Lessons Learnt

It's been a little over a year that I've been self-employed. Admittedly the transition from "working hours" and a steady salary to how my days look now has been a very steep learning curve. I'd imagined and planned it all out, but reality likes to come along and bite one in the rear end.

However, here's a few things that I've learnt along the way.

Firstly, YES, I can do it! :-) I started with hope and ambition that I could make things work, but now I've proved it. Perhaps not as successfully as it could be, but we're not dead yet. (Believe me, that's a big thing) At the beginning of last year I faced down the future with a considerable amount of dread, not entirely sure I was going to be able to pull off making ends meet. We were getting two business off the ground with barely any capital, funding expansion as we went. Pretty scary stuff. Yet somehow it's worked and a year of hard slog later I'm confident that it will only get better. The foundations are laid, the building's going up.

I've learnt that I have a good business head on me - but unfortunately I still need to learn to assert myself sufficiently to put it to best use. Very often I cave or chicken out instead of standing up for what my gut tells me. Yet I've proved to myself that I can be very successful at what I put my mind and hands to. I've managed to pull some pretty surprising rabbits out of hats when required. I'm able to come up with a decent amount of cash when left to my own devices to do so. I know where to find or make money, how to get business, how to keep it. I know what the world out there wants and how to keep clients happy.

I have not yet learnt to defend my schedule and my plans - which is why it often appears I have no business sense. The trouble is I'm very much a people-pleaser. I put others before myself all the time. Instead of defending my timeline, I waver and reschedule to accomodate what everyone else needs. Whether it's giving up or moving my work space or tasks for an unplanned project (you know who you are.. ;-) ), spending hours waiting for this or that (unable to start the next thing in case it's interrupted), or rushing to a client's aid (when it could easily be done later at MY convenience), I bend over way too far backwards, way too often. I end up frustrated because I haven't achieved what I knew had to be done, when it had to be done. Learning curve - gotta get this one right still.

I've learnt that things can always get worse... The past year has seen some very tough times and huge struggles. Very often I've thought I'd hit rock bottom - only to find it's like looking at the Grand Canyon and what you thought was the bottom is merely the top of the next cliff down. The worst is yet to come! However, I'm tenacious. After an initial panic session you'll find me with set jaw, clawing my way back with immense determination - avoiding returning to those extreme lows with all I have.

I've learnt that there's no such thing as working hours. Where I had previously turned up at an office at a set hour and left it a couple hours later, now work happens constantly. Customer support and network maintenance is a 24/7 job - if something goes down everything else shifs to second place. I've worked through the night stripping e-waste to a deadline many many times and gone on to a full day's physical slog right after it. I've transitioned from a decent 8 hours sleep a night to sleeping when I can. Weekends are just as much working hours as the rest of the week - sometimes more so, as it's often the best time to work on the network or upgrade things. We shifted servers at 1:00 on a Saturday morning recently (not the first time!), and Favourite Man burns beyond-midnight oil for software updates or heavy technical stuff more times than I can count.

I have yet to learn duty-balance. Working from home lands me not only a money-making job, but the home-making one too - and we're not at the stage where help for the latter is budgetable. I have yet to NOT be frustrated by much-needed house work cutting into the available time to earn cash, but I'm slowly making peace with the fact that 3-5 hours of every day's "billable time" will be devoted to putting meals on tables, sorting out house stuff and organizing the other residents - regardless. I still need to find the balance required to ensure that both money-making and home-making each get enough time and attention. Without resorting to cloning.

I've learnt there's no time for hobbies - yet. I attempted to be the editor of a Land Rover magazine for a few months, and loved doing it. Unfortunately trying to make it a top-quality publication yet still make a living turned out to be disastrous, and I had to resign. Blogging's taken a back seat. I haven't touched the piano in over a year. Haven't been on a road-trip in ages. Sorta getting my green thumb back with a container garden that only needs water thrown at it now and then... But for the immediate future, my focus has to be on the here, the now and building up to better days to come - with no time for such frivolities as hobbies.

I've learnt to dislike Sundays - that's the day when there's no way I can make any cash or get any business out of anyone. Saturdays come in a close second, but at least then I have a few options left to do so. On Sunday everything.just.closes. I'm still trying to learn to not spend Sunday working toward Monday - and to perhaps consider taking both a mental and physical break now and then.

I've learnt that it's OK to fire a customer. It's not easy when you need the cash they would bring in, but sometimes it's necessary. We've had a few in the past year whose hassle exceeded the value of their business - we were spending so much time running after their problems and complaints (usually unfounded, but still taking time to investigate and explain) that the rest of the business suffered. Sometimes you simply need to cut ties and move on. I've also learnt that it's OK when a customer fires you - that clients come and go, it's not good to take it personally (but it is good to know you've done your best to meet their needs).

