Your competitors are idiots

Look at your competitors and pity them ((pity the Gelth)). Old, creaky, out of touch.

Their websites are out of date and confusing.

Their marketing tactics are crass and old fashioned.

Their product range is limited and out of date. They do not understand the market like you do.

What you bring to the market is something new.

You understand SEO.

You have new and shiny products ((which people NEED)).

You know everybody who matters on Twitter.

You have 75 Klout thingies ((and you are influential about bananas))

Your potential customers are desperate for a change.

The moment they see you you will ditch their old contracts and hitch their wagons to your shining star.

The fifteen year relationship they have with your competitor will count for nothing.

The fact that your competitor understands their business inside out will be of no consequence.

They will forget that time when your competitor didn’t sleep for a week to sort out that HR disaster that she had warned them would be a problem and never said I told you so.

The moment they see your website with that YouTube embed of you talking at that conference they will be putty in your hands.

There is absolutely no chance that your competitors are not idiots.

That they have reputations so strong in the sector that they don’t need websites to sell themselves.

That their lack of facility with social media tools is no barrier to building and maintaining relationships in the market ((weirdly a lack of facility with social media tools doesn’t particularly seem to be a barrier to being a specialist in social media)).

That they have spend a lot of time listening to customers, understanding what they want and designing services and products as a result.

No chance whatsoever.

Which is, of course a relief.

How to lose races in a sailing dinghy

In my youth I became an expert in losing sailing races.

I consulted a book. Weirdly it was a book explaining how to win races.

Consider the question of tacking

it said

There is a right way and a wrong way to tack across any course. If everyone else has taken a particular tack there is probably a good reason for it.

Despite these wise words whenever I set off to race I would find that the most obvious course lay in a different direction to the fleet.

And as I sat becalmed watching the fleet power along the other side of the lake I would reflect that there probably was a good reason for this.

I never learned to follow the fleet though. And in the end I gave up racing. ((this is by way of being an allegory, or possibly metaphor, whatever we may revisit the themes revealed herein))

Walking out is awesome and totally a good idea

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more satisfying than handing in your notice.

Yes there is: resigning on the spot.

Resigning on the spot and reciting that speech that you’ve been rehearsing in your head for years. The one so full of righteous invective that your boss withers before your very eyes weakly calling

“I’m melting I’m melting” ((or possibly you drop a house on them))

Resigning, walking out and then refusing to come back when they beg you. Even when they throw themselves under the wheels of your car.

Or bicycle.

Many of us dream of leaving our jobs.

A lot of us have had tearful conversations with our partners in which the idea is explored and rejected.

Because you can’t just walk out of your job now can you?

Can you?

No. No you can’t ((obviously you can))

Let ,me really clear here there are very few circumstances under which it is a sensible idea to just quit

  • you have another job ((getting a job really is failing at freelancing))
  • you have won the lottery ((buying lottery tickets is not an acceptable business plan))
  • you are independently wealthy ((you aren’t for more on this see Planning is boring and for wimps))

Some people who go freelance do not just walk out of their jobs. They approach their employer and discuss their plans.

“I’m not happy in my work”

they say

“And I’m planning to go freelance.”

Then, while their employer reels in shock they follow up with

“Obviously I could just hand in my notice but I thought you might like to discuss ways in which I can stay involved with this shower for a bit longer”.

Maybe they reduce their hours and start freelancing part time with the blessing of their employer.

Maybe their employer becomes their first client.

Muppets.

They don’t know the unbridled panic and despair that comes of suddenly having to fill five days a week with freelance work from a standing start ((and without a plan obv)).

Merchandising

On being directed to this blog the estimable @danslee asked if there was a plan to produce htfaf merchandising.

I think if I invest heavily in a range of merchandise which I fail to sell that could fit in nicely with the general theme of the site.

Money isn’t everything sounds better when you have money

From time to time you will run into those who went before. They jumped into the Rubicon ((I appreciate that Ceasar actually crossed the Rubicon but I like to mix my metaphors. Or is it allusions?)) as it were. And when you see them they look relaxed. They’ve lost weight. They dress casually. And they say things like

“It is brilliant working for yourself”.

“It is without doubt the best decision I ever made”.

“Business is great. Actually I just finished a massive project. Taking a couple of weeks off to unwind. That’s why I’m in the pub at 2 in the afternoon. With a tan. Nursing a pint”.

Which all seems to add compelling weight to the argument that you too should jump in.

But I have to tell you that they are probably not telling the truth.

In fact they are almost certainly not telling you the truth.

Does that shock you?

