Like many people who start their own business without any clue how to run a business, I bumbled my way through the first ten years and made many mistakes. I also learned some invaluable lessons. I hope that sharing them will be helpful.

In July 2017, I chalked up my first decade as a freelance editor, proofreader, writer and business owner. Did I make mistakes along the way? Hell, yes! Do I have any regrets about becoming a small business owner? Absolutely not!

I thought I’d lay myself bare and share five of the BIGGEST mistakes I made and the lessons I’ve learned from them so that hopefully, you can avoid these pitfalls altogether.

  1. Being too trusting. The first few years I was in business, I was blessed with prompt-paying clients. One or two were a little tardy, but I never had an issue with a non-payer. An overseas client once chastised me for my laidback, unbusinesslike approach to being paid. I rarely asked for a deposit, expecting the client to pay me IN FULL, AFTER I had returned the completed work. “One day, Sally, you’re going to get stiffed,” he said. And sure enough, a few months later it finally happened. I took on an urgent academic job for an overseas client that required me to work all weekend – including right through Saturday night (I was eager to please in those days). The work was done and returned without complaint or comment. But when I sent the invoice, the client suddenly decided they were ‘unhappy’ with my work, and refused to pay. As I had neglected to get any contact details other than their email address, I had no way to pursue payment. I had slaved away all weekend – for nothing. I can tell you, that stung and I fumed for a long time about it!

Lesson learned: Always get full contact details, a deposit, and final payment before you return the work. With methods like PayPal, a client can instantly pay a deposit before you start the job, no matter the day or time.

  1. Underquoting. When I started out, I lacked experience (which caused me to doubt my ability ­­see #5 below) and I was keen to win jobs. So I’d quote a cheap hourly rate, or work out a fixed price based on a cheap hourly rate, then I’d shave a bit more off for good measure. There were three problems with this approach: 1) Invariably, I got the job – but I didn’t earn very much for doing it; 2) The client sometimes hired me to do more work at the same crappy rate. 3) By charging low rates I was also devaluing my profession, negating the skills, training and experience necessary for editors to do what we do so well.

Lesson learned: Set a minimum rate you believe you are worth based on your skills, training and experience – and don’t set it too low. Consider the hourly rates for unskilled labour, or the (often exorbitant) rates tradespersons charge. Sure, they need skills, training and experience to justify their rates – but so do we! And, they don’t negotiate! Lastly, increase your rates every year, commensurate with your ever-improving skills, expertise and any professional development that you undertake. And don’t apologise for it. The money you invest in professional development is adding value to your services. Still not convinced? Remember that being self-employed, you don’t receive any benefits from clients such as annual leave, sick leave or superannuation. Factor all this in when you calculate a rate based on what you need to earn to live – and some.

  1. Underestimating time. One of the trickiest parts of working out prices for projects is calculating how long they will take. Each piece of writing may require more than one level of editing or more than one pass, and the quality of the writing – from reasonably good to very poor – will affect how long it takes to bring up to scratch. In short, it’s difficult to apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach to quoting on page or word count. I tried this on and off over the years, and I nearly always underestimated how long projects would take.

Lesson learned: Always ask to see the document or an extract of it, and edit a couple of pages to see how long it takes you. One page (in Word) might take you 2–5 minutes to proofread, or it could take you 15–20 minutes to significantly edit! If it’s a PDF, marking up will take longer. If it’s a manuscript, ask for a chapter from the middle of the manuscript, and edit about five pages. You’ll soon get a feel for what type of editing it requires, how many passes, and even whether this is a project you want to take on. Make sure you include the number of passes in your quote, as well as consultation time. I add a standard two hours’ consultation timefor all manuscripts, because authors like to chat – and that’s okay, of course – but an hour of your time spent on the phone when you could be working on another project should not be free.

  1. Procrastination/poor time management reducing my earnings. Running a business from home takes discipline and supreme multi-tasking and time management skills – particularly if, like me, you are also running a household and have kids and fur babies to sustain. I soon learned that my most efficient work hours were in the morning straight after the kids went to school, until mid-afternoon when I go into ‘family time’ until around 9pm. Once everyone has done all their activities and homework, are fed and the kitchen is cleaned up, then I get back into the office to finish up bits of work, or do non-billable tasks like invoicing, quotes, etc. I wasn’t always this organised. In the early days, I’d be dashing in and out of the office during family time (before and after school), because I had either over-committed to too many jobs with colliding deadlines, and/or squandered time during the day, faffing about on social media ‘marketing’, or procrastinating on starting a difficult project by baking fairy cakes instead. This made life incredibly stressful for me and, at time, my family. These days, I am much more disciplined – although I admit I still faff about on social media ‘marketing’ – and usually less stressed! And, I’m making more money of course!

Lesson learned: Be realistic about how many billable hours you can fit into your day/week, and when you can work these billable hours without interruption. Don’t think you can work 9–5 Monday to Friday – running a business isn’t like that, especially when you have other commitments. Be clever about when you do your non-billable work and limit time spent on ‘marketing’ – even though it’s an important part of building up your business.

  1. Doubting myself, AKA ‘imposter syndrome’. This one was a biggie for little ol’ me, and it’s one that women tend to struggle with. Despite having many, many happy clients over the years, some of whom use my services repeatedly or regularly, there is still the odd occasion where I don’t win a project, or a client grumbles, and this knocks my confidence.

Lesson learned: As the saying goes, ‘You can’t please all the people all the time’. At some point, someone is going to be unhappy with a quote, or your work. Rather than beat yourself up, try to get something constructive out of it. Perhaps there’s something about the way you present your quotes that can be improved; maybe communication broke down on a job and you didn’t ensure you were on the same page. Rather than dwell on criticism or rejection, learn from it. Then, remind yourself of all the satisfied clients you’ve had. Read their testimonials on your website and bask in their nice words. Then, dust yourself off and carry on.

Do you have any regrets about starting your own business? What did you learn from your mistakes?

Share them here for the benefit of others starting out!

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