I set out with $20,000 in my bank account, a $1,500 mortgage, no solid plan and no idea how I’m gonna last beyond the first 8 months if this doesn’t work out.
The exhilaration from the long-awaited moment when I finally left my 9-to-5 office job lasted for about a week and then the reality struck like a bad hangover after a good night out with five drinks too many: I wasn’t living my dream’. In fact, I was further from living my dream than ever. The freedom to do what I wanted (that I was so yearning for when I was working full time in a very corporate environment, where all my great ideas just got shoved on a TO-DO NEVER pile) just didn’t happen.
Instead of doing what I loved (which in my case has always been creative writing – and that’s why I left my job as a project manager in an advertising agency for – to start my own content agency and do things differently.) I found myself doing mostly what I didn’t love, just like in my full-time job. The only difference was, now I was doing it not for 8 hours a day, but something between 14 and 16 hours a day. I was spending maybe 6 hours a week writing, and the rest of the time was filled with sales, admin, project management, people management (all those people that suddenly just didn’t seem to get one thing right) paying invoices, chasing up unpaid invoices, and other busy work.
My social life literally disappeared. Gone were the drinks after work (what after work?!), binge-Netflix watching on Friday nights and girl nights out on Saturdays. Suddenly all my waking hours were filled with work – the to-do list never got shorter, there was always another urgent thing I had to do during the night, I was running around putting out fires and in the little spare time that I had (or made) I would sign-up for as many business courses as possible to learn the ropes of running a small business single-handedly: everything from tax duties to basic coding (!) so I could save $500 and make a better website for my business. As the regular pay cheques stopped coming in every month I actually became acutely aware of how much all the little things I would mindlessly buy at a swipe of my American Express actually cost. So I bought a 600-page book about saving money. And I started cooking for a week at a time, making my own packed lunches (and packed everything, after a 5-hour trip to IKEA to equip myself with enough Tupperware to turn my kitchen into Walmart warehouse) and ditched the expensive lattes for a terrible (I’m not a barista) home-brewed coffee in a flask.
The only problem was that I didn’t even have a business. And I didn’t even know it yet then. What I had was a job, or rather – 5 part-time jobs, because there wasn’t quite enough work for me yet to do one full-time job at least, and not quite enough resources to hire other people to do the rest.
To be honest, I felt stuck. I didn’t know how to get out of this dead-end. Come spring, I started having second thoughts about running my own business and considered going back to my old job. I felt burnt out, lonely (I was a soletrepreneur working mostly from home with the help freelancers, so my pyjama pants soon became my casual smart) and completely demoralized. Surely, if this is what my life looks like 5 months into my sojourn into the world of business, maybe I’m just not designed to be an entrepreneur?!
The aha moment came when I was away for a business conference with a friend, staying at the place of his friend’s who – as it turned out – was very successful in business. We sat at the kitchen table one night and I moaned about my situation for about 4 hours. He gave me a list of books I should read, and the single most piece of advice that ultimately changed the way I was doing everything in my business: You can always make more money, but you can never make more time.
It may not sound like rocket science when you read it, but most people do exactly the opposite with their time:
They are more afraid of losing their money than wasting their time. Irrationally so. Even if they are paid $ 100 per hour, they would still rather waste 3 hours than part with 100 dollars.
They don’t buy time. They sell time. In fact, they rely on income from selling their time.
They have limited potential to make money, so they see money as more precious than their time. As a result, they often do things they could hire another person to do (probably even much better) to save some money – e.g. painting their apartment themselves.
They spend a lot of time doing things that can save them relatively little money - e.g. my coffee brewing habit.
They hoard qualifications and learn new skills (even in areas that would make it impossible to use both of the skills/qualifications at the same time) to increase their chances of getting a job / increase their hourly rate.
It may make some sense when you’re an employee, but it certainly doesn’t make any sense if you’re running a growth business! - said the friend I was staying with, which gave me even more food for thought:
A growth business – if you’re self-employed, as I was at the beginning – thinking I was running a business – you only think you are running a business, while in fact you are still an employee. Being self-employed is by definition (I know, how ingenious!) being employed by yourself. If you want to stay there, fine – your choice. This post is simply not for you then. If not – if you aspire to run a *growth* business – which will ultimately become independent of you and give you the true and ultimate financial freedom you ditched your 9-to-5 for – you should always treat your time as your most precious resource.
