It’s the universal working class dream, isn’t it?
Breaking free and living life on your own terms?
My workday daydreaming usually involved a smooth exit after giving my boss the finger, or an outburst that ends in me punching someone.
I’m a bit of a non-conformist. I don’t do well under authority and I certainly can’t play by someone else’s rules.
To top it off, I’ve always had terrible luck when it comes to bosses. I’ve always wanted to work with a Simon Sinek kind of boss. An achiever, a dream-chaser, smart, realistic, big-hearted and all the other stuff a good mentor is made of (if he’s not all that, kudos to him and his PR company for the image portrayed). My bosses barely ticked one, often none of those boxes.
I had one more big problem: lack of direction. I studied audio engineering, worked in events and marketing, and then went on to work in partnerships for loyalty programmes. Bit of Jane-of-all-trades.
Either way, I don’t think I ever hit my stride in any of those jobs. I always did a decent job and was capable enough (or unchallenged enough) to make it seem like I did more, and I got by. Without purpose, without drive, one happy-go-lucky week to the next.
So one morning in August 2017 I pulled into the parking lot and looked up at the drab building that I was going to spend the next 9 hours in, and I decided that was it.
No more reporting to mammoth egos and patting myself on the back every time I climbed a step up with my foot on someone else’s face. That’s what the corporate ladder looks like to me, by the way: you climb people to get to the top.
Parallel to the workplace depression that was setting in, I had just turned down a large content writing freelance job because my 9-to-5 didn’t give me the scope to make my client’s timelines work. By this point, I had been freelancing as a writer for about 5 years. It was always something I did on the side.
So somewhere, in the back of my head, that was bothering me, too. I had at hand a project that I really wanted to work on, but I… what… couldn’t?
It paid the same over the course of the month as my salary. Maybe 10% here and there. There was no reason why I shouldn’t do it. Life, is after all, too short.
Later that night, I typed out my resignation letter. 48-hours of tight smiles and nods later, I was a free bird.
Two months later, I was also a broke bird.
With great gusto, I had taken on a couple of freelance writing projects and I started working my butt off. Lots of coffee, early mornings, late nights – I was loving it.
I quickly realised though, that I was going to have to start following up on payments because the cheques weren’t just pouring in. I learnt,
…money changes hands quite slowly when there are no shopping bags involved…
So Christmas 2017 was a ‘joyful’ time of hug-vouchers and rain cheques for me.
I was barely making bills. Mind you, I was still working 12-14 hour days – writing, networking, invoicing and client servicing. I just wasn’t getting paid on time, and when you’re building client relationships, well, invoice reminders don’t sit too well.
But when things looked blue, I had Instagram and all its amazing motivation to keep me going. The likes of Richard Branson and Jack Welch and Malcolm Gladwell were talking to me from within 1080-by-1080-pixel boxes telling me the difference between winners and losers was that winners never stopped trying.
P.S. This is one of the reasons I run a motivational feed on Instagram (@flowconcepts.me) – you just never know when you’re making someone’s day with your little post!
The point is, I stayed on my feet and kept trying. With all my efforts focused on building a clientele and writing the best possible content I could, things eventually started to fall in place.
By January 2018, I was talking to free zones about setting up a business license.
By February, I had a business license up and running, and I officially launched Flow Concepts, a bespoke content writing service for startups and SMEs. For a small-time entrepreneur, starting up a business in the UAE is not cheap. I sold my car to make the money I needed for the trade license.
I had no real overheads at this point. Just the cost of a license and my coffee supply. Eventually this increased to cover the cost of hiring an accounting service, support writing staff and a web designer.
I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to help as many SMEs and startups as possible to create amazing content and share their work with the world. I couldn’t write for everyone, of course, so I figured I needed a wider platform. I started offering a few of my clients media training workshops to empower their teams to create better content. It worked.
Until this point, I’ve spent a total of zero ad monies. My business has grown purely on word-of-mouth.
On the 1st of June, 2018 (94 days into business) I had a glance through my accounts and realised that I was actually running a profitable business.
I can tell you I’ve never felt more satisfied or proud of myself.
I know that the ride has only just begun. But no matter what the size and scale of your startup, the definition of that initial hump remains the same: testing your business model, feeling the market out, figuring out whether or not you’re creating something you can sell enough of to make a living off of.
Over these first 100 days of my business, along my messy startup journey, I learnt a few lessons.
Some of my conclusions might feel more applicable to businesses similar to mine – small, creative services, but for the most part, I feel like you’ll nod along to most of these anyway.
1. Choose the kind of people you want to work with and turn down the rest. This isn’t always easy to do because you have bills to pay and you need the money, but in the long run, a client that you click with is an easier, healthier source of income. Great client relationships also inspire great work.
2. Be as selfish with your time as you can afford to be (without alienating the world), but cut out half a day, preferably one day of your week and give it entirely to your family, friends and other people that want your time (clients need your time, too, but not them on this day)
3. Get in some exercise, eat healthy, care about how you look. Carry yourself like you’re going to meet your next client anywhere, anytime. You are the face of your business. The world sees faces first – it’s not shallow, it’s just that people’s eyes see you walk in the door before their ears hear you talk.
4. Find a mentor: Someone that’s been down this road before and definitely someone that you define as successful. Take their advice seriously. If you don’t find the right person right away, confide in two or three people that you trust and respect. Don’t do this alone.
5. Be as bold as you dare to be. Do things you’ve never done before. Challenge yourself, and definitely. definitely, fail. It’s all part of the process. Also, remember, you will never actually be completely ready. So just take the plunge.
6. Be a giver of positive energy. You’re doing something that you love to do, so let the pleasure of the process come through in your work and your interactions. People feed off of your positive energy and then their reasons to work with you transcend price point and portfolio.
7. Understand the two kinds of confidence lies: “Don’t worry, we’ve got this” even when you have no clue how to do it. And “Don’t worry, we’ve done this before” even when you’ve never done it before. The second kind comes back and bites you in the behind. If you use it, tread with great caution.
8. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” – Parkinson’s law. When you’re in control of your time, this could not hold truer. Set tight deadlines, and keep them.
9. Reliability is everything. Quality comes next. Show up when you said you will, send a file across when you said you would. People remember you for being someone that always comes through.
10. Set out to change the world with your work, no matter how small or niche your business is. Try the Kaizen approach – try to be just 1% better everyday. Scale your business up by 1% everyday in terms of quality of clientele, marketing and communication, business processes, really anything that you can make better. Baby steps everyday – direction sky.
11. Find your tribe of people – the kind that would do anything for you, and you’d do anything for them. They are going to be the rock island you need to stand on when the waves are crashing around you.
12. Golden rule: Work your butt off, work with integrity, don’t be afraid to ask for money but don’t chase money, either. Success will just follow.
I hope I’ve struck a chord or two. Better yet – maybe I’ve fuelled that tiny flame that makes you want to break free and follow your dreams. Starting a business is hard work, but it’s completely and entirely worth it.