Even though I had been freelancing part time for years before I finally took the full-time plunge, several things that I didn’t expect caught me off guard not long after I started my business. Two are particularly noteworthy. One was a pleasant surprise, but the other was a shock. Here they are. Consider yourself warned. The Good: My opinions and advice became more valuable – My last real job was a relatively high-profile one for a company that was a major player in the same industry where I launched my freelance writing business.
When I jumped into full-time freelance writing 25 years ago, I hoped to make a career of it, but I still had my doubts. To hedge my bets, I was helping a friend get a new magazine off the ground, a job that took about a week per month. He wanted me onboard as editor once the cash flow improved, and I viewed it as a good fallback if the writing thing didn’t work out.
But within three months, I was hooked. The freelance writing lifestyle was so addictive I vowed to do everything I could to make a living at it. I knew then I was never going to punch a timeclock at the magazine or anywhere else for that matter.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, I sure made a lot of mistakes when I started as a full-time freelance writer, but I learned from every one of them. On the plus side, however, I also made some really smart decisions about how to run my business in those early days. Most of them have stuck with me through to today, and I have no doubt they played a big part in surviving the first few years.
Here are five smart ideas for starting your own business:
Focus on Honing Business Skills – The smartest decision I made was to spend as much time as possible sharpening my business skills.
Fifteen years ago, I lost two of my biggest clients in a span of about two months. Together, they accounted for nearly 80% of my income. That was scary. But I didn’t panic. Instead, I devised a strategy to make up for the lost revenue.
Let me digress for a moment to define ‘big client.’ It doesn’t matter if a client is worth $10,000 or $100,000 per year, they are big if they account for more than about 20% of your annual revenue.
OK, back to my story. In an ideal world, I would have simply replaced the two lost clients with two more of the same size.
In my first week of college, the Freshman Composition professor asked the class to take out sheets of paper and write honest critiques of our own writing styles. Being a complete smartass, I started my essay with, “I use more clichés than you can shake a stick at!” My classmates and I had a good laugh about it because we all knew clichés are the crutch of a lazy writer.
At a recent writers’ conference, someone asked how you know if you’re ready to become a professional freelancer writer.
There are really two ways to answer the question, one relates to writing skill and the other to financial situation. In future podcasts, I’ll talk to other writers about when they knew their skills were sufficient to freelance full time, but today I look at the financial considerations I made before starting my writing business 25 years ago.
Talk about a blog topic that I can milk forever. Needless to say, I made lots of mistakes when I started my freelance writing business 25 years ago – but to my credit – I made most of them only once. I learned from my own mistakes and those of my fellow freelancers. Whenever possible, I shared tales of woe, as well as triumphs, with other writers. And in that spirit, I pass along these insights of the mistakes you should avoid on your journey to success.
Ridiculously Low Prices – People will always tell you if your prices are too high, but they seldom let you know they are too low. The problem with low prices is potential clients won’t take you seriously or will assume your skills match your rates. Or worse, you will get work but not be able to survive on the money you make.
When I talk to writing groups about what it takes to start a freelance writing business, one of my favorite visualization exercises goes like this: I ask them to close their eyes and imagine sitting in their car in the driveway at home. I tell them to visualize driving to the store. After a pause, I ask how they are doing. Most are still sitting in the driveway because I didn’t tell them which store.
Ok, drive to the grocery store, I tell them. Many imagine driving from their home but get stuck at the big intersection on the edge of their neighborhood. Why? Because they can turn right to Safeway or left to Whole Foods. Once I get even more specific about which grocery store, they can usually drive there easily.