Top 25 Lessons Learned In 25 Years Of Freelancing

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I recently completed my 25th year of running my own consulting business. I started out by developing training materials for large corporations, but now I spend most of my time creating marketing content, and doing a bit of coaching, for other independent training consultants.

I’d like to think I have learned a thing or two over those 25 years of freelancing. Here are 25 lessons gleaned from a quarter-century of independent consulting:

  1. The power of technology to help one waste time is at least as great, if not greater, than its power to make one more efficient and productive.
  2. The biggest factor in play when I avoid marketing and selling activities is my imagination. I can dream up more dramatic and devastating rejections, failures, and embarrassments than anything that is going to happen in the real world.
  3. Afternoon naps are among the best “fringe benefits” of running my own business, rather than working in a cubicle.
  4. Staying “top of mind” with someone who already knows who I am is infinitely easier than getting someone to notice me and my services in the first place. (It is also considerably more lucrative.)
  5. Staying “top of mind” with someone who already knows who I am is infinitely easier than getting someone to notice me and my services in the first place.

  6. One of the hardest things to do in your own business is to ask for help, much less take advantage of it.
  7. One of the best things you can do in your own business is to ask for help, and take full advantage of it.
  8. Passion is a behavior. You don’t have to experience heart-wringing emotions around your work to be devoted to it. You have passion when you find that you can’t stay away from working on your business, trying to make it better. (See Is “Passion” Overrated?)
  9. Some clients look all right but turn out to be crazy, that cannot be helped. Most of the time, however, a little voice tells me early on that I am getting in bed with the Devil, and if I do not listen to that voice, I deserve all the frustrations and hassles that are in store for me.
  10. Ignorance is often our greatest gift to our clients. I can ask the “simple” and “stupid” questions that they have overlooked because they are too close to the problem, and are too entrenched in “how it has always been done.”
  11. All of my time is valuable. That’s why there is only one rate for my time, and that’s it. (See Write Your Hourly Rate Schedule on a Postage Stamp)
  12. Exception to above: as a client, the bigger the pain in the ass you are, the more it will cost you (the “nuisance fee”).
  13. I am more successful when I concentrate on a well-defined target market, an ideal client. Letting the edges of that definition get fuzzy, or broadening the definition to chase every perceived “opportunity”, is more a way to waste energy and resources than it is a method for expanding my business.
  14. Slow and steady wins the race, whether that means handling projects or building a business. The binge approach is hard to keep up for 25 years (and it gets a lot harder when you get older).
  15. What I decide not to do today will have as much influence on my ultimate success as what I decide I will do.

  16. Referrals are lovely things, but they need cultivating and managing. If you’re good, or at least pleasant to deal with, you may well get referrals from your clients to new prospects, but you are unlikely to get the best referrals that could do the most for your business.
  17. What I decide not to do today will have as much influence on my ultimate success as what I decide I will do. (See What’s On Your “Not-Do” List?)
  18. Sometimes taking the emotion out of an activity is the best way to overcome your own resistance and avoidance. Instead of trying to force yourself to have positive feelings about marketing, say, work to take the emotional element out of your marketing activities. You can be very effective at tasks that you do not particularly like, but it is hard to be effective at tasks you loathe.
  19. Two phrases I’d be happy never to hear again: “Elevator Speech”  and “Marketing Funnel.”
  20. Having worked in corporate life at one time, I know that one of the greatest blessings of that world is that there is always someone else to grumble about, always someone else to blame when things don’t work out as expected. “It’s all my fault!” may be an exaggeration, but it is also the mantra of the successful freelancer.
  21. Although I often can see the eventual solution to a client almost immediately, when we first meet about a project, it’s a huge mistake to pressure the client to “leapfrog” to my point of view. When I do that, my solution is basically a commodity.

    ‘No’ is a word that not only can define your success as a freelancer, it can determine your quality of life.

    When I educate them, when I patiently work through a process of building awareness of what they cannot yet see, changing their perspective, and taking ownership at each stage of the process, I build a relationship. It is much better to be a trusted solution provider than to be the successful provider of a single solution, with no relationship.

  22. The days when I work heroically to make huge advances on a big client project are nowhere near as satisfying as the days that show a balance between work and personal life, that move among several different kinds of business activities. Those are the days that are the real rewards for going out on my own.
  23. The rates we charge are more often limited by a lack of creativity and confidence than by the clients. There are many ways to price a project or a relationship, yet few of us spend much time thinking explicitly about all of the possibilities.
  24. When it comes to running a successful business, including consistent marketing/selling activity, efficient production and delivery of services, and all the “backroom” stuff, there is more to be learned from the fields of “lifestyle change” (e.g., diet and exercise) than there is from “time mangement” or “project management.”
  25. Clients who wrap up their requests with “This shouldn’t take you too long” are almost guaranteed to suck you into convoluted projects with countless changes and revisions. Expect endless hassles.
  26. No” is a word that not only can define your success as a freelancer, it can determine your quality of life.  (See Do You “No” Your Way to Greater Success?)
  27. Have faith! After 25 successful years in this business, I am convinced that I am going to get the hang of it one of these days.

If you have been freelancing for a good while, what tips have you learned that you wish someone had shared with you before you started out?

Oh, and P.S., here’s a bonus tip: When in doubt, chocolate!

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