October 24, 2016

Two years on the road

Thoughts from two years being self-employed

Two years ago today I quit my job and headed out on my own as an independent. I’d like to talk about it a little. Maybe I can be helpful to those behind me, maybe those in front of me can add their wisdom. Maybe I just need to write.

Being independent is a lot like being on a road trip. Abandoning the social conventions of a secure home you set off on an adventure to who-knows-where. There’s a feeling of being free, but also of being untethered.

I’ve got a page about how you can work with me that explains my work but to give you a sense of what I’ve been up to here’s some more intimate highlights from the last two years:

  • Worked as the interim CMO for startup Olapic - I really enjoyed the chance to flex my muscles in a broad marketing role, helping them organize their marketing efforts and launch a new product (and congrats to them they were acquired earlier this year!)
  • Worked with Distilled as an advisor and consultant for the NYC office as they rebuilt almost from the ground up to where they are today a growing, thriving team.
  • Took out a coworking space for a year and loved the ability to have a “home” but spent so much time on-site with clients that I decided to give it up.
  • Supported the New York Times Cooking site with SEO strategy. I’d never been inside the New York Times office and I loved the chance to work with very smart and passionate folks building something from scratch that reached many millions of visits.
  • Had a slow summer in 2015 and didn’t work for about three months, not by choice (eek!).
  • Helped companies find senior level marketing hires to build out their marketing operations. Watching the people I help hire go on and hire others is incredibly rewarding.
  • Almost built out a dedicated marketing recruitment business but eventually got too busy with work and being a new dad that I put it on hold. Watch for more on this in 2017.
  • Redesigned my personal site, almost created a brand for my consulting, but didn’t.
  • Worked with a really exciting & innovative content company advising the management team on strategic special projects including various acquisitions.
  • Tried to get back into blogging in a more focused way, including a failed experiment in group blogging called #nycblogclub. Despite that, I still managed to blog more against the resistance.
  • Oh, and did I mention I had a daughter six months ago?

What it all means

Positioning is on my brain right now having just wrapped up a positioning sprint for a client that is really electrifying the organization and helping align decision making. So, all of those experiences above combine to my current work in progress positioning statement:

For content companies looking to invest in growth I’m the secret weapon embedded in your organization to build & lead strategic initiatives.

Let’s unpack that one piece at a time:

  • For content companies - I’ve got more to write about this but there are many different types of organization that are investing heavily in content. From traditional media companies like the New York Times or Complex Media (both previous clients) to startups investing in content to drive inbound marketing like Fundera (also a previous client).
  • Looking to invest in growth - My best clients are the ones prepared to invest in the future.
  • I’m the secret weapon - Many clients talk of me like a secret weapon, and I like it! It captures the spirit of my unique background across creative, technical and strategic projects.
  • Embedded in your organization - My best work is done face to face on-site with clients, whether for a workshop session or on a retainer basis several days a week. It helps me effect change much better than a traditional agency and, for the hiring work I do, allows me to get a strong sense of culture which is crucial for bringing in new team members.
  • To build and lead new strategic initiatives - The work I’m most excited about is the kind of work that touches whitespace - new strategic initiatives, building new teams, identifying new areas of growth and so on.

It’s only me here, so there’s no aligning necessary(!) but it’s always useful to be able to articulate what you do. Like I said, it’s a work in progress but it’s starting to feel good.

Some Themes From Two Years As An Independent

From all of the above, here’s some themes that have emerged and that I’m currently thinking about from the last two years:

It takes a while to find your feet

I’ve been lucky enough to have some great clients over the last two years but I spent more time in my first 12 months doing the kind of work I wasn’t as excited about. Routine SEO audits and so on. It felt like I was going backwards in my career and was a little disappointing at the time. Now I realize it was just part of building up to more interesting and exciting work. Nothing is set in stone as an independent so embrace clients that teach you something. Also, for my first 12 months just managing to pay the bills under my own steam was exciting.

