When a side project turns profitable: How to leave your clients to build on its success

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If you’ve been lucky enough to turn a side project into a healthy income stream, one that could easily pay the bills and then some, you might be thinking about leaving your clients or job for good. In fact, you’ve probably been teetering on the edge for some time, daring to take the leap.

You’re possibly one of the thousands of freelancers who benefited from the global recession in 2008 when brands ditched their larger agencies and turned to more affordable alternatives, such as yourself. You did so well, you transformed from a one-man band into a small studio. And many of you went on to build successful agencies.

Whilst all that was going on, you even came up with a side project or two. Something to keep you feeling creative when the inevitable treadmill of running a business took over. Like a few of my friends in a similar field, you might’ve got to 10 years and felt exhausted. Ready for a new challenge. And it’s the side project that now offers escape.

I’m in a similar position myself. And it’s frightening but exciting. I’m fully aware I could keep my PR consultancy going, i.e. the day job that I started 12 years ago. Hire someone to look after my clients. Or take on staff. But there are several problems with this. Firstly, being a small business, people tend to hire me. They don’t like it when I introduce someone else. Whether it’s staff or another freelancer – they still want me to be around. Secondly, I have my reputation to consider, so I’ll always have to be involved at some level. Yes, I could find some amazing people (and that has been the case) but let’s be honest – if someone’s good, they’ll probably want to do their own thing or move on eventually.

To be truthful, I don’t want to grow an agency. That’s not my bag. Did it for five or six years. Totally burnt me out. Took me further and further away from the creative work. An HR manager is what I became and that didn’t make me happy. I admire those who do. Grow agencies, that is. Who manage to drive forward despite the challenges. Who have that all-encompassing desire to build something to be proud of and perhaps sell one day. That’s just not me.

Instead, I’ve had an unrelenting drive to develop my own products. So I’m able to do what I love for a living and have something that’s mine to do whatever I want with.

Yes, clients are wonderful – whilst you have them. I’ve helped many businesses to thrive, improving their communications at every level and, in some cases, transformed fledgeling firms into multi-million turnover success stories. But that’s their success, not mine. I want to be in their shoes.

It’s also that urge to be in control of my own destiny. To get a thrill when I realise that whatever happens next, it’s down to me and me alone.

Does this sound familiar? Have you clicked on this article, curious to see how you could make that leap into the unknown? If you’ve been lucky enough… Ok, scrap that. If you’ve worked incredibly hard to build your own side ventures whilst working for other people, and you’re at a crossroads, contemplating your next steps, then read on.

Be brutally honest with yourself

Does your side project have a viable, profitable future? You might wholeheartedly believe in it. But will it work long-term? Are you genuinely facing a real opportunity here or is hope giving you false ideas?

If you've been making a decent income without clients for over a year, then fear might be the only thing holding you back. Otherwise, keeping clients or a job part-time might be the best way to go. Jeffrey Silverstein has some great advice on this.

Have the courage to let go

I recently went for a pint with Mr Bingo, who deliberately no longer works for clients, and chatted about my own situation. He quite rightly pointed out, "you're making more money from your venture than your PR business, right? You've been doing so for some time. What are you afraid of? You know hard work – you'll make it happen."

He's right. You know how to hustle too. You'll make your side project work. You'll invest the hours. You have done already. The only thing that's holding you back is you.

Keep a safety net just in case

Don’t ditch your business. Change it. Be honest about what you now do but say you're still open for business, freelance-wise. Just specialise instead. Then you can pick and choose anyone who approaches you for client work. They might want you to work the same magic for them.

The beauty of marketing yourself in this way – as a specialist consultant – is that you can raise your prices and earn more money for less time. Because you don’t technically need the work, do you? Also, Brexit is happening. And you remember 2008, right?

Consider the worst case scenario

What's the most terrible thing that could happen? You don’t make any money? Yeah, that would do it. However, with such a great opportunity in front of you, how will you ever know you gave it your best shot if you’re still on the treadmill for clients or working 9 ’til 5?

Save enough money to back you up for three to six months – give your side venture everything you've got and if it's not working, you can go back to freelancing or find a job.

Reduce overheads as much as possible

Make your life cheap and cheerful. I’ve been out and about chatting to people in similar boats and it's interesting to hear that many made drastic lifestyle changes to follow their hearts. Leaving London, for example, is a common theme. What can you let go of to ease the pressure to earn? Meanwhile, Wealthsimple has some excellent tips on saving money.

No job or client is safe anyway

We often delude ourselves that we're secure in our current situation but anything might change overnight. If the only thing that's holding you back is the fear of your venture suddenly turning sour, imagine what you could achieve with more focus, time and headspace!

Open up your world to other entrepreneurs

It's so easy to get stuck at our desks, never venturing out to be social. Side projects can definitely make us hermits as we strive to succeed. But meeting others in a similar boat can be incredibly enriching.

I did so myself this week, meeting Algy Batten of The Art of Ping Pong and former Five Foot Six fame. It was wonderful to share our experiences of running agencies and building side projects. It gave me courage and confidence in my own plans. And hopefully, I returned the favour. Get out there and seek advice. Don't think you're alone – you'll be surprised just how many people are willing to help.

Give yourself a break

If you're going through lots of change, and some of that involves letting go of a business that you've invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into, it's only natural that you'll be feeling vulnerable. Perhaps lacking in confidence. You're human, not a machine.

Remember how far you've come. Give yourself that pat on the back you deserve. Celebrate the little wins along the way. Because building any business is hard. And this side project will naturally come with its own challenges.

But if you're holding onto that cliff edge, and you know you can let go, consider how you felt when you went freelance over a decade ago. Look at what you've achieved since then. You can do it again. And you will survive. No matter what happens next.