Copyright: Fernando Soares/123RF

Self Employed: 10 weeks in…

The 6 month runway…

In March 2015, I finally took the plunge, left my job and joined the ranks of the self-employed.  I had made the decision about 6 months beforehand and spent this lead in time preparing my metaphorical parachute.  Leaving my local government role voluntarily when I’d been offered a great new role following a restructure was not easy, but communicating intentions early on at least allowed me to proactively manage a difficult transition, put my Council projects in the best possible place and then bow out with grace.  This 6 month period was also time to start thinking business, basically learning how to fly the plane when it was  taxiing its way to the runway.  As someone who had no prior experience, I had to learn pretty damn quickly!  The Internet is a wonderful place to learn – I could be here all day listing the blogs, articles and comments that helped shape my thinking (must save this for a future post…).  The 6 months were also a time to get my own house in order before the leap.  All I can say is that Mrs Sullivan is a very understanding and supportive lady… In April 2015, SBSA took off and 10 weeks on, she is still in the air.   I now feel sufficiently confident to put the parachute aside for a moment and share 5 lessons from the experience so far.

Lesson 1: The business plan is like the Schlieffen Plan.
No matter how much planning you do, it cannot completely prepare you for real life experience.

Contrary to what the subtitle suggests, the SBSA business plan is not a blueprint for world domination.  Where the similarities lie, between my business plan and that of the 1914 German military strategists, is in the lesson that the unfolding experience will not accurately reflect the theory.  The Schlieffen Plan expectation that Germany could defeat France quickly before Russia was fully mobilised was an assumption that turned into a disaster.  While getting assumptions wrong in my own plan is unlikely to lead to global catastrophe, I am learning that where assumptions are being proved wrong, this is perfectly fine so long as you reflect this new knowledge in your plan going forwards.  Learn, revise, do better next time.  While the vision in the SBSA business plan hasn’t changed, the road map to get there will need to – and that is not a bad thing.  I have learned more in 10 weeks of hands-on experience than in the 6 months planning beforehand.  And I still have an awful lot more to learn.  For those wanting to start up a business but feel held back until they’ve researched every last detail, trust me you’ll never feel completely ready.  There comes a point when you just have to jump.

Lesson 2: Working for yourself allows you to work better and smarter.
It’s amazing how much can be done in just 10 weeks.

When I spent countless hours reading blogs and articles about freelancing and self-employment, a lot was written about remaining productive without a boss standing behind you.  Advice from some sources considered the advantages of keeping regular hours, why alarms were still a good idea and when working in your pyjamas was ok.  Other articles suggested something opposite, such as the merits of not getting up until attacked by your starving cats which is allowable so long as you dress yourself in a shirt and tie when you do start work (or something like that).  Basically, the lesson here is that people are unique and only you as an individual can decide what works best for you.  This is what sets self-employment apart from the office 9-5: being able to work more in line with your preferences and rhythm, which promotes greater productivity.  In my case, I know my most productive hours are during the morning.  Sometimes I need the peace and quiet of my home office, other times background music helps move the work along (have discovered Electro Swing in the last 10 weeks – have a listen, it really helps the words flow!) and then there are times when I need the buzz of people (and coffee!) around me and so work in cafés.  Working to my own preferences and rhythm has made me far more productive on a day-to-day basis, and reflecting back over the 10 weeks, I am astounded by how much has been done.

Coffee and Wi-Fi: Getting away from the office cubicle...

Coffee and Wi-Fi: Getting away from the office cubicle…

Lesson 3: Recognise the fantastic people in your life.
You don’t have to resort to artificial and awkward networking events to start a business.

Both during the 6 months leading up to opening shop and over the last 10 weeks, I have been amazed at how much support and guidance has been freely offered by people I’ve spoken to.  From the initial soul searching stage considering whether leaving my job was a good idea, to the nitty gritty detail of business set up and administration, people really have been fantastic.  Do not neglect the positive individuals within your life when starting up as attending awkward networking events is not the only way to build a network.  Instead, I’ve come to realise that it will be through the genuine relationships built up with individuals sharing common values that will determine whether my own business succeeds or fails.   I feel it would be wrong not to mention a few people who have been a huge help on my own journey.  Lucy Harris at Pixelwork has been an inspiration, backing me every step of the way since we first met around 6 years ago.  Likewise Matt Harris has shown how important it is to always keep thinking outside of the box, and to maintain a wicked sense of humour while doing so.  Clare Lambert, who is also about to embark on her own business venture, has been a wonderful mentor over many years and a good friend.  Steve Plumb, Peter Wilkinson and David Bigden have shown how it is possible to translate a passion for the environment into meaningful business that can change lives.  Also, my dad who started his own business several years ago.  And of course my superb wife Emma who has been a rock as always.

Lesson 4: You'd better love learning.
Starting up a business is a crash course in everything.

One of the reasons that people decide to leave jobs is because they no longer feel challenged and so want to develop their knowledge, skills and experience somewhere else.  While it can be difficult taking yourself out of a comfort zone, it is a sure fire way to guarantee your own personal development.  In a new job, there are new systems and processes to learn, roles and responsibilities to fulfil and a new working culture to negotiate.  By making yourself vulnerable from time to time, you are forced to learn quickly, and this better positions you for future opportunities next time you feel stifled.  When starting up a business, you are embarking on a crash course in absolutely everything.  This year, my job has changed from local authority worker to chief executive, finance officer, web master, IT support, salesman, administrator, cleaner and just about everything in between.  I’ve had to learn how to develop financial strategies, develop cash flows and forecasts and how to bookkeep.  Learning how to build websites on WordPress (may not be perfect, but it’s getting there!) in relation to social media and marketing has been critical.  Becoming a filing whizz (may or may not be true…) while considering branding, product development and whether the current approach will still work 6 months down the line is a must.  All whilst doing the ‘day job’ for a range of different clients with bespoke requirements.  It has been full on but I absolutely love it.  Even if SBSA does not work out a year down the line, the personal development it has enabled has been totally worth it.

Lesson 5: The Pursuit of Happiness.
Remember why you became self employed in the first place.

One of the books I read earlier this year was the excellent ‘Be a Free Range Human’ by Marianne Cantwell.  Early on, she poses this question to the reader: ‘what would you do if you had only one life’? It served as a stark reminder that we all only have a limited time on this Earth.  Life is too short to be spent doing things that do not make you happy, without the people you care about.  Since starting up SBSA 10 weeks ago, I get to pursue my passion for helping people create better places drawing on the work I love doing – fundraising, project planning and project delivery – alongside my intrinsic interest in town planning, heritage and the environment.  And I get to do this every single day.  I can also balance this work with seeing family and friends and pursuing my other interests without recourse to a 9-5 structure: it really is life-changing.  10 weeks into self employment, I am a far happier person than I was 6 months ago.  Even when there have been challenges and difficult days, I think about why I became self employed in the first place and remember why it was well worth rolling the dice 10 weeks ago.

One of my feline 'associates' and his own pursuit of happiness...

One of my feline ‘associates’ and his own pursuit of happiness…

If you do come across this blog post while reading articles on whether to become freelance, self employed or start a business (however it is described), I’d be delighted to share my own experience with you further if it would help you.  Post a comment or get in touch via the contact page.  We don’t have to talk projects or planning (unless you want to of course!).