That old colleagues, people you respect, people you like, people who went through the Brentford merger with you and survived, should lie to your face. It is intolerable.

I’m probably making it up.

I’m not making it up. Though on the plus side they may not be lying in the conventional sense. What is truth? as someone asked (( it was Pilate obv. Just double checking this I looked up the quote online and was struck, once again my the magnificence of the language in the King James version. Not germane to this blog, controversial or amusing but true )).

Understand them. Sympathise with them. Empathise with them.

Pity them.

Leaving a real-life job is, as you are about to find out, a shock in the proper sense. It is dislocating in ways that you do not expect. You miss the regular day to day contact with other human beings. You miss the shared jokes: the water-cooler moments.

You miss being told what to do.

And you miss the money.

“Money isn’t everything” turns out to be much more attractive as a philosophy when you actually have money. And when you have a reasonable expectation that there will be more money at the same time next month.

Take these things away and you find that money turns out to represent a much bigger proportion of everything than you had previously believed.

And this prompts in many people a process rather like grieving.

The freelancer, on finding that the world outside their organisation is not as perfect as they had imagined, becomes angry. Depending on their dysfunction they could become angry at themselves for walking out of their job without a proper plan or angry at others: at their evil ex-boss who held them back or at the stupidity of potential clients ((If the latter is your dysfunction, you’re going to love “Your customers are idiots” if and when I get round to writing it)).

Quickly following upon the anger is despair. How could they have been so stupid? They walked out on a regular paycheck, a pension, and a purpose. They will never get another contract. Their children will starve. They will be evicted. Their life is ruined.

Despair quickly turns to denial. Everything is fine, just fine. Dandy even. Fine and dandy ((it’s like a hard candy Christmas but that’s taking us back to despair again)). Great. Best decision I ever made.

And it’s very easy to be trapped in a vicious circle where you spiral round and round anger despair and denial.

This is the probably the state that you find your ex-colleagues in.

It is an excellent way to fail at freelancing.

 

Spiritual guidance

A few years ago I discovered Buddhism.

Every week I would pop off on my bike for an evening of meditation and spiritual discussion.

I felt my values changing.

I began to think that my life and career priorities were wrong.

I decided to trust to fate and launch myself upon the world as a freelance consultant.

I excitedly explained to my Buddhist teacher.

“I’m stepping off the career ladder. All this contemplation of ethics, mindfulness and spiritual practice. It’s really changed the way I look at the world.”

He looked at me sadly.

“No”

he said

“it’s just your age”

Competition, the stuff of failure

Now I’m not a very competitive person.

I blame my parents.

We didn’t really “do” football. My father rebelled against his parents by rejecting their religion of cricket. We did race sailing boats but my father never really set out to win and my mother got migraines from the sparkles on the water.

A confluence of middle-class guilt and socialism led to success being associated with deep guilt. Winning was evidence of the fundamental inequity in the capitalist regime. Of course I won. I had the benefits of engaged, articulate parents, a stimulating environment packed with the resources that only hard work and professional success can buy.

In fact my parents brought me up to understand that success should be redistributed. Taking their weird confused world view to a logical conclusion the winner of the FA cup should be relegated as a punishment and have its first team redistributed to a random selection of non league clubs ((unless it was Newcaste United)) ((actually that sounds pretty ace to me… see what I’m up against)).

So I struggle with the whole concept of competition in principle.

This is a disadvantage in freelancing which is a competitive environment.

You are probably pretty relaxed about this.

You probably weren’t brought up by yoghurt weavers.

You probably support a football team, can understand the offside rule and wept just a little bit at Euro 96 ((or celebrated depending on nationality)).

Even so you are going to struggle having competitors.

Because, despite what you may believe, say and have read, following professional sport is merely recreation. It is not war by other means. It is not a crucial aspect of your existence.

It does not, when all is said and done, matter that much.

Where as in business it does matter. The difference is you see that in business your competitors can make you starve, throw your family into penury and hurl you into the deep pit of bankruptcy.

Which genuinely does matter.

Some people find this stimulating. The real and imminent prospect of their dog starving, of their children going without shoes, their mortgage being foreclosed gets them out of bed in the morning. It provides a measure for them to measure themselves by. Their identity becomes intertwined with keeping their family from penury.

They follow the teachings of Lao Tzu, studying and understand their competitors as though they were an enemy army. They plan their strategy and tactics to leave no room for error, to crush their opponents, to grind them into the dust, to destroy them utterly and wipe them from the face of the earth.

Those people will not fail at freelancing.

But you probably wouldn’t want to spend any time in their company.

