the 5 skills you need to work for yourself

Thinking about going into business for yourself? If you have a talent or skill or product idea that you think people would pay for, you might be tempted to strike out on your own and see if you can turn it into a business. After all, what’s better than working for yourself, having no boss, and keeping your own hours?

But being successful working for yourself requires more than just having a skill or product that people will pay for. That’s an essential component, of course, but you also need the following five skills as well.

1. The ability to manage your own time and motivate yourself to work. With no boss watching over you, you’ll be able to spend the day watching TV and playing on Facebook if you’d like to. For many people, it’s a challenge to overcome that temptation and buckle down to get work done. If you’re one of those people, you might find yourself going days or weeks without much to show for it in the way of work. Sound like you? If so, you might actually need a boss to stay productive, and it might be close to impossible to work for yourself.

2. The ability to assert yourself about money. From comfortably citing prices to potential clients, to holding firm when asked to lower your rates, to checking in on an unpaid invoice, one thing you can count on when working for yourself is that you’ll need to talk about money. You might find yourself having to follow up multiple times to chase down payment or needing to deal with a client who denies authorizing your fees. If that makes you seize up with anxiety, prepare yourself now, because that’s often part of working on your own. The more comfortable you get with money conversations, the less stressful your life as an entrepreneur will be.

3. The ability to market yourself. No matter how talented you are or how great the service or product that you’re selling, clients are unlikely to find you on their own – at least when you start. That means that you’ll have to market yourself and your work (or hire someone who will do it for you). How comfortable are you talking about yourself? Are you prepared to make a pitch for why you’d be the best person to do a prospective client’s work? Will you take it personally if you’re turned down?

If you’re lucky, over time you might reach a point where you’ve built up enough word of mouth that you no longer need to significant marketing, but for many freelancers, marketing remains a big part of their work.

4. The ability to turn down clients. You might think that you’d never want to turn down work, but imagine being approached by a client who wants you to do a project that you know you would hate or be terrible at or which would conflict with other commitments you’ve made. One common mistake among freelancers is to take on absolutely every project they’re offered, even if they’re not going to enjoy or excel at it – which ends up impacting their ability to get the type of work they enjoy and do excel at in the future. After all, if you turn in shoddy work, you’ll harm your reputation. And if you take on work you can’t stand and do well at it, you’re likely to get offered more in the future – and that type of work will become part of what you’re known for. As long as you can afford to, you’re far better off being choosy about who you’ll work with and what you’ll do for them – even if it’s scary to say no to a paying project.

5. The ability to fire clients. Ideally, all your clients will be lovely people who are a pleasure to work with. In reality, you might find yourself with a client or two who are more difficult than the work they provide is worth. For instance, you might have a client who calls at all hours and won’t stop even after you address it, or one who sends endless revisions to your work but is unable to explain precisely what you need to change, or one who has unrealistic expectations of what you will do. Or, you might have a wonderful client whose work doesn’t make sense for you anymore – because they can’t pay your increased rates, or because their work conflicts with a higher-priority client, or because your interests and expertise have shifted. In any of these cases, you might decide that you and the client need to part ways, and you’ll need to be able to deliver that message. It’s tougher than you might think to say, in essence, “I’ve decided that I don’t want to work with you.” Are you up to those conversations?

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Katrina Bass*

    I was actually going to ask this in the next open thread, but it’s kind of along these lines. Anyone in the AAM community have tips on working from home when you’ve got a baby?

    1. The IT Manager*

      You’ll find more answers on the open thread, but are you working for someone else or for yourself?

      My government agency encourages working from home, but it very clear that it is not an alternative for child or elder-care ie you can’t be taking care of a baby while you are “on the clock.” They also require a private office with a door which would be important if there was a baby in your house while you’re working especially if you’re on a phone call or teleconference – also helpful for dogs or other family members that might be making noise in the house while you work.

      1. Katrina Bass*

        Yeah, I thought about it and a link post isn’t going to be nearly as effective as an open thread.

        I work about half for myself, half for an employer. Targets for my own work are loose, so I give priority to the employer’s work. Targets for that are weekly. I generally end up working after everybody is in bed, but that keeps me up late and you-know-who is my 5:22 alarm clock. It’s a touch draining. I’ve thought about hiring a high schooler for a couple of hours per day after school, but I’m afraid that would eat up almost exactly what I make per hour.

        Thank you for replying, though! I’ll set a reminder and post in the next open thread.

        1. Saro*

          I found it manageable when my son was an itty-bitty and slept more than he does now. It was almost impossible once he hit about 6 months (he was a preemie, so a little behind). Now I work from home but have someone to help me with him for about 6-7 hours a day)

    2. Robyn*

      I found it impossible without childcare. I was (and still do) freelancing and could do very little on days my son wasn’t in day care.

      Doing it at night really is impossible, as you are finding, due to lack of sleep anyway, never mind depriving you of more!

      Now that’s he’s 5 and in primary school (I’m in the UK, school starts at age 4 here) I get a lot more done during the day!

  2. The IT Manager*

    I think that everytime someone says: “You should start your own business” as a solution to unemployment or something similar they should be directed to this link. I would be horrible at running a business and I am happy to admit it.

    1. Anx*

      I feel this.

