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3 Brutal Tips for Making Self-Employment Work

Sometimes — especially in business — you just need somebody to tell it to you straight. There are so many tips to sift through when you first get started, and let us face it: Not all of those suggestions are helpful.

We lately had the joy of interviewing two self-employed company owners, hand-picked from the QuickBooks Ambassador Program. Both of them are relatively new to the game but have found a great deal of success so far and are happy to share. If you have been looking for some peer advice, you are in luck. Here are three brutal tips you will need to remain self-employment and succeed as an entrepreneur.

1. Fire the people or things that don’t deliver results

It can be difficult to back off from a new approach — particularly one you have already invested a lot of time and money into it. Worse is having to fire somebody who, through no fault of their own, could not deliver the results you needed. Part of that difficulty is pride. Nobody likes being wrong. It is enough of an emotional blow to necessarily make you stick with the person or thing, simply to avoid acknowledging you were wrong.

There is a name for this. It called the sunk cost fallacy, and it refers to that dangerous habit people have of wanting to maintain something they have invested time, money, or some other resource into — even if it is not working for them. The trouble is you keep losing (money, space, resources, energy, etc.) while you wait, and that is not good for business.

As a self-employed person, you need to understand when you are committing the sunk cost fallacy and act consequently — even if it means firing a person or concept, you would once found promising.

2. Stop saying yes just because it makes you money

This is tricky. Unless you have landed in a field that makes oodles of cash, it is hard to say no to a project — any project — that pays. If you are a commercial architect, you might agree to design someone’s home. If you are a book editor, you might take on someone’s marketing materials. But saying yes to any project that falls into your lap isn’t just exhausting. It’s also bad for business.

Elisabeth Young knows, firsthand, what comes of being pulled in every direction as a self-employed business owner. As a full-time designer of luxury wedding invitations since 2016, her target audience includes brides who can afford a more custom, high-end look. But Elisabeth says she hasn’t always been able to focus on her end goal. Up until last year, she was completing a variety of projects, just to stay profitable.

“At the beginning, I was doing everything under the sun to get any sort of client work,” she says. “Whether it was wedding invitations or anything else. I was doing wood signs, and wedding signage, house portraits, logo design, envelope calligraphy, calligraphy vows, the list goes on and on and on.”

The biggest challenge, Elisabeth says, was finally putting her foot down and asking herself what she wanted to continue doing. And more importantly, what she didn’t want to keep doing.

“How do you start saying no to people? That’s the hard part. As a small business owner, when someone is asking you, ‘Hey, can I pay you money for this?’ obviously your knee-jerk response is, ‘Sure, I’ll take your money.’ Then, it’s like, ‘Is this project really going to benefit what I want my business to be in the long run?’”

But being able to say no can also be liberating. It frees up self-employed workers to develop the service or products they want to do most. “I am not doing any wedding signage for 2019,” Elisabeth says. “I just made that decision yesterday, because I really want to focus on the wedding invitations. That’s my bread and butter and what I really love.”

3. Don’t trust that everyone else knows what they’re doing

“I try to listen to every piece of advice that comes my way, while still taking everything with a grain of salt,” says Curt. He’s a member of a potter’s guild with about 70 other artisans. “When I first started this, I had people giving me advice that they used 40 years ago on how to monetize my art, and it was advice that didn’t even work for them 40 years ago.”

Curt tells it comes down to differentiating between what people say and what they can show for themselves. Then it’s looking at how they run every part of their business, from marketing to sales. “At the end of the day, I listen to all the advice that I can, but some of it isn’t good, and I thank people for sharing their experiences and their advice but don’t always put it into practice,” he says.

Elisabeth takes that thought one step ahead, explaining that it is not just taking advice with a grain of salt but also keeping a wary eye out for those trends that everyone is doing, regardless of whether they’re useful.

“In the wedding industry, there are things called styled shoots, where vendors get together and collaborate. No one is getting paid. Everyone is putting their own resources and time towards it. You basically do a fake wedding shoot,” she says. “You get models. You choose the dress. Make a cake. You make the invitations if you’re me. Everyone comes together. … The hope is that you’ll get good photos back, first of all, that you can hopefully use on your website, or Instagram, or whatever, and that second of all, you get published.”

Before participating in shoots, Elisabeth says she was under the impression that because everyone was doing it, a styled shoot was the next big step she needed to take to be successful. “I honestly could not have been more wrong,” she says.

Elisabeth gets frustrated when she looks back at 2017, thinking about how much of the time she gave up for free. “Because that’s what it came down to,” she says. “Getting very little in return.” What might have worked well for the wedding dress designer or the cake baker didn’t work well for her product because “not every photographer has a good understanding of how to photograph stationery correctly or how to even style it correctly.” Elisabeth says that threw her off after having been told by so many people that participating in a styled shoot was what she had to do to level up.

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