It was a about a month and a half ago that I walked out of my day job without another cubicle, desk, or any other office environment waiting for me. March 9th, 2015 is a day that I will commit to memory with the same zeal that I use for my wife’s birthday and our anniversary. There are honestly very few other dates that I know by heart.
Since that day, I can say with pride that my business has grown. Now that I’m able to to dedicate my full attention to providing for my clients and growing my business, I have been able to grow faster than I thought I would. I expected my initial client base to be able to carry me through a growth period as I ramped up. Instead, I’ve learned to incorporate new work into my existing structure very quickly and have, at times, even been forced to turn down new work simply for a lack of available time.
I suppose that there are worse problems to have.
That said, the past month has not been without its lessons. I’d like to believe that they were lessons that weren’t lost on me. I’ve internalized each of them as I’ve realized what I did, didn’t do, and what could have been done or handled better.
Here are a few of them.
1. Develop an organization system and stick to it. This one has probably been the hardest. I’m keeping track of more work, deadlines, and tasks than I ever have in my entire professional life. Up until this point, organization was simple: Get up, go to work, get through the grind, go home. The need for independent thought was limited at best and my success or failure at adhering to deadlines meant very little in the grand scheme of things – mostly because there weren’t any deadlines to adhere to.
Being someone who is contacted and tasked to resolve specific problems is an entirely different ball game. My worst professional nightmare now consists of receiving an email from a client asking for a promised piece of work and realizing that I haven’t even typed the first letter of it.
I now rely on a group of web applications as well as a main spreadsheet to track what work is due to what client and when that work has been promised. I so desperately want to find a “one size fits all” solution for this but, as of yet, can’t. I’m willing to pay. This isn’t a matter of not being able to find the right free solution to my problem – I can’t find the right solution, period.
For now, Frankenorganizer (as I’ve come to know my system) gets the job done.
Toggl handles my general time tracking. It’s a well designed, easy to use web app (with desktop and mobile apps available as well) that allows me to see how much time I’m actually investing in various client tasks. While the time tracking is great, Toggl really shines in its reporting. I can, at a moment’s notice, pull a report that details how my time was spent on a given day, week, month, or any other custom time period. It’s invaluable.
Timely handles my weekly scheduling. I function best when I have a feel for the big picture and Timely allows me to schedule out my week from a 20,000 foot view. Where Toggl focuses on the minute-by-minute, Timely takes each day and allows you to schedule chunks of time during that day for your various tasks. Timely’s not concerned with the actual times involved (i.e., you started working on X at 9:34 a.m.) but instead says “ok, you have a 2 hour chunk scheduled to work on X, then 45 minutes dedicated to Y. Z has a 3.5 hour chunk.”
Values per hour can be associated with your projects and you can see the financial value of your week as a result.
Timely can be used to track your time but the resulting reporting does not detail your start and stop times. For some clients, that could be problematic. Of course, you could always go back and record the times yourself, but Timely costs $14 a month. You shouldn’t have to use a workaround for something you’re paying $14 a month to use. Timely’s reports are also not nearly as in-depth as Toggl’s.
Still, the ability to lay my weeks out in front of me and make sure that each client’s work has been addressed makes Timely worth the cost for me. It’s more of an insurance policy than anything. But, if an app came along that combined Toggl’s minute-by-minute tracking and their amazingreporting with Timely’s ability to let me map out my week, I’d jump in a heartbeat. Or, you know, Timely could just roll Toggl’s functions into their app……(if anyone from Timely happens to be reading)
Todoist is my general to-do list manager. This one doesn’t need much explaining. I pay for it because I like the interface and had, in the past, experienced issues with Wunderlist not syncing or forgetting that I’d added notes or other components to various to-do list items. That simply can’t happen when you’re tracking multiple deliverables across multiple clients, plus your own personal to-do items.
I use a Google Spreadsheet for the “state of my business.” Currently active clients, who they are, how we met, what I’ve been tasked with, when it was promised, and that project’s current status all have a column. It’s old school but I have yet to find a “project management” solution that gives me this information at a glance.
If someone would build an app that combines all of the things that make up Frankenorganizer into one single application I would be your customer for life.
2. Take yourself, and your business, seriously. You are now a business. This isn’t something that you’re doing for side money and it’s not a hobby. You’re not moonlighting. It is a full time job.
Your ability to provide your share of your household income now depends not only on your ability to provide quality work to your clients but also your ability to manage your business properly, handle its affairs, and get paid.
Remember that your time is valuable. Every minute you spend working on something is time that you could be spending working on something else. Is the thing that you’re doing right now a good use of your time? Does the person you’re doing it for value that time? If you can answer both of those questions with a yes then you’ve found the sweet spot. If no, then it’s time to change things up.
3. Don’t set your initial prices low “just to get your name out there.” This is a hole that will take a very long time to dig yourself out of. It may seem like a good idea at the beginning, especially when you lack the portfolio and track record to justify your rates. But, stick with it, prove that value to your initial clients, and resist the temptation to drop your rates to build a client base.
Why? Because eventually you’re going to raise your rates for new clients. You’ll have developed a portfolio and a track record of success and you’ll tell yourself that, from that point forward, you’re worth a particular rate. This is now the rate that new clients will pay.
The problem is that your older clients will still keep bringing work to you at your initial rate. Why wouldn’t they? They’re getting an incredible value. So now you have to either:
a) continue to do their work at a lower rate, constantly thinking about how much more you could be making if you were working on someone else’s work or if you’d just brought this client on at a higher rate to begin with;
b) have a conversation with that client about raising your rate for new work and risk an otherwise healthy relationship (although, since you started it by undervaluing your work and they’re simply using that to their advantage, you kind of have to question whether the relationship is healthy to begin with).
Instead of dealing with all of this, determine what you believe your actual value is before you start working and use that rate to build your business. The market will decide if you’re worth it or not.
4. Contracts for everyone. You need to love contracts as much as Oprah loves giving away cars. “You get a contract! You get a contract! You get a contract! Everyone gets a contract!!!!!”
No matter how great the initial stages of a new business relationship seem to be, there is alwaysthe potential for that relationship to go south. Scope creep can become an issue. The client’s demands can change in the middle of a project. Terms of payment can become an issue. Anything and everything that can go wrong can go wrong.
People generally don’t enter romantic relationships and get married while planning to get divorced. At the same time, people don’t start great business relationships and assume that it’s all just going to go to hell one day.
A contract is your only protection. I like OurDeal for my contracts. They have a great library, really nice tracking, and they provide the ability to electronically sign the contract for both parties. They’re priced really well for the service they provide and even though they’re not your own personal lawyers on retainer, their contracts seem to provide ample protections for both the client and the freelancer.
5. Your view of the world around you will change.
The line between business and personal will blur.
You’ll start to wonder how you spent so many years playing by the rules that everyone told you that you had to follow but no one ever really explained why.
You’ll look at people stuck in the daily 9-5 grind and realize that your biggest fear is now having to become one of them again.
Weekends will cease to have meaning. There are simply days that you work and days that you work less. Days that you don’t work at all are rare.
You will become exhilarated at the fact that your destiny, income, and career path are now 100% in your hands. That same fact will terrify you when you start thinking that you’re not making the most of it.