What it’s like to work for me, by me

I’ve been working for myself for a little over a year now, so I thought it was about time to reflect on what it’s been like so far and how I see things going in the future. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I run a small business consultancy that works with organisations across the public, not-for-profit and social enterprise sectors. I used to work for a much larger, international consultancy, but had always harboured a desire to set up on my own. And early last year, I finally took the plunge.

Overall, it’s been a hugely exciting twelve months. Having started off with no clients and no money, I’ve now built up a small client base and have worked on some really interesting projects with some great people. I’ve enjoyed the work, my clients are happy, and everyone’s paid their bills on time. I’ve even managed to pay myself a salary, which is a great relief. (Not least to my wife and to my bank manager.)

The best thing, though, has been the flexibility. Sure, I’ve worked harder over the course of the last year than I have ever worked before, but I’ve been my own boss. I’ve been able to do things my way, to decide what I will do and when I will do it. This does, though, that I also bear all the responsibility for everything. So no delegating the tedious things to some hapless minion, unfortunately. But I do, for the first time in a long while, have complete control over my day and my life. Which is a very liberating – if somewhat terrifying – feeling.

As the owner, director, manager and sole employee of my company, I’m involved in all aspects of what it does. From finding new clients and planning the work to sending the bills and preparing the accounts, it’s all me. This has brought some new challenges. For example, while I’m good at the actual work I do, I’ve always been a little less confident when making contact with people and seeking out new clients. But now I have no choice but to grasp the bull by the horns and just get on with it. And, thankfully, I’m slowly getting better at the business development side of things – and have developed a whole lot more confidence, too.

So where do things go from here? Well, I certainly can’t ever go back to working for someone else. No way. I love what I do and I love my (admittedly still quite new and quite small) company. And I want it to do well. And, perhaps, to become a little less small over time. I need to continue to find new clients and to look after the existing ones. I need to get out and meet more people. And I need to get the company’s name out there a bit more, for example by writing articles and getting invited to speak at conferences. All very exciting. And all, quite frankly, a bit scary. But all, without a doubt, most excellent fun.

A brief foray into poetry

I’m not a big writer of poetry, but I stumbled recently across this short poem that I wrote a couple of years ago. I’d just spent a long day in the office at my previous job and was in the middle of a three hour train commute home. I felt absolutely rotten and found myself pulling out my pad and pen to try to express how I felt.

It was only when I read the poem back to myself a few days later that I realised how urgently I needed to change the way I lived. And now, a couple of years on, you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m much happier and working hard to live my kind of life. Anyway, enough waffle. Here’s the poem. It’s called ‘The Roar’.

 

The Roar

I hear a quiet voice from deep

somewhere inside my soul.

It tells me that I’m going too fast;

the roar is in control.

 

This constant drive to be the best,

my fervent need to win.

The voice wants me to still the roar,

to let the silence in.

 

I try to listen to the voice,

to what it has to say.

But soon the roar just drowns it out

as life gets in the way.

 

The roar gets louder, louder still;

leaves chaos in its wake.

In time, the means becomes the end –

a roar for roaring’s sake.

 

What is this life I choose to lead,

indentured to the roar?

Why can’t I listen to the voice

and be myself once more?

 

Working, not shirking

We have recently survived a short visit by the in-laws. I say ‘survived’ not because they’re particularly unpleasant or because they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. In fact, as far as in-laws go, they seem to be fairly reasonable. No, I say ‘survived’ because we seem to have opposing views on, well, pretty much everything. And principal among the topics of disagreement is what, precisely, qualifies as ‘work’.

(I should perhaps mention at this point that this view is not limited to my in-laws. I have had similar discussions with my parents, too, as well as with former colleagues and people I have met whilst walking the dog.)

For my in-laws’ generation, it seems, work involves getting up early in the morning, commuting some distance to an office in a city somewhere, being bored all day doing something that you don’t particularly like, coming home late, grumbling about your idiot colleagues, eating, sleeping – and then repeating the whole thing over and over again until you’re sixty five (or until you conk out, whichever occurs first). Anything that doesn’t meet this definition, in their view, is not work.

Which is a bit of a problem. Because what I do really doesn’t look like that at all, and I’d be horrified if it did. I’m not saying that I don’t work, though. I run a successful consultancy business and spend most of my time on research and consulting assignments for my clients. And when I’m not doing that, I’m generally working on some writing project or other.  But I’m my own boss and run my own life.

