But gradually, that decline picks up speed. You’re not just dropping; you’re falling fast. Instead of working until six, you’re able to knock off at five, and then you find you have gaps in the day. Initially, you fill those gaps by working slower but in time you’ll realize that you need to reinvigorate your marketing. You’ll need to push yourself out there again: pitch for gigs; push out your ads; network with people who can deliver more work or sales your way.
The first time you drop can be terrifying. You’ll have worked so hard for so long to give your business a solid foundation, and now it’s disappearing from beneath you. It’s hard to believe that it will ever return.
And yet it does, because when you’re self-employed, there’s no choice. It’s either do the marketing when the quiet periods grow or send out your resumé and look for a job. So you do the marketing, and you find a new client or a new customer or a new way of landing sales. Old customers and clients come back, and they pass your name on to colleagues. Your fall bottoms out. You start to rise again.
But this time when you reach the top, you don’t just look down at the people below and remember where you were when it all began. You also look forward and anticipate the next move because you know that there will be a fall again. That’s how business works. That’s how every business works.
In time, that rising and falling becomes your rhythm and you grow used to it. But you also set yourself a new challenge. You want to make sure that the peak you reach before your next slowdown is higher than the last one. And you want the fall that follows that peak to be shallower and briefer than it was before. You might be on a rollercoaster that takes you round and round in circles but you want to keep building that rollercoaster higher and higher, and you want to smooth out the bumps so that the ride is as comfortable—and unexciting—as possible.
In the meantime, though, those ups and downs become part of the motivating factor. Remembering how high you reached will push you to climb again. The fear when you fall will motivate you to reopen your marketing budget.
You don’t need a boss to make either of those things happen.
Enjoying The Process
Management books are filled with ideas to motivate staff and boost workers’ productivity. They’ll talk about multi-tasking and performance reviews, incentives and mentoring. But all of these methods rely on a single assumption: that an employee won’t motivate themselves.
It’s a safe assumption. When you work for someone else, the rewards for increasing your productivity are limited. Even if the staff member receives a bonus or believes they may receive a promotion, the incentives are always unsatisfying. Bonuses are spent quickly. If they’re received regularly, they become a part of the salary. Between 2001 and 2014, the chief executives of Britain’s top 350 companies saw their pay packages rise by 82 percent as they scooped up their bonuses and demanded more. Over the same period, capital invested in their employers increased in value by just 1 percent. Salary bonuses can be either such a tiny fraction of the value that an employee brings to a business that they fail to motivate, or they’re so out of proportion to the company’s actual growth that their award has nothing to do with motivation.
The promise of a promotion suffers from a similar limitation. Everyone wants to see how high they can go. Everyone wants to push themselves to their own limits and give themselves bigger challenges. Everyone wants more responsibility. But employees always work for someone else. Move up a level, and they’ll have more leeway. They’ll have more authority. But they’ll still be answerable to another boss. Even the chief executive is answerable to the board of directors, to investors and to shareholders. There’s always someone else demanding an explanation and trying to influence decisions.
But what everyone wants most of all from their work isn’t money or even responsibility. It’s fulfillment. We all want satisfaction. We want to be able to step back when a project is complete, look proudly at the result, and say: “I did that!”
That feeling comes with career advancement. The more responsibility someone has over a project, the more skin they have in the game. They might not have to do all of the work themselves but they do get to oversee it. It’s their vision that gets built and put out into the world.
It’s that satisfaction that is the most powerful motivator for any employee.
And when you’re self-employed, it comes all the time. Whatever project you’re working on, whatever product you’re planning to launch, it’s always down to you. It always reflects your ability, your skill and your talent. Even if it’s something you’re creating for a client and will carry their brand, their logo and your name nowhere, you’ll still know it’s your work. You still get to whisper: “I did that.”
That’s hugely enjoyable, and for the self-employed, it’s a feeling that’s always there.
There are lots of factors that will motivate someone who’s self-employed: money, fear of failure, deadlines, the next task in line, the bigger projects to come. They’re all more powerful than any of the tools that can be wielded by a corporate manager. But there’s one factor that keeps the self-employed working, and working hard, more than any other: enjoyment of the job.
So powerful is that factor that it can make the job all-encompassing and break down the barriers between work and life. That’s what we’ll discuss in the next chapter.
