15 Important Lessons I’ve Learned From Being Self Employed
“It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success.”
In December of 2011, I was truly alone for the first time as an online marketing consultant. For the first time ever, I didn’t have a stable paycheck to come home to and every day meant fighting for survival. I had a few things going for me though:
- Being an online marketing consultant meant low overhead (at least when you’re starting). No office rent, no payroll, no benefits, etc.
- If I were to completely fail, I could always fall back and live at home until I get on my feet. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
- I already had two paying clients to give me a little breathing room.
I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s scary as hell when you’re the one calling all the shots. You also have to consider that when you’re out there alone, you might be managing any of the following:
- Client Work
- Vendor Relations/Partnerships
- Staying up to date with industry news
Pretty daunting list huh? It’s actually not as bad as it seems once you get a hang of it. It’s worth noting that while you’ll never be good at all of these things, you’ll know enough to determine how you should hire for these positions in the future. That’s a huge timesaver and saved time often translates to saved money.
If anything, you’ll be able to proudly list all of these valuable skills if you ever decide to apply for another job.
Most people are scared to do something like this because they worry about stability. Screw that. As Seth Godin said, “If you’re playing it safe, you’re taking a big risk”.
That’s not exactly saying you need to go start your own company. It just means it’s worth exploring something that you might find fun and rewarding.
I learned more than I could have ever imagined while I was acting as a solo online marketing consultant and I wanted to share 15 important lessons I learned. Hopefully this will show you that starting your own business isn’t such a bad thing once you get into a groove.
1. Every No Brings Me Closer To A Yes
Sales is something I believe everyone should learn. Back in college, I had the misconception that sales was for people that didn’t have any other job to turn to. I was wrong.
The truth is that sales helps you learn how to understand people better. It also teaches you to accept defeat. I’ve been rejected so many times than I care to remember but you know what? That’s a good thing because I’ve become numb to rejection.
People usually take rejection personally but the truth is every no will bring you closer to a yes.
2. It Gets Lonely
Working out of your apartment or at coffee shops means you don’t have normal interactions like you would with co-workers at a full time gig. That means it can get a little lonely sometimes when you have no one to talk to. But the truth is you don’t have time to worry about how lonely you are.
You have to worry about surviving. And surviving means getting that next client or dying.
3. The Deal Is Never Done Til The Money Is In The Bank
Sometimes I would knock a in-person meeting out of the park and feel like I’ve locked up the deal for sure. They gave me all the signs that it would be a sale:
- Prospect was genuinely interested in my services.
- Prospect was easy to get along with.
- Prospect indicated they wanted a long term business relationship.
- Prospect indicated that they would be signing the contract soon.
The only issue is that when I go home and look at the bank account, I don’t see a new deposit. The lesson here is don’t get your hopes up: the sale isn’t complete until the money is in the bank.
4. You’ll Learn What You Need To Know When You Need To Know It
I always wondered how business people learned everything they needed to know. Initially, I felt like I needed to learn web development, design, and take sales courses. Here’s a fact: you’ll learn what you need to know when you need to know it. I picked up sales naturally after studying and battling in the trenches.
The truth is I only needed sales and web development/design could wait. That’s why I held off on it and decided to focus on what was most important first.
5. There Will Be Emotional Ups and Downs
When everything is riding on your shoulders, you can expect to experience some tough emotional swings. There will be days when everything goes wrong. Example of a bad day:
- Lose your biggest client.
- PayPal account becomes locked so you can’t pay some outsourced workers.
- You lose 3 deals that looked very promising.
- You and your business partner break up because things just aren’t working right.
When it rains, it pours. But who cares.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill
When you’re on your own, you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. You get back up and you keep going. And that’s what makes you tougher.
6. Having A Thorough Screening Process Is Important
If you’re running a business, you’re only as good as the people you hire. The goal here should be to hire people that are smarter than you. If you’re the dumbest person out of the company that you own, then you probably did a good job of hiring.
In the beginning, I was often impulsive and would work with anyone that I thought was smart. My flaw was that I wasn’t thorough in my screening process. I never asked the right questions and that was a fatal mistake. I’ve gone through a few terrible business partnerships where people were just plain lazy or too emotional. Make sure you spend the time to really find out if your partner is a good fit or suffer the consequences of wasted time and money.
The same goes for hiring: hire slow, fire fast. Partnerships and new employees are new marriages – don’t screw it up.
Bonus tip: you know that feeling you get when you’re not sure about someone? Trust it. If you ever have a HINT of doubt about someone, then there’s no doubt.
7. Sometimes You Need To Fake It Til You Make It
People say you have to start small, but that’s not always the case. I always wanted to score bigger clients for bigger paydays so I talked as if we were a large company with years of experience. People like to hear about your client list and years of experience. You can be the best in your craft but if you can’t show that you have a good track record, people won’t care.
In the beginning, I had no client list so I simply faked it. The benefit to faking it is that once you do it often enough, you start to believe it and you gain a powerful air of confidence.
