I’m in the third week of my new job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company based in my hometown of Richmond, Va. It’s going about as well as I could hope. I wish the first few awkward weeks were behind me and that I was able to be more useful and productive than I am at this point.
As the length of time between my current situation and my self-employment widens, I gain greater perspective about those 12 years of my life. When I talk with friends, especially those who work in communication, the discussion often comes around to the adjustment I’m making to a new way of life. Yes, I miss the two-minute commute down the hall to my home-based office. Yes, I miss the flexibility with my time — being able to run to the grocery store during lunch, being there when my son gets home from school, the ability to schedule doctors’ appointments almost anytime during the day. But, of course, the benefits — and I mean that in the healthcare sense as well as more generally — help to balance things out.
A few people have asked me if I would recommend self-employment to someone considering it. So, with the benefit of said perspective, I thought I’d write about some of the traits of a successful independent practitioner. My work is PR and communications, so bear that in mind as you read on.
You must be comfortable with uncertainty. This is probably the greatest single trait necessary to succeed in self-employment. I mean uncertainty about everything, beginning with where your next paycheck will come from. Nothing is guaranteed except uncertainty itself. When I started my consulting practice in 2000, I (perhaps naïvely) was completely confident that I could succeed. That blind faith probably helped me more than it hurt because I simply proceeded as if I knew what I was doing and that there was no question I would make it. Even when I had to borrow money from my parents and take withdrawals from my 401k to pay a few bills in the early going. Fortunately, the clients grew and the income became more regular as I landed contract work, but there was always the chance that they would go away as quickly as they came. If you don’t have the stomach for uncertainty, don’t be self-employed.
You must be self-motivated. The first thing I did when I unexpectedly lost my job and, the next day, decided to start my business was to consult with my mentor and friend, Les Potter. He gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. “Get up in the morning, shave, shower, get dressed, go into your office and get to work,” he said. Doing what? “Anything. Make phone calls. Send emails. Read professional journals. Set up lunch meetings. The work will come.” He was right. To be successful as an independent practitioner, you must be able to motivate yourself to do those things and a lot more. It will be tempting to watch the afternoon baseball game on TV or do laundry or be distracted by any number of things. It’s fine to take time off now and then (but remember, you don’t get paid for it), but 95% of the time you must motivate yourself to work. Alone.
You must be able to work alone. I’m an extrovert. I draw energy from being around people. This was one of the hardest adjustments I had to make. The majority of my work was performed in my home office by myself. It was a gift that I eventually was part of a team of contractors working for one client because I got to be with them for a few hours a week. When Facebook came along, that became my water cooler. If you need to be around people to be productive, don’t work for yourself.
You must be willing to maintain networks of friends and colleagues. It’s more difficult to do this when you work on your own. I tried to regularly schedule lunch dates and attended PRSA meetings to maintain my professional network. It’s also important to work harder at keeping up your friendships and social life. It’s surprising how much of my social life revolved around work. I’m divorced and have dated quite a bit in the last 10 years. That was important to me, not only personally, but also because it energized me for work. That might seem weird, but it was true for me. My dad recently said that being a full-time employee with a great company that pays well and provides benefits will make me more attractive in the dating arena. I’m not sure how much more attractive I am, but he is right that what we do has a big impact on the people we’re with.
You must assess the real cost of being self-employed. Not only is your income less stable, but you incur much greater costs. You must pay quarterly taxes, buy your own health insurance, provide your own 401k, maintain your own equipment (computers, printers, software, telecommunications, etc.) and buy a lot of little things that might not be apparent. Sit down and formulate a budget — not just for your business but a personal budget as well — and determine the real cost of working for yourself. It might surprise you.
Those are five of the traits you must possess to be a successful independent practitioner. If you’ve been down this road before, please add your own in the comments below. One thing I’ve also learned is that everyone’s experience is unique.
Filed under: Change, Communication Jobs, Lessons From Life | Tagged: communication jobs, cost of self-employment, entreprenuer, independent practioner, Les Potter, PR jobs, professional network, self-employment, self-motivation, starting a business, working alone |