9. A Balanced Lifestyle: Keeping Your Business And Your Family
If there’s one idea that keeps recurring throughout this book, it’s that when you ditch your old boss, you gain the worst boss in the world: yourself. That boss will always be with you. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your boss will be whispering in your ear and asking you about the project you’re working on or the next problem that you need to overcome. That boss is there when you’re eating dinner. He or she is there when you’re watching your kid’s soccer game. And he or she is there when your partner wants to watch television, and you’re thinking that maybe you should pull out the computer and shoot off a few quick emails.
In today’s business environment, when a smartphone can keep you in touch with the office 24/7, it’s become harder than ever to draw a line between work and home. When you work for yourself—and especially if you work for yourself from home—it’s become even harder still.
The result is that the self-employed run a real risk of sacrificing family time for work time.
Sometimes, that’s not a problem. When Nick Woodman worked on his GoPro prototype, a camera robust enough to take surfing, he locked himself in his room and kept at it non-stop. He even found that because the room in which he was working was far from the kitchen, every time he went to get a glass of water, his housemates would distract him. So he started wearing a Camelbak and he used the sliding door to the yard for what he told Maxim magazine were “bio breaks.”
That kind of dedication is admirable when no one else has demands on your time (or goes out into the yard) but it’s not a viable strategy when you have a family. If that’s your situation, then you risk gaining your own business but losing something much more valuable.
This isn’t a unique situation. It’s a challenge that’s faced by everyone with both a family and a career, whether that’s in their own business or in someone else’s. There’s no easy solution but there are guidelines and tactics that have proven to be successful at managing the balance. More than that, they can actually improve your chances of success because no one ever succeeds alone, and no team members are more important than your family members. They’re the only people who will always support you, always be honest with you and always believe in you unconditionally. They’re your most important asset when you’re building your business and you need to keep them on your side.
5 Themes For A Work-Life Balance
In 2014, Boris Groysberg, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Robin Abrahams, a research associate at the school, reviewed five years of interviews with nearly 4,000 executives around the world conducted by the school’s students as well as a survey of 82 executives on an HBS leadership course to see how business leaders reconciled their private and business lives. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they identified five themes in the behavior of executives trying to build both successful businesses and raise happy families. Not all of those themes are applicable to the self-employed and they’re not universal. Every business is unique, every career is unique and every family is unique. But the themes do hold valuable for lessons for anyone faced with the same challenge.
- Defining Success
“When you are leading a major project,” the authors declare, “you determine early on what a win should look like. The same principle applies to leading a deliberate life: You have to define what success means to you—understanding, of course, that your definition will evolve over time.”
For some people that benchmark might be being home at least four nights a week. Another executive said that they wanted to understand what was happening in the lives of their family members. A third was happy with having “emotional energy” to spend both at work and at home.
What all those targets had in common was that they were targets that the business leaders challenged themselves to meet, and they set those targets themselves. Every self-employed person has to undergo the same process.
For parents that might mean eating the evening meal together every day, even if they head back upstairs to the office for an hour or two after the dinner is over. For someone with just a partner or a spouse, it could mean making sure that they’re available for a regular date night. For a divorcee it might mean making sure that their time with the kids is securely ringfenced and that business never intrudes, no matter how urgent.
It will be up to you to find the rule that works best for your business and for the needs of your family.
The authors of the article did find something else interesting here though, and that was the difference between the genders in the rules the executives set for themselves. Men were more likely to be content with just a small amount of interaction with their children in the evenings—as little as ten minutes in one instance—while women felt more guilty about the time they spent away. Whenever the needs of the family and the business were in conflict, men would tell themselves that they needed to work to support their families while women emphasized their need to set a role model of a working mother for their own children. Sheryl Sandberg’s idea of women leaning into work doesn’t resolve the guilt that mothers feel when they lean out of their families to reach the office.
One respondent offered smart house design as a solution: “Design your house right,” she suggested. “Have a table in the kitchen where your kids can do homework while your husband cooks and you drink a glass of red wine.” That’s clearly not a solution that’s going to work for everyone but it does show how sometimes the ability just to be present at particular moments can make a big difference.
If you feel that your business needs twelve hours in each workday to get up and running, make sure that yo take a break long enough to eat a meal with the family, even if you have to go back to the desk when the kids are asleep.
