It is possible to start a writing business without breaking the bank–as long as you spend wisely
You’ve heard the bad news about how many small business fail in the early years, I’m sure. And while it’s true that many small businesses do not survive, this is often for good reason. You may feel put off the idea of starting a freelance business, but you don’t have to.
Here are some things to think about when setting up.
You can start small
All you need is something to write on and somewhere (preferably ergonomic) to sit! My big executive chair with wheels and 360º seat rotation looks very flash at my working space (the dining table).
Platforms can be free, or really cheap. to make yourself known and get the word out about your services—website, business page, social media accounts.
For Australian freelancers: Get an ABN. It’s free. It demonstrates you’re getting serious that this fun thing you’re doing is actually a business. It also means more organisations will want to do business with you.
Think hard about your spend; only spend the money if there are real, quantifiable benefits, or your business activity can cover it.
Use your existing technology if it’s reliable and safe
A good reason to replace your technology is if it becomes unreliable and threatens your ability to deliver quality service to your clients.
Consider your options. You don’t have to start big; in fact, it’s better if you start small. I started out freelancing using a fully-functioning Windows tablet that was barely bigger than a hardcover book, that fitted easily into my daily tote bag. It was only after I gave up the daily commute (and also realised that a tablet was not safe to use long term) that I bought a new laptop.
Don’t rush to leave the day job–if you don’t have to
It’s true! Day jobs, and their associated salary and benefits, can be wonderful. Particularly if your business planning suggests it will take a while to build a clientele for your offering. There is no shame in keeping the day job for now, if it keeps food on the table and maybe one day your side hustle will become the day job.
But more on this topic later…
So tell us in the comments…do you have a day job? If you have a side hustle, how did you get started?
Back when I was a contractor, I’d often find myself at the end of a job with the next move not yet defined. I grew to look forward to those times. It was a way to take a little enforced breather before I began the whole rigmarole again.
‘Funemployment’, I used to jokingly call this limbo land. Sometimes I’d plan something (a week-long sewing course; a daytime trip to the cinema and watch two movies in a row; writers festivals). Sometimes it was just a break to catch my breath.
But while ‘funemployment’ does sound fun, it has the slightly edgy feeling of falling off the end of the known world, and into a void. When I went on maternity leave six years ago, with few plans to return to fulltime work anytime soon, and after the mental pea-souper of early first-time parenthood lifted, I was surprised at how much I felt that I had lost contact with a large part of who I was; apparently a large part of my identity was that of a worker.
Daily discussions around the water cooler don’t seem like much at the time, but when I put them together, I felt that a lot of who I was had been left behind.
It’s interesting then, and not a little daunting, that I find myself heading into a work situation—freelancing—in which I really am all alone in this. I am solely responsible for making for myself the kind of work life I want.
And the farther you live out of the city, the harder it can be to find a job in certain fields.
So, what to do when there’s a quiet spell, work-wise? Here’s what I’ve been doing:
Build your shopfront
More than once in the last year, I’ve been asked “what is your web address?” I’ve been working on that, and I’ve just launched my blog and the beginnings of my business portfolio online.
If you want clients to come to you, they need to to know where to find you. Your website is your shopfront; your own patch of dirt. Do you have your own patch of dirt yet?
Don’t drop off the face of the earth
I hate networking. Hate it. Hate it. (Hate it.)
But I do try and keep in touch with people I’ve enjoyed working with, because I never know when I’ll be able to help them with something, or vice versa. Update your profiles, and let people know what you’re up to. When was the last time you went through your client list; your contact list; your LinkedIn connections? Find the ones you would like to hear from, and maybe even work with, and send them a friendly note.
Back when I was seeking out contracts, opportunities often came to me. I think that was because I always sent out a brief and friendly update on my social media that I was finishing a contract and to hit me up if anyone knew of any opportunities. Or, there was that time I ran into a former colleague in a café who then asked me for my contact details, so she could invite me in for an interview. I may hate networking, but relationships have been a powerful factor in bringing work my way.
