I used to know the exact date I walked out of the corporate world with The Box and started my freelance business. Today, I only remember that it was in August 1999. Yep, as of this birthday my business is old enough to vote, buy a lottery ticket, join the army, or drink in Canada and much of Europe. Here, in no particular order, are 18 business lessons from 18 years in business:
- As freelancers, we pride ourselves on our independence. In some ways, that’s a pretty little lie. The truth is that the advantage of self-employment isn’t pure independence–it’s the freedom to choose the people or businesses we work for, on what, with which partners, and when. We’re free to change the terms of the deal.
- We’re responsible for the level of interaction we have with others, whether in real life or in virtual channels. If you don’t like or respect or enjoy the people in your network, that’s a choice you’re actively making, every day. You control the freelance ecosystem you’re creating. Along those same lines, social media has made it a lot more fun and interesting to be a freelancer.
- Technology blows my mind. I’ve submitted projects from a dozen different countries, from a sailboat, and from a car going 75 mph. (No, I wasn’t driving!) I’m really glad I don’t have to hand-code html anymore, send photocopied portfolio samples via snail mail, or print 500 books at a time.
- I always found conferences to be a psychological drain back in my corporate days. Now that I choose where to go, I find them energizing and enlightening.
- Handwritten thank-you notes are the best available tool for client retention and business development. Gratitude is a pure good.
- As I’ve written about countless times in the past, connecting with complementary creatives is absolutely essential to my business success and happiness.
- Whether in formal organizations or informal channels, I can’t help but learn something new every day.
- I’m always inspired by the diversity of the client enterprises and ideas I have the good fortune to engage with.
- If you don’t value your work properly, clients won’t either.
- Never take negative stuff personally. As the mafia movies tell us, “It’s just business.”
- You will inevitably lose big-dollar clients and great clients. Be prepared, mentally and financially. Having an emergency or go-to-hell fund isn’t ultimately about paying the bills when things go pear-shaped, however: They’re designed to prevent you from making decisions out of desperation.
- It always helps to focus on the end users of your creative output. (Only trying to please the clients themselves doesn’t benefit them in the long run, although that’s sometimes the way it works out.)
- Invoicing is a pain in the neck, but it’s pretty nifty to receive two or three checks in a single day.
- There is no best way to run a freelance business—you need to find what works for you and heed the business lessons you learn along the way. That will involve experimentation, which means failures as well as successes.
- Referrals make business easier and more lucrative, but they don’t happen overnight, by accident, or solely because of your creative talents.
- The adage of “speed/quality/cost, pick any two” is utter B.S. You have to deliver quality work; only speed and cost are negotiable.
- Every year, I get better at the game—and it is a game—making more good decisions and fewer bad ones. That’s cool.
- The best thing in the world is having long-term relationships with clients who simply “get it.”
In the comments: How many years have you been freelancing? What are some of the most important business lessons you’ve learned?