Do you have what it takes to run a business? (Also: it’s totally cool if you don’t want to.)
It seems as though every article about running a business extols the virtues of casting down the shackles of full-time employment to be free and happy on your own.
No bosses! Run a business in your underpants! Travel the world with your laptop! All you can eat vegan burritos! (Ok, that last one can and should be be done in either type of job.)
I’m sick of thought leaders telling us that freelancing is the answer to all our problems, and that it’s the only sure-fire way to get ahead. In fact, I’ve worked for myself longer than most of those people (coming up on 20 years now), but I still don’t think it’s the best option for everyone. Hell, I even teach a course on the business of freelancing and still don’t think everyone should freelance—not because some people aren’t talented enough to freelance, but because it just doesn’t make sense for everyone, depending on what you want to do and how you want to do it.
The boss of you
When you’re the boss of you, there’s no HR department to handle payroll, benefits and training. There’s no accounting department to handle payables, receivables or to chase after folks who should have paid you but haven’t yet. There’s no sales and marketing team to spend their entire day drumming up new business and leads for you. On top of the main skill you use to make money, you’ve got to do all the other jobs as well.
With all this “Run a business! It’s better than whatever you’re doing now!” messaging online, people often end up falling in love with the idea of working for themselves without understanding the actual day-to-day work required to be their own boss. Or, as Austin Kleon cleverly puts it, people want to be the noun without doing the verb. We want the job title or business card or fancy website with a new logo on it, and we forget the daily rigours of running a business of our own. Having a brilliant idea or wanting to build a successful business is not enough. Ideas and dreams are nice but they’re also cheap and meaningless without taking action and doing the work to make them happen. The dream is the sexy part, where the glamour is, where it’s enjoyable to sit back and think, “oh damn, that’d be fun!” The harder, much harder bit, is making the dream happen every day. Which means sometimes you’re buried in accounting spreadsheets or on the third round of revisions from a client. The daily work and slogging away is what separates wannabe business owners from those that make it a reality.
Running a business requires both ego and purpose in equal measure
I started working for myself because I figured I could foster client relationships better than the agency where I worked. That became my purpose, not to be the best designer (which I’m not even sure is possible), but to run a business focused on client relationships. So ego is involved, not in a bad way, but in a, “I know I can do this better” sort of way. If you don’t think it’s possible or don’t care if it is, there’s no point doing your own thing. In that case, it’s fine to work for someone else—because they’re established and have people handling the jobs you probably don’t want to be doing anyway.
Purpose is required in that you have to have a north star that will drive you long term and not blink out. Wanting to get rich quick or achieve freelance fame isn’t going to motivate you for long, since neither are quickly possible, regardless of who you are. There are much easier ways to make money or get famous in the world. Why do you want to work for yourself? What will drive you to keep going if things get rough? If things take longer than you hope they will? When you’re stuck in the day to day minutiae of running a business?
Running a business is about choices
For me, I like choices. I like that I can choose to make less money by saying no to a project or a client or a customer that I don’t think is a good fit for me to work with. Unplugging for 3 months at a time is an option. Picking what I work on next, and not have that work handed down to me is huge. I like that I can work on Saturday if I want, and go hiking on Wednesday. This freedom of choice is my north star. Yes, it’s taken some time to get here. And, it’s required me to be ok with not having nearly as much as freedom in the beginning, because fuck, sometimes bills need to be paid and sometimes the best client isn’t the best fit but the one who’s here right now and willing to pay you this month. But still, even in the rough patches, that’s what’s driven me forward.
This piece isn’t meant to be a downer. It’s simply meant to challenge your idea of wanting to run a business for yourself. If you’re like, “Yup, check, I’m in,” then that’s awesome. Welcome and I think I can help. If it doesn’t make sense for you right now (or ever), then that’s cool too. Be stoked on where you’re at, regardless of where that is.