October 23, 2011
Self employment, a great way to slowly drive yourself insane with constant nagging doubts, unrealistic deadlines and ridiculous working hours. But on the the other hand you’re your own boss so you can work in your pants.
I’ve been self employed for the majority of my work life – since 1998. There are some benefits to this manner of working, there are also some disadvantages which can over time become hellish burdens if you allow them to, which on occasion I do. The real crux of self-employment is taking responsibility for your situation. It can be easy to allow a problem to recur, grow out of control and leave you blaming clients, suppliers or the industry as a whole – which is not to say that there are not problems caused by clients, suppliers or the industry as a whole, just that many are not or if they are can be solved relatively easily.
The biggest issue I deal with pretty much constantly is that of workload. Most freelancers/studio owners face this, you either have not enough work to cover the bills or so much you don’t know where to start and cannot cover it all. I’ve been consistently fortunate in the respect I’ve never really had a point where I’ve had a lack of work (for more than a day or so anyway). Unfortunately the offset of this is that combined with my slightly obsessive disposition I’ve had very little in the way of time off for the last 14 years. When I started out this was not a massive issue, I was ok to work late nights and most weekends, the last year (since my son was born) this has become more of an issue, I don’t necessarily have the long hours available to fit in and my priorities have changed.
Stating the stunningly obvious, the problem with a lack of work is the lack of income that comes with it. As mentioned above this is not a situation I have been in as yet. Ever aware that I inevitably will be one day I do have a basic plan in place for when this arises (although it does need some work). Regardless of how successful you feel you are right now it’s always sensible to be running some form of low level marketing – to keep in practice as much as anything else – and to have a plan in place for when things start to wane.
I’ve been pretty lax for the last decade or so, all of the work we’ve picked up has been through word of mouth so I’ve felt very little necessity to promote. This is bad on two levels, firstly because it means I’ve not got anything in place for when things do slow down but also as I’ve very little control over the direction of my business and effectively get dragged by the tide (more on this another time). I do now have a basic strategy in place for new business finding which I’m hesitant to present until I’ve had a crack at, as may be clear it’s not an area I have any great knowledge of.
There are plenty of articles/books/tutorials out there on business building and I’m not eager to add to them with my unproven technique, as an incredibly basic breakdown my strategy is pretty much:
Both ‘real world’ and social media networking. Nothing more complex than communicating with those in our industry on a regular basis and making ourselves known through general purpose profile raising.
2. Being really quite good at what we do
Obvious? Maybe, maybe not. Just making sure we really do supply the best service we can.
Something we can throw out at prospective clients to show them how absolutely awesome we are. More important than some think, it’s possible to land certain types of jobs with minimal discussion if your portfolio is spanking.
4. Self Initiated Projects
The sort of work I really want us to be doing is not necessarily the sort of work we are doing right now. We are very unlikely to pick up certain types of project if we don’t have a track record with them, rather than bemoan the Catch 22 situation this puts us in we will be doing ‘sample’ projects in these areas for ourselves (NOT for free for anyone, that gives out the very wrong message that we are cheap).
There’s one very important thing to bear in mind when trying to get in new business, especially when things are tight: DON’T PANIC. It’s very hard not to sometimes but as soon as you start on this path you’re going to end up making some horrific mistakes: accepting work you really shouldn’t, dropping your rates, etc.
My speciality is having far more work on than I can possibly handle. At the outset this sounds great and friends look at me like I’m mental when I bemoan having more work on than I can manage, but it can be as dangerous as having not enough to do, if not more so in some ways.
The primary issue with an overwhelming workload (aside from no sleep and an enforced diet of pizza and fried chicken) is ensuring a consistent quality of work. It’s easy to do things well when you have plenty of time and space but as timelines get tighter your ability to keep any eye on the details can drop dramatically. This can lead to unhappy clients, missed deadlines and general frowning all round. The other main business issue is lack of time deadens innovation. While I will accept that innovation can happen under pressurised circumstances often it does not. Rather than looking for fresh approaches to jobs when under pressure, you are more likely to be just knocking them out as quickly as possible using whatever methods you already trust. I find that the biggest breakthrough’s we have had are on projects (personal or paid) where we’ve had plenty of time and space to experiment. Lack of innovation will not necessarily damage your business but it’s not going to help you build your business to the next level.
