Five things I’ve learned during five years in business

I swear I'm not a slow learner. I just keep learning the same lessons over and over again.

Every year, I have the best intentions to celebrate my business’ birthday in some fashion. Every year, I remember two weeks too late. Triggers & Sparks is basically my neglected child. I suppose that might explain why every now and again, it throws temper tantrums.

There are a number of anniversaries I could celebrate—the day I left my full-time job, or the day I was first paid for work, but this one falls nicely in the middle and is simple enough to remember: by sheer coincidence, the date on my official business registration is 06.06.06. While I’m neither religious or satanistic, I do believe in serendipity, and thought a pattern of numbers that has such impact on people could only be a good sign. Next year will mark my official six-year anniversary. Maybe if I set an alarm for it now, I’ll actually remember to break out the champagne and fireworks when it rolls around.

Alright, so I did throw a birthday party in early June, but I must have been so distracted with celebrating human birthdays that I totally forgot about my poor little business.

I’ve learned a lot since I built my first “professional” website—obviously—in trade for a beautiful bicycle that was stolen about ten minutes after I got it. Here are the most important things.

1. Never say no. Instead, say “expensive”.

This flies in the face of everything that everyone says about being a freelancer, but I stick by it, and it’s worked quite nicely for me. If someone comes to me with a project that sounds boring, tedious, or generally awful, I won’t say “no, I won’t do that” unless I know I’m not capable of seeing the project through to its completion well. I’ll just say “sure, I can do that” and quote a nice high figure. That way, if the client balks at the price and tells me they can’t afford it, nobody’s lost out—it’s basically like I’ve said no. However, if they say yes, I’ll proceed with the project and be well-compensated for whatever additional frustrations or tediums come along with the project.

This approach may sound mean, but it works. It also means that sometimes I can charge less for the projects that are going to be more fun, but may not have as large a budget. Of course, this only works so well because I abandoned hourly billing for almost all projects and switched to a flat-rate, which has been a major blessing. And switching to flat-rate only worked once I’d been doing this for long enough to be able to tell how long certain tasks take, which took at least a year.

2. Stop working 18 hour days.

This is a constant process for me. My five months in South America helped me enormously with my workaholicism. I actually find it challenging to work weekends now, and I usually only work around ten hours a day—sometimes even less!

For years, I’d to work every single day, from the moment I woke in the morning until the wee hours of the night. This felt normal, after all—when I was in school, I was always working as well, and even when I was working, I was doing freelance work after getting home. I’ve always been like this—I have a lot of energy and I feel better when I’m productive. But running a business is so unstructured (at least the way that I do it) that Extreme Workaholic Behaviours simply aren’t sustainable long-term.

I spent the first few years of business constantly burnt out, and eventually it really started to get to me. I was letting things slip. I’d have little mental breakdowns in which I’d burst into tears, babbling about “the juggling balls break when I drop them!”, and then would refuse to leave my bedroom for a few days until I’d recovered. My work was suffering, and my brain would probably have eventually imploded on itself.

These days, I work less. I socialize more, and I try to do healthy things I never had time for before like eat and exercise on a daily basis. I’m happier, I’m doing better work, and my clients are happier. Everyone wins!

3. Talk to everyone and their dog.

I will take a meeting with anyone. Anyone! Since coming back to Canada I’ve actually been having lots of in-person meetings and I’ve realized I really miss it. (That may just be because I don’t usually drink coffee unless I’m going to meetings, and it makes me very excitable.)

Oftentimes these meetings won’t lead to business at all, so they’re a time investment that may not pay off. I’ve actually been tricked into “meetings” that turned out to be more like “dates” more than once, which can be a little awkward when you realize what’s happened.

Meeting people and talking to them is never an efficient use of my time. However, it allows me human interaction that I often lack sitting in front of a screen all day, and I often learn things I wouldn’t otherwise from an email conversation. There’s something to be said for sitting down with a stranger for an hour. Everyone—generally speaking—can teach me something, whether it’s of relevance to my work or not, and I’ve learned so many things for all these millions of meetings over the years. They’ve also helped me become exponentially more sure of myself. Sometimes just hearing yourself talk and realizing that—surprise!—you know what you’re talking about can do just that.

4. Constant work is worth its weight in platinum.

Cash flow issues can really make or break a business. (Canada Post employees, this is why I give you dirty looks when I pass you milling about in front of the dead post office that contains my cheques.) I have a line of credit that covers me when I’m waiting for invoices to be paid, but it’s not an ideal situation as it becomes very easy to accidentally end up in over your head when you can’t really budget effectively.

Years ago, I started doing regular weekly work for a local clients. It’s often not the most wildly exciting work, and it doesn’t pay nearly as well as the one-off project I do, but it’s been a lifeline for me. The fact that I don’t have to write up estimates, go to meetings, send endless emails, negotiate or wait for the work, means that I can offer a lower (hourly) rate than I usually would, and getting paid every two weeks means I don’t worry so much about my cash flow anymore. Basically, it gives me the bits that I liked about having a “real job”—stability—without cramping my vagabonding-unscheduled-flower-child sort of style of business.

5. Work less, charge more.

I charged all of $300 for one of my very first websites. It was such a bad idea, and the incredibly low rates I started off charging definitely explain why it took me a few years to actually be making any money at all. My rates increased fairly dramatically for a little while until they reached something of a plateau. I’ve hit the balance point where I feel that what I charge is fair, indicative of my ability, and allows me to buy shoes every now and again (okay, sometimes more often than that, but don’t tell).

Charging more means that I can spend more time on projects, which I like to do. I’m kind of on the anal-retentive super-detail-oriented side anyway, and charging $300 for a website simply doesn’t allow me to do the kind of quality work that I like to. From time to time, people still email me looking for the cheapest option, and I explain that I’m no longer competing on price. I don’t want to be the IKEA of graphic design. I want my design work to stand up, and I’d rather my clients not have to build everything themselves from incomprehensible diagrams. My clients pay more now than they used to, but the work they get is infinitely better. They get my full attention, they get support whenever they need it, and the end result is always much, much better than it would have been had I been charging bargain-basement prices.

And again, my clients are happier. More and more, I’m working with clients I love, who respect my work and my suggestions, and who really are a delight to work for. I’m happier working for these people, and they in turn refer other awesome clients over to me. It’s a lovely cycle.

Just one part of world I've seen—the beautiful, complicated Budapest. Summer 2009.

All told, I’m so lucky to have come this far and still be running my business. I have the kind of freedom I’ve always wanted—I can travel the world, I can sit outside and work on sunny days, and I’m constantly challenged and excited by new projects. I’m never bored, I get to meet some great people, I make my own rules, and I very rarely have to wake up at 8am.

I never intended to start a business, and every now and again, I consider going back to a real-live job. However, the longer I do this, the less and less likely that becomes. I really do love my job.

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