January always feels like a fresh start. A chance to begin again and move forward. It’s around this time of year that I love to review the last 12 months and consider where I’m going wrong and how I can improve.
2017 will be my tenth anniversary of working for myself as a communications consultant. I went freelance in 2007, just before the global recession with no prior business experience. Somehow, I managed to survive those first few years, build a PR agency and work for clients such as BBC and Adobe.
I’ve learned many critical lessons during my decade of business ownership, and I want to share them with you now. Just as I plan to print this out and pin it to my wall, you should too. These are the pillars of a stable working ethos – a chance to make yourself happier and more productive in 2017. A reminder that you are not alone, so you can hopefully enjoy another successful year.
1. Small isn’t so bad
If you lie awake at night worrying that your work is never good enough; be assured that most people feel that way – even those at the very top struggle with feelings of inadequacy. And if they don’t, there’s something wrong – because only the very best remain self-critical and self-aware.
Imposter syndrome is common and normal. Take comfort in what Salvador Dali said: “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”
And remember – your business is just you. You’re not a large, established agency with huge resource and lots of staff. You have limitations. You can’t be expected to work miracles. What’s more, your client may give you projects with extremely tight deadlines or smaller budgets – so it’s impossible to live up to your high expectations. All you can do is your very best.
The important thing to question is whether you’re adding any value. Because as a small business, 'value' should be one of your unique selling points. Are you helping to make a difference? Are you consulting and steering the client in the right direction? Are you providing affordable services? Just because you’re small, it doesn’t mean you’re not valuable or contributing something worthwhile.
2. Confidence will get you everywhere
We all suffer from self-doubt. Sometimes, things happen to us in business that can knock our confidence. And it’s during those moments that we stop winning work and new clients – which can only exacerbate the problem.
Confidence is, therefore, your most important attribute. It can sail you through the stormiest of seas and help you ride the biggest waves. It is the ultimate tool for your survival, so you have to protect and nurture it. When you are suffering from self-doubt, remember the following secrets:
- No one knows what they’re doing, and everyone is petrified of being ‘found out’ – even the biggest egos suffer
- You have skills and experience that people will want to pay for; you can always make a difference to any client, as long as you do your best
- You’ll never stop feeling as though you’re not good enough – that’s a good way to be; it’ll encourage you always to improve and stay ahead of the competition
- You have survived this long in business for a reason – people like you and want to work with you
- Being a freelancer is damn hard and a triumph in itself. Pat yourself on the back for choosing a path that many wouldn't dream of following.
Still feeling unconfident? The following tips will help you get through those times when self-belief isn’t happening:
- Hold your head up high, walk with an air of purpose and adopt positive body language; think of a confident role model and copy their style
- Go to the gym, eat healthily, limit alcohol intake, take care of your appearance and dress the part – feeling and looking good does wonders for your confidence
- Look people in the eyes, shake hands firmly and speak up – keep repeating to yourself that you are worthy and have something to contribute
- Smile and be light-hearted; we all warm to happy people – they’re attractive and pleasant to be around
- Give yourself a break: you’re human, you’re not Superman (even he has his weaknesses), and you’re prone to make mistakes. This is how we are. This is how we learn
- If you're not sure about something – learn about it! By adopting new skills and knowledge, your confidence will soar.
Read our extra tips on how to be confident in business.
3. Dwelling on things is pointless, but consider the lessons
So you messed up. Learn from your mistake and move on. Don’t waste time and energy, beating yourself up over things that have already happened. Be thankful that you experienced them and know that something good always comes out of everything.
Ask yourself these questions: What did I learn from the experience? How can I ensure it doesn’t happen again? What productive steps can I take to move forward? Could I take a course? Change my product offering? Employ someone to help?
By immediately finding ways to move on and improve, you’ll avoid self-deprecation and spend more valuable time figuring out how to do better next time. Paula Scher once said: “It’s through mistakes that you actually can grow. You have to get bad to get good.”