Most obviously the immediate solution to a hectic workload is to employ more people to deal with it. This is a lovely theory that doesn’t always work out too well. For a small business, taking on salaried staff can be a killer, freelancers are a good solution if you are not in a position to salary staff. Regardless of where your help comes from you’re going to have to get them acquainted with your business practices, clients and projects, this in itself can eat an awful lot of time. The best approach is a little bit of forward planning. Start taking on freelancers when you don’t quite need to, this gives you that space to get to know them properly and work out the best way of working together, then when things kick off you already have the relationship sorted. Importantly don’t treat your freelancers like a commodity, foster a proper working relationship with a selection of freelancers who you will consistently supply work to. Anyone I hire freelance I’d be happy to have as salaried staff (and hopefully one day will).
Ensuring your rates are correct can be a very effective regulator of workload. In times past I’ve ended up with a massive overload of work much of which is low quality* and achieving little other than taking up time that should be spent on other projects. Setting appropriate costs has the positive effect of filtering out the time wasters and the crappy projects which you probably shouldn’t be doing anyway. It’s always good to be a little flexible and I will drop our rates (a little!) for the right project but very rarely and only if I’m 100% sure it’s not going to backfire on me. Often those who barter and knock you down the most will turn out to be the most difficult to deal with in the long run. As a rule it’s better to hold out for the higher paid/more rewarding, and less annoying projects if your situation allows.
Very close to ensuring correct rates, be picky about what sort of projects you accept. When I first started out this would have seemed irresponsible at best, the idea of turning away work is counterintuitive but can make sense. There are certain types of job that we’ve accepted in the past which have not been in line with our business model. Doing the odd bit here and there is fine but these things can snowball and you can end up having to completely redirect your business. This could work out if the new direction is one you are comfortable with and pays the bills well, but if not you need to do something about it. There’s a couple of options here. You can expand your business to include these projects (outsourcing is very much your friend here) in such a manner as to ensure you have the resources to continue pushing in the direction you want to go. My preference is to get to know other agencies who do cover the sorts of projects we would rather avoid. This allows us to redirect the projects elsewhere while keeping the client happy and helping out whoever we pass them onto. Good karma which should hopefully flow back our way in time. Of course there is the fear with clients for whom you do assorted projects that if you pass on one of them they may take everything elsewhere (as has happened to us before), this is a risk that needs to be considered carefully and would be best dealt with by accepting the projects but outsourcing.
Once again stating the obvious an incredibly important aspect of managing workload is effective time management and ensuring you are as organised as possible. An insane amount of time can be wasted by bad business practices, and you probably don’t even know you’re wasting it. I’ve had a degree of success with the Getting Things Done method although I have found a need to revisit it on occasion for a topup. The web is full of advice and applications to help get you organised and there’s absolutely no excuse not to. Regular review of your practices is strongly advised, it’s easy to slip into bad habits especially as your business grows and evolves.
Hopefully this helps to prevent a stress related breakdown for someone! I’d love to know how other small agencies and freelancers deal with long term excessive workloads. Please let me know in the comments below.
Disclaimer – I’m not a sociopath. I have a degree of concern for my fellow man and try and conduct my business in an ethical manner. I fully appreciate that if you take the ‘it’s just business’ point of view to running your commercial affairs you probably have none of the problems above and have slightly scarier solutions if you do.
* Low Quality Work = Work that is unlikely to lead to anything further and whose outcome is something that I wouldn’t want to let anyone know I’ve been involved in. Often happens when a client insists on doing things a certain way (the wrong way) and refuses to accept advice. Previously I would grit my teeth and think of the money, now I’m less inclined.
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