In the third in a series of posts, Polemic Digital founder Barry Adams looks at some of the biggest issues of going it alone – getting paid and staying disciplined. You can read part one of Barry’s experiences of starting his own business here and you can find part two here.
So there I was, out on my own. No more reliable monthly salary, no more 9-to-5 (or, in my case, usually 8.30 to 6), no more daily commute. I’d made a wee work space for myself in our living room, and I’d be entirely responsible for all of my own income from that day onward.
Initially things went smoothly. I’d already had a few clients signed up so I could dig in to that work straight away. I also had a lot of meetings with prospective clients, a few of which converted in to more business for me. In the first two months, I was flat out.
After that initial boom, however, some things about being self-employed became clearer, and the full repercussions of my big move crystallised.
Show me the money
First and foremost there was the issue of getting paid. Almost every freelancer will tell you this is their primary concern, and for good reason. My invoices come with 30 day payment terms, yet I learned that most businesses – big businesses especially – treat this as a generic guideline, and one that they often ignore altogether.
Big businesses don’t care about your cashflow as a freelancer. Your monthly income is none of their concern. Instead they care about their own accountancy processes, and if those incorporate a 90-day payment schedule, you’ll get paid after 90 days. No matter how loud you shout, you’re not getting paid any sooner.
That’s not all. My invoices say ’30 days from invoice date’, and I send invoices throughout the month as and when work is completed. But some clients start invoice payment schedules from the day the invoice is actually processed, which in some cases can be towards the end of the month or the first of a new month.
In one instance I sent an invoice on the 2nd of the month, and it didn’t actually get processed by the company’s accounts department until the 25th of that same month. And then their own payment schedule kicked in, which was 60 days. Come the 2nd of the following month, when my invoice should have been paid, the administrative wheels of the client company had barely begun churning.
This is the sort of thing you’re going to have to come to grips with as a self-employed entrepreneur, and it’s important to find a sort of Zen-state of internal peace about the whole thing. It’s easy to get very frustrated and anxious about getting paid, but in the end most of it is outside your control. Best to accept it and focus on your other work.
I do recommend sending regular polite payment reminders to your clients, even when you know the company isn’t going to pay any sooner, if only to remind them of your invoice and make sure it gets paid eventually. It’s a good way to ensure your invoice is actually in the queue, and not stuck in a forgotten pile of paperwork somewhere.
Some companies, however, are delightfully quick with their payments. Cherish these clients, as they’re few and far between.
The daily grind
Another aspect of being self-employed that I had to come to grips with was my daily routine. I’ll admit, the first few days of being out on my own I enjoyed long lie-ins and probably a bit too much daytime television. (There’s a double episode of Frasier on every morning at 9 AM – awesome!)
The thing is, that’s very unproductive time. I thought I’d make up for lost morning hours by working longer in the evening, but this rarely happened. Instead I’d just wrap things up around 5-ish and leave some work for the next day.
Initially this wasn’t a huge problem, but after the first weeks the work really started piling up and I found myself working evenings and weekends to keep my promises to clients. And I still didn’t get up any earlier in the mornings.
Eventually I realised it would be much smarter use of my time if I just got up early and started working at the usual 8.30 hour. Once I began doing that, and established a disciplined daily routine, my workload got much more manageable. I realised my most productive hours are the morning hours, and it’s an awful waste to spend those watching Frasier.
Walls closing in
I also found myself feeling a bit cooped up in my home. I spent all day in my house working, and then stayed indoors trying to relax. The walls started closing in on me fairly quickly, so I decided to seize every opportunity to get out a bit. But at the same time I didn’t want to break my day up too much with travel to and from meetings, as that’s very unproductive use of time.
So now I try to schedule meetings with clients across one or two days in the week, aiming to spend the whole day out and find coffee shops in the city to do some work in between meetings. (There’s a great spot in the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast called Established Coffee. It’s a bit of a beard-heavy hipster haven, but the free Wi-Fi is excellent and there’s plenty of power outlets to plug in your laptop. And the coffee is superb.) On the days when I have no meetings, I usually go to the gym shortly before or after lunch to get some exercise – much needed in my desk-bound profession.
Once the business is firmly in place I’ll be hiring a hot desk at one of the many startup hubs in the city, at which stage I reckon this whole self-employed thing will start feeling like a proper job again. But at least I’ll be my own boss, which is why I made the decision in the first place.
There are some smaller but very necessary routines I haven’t quite managed to establish yet, such as collecting all my invoices and keeping track of business mileage, but I’m hopeful that at some stage I’ll learn to be rigorous and thorough in those areas as well. Let’s hope I won’t have to learn too many lessons the hard way.