So, how do I get out the self-inflicted prison sentence and start building a business that has a chance to become a growth business and give me what I really want – freedom?
I began from making an honest confession of my time-sins:
What I was doing:
I didn’t want to spend money before I had a steady stream of income from a line-up of regular clients so I was doing everything I could myself (and even everything I couldn’t…like the website, which I spent about 18 days building using an online tool, which ended up looking so awful I decided to scrap it all and buy one from a web-designer for $800). I was doing the AdWords, which I couldn’t really afford so I abandoned them after spending $300 and not even getting a single quote request. I was doing my own infographics (which were too terrible to make any sense in terms of content marketing – so, another waste of time!), I was doing the social media (although I didn’t really have time to do them properly, so nobody except for my friend liked the FB page and the Twitter. I ended up buying a bunch of likes from Facebook for about $100, which was completely useless as none of the new audience ever engaged with the content on the page in any meaningful way, let alone went on to the website to ask for a quote). I was writing the terms and conditions for my website and the freelance work agreements on the basis of free templates - as I couldn’t afford the lawyer to do it – trembling and hoping nobody will sue me for anything, for I certainly couldn’t afford the legal fees. I signed up on a bunch of websites where people were looking for copywriters. A friend of mine was working at a web design company that needed freelance content writers for their clients, so I became a subcontractor, and soon found myself writing for peanuts (or outsourcing for even smaller peanuts) mediocre website copy on topics as exhilarating as induction cooking pans and dog food. I was recruiting freelance writers from Facebook groups and websites like Elance and Fiverr.com, but they would often simply not get the complexity of good copy. I was paying them myself when they finished, which created a nightmare of small transfers that took time to set up and record in the books, and getting paid a month later, which meant I was basically crediting my client’s business. I was making about $300 for the first 3 months. I was spending time collecting email addresses of companies that didn’t need my services, cold mailing them, and never getting a single reply.
What I wasn’t doing:
I wasn’t writing anything that I could use as an example of how great my content skills were (if they were – which I began to doubt at that time), I wasn’t working on a strategy how I’m going to make this business grow or where I want it to get. I wasn’t working on client acquisition in the right way – by building amazing content and using my own website / blog as a case study of what you can achieve with content marketing. I wasn’t focusing on what I was good at, and instead – was doing everything I wasn’t good at. My results were poor, my motivation was dwindling, I didn’t have time for anything.
Now, after the meeting with the new friend, I was determined to change it. He gave me a challenge to change the way I work within a week and report the results. But before I go into details how I did that, let’s break down the why’ first:
What is the value of your time?
Let’s have a look at some facts: you have only 24 hours every day and you don’t know how many days you have left. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic here, but that’s a sheer fact – we all bet on how much time we have to do the things that we want to do in our lives. Some of us may be lucky enough to live to the ripe old age of 95, some of us may die of colon cancer or in a traffic accident at 30. I bet if someone gave you a debit card with an unknown amount of money on it and told you this is all the money you can spend in your life – and you won’t get any more if you run out’ – you would be pretty prudent with it. Why aren’t you with your time?
Now: take an honest look at your life – do you really treat time as your most precious resource? If you’re in doubt, I have a little test for you.
Answer the following questions honestly:
Do you see your time as a limited resource and avoid situations where you trade your time for money?
Do you really need to do everything you are doing yourself, or are there any $ 10 tasks stealing time from you when you should really be doing $1,000,000 tasks?
Do you manage your energy rather than falling into the hailed trap of time management, trying to fill every waking hour of your day with busy work?
Do you start your working day from doing things that are really important for your growth first (and preferably – fill your day with such tasks only)?
Do you leave yourself some idle time to do completely nothing, be on your own, let your mind wonder without any distractions to allow room for thinking and creativity, or is your day filled to the brim (often so much so that spending time with your friends and family makes you feel guilty about neglecting your business)?
If you answered yes to all the questions above, congratulations! You can stop reading here because I can’t help you anymore. You’re doing everything right. You’re a lucky person - when I first started my business I definitely wasn’t that smart. You are doing everything right and no to one or more of the above questions, read on.
Realising that my time is always more valuable than my money and actually making changes in my life to reflect that was a bit like quitting smoking.
