I received such wonderful messages about my original post on self-employment that I wanted to follow up with more tips.
Around this time of year last year, I first got an inkling that I wanted to work for myself. I knew how to work for others--interview, job acceptance, review, promotion--but I just couldn't make myself do it anymore. Getting laid off after years of working in a dysfunctional organization turned me off to the normal 9-to-5 life. It seemed far healthier to put my labor into a company I owned that reflected my values and directly benefited me.
It hasn't been easy. Every day is a physical, personal, and professional boot camp. I love what I do, and I'm thrilled to help organizations solve their archives and records management problems.
I have faith that I am creating something bigger than myself and putting good into the world. I've collected some of the lessons I learned so far.
Avoid canceling calls or meetings whenever possible. When I have a lot to do, I always feel the need to cancel my events but I don't. Building my business doesn't stop just because I have deadlines. My word is everything, so if I say I'm going to do something, I am. Canceling means I have to reschedule the call or meeting, and I'll inconvenience the other person.
The only time I canceled a meeting was because I had been in the ER until 3 am with my husband when he dislocated his shoulder. Even that was done with reluctance.
When someone cancels on me, unless it wildly inconveniences me, I feel joyous!
Embrace the Woo Woo
I like doing magical things (using the tarot, burning sage, and lighting candles) because they are a cheap, easy way to self-soothe.
It's not necessarily that I believe in the power of tarot cards, but I find that they are so open to interpretation that they are helpful in getting me to tap into my feelings. When I feel the need, I pull a card from a deck, and check out the meaning at Biddy Tarot. Tarot helps me listen to my intuition.
Apologize Without Excuses
When you're working for a client and mess up, apologize without excuses.
For example, I was photo editing for a client who was writing a book about art conservation. I often had to secure permissions of photographs of paintings before or after restoration phases. As you can imagine, it was sometimes hard to determine the correct phase. For two images, I got the wrong ones. My client was lovely about it, but I felt awful. My first inclination was to write an email justifying my mistakes. I realized the best, easiest, and most professional solution was to apologize for the mistake and offer a remedy--the time it took to correct the mistake was free of charge, of course.
"I'm sorry, and here's how I'll fix it" is all you need to say.
Your Clients' Finances are Their Business
One of the best pieces of advice I received early on in consulting is not to worry about my client's finances. Clients find me because they are already motivated by a problem they are trying to solve. One assumes that they have the means to pay me as well.
I once gave a quote for a project that I was worried was too high. The client accepted it without pause. I later met with them in their finely appointed home so my money worries were completely unjustified.
If a client is unhappy with your prices, they will let you know. I've been lucky enough to have clients that accept my quotes. I offer a competitive rate and a lot of value. In time, I've been getting more comfortable quoting prices because I know I do excellent work. The first client is yourself!
I tend to be straightforward in my emails, so I make it a point to be enthusiastic. Get excited about your project. Let your clients know that you are thrilled they contacted you and hired you. Use exclamation points in emails! Cheer on the phone! Wouldn't you rather work with someone that is delighted to work with you rather than someone who is even measured?
Don't Price Yourself Too Early
Pricing projects takes time. You want to work on a series of calls or meetings, building up a number of small yeses. When the fee comes up too early, it's a bad sign. I usually hold off until I have more information.
Even when the price is out there, you may not agree. Instead, say that you would really like to work with them and you're sure you can agree on something that makes sense for you both. By the time the money is mentioned they will have gotten to know you well enough that they will want to work with you. It's just a matter of explaining how you determined the amount, and they will most likely agree because they understand the value they are getting with the cost.
If you are bidding on a project where you think that the other quotes will be similar, what additional value can you offer? Remember that clients buy for value not cost.
When you work by yourself, time becomes valuable. You can make decisions easily, solve crises right away, and whip up a proposal in no time. You have to understand that your clients can't move so quickly. I can write a proposal in an hour, but the client may not be able to sign off on it for weeks.
I'm also getting better at adding time to project schedules. I know I can finish a project in two weeks, for example, but not if I have to pause my work to wait for supplies or resources from my client.
I also routinely add 30 minutes to whatever my travel time estimation is; I'd rather get to my appointment 15 minutes early than have to flag down a taxi because the subways are delayed.
My work time is different now too and out-of-sync with my 9-to-5 clients. I usually work from about 12 pm to 7-11 pm. I avoid sending late night emails because it makes it seem like I'm burning the midnight oil. Instead, if I'm working late, I draft important emails and send them when I first wake up. (I used to have a boss that routinely emailed at 2 am, and it made me worry about her!).
I can attest that time seems the slowest when you are waiting for your final invoice to be paid!
No Gods, No Masters
You are the subject matter expert in your business.
When I first started working for myself, I bought classes from two well-known online course sellers (whom I won't name, but you may have heard of them). I thought they could provide the answers for me, but the courses were overpriced and the content under-delivered. The experience made me feel ripped off, and there's no way I want to mimic their techniques and make my clients feel icky too. I imagine that most online classes are this way, and I’m glad I discovered this expensive lesson early rather than later.
I’ve also been approached by people who have offered to open doors for me and to introduce me to people in the field and big clients. I’m wary of that too because when people want to help you, they do. They help you, quickly and quietly, because it’s the right thing to do, it makes them feel good, and they like you. They don’t make a big fanfare of it like these guys did, implying that you might owe them something in return.
I’ll add here that these eager helpers were all white, older, heterosexual men. While no one acted like Harvey Weinstein, there was an unmistakable sleazy vibe. Yes, there are creeps too in the higher echelons of the library and archives field!
When I told a friend about what happened during a recent occurrence, he offered these encouraging words:
Remember Margot, you have done and are doing great things with your work with legacies via personal and institutional archives. You are an author, corporation owner, and entrepreneur and are highly educated. Remind XXX that you already have a “service” and do not need to establish one...Don’t let someone try to create and sell to you what you already are!
In short—you are the expert. Don’t give predatory people any mind, and know that the majority of people are good and will help you if they can.
One of my insights of accepting myself through self-employment is to also accept my awkwardness. Over the years, people have pointed out my character flaws in some not-so-nice ways. Part of being awkward is that you know you're being awkward, but you don't know how to fix it! If I say something now that sounds silly, I just laugh it off and continue talking. Most people are gracious when you misspeak. Anyone else is an insecure jerk.
Work Never Ends, but Your Life Does
There will always be work to do: writing, business development, networking, marketing, client work, administrative work, and personal work. Self-employment allows me to take advantage of opportunities that pop up like a long, leisurely lunch with friends. Sure, I could've continued my current project during the time. The work would still be there, but that lunch wasn't. I can take time off in the middle of the day as needed, but it just might mean that I have to work longer hours the next day.
If you're self-employed, what tactics do you use to get the best of yourself? If you hire consultants (especially in the information sector), how can we serve you better?
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