This is an article on entrepreneurship, and being a freelancer. But please don’t be mistaken: I’m not going to talk about how successful I am, or spill the hidden secrets on how to be successful.
I’m not going to share the 7 things successful people do when they wake up (I’m pretty sure they do what all normal people do: take a shower and have breakfast).
It’s a delusion to think that the entrepreneur lifestyle means cruising down the city center, clad in gold accessories and the latest designer clothes, leaving dollar bills like bread crumbs, or emptying bottles of champagne filled with gold bits in a nightclub.
In 2015, I finally had the guts to start doing what I love as a freelance photographer. I was doing decently at my previous jobs: attending parties over the weekends and having lunch in Singapore’s Central Business District, like any normal working adult.
But I was growing tired of the office politics and the focus on status: Lunch conversations were always filled with chats on who was sucking up to the boss, which belt elevates the status of your groin, or which handbag makes you look prettier in the selfies you’ll be taking over the weekend.
The boldest decision I’ve made was to exit my then comfortable job to enter the mysterious void of self-employment. Here are some lessons I’ve learnt from the experience.
Lesson 1: No one is an island.
I remember my first day of freedom clearly: I woke up, feeling energised. I jumped out of bed. I washed up, made my coffee and switched on my desktop. I stared blankly at my screen. My screen stared blankly back at me.
And then I panicked, like a nuclear warhead had exploded inside my brain. A voice in the back of my head was asking if this was really happening. It was a good five minutes of my life I’ll not be getting back.
I called my friend, who told me to take deep breaths and focus. Following his advice, I took out a pen with a piece of paper and started writing down what I had planned. I sent out emails requesting for an apprenticeship.
I have friends who strongly believe in me, and support me by offering me their genuine opinion on my work, or by referring me to clients who might require my service. This has kept me going for a long while.
Lesson 2: Cutting down on comforts.
I often find myself watching office executives ordering $5 coffees, or salads that they don’t finish. Walking past a pizza joint has became a challenge: that single pan-sized pizza topped with pepperoni and cheese paired with a side of chicken drumlets? Mouth watering.
However the cost of it could last you for several meals over a week.
At first, you might hold on to certain perks of being employed: For example, you might want to hang out with your friends till past midnight, but the taxi fare back or the petrol you’ll need to top up after makes it expensive.
Instead of over-ordering food just because you have fallen victim to a marketing gimmick, you’ll learn to order just enough. Instead of spending $50 on a haircut, you’ll find a cheaper alternative and learn to not judge a shop by it’s decor.
I could go on but you get my point.
Lesson 3: Having a plan.
Before I started, my friends gave me a range of well meaning advice: “You should only start a business when you have a steady pool of clients”, or “only start when you’ve saved up enough to last you through x time frame”.
There’s a lot of truth in this advice, but my feelings prevailed and I decided to dive into this venture head first.
There’s a myth that there are surefire methods to earning your first pot of gold as your own boss. Everyone has foolproof steps promising success.
But when coming up with a plan, always ask yourself if the particular method you’re reading about will work in your industry. Every industry has a hierarchy and a way of doing things; you’ll understand your own industry best.
By planning, you’ll be aware of the possible negative effects of your actions. Don’t be afraid of things not going according to plan. If not, you’re going to hate every new problem that arises.
Lesson 4: Learning Can Be Painful
I tend to have philosophical moments while in the bathroom, and I hit a moment of epiphany during one of these moments: If I did not struggle during a particular point, I would not have learnt to solve a particular problem.
For example, when I first started out, I did not have the slightest idea how to file my own income tax. But I’ve learnt to do it and even a greater understanding of how income tax in my country works (which, by the way, is something that they should really teach you in school).
In a nutshell: it is tough. However I have chosen to embrace this and not shy away from it, because for the first time ever, I am truly happy with what I am doing, and I am learning something new every single day.
Lesson 5: Differentiating important from urgent
Being determined is always a virtue. But self-employment is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself; slowing down might not always be a bad option. It allows you to pay closer attention to the details to achieve better results. The best way to do this is to know the difference between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’.
A. Important and urgent.
Scenario: You are with your friend at his dog’s baby shower. Your editor calls to tell you that an A-list celebrity is in town, and has agreed to do an interview on the day itself.
Solution: You rush down for the interview (Ed’s note: unless the dog is more famous than the celebrity).
B. Important but not urgent.
Scenario: You are tasked with interviewing a world renowned celebrity that hasn’t spoken to any journalist for a couple of years now. Your boss wants that interview to be mint! The interview will take place a month from now.
Solution: You can start to prepare for the questions and the angle of the interview but you don’t have to put everything on halt and terminate all your projects.
C.Urgent but not important.
Scenario: Your friend called you to RSVP yourself within the next minute for her dog’s baby shower. On the other hand, you have to finish a fairly large amount of task at work.
Solution: Finish the work that your boss tasked you to do and RSVP over lunch, or when you’re walking over to the pantry to pour yourself a drink.
D. Not urgent, unimportant.
Solution: Free your mind
Lesson 6: Be hungry, but don’t be desperate.
To more experienced freelancers, “exposure” is the most abused word in the history of mankind.
I assure you that if you’ve just started freelancing, there will be no lack of idiots coming your way with promises of connecting you with more people, under the guise of “exposure”. But only if you do the work for free.
I’m not disregarding the fact that there are genuine friends who may want to help you during this time, be it by introducing people to you that will pay you for your hard work, or collaborating with you to increase awareness of your personal brand.
But my advice is to have a written contract as a template for all business matters. Ensure that your client signs for verbal promises they’ve made before proceeding with the job. After all, if they can really fulfil their promises, they’ll have no issues signing it beforehand.
Time is a valuable resource. If the benefits of taking on a job are intangible, you will have to decide for yourself if the time committed and the value being put on your work is worth the resource investment. As always, pray for the best and prepare for the worst.
I’m writing this last section to tell would-be entrepreneurs something simple: You’re not alone.
During the month of November 2015, I had no work coming in. I was watching my the numbers in my bank account dip day by day as I cut down on more and more expenses, and started eating two meals a day. I even told myself that if I had not started freelancing at all, I could have been very comfortable.
As implausible as it sounds, my phone rang at that moment. It was a client who required my service for a prestigious event that was happening just two weeks down the road. The deposit from the job lasted me for three months.
If you’re a first-time entrepreneur and feeling insecure: I understand how it feels to have a bank account that seems to sink faster than the Titanic, or sleepless nights where you’ll remember that your buddy’s birthday is approaching, but you also have the month’s phone bill at the back of your mind.
You’ll constantly wonder what’s in store for you if this carries on? Maybe to the extent of being homeless and good for nothing in the later part of your life, should your venture fail. Find anything that helps to motivate you. For me, personally? I find that re-watching “Rocky Balboa’s inspirational speech to his son” helps me a lot.
Right now, I’m still struggling and stepping into unknown grounds every single day. Every fresh day is a reminder that I have to push harder and not give up. The point isn’t about how to get rich or successful. After all, I’ve not been there myself.
The point is about doing what you love. Till then, hunker down, grind out the results, and lay no day or hour to waste.