It required me to ditch some habits, go through the cold turkey, and form new ones. And that wasn’t easy. I’m explaining how I did in a nutshell below - without going into all the gory details now – because, I presume as a busy entrepreneur you don’t have 5 hours to listen to my story.
What I did:
I hired a project manager to handle all the busy work for me for a commission
I found a friend who was a stay-at-home mum with a burning ambition to do something meaningful with her spare time and make some extra money. I hired her to all the busy work that was consuming my energy – talking to the clients and freelancers aka doing project management, replying to emails, sending bank transfers, paying invoices etc. She understood my situation and agreed to do it for 30% commission on sales, while I promised to get more valuable clients in the time she freed up for me. Actually, she freed up so much time I didn’t even know what to do with it initially when it happened!
I cut out the noise and focused
I really didn’t like cooking, making my own coffee, and ironing my own shirts. I decided to scale down what I was doing at home quite a bit. I got myself a house mate (a part-time student) to offset my mortgage costs a bit so I could stop fretting about running out of money soon and could focus on productive work instead. I also gave her a discount in exchange for doing some housework for me. I made a point of leaving the house at 8 a.m. every day, regardless whether I felt like it or not – and work from a café. I had the time, I had the energy, I had the money to survive, I had good coffee instead of the terrible home-brew – and I suddenly felt my inspiration and productivity were back.
I found my first valuable client from a warm lead on Facebook
I decided to stop doing $50 jobs on Elance and only take on bigger projects. I soon found a software as a service business enquiring about content marketers in a Facebook group I was a member of. I wrote them a private message with my offer, guaranteed results (heck! After Grant Cardone: overpromise and overdeliver!’) and – alas! – 2 weeks of courting later I started on their company blog for a flat fee of $1200 per month. I got to keep $640 after paying off my project manager and the accountant – more than I did when I was trading in outsourced little jobs on Elance!
I really devoted myself to the project (wrote an ebook, organised a webinar, went the extra mile or ten in all respects) and the client was happy. Two months later, they recommended another client for the same service. I was over the moon – I would be making over $1000 per month now, 3 times what I was making before! I got to work and asked my project manager to start looking for some really talented writers.
I invested in talent
With two full-stack copywriting clients on board I knew I could take on maybe another one before I run out of the capacity to write more good quality content. Which would mean my earning potential would be limited to around $ 1600 unless I became a copywriting super-star and got paid $1000 for a piece of content. Not hoping for that to happen, I developed a fool-proof test and asked my project manager to look far and wide for talented writers. Taking a leaf out of Perry Marshall – I set a $20 application fee to weed out the applicants that thought they couldn’t do it. I offered a very decent compensation for those who could. After 3 weeks, we found one (only one!) writer that passed the test (out of about 30 candidates, which meant that month I made…$600 on applications alone!). It was a good job, because soon afterwards, the second client recommended the third client, and I needed a second pair of hands!
The rest was pretty much consistent with this pattern – which means, it was scalable. Ten months later, I had seven valuable clients, two great content writers and one full-time project manager. I could afford to raise my prices to weed out the less valuable clients. I could focus on writing great content for my own business instead of doing it for the clients. The business was growing mainly through referrals (and monitoring the social media for warm leads – people who were enquiring about my service – using a tool for that – www.brand24.com)
Now, what you can do in any situation
Now, I know this was quite *industry-specific*. But you can infer some universal truths that apply to any business from my story:
Don’t try to save money. Save time and you will save money
The 600-page book about saving money I bought once I realised how appallingly fast money was disappearing from my checking account once I stopped getting paid by my employer? It landed in a bin. Basically, it walked me through saving $40 a week by possibly spending 20 extra hours on doing shopping in cheaper places, ironing my own shirts instead of taking them to the dry cleaner’s etc. It told me to do $10/h work when I really should be doing $ 1,000,000 work.
Instead of making a list of things that you can stop doing to save you money, look at things that you can stop doing to save you time. And then – there are two options – outsource them – or remove them.
The consumerist reality of our lives made us think we need a lot more than we really do. Say you spend 2 hours a day driving to your office. Do you need to live in that flat an hour away from your office? Do you really need that office? Do you really need that car, or could you e.g. take the train and do some work while you’re getting there (I’m actually writing this post on a train). Say you’re spending 2 hours a week on ironing your ten shirts. Sending them to the dry cleaners will probably cost you between $ 20 and $50. 2 hours a week x 4 weeks = 8 hours (one full working day!) per month. Can you find a client that will bring your business custom to the value north of $ 200 per month in one day? Of course you can.