- Managing Technology
One of the more surprising pieces of information to come out of the interviews was the executives’ attitude towards technology. More than a third of the executives regarded the work applications on their mobile devices as intrusive, and only a quarter saw technology as a liberator. Rather than using their mobile devices to continue working when they’re away from their offices, many executives reported ignoring their devices entirely.
“When I’m at home, I really am at home,” the article quoted one of the interviewees. “I force myself to not check my e-mail, take calls, et cetera. I want to give my kids 100 percent of my attention. But this also works the other way around, because when I’m at work I really want to focus on work. I believe that mixing these spheres too much leads to confusion and mistakes.”
Both leaders who loved being available at all times and those who tried not to look at their emails recommended that mobile technology needed to be managed carefully. They warned against being so available that other team members become dependent. They suggested that multi-tasking is not as efficient as it sounds, noted that facetime is better than phone time and that keeping the email inbox under control will help to reduce the email checking from the sofa.
But the article was based on interviews with employees, not the self-employed. Employees don’t talk about the business they work for as their “baby” in the way that employees sometimes do. The relationship between their reward and their extra work is indirect; it might lead to a slightly higher salary or more responsibility but the results are less reflective of who they are than the business created by someone who is self-employed. A client call at ten in the evening or some additional work on a proposal on a Saturday afternoon is an intrusion for any employee. For the self-employed, people who are building something for themselves, it’s just part of what they do.
Even if they didn’t need to use that time, there is still a good chance that they would want to use it in the same way.
That makes setting rules for technology even more important. There need to be hours when family members understand that they have your full attention. You might be willing to take a client call between 10pm and midnight, for example, but unless someone is calling to tell you your house is on fire, the phone goes unanswered during mealtimes. The email ping is ignored. The SMS notification can wait.
If that sounds hard, think of the impression it will make when you’re having a family meal and your phone rings. You check who’s calling, find that it’s not the fire service, and choose “Decline.”
You’re a hero. You have shown your family that right now you’re all theirs. You’ve put them above your business. Of course, after the meal, you can race upstairs, call the person back and apologize profusely for not being able to take their call earlier but by then you’ll have built a big bank of kudos points.
And you’re going to need those points, because there will be crunch times when you really do have to put in the weekend hours even though your family would like you to join them at the mall or throw a Frisbee in the park. Just as your business will need to build financial capital so that it can invest and move forward so you’ll need to build family capital that allows you to swap some family time for work time when you really need it. You gain that capital by taking time from your business and giving it to your family when you don’t really need it.
The same is true of relationships. Couples need time together, and not just time doing the dull stuff that makes up day-to-day living: the cooking, the cleaning, the waking up together. They need time to build experiences and create shared memories. Sometimes those experiences can be simple. Watching a favorite television show together in the evening is a simple shared experience that can be meaningful for the couple. It’s a reminder that they have similar tastes and interests, and it’s time to do something together.
So it’s also time for the iPad to be put to one side. It might be tempting to multitask while doing something as mindless as watching television, and you can complete a mindless task while watching an evening show if you’re watching alone. But if you’re watching with a partner, that hour is an opportunity to be together.
Set aside at least one evening a week for a date night, and don’t look at the phone while you’re waiting for your food or for the movie to start. That dedicated time together only works if it really is together. The rest of the week at least part of your mind will be on the business you’re building. That’s understandable. But you can only come close to achieving a work-life balance if you’re prepared to put the business aside for at least some hours in the week in favor of the people who really mean the most to you.
- Building Support Networks
The authors of the article also looked at the effects of carving out dedicated family time by assessing the executives’ support networks. By that what they largely meant was hiring people to help them.
That’s an easier for option for a Harvard Business School graduate now working for McKinsey. It’s a touch harder for someone who has just left a graphic design job to join the gig economy. A six-figure income makes it much easier to hire someone to clean the apartment, fix the yard and even pick up the kids from school.
But even for very small businesses, hiring help can still be worthwhile. If you’re making $50 an hour then spending three hours cleaning the apartment instead of working will cost you $150. It makes more sense to hire help for $15 or $20 an hour. Your net income for those three hours will be lower than it would be the rest of the week but you’ll be getting a clean apartment as well as a satisfied client.