That’s extremely valuable – trust me.
8. Network Your Ass Off
Regardless of how awkward you think networking might be, it’s critical to success. You might have heard that it’s all about who you know, not what you know. That’s completely true.
When it comes to networking, all you need to do is meet one good person out of each event. That’s all you really need. But don’t go in there trying to sell yourself to death. That’s a surefire way to fail.
Instead, go in there with the mindset of being interested in other people and seeing how you can help. That doesn’t necessarily mean selling your own services. It can mean connecting your new friend with someone that can solve their problem.
And who cares if you get nothing out of it? You’ll get the satisfaction of helping someone.
Terrible rebuttal right? I know.
The truth is that if you continue to help people, it’ll eventually come back to you and you’ll get what you were looking for. Just be patient and keep networking.
9. Deliver Value Relentlessly. You Never Know Where Your Next Sale Might Come From
Yes, it’s important to track your data to see how your marketing efforts are faring but the data doesn’t ever explain the whole picture. For example, I often sometimes answer online marketing related questions on Quora or LinkedIn just to help people. I never really expected a sale to come out of it but let’s just say we were able to lock down a 5 figure monthly traffic just by helping people.
Key takeaway: keep helping people and good things will happen.
10. Don’t Stop Trying Til You Get A Firm ‘No’
I forgot to list one of the reasons people hate sales: fear of rejection. No one likes getting rejected and it takes getting accustomed to. One important lesson I learned about sales is that you should never give up until you get a firm ‘no’. This is also known as lead nurturing. All you need to do is keep track of your contact history with the client and continue to provide value to them until they’re open to discussing again.
They’ll become impressed by your tenacity and might even cave in thinking, ‘this guy is persistent, let’s give him a shot and see how it goes’. Boom. That’s sales for you.
11. Reading Does A Body Good
Reading blogs, books, or slideshows can bring you incredible returns. You never know what kind of ideas or lessons you’ll come up with after reading something. Here are a few examples:
- I read an Inc. article on a current client and thought that they would be an excellent customer. I reached out with a personalized e-mail and ended up closing the sale.
- I did the same thing after reading a Mashable article on some hot startups. Another sale.
- After reading a compelling blog post, I e-mailed the author. He became my mentor.
Key takeaway: reading doesn’t just help you learn, it can help meet goals and build relationships.
12. Working Out Keeps You Focused
Working out is essential alone time that lets you clear your mind (and even think of good ideas sometimes). Richard Branson listed working out as one of the most contributors to his success.
It makes sense if you think about it: being healthy means more confidence and energy. It’s also shows people that you’re motivated.
13. Good Time Management Is Crucial
Time is by far the greatest asset you have because it’s constantly decreasing. Prioritizing your days and managing your time is one of the most important skills you have. A lot of people spend time doing ‘busy work’ or reacting to e-mail because they haven’t planned their day ahead of time. It’s even worse if you’re working at shitty job because all you do is daydream. That leads to wasted time and before you know it, you’re in your mid 50s and you haven’t accomplished any of your dreams yet.
And that sucks.
14. Underpromising and Overdelivering Goes A Long Way
Consulting means that you’re going to lose clients no matter what. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prolong their contracts with remarkable service. If you can go out of your way to show that you really care about the client, you’ll win their heart. For example, I would sign my clients up for SEO contracts but then give them content strategy tips, social media recommendations, and even connect them with people they were looking for.
Here’s the other thing: if you’re remarkable, people will talk about you. And no marketing is more powerful than word of mouth marketing.
15. Personalization Goes A Long Way
I mentioned earlier that I signed two clients because I sent e-mails. Those were success stories because I went out of the way to show the prospect that I actually understood what their business was about. People can detect canned responses from a mile away. Personalization is one way to spark a relationship because it shows that you’re a human being, not some robot. Try to pinpoint what makes them tick and you’ll have an easier path to opening a dialogue with your target.
Being self-employed taught me invaluable lessons that I couldn’t have learned in school. It isn’t exactly for everyone because of all the roller coasters, but if you can get through it, you’ll be much better equipped to succeed.
As for me, I’ve gone on to work for a startup that I believe will change the world: Treehouse.
You’re probably wondering why I would do this instead of start my own business. A few reasons:
- I believe in the mission. Teaching everyone to design websites and develop powerful apps is the future. I feel like it’s fast becoming modern literature.
- I want to learn how to code.
- The team is built up of incredibly smart and talented people. It’s easy to accomplish things with people that are cool and smart.
- 4-day work weeks? Sign me up.
- Autonomy. Perhaps one of the most important things is being able to execute on whatever you think is best with minimal pushback.
- Remote working? I’m in.
- Apple gear and cool office equipment.
- The chance to accomplish something big and look back and say “wow. that was a pretty cool experience”.
I’ve already been working at Treehouse for a few days and the experience has been incredible. I wake up early every morning motivated to do work and I’m grateful to feel that way.
Image Credit: Aloshbennett