What to tell my past self

I was asked to write about what advice I would give to myself when I started my business. Since I started my company in 2004, I've had many years to look back, think about where I've been and how my experiences could help someone just starting out.
Here was a piece of the email I received as part of this "assignment":

For this project, we'd love for you to write a post on your blog exploring your early "startup" days by sharing stories or advice you might offer your "past self", based on the knowledge and experience you have today. We also encourage you to share any additional insight for those beginning their startup journey as a way to help new entrepreneurs develop their own professional brand. Some possible talking points include:
  • Was there a brand or company you wanted to idolize? What have they done that you could have implemented?
  • Was there a key factor that pushed you to find your motivation? Is there anything you could suggest to help others discover their own means of motivation?
  • Were you mentally prepared for what was coming? Were you sure/confident in yourself?
  • What advice would you have given to yourself as a way to deal with those who doubted your goals and aspirations?

Note that I'm not a startup by clinical definition. My job is to design things. At no point will my company be valuable enough to go public or be sold. At no point did I accept funding for work other than being paid to design something. At no point will I ever have employees or a store front. People hire me to design something and I do it to the best of my ability. Anyway...

I'll continue by answering the bullet points from the email as bluntly as I can then deviate to random comments about work, getting paid to work and how to have some sort life in between.

Bullet point 1:
I never looked toward anyone or any company to emulate. I knew no one personally or professionally who did freelance work in the fields of architecture, civil and mechanical product design. Very few people in this world design "room based video conferencing hardware" one week and a custom house the next.

Bullet point 2:
Money is the best motivator, both getting it and having it. Being really good at what you do but striving to get better motivated me. Everyone is different. I can't tell you how to motivate yourself but if I could, I would charge big money to do so on some sort of lecture circuit.

Bullet point 3:
Prepared? No. You can't be, it's absolutely impossible to prepare for the unknown. Confident? All I knew was that I was good at what I did. I just needed more people to know that and have them pay me to prove it.

Bullet point 4:
"Haters gonna hate". I rarely give thought to what people think about my work, except for clients, their customers who are buying the product I designed or those who I aim to have as future clients.

My advice
Of all the advice I could give to someone starting out as a freelance designer the most important thing is to develop a contract with specific scope of work and payment details. Sure, that doesn't sound sexy, but it's absolutely critical to make sure you get paid. Including language where the client doesn't get their end product until you're paid motivates people to pay you.

Watch this, it's perfect:
If you're offend by the language you may not have what it takes to work for yourself.

Further advice:

Be confident and humble, sometimes at the same time.
Being confident is most important when you're negotiating price. Nothing is worse and devalues you faster than being meek when discussing payment for what you do. You need to talk as if your fee, whatever it is, is right and just and appropriate. If you get brush back, you walk away. It's that easy. If you cave and take less than what you want, two things happen; You WILL get abused by this client and you'll end up working for them and turning down jobs for the right pay.

Humility comes into play when you've had a dry spell. You will have many. Hopefully they don't last long, but you never know. You may end up taking jobs you never thought you would have to to keep the bills paid. Keep in mind that your small job may mean the world to the client.

Clients do not own you. You don't have to answer emails ten seconds after you get them and you don't have to answer your phone all the time. I dug myself a hole once being "too available" for a client. I soon found them calling me at all hours; when I was riding my bike, when I was half a bottle down in wine, etc. Sometimes you just need to not answer your phone. We're designing products, not saving lives.

Working for yourself is infinitely harder than having a day job working for someone else. People absolutely don't understand that unless they work for themselves. It's not just motivation to keep working on a nice day when you would rather be outside. It's taxes, paying the bills, having money to pay the bills, writing contracts, managing consultants, managing clients, etc, etc. All the things that keep you away from doing what you do best and what you left your day job to do. Sometimes all you do is manage things and it sucks.

I wouldn't trade it for anything though.

Follow me on Twitter @bryanhellard

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