Life in a very small business

March 2019

Sarah Maclean

By Sarah Maclean

Sarah Maclean is a freelance business, professional and technical editor based in the Wellington area, New Zealand. She generously agreed to write for TechCommWire last year, after the success of her webinar with Harriet Kay: Seeing our way - Accessibility for the web and print .

Self-employment is on the rise as more and more people are lured by the prospect of working from home. Sarah brings us the run down on what it’s really like working for yourself in our industry.

In the beginning

Once upon a time I was mid-career and very restless. I’d already done many things including social work and market gardening and I’d also been involved in two small business, one of which had failed. My career had been a series of interesting leaps (rather than a well-planned pathway) and those experiences were the starting point for my next steps.

I began by reading about starting a business and about people who’d made big changes in their lives. This helped me work out that I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur or grow a large company – I wanted to be my own boss and, essentially, to build myself a job. Australian Linda Hailey’s book Your business, your future (Allen & Unwin 2006) was the most useful and I reread it several times.

With a personal interest in detail and a family interest in books, I decided to become a freelance editor. I’d done an English paper at university long ago and helped other people with their writing so I thought it might work. Then in 2005 someone I met at the Te Awe Māori business network asked me to help her with a project in Visio (which I’d never heard of). She believed I could do it and I found that I could. I was off!

The early years

Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I managed. As I had no training as an editor I went to all the courses I could find and I had to upgrade my computer skills fast too. I also learnt from clients, especially the one who asked me to format his thesis – I had no idea what he was talking about! But it was the catalyst to find out about styles and formatting which have since become a foundation of what I do.

Although I had no formal qualifications for editing, I had experienced written language in many different work contexts. So, while I didn’t have the same depth of knowledge as other well-trained editors, I felt I certainly had the breadth.

There were (and are) lots of free courses for start-up businesses and some of them were great. One, run by Inland Revenue, showed me the basics of taxation and book-keeping. Another, run by what is now Grow Wellington, taught me the basics of marketing.

Motivation was a big challenge. It was all up to me – no-one was coming! I had to keep myself motivated, manage my time and deal with the tendency to procrastinate. Most of all, I had to retain my self-confidence during periods when there was no work. This is still a biggie and it’s been one of the hardest things about working for myself.

How networks helped

TechCommNZ members at Plain English Awards 2018

Working on my own at home could be lonely and I felt isolated from new ideas. So I went to lots of business network meetings, including those run by the local chamber of commerce. The drawback was that most of the others there were just like me – people newly in business with something to sell and no money to buy. But the meetings were worthwhile because I learnt so much including how to develop my ‘elevator pitch’ (a brief explanation of my services).

The networks I found most useful were those, like Her Business and Te Awe, targeted to specific groups, I also got to know people there whose services I needed – both my accountant and my IT support person were initially Her Business contacts.

One day at a meeting I heard about TCANZ, as it was called then. It felt like a good fit so I joined up and it was the network I needed. TechCommNZ (TCANZ) gave me new ideas, professional development and the chance to meet people doing in similar work. I’ve been a member now for over ten years. In that time, I’ve been to some very interesting seminars, webinars and conferences and had a lot of fun. For three years I was the coordinator for the Wellington Branch too and this gave me the chance to hone my organisational skills and be part of a hard-working team.

Later I was invited to join the Editors’ Professional Development Forum in Wellington. It has been great too for developing specific editing skills and getting to know other editors.

Business planning

Once I’d been in business for a few months I found it very helpful to sit down with a business advisor and work through a planning template. This included outlining my goals and values, doing a SWOT analysis and developing a marketing plan. The process made me think hard about things I’d been winging before. Each time I did a plan over the next few years it helped me think through a few more issues. Now I no longer do formal planning but I think about the months ahead and work out the likely challenges and successes.

A rocky road

Two major threats arose during my first three years in business, one from a supplier, the other from a client. The first, a major change within my telco supplier, caused disruptions to my system which went on for months. I relied heavily on emails but I couldn’t receive them. This resulted in delays to work, upset clients and missed opportunities. This fault almost put me out of business. My take-home lesson from this was that big businesses think they don’t have to care about small customers.

