Last updated 9 March 2023
The idea of protection might sound like something that only applies to ‘proper’ businesses. If your only employee is your dog and your physical assets principally consist of a temperamental PC and a slightly wonky desk and chair that you bought at IKEA in 2008, what do you have to protect?
Well, first of all, if you’re a freelancer with one or more clients, you are a proper business, whether you like it or not. And the fact that you have no employees doesn’t mean you can forget about worker wellbeing. On the contrary, it makes wellbeing all the more important, as your success ultimately rests solely on the shoulders of one worker – you. That’s a pretty important asset to protect.
So let’s look at some areas where it’s important to ensure that you’re protecting your freelance business – some of them more about you and some of them more about the stuff around you. We’ll also look at how all of this culminates a principle that’s stood me in good stead for several years: ruthless balance.
Protecting the basics
Clearly, protecting your business means following the laws relevant to your location and industry. You also need to think about areas like personal liability, client confidentiality and insurance. But I’m going to assume you’re already doing those (and I’m not qualified to advise on them anyway!).
Protecting your skill base
The two key threats to your skills will be retrospective (old skills become irrelevant or outdated) and prospective (your competitors gain new skills that you don’t have). As an editorial project manager, I’ve encountered more than a few freelancers who have fallen victim to the former, perhaps with a shiny qualification that they gained years ago and have never updated. And, in all my editorial work, I’m aware of the need to stay current and keep up with developments that might disrupt the status quo and force me to rethink how I do business.
Much of the time, investing in your skill base is just about doing small refresher courses or reading to stay current. Other times, it can mean throwing yourself into a new area to avoid an existential threat to your business. My Advanced Professional membership of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading is a cornerstone of how I do both.
Protecting your physical ability to work
The potential aggravation of this topic is fresh in my mind. A while back I sat down to work and my main monitor decided it wasn’t in the mood for editing – or, indeed, anything except bathing my office in an attractive but useless blue glow.
The thing is, this monitor had been giving me issues for months, and in my heart of hearts I knew I needed to replace it. But I didn’t, so I had to tweak my work plans for the week as I investigated my options for replacing the monitor. I should have protected my time and schedules by heeding the warning signs.
It’s also crucial to think about your physical comfort when editing. In my twenties, I was somewhat bemused by the ubiquitous calls to think about ergonomics. Now, in my late thirties and after stints trying to edit with a painful wrist, neck or hip, I get it. Have the best physical set-up you can afford.
Protecting your brand
Whoever you’re ‘selling’ to – whether it’s potential clients by cold email or other freelancers who might give you a referral – you’re constantly building an impression of yourself.
Branding is a vast area and others (such as the always authoritative Louise Harnby) have written far more helpfully on this subject than I can. However, as an editorial project manager who hires other editors, I can testify to the enormous impact that seemingly small encounters – whether good or bad – can have in building your brand. It’s not just about the flashy colours (although, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m quite partial to those) or your impressive credentials.
For freelancers, ‘brand’ is ultimately all about you. A fancy website and a clever tagline will help to draw people in, but what will make them buy your services is you and your professionalism.
Protecting your understanding of your business
Whatever your business goals, it’s pointless making plans if you don’t have clear and accurate information about where you are now and where you want to go.
For years I’ve been tracking various metrics about my business, but last year for the first time I wrote myself a short annual report (you can read about my process here). The clarity this gave me was invaluable. Some of my gut feelings were dispelled and some confirmed, and as a result I felt far more confident making plans for the next year and beyond.
Tracking this sort of information doesn’t have to be onerous. I do some of mine in a custom database I wrote, but there’s really no need to use anything other than a spreadsheet or two. The key thing is to track and analyse data in a targeted manner – choose whatever metrics make sense for you and that will help you to work towards your goals. Churning through data for the sake of it will get you nowhere.
By now you’ll have spotted the thread running through all of this – as a freelancer, when you protect your business, you’re ultimately protecting yourself. There’s a stereotype that people need to be ruthless to succeed in business. If that’s true, though, I’d argue that what is needed is ruthless balance.
At the risk of sounding like a complete cliché, a few years ago a health issue forced me to reconsider my attitude to my work. My hours had been too long and I hadn’t been giving myself enough holidays. I decided that from then on, I would be ruthless about taking enough time off and saying ‘no’ to projects that would have meant working crazy hours. This was nerve wracking – I was changing principles and practices that had seen my business consistently grow over the decade I’d been freelance. However, since I made these changes (setting aside the effects of the pandemic), I’ve had two of my best years in business.
I firmly believe that establishing a healthier work–life balance has improved my all-round ability to operate my business and offer a good service to my clients. By being more ruthlessly balanced, I have traded an always-say-yes mentality for a more proactive and mindful way of running my business.
Ruthless balance: protecting your freelance business
If all of this seems a bit too Herculean, remember that the message here is to protect, not necessarily to extend or enhance. In this era – in which it seems that a new world-shaking news story is always around the corner – mental resilience can feel fleeting.
When that’s the case, protecting your freelance business can be about doing the minimum needed to survive – to keep things ticking over until circumstances improve and you can start to think about ‘protecting’ more in terms of building for the future. So the idea of protecting your business should not be used as a stick to beat yourself with – more as a gentle reminder to keep some core ideas in mind and act on them whenever you can. (HBR has some tips in ‘How to Make Peace with Feeling Less Ambitious’ if you need them.)
Protecting your business is about far more than your contracts and your insurance. It’s about you – and the many ways you can ensure you live a healthy, mentally invigorating life as the enthusiastic owner of your very own business.