Life by Design

Michelle from Dive Deeper Development asked me if I'd be happy to talk about my transition to being self employed and setting up The Wheel Exists for a guest post for her website.

Through her business, she supports people to create the lives that they want. She's fantastic and I love sharing my experience as a freelancer, so of course I agreed! 

What inspired you to set up your business?

My former MD was always really passionate about her employees having lives that worked for them, and two of my old colleagues had already set up their own freelance businesses whilst working part time. I really liked the idea of having something that was “mine” and so – because I am the most impulsive planner you will ever meet – decided that I was going to set up my own business, even if I wasn't sure exactly what that business would be. That was definitely a jump without a parachute! But it’s strange, it never really crossed my mind that I would fail.

What was it that told you something needed to change? 

I think I was feeling that my previous role had stagnated a bit, and that I had taken on so many other responsibilities I was losing touch with actually doing the work that I enjoyed. There would have definitely been opportunities to address this if I had stayed in the job but I think that there was a recognition both from me and my former boss that perhaps I was ready for something new. What actually made the transition easier was that we left the door open to me still being involved with the company in some capacity, and indeed I still attend their quarterly strategy meetings and do ad-hoc projects with them.

What is it about running your own business that appealed to you? Is it as great as it sounds?

Bizarrely, I used to say “I hate people” as in previous job roles I was really reluctant to go to networking events and I always preferred being back behind the safety of my computer. So when I first started my business I thought that I would work almost entirely from home and keep interactions to a minimum. After a while though, I realised that it was the more corporate networking and sales approach that I disliked, and I felt like I couldn’t really be completely myself when interacting the people at those events. Now I have my own business, I get to work with people that align with my values and choose what I do so that I can truly be “me” when I’m involved with those projects.

I suppose linked to this is the reason that I love being self-employed; it’s the flexibility to choose the direction of my business and be able to try something out without needing to get approval from others. Yes, that can seem scary at times (after all there’s nobody else to blame if it goes wrong) but there are hardly any decisions that I've regretted, and being open to opportunities does seem to make them come along more frequently.

Plus it’s the small things that make a difference in terms of being my own boss and managing my own time. Yes, I do work during evenings and weekends on occasion, but I get to walk my dogs during the day. If we have a delivery or some maintenance work being done on the house, I can be around. When five of my friends were on maternity leave at the same time, I joined them at the “Cheshire Mums Club” (despite not living in Cheshire, nor being a mum…) and got to know their children, which was especially lovely.    

Were you driven by leaving your old job or by the idea of having your own business? 

I would say it was definitely more a case of looking forward. Whilst I didn't know exactly what form it would take, I definitely knew what I wanted. For me it was about having the independence as I mentioned above, and also having more variety in the work that I did. I also knew that I wanted to work with charities, non-profits and small businesses and I was very clear on my values. This helped to guide me towards where I am now, but actually what I planned to do at the start isn't what I ended up with.

How did you make the transition?

My old boss was great about helping me transition into freelance life, and in the first two months after making the decision I went down to working part time before leaving completely in January 2014. We both agreed that it made sense for me to “go it alone” for at least six months, during which time I wouldn't do any freelance work for them, although we kept in touch socially. This was really important for me to establish that independence that I wanted, and also for me to feel that I was fully committed to (and focused on) my new venture.

I then had to decide what I was actually going to DO. From my previous roles in small businesses and charities, I knew there was a potential market for someone to provide support to organisations around their websites and computer systems (such as adding blog posts, setting up newsletters, adding new email accounts for new starters etc.) and I was definitely passionate about telling people about online tools and apps that could make their lives easier – people were already coming to me about this before I was even self-employed.

I had come across the Squarespace website building platform as I’d noticed a link in the footer of a website that I liked. I figured I’d have a play around with it to create my own new business website, and as soon as I started using it I completely fell in love with it. I started telling some of my friends about it and one of my old colleagues who was now freelance asked if I would create a website for her business. She was using the free one that came with her website domain and wasn't really happy with it, plus her search results were all appearing in German.