The second threat was when I’d been an editor for about 18 months and a project developed many misunderstandings and delays. Despite my best efforts, it ran well over budget and time with negotiations becoming increasingly difficult. The organisation became what is known as a hostile client. Eventually they pulled the plug and refused to pay for the work I’d done. It was a very stressful time.

I took them to the Disputes Tribunal. This involved documenting both the job and the breakdown of the relationship and was followed by a hearing. The referee decided the client should pay me half what I was owed and, although I wasn’t happy, I accepted it so I could put the whole horrible experience behind me.

The only consolation was how much I learnt from the whole process. This included the importance of clear instructions from the client and that I must also be clear about my expectations. My lawyer drew up a set of standard terms and conditions to give each new client and these have worked well ever since.

Later I realised the dispute arose partly from my inexperience. I wasn’t assertive enough when things started to go wrong and I didn’t get out fast. The dispute changed the way I work – I’m more hard-headed now!

Working with clients

A phrase from my earlier sales job has guided me while working with clients ‘People do business with those they like and trust’. It’s certainly been true for me.

I try to get to know my clients well and to understand their pressures and constraints. Getting to know them also helps me understand their content at a deeper level and I enjoy the work more. I’ve found that good relationships can lead to more work, referrals to other people and sometimes to friendships.

Regular clients are gold. Work coming in regularly from them helps me plan the year and organise my cashflow. Sometimes clients may not want me for a year or two but then reappear, depending on what they need at the time. One client has given me work for several years now and I can rely on them. The work has developed over time and has also become the springboard for other projects.

After a few years I noticed churn (turnover) amongst my client base. My contact person in an organisation might leave, for example, and if I couldn’t develop a relationship with someone else there the work would eventually dry up. Some clients also changed their focus and one of them died. This meant I needed to attract new clients.

Getting more work

Sometimes I’m so busy working that I have no time to network, to respond to proposals, to think about new clients, or even cope with requests from existing ones. This amount of work is great in the short term and it’s excellent for the cashflow. But it can also be a trap, because it takes me out of the marketplace. While I’ve got my head down, others can attract the clients I don’t have time for. Working on current projects while keeping an eye out for future work is a difficult balancing act and one reason why self-employment features so many peaks and troughs. There’s no simple answer and I’ve learnt to cope better with a life which has some periods of intense work as well as some with nothing in sight.

Procuring work can be a time-consuming process, highly rewarding when I succeed and very disappointing indeed when I don’t. It often involves writing long proposals (such as for a government tender) or short ones (such as a paragraph in an estimate or quote). The effort involved in getting new work is the main reason why repeat work from existing clients is so valuable.

Estimates and quotes

Being in business means dealing with estimates (an assessment of the likely price for a job) and quotes (a formal promise to complete work for a specified price). Although the terms are used interchangeably in conversation, they have very different legal meanings. I prefer to do an estimate because so much about a job can change after the work begins, but I make sure they’re as specific as possible. Once a client knows me, and that I’m not going to overcharge them, the process becomes less of an issue.

Knowing what to charge has always been a challenge. The TechCommNZ salary survey is invaluable for this. I do the survey every year and then look up the results to see where I am in relation to others doing similar work. It’s an excellent benchmark.

Scope creep was another trap when I was new to editing. It was easy to do more than was required because I was anxious to do the best possible job. I’ve learnt not that it’s important to check things out with the client first because I won’t be paid for work done outside the specs and I also don’t want to create unrealistic expectations.

I try to keep my CV up to date in case I’m asked for an estimate in a hurry and to tailor it for each specific proposal. I’ve also fine-tuned my elevator pitch so it’s ready whenever I need it.

Work, work, work

Sarah presents to a group

A friend said that self-employment gives you the freedom to exploit yourself and that’s certainly been an issue for me. Sure, my job gives me lots of flexibility but sometimes the price for that is working half the night and all weekend. Getting this right is one of my many balancing acts.

