I’m celebrating two years as a freelancer this month. I’ve packed a lot of learning into the past couple of years and to commemorate my anniversary, I’m sharing a list of seven things I’ve discovered. Read it, then come tell me yours.
1) Know when to apply the ‘Learn by Doing’ philosophy…
The Learn by Doing philosophy didn’t come naturally to me, but I became a convert and continue to practice it thanks to a bunch of my programmer and developer friends at Cowork Niagara (the first and only co-operative coworking space in Ontario).
In November 2013, I knew I had to develop my website. ‘But how?’ I asked myself. ‘I’m a writer, not a developer. Someone else could do it better, faster, easier.’ It made sense to hire someone and let them set up the domain, hosting, framework and design, while I focused on prospecting and later, creating the site’s content.
The problem with this rationale is that I would have missed out on all the benefits of taking measured risks, building my skill set and pushing myself beyond what I perceived as my limitations or barriers. I would have given up the opportunity to turn ‘I can’t’ into ‘I can’. By going through the process of building something myself, experiencing successes, failures, and finally launching a Version 1.0, I not only picked up important skills, but also learned a lot about myself. Though those days were sometimes long and frustrating, they were worth it when I finally solved a problem or discovered another trick to CSS. The epiphanies you’ll have as you learn by doing will inspire you to take on new challenges and solve problems day to day.
…and when to outsource or request help within your network.
I’m a member and one of eight talented people on the board of directors at Cowork. I was fortunate enough to join the community as it started to gain traction locally. As more people discovered us, our network of local talent grew and today, we have a volunteer-run space supported by 50+ members. But outreach, finances, events and marketing don’t take care of themselves. We thrive in large part thanks to our dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers on our board and committees. Throughout the past two years and in the lead-up to our recent first Annual General Meeting, we’ve built our internal capacity by reaching out and asking for help, for everything from accounting to event organizers. Being part of this has taught me an important lesson: strong organizations and people ask for help, gratefully accept it and implement solutions efficiently and effectively. In turn, we advocate for Niagara’s independent workforce, run events and are heavily involved in the Niagara Co-op Network.
2) How to define:
This is a tough one because I still have so many goals I haven’t reached yet. But, I’ve made some great strides in two years – pitched and won new clients, built my website, contributed to my community and turned projects around on crazy deadlines – so I’ve had a few successes.
Success doesn’t always have to be about making a certain income or winning an elusive client. Jennifer Wallace, a financial adviser and coordinator of the GWEn (Growing Women Entrepreneurs) Conference in Niagara, is a pro at teaching this. At the 2013 conference, she talked about the must-haves for business success: Knowing your ‘why’ (what drives you); working your plan; building your team and maintaining consistency. How you define and measure success is important. Your definition dictates how you perceive achievements, accept praise and criticism, and when you give yourself permission to take time off.
Failure is often the real f-word for freelancers, and it can be devastating when a project, job or life doesn’t go the way you’d planned. But it can also be a much needed learning moment. It can necessitate a new beginning and push you to explore a whole world of opportunities you previously discounted, or didn’t know existed. Failure, serendipity and resolve precipitated my freelance career (and continue to be strong themes), so I’m grateful for all three. I’m also grateful for the experience and knowledge I’ve gained in the past couple of years about life and what our work should mean to us.
Back in 2012, I was fired from a full time job that I thought would bring me security and independence, make my family stop worrying about me financially, and generally lead to a happily ever after career-wise. I felt crushed, disillusioned, ashamed, anxious and was headed into a pretty deep depression.
But, over time and day by day, success by tiny success, I learned to rebuild hope. I refocused my priorities and what I wanted my life to be, committed myself to upholding the new ‘Rules of Being Me’ and began the work of reinvention (that’s still happening today). The process was transformative, but also difficult and grueling work that required me to take an honest look at my responsibility in that failure, but also realize what strengths, weaknesses and skills I have to contribute.
Through all those successes and defeats, I’ve learned that gaining perspective has allowed me to narrate those stories realistically. Don’t be so terrified of success and failure. Learn from them. They can both mean the end of one thing, but the beginning of something else. Decide what that will be. And most importantly, celebrate your successes and forgive yourself for your failures. Actively decide if you want to waste your time and talents by continuing to punish yourself for failures others have long since forgiven you for and moved on from.
3) You’re the sum of the five people you surround yourself with most often.
This is at the core of why I’m a fixture at Cowork Niagara’s space (shameless plug here: drop by and see us at 108 St. Paul to experience it for yourself)
One of the challenges of working independently is that it can sometimes lead to feeling isolated and lonely. Coworking is the solution as freelancing grows more popular. We meet to work on our own projects, share advice and some laughs (and of course, coffee). We celebrate successes and share knowledge on overcoming challenges, both as entrepreneurs and as an organization.
