One year in business, happy birthday to Make the Break

I’ll admit I hesitated a little before putting this one together. However, if this helps even one person who is thinking about taking the jump then that’s a good thing. 

So in the spirit of JFDI, here’s what I’ve learned from my first 12 months running my own consulting business.

1. Place value on time

I’m going to try to keep the cliché level as low as possible throughout but this has to be the place to start. In the early days of a solo service business, time is everything. I’ve learned to treat my time as a commodity and to be very careful about how it is used (and by whom!)

For sure, there’s going to be some evolution here as the business develops. A year in and I’m thinking about options to put better resource around me. But in year one, unsurprisingly, it has been me doing the majority of the heavy lifting.

Obvious statement is obvious: don’t let other people waste my time. 

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of going beyond giving a bit of help to putting in half a day gratis. This is especially hard if clients are also friends. It’s important to keep perspective and charge the right amount for the work being done.

There’s a second aspect to this which is all about holding myself to account. I’ve had to become utterly focused, nae, ruthless about how I use my time. It’s probably as much rooted in being a Dad to two young kids (plus lockdown) as it is being a business owner. 

Basically, I’ve had to get my sh*t together and quickly. The quarter is planned out, the week’s priorities are pulled together ahead of time and every client has their own trello from backlog to release. Fritter away time? Only got myself to blame.

How it started

2. Eat the frog

Again, I realise the cliché-klaxon may be sounding but I do believe this one. On a given day, do the hard jobs first. Make that call that could be a bit bumpy. Say ‘no’ to that person. Give feedback that the design draft isn’t to brief.

Do it now. Do it calmly. Do it succinctly. 

3. Give the imposter the heave-ho

This was a biggie for me. If you are reading this because you are thinking about setting up in business then know this: 

You know more than you think you do, what you know is valuable, other people want to hear your knowledge and they will pay you for it because it is worthwhile.

It’s not the M.O. of the British psyche to be overly bullish about our skills (yes even sales people) but take this, you do know your stuff. Imparting your experience to help others is a good set up.

4. Set goals

Goal setting is something I do for clients. I have to do it for myself.

For example, I set the modest goals in year one of:

  • working with clients I like
  • doing enjoyable work
  • being on client projects 200 days a year
  • delivering on project goals
  • generating more profit than my old salary

5. Get an Accountant

Absolutely do this. Without an accountant some of my (valuable!) time would have been sucked away into both admin tasks and financial hand wringing. I didn’t want that distraction. Having a good accountant takes all of that potential work and stress off my desk and frees up focus on delivering for clients. 

My accountant has also helped me build a simple tech stack: Starling, Receipt Bank, Xero. I would not change out of any of those three now. He’s also advised on how to correctly take advantage of the benefits of being director from sorting out salary/dividends, through to accessing benefits like tax relief for working from home and stuff like that.

The costs are less than half a day a month working on client work. Best money I spend every month bar none. (And I include the monthly coffee purchase in that.)

6. Carve out a financial runway

I guess this one is more of a personal thing. I don’t view myself as particularly happy with large risk, especially at the moment with a young family. When I set up, I wanted just a little financial buffer so that I didn’t have it gnawing away in the background for at least a couple of months.

I sold both our cars, sold some kit, pulled down our ISA and took a mortgage holiday. In the process I knew that I had three months to make this work.

Looking back, that’s probably minimum sensible window. Spend a month finding work, do a month’s work and just maybe get paid the first invoice 30 days later. There’s three months, done.

7. It won’t go as you expect

This is definitely true. What I thought would happen, didn’t, and vice versa.

In the first month, a potential client booking, I thought was pretty much a dead-cert turned into nothing. While on the other hand, a chance encounter at a small local event just before the lock at the start of last year has turned into a major engagement.

I guess there’s an element of circle of influence playing out for real and gauging how much is right to push against to keep on track.

8. Take time to work on the business

This is both huge and at first may feel a little odd if the career to date has always been a cog in a bigger machine. I pre-book at least one day a month to work on the business not in the business. Frankly, that’s not enough time and it’s something I need to improve on.

Working on the business is so important. It gives me that chance to take stock, both to think through ideas for client work and make my own new business calls but also to keep a hand on working towards the vision for the business AND for myself.

I suspect in a year’s time I’ll look back at this and add 8.b – get a business coach. This is something I’m sorting out at the moment.

