After years of doubting and deliberating, I took the plunge and resigned from a good job that I loved to become self-employed. I’d always intended to be a freelancer, but the timing had never been right – too much debt, too much responsibility, not enough time. What it really came down to was that I was scared – scared of not earning money, scared of not getting clients; scared of failure. It’s fair enough, I think – after all, it’s a scary thing. When you’re told your whole life that you should get a steady job with a good salary and a pension, giving all that up (especially when you’re perfectly happy in your job) is… Well, nuts.
Despite all the fear and my logical brain telling me not to do it, I took the leap and started Tell Lucy officially on 1 November 2014. It’s been a short but steep learning curve so far – here are four things I’ve learnt in my first four weeks of self-employment.
I have to find work.
In a ‘normal’ job there’s no shortage of work – in previous roles I often found myself overwhelmed, sometimes even resorting to the dreaded ‘that’s not my job’ response. Not any more: rather than turning work away I’m chasing after it. I’ve been lucky so far, as I’ve had lots of interesting projects fly my way, but I’m sure this won’t always be the case. It may seem like an obvious aspect to freelancing (seriously, Lucy, didn’t you expect this?) and it is. But when you’ve spent your entire career being advised to get better at saying no, it feels more than a little unnatural to actively seek the yeses.
My plan: Before I got started, my mentor told me to say yes to everything in the first year. I know this is great advice, so that’s exactly what I’m doing. The trick is that I’m setting up opportunities I know will be enjoyable and rewarding – not just financially, but also intellectually and even spiritually.
Today I volunteered at IMC Weekendschool – an organisation that provides additional learning opportunities for underprivileged kids aged 10-14. I taught them about how to give good presentations, and I did it in Dutch. This was a huge challenge for me; one that has helped me get over a language hurdle and also test out some training material.
Not knowing what’s coming next might be scary, but it’s also exciting: there are so many opportunities out there, for those with an open mind.
2. I can’t delegate.
I was never the best at delegating when I was a manager, but when it comes to tasks and responsibilities, it’s a big change going from an enormous matrix-structured multinational company to a one-man-band setup. I get to spend my time writing and editing, which is amazing. But I’m also responsible for business development, finance, marketing, risk analysis, administration, office management and even catering.
Delegation isn’t just about handing a piece of work over to a member of your team; it’s also about making sure the right people handle the right tasks. It’s amazing how much you take for granted when delegation is automatically available as part of a well-oiled business machine. We’ve all complained about systems (don’t get me started on Oracle) and workflows, but at least they exist in a big company. They might be rusty sometimes, but they work.
As a fledgling freelancer, I don’t have an automatic system for invoice generation. My electricity and heating bills aren’t covered for me. And I don’t have a subsidized café downstairs. I’m not the best at administration or office management or cooking (seriously, ask my husband).
My plan: I have no intention of wrapping up my new business in red tape, but I do want to simplify things as much as possible, and make sure I’m delegating enough to allow me to spend my time on the things I’m good at. I have an accountant, who is excellent at what he does. I have an invoicing system, and some simple spreadsheets to help me manage my projects. It’s not everything, but it’s a start, and it frees up my time to concentrate on writing.
3. I’m in control of the timetable.
In some of my previous jobs, it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend 25 hours a week in meetings – usually at the request of other people, for their projects, deadlines and objectives. This is one of the ways a big company functions well – meetings enable collaboration, brainstorming, and cooperation – and it’s also one of the biggest time sinks imaginable. (Microsoft doesn’t help, of course, by making default meeting durations 30 or 60 minutes; whatever you plan to achieve in an hour can almost certainly be achieved in 45 minutes.)
The time I’ve spent in meetings over the last four weeks has decreased dramatically, from 25 hours a week to less than five. Of course, if a client wants to meet to discuss something that’s exactly what we’ll do – it’s almost always useful and sometimes essential. But all the supplementary meetings, the requests for input and ideas, for feedback and approvals, have disappeared, replaced by glorious time. Time to write, time to think, time to be creative.
There is, however, a slight danger associated with free time (for me at least): I’ve started (or re-started) a heap of creative projects, ranging from a series of knitting patterns (which will be so much fun) to an illustrated kids’ book (which I hope will make a splash next Christmas). These projects might well be successful and even lucrative, but they do threaten to steal time away from more sensible and fundamental activities, like approaching potential clients.
My plan: I love interesting projects, and one of the reasons I wanted to go freelance was to free up time to do things like come up with fun knitting patterns. But they shouldn’t come at the expense of important activities that are vital to the success of my future business. So I’m making myself a schedule. It’s not set in stone, but I do need a good reason to deviate from it. When my work is done and my pitches sent, I get to pick up my knitting needles.
4. I’m living my dream.
Cheesy? Yes. True? Absolutely.
A few weeks ago I came across a piece of paper folded up inside an envelope in a folder in a drawer (it sounds like I was trying to hide it, but I think my random bouts of organization got it there by accident). It was a list of things I wanted to do before I turned 30. I must have written it when I was about 24 or 25, and I can vaguely remember wanting to achieve some of the things on the list (like getting my motorbike license… still not done). Some of the things I’d written down were hilarious (‘become a magician’ had my stepsons in stitches), and some were surprisingly reflective of my life today (I’m half way to crossing off ‘run a marathon’). But one really stood out to me: ‘be your own boss’.
I don’t remember specifically wanting to be self-employed at that time, but it was clearly on my mind, and my wish list. I’ve since worked for a society, a university, an NGO and a multinational, and loved all of my jobs. But being my own boss has always been somewhere in the back of my mind – what would it be like? Would I be happy? Would it be what I’d always imagined?
Yes, and more. I forget every morning for a few seconds, and then enjoy the sensation of a smile creeping across my face when I remember what I do for a living and who I work for. I’m certain this isn’t just because I’m freelancing, it’s because I’m doing what I love; living my own dream. The fear that held me back for so long was strong, but it was no match for the joy I feel every day.
Bonus lesson 5. The more attention you give a cat, the more attention it wants.
Seriously. They’ve moved into my office and started speaking English.