Take care of business and then work out how to do it better
I have a long history of ignoring paperwork until I can’t avoid it anymore.
Make sure you get on top of yours, particularly if it means improving your bank balance. Invoices you haven’t had time to chase up? Chase them up. Tax return that’s due that will mean a decent refund? Lodge it.
Then look at your processes. Can you set anything up to make things easier when things get busy? Look through your notes and your email inbox and to identify any tasks that you can turn into a repeatable process to make them work better.
You’ll know the kind of task I mean–it’s the notification that makes you sigh and say ‘I’ll read that later’ when you see it appear on your smartphone; it’s the letter that you drop back into your in-tray with a grimace whenever you spot it.
As a beginning freelancer, I tend to get daunted by the simplest things, such as the email I send in response when someone wants me to quote on a job. Or a cold-call letter. Or an invoice form. Right now I’m chasing down a basic contract to use (here’s a great page with several good things to download that–I am not a lawyer–may be useful to a freelancer in the Australian context. I will need to start tracking invoices–I’ll even need to make a tax invoice template–and I’ll need to find a better way to keep receipts of freelancer expenses to claim.
Sign up to something that will improve you in some way. Check your local community adult educational institution; even universities run industry-relevant short courses. Or, if funds don’t allow you to invest in training, it may just be a matter of ‘replenishing the well’. When will you have the time to just get out and drive? Hop on a train and travel to the end of the line and then back? Go to the city and just walk around? Do a tour of every free exhibition you can find?
Scenario 1–I breeze out of bed at 5am, knock over an hour at the gym, then an hour on my creative projects before I hit the morning routine. After school dropoff, I take my meticulously pulled-together self off to my home office, where I work and study effectively for hours. The internet works perfectly, and I can get everything on my to-do list ticked off, and then some. At the end of the day, my kid helps me with dinner and the dishes, and flutters off on fairy dust to bed…
You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Scenario 2–I wake at 7am to my kid asking for breakfast. I drag myself out of bed and throw on the outfit I wore the day before…
(This illustrator, Tyler Feder, knows way too much! Her ‘Work from home looks’ cartoon (above) went viral last month)
I stagger to the kitchen. All being well, by about 9:15am I’m sitting down at the (maybe-still-encrusted-with-last-night’s-dinner-but-don’t-judge-my-housekeeping-skills) dining table and staring at the growing list of things to do, wondering how I’m going to fit it all in. I start on my coursework backlog, hopefully also fit in a little paid freelance work, and don’t even get anywhere near my creative projects. Before I know it, it’s nearly 3:30pm, and I’m nearly late for school pickup. Again.
Some workers-from-home can juggle children, housework, paid work, distractions and still get a full day’s work done. But for the rest of us? It can be a struggle.
Here are a few ideas to help busy people make the most of the time they have.
When you think about something you’re working on, is it:
1. Important and urgent?
2. Important and not urgent?
3. Not important but urgent?
4. Not important, and not urgent
Important, urgent tasks are our everyday, and could easily soak up our available time if we let them. In my ‘work’ world, the important, urgent tasks include my studies, and any assignments or freelance work deadlines that are falling due.
The ‘Important / Not urgent’ tasks are often neglected though they can really bring us benefits in the longer term. These are my professional development, my marketing strategy for the next six months, my website under construction, working on blog posts or the time I’d like to invest in a long term creative project that no-one else will clap eyes on until the first draft is done. Meetings to discuss new work opportunities, even though they may not turn into dollars in the bank for weeks or months.
The idea with important, not urgent tasks is to gradually increase the proportion of our time that we devote to them. Important, urgent activity is my everyday, and it soaks up all my available working time. I’m going to try to set aside the first hour of a day for less urgent, but high-value activities, which will, I hope, reap long term benefits.
But how to choose between everything that’s important? For me, study and a little paid work take up the bulk of my time, and creative projects don’t really get a look-in. And when my freelancing schedule picks up, there’ll be planning (blog content plan, business development and planning, marketing) and the business of running a business.
