Whoa, dang, 2014 was one heck of a year.
I’m not sure what 2014 was the year of, exactly, but I saw a lot of change in my business and the businesses of my clients. Here are the top 14 lessons I’m taking from 2014.
1. Mistakes are Important (Failure is a Fad).
Often times when I talk to new clients (and some old clients) they’ll apologize to me for having made a mistake in the past — using a less than great contract or not pushing back on a client’s ridiculous demand. I respond by telling them that it’s OK, making mistakes is an extremely helpful way of learning. And as my brilliant wife has to remind me now and then, some lessons can only be learned through mistakes. At the same time, 2014’s love affair with failure makes me itchy. There is nothing wrong with trying something and failing, but there is something not quite right with boasting about your failure (particularly if you’re just boasting about it to tell me how successful you are now). Don’t make mistakes or fail because you want the merit badge, do it because you tried something you thought would work and help you reach your goals. Then collect whatever lessons you can take from the experience and move on, head held high.
2. Play to Your Strengths, But Don’t Ignore Where You’re Weak.
Running your own business should be challenging, but it shouldn’t be an extended exercise in banging your head against the wall. Know what you’re good at and find ways to use those skills as often as possible. Do you express yourself better on the phone than when writing? Make more phone calls to get work done. But don’t lean so heavily on your strengths that you avoid dealing with your weaknesses. Having too many ideas for projects and not enough execution is one of my weaknesses so I’ve found some people who are great at rolling new projects out and I use them as mentors and sounding boards.
3. Experiment With Your Rates.
How can you know if something will work if you don’t try it? Considering how a new rate structure might work in your business? Try it out the next time you get a new project. Or, if you tend to work with a few clients on many projects, ask if one of your clients would be willing to use a slightly different structure on the next project. You can explain that you’d like to see if this rate structure is a better fit for your business and you’d appreciate their feedback on how it works for them.
4. You Pay More Attention to Change Than Your Clients Do.
I’ve worked with a number of folks who wanted to raise their rates or change a policy about how they work but were really worried about how their clients would react. They feared that telling their clients about the change would be upsetting and scare clients away. That rarely happens, though. If a client likes working with you it’s not just because your rate is $5/hour less than other folks or because you accept net 45 terms. It’s important to consider your clients and their perspectives when making changes, but have faith in yourself and your work that clients value what you do for reasons beyond whatever it is you’re changing.
5. Most People Are Horrible Mind Readers.
It’s tempting to guess at what the other person really thinks in a conflict and assign motivation for their behavior. But this rarely works. Mostly because you aren’t a mind reader. Instead ask the other person what their perspective is and why they want what they want. If you sincerely don’t understand their answer, it’s OK to say so and ask that they elaborate so that you two might find a solution.
6. (Conflict + Avoidance) x Time = One Big Gigantic Mess
Avoiding a conflict can feel safe, heck sometimes it can even feel smart. But rarely (if ever!) does avoidance help to address conflict. And the longer your avoid a conflict, the harder it gets to address. If this is a conflict you need to deal with (as opposed to one that you can live with), work up your courage to address it as soon as possible. If you’re struggling, ask friends or peers for support and encouragement. You’re worth it.
7. Fire Bad Clients.
There are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a year. The more time you spend with clients who don’t respect you or your work, the less time you have to do things that make you happy. Don’t let bad clients waste your time. Fire them so you both can move on to something better.
8. Be Consistent When Talking To Clients & Colleagues.
The language on your website, the tone of your emails and the demands of your contract should all be consistent: the same message about how you run your business and what you value should be easily recognizable in each. If you don’t take the time to make sure your contract matches up with what you’re proclaiming your values to be, you can end up in quite a kerfuffle. Or worse, people will think you’re two faced.
9. A Business on the Internet is Still a Business.
No matter how disruptive you might be in the Interwebs space, if you don’t pay attention to business fundamentals, your business will suffer. That means you know how much it costs to create your work and what the net profit is (on average) for your wares/services. You have basic accounting software, or better yet, work with an accountant. You talk with your nice accountant before you launch your Kickstarter or Patreon. You pay your taxes but don’t give the government a sizable interest free loan of your hard earned dollaz. If you feel overwhelmed by doing those things, look for basic business classes at your public library or community college. And watch “The Profit.” He addresses the same fundamental issues over and over and over again and if you pay attention to the themes, you’ll pick up some good tips.
10. You Don’t Know Everything.
Even if you are the smartest, savviest, most experienced kid in the business, there is always room to learn. Be humble enough to know that you don’t (and can’t) know everything you need to know to do your job. Seek out people you respect and talk with them. Form a mastermind or business support group. Be curious about what other people can teach you. Understand the difference between taking risks and faking it.
11.Ask For Help, Help When Asked.
When you realize you need to do something and you don’t know how to do it, ask for help! Cultivate a community of peers so that you have folks to turn to when questions come up. And make sure to give back. As freelancers and artists, we don’t get the benefit of having co-workers to lean on for support. We have to be intentional about building a community to support our work and one of the best ways of doing that is by lending a hand to someone who needs help.
12. One-Sided Deals Are Generally Crappy Deals.
This seems obvious, right? I’d agree, but sadly it doesn’t mean I don’t see one-sided deals all the time. Whether you’re being asked to sign a contract or asking someone else to sign your contract, a deal shouldn’t totally favor one party over the other. Unless, of course, you never want to work with that person again. If you realize the deal you’ve been negotiating heavily favors one party over the other, step back and consider whether you want to do the deal at all.
13. Don’t Work For Free/Cheap.
Please. For the love of puppies. Don’t do it. Consistently the biggest problems I help folks with are ones that grew from jobs where they agreed to work for free or cheap.
14. Incompetence is Exhausting.
When you’re working for yourself you get to have a lot of experience with incompetence. Because you don’t know what you’re doing all the time. You’re learning new skills and new ways of doing things and while learning stuff is great, it’s also exhausting. One of my favorite pieces of advice from this year is to indulge in meaningless competence. Make sure you’re making time to do something that (1) you feel confident about and (2) where there are no real consequences if you screw up. It doesn’t matter how well the project works out or if anyone else ever sees it. Does it make you feel good? Excellent. Make time to do that thing. You’ll be amazed by how it feeds your creativity and revives your spirit.
That’s what I learned this year. What did you learn? What are your favorite lessons from 2014?
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