That’s even true if the time you spend doing a task that you could outsource comes during non-work hours. The three hours you spend cleaning your home always comes at the expense of something: if it’s not work time, it’s family time.
Bringing in help will give you more time to spend where it really matters. If you really can’t afford hired help yet, then don’t be afraid to ask people who can help. Kids should spend time with grandparents, so having them pick up the kids once a week and spend the afternoon with them will give you more work time and bring your family closer. It’s not always possible, of course, but looking for creative solutions that can support your business can benefit everyone.
Help for practical problems is always available, and it’s easily available if you have funds to pay for it. Emotional support is tougher. That can only come from someone you trust, and that trust has to be bought and paid for. The payment takes the form of your own support. Whether it comes from a friend, a spouse or even a parent, you can only claim someone’s ear if you’ve been willing to lend one of your own.
It helps to pay in advance!
Of course, when you’re building your own business, whether it’s large or small, you’re going to have a million-and-one things on your mind. You’re going to run into all sorts of frustrations, have worries that vary only in their degree, and you’re going to want to vent. Sometimes you’ll want someone to just sit and listen. At other times, you’ll want practical advice.
Without both of those options in your life, your business-building will be much harder and much more painful than it needs to be.
But you can only get that support by first giving it. If you’re always complaining about clients who didn’t pay or suppliers who are late with their deliveries or projects that lack meaning, you’ll constantly be bringing negativity into someone else’s life. And as much as your friends and family want to help you, that’s exhausting. It’s only sustainable if you’re also willing to take some of their negativity away with you.
To get the support you need, you first have to give the support you need. You need to listen. You have to offer advice—or at least options—when you’re invited to do so. You have to set an example of the kind of support you’d like to receive.
Everyone needs an emotional support network, and the self-employed likely need it more than most. But they can only get it if they’re willing to give it too. Without that giving, the support network eventually breaks, leaving you in a worse position than you were before.
- Home Work And Household Chores
For the kinds of executives who have graduated from Harvard Business School, one important factor to consider in building a healthy work-life balance is travel. At best, it means being away from home for days at a time; at worse, it might require moving the entire family to a completely new location, pulling children out of school and away from their friends, and asking a spouse to give up their job.
It’s reason enough to go into business for yourself.
Once you are self-employed though, the costs that travel imposes on family are easier to control. They’re not completely absent. The owners of consultancy businesses often have to spend plenty of time on the road. Digital marketer Jay Baer sold his business and opened a consultancy so that he could do more of what he enjoyed and less of the stuff that wastes time. His company is virtual and he uses contractors to staff his team but he says that he now spends as much as 180 days a year travelling.
That is his choice. As the owner of his company, he can choose how much time he wants to spend in airplanes and which places he wants to visit. Cutting a trip or two out of his schedule might lower his income but it’s unlikely to kill his business and it would adjust his work-life balance. When you’re self-employed, no one can tell you where you have to go.
In fact, while executives and employees battle to balance their trips with their home life, the self-employed are more likely to cope with the opposite problem: being at home too much.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of people do some or all of their work at home. When you’re starting a new business, that home office is the most obvious place to start. But it means that you’re always in the house. There’s something to be said for not having a commute, but when your daily movement takes you no further than the distances between the kitchen table, the fridge and the sofa, your world shrinks. Life becomes just a little too comfortable, too lacking in outside interests. When your work is in your home, you have far fewer reasons to leave the house—or even change out of your pajamas. The stereotype of the self-employed sitting at their desks in their underwear might be overplayed but jogging pants and an old t-shirt come close to the self-employed person’s uniform of choice.
Instead of chats around the watercooler, conversations become limited to talks with a partner or with children once they return from school. The occasional phone call to a client or customer doesn’t make up for the loss of an entire world away from the home.
It’s important then to create new worlds away from the keyboard, even if it’s limited to a weekly Yoga class, a book club, or a soccer match. That sounds simple, but it’s much harder to do than it appears especially in the early days of the business when there’s so much to do and so little time to do it. A couple of hours kicking a ball around with friends is time that could have been spent testing a landing page or working on the next project. Yoga or the gym can become things that you’ll do at some point in the future when the rush dies down, though if you’re lucky, the rush never will.
