Here’s a little secret: I’ve been self-employed for more than 12 years, but I’ve only been a business owner for two years. Yep, for a full decade I was “just a freelancer”.
My answer to the “what do you do?” question used to be, “I’m a freelance writer”. Not a business owner, not a CEO, not a badass boss babe. I was just a writer who happened to make a pretty good living doing it.
Then something changed. The publishing landscape shifted, my client base dwindled, and my income took a nosedive. It became clear to me that if I wanted new clients and more money, I’d have to get serious and start treating my business like a business.
What exactly do I mean? Glad you asked. I’m excited to share five of the most important steps that took me from “just a freelancer” to a “business owner”, saving my livelihood in the process.
1. Talk the Talk
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar...
“You work from home, so you’re available to take me to the airport, right?”
“So you’re doing [insert your business] until you can find a real job?”
“Sounds like a fun hobby.”
“You’re so lucky to have your husband’s (or wife’s) salary so you don’t have to work."
“It’s so great that you can be a stay-at-home mom."
Most self-employed people deal with the perception that we spend our days in pajamas watching soap operas. Of course, you and I know that couldn’t be further from the truth, so why the disconnect between our reality and others’ perceptions?
You’ve noticed how other people talk about your career, but have you ever really taken stock of how you talk about it? Think about the kinds of words you use and the body language you display when asked about your work. Very often, we minimize or discount what we’re doing without realizing it.
A CEO is the highest-ranking person in a company and is responsible for making all managerial decisions. That’s what you do EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. Sure, you provide a service for your clients — and that’s important — but that’s only one aspect of what you do.
You also handle your finances, run your marketing campaigns, head up all sales efforts, take care of customer service, and much more. Even if you pay someone else to do some or all of those tasks, the buck stops with you.
How we talk about our business and our role in it has a direct effect on how others perceive what we do. If you’re selling yourself short when someone asks, “what do you do?” then don’t be surprised later when they assume you have loads of free time or are just waiting to find the perfect day job.
I challenge you to take an inventory of everything you do for your business. Write it all down. Remember it. And next time someone (even if it’s your sweet old grandma or a nosy neighbor) asks what you do, tell them you’re a badass CEO in charge of A through Z.
When I did this, just left my vocabulary. And everyone, from my myself and my mom to current and potential clients, started treating me and my business with far more respect.
2. Walk the Talk
Now that you’re talking about your business like it’s a business, it’s time to take some practical steps to legitimize (and protect) it.
One of the first steps I’d recommend is getting an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. This nine-digit number takes the place of your Social Security Number on all official documents (like 1099s and 1040 forms).
While sole proprietors aren’t required to have an EIN, there are a few benefits.
It looks more professional to any clients that have you fill out tax forms.
It helps protect your social security number from fraud.
It’s required for getting a bank account or credit (more on this in a minute).
It’s required to hire contractors or employees, so it’s smart to have it ready in advance in case of sudden growth.
It’s incredibly simple and free to apply for an EIN, and you typically get it in a matter of minutes. Learn more or start the process on the IRS website.
Next, you’ll likely want to form an Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). This is a way of structuring your business as an entity separate from yourself to better protect your personal assets against lawsuits. In most states, it’s pretty easy for a sole proprietor to register for an LLC, but it’s smarter to shell out a few hundred dollars to have an attorney do it to the letter of the law.
An LLC is simpler to set up than other protective structures like S- or C-Corps, but it doesn’t come with all the tax benefits they offer. Talk to a CPA if you want the full rundown on which structure makes the most financial sense for you (and, of course, a lawyer to help set up whatever you choose).
Finally, get a business bank account (you usually need an EIN and an LLC to do this). Keeping your personal and business finances separate is a good practice. It’s helpful in record keeping, it looks more professional to clients, and it provides further protection for your personal assets in case of a lawsuit.
You may also want to investigate a business credit card if you enjoy the perks that come with them. Just be sure you pay the balance in full and on time each month. A debt-free business is a profitable business!
3. Look the Part
For the love of all that’s holy, spent a few coins and get a custom domain (not .wordpress.com, .blogspot.com or similar). Your website should be yourbrandname.com and your email should be firstname.lastname@example.org. No ifs, ands, or buts. Anything else sends the message that you’re not really serious or professional, and sends potential clients running for the hills.
Also, while it’s possible to get by with a basic DIY logo and selfie headshot, do you really want to? Pictures (and graphics) speak a thousand words. Your headshot and logo give the first impression of your business. Are yours sending the right message, making potential clients feel that you are, in fact, a real business?
If you can’t afford to invest a few hundred dollars into professional branding, look at your network and see if you can trade services with a designer and photographer to get the work done for free.
Finally, review the words on your website, social media profiles, and even your email signature. Are you sending the right message into the world about your level of professionalism? I’m not suggesting that you need to be stuffy and corporate — far from it.
But you do want your messaging to make it clear that you’re running a real business that does important work, and that you demand and deserve real and fair compensation.
4. Spend Smart
While we’re talking about investing in your business…one of my biggest lessons has been learning to spend a little to make a lot. Once I realized I couldn’t do it all and do it all perfectly, I discovered that hiring other people can actually help you grow your business.
In the two years since I made the mindset switch from “just a freelancer” to “business owner”, I’ve paid for the services of a graphic designer, photographer, web developer, virtual assistant, online business manager, and business coach. I’ve also subcontracted client work to other writers.
In addition to paying for people, I’ve invested in systems to streamline my workflows and make me more productive. These include things like Tailwind, ConvertKit, and Acuity Scheduling.
I’m smart about my spending — I’d never go into debt to pay for anything — but I’ve learned it’s true that sometimes you have to spend money to make money.
Each time I make a well-researched, well-planned investment in my business, it boosts my professionalism to the outside world, increases my productivity and earnings, and makes me feel like I’m running a little empire like a real CEO. Win, win, win.
5. Network Like Mad
Finally, if you want to be taken seriously as a business owner then you need to start networking. It’s the best way to find and win long-term clients. Sitting on your couch in your PJs waiting for clients to find you is definitely not a boss move.
If the word networking makes many your skin crawl, it’s probably because it makes you think of old white dudes in suits handing out business cards at a Chamber of Commerce. That would make anyone’s skin crawl.
Networking doesn’t have to be (and, frankly, shouldn’t be) about pushing your services in people’s faces. It’s about building mutually beneficial relationships. It’s about giving more than you get, knowing that eventually it will pay off.
I started a mastermind group, which includes a networking element but also helps me grow my business by providing accountability and brainstorming. I also got incredibly active in Facebook groups and have met some amazing people who have helped my business tremendously. I attend in-person networking events, do virtual coffee chats, and am always looking for ways to meet like-minded business folks.
Once I made these mindset shifts and practical changes, my business took off. My visibility increased, my client list grew, and (best of all) my profits nearly doubled. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, ask yourself whether you’re doing everything you could to treat your business like a business. If the answer is no, try implementing these five strategies.