I’m asked regularly about my experiences setting up as an independent consultant. Now that I’ve been working in self-employment for just over a year, I thought it was high time I passed on some of the things I’ve learned in the last 13 months. If you have any thoughts on these, please leave a comment below.
Reputation is everything
90% of my business comes from word of mouth. In the last year I’ve done no marketing at all, other than being active on social media and blogging. (Sometimes…) New projects tend to come from referrals or from people I’ve got to know through social media.
I put this down to two things. First, I’ve spent the last five years building up a network of cool people in my industry on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t have massive numbers of friends and followers (5000 Twitter followers and a couple of hundred Facebook friends, while not to be sniffed at, is nowhere near in the league of some). But the connections I do have are solid and mutually beneficial (I hope). And they’ve led me to be able to kick start what I believe will be a long and fruitful career in self-employment.
Second, I ensure that I do my best for each and every client. I believe that garners respect, and that, in the mid to long term, that respect turns into business through other avenues. For me, my reputation is of paramount importance.
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide
Working in self-employment is massively rewarding and I’d recommend it to anyone. But as I alluded to above, you have to (try to) be on the ball with each and every project you take on. You’re the one that takes home the plaudits (and the dividends!) if you do a great job. But you’re also the one who’s going to carry the can if you screw up.
Working independently, your time is extremely precious, and you have to manage it carefully. You really don’t have the opportunity to keep your head down and do bugger all for a week or two like you do when you’re working in salaried employment on occasion.
Nowhere was this borne out more to me in the last year than in October. In what was my busiest month of the year to that point, I got ill. A bout of gastric flu kept me in bed for three entire days, and a subsequent chest infection quickly turned into pneumonia. For the best part of three weeks I wasn’t at my best, and quite how I got through that and completed the projects I was working on I don’t know.
The point being, I had no-one to delegate to or to take things off me while I was sick. When you work on your own, you’re on your own for better or worse.
Arrogance is cool
“But that’s why we’re good”, said a friend of mine, David Sawyer, to me recently after I told him I’d been accused of being arrogant towards my work by my own wife. “You’ve got to have a bit of ego and belief that, by and large, you’re usually right! Not to be confused with lack of humility though.”
He has a strong point. When you work independently, if you don’t believe in yourself and aren’t prepared to stand behind your own advice, you’re not going to go very far. Likewise, you have to set your own agenda and goals, including who you work with and why.
If it’s perceived as arrogant that you don’t want to take certain projects when they’re offered because they don’t fit your personal ideals, then so be it. If it’s perceived as arrogant that you stick to your guns when a client wrongly questions your counsel, then so be it.
I know what I know. But equally, I definitely know what I don’t know and I never, ever bullshit people. What’s really important is the humility that goes alongside that self-belief.
In general, people are ace!
This is somewhat of a revelation to me.
As a cranky old man with more than a healthy dose of cynicism, one of the reasons I got fed up of agency life was because of having to deal with over-demanding, condescending or egotistic clients. (If you’re an ex-client of mine, I’m talking about someone else entirely…)
But since being independent, people have been amazing! Those around me have been brilliantly supportive, for which I’m hugely grateful. I truly wasn’t expecting that level of support from people many of whom I’ve only met face-to-face once or twice, if at all. It’s humbling.
Likewise, the clients I’ve worked with have, without exception, been lovely and appreciative folk. We’ve enjoyed relationships based on mutual respect and trust, and it’s a revolutionary way to work.
The only ‘problems’ I’ve had with people in the last year have been when working through an agency on their client. In which case, I’ve encountered all the same old ignorance, petulance and supercilious behaviour I’d become accustomed to.
Which makes me wonder whether there’s something broken in the agency/client relationship? A subject for another time, perhaps…
Everyone is winging it
You know your line manager? She’s winging it. Her boss? He’s winging it. The company CEO? Winging it.
All of them are making it up as they go.
Business life isn’t about whether or not people are winging it, but how well they’re winging it. Don’t believe me? Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has gone on record saying: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud”. Why? It’s not that she or your line manager, or her boss or his CEO are bad at their jobs. But as the nature of business is that you have to wing it A LOT, they all harbour a secret fear that they’re terrible at what they do.
It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s estimated that 70% of people have it. I know I do – I’ve written about it before.
The knowledge that most people are winging it is liberating. It levels the playing field. And if someone seems too confident for their own good and lacks the humility, you can secretly amuse yourself with the thought that they suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect, summarised as them being too dumb to know they’re dumb.
That’s my take on my first year. I know it’s not your regular ‘10 things you need to do to’ type post but, for me at least, this is the stuff that matters. What are your thoughts?