I've learnt (but also always known) that you have to have money to make money. If you don't have cash for fuel, you're not going anywhere. If you can't pay for equipment, you can't connect up customers. Funding two businesses from scratch has meant very careful budgeting and a lot of sacrifice to keep one step ahead of the expenses. Sometimes it's mere minutes between cash hitting bank (or wallet) and the need to hand it over for something else. Admittedly there have been one or two occasions where cash didn't hit bank in time... one of which saw me stranded with only R2 for fuel left 5km from home... But these things happen, you sort them out and you move on.

I've learnt that being a chick in a man's industry (or two) is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. In the wireless internet industry, many clients still refuse to accept help or advice from me - a mere woman - and would rather have Favourite Man tell them exactly the same thing in a male voice. In the e-waste industry, being the lone chick who is lifting heavy things, dealing with scrap metal merchants and component processors, sometimes means you get treated pretty well. It sometimes takes a while for blokes to realize I'm physically up to the job and stop offering to carry everything for me. Sometimes they discover they can't actually lift what I'm already carting to a trailer...! :-)

I've learnt that there are some fascinating people in my wider neighbourhood - and between these two businesses I've met a lot of them. The fiercely-independent ancient spinster with awesome stories to tell, they guy who made a specialized machine available in SA for the first time, the blokes who run a fancy winery and use a horse to tend their vineyards, the many neighbours I would not have otherwise known, the company who makes machines you could sit and play with all day, the guys who manage the dock where all our fresh produce comes and goes. So many interesting people - I'm privileged to have met them all.

I've learnt that you can completely wear out a pair of tackies and a pair of jeans in less than a year if that's all you wear day in and day out (to say nothing of t-shirts). I've also learnt that buying cheap Chinese jeans is not a bad thing, as the kind of work I'm in will see them shredded pretty soon whether I'm in a ceiling laying cable, carting things from a dusty warehouse or breaking servers and screens into bits - especially the latter. I've also learnt that you can lose more weight merely working hard than trying to motivate yourself to gym or walk or whatever. The jeans I put on a year ago can now fit an extra half-me into them.

I've learnt that being able to set your own schedule, plan your own day, find your own work, generate your own motivation and measure your own success in real terms is a pleasure that never gets old. There's a lot to be said for coming to the end of the day and knowing you've accomplished some pretty awesome stuff. There's equally a lot to be said for the freedom of choice that self-employment offers - freedom to work solidly for two days and nights if you want or need to, freedom to take a quick power nap before venturing forth once more in the afternoon, freedom to dash to the shops if required in the middle of the "working day", to "knock on" or "knock off" according to not only how the day is panning out but also according to the amount of energy you have available, freedom to chop and change what you're doing as required. Of course the latter sometimes kicks in without choice, such as when a server goes down and you simply have to drop all other plans to go sort it out. Yes - this freedom comes with responsibility and challenges but I wouldn't change it for anything.

I've discovered how amazing it is to work with my team - Favourite Man and the kid - to come back from a job dirty, dusty, sweaty, but proud of what you've achieved. To see Favourite Man in action - doing so many things he does so well from heavy metal work to delicate coding. To see the kid starting to take real pride in his work, completing what is asked of him properly and well, learning and growing both inside and out.

I've learnt that I still have a lot to learn. This past year I've been torn between the two businesses. I've had to devote nearly all my time to one, running it as a one-woman show, leaving me still playing catch-up in the other. I've been frustrated when I don't know stuff I should know - but at the same time it's an industry I knew nothing about when we got going, and some things that may be "common knowledge" in it I have never heard of or yet properly understood! I haven't had enough time or brainpower left at the end of hard-slog days to give the details the attention I should. And that's something on my must-do list this year.

There's so much more I've learnt. Every day brings something new. And that's the joy of where I am now - I've realized the possibilities truly are endless, I can do and be anything I want, successfully.

That rocks.


Kel said...

congratulations Michelle
you have learned a lot and achieved heaps in the process
well done!

Anonymous said...

That's awesome Michelle - well done - you're definitely one of those one-in-a-million people and definitely not afraid of hard work. It also takes a lot of guts to go it "alone" so to speak (although you have The Kid and Favourite Man with you). I take off my proverbial hat for you :)

Deems said...

[this was supposed to be posted when you posted this blog post but blogger's lame commenting didn't post it]

Well done Michelle - you're an inspiration to us all. It definitely takes a lot of guts (and hard work) to take on the challenge you did, leaving the 9-5 salary and going it on your own (with Favourite Man and The Kid of course). I take my (proverbial) hat off for you! :)

Mandy said...

hey so proud of you! can't believe how far you've come since i saw you last! congrats on the first year :-)