Tomorrow marks 2 years since I left my career as a psychotherapist to build WordPress sites full time. In some ways I feel like I could write a book about everything I’ve experienced since then; in other ways, I feel like what I know wouldn’t fill a thimble compared to some of the awesome people I’ve met along the way.
What I do know is this: Self-employment never turns out quite the way you plan, and things can (and will) change at the drop of a hat.
I’m far from an expert on running a business – in fact, most days I still feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants – but I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned the hard way while running a business from home.
Lesson #1: There are no friends in business.
When I started my web design company, I needed a portfolio and I needed one quickly. So I rounded up a bunch of friends who needed websites, charged them next to nothing, and got enough screenshots for my initial portfolio. I will always be grateful to those who took a chance on me in the beginning because I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.
That said, I quickly learned that working with friends is (usually) a bad idea. You feel pressured to give discounts. You feel pressured to do away with things like contracts because this is someone you trust. And then a “friend” stiffs you for hundreds of dollars and you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills. (Not that I would know from experience or anything.)
What I learned: I still do work for my friends occasionally. But they sign a contract like everyone else, they pay deposits like everyone else, and they don’t get discounts. I love my friends, but I love electricity and food even more. If a friend has a problem with that, I tell them to hire someone else.
Lesson #2: Recurring income is the best thing in the world.
No discussion of self-employment is complete without the phrase “feast or famine” – the phenomenon where (believe it or not) you no longer receive a paycheck via direct deposit every other Friday. In two years, I still haven’t managed to come up with a great system for dealing with this. However, I’ve figured out that it helps when I can expect a certain amount of income each month no matter what’s on my design schedule.
Because of that, my business has morphed to include things like site management, retainer hours for regular clients, training for bloggers and designers, and (eventually) online courses. These offerings allow me to anticipate a certain level of income each month regardless of how many design projects I complete, which means I can establish a baseline for my budget. I can’t stress how important this has been as I continue adjusting to life without regular paydays.
What I learned: A lot of people become self-employed to escape the monotony of trading hours for dollars, only to find that they’re still trading hours for dollars. I know that was/is true for me. Building recurring or semi-passive streams of income is essential if you want to have a life outside your home office.
#3: When things start looking up, it’s time for something to go wrong.
I don’t mean to be an Eeyore, but I’ve noticed that every single time things are running smoothly in my business, some disaster is about to strike. It’s something I’ve just learned to prepare for – when I start getting into a routine and feeling good about the way things are going, I better enjoy it while it lasts.
Last fall I started hosting a few client websites. No big deal, just 4 or 5 people. As word spread, I kept adding more people and slowly expanding until I had just under 200 hosting customers and a couple of colo servers. The income was great, though the time I spent providing support was becoming an issue. I was on the brink of hiring help when a competing web host decided he felt threatened by my business. The next thing I knew, my servers were under a DDoS attack from Asia that lasted 9 days – it stopped as soon as I ran out of money to try mitigating the attacks and announced that I was closing the hosting part of the business.
Not only did that debacle cost me nearly $10k between trying to stop the DDoS attacks (the datacenter said it was one of the heaviest they’d ever seen) and refunding customers, but it also severely damaged my company’s reputation. Customers didn’t understand that I had no control over what was happening; they just knew their sites were down and they were not happy. Had it not been for a colleague’s help, I don’t know how I would have gotten everyone moved to other hosts without losing it.
I’ll be honest – that whole event was probably the lowest point I’ve reached since I left my career. I didn’t know whether to go get a real job, rebrand and start over, or join the circus. I felt like a complete and utter failure for letting everyone down. But after taking a month or so to lick my wounds, I was ready to come back and do things differently. And while I would give anything to change the way it went down, I am SO glad I don’t deal with hosting anymore.
What I learned: When you run a business, everything is a guessing game. Some things will work out beautifully, while others will be a disaster. But if you give up the first time something goes wrong, you won’t be self-employed for more than a month or two. You have to ride the waves and understand that it’s not a matter of whether something will happen – it’s a matter of when it will happen. And you have to be mentally prepared to fail on a very large (and sometimes very public) level, then dust yourself off and bounce back.
Lesson #4: Self-employment is amazing.
My two years of self-employment have been a continuous experience in dealing with things for which I was not prepared. I’ve dealt with some major medical issues. I’ve had several family members lose jobs and live on my couch for different periods of time. I’ve had emails that weren’t delivered, deadlines that were missed, and clients who wanted to strangle me (or vice versa). I’ve panicked while waiting for invoices to be paid because my checking account was down to $14 and my gas tank was empty.
Despite all that, the past two years have been the greatest of my adult life. I get to wake up every morning, throw on a bathrobe, and walk down the hall to my office. I get to spend time with my teenage son, who spent his early years thinking Mom was just someone who worked all the time and showed up every night an hour or two before bed. I no longer drive 100 miles a day to get to and from work. Most awesome is the fact that my income in 2013 (while still nothing to get excited about) is double what I made in 2012 and more than I’ve ever made in a year.
Through my business, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a ton of people who know A LOT about WordPress and the Genesis framework. I’m still blown away by the fact that I can talk to people like @bgardner and @photomatt on Twitter and they actually respond – because they’ve been where I am and they know that relationships mean everything. I’ve also helped build some great websites and watched my clients go from terrified to competent as they learn to use WordPress on their own, which is the reason I started this business in the first place.
What I’ve learned: If you have skills people are willing to pay you for, and you can stomach the uncertain paychecks and potential disasters and stresses of running a business, self-employment can be a fantastic way to earn a living. I have never once regretted the decision to abandon my former career and do what I love, and I wake up every morning thankful for the opportunity to keep doing it for at least another day. I just wish I had made the leap sooner!
What You Can Take Away from My Experience
Two years isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. I’m still a baby in the world of working for myself, and I still learn new things every single day (and I have a feeling that will continue no matter how long Nuts and Bolts Media is in business). I have no idea what will happen with my business next year or even next month! I know what I have planned, but I also know that those plans will likely change.
If you’ve ever considered quitting your job or starting a business, I’m here to tell you – it’s not for the faint of heart. That said, I can’t even describe how rewarding it is to have complete control over how I earn money, the hours I work (more like which 20 hours of the day I choose to work), and the services I offer my clients.
There is no magical formula that will help you start a successful business. There is no class you can take or ebook you can read that will transform you into the CEO of a multimillion dollar corporation overnight. But there is also nothing to stop you from doing what you love if you’ll put in the effort. The internet has created a global society where literally anyone can work for themselves. If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for you as well.