Her husband then asked me to update his company’s website too and all of a sudden I had clients! After a number of referrals I was certain that this was what I wanted to do. I attended a show at ExCel in London aimed at startups to really jump in at the deep end, and used the People Per Hour service to bid for proposals, specifically offering my services using Squarespace. After a while of taking whatever work I could get, I then refined my business offering to specifically working with freelancers, startups and charities or non-profits, which really aligned to my initial aims.

Everyone wants to talk about the benefits but what did you need to let go of?

Well for me it was financial independence, especially at the start. I did have some savings and was able to keep contributing to the mortgage (which we had tactically applied for whilst I was still employed) but as with any small business, cash flow was an issue and it took a lot for me to ask my partner for financial support, even just in the form of a loan. I hated the idea of not pulling my weight but objectively knew that it would ultimately help me to grow a more successful business in the long term, and that I would be a nicer person for him to be around if I was happy! Plus I could work longer hours in order to earn more money, but then my relationship with my partner (as well as other family and friends) would suffer. For me, it’s definitely about quality of life.

I think there was also quite a lot of “imposter syndrome” in the beginning. I didn't have any formal website training and was convinced that clients would discover that I was a “fraud”. Of course, all they cared about what how well I delivered the work and after a while, I realised that my background was actually a really important part of my offering.

How certain were you that it was going to be a successful change?

Honestly, I was weirdly certain even though there was no real reason for me to have that confidence. I just kind of knew that it would work, one way or another. Maybe because it had to! And I'm not necessarily like that in other areas of my life. However I am a massive believer in going with your gut, and I think that spurred me on as I believed that I was doing the right thing for me.

Were you scared? 

I was probably more excited than scared. There were a few moments when I thought to myself, “What have I done?” like when I was putting up my cardboard, spray painted exhibition stand next to all the shiny corporate businesses at the Startups show, but I listened to my gut and went with what I thought was right, and ultimately I was rewarded as my stand proved to be a great talking point!

What did other people say and how did you deal with that?

I have two quite distinct friendship groups – people who I have worked with and people that I know from school, University or through my partner. The people that I worked with totally “got” it and my other friends I think were just a bit perplexed as nobody quite understood what my role was other than working for a small non-profit that focused on sustainability. They  weren't really aware of my progression to working more around technology and so when I was all of a sudden making websites I think they were slightly taken aback! Everyone was really supportive though and said I was very brave. I think because I was quite open about what I was doing and my journey there, people were interested to hear about it.

When did you know the transition had been a successful one?

I suppose that despite being quite sure that self-employment would work out one way or another, I still wasn't totally sure that there was a target audience for the route that I’d chosen. As well as having a stand at the Business Startups Show I was also speaking about useful online tools that can help your business. We’d been doing lots of promotion by leafleting and I had told all my stand visitors about it, but still didn't know how many people would turn up. In the end, there were people queuing out the back of the conference room to hear my presentation!

What's been the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

For me that’s probably cash flow. Not because people don’t pay promptly – in fact nearly all of my clients have been great in this respect – but because most people are juggling the website development process with other responsibilities and so it can take a while to get the relevant feedback and content from clients. This means that the projects can take longer than anticipated so I've now started factoring this into my financial planning. I still wouldn't say I've overcome it but I'm also working on other income streams through workshops and online training to diversify how and when I get paid. This helps to give me a bit of a safety net!

Was has been the most rewarding bit?

Definitely, when clients are happy with my work and I can see what an impact I’ve had. I updated the website for Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre and their Centre Manager told me it had by far exceeded her expectations, and that she was almost in tears when it launched as she was so happy. I started out to make a difference, both for my own life and for others, so it’s amazing to feel like I'm achieving this.