But those activities are essential. Family members need time apart as well as time together. One study has found that having space or privacy in a relationship is even more important for a couple’s happiness than having a good sex life. When both members of a couple are working from home, it’s a good idea for at least one of them, and ideally both, to spend some time outside the house and to have their own activities and interests that introduce them to new people.
One way to do that is to work from cafés and co-working spaces, but that opens a new problem. We’ve already seen that one of the advantages of being your own boss is the ability to do the chores whenever you want: to stop at the drycleaners on the way to the café, to pick up groceries on the way back. That’s time that has to be watched and measured just as closely as commuters measure the amount of time they waste in traffic jams. The alternative is that you end up agreeing to volunteer to staff a stall at the school fair because it’s in the middle of the work day and you’re one of the few people who doesn’t have to ask a boss for the time off. People see you as having time available because they can’t see that you’ve promised that time to customers and clients.
When you’re building your own business, you can find that there are just as many pulls on your home life as there are on your business.
We’ve mentioned the importance of keeping and creating support networks that can help to relieve some of the pressure. Paying someone to clean your home, for example, might feel like a luxury but it may turn out to be financially smart and a great move for your family. We’ve also talked about the importance of making time for your spouse so that they can supply you with the emotional support that everyone will need as they try to cope with the frustrations, fears and challenges of building a new business.
But there’s one more benefit that the right work-life balance will bring: and that’s a combination of partner, advisor and collaborator. Couples now tend to choose partners with similar levels of education and similar backgrounds, so when you’re faced with a difficult decision, you’ll have close at hand someone who’s not just capable of assuring you that you’ll come to the right choice but can actually help you to analyze the options. Interviewees in the Harvard Business Review surveys talked about how much they valued their partners’ emotional intelligence, focus, and ability to see the big picture They described how they encouraged them to take risks or pursue opportunities that would lead to long-term satisfaction, and how they would ask them challenging questions that prepared them for opposition.
Those reactions go beyond emotional support. They’re valuable business assets that need to be nurtured, protected and used. They make decisions better and smarter, identify new opportunities, and point out problems that you might otherwise have ignored. They’re only available when you have a good work-life balance.
Balancing work and home life is never easy. It’s particularly difficult for the self-employed for whom a business can feel like a child, something they’ve created, that demands their time, and whose wellbeing is entirely dependent on them.
But it is essential, even if that means paying money for time to give to either family or the business, or giving away time in one area that you could use in the other. Your business will feel important but family is always more important, and you’ll need to keep it with you if your business is to succeed.
10. Income: Maintaining Stable Revenue In An Unstable Environment
When you start working for yourself, you’ll notice all sorts of changes, but there’s one change that you’ll feel the most. You won’t feel it immediately, but when the end of the first month rolls round and you send out your invoices, you’ll notice something important.
You won’t have earned the same amount of money that you earned when you were employed.
You might have earned more. More likely, when you’re just starting out in self-employment, you’ll have earned less. A lot less probably.
As you continue to work, you’ll notice something else: the following month’s income won’t be the same as the previous month’s.
In fact, when you work for yourself no two monthly incomes are ever the same.
That’s liberating. When the amount you earn depends entirely on the amount of work that you perform, you can feel the effect of your efforts. Work harder, you’ll earn more. Take time off, you’ll make less. That’s very different to when you were an employee. When you work for someone else, you’ll always see the same numbers in your bank account at the end of the month regardless of how much time you spent chatting around the watercooler. Remain an employee and your income is entirely predictable.
When you’re self-employed, your income is completely unpredictable. While your expenditures might be relatively stable, your income will change from one month to the next. That might well be liberating but it can also be frightening. Your income might change but many of your expenses won’t. The bank won’t accept a smaller mortgage payment because you had a bad month this month. You’ll still need to pay for the child minder even if you didn’t make the most of the time she gave you. Stable expenses and unstable income is a part of being self-employed.
The Causes Of Income Instability
Income instability for the self-employed has two causes: the outflow of your invoices; and the inflow of your customers.
The first of those is easier to control. The problem comes when you work on a large project and agree with the client or the customer to only receive the payment when the work is complete. If the project takes three months, you could find that you receive nothing for a couple of months, then a large check right at the end.
That’s the kind of arrangement that can give you cashflow problems. Your creditors—the bank, the electricity company, the credit card company—are unlikely to be as patient as you in waiting for payments.
