Keeping the ‘Self’ in Self-Employed

Recently, a self-employed member of the HOW Mind Your Own Business (MYOB) online discussion group, sent out a question about how to tell her clients that she was adopting shortened summer hours. Her big fear was that she would appear “unavailable” to her clients and therefore lose them to fully staffed agencies with employees at the ready. Many of us offered advice about how to gain time, talk to clients, and set schedules, and it also became a very sobering discussion about how to manage working for ourselves.

All freelancers or agency owners have been there. The moment you walk out the door to begin your own gig, you say to yourself, “I’m doing it my way, not their way, from now on.” Some of us spend the first month in our pajamas because we can and then realize—when we’re rushing around to shower for an impromptu client meeting—that we need to get up and be dressed in the morning. Some work at night because that’s when we work best, only to discover our clients are calling at 8:30 a.m. and interrupting REM sleep.

So we adjust. And over time, some of us find ourselves working more hours than at a paid job, over-promising to clients out of fear of irregular income, or forgetting that freelancing means we are our own boss. So what do we do? How do we keep our sense of self, enjoy our freedom from the bonds of a regular job, and supply our clients with quality service and enough of our time to keep them working with us. Here is a sampling of the comments from our chat group.

Just Jump In

If you want to take a swim one hot summer afternoon … jump in. But get yourself set up with a BlackBerry with the ability to check emails and be sure to check it every 30 minutes so you can at least respond to your client. All they really need is to feel comfortable and assured that they’ve been heard and that their needs are going to be taken care of. They don’t need to know you’re in your bikini. You can simply say “I am not in my office right now, but as soon as I get back in, which should be in X-minutes/hours, I will get right on that for you.”

I might admit that the idealism/romanticism of owning our own business is at times, well, just that. Yes, we can make doctor/hair/dentist appointments during the days when plenty of our friends and family members are stuck at their 9-to-5 jobs. We can take lunch whenever we want; we can wear whatever we want. We can paint our walls any darn color we want. But it all comes down to the fact that we’re the Big Cheese of our one-man shops.

Finally, let go of any romanticism about what having your own business truly means that you may (please note I say may) have picked up somewhere along the way. It is hard work, but it can be rewarding if you balance it right.
Lynn Cormack, Lookatme

Taking Your Time

It’s totally conceivable that you, or someone from a bigger firm, could be in a meeting and unavailable for two to three hours. Having said that, I think common sense should come in to play. If I have a job at the crucial stage and going to press to meet a deadline, I don’t take off for a few hours. But if I know that things are in general production mode and not in urgent stages, I’ve been known to do personal things for a few hours here and there.

I’ve found that if you develop solid relationships with your clients, they’re willing to wait for you. The stronger the relationship, the more reliant they become on you (i.e.: it would be more work for them to switch and re-educate a new design firm). And why would they, when they’re happy with your work? The key is to try to work with clients who appreciate you and aren’t the type of clients that want “instant everything.” Do you really want those types of clients anyway? I know I don’t.
—Tracey Watt, principal, RAVE! DESIGN

Controlling Your Availability

The more available you make yourself the more urgent matters (which often do not end up being urgent) arise. My biggest concern about anything in my business is that I don’t want a client to ever say “well, if you had employees, you could do xyz and the work would not stop when you need to be in a meeting” or whatever. I have enough work for more than one person, but I just don’t want to deal with those issues right now, if ever.
—Colleen Gratzer, principal/graphic designer, Gratzer Graphics LLC

Working for You

We’re here for our clients and we provide them a service. But I work for me. Who is in charge of defining the type of business, hours, work, clients, services and benefits that you provide? If it’s always someone else, then you must question why you’re working for yourself. If I wanted needy, hour-hogging clients and a schedule that drove me to work 60 or 70 hours a week, I’d go back to work for others. Take charge of your own business and set your own priorities.

That being said, you do need to be kind, honest and sensible about your decisions with your clients. Those clients who will stand by you as you create a work/life balance that fits you, will be the ones you have wanted all along. And you’ll be surprisingly more productive. I’ve taken a summer and a winter vacation every year. My soul needs it, and watching me go on vacation two- or three-weeks a year is what they would get if I had their account at an agency. I give them ample time to prepare for my departure, and usually my clients are taking vacations too. I come back recharged and work harder for them.
—Karen Chase, owner/creative director, 224 Design

Want more information on keeping sane in the solo world? There are many books out there on being your own boss, including:

Secrets of Self-Employment (Working from Home) by Paul and Sarah Edwards
Stop Living Your Job, Start Living Your Life: 85 Simple Strategies to Achieve Work/Life Balance by Andrea Molloy

Check out HOW’s new Creative Freelancer Conference, coming in August 2008!