We’re independent freelancers in a number of industries, including website development and design, programming, marketing, photography and even financial services. My coworkers are some of the most talented, kind and giving professionals in their fields. In the last year, I’ve reinvented myself professionally, expanded my network and through a chain reaction, met some incredible people in other groups. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been wholeheartedly welcomed to a group that gives so unselfishly to new freelancers. Members know what working for yourself is like, and encourage you to succeed and get involved in shaping your community. That environment of comradeship gives me hope on my best and worst days.
4) Don’t discount the importance of contracts and deposits.
Like many freelancers, I’ve learned this the hard way.
Contracts protect both you and your client, identify and establish expectations on both ends, dictate what will happen if expectations/deadlines aren’t met, and ensure clarity in your business relationships.
Deposits ensure you get paid for your work. I started with neither of these, but have been making it a priority to have clients sign agreements and pay deposits after assessing the problems I was continually running into. Having written agreements eliminates or alleviates most of them.
You’ll develop your own threshold of when putting the time into creating a contract is worth it, based on the value of the income from the project. Once you develop a template for your contract (or crib one and make it your own), you’ll just need to invest time in customizing it to each client/project. As a rule of thumb, set explicit, written expectations for yourself and your clients.
5) How willing people are to help.
Learning that humility is important to learning will let you grow professionally and personally. As a new freelancer, there may be very little you know about the strange, exciting and sometimes terrifying world of entrepreneurship, so get used to needing and (politely) asking for help. Part of our philosophy at Cowork Niagara is that we believe in the power of open source knowledge, and contributing our talents to helping one another problem solve. Doing this strengthens Niagara’s freelance community as a whole, and blazes a path for the newer freelancers that follow us. I’ll always be grateful for the countless times my coworkers and others in my network have given their time to answer my questions about contracts, website development, client relationships, prospecting, financial planning and so much more.
The best thing about this is even as a new freelancer, you’ll have your own skills and a valuable perspective to contribute. Two years in, I’m honing my public speaking and networking skills, developing content for Cowork’s website, forming new partnerships and becoming involved in some exciting projects. Those are testaments to the people who reached out to me in my early days.
6) The power of pledging not to make fear-based decisions.
Credit for this lesson goes to focus coach Ruth Unrau and the Decision Makers Network, a former group of Niagara business owners who gathered for informal morning coffee chats and lunches. Through telling her own story, Ruth reminded us to reflect on our decisions before we finalize them, and consider whether they’d be based on fear (the second f-word we think about a lot) or a clear perception of reality. Her words sunk in and inspired me every time my inner critic told me I should take a break from or postpone my efforts to build and launch my website, and they continue to motivate me today. Once you identify what’s driving your fear or avoidance of certain issues, you can harness that fear, overcome it and change your trajectory.
Fair warning: it won’t be easy. If you’ve fed your inner critic as heartily as I have, they’ll put up a fight for every minute you spend pushing yourself to new achievements. But the internal rewards and permanent shift in thought process are life changing. Also included in this one is the fact that others may not recall your exact words, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Ruth is a role model of mine for this reason.
7) Tame the beast: Imposter Syndrome
For many (many) of my first few months, I walked around probably looking much like every other freelancer but harbouring a huge secret: I didn’t always feel like I was worthy of the successes I was achieving, and feared I would be “found out” at any second. Little did I know, this is the exact definition of Imposter Syndrome!
It wouldn’t be long before I would hear the term for the first time from Cowork Niagara founder and genuinely amazing guy Trevor Twining. I started Googling and reading about Imposter Syndrome. Finding out that I hadn’t invented it really helped me put things in perspective (Trevor dealt with it, and how highly regarded, awesome and talented is he? Pretty much a ’10’ in all those categories! ‘So’, I thought, ‘Chances are I have the potential to rate high on that scale as well.’)
I’ll never say I’ve won the war against my inner critic and Imposter Syndrome. But I have learned how to identify them when they appear, harness them and use them productively. The alternative is to let them conquer me, and that’s just not going to happen.
If you’ve read to here, thanks for staying with me. I’ve learned a lot more than seven things in my first year, but I was supposed to write a list, not a book (yet)…but there’s more to come. Now that you’ve read mine, think about your own list and tell me about it if you’d like, because I’d love to hear from you. What are your top 10 things you’ve learned in your first year (or first 10, 25 or 50 years) of freelancing? Write them down – you’ll be surprised at how much you have to offer.