So You’re Just Starting Out

“If you can move it an inch, you can move it a mile.”

Yes, this is true.  Even if you only move it one inch at a time.  Those you see that are seemingly miles ahead of you?  They started out where you are right now – and you know what?  You may even be further along at this very moment than they were when they began.

As things have progressed, and I reflect on what it was like when I first started out in this industry back in 2009, sometimes I ask myself, ‘how the hell did this happen’?

Before I go any further, I don’t mean to imply that I have arrived.  I don’t think that will ever actually happen if I’m being perfectly honest.  There will always be another level.  Another mountain to climb.  Even if it’s the same mountain over and over.

Let me tell you what I mean by that.

Achieving success the first time is amazing.  And it really doesn’t matter how you define it.  I’m talking about the first time that it works.  That holy shit! moment where all the uncertainty evaporates and the internal dialogue that had been telling you to give-it-up-and-just-go-out-and-get-a-job that’d been so prevalent quiets to a whisper of a whisper.  It never truly goes away entirely, but it knows defeat is imminent.

I’m talking about the kind of success that feels good in an equal but different way every single time it is achieved.  It’s possible.  It’s achievable.  And if there’s ever a story of ‘if I can do it so can you‘, it’s this one.

In my earlier days, I would hear people say things like that.  I thought it was just their way of being humble.  But they weren’t.  They were right.

I got my start in the world of digital marketing back in 2009.  After having been downsized out of my previous job in retail management through no fault of my own, I knew that I needed to make a change.  Through what was essentially a circumstance consisting of dumb luck combined with even more dumb luck, I wound up with what was more or less a temp-to-hire gig at a company called Mindscape, an up and coming digital marketing and web design agency here in Grand Rapids, MI.

A lot has changed between then and now.  Since moving on from Mindscape in 2010 and striking out on my own, I’ve gone from run-of-the-mill freelancer to owner of an agency in my own right.

As things have progressed, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people who are in similar positions as I found myself several years ago – downsized out of gainful employment and deciding to strike out as a freelancer, not really knowing what lied ahead or even really what I wanted to happen – and in a weakened economy no less.  It’s still very real – and in many ways the emotions, fears and anxieties I recall remain quite raw. In talking with those who are ‘just starting out’, I think back to where I was back in 2010.  I didn’t know anyone.  I had no profile.  No company.  No presence.  I looked at the people who were seemingly doing well and that level of success seemed impossible.  I thought to myself, ‘forget cranking it up to 11… how do I even get it from zero to one?’  It was discouraging and quite frankly depressing.

I’m not going to tell you it’s been easy to even get as far as I have.  That would be a blatant lie.  And while I reiterate that I have yet to ‘arrive’, at the same time I’m not ‘just starting out’, either.  And that’s something.  That’s progress.  And in celebration of that progress, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned along the way that may help you along.

1) Do a kick ass job for everybody willing to hire you, regardless of who they are, what their profile is or how much they’re paying you.

This is important when you’re starting out for a variety of reasons.  One, you need a portfolio of ‘success stories’.  Two, it’s much easier to hire someone who’s done good work for others.  Furthermore, those people you’ve done great work for will become your cheerleaders.  You never know who will become an evangelist for your work.

2) Do your absolute best.  Always.  

My time at Mindscape was a different experience than most people get.  Most people when they’re starting out begin at the bottom.  They work for a low-end agency, or start out freelancing by surviving on the breadcrumbs passed down by top-end firms.  My experience was different because I started at the top and I was thrown to the wolves, knowing I was one screw-up (perhaps in my own mind) away from being gone, and it would have been simple to make it as if I’d never been there in the first place.  For these reasons I had to do my absolute best just to survive, and that mentality has translated into my corporate philosophy.

3) Understand that time is more valuable than money.  By a wide margin.

We all know that time is money.  But it’s important to understand that the risk a prospective client is running by hiring you isn’t the money they will lose if you don’t produce. It’s the time they will lose – not only in the initial time lost but also the cost of cleaning up any messes you’ve made.  Be respectful of this.

4) Relationships are everything. It’s not who you are, or even who you know.  It’s who knows you.

You can’t do this alone.  The easiest way I’ve found to build relationships is to be a resource.  Do whatever you can to help as many people and businesses as possible to achieve their goals – or if nothing else connect them with people who can help them along.  You never know when someone you provided amazing advice and guidance to four years ago will come out of the woodwork and ask you to quote a 5 or 6-figure project.

5) Relationships take time to develop, but the investment is worth it.

Expanding on #4, understand that no matter what your track record of success, it’s going to take time for someone who doesn’t know you to trust you.  If you’re working in an industry with little to no barriers to entry (like SEO), you have to know that for every quality service provider, there are 10 or more who suck.  And chances are most prospective clients will have encountered one who is saying a lot of the initial things that you are.  They are skeptical and rightfully so – and their skepticism speaks to their business acumen much more than it does to how they feel about you.  So don’t take it personally – just do whatever you can to cultivate a relationship based on trust, no matter how long it takes.

6) Being self-employed doesn’t mean you are your own boss.  If you have 100 clients, you have 100 bosses.

Enough said.