Pay people to buy yourself time to do things
You can’t afford it for starters? Let me show you that you can.
There are plenty of websites, forums and Facebook groups for entry-level entrepreneurs these days where people can swap skills and pay each other with services they provide (and excel in) for other goods and services they need. If you’re great at photo editing but bad at writing, offer someone in the same situations who is bad at photo editing and great at writing to swap your skills for your respective websites.
You can also hire people on commission. I hired my first project manager on commission, and I was spending money on her only when she actually made money for me first.
Discover your genius zone
This may contravene the conventional wisdom, but it’s really fine to be bad at some things and not to do anything about it. It’s even fine to be really really bad at some things and not to do anything about it. In fact, if you discover one thing you enjoy doing and are good at (this usually goes hand in hand) and invest all the effort you have been investing in doing things you don’t enjoy doing and are not good at into it, you will soon become a genius at it. As explained above, you can then trade this super-power (which you will do much faster and much better than other things) for other super-powers you need from other people.
Don’t manage your time, manage your energy
Managing your time, filling your to-do lists, and prioritizing is all great but it misses one important point – you are a human, not a machine – and the result of your work is not correlated to how much time you spend on doing a certain task. It depends on a ton of tiny variables like your mood, the weather, motivation etc. etc. My output improved so much and the amount of time I was spending on certain tasks went down substantially since I started managing my energy instead of managing my time. E.g. I always do things I really feel like doing when I feel like doing them – which means I usually finish much faster. For example: if I planned to read something but I really feel like writing something, I rearrange my to-do list accordingly to manage my energy better. When I do what I want to do when I want to do it, I usually get it done much faster and – instead of feeling tired – I feel energised afterwards!
Also – do things that contribute to your and your business’ growth first thing in the day. Don’t start from things that you have to do – if you have to do them, by definition – you will do them. If you start your day by doing something that you don’t want to do, however, they will deplete your energy and possibly drag on so much you may not have any time or energy left for things that really matter afterwards.
Fire your worst clients
According to Perry Marshall’s book 80/20 Sales and Marketing everything in the world is subject to Pareto rule – 20% of your efforts bring 80% of your results, 20% of your clients bring 80% of your income, and also 20% of your clients bring 80% of the fuss you have in your business. I noticed very quickly that working with small clients who wanted to have a small piece of copy written for their website for $50 was an utter waste of time and took a lot more time in start-up cost (spending time to get to know the client’s needs for a job under $300 simply didn’t make any sense at all). After reading the book, I decided to stop accepting jobs under $300 from non-recurrent clients. That freed up a lot of my time and reduced my project management costs.
Find yourself a partner in crime
If you have already used all of the tips above and can’t get any further ahead on your own, and you really can’t afford to hire people, find a business partner with complementary skillset and equal enthusiasm for what you are doing and split the business. It’s better to have 50% in a business that is working and making money than 100% in one that isn’t. My first project manager ultimately became my business partner and best friend, and got a solid windfall after we sold the business 3 years after she joined me.
Fast forward 5 years, I am not running a successful content agency anymore. I sold it after 3 years and I teamed up with one of my clients (…now my husband) to create a tool for businesses that can save them up to 10 hours per week in unnecessary busy work. Once I had 4 taff in my business, especially with remote hourly-paid employees, I noticed how difficult it was to track their time and make sure that I’m really getting value out of it. That’s how I came up with the idea of creating a time tracking tool, which later evolved into our current business. Trust me, from my own experience - if you have employees - no matter whether you have 2, 20 or 200 - you will need this. Especially if you have some people working remotely - keeping track of their work time, absences, sick leaves and holiday requests if you don’t have a system for it will soon become mess.
Now, if you found my experience and this post useful – I would like to ask you for a favour. If you have any friends who are struggling with managing their employee time, share this post with them and send them a link to our tool (we have a free trial period): unrubble.com
I am still using my genius zone in this business, probably to a much larger extent than when I was running my own business myself. And I’m pretty committed to helping other entrepreneurs who find themselves in my situation 5 years ago – so if you have any questions, drop me a line.