Five lessons learned in my first year as a reluctant entrepreneur
In January 2017 I opened the spreadsheet I’d been using for three years and changed the name from Job Applications 2016 to Job Applications 2017. I applied for six jobs that month, lengthy application forms, letters of motivation and online aptitude tests. I even had to print out and post three copies one of the applications – a first in over 3 years of applications. I made a big decision that month - I was not going to spend the following eleven months applying for jobs. They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well this form of madness had to stop, there had to be a better way.
Lesson 1 – Ask for help
Over the years of unemployment after finishing my PhD I asked lots of people for help, the Careers Service in my university, CV writers and recruitment agencies, former employers, family and friends. I did mock interviews, paid someone to rewrite my CV, updated my LinkedIn profile, did courses to upskill and exams to qualify as a project manager but I still kept banging on closed doors. Finally I decided to ask those who know me best for suggestions. With a lump in my throat I emailed a group of close friends and asked them what skills they thought I had that others would be willing to pay for. The subject line was “Help” and the first line was “I don’t know what to do”. I asked them to reply individually so as not to influence each other’s answers. Several of my friends suggesting writing as a marketable skill. It’s interesting that often we don’t place a high value on things we do well or that come easily. I had never thought that anyone would be willing to pay someone else to write for them, I mean, surely everyone can write and enjoys writing?
Lesson 2 – Make friends with fear
Get comfortable with low levels of anxiety but don’t let them paralyse you. I could have taken the path to self-employment much earlier than 2017 but fear held me back. I kept trying the same familiar ways to find a job with the same familiar unsuccessful results. Part of this is evolutionary I’m sure, it takes a risk taker to try to eat the unfamiliar blue berry when your tribe has always eaten red ones. After all, who knows what could happen if you eat something different, worst case scenario you get sick and die. Best case, delicious new fruit: blueberries. While my self-employment is unlikely to lead to death (except in the sense that life ultimately leads to death!) there is a strong fear of social death. What if I look like an eejit, if no-one will give me work, if the work I do isn’t good enough, what if, what if, what if? Or what if I love it, am good at it, am kept busy and productive with happy clients? Sometimes the fear of success can be just as powerful as the fear of failure.
Lesson 3 – You’re not that special
Yes, you have unique talents, a USP, the right qualifications, motivation, drive and ambition…but so do lots of other people. In fact you need to surround yourself with those other people, particularly those who have been running their own businesses for longer than you. One of the most helpful things to me in the past year of self-employment has been the peer support from other entrepreneurs. There is no problem that I have encountered that someone in my network hasn’t dealt with before. It’s great to have trusted peers to turn to when the low level of anxiety starts to climb to paralysis level. Having someone else say “I had that same problem and I did xyz” or even just “I had that problem and it sucks” can be enough to feel in control again and back on track.
Lesson 4 – Take guilt-free breaks
Actually this is a lesson I learned during my PhD but it applies to self-employment just as much. In the early stages of my PhD I noticed that some of my peers seemed to work seven days a week but didn't finish their dissertations any earlier than those who only worked five or six days a week. I made the decision that while I would work Monday to Friday and occasionally work at weekends I would always take one full day off every week. Typically I would work Monday to Friday and until lunchtime on Saturday. On the days when I submitted work to my supervisor I took the afternoon off to go to the cinema. I’m trying to apply the same work ethic to my self-employment. I say trying because sometimes I cheat and do some admin and housekeeping work on a Sunday. However, I have just had five days offline and with my mobile switched off and I feel so much more enthusiastic about my work than I did before I took the time off. And guess what happened while I was offline? Nothing much as it turns out, a few emails, one voicemail, no emergencies. I’m not a self-employed organ transplant surgeon. My breaks can be planned, my clients can be fore-warned and deadlines met before I down tools.
Lesson 5 – Celebrate your wins, learn from your losses
One of the things I love most about entrepreneurship is that it truly is a form of lifelong education. I learn new things every day, about myself, about my clients, about writing, about business. I make plenty of mistakes along the way but the important thing is that I try to learn from them so I don’t repeat the same mistakes again – instead I come up with entirely new ones! Every day is different and every challenge is interesting. Celebrating wins is important to stay motivated. The celebrations don’t have to be big, expensive or public. In the beginning you might celebrate your first invoice being paid simply by having dinner or a drink with a friend. I marked reaching a financial goal by buying myself a lovely new notebook for work projects. Other milestones have been marked with a new lipstick or stationery (I have a bit of a weak spot for stationery). I celebrated my first calendar year in business by going offline and on a meditation retreat for five days. How you mark these occasions is up to you, the important thing is that you acknowledge your success in some way.
Over a year on I can’t say that it’s always been fun but it has definitely always been interesting. In fact when one of the jobs I had applied for in January 2017 (the one with the 3 paper copies) called me for an interview in December 2017 (yes, really) I kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t get the job. What had seemed like a great prospect eleven months earlier no longer seemed as appealing. I went through the interview but was never happier to see the words “we regret to inform you” in the post-interview email. Words that I had spent years resenting and dreading, made me smile with relief.