      I get disgruntled because I’m really not comfortable starting a business until I get some experience in a field. But it’s hard to get experience without experience. And people aren’t very sympathetic toward young people being risk averse and not wanting to start a business. But I’m really, really not in a good place for it right now.

      1. GOG11*

        THIS +1000

        I have done freelance work for the past few years (1.5 while in college for free to build my portfolio and periodic paid projects ever since) and I had to shift away from the types of work I wasn’t familiar with. The learning curve was HUGE (insurmountable, for me IMO) and I just didn’t have the drive, not to mention the money, to take on month’s-long projects that may or may not pay off in the end. I figure I might strike out on my own later on when I’ve got more experience and am tired of working for “the man.” Right now, however, I’m perfectly at peace to take advantage of all the structure “the man” provides.

        I feel you, Anx.

    2. Mimmy*

      Oh goodness YES!!! When I wanted to get into grant writing a couple years ago, people kept suggesting the self-employment option, to which I wanted to say, “don’t you need experience first??”

  3. Not So NewReader*

    Dealing with customers is a big deal. Even if you do everything right, you still might end up with nastiness.

    One of my better bosses in life once told a demanding customer “we like you but we don’t want your business. Take your business elsewhere.” I know that sounds harsh, but the customer took it okay. She knew she was over the line and the boss was right. It was a good learning experience for me to see someone remain calm, cool and collected yet still deliver that message with a tone of decisiveness and finality. His tone was “there will be no further discussion on this matter”. Because he was so put together she knew it was over and she could hear the bugler playing taps.

    I think it helps to know where your break even points are and how far down a hole a customer is dragging you. When you have to go get new customers to cover the first customer’s costs- it might be best to let go.

  4. AB Normal*

    OK, I may be an exception, but I’ve started my own consulting firm over 5 years ago, and didn’t really need all 5 skills to build a successful business.

    1. The ability to manage your time and motivate yourself to work: Absolutely. If you don’t have intrinsic motivation, or need to be in an office full of people to become productive, forget it.

    2. The ability to assert yourself about money. Not necessarily. I’m in a business (IT consulting) that has pretty defined rates. I remember in the beginning asking for $75 per hour, and being offered $80 instead (!). If you are working on an industry that has relatively standard compensation like mine, you can just continue to raise your rate based on your level of experience, and there will be very little need for negotiation on a contract by contract basis.

    3. The ability to market yourself. Again, depends on your area. I have an expertise that’s hard to find, so recruiters are always courting me, taking me for lunch, and checking if I’m available. Recruiters and repeat business from prior clients keep me busy, and fortunately I don’t have to market myself to get new business.

    4. The ability to turn down clients. When you are in a high-demand niche, like mine, turning down clients is not difficult. I often finish a 6-month consulting gig with another assignment already lined up for me; if I’m luck I get to take a few weeks of vacation in-between. It becomes second nature to turn down clients because I’m usually not available (unless a client wants to postpone a project until I am – it happened with me once). AAM makes a good point though about not taking work you dislike, or “you’ll be known for the type of work you can’t stand”. By choosing projects in areas I like, I never had trouble finding the type of work I enjoy.

    5. The ability to fire clients. Yes, I agree that you need to be able to do that. Normally, I work with fixed term contracts, and research the assignment well, so I never had to fire a client in the middle of a project. But it’s common for a client to like my work and want to extend my contract, when I’m not as eager to keep working for them. It’s easy, though, to say I won’t be able to renew the contract due to other commitments (even if the commitment is to just find more interesting / rewarding work elsewhere ;-).

    Really, the world is changing, and especially when you have a partner with a stable job that provides health care, having your own consulting business can be very rewarding. I have several colleagues in the same situation as mine, and we enjoy higher wages and more vacation time than our significant others working for Fortune 100 companies, so don’t entirely discard this possibility if you have an area of expertise that can translate well into consulting work.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think #3 — marketing yourself — is often something that changes over time. If you set yourself up well in the beginning and are good at what you do, you might not need to do much/any marketing after a while, because your word of mouth or repeat business will be all you need. In some rare cases you might not need to do any in the beginning if you have clients who approach you rather than the other way around. But I think for most people (not all but most) they do need to do some marketing, at least in their early years.

      I do think #2 — ability to assert yourself about money — is something you need, even if you never find yourself needing to use it. But it would be foolhardy to start a business without being willing to do that, because most people do have to deal with a client who doesn’t pay or doesn’t pay on time at some point. And if it turns out you never need to, that’s good — but you’ve still got to be prepared to do it if it comes up.

  5. Nyxalinth*

    Well people keep telling me”Oh you’re so good at writing/making jewelry/etc you ought to do that”. It’s not that easy, or I would have given up on finding traditional employment even before this recent job jerked me around and never let me start. Right now, though, trying is better than not trying.

  6. Robyn*

    My main problem, as a freelance graphic artist/web designer/social media advisor, is finding time to market! I know how to do it, I do it for clients, but as the cobbler’s son has no shoes, my company’s website is very basic and I almost never post company Tweets/Facebook posts.

    So…any advice on how to find the time *and* motivation to do those things *and* keep up with the work that people pay me for?

  7. Inty Aus*

    Nice little check-list! I find number 2 the hardest to do as a new business. I feel as though asserting your own price goes hand in hand with an established reputation. Hence discounts for positive reviews.

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