Like many small business owners, I work from home. I began by working in a corner of the lounge, which no-one enjoyed, but things got better once I could use a spare room as an office. The advantages include the saving on overheads and having no commute. The disadvantages include the distractions of family life and not having colleagues to chat with around the office water cooler.

The business of being in business

Administration is a big part of being in business and it’s been a challenge too. The compliance issues around tax and ACC, for example, are so much less interesting than editing.

I am happier with words than figures so keeping the books was always going to be an issue. The temptation was strong to hurl bills and receipts into a shoebox (or its electronic equivalent) for another day. I registered for GST, although I was below the threshold, because it would require me to keep accurate financial records. Then I’d be better placed to cope with income tax when it was due. Later, I realised that there were other benefits from being registered because it looks more businesslike and many clients prefer it.

Now I have an accountant and my bookkeeping is supported by their expertise. I still do the GST, and I use Xero to record transactions, but the accountant works out the income tax, tidies things up as needed and sorts out any hassles.

Competitors or collaborators?

In the time that I’ve been in business, the number of freelance editors in the Wellington area has risen as organisations shed permanent staff whenever commercial conditions change. Yes, they’re all potentially my competitors. But I choose to see them as potential collaborators instead and like to think we can all help grow the market. Some clients will need skills I can’t provide and it’s good to be able to suggest someone else who can do it. Of course, I like it when it works the other way too!

Sometimes I need to contract help for specific tasks or projects. I’ve worked with a subcontracted designer for several years and have also subcontracted editors for short periods. It’s a good strategy for dealing with the very busy times. I try to look after my subcontractors – I become their client and I want the relationship to be as good as those I have with my own clients.

Running a business, not a charity

A surprise was that I sometimes found myself subsidising much larger organisations. This included working for nothing, paying for services I didn’t need, and dealing with bureaucrats. It sometimes seems that people queue up to ask me to work for free. Of course, we all need to help family members and friends sometimes but I’d go under if I didn’t charge market rates most of the time.

Getting the balance right between pro bono and paying work can be difficult. Every now and then I need to reassess what I’m doing for any community or professional organisation I’m contributing to. Often, pro bono work has the unquantifiable value of raising my profile and that is great, so I list it on my CV and LinkedIn profile. But if I’m contributing in the hope of it leading to paid work, the likelihood of that happening needs to be assessed regularly too.

At the beginning I thought I had to pay for advertising. I tried the Yellow Pages, with some good results at first. Later I also paid for Google Adwords, with no result at all. Then along came the global financial crisis and my little business seemed to be subsidising those giants. So, I stopped – and nothing changed! I still got plenty of work. That really brought home to me the power of word-of-mouth advertising.

Compliance activities can be a drain on my small business because I do everything myself. This isn’t helped by some staff members of large organisations such as government departments and insurance companies who forget that they’re paid whatever happens that day but I’m paid only when I complete work. It’s even worse when organizations have inefficient and unhelpful systems, designed without enough thought or user focus.

Where I am now

In 2012, I was joined by my husband who’s an education and community consultant. Our skills are complementary and most of the time we work separately. But we sometimes proofread each other’s work and we divide up the administration. A big plus is that we also act as each other’s sounding board, so being in partnership works well for us.

I would describe myself as a cause junkie – my work needs to feel meaningful at a deeper level. Plain language fills that need for me and, as I have gained confidence in my editing skills, I’ve enjoyed being able to contribute to content and documents that work really well for users. Like many people, I need to feel my work makes a difference and so working with plain language gives me a lot of satisfaction.

I’m very happy being in business for myself. I enjoy editing and I like it that the buck stops with me, that I’m only as good as my work and that I can’t hide behind the status or performance of an organisation. Self-employment has meant I’ve been able to look after my family when needed and I like that too. Being my own boss has also enabled me to develop existing interests like my lifelong learning of te reo Māori as well as new ones like visual accessibility. These are now part of the services I provide.

Starting my business in 2005 was the right thing to do. Despite the ups and downs and the need to balance competing priorities it’s been a fascinating experience and I hope to continue in this very small business for the rest of my career.