While I’m sometimes out at my clients’ offices, I’ll often be working at home in my office / spare room here…

My desk

Though sometimes I’ll be here…

Living room

Or here…

Garden bench

And while I don’t have colleagues as such, I do have an assistant…

Molly

Who can be of varying degrees of usefulness…

Molly asleep

This, it would appear, does not count as ‘work’. As far as my in-laws are concerned, being at home is not compatible with working. Nor is having almost full control over what your day looks like. Nor, indeed, is having fun. So despite my best efforts to explain what I do and how it does indeed qualify as a ‘job’ of sorts, they still seem to think that I spend all day loafing around the house while their daughter labours all hours to support my indolence.

(We’ll gloss over the fact that Natalie was only working such long hours because she’d decided that it was better to hide out at work rather than come home and face awkward parental questions about her own non-standard career.)

I don’t blame my in-laws for this. I think it’s more a generational thing. The way in which we work, facilitated by the internet and other technologies, is changing so quickly that people who spent their lives working in the old-fashioned ‘job for life’ culture in large bureaucratic companies find it difficult to relate to the more flexible and varied career paths that are rapidly becoming the norm.

But to avoid future misunderstandings, here are a few key principles that I’d like to clarify:

  • Work is something you do, not somewhere you go. So just because I am sitting in the garden drinking a cup of tea, this does not mean that I am not working.
  • Similarly, going for a run, doing the hoovering or playing on the beach with the dog are also not incompatible with being ‘at work’.
  • I do know what I am doing. In fact, people pay me money to do it. I am a highly skilled professional. Even if I do happen to be sitting at my desk in my pyjamas.
  • I am not asleep. I’m thinking. It’s called the knowledge economy. It’s what we do nowadays. Wake up and smell the coffee.

I’d like to think the in-laws will eventually come around to my way of thinking. But, if I’m being honest, I think we’ll just have to accept that times change. They do things their way and I do things my way. It doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong. As with all families, it just means that it’s one more thing on the list of stuff we try not to talk about…

A micro-farmer’s dilemma

I’m starting to detect a slight problem with my food-growing exploits. Nothing to do with the plants themselves, fortunately, which are growing well and looking good. In fact, I’ve started to refer to our garden as ‘the micro-farm’, in anticipation of this becoming a recognised (though haphazard) model of agriculture at some point in the near future. No, the problem is definitely me, rather than my future foodstuffs.

It started on Sunday evening, when I packed my bag and headed off to London, in preparation for a seminar that I was delivering on Monday morning. In itself, of course, no big issue (provided we brush over the fact that I was going to work at the weekend). But before I left, I was compelled to leave Natalie with a detailed list of care requirements for my various seeds, seedlings and young plants.

Keep the seed trays slightly damp, so that they don’t dry out – but don’t let them get soggy. Water the pea plants well and check that they haven’t got tangled up with each other again. Check the chilli plants and water any that are particularly dry, but only first thing in the morning as they don’t like to go to bed with damp feet. Untangle the hop from its preferred home tangled around the bench and try to convince it to stay on its support this time. Open the cold frames once the sun is up, and close them just before dusk – or if it gets windy. Oh, and feel free to eat some salad, but not the micro-leaves as they need a couple more days. The list went on. (Though was, I suspect, mostly ignored.)

I’ve spent the last few years learning about how best to grow the various fruits, vegetables and flowers that I enjoy, and try to make sure that I look after them well. I’m used to doing the rounds first thing in the morning and in the early evening, watering the crops and checking for bugs, as well as generally keeping an eye on things during the day if I’m around. So the thought of leaving them alone, with (let’s be honest) essentially a substitute teacher in charge, was harrowing in the extreme.

The same thing happened last month, when we went over to Germany for a few days. Admittedly, I didn’t have so many young plants at that stage, so things were a little easier. But even then, I spent the days before our departure desperately hoping my chilli and mint plants were hardened off sufficiently, so that I could leave them in the greenhouse for the neighbours to water in my absence. What if something comes up when everything needs planting out? I’ll be a nervous wreck…

I guess this is the problem when you have living things of any form, whether plants or livestock, that require daily attention. You get into a routine of caring for them and then need quickly to come up with a Plan B when other things demand your attention, such as the job that actually pays for you to own the garden and the plants and everything else. And then you end up in London first thing on a Monday morning, trying to deliver a seminar to a roomful of serious people, when all you can think about is whether or not your wife has remembered to water the courgettes.