Why Looking Ahead Means Looking Back

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Why Looking Ahead Means Looking Back

20/03/2018

The first few months of 2018 have gone by with unseemly haste although that hasn’t stopped me looking back on my memories of 2017. You might ask if there’s any point to this exercise to which I say that the only way I can gauge how well or how badly my business is performing is by comparing the achievements of one year against those of another.

The roots of this habit go back to the summer of 2006 when I was made redundant from a high paying/high profile TV job. Back then my life was a five day a week treadmill of long hours, sporadic amounts of sleep and too much stress. My social life was virtually non-existent and most of the time I was too fatigued to invest any meaningful time in my relationships or even spend a session at the gym pumping iron. Work governed my life and a job I had once enjoyed had now become a chore, which is why redundancy was almost like a blessing in disguise. Suddenly I was able to make time for my family and friends, recover my lost energy and enjoy nights of uninterrupted sleep. Life was good, but the redundancy cheque wasn’t going to last forever: I had to find a new way to earn a living and protect my emotional health. This was going to be a challenge as working for other people was all I had ever known, and I needed an alternative that I could be comfortable with. Self-employment was where I was heading although I didn’t have a clue how I was going to make it work for me.

For anyone on PAYE (Pay as You Earn), the idea of working for yourself might seem like going down a mineshaft without the benefit of a lamp. There are plenty of horror stories about the self-employed getting ripped off by unscrupulous customers or earning miniscule amounts of money for big amounts of effort. Given all the hassle it doesn’t seem like a step worth taking, yet more of us are biting the bullet and going down the self-employment route. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the self-employed now make up almost 15% of the UK labour force. Modern technology has also reduced the cost of starting a business, enabling people to run their companies from home rather than spending money leasing office or workshop space. And let’s not forget that registering as a company, or incorporation as it’s called, is a tax efficient method that allows workers to be paid dividends as well as salaries. I liked the sound of what I was hearing although I couldn’t reap the benefits until I had some work lined up and that was the bit I dreaded. In the past I never had to look for jobs because they always had a habit of finding me. Back then I was younger, so everything was relatively easy whereas this time I was a middle-aged woman striking out alone. I had no idea how or where to start although (thankfully) I was lucky enough to have a network of self-employed friends who came to the rescue with support and advice.

The first thing they told me to do was not to panic. Hitting the fear button is understandable when you’re in unfamiliar territory, but don’t do it! Remember, panic leads to bad choices and it takes a while to clean up the mess from an irrational decision. Getting a balanced view of every available option means standing back, in other words detaching yourself from the emotion of your circumstances. It’s a habit that doesn’t come easily to most us but it’s one that’s worth acquiring. Standing back allows you to develop a clear, focused strategy for finding clients and delivering a service in a way that impresses. You’ll know you’ve cracked it when a client gives you the first right of refusal whenever new contracts come up for grabs!

Know your value! A contract might look lucrative, but the sums may not add up when you factor in the amount of time and background preparation involved. If what’s being offered doesn’t reflect the extra effort you’ll have to put in, then don’t be afraid ask for more money. Clients expect you to negotiate and if they still refuse to give you what you want then you can always walk away. Having said that there are times when taking an assignment for a lower fee can be a good thing. It’s worth remembering that a client might pay extra on a future project because you’ve already proved you can do the job.

Be careful how much information you give away when pitching for a contract. Too much detail might cost you more than you bargained for! An organisation once asked me to prepare a media training strategy for their staff and a week after the document was submitted, they told me they were going to do the training themselves. I was so determined to win the contract that in my enthusiasm I unwittingly gave them an entire project for free! It was a lesson I never forgot and now when I pitch for contracts I make sure that submissions contain only enough information to whet a client’s appetite, nothing more!

Being self-employed means thinking like a business and every business, no matter what its size, needs to advertise which is why a website is crucial. This may seem obvious, but you’ll be amazed at the number of people who haven’t got one. An upholsterer once told me that the reason why she didn’t have a website was because she couldn’t find someone to design it! Hmmm! The last time I looked, website designers were not on the endangered species list! How much you spend on a website will depend on the size of your budget (most designers are happy to negotiate), but it really is an investment worth making.

Be reasonable about your expectations. I have yet to meet a self-employed person who cleared a million-pound profit in their first year of trading. There may be someone out there who already has, to which I say “Congratulations”, but for those of us living in the real world the first twelve months of running a business are more likely to reap pennies rather than pounds and debts instead of profits. Remember, how much you make will depend on how much the market is willing to pay for your services and the quality of what you deliver!

Finally, don’t be afraid to stress your experience and the value it brings to a project. The importance of experience can never be overstated. Many of the clients I have worked with told me they’re more comfortable dealing with older people because they like the professionalism of their approach.

After going through the list, I felt ready to take on the world although I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. The going would be tough (isn’t it always in the beginning?) and mistakes would almost certainly be made along the way, although I took heart from the friend who assured me that things would get easier as my journey into self-employment progressed.

“How will I know when I’ve turned a corner?” I asked anxiously.

“That’s easy” he grinned “It’s when you don’t feel guilty saying “No” to a client.”

He was right! I have been self-employed for twelve years and I have no qualms about turning down jobs if they don’t work for me or because I haven’t got the time to do them. When that happens, I refer the client to someone else which means I get to help another small business and maintain a good relationship with the client by not deserting them in their hour of need. It’s what I call a win, win situation!

Am I constantly busy? Not all the time. Some years are extremely active (in 2017 I had contracts in six countries compared to three the year before), while others are financially challenging. My worst year was 2015 when I was short-changed out of five months’ money by a client who then had the cheek to ask me to work for him again. I told him exactly where to go!

So, given everything that has happened do I regret being self-employed? Absolutely not! When I look back on the past twelve years I do so with amazement and pride. Once upon a time I could never have imagined running a business or being my own boss, yet this is what I do every day. It doesn’t matter if my “corporate” footprint is the size of an atom or that my annual profits are less than what I was earning during my nine to five years. To be honest I don’t care because I am happy in my new life and I make more than enough to pay my way. I have also been fortunate to rub shoulders with people I might never have met in my previous job (including the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan & Graca Machel, widow of Nelson Mandela), and to work with groups that strive to end military conflict and promote world economic growth. I feel extremely humbled when I get to see how these organisations operate and what they have achieved.

Will 2018 be a busy year? I have no idea but let me assure you that I won’t be panicking!

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