I enjoy those days every month. I look forward to them. I’ve developed a bit of a ritual that, ‘BD days’ as they are in the diary, always feature a bacon roll. Client work is exhausting, it’s different being employed – it’s full gas all the time.

How it’s going

9. Take time off

Again, another one that is so important and also so easy to let slip. With the ongoing global sitch it’s been very tempting just to keep on working, just in case things go awry. But it’s impossible to be full gas day after day after day.

I don’t buy into hustle club. This up at 5am, crushing it on a daily basis stuff. (If I’m up at 5am it’s because I’m changing a nappy). Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work, there’s been some long days, some weekends – hey I’m writing this on a Sunday. But I’ve also taken time for the family, been out on my bike most Sunday mornings and had plenty of mid week social coffees back in those halcyon days when such treats were allowed.

Hustle club is one way of doing things, it’s not the only way. What’s more, after many years working agency/publisher side, I’ve witnessed the work antics of hundreds of people. There’s many folks I hugely respect, admire and look up to. The others, to whom I wish all the best, but I’d quite happily not work with again. Among all those people I have yet to meet anyone who is putting in the massive hours week after week after week after week and being efficient and effective with it. I’m a great believer in sprint and rest.

Of course, time off is easier when there’s money coming in. Which leads me to…

10. Charge more

Pricing, what a thorny subject. What I have learned?

I’ve learned that its time well spent going out and finding out the market rate. Speak to peers, speak to those out there doing it and ask for some help. The market rate for your skillset may even come back as a pleasant surprise.

Easy to write. Harder to do. Charge more.

11. Delegate. Yes delegate, even in a one person business

Right from the early days, I’ve dipped into my network and built a small number of really tight relationships with people I trust who operate on a freelance basis to help me deliver client work.

From copywriting to marketing campaign delivery through to design, back end development, front end development and right through to brand work – there’s been a steady flow of work between this group. It would not have been possible (or a good idea) to do it all myself.

12. Don’t go off brand

Oh this one is interesting. In the early days, I had the offer of some contracts that weren’t really ‘on-brand’ for Make the Break. At the time, they were very tempting, I wasn’t fully booked and it was money on the table. It felt like a difficult decision at the time to say no. In retrospect, it feels like the right decision – it wasn’t core, it would have been time consuming and probably not massively fun for anyone. I’m glad I said no.

Tricky one this one, and trap that still lurks out there in year two.

13. Use Slack (#noadd)

For me, Slack has been a total and utter game changer when working across several clients. I’ve used Slack for years but never really used it hard until the last 12 months. Slack has been my not-so-secret weapon. Now, every client I work with is on Slack and the central communication is done via that channel. It’s just the business, I love it. It saves so much time, especially with freelancers who work different hours.

14. Buy cheap, buy twice

When it comes to kit, every time I’ve bought the cheap option, I’ve ended up buying the more expensive one later. The £200 chromebook that couldn’t really cope with Zoom and other tabs open at the same time or the £20 wireless head that had the worst directional mic ever. You get the picture. If it’s going to be in use all day, every day then get good kit. Just do this. The cost will be long forgotten in a few months time.

15. Going WordPress? Get FlyWheel (#alsonoadd)

A final one which is more personal and may seem slightly odd at first. I’m including this because once again at the weekend FlyWheel has saved me potential pain by solving an insecurity on a 3rd party plugin on a client site. 

As part of setting up, a website may well be involved. If that website is going to be WordPress then I recommend (with both hands in the air) using Flywheel as a managed hosting service. 

Yes, it’s more $ than the average but not by much really. And yes it’s mega secure and plenty quick – but that’s not why I recommend them. FlyWheel’s customer service is second to none. They have helped me sort out a whole heap of stuff (for much of which they could have said, you’re on your own sonny) which has in turn helped me to protect my time.

One year in business, there you have it

That’s my ‘one year in business, what have I learned post.’ As I said at the start if this helps one person with their thinking about going it alone then I’ve achieved by sharing this.

The one bit I probably haven’t said but should is despite the ups and downs (and the general crapness of 2020) I have enjoyed those first 12 months and achieved my goals. That was a pretty amazing feeling. And I managed to get us some household wheels again – hey, it may only be a 10 year old Skoda with 100k miles on the clock but it’s ours and it’s a start. 

If you’re reading this and thinking of taking the jump, give me a shout, happy to chat.

Here’s to the next 12 months.