The network is everything

This will seem obvious but it’s hard to overstate it. The network is everything. Only one client I’ve worked with over the last two years came outside my network - every single other client came from a friendly face making an email intro. Think about that for a second - it’s obvious, but the implications can be profound. It’s part of why I prefer to use my own name for my consulting practice, why I don’t pretend to be an agency, why pretty much all my marketing is just getting to know more people and then explaining what I do to people I know.

Build a strong professional support network

Since starting out I’ve deliberately cultivated a set of contacts who are doing similar things to me - and I’ve found a lot of value in being as transparent as I can with them. What goes around comes around - I’ve talked about money, about invoice templates, about hosting providers, about job offers, about everything.

This transparency and list of contacts that I can turn to when I have a question has been incredibly valuable and insightful. Remember you don’t know everything, there’s different ways of doing everything and sometimes you just need to know that someone has been through what you’ve been through.

The emotional rollercoaster is real

When you head out on your own people will tell you there are highs and lows. When you head out on your own people will tell you to brace yourself. To give up weekends. To kiss goodbye to vacations.

Sure, but the best advice I got when I was just starting out was to enjoy the slow times - go for a bike ride in the afternoon, sleep in, write, code, create, relax, see art, see friends. Don’t stop pushing forward with your business but trust the process - and remember, if it’s just you there’s no way you can go bike riding in the afternoon when you’re busy!

So… look to windward, brace for the strong winds and enjoy the wind in your hair.

Make it a business, but be comfortable in your own skin

I’ve deliberately tried to refer to myself as independent rather than freelance. It’s a distinction that maybe doesn’t matter too much but in my mind freelance means doing a fulltime job on a contract basis. It feels like employment. But independent to me means building a business that happens to only have one employee. It means trying to add value to an organization in any way I can, not just doing what I’m told.

And if you read all of the blogosphere you’ll find that pretty much everyone advocates for charging on a project basis vs hourly basis. They’ll call you stupid for charging hourly and tell you you’ll never escape the rat race that way. While that may still be the best advice - cut yourself some slack. I’ve been doing this for two years and still mostly charge on a day-rate rather than a project fee but I’m ok with that. I’m still paying the bills.

So try and make it a business, work to add value at all times - but do it your way. Don’t take the personality out of it.

The Landscape for Independents

Being independent isn’t the only way to be, there’s a lot of value in being full-time and dedicated to a team and I don’t think I’ll stay self employed forever - almost every client tries to hire me full time. But for now I see a strong environment for being independent:

SEO is unbundling

Likely the topic for another post, but I’m seeing that SEO has become unbundled. All of the activities that make up “SEO” are now fully distributed between content teams, technology teams, biz ops teams, analytics teams and more. And more to the point, SEO has been around long enough that these teams have a working knowledge of SEO to the point that considering SEO as a centralized resource is becoming an outdated concept. I’ve worked with clients working on world-class SEO that don’t have a single “SEO” job title because it’s just embraced across the organization.

Agency work is changing

I’ve worked at an agency, I’ve worked in-house, I’ve worked as a consultant hiring agencies and I’ve consulted with agencies to improve their businesses. And what I’ve seen is that the agency landscape is changing. People are increasingly a fluid resource and agencies are responding by becoming distributed - but so are the clients! Lindsey Slaby wrote a great piece on this here.

This shifting landscape is a great environment to work as an independent but embedded in organizations where you can be most effective and blur the boundaries between “inside” and “outside” bringing fresh thinking back inside.

The road ahead

So with all of that said - it’s been an incredible adventure and I’m excited to keep exploring. We’ll see what the future brings and I’m incredibly thankful to everyone who’s helped out, referred clients, shown support or otherwise contributed to my success. Too many to name but thank you all.

Stop by in the comments below and ask any questions you want! I’d love to hear your stories of being on the road too.

More blog posts:

A Lil' Website Refresh

March 20, 2024

This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: