2011: 5 lessons from a hard year in business

It’s hardly the Office of National Statistics’ survey of the national accounts, but I’ve been spending the last semi-working day of the year looking at some figures for my business which showed:

1.  I’ve worked more days – at a slightly lower day rate – for more clients this year than last.  Which surprises me.  If you’d asked  before I looked at the numbers, I’d have said this year was the worst ever.  In fact, with a full quarter still to come, I can see I’ll end the year  up in both days billed and income generated. Possibly it has just felt harder, coming after the long slog of 2010/11, which left reserves of both cash and bulldog spirit at an all-time low.

2.  But, I’ve got an awful long way to go before I return to the glory days of  my personal annus mirabilis – 2008/09 – when the global economy tanked but mine soared.

3. My business suffered from being too closely entangled with the public sector.  I was cushioned through ’08/’09 by a government commited to  spending to ward off a slump (thanks Gordon).  Things slowed down immediately after the general election.  It’s been a high price to pay for not taking my own good advice to spread the work around (though in fairness I saw the crash coming, I just wasn’t able to avoid it).  It takes a while to change direction – even for a tiny business like mine – it’s not just a matter of developing new contacts, it’s also a question of changing people’s perceptions of what you can do.  No wonder there’s been  a boom in advice for ex-public sector bods trying to join the private sector.

4. The good news, though is that in the world of micro-businesses the difference between a good year and a terrible one can be just one contract.  This year has been improved by two new clients offering several months’-worth of work each.  The thing to cling to during the troughs in business is that one phone call can turn things round.

5.  I’m not the only one to have found trading tough.  Some clients I got lots of work from in the early days have disappeared completely.  Only one client I worked for last year has used me in the last 9 months, all the other business has come from new leads.  If nothing else this highlights the importance of marketing your business and expanding your network of contacts.

However, comparing “now” with “then”  already feels like an academic exercise. As an SME-owning friend said at the weekend:  the world has  changed.  There’s no point worrying that you no longer know you’re going to be booked out for the next six months.  It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future, and we’ve just got to make the best of it.  The trick, for freelancers like me at least, is to diversify – to develop new skills and ever-wider networks, to get better at seeing where new opportunities are coming from and to be flexible enough to grab them.  I can see some light at the end of the tunnel – do these points ring true for anyone else?

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