#1 Every day is a learning curve. Or if you’re smart it is. Every day, every project, every client interaction, every cost estimate is an opportunity to see where you did well or, just as likely, where you could do better or work smarter going forward. Starting with #2.
#2 Everything takes longer than you think. E-v-e-ry-thing. Be realistic about the time it will take you to do your job well and allow for that amount of time. If you don’t, and you’re good, you’ll only spend the same amount of time on it anyway but at your own personal cost.
#3 You need to believe in the value of your services before anyone else will. You need to believe in it to the point that you’re prepared to walk away from a client or new business prospect if they don’t want to pay that value. Otherwise, what are you in business for? Many times I have gone in cheap, hoping to secure future business. Other times, the client has tried to negotiate me down in price by dangling the carrot of future business. Until one day it dawned on me: why would I want MORE cut-price work?
#4 It pays to recognise the value of other people’s services. My accountant brought me round to the idea of registering as a limited company rather than a sole trader by promising me that, as a limited company, he could save me more money than his fee. And he delivered. My design team helped me to project a more professional image on paper and online than I ever could have managed myself.
#5 Spreading yourself too thin helps no-one. You mentally and physically exhaust yourself. Your clarity of thinking and quality of work goes awry. And in turn, your clients (the very people you are spreading yourself too thin for) suffer. So recognising when ‘busy’ is bordering on ‘too busy’ is one of the best skills you can develop. See point #6.
#6 You can say ‘no’ and survive. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Then, about a year ago, workload became so intense that I simply had no choice but to say no, albeit very, very reluctantly. On one or two occasions I lost out on the project because the deadline simply couldn’t change, but in many more instances clients did everything they could to rearrange their dates to suit.
#7 Not working can be good for your bottom line. I learned this one the hard way. It’s tempting, when work is plentiful, to just keep going and going, week after week, watching your bottom line creep up, up, up. Especially if you’ve lived through times when work hasn’t been so plentiful. ‘Take it while you can get it’ and all that. But without a break you eventually reach burn out. I did. Time away to relax, have fun, read, watch movies, work out or however you nourish yourself can actually result in you achieving more, to a higher standard, in fewer hours.
#8 Terms and conditions aren’t just for big companies. It’s easy to think of them as needlessly officious things. But the longer I’ve been in business and the more lessons I’ve learned, the easier it is to pinpoint the handful of terms and conditions that I need to make new clients aware of prior to a project beginning. It’s open, it’s honest and it gives them a get-out clause at the very start. And it gives me an insurance policy of sorts.
#9 If you have a bad feeling about something from the start, listen to it. Whether it’s the detail (or lack of it) in a client brief, project timings or someone’s tone when dealing with you, if something sits uncomfortably with you from the start then it’s likely to continue sitting uncomfortably with you throughout. In five years of business I’ve had fewer than five projects go properly t*ts up, but the ones that did? I had a bad feeling about them from the very start. Much as it goes against the grain for any small business owner to decline work, sometimes it’s better for both parties in the long run.
#10 Time flies when you’re having fun. Bringing me round to the biggest life lesson of them all: life is short. So whilst it’s tempting to channel all your time and energy into your job, remember it is only that… a job. Health, family and friends all need your time and energy too. ‘Work to live’ as opposed to ‘live to work’. If you’re really lucky, you get to do a bit of both.
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