Things I have learned in a year of running a business

I’m a member the South African Freelancer’s Association, and the current acting chair of the Western Cape committee. In that capacity, I was asked to talk to a group of film-making interns at Reel Partners about freelancing and entrepreneurship.

I duly sat down and made a list of my five top tips for freelancers – you can read them here.
The talk went down well, I hope, and it got me thinking about what I have learned on a more personal level. It turned out there was quite a lot to excavate from the past year. Here then are the “deeper” learnings:


When I first set out as a freelancer at the end of 2016, I came to it from a long career in journalism, with a depth of experience and a modest reputation in the South African industry. I did do some thinking about what the market might want, and where there might be opportunities for me – but I realise now that I did assume that my reputation alone would mean I could secure work.

Instead, it was a personal connection with someone who I used to work with that landed me my first big contract – working on news at

I have concluded that marketing is much more important than I thought it was – I have to work to make myself known to potential customers. I am on a steep learning curve there, kick-started by buying Louise Harnby’s book on marketing.


My initial idea was to pitch my services as a trainer of journalists, and as an editor and proofreader. The training side of things was based on my knowledge that I am a good trainer, and my passion for journalism – this is the thing I love, and it made sense to me to pursue it. Editing and proofreading is another strength of mine and I thought that together these two skills would lead to my two main revenue streams.

I deliberately did not put myself into the market as a writer (even though I can write) as I knew there were many, many good writers already in the mix, and fair number of new ones entering the market in the same batch of retrenchees that I was part of.

Those thoughts still make sense to me. But in reality, training work was hard to secure: my assumption that media houses would want to hire me foundered on the fact of shrinking budgets in the industry. And editing and proofreading proved harder to break into than I thought. In both cases it has taken a year to start making some headway.

And in the meanwhile, I have actually been making money out of my news production skills, even though I had not thought of that as a direction to take.

Life is what happens when you are making other plans, said John Lennon (or maybe The Reader’s Digest, says Wikipedia). And so it has proved. I’ve learned that its important to keep my eye on the ball no matter what my plans may have been, to stay flexible and to be aware of trends in the market.


I did not make any formal plans at the beginning of 2017, though I did have some things I knew I needed to do. So I had an informal mental list – maintain a website, beef up my social media profiles, contact people who might have work for me and so on.

I now see that what that meant was that a lot of the time I was not necessarily using my time well – not having a strict focus meant that I opened the door to procrastination and confusion. I went back to the drawing board late in 2017, and am starting 2018 with a yearly goal, which I will break down into monthly targets.

I also have a business plan (forged in a barter deal with a former colleague Quentin Wray: he helped my think through my plan in exchange for a WordPress site).

This means – I hope – that I will make better use of my time this year. And if I don’t, I will have clearer idea of what worked and what didn’t because I will be able to track what I have achieved and what not.


I am universally acknowledged as an organised and disciplined person, one who gets things done and is reliable and work-driven.

So why are there days when I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing, or days when I simply can’t spend another moment at my computer, or days when I persuade myself that grocery shopping is a much better use of my time than writing a post for my website?

This one took me a long time to process: it turns out a lot of my discipline when I was in full-time employment was created by the boundaries of my job, the expectations of my colleagues and sheer habit.
Take that all away and things fall apart – even if just a little.

Red moleskine notebook

Picture: Sean McGrath, flickr

So, I made the above-mentioned plan with goals, and have mapped out a working week with slots where I am expected to be at a desk. I have time management software in which I must log 40 hours a week. In other words, I have changed my mindset: I am running a business to which I am accountable, rather than personally deploying some skills for clients.


When you work full-time, you get up and go the office, no matter what is happening in your personal life. There is a built-in containment in that. But when you are freelancing, there are no such comforting rituals.
There have been some derailing family events in the last year and I have been taken aback about how easy it is for three or four days to go by with nothing happening on the work front, while other fires are being fought. And by how much time it takes to get back on track.

I’ve learned that it is important to have one or two things that must get done every day, no matter what (even if is just checking and answering emails). That way you have your own in-built safety rituals.


This is always with me. What if I can’t find enough clients, make enough money? What if I fall ill and can’t work? What if I can’t pay the school fees? What if all my computers die at once? What if there is a once-in-a-lifetime fulltime job out there and I should take it and I miss it (that fantasy dies hard!)?

Then I remember that my fulltime job disappeared from under me, and that I had no control over that either.
And I take a deep breath, do a 10-minute Headspace meditation and make another list.

It will be alright. I will make this work.

And that is the key thing I have learned: I can and will make this work.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Main photo by Dose Media on Unsplash

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