Working For Yourself: Month One (Getting Started)

Well, Ladies and Gentleman,

This is it. I’ve been working for myself for a month (actually a little more than a month, but details). Wheee! And also Ack. Sort of a wheee-ack, actually.

Inspired by And Kathleen (Have you read her month-by-month series about working freelance? You must.) I decided to write about owning your own business, month by month. To be picky about language, I should say, I don’t really consider myself a freelancer. I work on one particular project all the time, and while I have advertisers and readers, I don’t have clients. So, while my life is really similar to my freelance sisters in some ways, it’s also different. Which I’m sure will come up.

Some of you, undoubtedly, don’t care a whit about this new series. Bring on the weddings, you say, and the marriages. To you I say, shush. And also come back later this afternoon, where we’ll discuss pie-pops. That said, APW has focused on independent businesses for a long time, and I’ve always written about my life here, so it makes sense for me to talk about my new self employed life a bit.

So. The first month. Actually, let’s back up.

Before You Go Full Time

First, let me throw this out there… you have a lot of work to do before you quit your day job. Maybe you don’t have quite as much work as I did, because I waited to quit my day job till I could comfortably support two people in (expensive) San Francisco. Also, I worry obsessively about poverty, so I really over prepared. While you might not need to go as crazy as I did, you still have a lot of work to do. So!

Here are some things you should do before you ponder quitting:

Decide that you actually love your project: Once you’re working on your project full time, it will go from being ‘that delightful dream you were distracting yourself with’ to ‘your job.’ If you don’t adore it, you should seriously consider doing something where you are not personally responsible for paying all of the bills and providing all of the benefits. I’ve had a huge variety of work situations, and working for someone else is not the enemy. The enemy is working for yourself, doing something you don’t like very much, and always being broke. Turns out though, I did adore my side project, and I still do. That gets me through the interminable afternoons and the feeling of always being behind.

Get a business license: Yes. You need one. I found out, two and a half years into running APW that I was two and a half years minus one month late for getting my San Francisco business license. That was embarrassing. So get one before you quit, ok?

A business savings account: Ok, you don’t actually have to have one of these, but I suggest it. Cash flow issues suck. Avoid them if you can. Plus, it’s going to be harder to put a business savings account together once you’re paying yourself, so do that now.

A budget. For the year. Yes, you need one. I know it’s hard. You’re still not off the hook.

The Team

Look, there is a delightful sense of independence in the phrase, “working for yourself.” But while you may work for yourself, you’re not going to do it by yourself. If you want to work for yourself and not lose your mind, you’re going to need a support structure of people that you pay. I suggest that you find good people who focus on smaller businesses, and then pay them respectably (even if that feels like a lot of money to you). You will always be able to find people who will help you out…. for super-duper cheap. If you fall into that tempting trap, you’ll often find yourself digging out months later, realizing A) They never delivered what you needed, B) You paid them for a whole lot of hours, and C) Now you have a huge mess to clean up. So, if you can, skip that bit, and hire someone who’s charging a living wage.

This is what my team looks like:

An Agent: Remember when I told you I sold a book? Do you want to do that? Yes? Ok, then, get an agent. I’m not going to lie to you and say that it’s always easy to get an agent, but I still think you need one. (Side note: the way you get an agent is that you have a platform, and then network yourself into knowing other people with agents. I’m  pretty sure there is no other way to do it, but if you know another way, share in the comments!) Not only will agents get you considered seriously by big publishers, but they know the lay of the land, and how things work. They will make your proposal what it needs to be, they will negotiate, they will get you the best advance they can, they will make sure you get a fair shake on your contract, and they will troubleshoot and hold your hand when things are difficult during the process of actually making the book. They will take 15%-20% off the top, and it will be worth it.

A Lawyer: Please, for the love of god, don’t remind me that I put my husband through law school and that I also have a lawyer. That would be a very annoying detail for you to point out. Regardless, when I ended up with a book contract to sign, my lovely agent insisted that I get a lawyer who specialized in publishing and intellectual property issues. It was worth every penny to have someone advocating on my behalf who knew exactly what she was talking about. Also, for those of you without a lawyer in the family, it pays to have someone on your team who can advise you on the law whenever you sign a contract. They tell you when you’re being screwed, and they tell you when you should be asking for more rights. This is a good thing.

An Accountant: Lots of you won’t need an agent. Some of you won’t ever need a lawyer (maybe). But everyone needs an accountant. Do not even question me on this. Back in September, I’d been running APW as a profitable business for two years with absolutely zero in the way of bookkeeping. I knew that for me to go full time, that had to change, but I wasn’t sure how to fix it all. Enter: accountants. They set me up on Quickbooks (a program I was familiar with, but needed help setting up from scratch), got me to set up business accounts at the bank, and got me to write a budget for the year. Also? We talked about my savings goals and retirement accounts. You need to do all of this. This is not a joke.

My Web Team: You may or may not need web designers. But if you ever need to hire web people, remember this: people who say web designers can’t be expected to meet deadlines should be slapped. My web team always delivers their work efficiently and in a timely fashion, and so should yours. If they tell you they can’t, find someone who can. You deserve this.

Staff: I hesitate to include APW staff in this list, just because they are far more integrally involved with keeping APW running then the small crew of freelancers that surround me. That said, you will at some point hit a tipping point with your business where you realize you’re not sleeping, you’re not socializing, and you’re slowly going insane. At that point? Hire people, bring on interns, do something. Your business needs you sane.

The First Month:

So what did I learn the first month of working for myself? Well, that I don’t know very much yet. And that I’m really grateful I went to art school (something I sometimes doubted I would ever say).

I’m coming off a three and a half year corporate gig, that sometimes I don’t understand how I got. But before that I got my BFA in theatre (which means I was in a three day a week conservatory program), and then worked in New York City Theatre professionally. These days, I’m really glad for all that.

I’m glad that I was trained with the idea that you show up Every Single Day (we were only allowed three absences in studio per semester), no matter how sh*tty or uncreative you were feeling, and you do the work. You do the work when what you’re doing sucks, you do the work when what you are doing seems brilliant, you do the work when you’d rather be in bed. And thank God, because that takes some serious pressure off. You just have to show up and work, not show up and do brilliant work. So every day these days, I show up. I write stuff. I send emails. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s brilliant. But I’m glad I know that I have to do it every day.

I’m also glad that I’ve worked with irregular work environments. If I’d always worked a 9-5 job, my head would be spinning off of my neck right now. As it is, I just feel a little dizzy. Because every day is different. Some days I get up and go to the office. Some days I have a random appointment. Some days I have conference calls. Some days I stay home and write. And some days are unproductive, and that’s just how it is. I call this Like-Living-In-Brooklyn (because that’s where I lived when I worked crazy jobs and crazy schedules) and that reminds me to enjoy it. I liked life in Brooklyn, usually.

But mostly, I’m content. I went through a month of being terrified back when I was quitting. By New Years week I was in full-on hyperventilation mode. But now? I’m happy. I drive through San Francisco during the day, delighted that I can be out and about when it’s sunny. I take naps in the office when it all gets too much (And wake up to drumming. Oh hippies! Oh San Francisco!). I walk out of work and into some guy playing the trombone, which is magical. I take it slow when I don’t feel well. When I work on Sundays, sometimes I do it lying out in the garden. I work out lots of times a week, and take care of my health. It’s confusing and overwhelming, but it’s mostly amazing. I was made for this. I hope I get to do it for a long, long time.

More next month (and every day on Twitter). Till then, Whee! And also Ack!


Picture: Kathleen and I, how fitting! From the Alt Summit photo stream

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