How having a baby broke my business (and how I rebuilt it again)
When I decided to become a freelancer the goal was to achieve the perfect work-life balance.
I was expecting my first baby and wanted to spend every moment with him experiencing the joys of motherhood. But in order to maintain my sanity, and because I didn’t want to give up on a career I’d worked so hard to build, I decided to continue working too.
And for a time I actually had it all…
I created a freelance business where I earned 42% more and worked 38% fewer hours compared to when I was employed. I attended mum and baby groups everyday, made new friends and went out on playdates – I even won my first client sat in the ball pool at soft play! Life was so good that we thought we’d extend our little family.
But pregnant with my second son, I was forced to shut my business.
Life as a freelance mum is really tough
First time round, I had the security of maternity leave from an employer, which gave me the freedom to try out freelancing and see if it worked for me. Second time round, I was on my own.
Some people may consider me ‘fortunate’ since I was entitled to receive the Government’s full Maternity Allowance. At the time this was just over £130 per week – but equivalent to just three hours work, it’s nowhere near the level of income we were used to, and certainly didn’t cover the bills.
Then, because of the rules surrounding Maternity Allowance, I was only allowed to work for 10 days during my maternity leave – just as an employee would receive through their ‘keeping in touch days’.
There was no way I could take care of my clients in just 10 days, and my newborn son needed me, so I was forced to close my business.
That year was awful. Thankfully, my husband was able to cover the bills (just) so financially we survived. But life with a toddler and newborn was utterly exhausting and not working played havoc with my mental health.
I knew I needed to make a change. I knew I had to make the balance work again. The trouble is, as an employee I’d have a guaranteed job to return to. As a freelancer, I’d have to start a new business from scratch.
How I rebuilt my business – and you can too
Here’s how I rebuilt my business in three months, earning £3k a month, working three days a week, and how you can do the same.
1) Get your house in order
While I was on maternity leave, I might not have been able to work on client deliverables, but I could work for myself. So I took the opportunity to figure out my business plan and get everything ready. This involved answering questions like:
- What do I actually want to do?
- Who do I really want to work with?
- Where are they?
- When can I be available to work?
- How much will I charge for my services?
With my simple two-page plan written down, it was on to promotion.
2) Get your branding right
With my first business I traded under a company name, but it always felt really false putting on a corporate front all the time. I don’t want to put barriers between me and the client, so I re-branded to just use my name.
By doing this, I found I approached people in a slightly different way. It’s cliché, but people really do buy from people. When I entered the room as Alice Hollis, rather than Copy & Cupcakes, I felt free to be more personal and open, which is a far better start to any client relationship.
3) Get a website
I wanted a website that acted as my business card, so that I could show I was a credible copywriter with lots of experience. But I also wanted people to see that work wasn’t the only thing in my life.
With my boys in nursery, they seemed to pick up every bug going (the nursery assured me this would give them immune systems of steel later in life). This meant that I’d have to pick them up at a moment’s notice to care for them. If my clients didn’t understand this, the relationship would never work.
I used the ‘about’ page on my website to display snapshots of my professional life, such as graduating, accreditations and achievements, alongside photos from my personal life, such as my family, and things I really love, like shoes and cake.
I’ve found it to be really helpful in setting expectations upfront, so my clients accept that I might have to push their work from the afternoon into the evening. And I’ve won significant projects based on this page alone, because people feel like they really know me before they pick up the phone.
4) Tell people you know
Feeling confident about my new proposition, the next thing to do was actually tell people I was returning to work. It might sound stupid, but they weren’t about to wake up and instinctively know I was available to hire again.
I messaged the clients I was working with before I’d gone on maternity to say ‘hello!’, and immediately picked up a couple of projects.
Then I turned to my LinkedIn connections. Spending time looking through everyone I knew, I made a list of those who I really wanted to work with, and sent them an InMail to say ‘hello!’. Doing this I managed to pick up a nice retainer, which meant that as soon as I returned to work I had some steady income.
5) Find people you don’t
Relying on my existing network was great for picking up those initial jobs during the first 3-months. It’s what enabled me to earn £3k a month while my boys were in nursery for 3-days a week. But I needed a sustainable business so I started proactively looking for new clients.
From the ‘ideal’ client on my business plan, I started to research. This involved:
- Googling the type of client.
- Clicking each link to find out more about them and see if there was an opportunity for me to add value.
- Checking them out on LinkedIn to identify the person I’d need to approach.
- Deciding the best way to get on their radar – in the past I’ve tried many tactics, such as sending LinkedIn connection requests, emailing them direct, posting a handwritten letter, creating a quirky direct mail with biscuits and coffee, hosting an event in a co-working space and turning up on their doorstep with cupcakes ready to give my elevator pitch. Try everything and see what works for you.
6) Qualify every opportunity
Not every prospect is a good one. I’ve had people say they won’t give me work unless I do the administration, like uploading blogs to websites or setting up email campaigns. I’ve had people tell me that I have to give them a substantial discount because they’re looking to build a ‘long term relationship’ with me. I’ve had people expect me to work evenings and weekends in order to complete their project – rather than allow me to make that decision.
Saying ‘no’ is sometimes a good thing, because then you’re free to say ‘yes’ when the right opportunity does come along.
I have a qualification sheet that I apply to every prospect – regardless of whether it’s someone who has come to me, or a lead I’ve created. It helps me to determine whether I think we’d be a good fit. And includes the ‘red flags’ that you should never ignore – like people asking for ‘special snowflake’ treatment.
By following this process, I’m certain that I’ve avoided a number of problem clients and difficult situations that would have negatively impacted my business.
And the one thing I wish I’d known…
A big lesson I’ve learned this year, and one I wish I knew back when I was setting up my business, is that social platforms are a place you go to have a conversation, rather than promote yourself. It’s about becoming part of a community, where you don’t have to go it alone.
When I started my business, I was shouting about my work and what I was doing, and scheduling Tweets to blogs I’d written covered with every #hashtag going. But it didn’t work. No-body heard me.
But changing my approach and engaging in the conversations the community was having, had a massive impact on my business. In eight months on Twitter, I’ve gone from having a handful of followers and getting about 5k impressions per month, to nearly 1,000 followers and over £200k impressions per month.
I have on average 1,100 people visit my profile a month, and 940 mentions. Finally, I’m being seen and earning a reputation.
But more than that…
I’ve gained valuable advice on how to grow my business, support on how to successfully juggle the family/work/home balance, and other freelancers pass me lead referrals for actual projects.
Alice Hollis has written this on behalf of Collective – a community providing freelancers with the benefits and perks of big company employment.
Alice is a copywriter for consultancies in IT & tech, business & management, marketing & digital. Come and say ‘hello!’ on her website.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao