So you want to work for yourself. Well, first: good for you. I
think working for yourself is tremendously rewarding and you should
do everything possible to make it happen. As I have been self
employed most of my working life, I have more than a little advice
to share with you.
First, I'm successful because I'm tall, handsome, and incredibly
intelligent. No? Well, my wife says she'll give me one out of
three, though she never has told me which. Sometimes she says she
might be able to agree with two of those, but she's not convinced
anyone else would. So that's probably not why I'm successful.
What is success, anyway? I'm not rich. My yearly income is
unbelievable when compared to someone from a third world country
but pathetic when compared to many corporate executives. Many a
month my checkbook gets dangerously low, especially when taxes have
to be paid and customers are slow paying me because their taxes are
also due. I have a nice house in a nice town, but it's no mansion.
We don't lack for food or creature comforts, but we don't vacation
in Hawaii either. Our retirement accounts are larger than what
statistics say most people have, but I'm not sure we'll ever
actually be able to retire. My wife doesn't work, but that's
because she is ill, not because my income is so large that we
couldn't use the extra money.
So that's success? It is for me. I work the hours I choose, for
people I like, doing things I honestly enjoy doing. We take a lot
of "vacation", especially in the summer, spending extra long
weekends in our camper (well, it's what they call a "park model")
in the Berkshire mountains. When we need more money for unexpected
expenses, I just work a little more. When we don't, I take more
time off. For me, it's an ideal life. For someone else, it might
not be: you might be someone who wants to pile up as much money as
you can and enjoy it later. To each his own, but remember this:
tomorrow may never come. Your life can change very suddenly and
dramatically for the worse. You could have a stroke, a heart attack
or an automobile accident could leave you partially or even
completely disabled. If you aren't getting at least some enjoyment
out of the present, if you are banking on enjoying yourself
"someday", keep that in mind. If you understand that philosophy
(not everyone does), self employment can be the best way to be able
to both work and enjoy your life now.
Oh, not for you of course. You aren't smart enough, educated
enough or whatever enough to be successful in your own business.
Only brilliant people can do this, right? Wrong. Frankly, some of
the most successful self employed people I've known weren't the
brightest bulbs on the string. OK, if you are really hopelessly
stupid, maybe working raking leaves is the best you can aspire too.
But consider this: why do you need to work for someone else to rake
leaves? Here's my motto: if you are skilled enough at whatever it
is you do that you can get someone to give you a job, you are
skilled enough to do that same work as a self employed person.
Maybe whatever that skill is requires equipment or resources that
you cannot afford, so that might be a barrier, but your
intelligence, education or anything else you want to beat yourself
up over is not. If you are good enough to be hired, you are good
enough to be self employed. Repeat that until you believe it. I'm
not going to try to convince you that you aren't a worthless hunk
of sniveling uselessness; that's a different problem that you need
to work on later. For now, just accept that bumbling idiots can get
jobs. Just look around you: they are everywhere. Are you the worst
of the bunch? If you are employable, you are self employable.
Or maybe you are bright and capable and know it. OK, boopy,
that's great. It isn't nearly enough, and while you might expect me
to say "but it can't hurt", the fact is that it can. More often
than not, it isn't people who are less sure of their talents who
end up going down in flames. No, it's the hot-shot know-it-all, the
person who is so much better than the rest of us who is much more
likely to screw up big-time, self employed or otherwise. You see,
it's much more important to know what you don't know than it is to
know everything. I think it was Will Rogers who said something like
"it's what we think we know but don't that hurts us". That's the
first secret of success: realizing that expertise is never perfect,
and that true expertise includes knowing the limits of your
knowledge and abilities. Don't bite off more than you can chew is
awfully good advice, but knowing how much you can chew is a
necessary prerequisite to avoiding choking.
Self employment isn't for everyone. There is that whole
"security" issue, right? The comfort of knowing where your next
weeks paycheck is coming from. One problem: if you don't own the
place, you have no security. You can be let go for reasons that
have nothing to do with you. A faceless person in a city far away
plugs some numbers into s spreadsheet and a week later you are out
of a job. That can't happen when you are self employed. Sure, you
can lose an important bid or even lose a whole customer, but you
aren't going to lose all your customers at once. Strange as it may
sound, you actually have more security.
However, you do have to have at least two traits not everyone
has. You have to be disciplined enough to save money when times are
good, and you have to constantly be aggressive about finding new
work. Every failure I have seen (and I've seen a few) has come
because of one of these two things. So, when you have your first
$10,000 profit in one week, don't go buying that Porsche just yet.
There may well be some $200.00 weeks waiting for you. And whether
you are having a $200.00 week or a $10,000 week, you never, ever,
stop marketing. You do not stop. You keep your eyes and ears open
ever single minute of every single day and unless and until you get
big enough to hire somebody to sell for you, remember that THAT is
your real job. The stuff you actually do, whether its raking leaves
or troubleshooting computers, is not your real job. Selling is what
you really do; executing is just something you do to follow through
on the sales. Does that sound wrong to you? It isn't: you don't
make an income from raking leaves or from plasma TV screens,
because there is absolutely no money to be had from either of those
things. Go ahead, grab a rake and start raking. See any money
anywhere? No. The only thing that makes money is sales.
Oh, well, now there's the real kicker, right? You couldn't sell
hot dogs to starving people. You are so bad at sales that you
couldn't sell anything to your own mother. You are so bad.. OK, I
get it. Here's a scoop: me, too.
Yeah, that's right. I'm an awful salesperson. I tried my hand at
that enough times for other people to be pretty confident that I
just do not have the personality traits necessary to be a
salesperson. Or more accurately, I'm a lousy salesperson.. but only
when I'm selling for someone else. Or maybe I'm still a terrible
salesperson, and just more attuned to opportunity. That is a very
important part of marketing: paying attention to opportunity. By
that I don't mean that you are an annoying pest who sees
opportunity in every casual remark. I do mean that you need to pay
attention to real opportunities that others might miss. If raking
leaves is your thing, and someone spills a ton of confetti in their
yard, your thought should be that your technology (raking, blowing,
bagging) is perfect for this challenge. Mention it. Don't be a
pest, but make sure it is known that you can take care of that
However, don't sell more than you can deliver. It will do you
little good to be yet another one of the jerks who never show up to
do the job. Yeah, maybe you can survive just like they do,
overbooking, lying, robbing time from here to go there. These are
usually the people trying to make every dime they can every day.
They overbook so that the well is never dry. That's a lousy way to
live, an awful way to treat your customers and it also means that
you aren't charging enough. Every successful person will tell you
the same thing: you have to make your pay in three days or less.
Three days, twenty hours, whatever: if you can't live on what you
can make in that time, your business model is screwed up. Ideally,
you make it in less than that, but that's your minimum goal. That
doesn't mean you'll only be working twenty hours a week. Nope,
you'll probably work more than you ever would for someone else. But
the rest of the hours will be for marketing, for planning, for
For billing. Seems so obvious and yet so many people screw this
up. If you don't send a bill, you don't get paid. The later you
send the bill, the more chance it will be delayed and the more
chance the customer will have forgotten why they owe you money.
I've seen people send invoices months later, and you can guarantee
that at the very least these things get questioned before they go
to the AP clerk. Bill early, bill often. Even if the bill will not
be paid until some entire project is complete, send logs of where
you are at now. Ship something, send the tracking info by email.
Customers need to be kept informed.
Keeping your customers informed is more than courtesy: it's good
for you. If you have to cancel an appointment (these things do
happen), let them know as soon as possible. If you are going to be
late, even if it's just ten minutes, call and let them now. This
will sound idiotic to some, but when you make an appointment, show
up. Hardly a month goes by where I don't get a call from someone
looking for a new consultant. They say somethjing like "The guy we
have now is great, really knows his stuff. But he doesn't show up.
He says he'll be here this week, and he never comes. I call him and
he doesn't call back for days, if at all. I can't run my business
like this". Be reliable. Do you like it when the plumber doesn't
show up? Do you like waiting for the Cable Company? Woody Allen
said "90% of success is showing up". Show up.
Be honest. There are all kinds of ways to lose customers, but
dishonesty is the most effective. If you screw up, make good on it.
It may cost you, but in the long run it will cost you much more not
to. I'm not appealing to your morals here: it's good business sense
to do the right thing.
Don't worry about your competitors. If you are good at what you
do, you will succeed. Yeah, some slimy scum may steal some business
from you here and there. Let it go: there's plenty out there. Or
maybe there's just someone who really is better than you. Study and
learn, grasshopper: what makes them better? Imitate and innovate,
and you'll get your share of the crumbs.
Finally, I return to the most important thing of all: enjoying
yourself. Don't hate what you do and don't do what you hate. Yeah,
yeah, I know: easy for him to say, but some of us have to put bread
on the table and we do what it takes, man, we do what it takes. To
which I say: if you hate what you are doing, you can't be good at
it. If you aren't good at it, you aren't making the money you
should be making. If you love what you do, if you wake up every
morning looking forward to today's work, you are going to be very,
very good at it, and that will translate into success. Yes, it can
be hard to get there, because your first few years you may make
quite a bit less money. Have patience. Your first year or two is
usually very hard, but things get better. Cut back here and there,
go into debt a little if you have to: this is an investment in your
future. If you love it, you WILL make it.
Except sometimes you don't. I had two business failures before
things fell into place, and a lot of successful people will tell
similar tales. I failed for a number of reasons, but each failure
taught me more of what not to do. Yeah, failure sucks, it really
does. It can cost you significant money, and it affects your
morale, but it's the old adage: what doesn't kill me makes me
stronger. You will make mistakes. Maybe you'll be lucky and you'll
struggle onward in spite of them, but you will make them. Learn
from them, move on, and don't kick yourself more than a few times
for the incredible innate stupidity that caused them. Smart people
make stupid mistakes, so you can too. Get over it and get on with
I wish you luck, and hope you do well.
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© 2011-05-03 Tony Lawrence