Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Self-employment stories – Part I: My story

Happy New Year! It’s been a wet and foggy one here in Rutland so far, but luckily not very cold – the first snowdrops are already emerging!

Self-employment stories – Part I: My story

In October last year I visited the University of Exeter to speak to their students about my experiences of setting up and running a successful self-employed business as part of the university’s Global Entrepreneurship Week. While preparing my talk, I spent a lot of time reflecting upon my experience of self-employment – how I’d ended up becoming self-employed, the main challenges I’d faced, the most valuable lessons I’d learned. The students told me they found hearing about my own experiences really helpful, so I’m going to be sharing them in this post. Here is my self-employment story (scroll to the bottom if you just want my top tips)!

My way into self-employment
I grew up in England, Canada and Germany as a bilingual native speaker of English and German. After finishing school I went to university, which I enjoyed so much I decided I wanted to take a PhD and then get a lecturing job. However, once I had become a lecturer,
I realised I wasn’t enjoying myself. In particular, I wasn’t enjoying the lack of freedom to decide what and how I wanted to teach, the huge amounts of paperwork, the constantly changing policies and procedures, and the overall dependence on government whims for funding. I had assumed that what attracted me to academia was the ability to engage with literature, theory and the arts. But now that I was missing freedom and independence, I realised these were actually far more important to me than my subject. Was there a something I could do instead that would give me the self-sufficiency I longed for? Suddenly it seemed very obvious: throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate years I had always worked as a translator on the side as a way of earning extra pocket money. As a native speaker of English and German, I kept getting asked to do this – I didn’t have to look for clients. Some clients I had even worked with regularly for several years. Might it be possible to start doing this kind of work again, earning enough money to make a living?

Starting out
I decided to take the plunge and switched to part-time work so I could earn some regular income while building up my translation and editing business. Given that all of my professional experience was in academia and the cultural sector, I decided it made sense to specialise in this area.
I contacted all my old clients as well as my university colleagues and let them know I was looking for work. I also asked them for testimonials that I could use on the website and marketing materials I was planning to create. I joined the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), the UK’s professional association for translators, which gave me access to a professional network of colleagues who proved a fount of knowledge concerning the industry. As I felt I had very few “business skills” as such, I took a 6-month group course on self-employment called “Turn your Passion to Profit” with Corrina Gordon-Barnes, a specialist business coach – probably my single most useful step! I also took an “Orientation Course” organised by ITI for newcomers to the industry, which again is something I would highly recommend. I attended several free workshops on self-employment and taxes run by my local HMRC office. I also had a professional website built for my business. This was comparatively expensive but really paid off – I still get compliments for this website years down the line and it really helped me to stand out and look professional.

Becoming established
There were still a few bad patches in the first 6 months, but then – almost overnight things started to pick up; I gained a couple of good regular clients; old clients kept coming back; I got recommended on. I started making money. In fact, everything went so well that I was able to quit lecturing after a year and a quarter, not 2 years as originally planned. I spent a lot of time building a professional profile (networking, blogging, publishing in trade journals, presenting at local and national business events). This usually doesn’t cost anything but time and is a very effective way of “showing up” – becoming visible to your colleagues and target market. I now find that most of my work comes from referrals and repeat customers; they basically do my marketing for me. Today I am in the very lucky position to not have been without a project on the go for a very long time, and despite the challenges of self-employment (my particular demons: dealing with my terror of “money issues”; learning how much my work was actually worth and charging that; managing periods with a very high workload; learning how to respond to criticism; learning how to say “no” to clients), I now can’t imagine working in any other way.

My top tips for self-employment:

       You need to be able to motivate yourself.
       Do something you are passionate about – it makes it easier to motivate yourself!
       Define a clear niche or “tribe” for your service or product (and make sure it really exists).
       Get support – you don’t have to do it alone (professional networks, mentors, mastermind groups).
       Have a financial safety net in place, at least for the first while (savings, loan, part-time work).
       Marketing is all about becoming visible to your “tribe” – find where they hang out (in real life or online) and let them see you.
       Making your clients happy so they recommend you on is the most sustainable form of marketing.
       Keep showing up – networking, marketing, sharing your expertise in whichever          way.

In next month’s second installment of this blog post, I’m going to share the self-employment stories of colleagues from a whole range of businesses and sectors – do check in again for their experiences and advice! And if you’ve got any tips to add to my list in the meantime, please leave a comment below!