What I’m trying to do is to assign timeslots to each activity, each day, and try to stick to them.
(Another productivity expert, Mike Vardy of the Productivityist website, in this blog post, talks about setting a theme for each day of the week to maintain focus).
Sometimes I find myself using the unimportant, urgent tasks; those phone calls and texts, the distractions and interruptions, to distract me from more difficult tasks. Making sure I allocate as much of my working time as I can to the important stuff first means the distractions are far less likely to derail my progress.
But whatever you do, leave the mindless busywork (and lolcats, and your 37th attempt to smash level 526 of Candy Crush) at the bottom of the to-do list where they belong!
Stake out your time and space and defend it
When it comes to the important stuff, the ‘when’ is easily as important as the ‘what’. Working from home has a special set of distractions associated with it. Freelancers, if they’re not careful, risk constantly being drawn away, whether by housework, which suddenly appears more attractive when there’s a blog post to write…
…or by kids and spouses, who occasionally like to socially interact with the grumpy person who’s sitting at the dinner table hours after they’ve returned home!
I have quiet working time when my kid is at school. I have to make the most of it. Not everyone has that time.
Sometimes there’s a door that can be closed. Sometimes there isn’t.
There are two rules though. 1. Tell the family how much time you need to be left alone. 2. Use that time, or lose it!
People around you often need time to get used to you not being 100% available. In the meantime, there’s sometimes nothing for it but to skip out to a cafe with a laptop and sip on a thinking beverage while you work.
As a professional, you have to do whatever it takes!
Plan to succeed
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Today, I’m working on an assignment. I’ll need to catch up on some coursework, and I have a novel manuscript to finish beta reading. If I have time, I have some short story reading to do, and I’d really love to start reading the new editing handbook that just arrived for me in the post.
Though I don’t always remember to draw up a plan, I do know that I work a whole lot better when I do. Planning may be anything from using an app (try Trello) to a sticky note that lists the three or four things I need to get done today, stuck to my laptop screen.
And no need to waste your working time coming up with your to-do list. Use the quiet moments at the end of today to scribble down on a sticky note what you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do it now! I’ll wait.
Account for Murphy’s Law
As I’m sure you know, even if you do make a plan, not everything works out that way.
It is the nature of things, Grasshopper!
For instance. I live and work in a total beauty spot in Victoria, Australia.
But it’s not perfect. Like our internet goes out for hours at a time. So when I’m on a deadline, this really. Really. Sucks.
As freelancers, we need to think like the big end of town. The big end of town always wants to know what its contingency plan is. But unlike the big end of town, we’re nimble, and instead of the 150-page Business Continuity Strategies I used to have to pore over, yours may just be a cluster of dot points.
Bring your laptop, power cable, a USB phone charger and earbuds to the next municipality’s public library, or to a cafe with free wifi or
Connect your laptop via your phone as a hotspot
Get a mobile wifi to connect to a different internet service provider’s service
Every day, at the end of the day, save all your working documents on two different backup methods. You do have backup methods, don’t you? I use a USB key and the cloud.
and so on.
It doesn’t matter what your strategies are to be able to keep working when things go awry, and whether they’re different from the next person’s. You have to just know
what tasks will you have to perform, and in what order?
what do you need to perform them? and
what’s your backup method of performing each?
That’s an extreme over-simplication of business continuity planning, but those are basic tips to keep your basic tools online.
Remember why you’re here
Sometimes it’s just hard to keep at it. I get that. It certainly doesn’t come naturally to me every day to be my own boss.
The workers are insolent! They complain all the time! They keep drinking the good coffee!
But right now, I’d much rather be here, working under my own steam, than working in a big podfarm.
That doesn’t mean I won’t take a work contract when I want to. But sometimes the only way to find out what you’re meant to be doing is to take the leap into the unknown.
It’s scary, but it’s exciting, and when I start making a little more money, I’m sure I’ll start believing I can do it!