When I started my own business, I set myself 3 simple and relatively modest goals:
- Work 15-20 focused hours per week. (i.e. not while trying to juggle a small child)
- Replace my teaching salary. (I didn’t think to specify pre- or post-tax, but it gave me a concrete number to aim for.)
- Get creative and relational satisfaction from my work.
As I first learned to do several years ago, I use these goals more as guidelines by which to make decisions, rather than benchmarks to measure success or failure. I have discovered that these three goals form a sort of work/life balance tricycle. All three wheels have to be on the ground for me to make forward progress and not crash into trees. (I have crashed a few times, but not as many as you might expect for someone who has no formal business training!)
This was and is the biggest wheel on my trike. I simply can’t take too many clients. I’ve also learned that it’s better to avoid projects that need a lot of ongoing attention every week. Because my productivity depends on child care availability, I need to be able to take 2 days (…or weeks…) off, without everything falling apart. For awhile, I was pursuing a lot of monthly retainer arrangements because I wanted the income stability. But I discovered that these retainers actually box me into a cycle of working constantly, and left me with insufficient buffer for sniffles and snow days. So I’ve walked back from a lot of those in favor of longer-term but close-ended branding and marketing projects. So far, that strategy seems to be working well.
This used to be the least mandatory criteria for the projects I accepted. I wrote about water filters, edited corporate resumes, and set up electronic product lists for photographers as long as the price was right. I’m still not super picky about what I do as long as it’s in my wheelhouse or something I’m willing to get paid to learn. (Both of those categories have a lot of things in them, so it’s easy for me to be inclusive.) But in the last few months, I’ve been able to be more selective about the kind of clients I work with. They all do many different things, they just have to be awesomely authentic.
I’m tempted to say this is the smallest and least important wheel, but that’s not entirely true. It’s just the one I think about the least because it’s the most objective. I’ve developed rates and packages that work for me, and I’m really confident in the process I use to deliver great work. (If I say so myself!)
Having these three interdependent goals guiding my decisions gives me a lot of freedom. I can take a project that requires more of my time if it’s very fulfilling and pays decently. I’m also willing to take on slightly meh work (Exhibit A: blogs about water filters) if I can bang them out quickly and make good money for it.
The other thing about these wheels is that each one is necessary but not sufficient to make forward progress. When I think about the projects that haven’t been as enjoyable, it’s always because one or more wheels was wobbly. There was either too much time demand (or the project got off schedule), the work was boring, or I wasn’t getting paid enough to make up for either of the first two things. Now, I do tend to be ruthlessly capitalist about my business. Good pay can cover a multitude of creative and scheduling sins…but not forever.
I have observed more than a few creative freelancers and entrepreneurs get overly precious about “creative direction,” refuse to consider lower-paying gigs and less prestigious publications, or turn up their noses at job aggregators like Upwork. These are the same people who bitch and moan about never having any work. Please excuse my lack of sympathy. The work is out there. You can and should be picky about the kind of work you do, the clients you accept, and the rates you charge. But if you’re just starting out, hitting a dry spell, or have some extra bills to pay, you can’t be picky about ALL those things. /rant
But whatever work you do, think about your ultimate goals and use those to make decisions about the clients you pursue, the resources you invest in, and the strategies you use to grow.