• Advice

Nine Years In: Nine things I would tell myself if I was launching my freelance consultant career now

This month, I’m celebrating the start of my 9th year in business as a solopreneur. And, as anniversaries tend to do, that’s caused me to look back and take a moment to reflect on all my accomplishments, missteps, and lessons learned along the way. 

If I was starting out in the freelance world today, this is the advice I would give myself:

1. Always have cash on hand:

It takes time to develop relationships and find clients that value the level of experience you can bring to the table, rather than solely looking at the bottom line. There will be lulls between clients, contracts that end earlier than expected, late payments, unexpected medical bills, and other financial hiccups along the way. No one wants to work with desperate. Give yourself the gift of a cash cushion. And don’t forget to pay the IRS.

2. Saying no is hard, but it’s worth it:

When you’re low on clients (and funds!), you’ll find you want to work with whomever comes along. Self-doubt will creep in. You might start questioning whether what you offer is of value, be tempted to take projects that aren’t a good fit, or accept low-ball offers. You’ll also have times when you’re fully booked, but an interesting opportunity comes along, and it feels almost impossible to pass on it. Saying no can be difficult, but sometimes necessary. You must be responsible for not only your physical and mental health, but also protecting your time and keeping your business focused on your zone of genius.

3. Niche down in the way that feels most comfortable to you:

Everyone and their brother will tell you that you must have a niche. And it’s true. BUT, your niche doesn’t have to be hyper-specific in WHAT you do. It can be WHO you do it for. I provide corporate communication services. I’ve started describing it recently as the general contractor of the communication world, because corporate communication is the strategy behind and the messaging and content development that supports consistently sharing the story or your organization and its good work to targeted audiences. That covers a lot of ground. So, my niche is that I work with purpose-driven organizations, primarily nonprofits or organizations within the health and science sphere. Pick a specialty, but pick one that comes naturally and best reflects what you most enjoy about your industry.

4. Dedicate time to work on your business, not just in it:

There’s a reason ‘the cobbler’s family has no shoes’ is a saying. It is hard to work on your business, especially when times are good, and you have a lot of client work. I spent several years neglecting my own communication and marketing efforts, while laying out best practices, communication strategies, and calendars for my clients. You only have so much time and mental energy. Block off dedicated time within your day or week to work on your business and continue to build your pipeline.

5. Talk yourself up, at every opportunity:

People don’t know what you do, unless you tell them. Does this mean drop a sales pitch at every social outing? No. But, it does mean that you need to consistently talk about yourself, your business, and what you can offer. Have that elevator speech ready to go. Accept that invite to chat with someone who offers complementary services. Post on LinkedIn regularly and interact authentically with others. It’s those loose connections that will help you land the client more often than not. The more people that know who you are and what you do, the more your name gets mentioned in rooms you aren’t in.

6. Pay attention to changes in your industry AND in the broader freelance industry:

As a freelancer or solopreneur, you, and you alone, are responsible for your ongoing professional development and keeping up to date with trends and changes to your industry. Things I’m watching right now in the communication industry: artificial intelligence, the potential TikTok ban, demographic preferences for where and how to receive communication, etc. But you also need to keep an ear to the ground for what’s happening in the broader freelance/consultant industry. There are a lot more of us out there than there were nine years ago. The industry has become more formalized and regulated. It’s important to pay attention to what’s changing and how it might impact your business now or in the future.

7. Don’t work without a contract:

The only time you should work without a contract is if you are willing to do the work for free. Use the standard contract from your client, provided you read it carefully. Grab a template online and adapt it to best fit your organization. Pay a lawyer a nominal fee to help you draft a standard contract or review major contracts. But have a contract. Amend existing contracts if they are extended or major changes occur during the course of the contract. I’ve adapted my contract over time based on my personal experiences: adding a late fee policy, kill fees, and additional specifics, such as rounds of edits included, that are related to deliverables. But I always have a contract.

8. Push back on non-complete clauses:

Standard contracts from organizations will frequently have non-compete clauses. Many of these probably would not stand up in court. But no one wants to end up in court, even if you’re likely to win. You do not have to accept a contract as written. Push back. I once received a contract with a non-compete clause that excluded me from working with any organization the company had worked with, or attempted to work with, for two years before or after my agreement with them. This is blatantly absurd. They’re often more subtle than this, but push back. It’s fair (and good business practice) to agree not to try to poach clients. But standard contract terms haven’t always caught up to the freelance reality.

9. Don’t be your own worst enemy:

I would love to say that after nine years in business, I’ve conquered imposter syndrome and know how to get out of my own way. But it’s still something I struggle with. So this is not only advice to my newbie self, but also to me today. Say yes to challenging opportunities. Get out of your head and take action. Trust yourself. Make the decision. Remember that working through setbacks is how you learn and grow.

Best wishes to all of you who are just starting on this journey, and those of you who, like me, have been around a while. It’s a wild ride and you learn so much as you go.

Sarah Wood Sarah Wood is the founder of Sarah Wood Communication, LLC and a proud solopreneur. She focuses on helping organizations illuminate and share the story of their good work with targeted audiences.