Similarly, I love it when people tell me that I've simplified something they never thought they would understand or brought a subject to life through my training or presentations. One of my aims is to make technology more accessible so that’s a great compliment!

What have you learnt from your experiences?

Soooooo much! I've learned that there are lots of people that really want to help you to succeed, and you should take any support that they offer. I've also learned more about myself and whilst I was confident that I could run a business, I have gone on to exceed my own expectations in terms of the projects I'm involved with and what I've achieved, like setting up the Freelance Friday co-working group and delivering workshops as part the Business Growth Hub’s project to get more women using digital tools. I've also identified that I need to constantly push myself and go beyond my comfort zone in order to really enjoy what I'm doing, otherwise I feel like I've stagnated!

What qualities do you need to do something like this? What mindset must you have?

You need to be determined and you also need to either be willing to sell yourself or partner with someone that can sell for you. And when I say “sell” I don’t mean you have to embody a sleazy salesperson. Quite the opposite in fact. Selling yourself is about being passionate about what you can do and how you can help others with your product or service. If you don’t believe in yourself, or you aren't able to explain your value, why would someone else want to part with their hard-earned cash to work with you? At first, I used to be almost apologetic when asking for money but now I have the confidence to know that I do make a difference and genuinely believe that my clients get an excellent return on their investment in me.

You also need to become resilient, but you can learn this! I read somewhere that you should write a note to yourself detailing all the reasons you became self-employed and why you love it. You then seal it up and open it if you ever feel like you've made a mistake leaving the security of permanent employment or you’re about to give up on your dreams. I thought that was a nice idea.

Would you say anyone can do what you've done?

Honestly? No I wouldn't. A number of my friends really love being able to switch off at the end of the day and this is really hard (if not impossible) when it’s your own business. I was lucky in that I had a partner who was willing to support me if needed, and I used up a lot of my savings in the initial stages of being self-employed, and I realise that not everyone has these options. Having said this, there are still ways in which you can start creating a life that works for you even if it’s taking small steps and keeping a part-time job, or working in your free time whilst you get set up. I would say that anyone that wants to make a change can do something, it might just look a bit different to what I've done. You have to want it though, I think that’s one of the most important factors in success.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a similar change to their lifestyle?

Be yourself. Try. Fail. Learn and try again. Talk to others who have been there and trust your instincts. Value yourself and your time. You are not an imposter or a fraud! Also, on a more practical level, write as much content as you possibly can when you first start as once you get busy it can seem like a luxury to spend time on blog posts and social media!

What is your focus going forward?

One of my aims for 2016 has been to increase my visibility and generate more presenting and workshop delivery opportunities so I've been out and about much more, getting involved with new and existing projects in Manchester and Sheffield. I've just started delivering workshops on how to create a website too and am currently working on a number of online training options too as I really want everyone to be able to access support around their website, even if they don’t have much of a budget.

All of my extra commitments have meant that I'm probably not putting in as much time as I should to my content and social media, so that’s my next focus. I took advantage of the 29th February as a “bonus day” to have a planning session for the year ahead from April onwards. I work on an April to March year rather than starting in January mainly out of habit from previous jobs where their annual reports aligned with financial years. However, it actually works quite well as I tend to have some fairly broad aims for the start of the calendar year, which I then get to start testing out in the first couple of months before pinning down exactly what I want to happen when I work on my goals in more detail. 

What if anything would make you go back to employment?

I'm not sure that anything would make me go back… certainly not to a conventional 9 to 5 job anyway. If I found a company that aligned to my values and would give me the same independence that I have now then I might consider it part time, but I think I’d always want to have some flexibility and time to dedicate to the projects that I want to work with. 

Has it all been worth it?

Look, I'm not going to pretend it isn't difficult at times but for me the rewards have by far outstripped the challenges. However, it is about priorities. I'm not in this to make millions and I choose not to spend all of my evenings and weekends working in order to live my life.