The best — and hardest — thing I ever did was start a business. I didn’t do it for freedom. I did it for math: people wanted to pay me to do things I already did. And I needed work that wasn’t tethered to one country.
So I sat on my roof in Mexico, watching the sun set over the Sea of Cortez, and I brainstormed business names with my husband. A few days later, we drove across the fourlane to Staples and printed out our very first business cards, which we hand-cut.
I don’t run that business anymore, and we changed cards many times thereafter, but I still have one of those first pieces of cardstock. It has a drawing of a little bird holding a loop of pink string in its beak: a reminder.
There’s a little more to starting up than that, of course, but not much. For one thing, it costs very little to start a service business now, and you can be profitable in 30 days (maybe less; I was). You’ll still have to cut some corners to live (and I suggest you spend at least a couple hundred dollars on the basics — a proper business website and a tax planning appointment or two with a good small biz accountant come to mind) but overall, it’s not a bad career strategy, and it’s a handy alternative to unemployment. If you’re good, and have a track record or social proof from your “real” jobs, a service business will feed you. How well you want to eat depends on you.
But the best part of running a service business isn’t being your own boss. Or “freedom.” Or “passion.” It’s what you learn from working with clients — lessons that will serve you the rest of your career, whether you go on to build empires or wash windows.
Customer service is a mindset
I always thought customer service was a job involving a headset. I guess it still is.
But it’s also a philosophy and, in a small business or a startup, an interpersonal skill that can make or break you.
It’s not “the customer is always right,” by the way. Maybe that’s true in some businesses, but you can’t live by it when time is (literally) money. In a service business, the motto looks something like this: “You will instinctively do everything you need to do for the right customer, and you will have a long and trusting relationship as a result.”
Effective communication is everything
To be clear, your first customers will not necessarily be the right customers. The truth is, unless you’ve got years of wisdom under your belt, the first customers may very well be the wrong customers. Learning how to communicate with and listen to people who are irate — often for no apparent reason — is important. Learning how to communicate with and listen to busy, important people and get what you want is arguably even more important.
From it, you will also learn:
- How to spot the wrong customer.
- How to know when to push vs. when to pull back.
- Related, how to pitch.
- Diplomacy in times of crisis.
- How to build a community.
- How to write AND speak clearly and well. (People who like to write think they are natural-born communicators. They’re usually wrong. Most writers, especially early in their careers, are verbose, confusing over-promisers. You’ll get a lot better at saying what you mean and setting clear expectations with practice.)
Successful people are disciplined people
I am not a disciplined person by nature. Yes, I’m a fighter and I go down punching. But in the end, I like shortcuts. To stick with the metaphor (I like the image), I’m the one who wants to know the other guy’s weakness so I can get to the KO faster, not the one who works out more hours to nail the KO more easily.
Luckily, I had some good bosses drill discipline into me: Be detailed. Be aggressive. Work until something is right. Made a mistake? Fix it, Lindsey, fix it.
High-performing, high-potential workers have already mastered this. “Book-smart” people, good students, “talented” people — they usually walk into the first couple of jobs thinking they are smart, good and talented, so discipline is something B and C students need.
But what they don’t understand is that a lot of A players are B and C students, people who have spent their entire lives understanding and practicing discipline. I was such a good student (not = smart) with such a good memory that I didn’t study much at all in school. I wrote college papers hours before they were due. And I spent most of my evenings in high school and college hanging out at the diner, chatting into the wee hours, or drinking and talking in someone’s living room. I assumed work would be the same way, and I was wrong.
Running your own business magnifies this problem 1000x. There is no manager to manage you. There are no fallback guys. No one will wake you up in the morning. No one will pat you on the back when a major client drops you. No one will care as much as you do when you get an email on Christmas Eve that a site was hacked.
Except you, and your client. And the people you were supposed to spend that time with.
So you must learn to master your time, correct your mistakes and be accountable for your clients’ results. Quickly.
The learning curve is steep, but discipline is habitual, and if you work it daily, it’s a habit that you’ll keep.
User Human experience unlocks a lot of doors
I am a better editor now than I ever was before largely because, in our business, our main source of revenue was building people’s websites.
What does that have to do with editing?
A lot of people use technology — say, WordPress software, or email marketing software — but they have little understanding or, frankly, interest in how it works. When something goes awry, they tend to blame the technology, because they don’t understand it. Which means they also tend to blame the people who manage the technology.
I learned how to coach people to identify and document a problem so that I could troubleshoot it. More importantly, I learned how to look at problems not from my perspective as part of a web dev team (expert) but as a user (consumer). What is the ‘user’ feeling? Why is X or Y frustrating, even though it’s part of the platform and not something we coded to annoy said user? What’s really going on with my people?
This is a skill editors need to have — climbing inside a story someone else is experiencing, and walking through it in their shoes.
It’s also something everyone could stand to do more of, even those not responsible for user experience. It’s all well and good to build walls and have everyone document problems and submit tickets and (et al.) but the human element is the dramatic one. To go back to another lesson, it’s the part of customer service that you can’t predict, only be sensitive to. A lot of listening happens when you pause and genuinely try to think like your client or customer or user. When they’re not talking, or before they even have a problem — that’s when the magic of service, on a profound level, really takes place.
* * *
In the end, what you will learn from running a service business is greater than the sum of these parts. You will learn to be a more thoughtful person who makes better decisions. You will learn to handle a crisis. You will find you can manage your time. You will be a much wiser employee. (I know I am.) And so, yes, you can cook dinner in the time it takes to run a software update, wrap up work by 8:00 and watch a movie too, on your good nights — things lazy people like me love to make time for.
Running a business isn’t for everybody. But learning how to work hard for people who are investing in you directly might be too good an opportunity to pass up.