In practice, the situation is rarely quite as simple as that. Even small businesses with large projects often have smaller projects running at the same time. Those small projects will continue to bring in some funds but the flows will rarely be enough to cover all of the business’s expenses.
A better option is to divide up projects into smaller chunks. Set monthly milestones with payments due at each delivery. While you won’t get the thrill of a big paycheck at the end, you’ll have a much smoother revenue flow and you’ll reduce the risk of default. You’ll also be able to catch any problems, either in the payments or in the project, before they’re they grow too big and too expensive .
The other cause of income instability is much harder to control. Freelancers know the feeling of work as either feast or famine. They know never to turn down an offer even when they’re busy, and smart businesses do the same. If they’re snowed under, they just work harder to meet the demand.
But we’ve seen that just as there are periods of overwork so there can also be periods of under-work, times, when work stretches to fill the time available and empty hours in the schedule, are filled with marketing and pitches. You might feel just as busy. Your days will be just as full as they are during the busy periods. But there will be much less pressure and the income at the end of the month will be much lower.
That’s part of life for the self-employed. Add the effect of seasonal demand, boosting sales at Christmas, depleting them in the new year and seeing a dry-up in demand in the summer, and you’ll soon feel the difference between the predictability of a monthly salary and the chaos of self-employment.
It’s a situation that raises two questions: can you cope with that instability; and what can you do to reduce it?
Coping With An Unstable Income
Discovering whether you can handle income instability—and if so, how much instability you can absorb—begins with an honest assessment of your costs. You’ll need to list your outgoings and count up the total. You’ll need to categorize those outgoings into fixed expenses, such as server costs and rent, and discretionary spending such as the daily cups of coffee at the local café where you like to work in the morning.
Once you add up those discretionary costs and deduct them from your total monthly expenditures, you’ll find that you can earn much less than you thought each month and still survive in self-employment—even if that survival isn’t much fun.
Clearly, there are limits to the amount you can cut back, and there are limits too to the amounts that you might want to cut back. Working from the kitchen table all day every day might be fine for a few days or even a few weeks, but if it makes you miserable and you need to get out of the house, then that coffee rationing might start to feel very expensive.
Nonetheless, one way to survive a flexible income is to have expenditures that can bend with the revenue inflows—and to know how to make them bend.
Savings can help too. Using savings to get your business up and running is right and reasonable. Bootstrapping your own business shows that you have confidence in your own abilities; if you’re not willing to fund yourself, no one else will.
And if your business is going to go through periods of feast and famine, it makes sense to save money in the good times to see you through the inevitable difficult periods. When the invoices you’re sending out are big and the money they bring in is impressive, it’s easy to forget that that’s two or three months’ income, and not a typical month’s revenue. Some of that money has to be used to cover the previous months’ expenditure, and some of it will need to be set aside to cover the following months’ bills.
But using your savings can also be dangerous. Being self-employed means living on your current income, not the income you earned when you had a salary. If you’re not replenishing your savings, the business isn’t going to be sustainable. Using your savings to tide you over when you hit lean periods could actually be a way of keeping alive a business that needs to change its strategy.
The same is true of another tool that can help you cope with instability: a second income. If you’re living with a partner and sharing household expenses, you’ll have a second revenue stream that can help smooth out some of the bumps. If your spouse has a salary then you’ll know that your home has a minimum level of reliable income flowing in each month. Even if you earn more overall each year than your spouse, knowing that each month has an income floor can help you to plan your finances more easily. The spouse’s income can cover the fixed expenses—the mortgage, the groceries, the car payments—while yours can help to meet the discretionary spending. Whatever’s left is shared savings.
For the self-employed, the ideal household situation is to share the expenses with someone with a salary so that the instability of one income is balanced by the stability of the other.
That doesn’t always work out, of course. There are plenty of households in which both partners are self-employed and some in which both partners are running the business together. Few homes, though, face such a high risk of financial instability, especially at the beginning. If the business collapses or hits a long-term rough patch, there’s no back-up for the household income. It’s like walking a tightrope without a safety net: there’s nothing to catch you if you fall.
There might not be a way around that situation. Working on a shared business with a spouse can be exhilarating and rewarding and wonderful. (It can also be terrible, frustrating and devastating for the relationship.) But there’s no question that it increases the risk of financial distress and brings more instability to the household finances. If you are both self-employed, you should have more savings to see you through those tough times, and a strategy of financial flexibility to cope with lean periods.
