So, recently I became an entrepreneur. This didn’t involve a business plan, or any financing or seeking of capital. It actually happened quite by accident. I never really wanted to run my own business. Even though my degrees are in business administration, and even though that education prepared me to at least try to manage a business of my own, that’s not where my passion lies. In fact, yesterday someone asked me if I was considering bringing on some employees, and my immediate response was “oh, god no.” This is not because I don’t want to employ people, and it’s not because I don’t like management (I actually really do), but because I don’t want to deal with payroll, more advanced accounting, employment taxes, human resources, etc. I also don’t want to manage contractors to manage these functions. I just want to do what I’m best at; SEO and helping businesses get noticed on the web. So how did this happen?
My Recent Employment In SEO
I was lucky enough to be hired on by a small digital marketing agency after I’d completed my MBA. At the time I knew I loved marketing and I knew I loved writing, so getting into digital marketing and SEO was a perfect fit. I worked first as a digital marketing specialist, and then as an SEO specialist. I loved the company I worked for. It focused on ethical marketing practices, small businesses, and nonprofits, so it was an excellent cultural fit. It was a small team, so it had the kind of variety and agility that helps keep me engaged with my work. I got to write content for clients that they loved, and perform optimization that really moved the needle for these companies.
Unfortunately, as is often the case for small startups, the business went under after losing one big client, and I was laid off after a year of doing work that I loved at a level of quality that I could be proud of.
I wasn’t given notice. I was laid off on my last day of work. A modest severance package kept me afloat for about a month.
My Entry Into Entrepreneurship
I was looking for more full time traditional employment, but I was being kinda picky about it, maybe pickier than I should. I didn’t want to work for a click farm. I wanted to work somewhere locally if possible, and I had a preference for remote work (this is all written in the past tense, but it’s still true). I think of myself as highly capable in my field, and wanted a work role where I could use those competencies to their fullest.
As my former employer closed shop, they were finishing up client work one client at a time, slowly shedding existing obligations in the best and most ethical way possible. Two of those former clients contacted me for continued SEO help.
I felt a little out of my depth, if I’m honest. I had never drafted an SEO services contract. I had never been involved in negotiating services rendered, or planning and writing a scope of work. I didn’t even know what was a good rate to charge for my services. But I dove in and charged ahead. This process was made a little easier by the fact that these were clients I knew and had worked with before, but it was still daunting.
Unsure of this work and whether I would have time to do it after having a job, I offered my clients a 4 month initial contract period, negotiated rates that matched my needs and my clients’ budgets as closely as possible (I was and still am undercharging for my services, but making things work out for my clients is good marketing, and at a year and a half out of my MBA program, I am still relatively new to my field), and drafted scopes of work for each client detailing the plan for work month by month, and identifying my own responsibilities and the client’s responsibilities clearly.
It wasn’t until I started working on this that I saw how much I had really learned from my former employment. Getting that done made me feel empowered, more confident, and happier to do my work.
Making Ends Meet as an SEO Freelancer
Two client contracts, especially when you’re undercharging for your work, isn’t enough to pay the bills. My work load was not even close to full time, amounting to about 4 hours a week. My severance was running out, my anxiety about money was high, and being at loose ends for most of the week was driving me crazy.
I solicited contract work from a local agency. I had a previous relationship with this company from other contract projects and from working with them during my internship. That helped. I would later go on to let them know that I was happy to take on any other work they had that they thought was appropriate for me, and got an extra raft of work from them.
I decided that I was actually going to have to start paying attention to my website. I did a blog audit, removed weak pieces and started writing stronger ones. I performed keyword research and looked for a niche that I could market myself in. I started working on SEO optimization for my own website, something that’s embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t done before. I rewrote my resume, and added more professional work to my website. I performed a tag and category audit for my blog, and started rewriting the metadata for my pages.
The work on my website is still ongoing, including developing lead magnets, setting up email marketing (a must, in my opinion, but that’s a different post altogether), and many other small tasks.
I started scheduling meetings and adhering to a schedule. It’s common, I think, that during periods of unemployment, our routines and schedules can kind of fall apart. This was the case with my own experience of unemployment, and it quickly became clear that structure and routine were going to be vitally important to completing my work on time and to a high degree of quality.
I started using LinkedIn more regularly (though this, too, is still a work in progress). LinkedIn is absolutely the best social platform for B2B networking, and as a marketer, all of the work I do is B2B.
I’m currently on the verge of being able to pay my bills regularly and without outside help.
Is Freelancing Actual Entrepreneurship?
There’s a lot of discussion as to whether freelancing is the same as entrepreneurship, and I don’t really understand where the confusion is. Much of the internet believes that a freelancer is not a business, and that’s a distinction that I don’t understand. The word “entrepreneur” has experienced a bit of buzz over the last decade or so; the business space is flooded with articles about entrepreneurship. People sing praises of entrepreneurs, listing the qualities that make people natural entrepreneurs. People talk about how entrepreneurial qualities make people great employees. Along with that idolization of the entrepreneur comes the image of the entrepreneur as either someone who seeks investment capital to start a corporation with employees and such, or the small business owner, supporting their local communities by employing people and paying decent wages. But plenty of businesses consist of only one person. So many, in fact, that there’s a business category for them: the sole proprietorship. There are as many as 23 million sole proprietorships operating in the US today. A freelancing business is essentially a sole proprietorship, which is a type of business.