Planning is boring (and for wimps)

Every business manual that you come across, every small business advisor you meet and any experienced and successful business person you see sweating inside their suit will emphasise the importance of planning.

But I ignored them.

Because planning is for other people.

It is vital for people trying to build larger businesses. It is crucial for those who aren’t as clear about their skills as I was. It’s important for people moving into a new field.

But, for me Tommy, planning was a waste of time ((And the war was over)).

Who cares about cashflow forecasts when you won’t need to buy anything and you won’t need to employ anyone.

That’s what’s brilliant about freelancing you see. It’s so easy. You already have the tools, most of them anyway, and you don’t need to spend any money on marketing because everyone knows you.

One call to the HMRC and you are self-employed, freelance, a small business person.

People banging on about business plans are always also going on about doing market research.

“Phone potential clients up”

they say

“and ask them what sort of freelancers they hire. Ask them how often they hire freelancers. Ask them what they pay”.

Which is likely to be a pretty tedious and, lets face it, probably unpleasant way to spend a few hours.

What I always say to people is this

“It doesn’t matter how big the market is because there’s only one of me. And I don’t need much work to keep busy”

Which is very much how I became an expert in how to fail at freelancing.

There are people who spend a few days thinking about what skills they have, what people want to buy and what is the best way to market themselves.

But then there are people who go through their bank statements line by line each month.

There are even people who complete their tax returns on time.

People like that, people bound by the petty restrictions of convention, people who have probably never done a spontaneous thing in their lives. People like that are not the same as you and me.

OK, they’ll be able to feed the cat and pay the mortgage.

But will they truly be free?

I was warned. My employer hired a couple of clever people to work with the managers in the organisation to make sure they had the right skills to support their teams through the merger. One of these gurus spent a bit of time with me.

I explained that I was leaving to go and work for myself. He asked a question that I was ill equipped to answer

“What are you going to do?”

I looked at him I like he was a bit of an idiot.

“Consultancy”

I said.

He looked at me like I was a bit of an idiot.

“Have you drawn up a business plan?”

He asked

I had not.

A look of pity crossed his face. He asked me another question which, I can now see, I should have reflected on in a little more detail.

“Are you independently wealthy?”

Just walk out of your job

I always wanted to work for myself. Back in the day when I was trying to be a scientist (really) I talked about setting up a consultancy with my mate Dave.

Actually that would be have been quite a good idea. Dave had many of the right qualities for someone who wants to make a success running their own business.

I do not.

I did run a small business with someone. Like many things in my life it was an unusual businesses proposition. Essentially a global energy giant wrote us a large cheque once a year and then we went around making them feel bad about it. When the attraction of this palled for them we wound the company up and laid a bunch of people off. It was an experience I found very difficult and it put me off employing people.

Running a company is very different to working for yourself. It’s a social act for a start. Other people are involved in a shared enterprise. Even if you are the boss you are part of something larger than yourself.

You are “Ben Proctor from X” ((You probably won’t be “Ben Proctor” from anywhere but you get the general point. If you are Ben Proctor let me say “howdy”. I would say “what a coincidence” but let’s face it you probably picked this blog because of the name of the author. If not I apologise. Great name buddy!)) rather than “Ben Proctor the slightly awkward” There are people to argue with about the milk rota, to shout at, to have illicit affairs with ((I’m just floating options here, not speaking from experience)).

So what was it that drew me to self employment?

I never liked doing what I was told. I do not like having a boss (even though I have had some great bosses over the years).

I do not like obeying an arbitrary set of rules or undertaking tasks that I believe will not help, are not well thought out or will get me covered in jam I really hate punching the clock or just being at my desk because it is the time when people have to be at their desks.

Anyway in my head freelancing is associated with freedom, with throwing off the shackles of bureaucracy, with sticking it to the man.

So when my job started to get tough in 2008 naturally I began to think about going it alone.

I was working in local government. I had rather enjoyed my work but we were in the throes of being merged with other councils. I didn’t fancy my chances in the new council. There was nothing interesting to do in the old council ((Nothing interesting for a man of my temperament. My colleagues were fully engaged in the fields of protecting vulnerable people, supporting the economy and looking after the environment.)). I began to float around the offices pale and wan. I would sigh heavily. Ennui ensued.

My colleagues, of course, faced similar challenges and they dealt with them in three main ways
1. Getting on with it. Doing the job they were paid to do to the best of their ability and waiting to see what turned up.
2. Applying for other, better jobs in other, better places.
3. Drinking heavily.

Freedom called to me from the landing.

And there was the possibility of getting a dog ((My leaving gift was a dog basket. Dogs and their strong link to failing at freelancing might be something we return to)).