Smoothing Out The Bumps In Self-Employment
The best solution to an unstable revenue is to make it more stable, to smooth out the bumps and make it more reliable. Breaking up large invoices is certainly one way to do that, and might even be welcomed by clients and customers who prefer to pay in installments.
One method is to arrange your work to bring in regular income flows. One reason that businesses sell subscriptions is to replace large one-off purchases with a reliable stream of smaller purchases, especially when they know that customers are likely to forget to cancel. It’s a model that Microsoft is moving towards for its Office suite as it promotes Office 365, and Adobe prefers as it sells its Creative Cloud subscription. Health clubs do the same thing. They sell monthly subscriptions even though they know that participation drops after the first few months; cancellations take a while to catch up.
It’s a model that most businesses can copy. Instead of charging a one-off fee, offer customers a discount for regular purchases and constant updates. Instead of focusing on selling a single website design, for example, a freelance designer could sell a design and a fee for regular monthly maintenance.
Not all your sales have to be subscriptions. But those subscriptions will give the income of your business a foundation. You’ll know that you can count on receiving a certain amount each month—perhaps as much as half of the income you hope to earn—while the rest fluctuates depending on the other jobs and products you manage to sell.
You can also become your own employee. If you’re setting up a company, rather than operating as a sole proprietor, you’ll be able to employ yourself. You can give yourself a regular salary, which you can raise with bonuses as you see fit, and shift the irregular income onto the business. The danger is that if the firm doesn’t earn enough to pay you, it will go into the red—and eventually die—while you take out your last salaries. In the meantime though, at least your income will be stable and if the business is successful, you’ll have money to invest while swapping your income tax for a lower corporation tax.
The other main strategy is to look ahead. If the biggest danger in self-employment is that periods of feast are followed by periods of famine, it makes sense to prepare for those famines not just by putting away the harvest but also by preparing the ground.
As you’re working on projects and dealing with customer orders, you can see space in the schedule opening up. You’ll know roughly when a big project is coming to the end and you’ll be able to spot rising sales starting to peak.
At that point, you can start planning the next stage. Freelancers often use Twitter and Facebook to declare openings in their calendar. They might tell the world that if anyone needs some work, they’ll be available again in four weeks’ time or so. It’s unlikely that those sorts of pitches produce many results but they do show that the freelancer is thinking ahead. She’s checking her calendar, spotting the holes and trying to fill them.
The hole-filling will probably need more effort than that. It might take the launch of a new marketing campaign or the first steps in the planning of a new product—and a new product launch. The problem is that those steps have to be taken at the same that you’re completing the work and finishing the orders that are already on the books.
That’s harder than it sounds. You always want to give clients and customers their services and products as quickly as you can. The faster you can work, the higher your income and the more competitive you’ll be. Ask a client when they want their order to be completed, and the answer will always be “as quickly as possible.” Providers who can supply a quick turnaround are treasured.
So working to bring in your next job or build your next project before you’ve completed the current one will slow you down. Time spent creating and testing a new AdSense campaign is time not spent completing the current project for the client or pushing the latest product out to the world.
It’s a tough habit to get into but it is one you need to build into your calendar, even when you’re busy. However you prefer to do it, the aim is to get into the routine of constantly growing the business, even during the periods when you don’t need to, so that those gaps in the schedule are always pushed into the future.
You should also find that constant work on your marketing channels will keep them primed. If you’re always contacting your network to let people know when you’re available or introducing new offers to your market, you’ll keep both interested and in their minds.
Marketing and business-building take time to build and grow. It’s better to put in that effort before you really need it than to wait until you sit at your desk one morning and realize that you have no deadlines to meet and no product to ship.
Despite the various methods that you can use to smooth out the bumps in your income as someone who is self-employed, those bumps will still be there. If they’re not in your personal income, they’ll be in the business’s income. Keep an eye on your annual income to make sure that it’s sufficient and growing—and make sure that you can survive from month to month.
Becoming self-employed is a challenge and a liberation. It’s frightening and overwhelming, filled with potential and littered with obstacles. You’ll need perseverance to make it through but mostly, you’ll need knowledge and hard work.
