Posted by Dan Steer
When I started out freelance in October 2008, I knew setting up business for myself involved risk: “Will I be able to win clients? Will I survive? Am I better off with the security of employment for someone else?”
On day 1, I had a contract for 11 days work at 350 euros before VAT. Enough to pay the bills for the first month. But I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in November?”
I started the next month with the same (renewed) contract and some other new work . I asked myself: “Will I have enough work in January?”
Eventually, as I saw some stability, I managed to stop worrying too far in the future. (Today, for example, I know that I have enough work until February 2016.) I started to think the sky was the limit and wondered how far I could increase my revenue. I even congratulated myself on being able to take on so much and make it work. At that point, things became interesting and the fear changed form…
I would win more-and-more work and invoice more-and-more, but I started to feel the pressure of too much work. But I told myself that this was “a luxury problem” .. I should be thankful the work is there. I was afraid to say “no”. If they asked for me, I had to make it happen. If I said “no”, it would all fall apart sometime later. This is how my work progressed…
Proudly, I would tell myself I was working and invoicing more-and-more and that business was great. But a look at the facts told me something was wrong:
- I was working minimum 60 hours a week, every week
- I was too tired to enjoy any of my non-work time
- People said I was on the road to burn-out
- I was making money, but I didn’t feel like I had any control
- I worried constantly that if I said “no”, people would go away and I would lose that business in the future
- I was “successful” on paper, but not happy
For a while, I held the course. It worked.
Then it didn’t. I couldn’t do it anymore.
The next year (2013), I had a “crash” and couldn’t work for a few months. When I went back to work, I struggled to deal with the commitments I had made prior to that. But I wouldn’t dare go back to those clients and say “I can’t do it”. That would be breaking a promise. And I had already let them down by the taking time off. So on I went. The yearly revenue went up even more despite the time off. And although the average work time went down on the year (due to my absence) my actual week looked even worse then ever.
I wondered if I had learnt anything, but in the back of my mind I had at least started to ask some good questions:
- How can I call myself successful if I’m not happy or healthy? “Success” in terms of what?
- How much of my life do I want to spend “working”?
- What work do I WANT to be doing? If I was only doing what I liked most, what would it be?
- How much money do I need to live how I want to live? Why would I need more than that?
- If I say “No” to anything that doesnt fit the work I want, or anything unnecessary to meet a quarterly financial need, what could be the worst that might happen?
Not knowing all the answers was tough. It fueled the fear (“Don’t screw it up”). But I was past the point of no-return: Assumptions had to be tested to find a new balance.
Today, the graph has progressed on both measurements, most importantly the average weekly work-time:
Here’s what I learnt from my crash:
- Its not healthy to consider success in terms of “more”. Success is achieving what you really want or need and no more. In terms of my revenue, I no longer think “Can I invoice more?” but rather “Do I now have enough?” If the answer is “yes”, I won’t take on any more work. I know that its possible in the short-term, but more work and more money is not the goal. For the years to follow, I have no intention at all to see those blue bars go up.
- I now set “work-life balance” goals more in terms of “life” than “work”. What do I want to be doing with my time on Earth, both in and (now importantly) out of work time? (The answer by the way is “having fun” and “relaxing”). I want to see those red bars go down even more. Or at least to consider that all “work” is “not work” (fun).
- I made a decision on the financial worth of a day of my life. Here’s how: If I want to be doing 123 when I’m not working and I need XYZ euros to sustain that, how much do I need to earn while I AM working? And if I divide that by the maximum time I am willing to work, what is my required day-rate? This is a very different approach to “What did I used to invoice?”, “How much will they pay me?” or “What is the market price?”
- Although previous experience made me think I knew how things worked, testing assumptions has proved me wrong. For example, when I clients came along, I tested the assumption of what they would be willing to pay for my time. That’s why the blue bar HAS still gone up.
- I fired a few clients. Those who weren’t bringing me joy in my day-to-day interactions had to go, as did those who weren’t willing to pay for my time (life). Blue bar up; red bar down.
- I started to say “No” trying to trust myself and the universe that it would all be OK.
The results in terms of finance and work-time are in the graph above, but the important results cannot be seen in numbers:
- My time off work is spent sitting in the sun, playing with my kids, sleeping more and making music
- This summer was the first in 7 years where I didn’t “fall over and die” from exhaustion in the first 2 weeks off
- I have more focus in the jobs I take on and more fun day-to-day doing the work
- I still have my annual 15 weeks holiday 🙂
“So, Dan, what’s your point?” I hear you ask? “Why write this?”
I guess for those that don’t need to hear this experience, there is nothing to learn. But if you are lost in your quest for freelance success, victim of your own ability to please your clients or worried that your work-life imbalance is not sustainable, maybe this is the point:
Be clear on what you want out of freelance life, focus on that in every interaction, test your assumptions and dare to take your cake and eat it.
But, in the words of some wise Chinese tourist-site manager…
Thanks for reading