4. Change is a beautiful thing; embrace it
If something isn’t working, change it. Whether you ditch an idea, move office space or let go of someone who could be holding you back, don’t be afraid to transform yourself or your business altogether.
Change has done nothing but good for me. As I’m a relatively small business, I’m agile and can try new things whenever I like. Sometimes things backfire, but that only leads to new opportunities to improve. It's one of the best ways to learn.
What one thing has been bugging you lately? What would you change if there were no circumstances? Could you try a gentle approach first, to see if you’re on the right path?
Sometimes, we might avoid change because it means we have to do things we'd rather not, like letting go of staff or moving away from a business partner.
Running a business will always be challenging. But you have to consider how much worse a situation might become if you drag your heels and avoid tackling what needs to be done. Just make sure you do your best with everyone, and remember that you're dealing with people – not numbers on a spreadsheet.
5. You should always listen to your gut
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ignored my gut, and then regretted it later. People I’ve met, clients I’ve seen, work I’ve sent off for approval – I knew something didn’t feel right but carried on regardless. I ignored what my body was screaming at me, and it's led to nothing but trouble.
It's a feeling you can't quite describe; it's when your body is telling you something is wrong. When faced with your own difficult decisions, it's a good idea to trust your gut because it might save you from making mistakes.
Not sure how to? The best way to develop your intuition is to start listening to your feelings. Think of a time when you knew something was right or wrong, and you listened to that feeling. Consider this: how did you know? How did you feel in your body? Was there a voice? Did your stomach do a flip?
To develop your gut instincts, you have to learn to recognise the way your body and mind responds to those feelings. That way, you'll get better at relying on your hunches.
Of course, emotional intelligence can only be developed by going through hard times. Be open to this, and you'll become more and more aware of other people and their intentions, and hopefully, you'll get better at making decisions too. For more tips, read our article on how to trust your gut in business.
6. Be wary and question people's motives
Most freelancers or agency owners are friendly and harmless, keen to make your acquaintance and build a helpful network on their doorstep. However, some might try to manipulate and take what they need from you – even if that's one of your clients.
Business can be cut-throat, and you have to be wary if you want to survive. By all means, be friendly and open to making new relationships, but remember that some may not have your best interests at heart.
If you're a kind soul, it's hard to adapt to this competitive environment and employ traits that don't suit your personality. Still, you have to get savvy at understanding people's motivations and why they want to know more about you, who you work with, and what you do.
Don't be gullible; be cautious about what you share and understand that when it comes to money, people are capable of lowering themselves to levels you'd never imagine possible.
7. Ignore everyone
I'm not asking you to become arrogant and suddenly develop a massive ego; I'm advising that you ignore what everyone else is saying and doing, and focus on your endeavours. You will undoubtedly be a lot happier and more productive, as you concentrate on your business and ignore everyone else.
It's all too easy to become sucked into the world of competition; keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing and seeing which clients or industry awards they're winning. Sure, that might be good to stay abreast of your sector but has it led to anything healthy or worthwhile? It's more likely that you waste time on worrying about how inadequate you are and punishing yourself over negative thoughts. Besides, you might be surprised to learn that those you admire might not be doing as well as you think.
8. Work/life balance is key to your survival
It might be tempting to work long hours – but believe me; it will only lead to burnout and misery. And that isn't good for you or anyone.
Don't throw your life away on work. Treat evenings and weekends as sacred opportunities to relax and unwind. Have a few hobbies and make sure one of them involves exercise. Move your body as much as possible, especially if you're chained to your desk most days. It's been proven that exercise helps to reduce stress, boost happy hormones and make you feel great. Running or cycling in particular help to clear the mind, giving you space to prepare for the next working day.
Always have a holiday or weekend break booked, so you have something to look forward to – that's a top tip from my accountant, you know. If you can't escape for a week or two because clients rely on you too much, read our advice on how to go on holiday when you freelance. Otherwise, book lots of short breaks instead of one big one. That way, you can escape with confidence, knowing that your long weekend won't be interrupted by client calls or emails.