In this guide, we’ve tried to show you what you can expect as you make your journey out of employment and into independence. We started by focusing on what exactly you’re going to do in your new business and pointed out that while you already have skills that have proven their value in the market, those don’t have to be the skills that you sell from your own business.
Starting a business
Many photography businesses start as hobbies practiced in an enthusiast’s spare time before the photographer takes the plunge and becomes professional. Craft businesses often begin at weekend fairs and art festivals before the teacher or the librarian or the dental assistant finds the courage to do what she loves full-time. Even gardening companies are sometimes the result of enjoyable Sunday afternoons spend planting perennials and giving advice to friends that turn into a business doing what a keen gardener loves doing the most.
When you’re going into business for yourself, the most important question isn’t how much you’ll charge or how much you’ll make but what do you love doing the most? That’s where the greatest satisfaction and the biggest rewards will lie.
We also mentioned the legal stuff. Becoming self-employed means taking on all sorts of responsibilities that you didn’t have before, and might not have even known existed. From buying your own healthcare to paying for insurance and changing your tax status, entrepreneurship brings with it a host of new challenges and new bureaucracy. Before you take the leap, you will need to talk to an accountant and possibly a lawyer to guide you through your business’s paperwork. We explained some of the questions you’ll need to ask and some of the answers you can expect to hear.
Financial as a Business Owner
You’ll also need money, which is never easy to come by. There are plenty of options though, from bootstrapping to loans, angel investing, venture capital and crowdfunding. In practice, it’s likely that the first funds your new business will receive will come out of your own pocket. When that happens, you’ll need to keep your expenses low so that the money lasts as long as possible, and you can give yourself enough time to bring new revenue into the business. The more money you begin with and the slower you spend it, the greater your chances of success.
You’ll then need to keep that money flowing. Every business needs to both produce a product or deliver a service, and find the customers and clients who pay for them. Those two tasks require two different skill sets. Even small businesses soon realize they need to employ sales teams to do the lead generation and conversion on their behalf. Solo operators need to strengthen their marketing muscles and get to grips with advertising and business development.
We saw how employing yourself will force you to acquire all sorts of new skills that you didn’t know you could master—or find the help that will let you focus on what you can do best.
Once you know what you’re going to sell, have scraped together the funds to make it happen and put your marketing streams in place to bring the customers and clients to your door, the fun really begins. Now you can ask for money for the work you’ve performed.
Choosing the right invoicing and payment system might sound straightforward but it’s one of the most vital decisions you can make. The invoice you send needs to look professional. Customers should understand that they have to pay it, and they should know where to pay it. They should be able to make the payment easily, in whatever format they want—and receiving those funds shouldn’t cost you the earth.
We explained the lengths we went to at Due to ensure that invoices look good, are easy to create and easy to pay, and that it costs as little as possible to receive the funds. There’s not much flexibility among payment systems to reduce credit card fees, but at Due, we managed to pare them to the bone.
We also discussed growing your business. All businesses might start with an idea but where they go depends entirely on the vision of the person who holds that idea. You’ll be free to choose to create any size of success, from a freewheeling solopreneur to a giant international conglomerate with the private helicopter to match. We laid out the tools you need to use, whether you’re hiring freelancers, selling franchises or growing with employees.
In the last three chapters of this guide, we talked about the daily life of self employment. We pointed out the challenges of staying motivated when you no longer have a boss looking over your shoulder—and pointed out that you’ll quickly realize that you have lots of bosses looking over your shoulder, one of them is you. You’ll be counting the hours and giving each of them an entirely new value.
We also noted the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and explored the way some leading executives are trying to square what can feel like an impossible circle. It might well be impossible, but sacrificing your family for your business won’t just destroy the most important thing in your life, it will also throw away your business’s most important asset.
And finally, we talked about the difficulty of swapping a regular salary that arrives regardless of how much work you do with the unpredictable income flows that are the life of an entrepreneur. While the best solution is a partner with a good job, it is possible to live with rollercoaster revenues provided you have enough flexibility.
Working for yourself isn’t for everyone. Most people choose to work for others for good reasons: they give up the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship for the stability, clear career ladder and predictability of a stable job. If you prefer the sense of satisfaction that comes with doing your own thing, in your own time and in your own way, then being self-employed is the right move for you. 2020 may be the year for you to make that change.
Updated February 3, 2023