As a freelancer, I perform business functions. I have business expenses. I negotiate rates, market myself, collect leads, perform customer service functions, do basic accounting and more.
I think a part of the problem is a confusion between freelance work and work as an independent contractor. Independent contractors often end up working for just one client, and those business functions are handled by that client. The independent contractor is often considered and treated as a different type of employee rather than a provider of services.
Freelance work can involve working as an independent contractor, but for someone maintaining and growing their own client list, I don’t see any way in which that person isn’t running a sole proprietorship.
And a sole proprietorship is a business.
And starting a business makes you an entrepreneur.
What I Learned (So Far) As A Freelance SEO Professional
Wow, I have learned a whole lot in a very short period of time. Some of them I learned the easy way, and some I learned the hard way. These things include:
- More Industry Knowledge: I’ve had more time and freedom to learn about my craft and keep up with industry news as a freelancer, and that’s fantastic.
- That I Can Do This: I’ve learned that I can do my work in a way that’s self-directed; choosing my work, my clients, and my schedule without falling behind.
- That I Love Working With Clients: This is something that I wasn’t sure I’d be good at. I tend to state things in ways that are straightforward and maybe a little blunt. But I enjoy every contact with my freelance clients, and I’ve left every meeting more energized for my work.
- That Freelancing Isn’t For Everyone: There’s a lot that I love about this kind of work, and there’s a lot that I struggle with. I have a hard time confronting uncertainty. I find sporadic income very stressful.
- That I’m In The Right Industry: Sometimes when you’re working for someone else, it can be challenging to separate the love for the job from the love for the work. My separation from my employer showed me that I truly love my work.
- That I Have Skills I Didn’t Previously Know I Had: Sometimes you have a natural inclination toward things that makes skill building easier. I knew I was a good writer. I knew that I was knowledgeable about marketing. It’s other business functions that I didn’t know (or think) that I was good at. Having to take these on alone showed me that my skillset is broader than I thought.
- That I’m Flexible And Adaptable: Small businesses, especially sole proprietorships, need to develop skills and strategies on the fly. The need to be agile enough to adapt to rapidly changing environments. I found out that I’m able to do this!
This list of things I’ve learned is naturally not comprehensive. I’ve gained little bits of knowledge and skill that are vitally important, but not sweeping realizations. You’ll notice that most of these things are things I’ve learned about myself. I think that’s an important thing for anyone entering into freelance work.
This list is going to grow. After all, I’ve only been doing this for a couple of months, and there’s new challenges and opportunities for learning and growth ahead. The ability to take advantage of these opportunities is key to this kind of work.
The Pros and Cons of Entrepreneurship
There’s a lot to love about entrepreneurship. I get to decide what clients I work with (I turned down a client just the other day, in fact). I get to pick my own schedule; I have more energy in the mornings, so that’s when I work. I run out of steam after around 6 hours of work, so that’s how long my workdays are. If I want a day off and I’m not under deadline pressure, I take a day off. If I’m inspired to work, I work; even if it’s for fourteen days at a stretch. I control the type of work I do, and I determine my own workload. There’s a lot of freedom there, and I have found that that kind of flexibility gives me the opportunity to make sure that I’m doing my best work, every time, for every client. I get to do the work I love most, an opportunity that I think most people don’t get. I think of myself as very lucky in that regard. I get to learn something new every single day.
While I love the work I do, and while I love the freedom and autonomy of freelance work (autonomy is a component of motivation, but that’s for a different post), I have found that I do not love the hustle.
Growing your client list is hard! The SEO and digital marketing space is crowded, keywords are difficult to rank for, there’s a glut of competition at all business sizes. This is a sign of a healthy market, but it means that you absolutely have to find a niche area to target to reduce competitive pressure. This is not only difficult to do, but it requires constant work, frequent analysis and iteration.
I don’t like how unpredictable my payment schedule is. As someone who’s not quite making enough money to cover expenses (this is super common for brand new businesses in any industry), unpredictable payment amounts and dates make budgeting very difficult. I have frequently been running out of money before my next payment comes in. A longer client list will provide a buffer that makes this unpredictability less of a problem, but for now I find it very stressful.
I love learning new things about my work, my industry, and business management in general, and I believe this has the added benefit of making me a more valuable employee, but I don’t like that so much of it is crash courses and trials by fire. I always want to be seen as knowledgeable, skilled, and passionate. I worry a lot about potential reputational damage caused by having to learn things on the fly.
And while I love brand theory and brand consultation, I’m not the biggest fan of branding myself. It’s hard! From my own limited point of view, I am the default; everyday, normal, boring. Also, design is not a part of my skillset, so I often (usually) need outside help for branding work, and I believe strongly that people ought to be paid for their work, no matter what. That’s an additional expense you don’t have as an employee.
I also have to pay for things that are usually paid for by an employer. My website, my domain, any advertising I might choose to do, work from other professionals, even the tools to do my work, from Microsoft Office to advanced SEO tools. Not to mention self employment taxes.
Overall, I would probably not choose to be an entrepreneur. I do love my work, and I love working with my clients. It’s all the other stuff that comes with running a business that’s kind of a drag for me. I honestly just want to make content and optimizations and strategies that help people. For now, entrepreneurship is the way I get to do that. Maybe I just lack the much-lauded entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe I’ll come to like it more as things get a little easier. One thing I know: business ownership isn’t for everyone.