Putting on Your Business Hat

In The E Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It, consultant and author Michael E. Gerber observes that the real reason people start businesses is not because they are entrepreneurs but because they have been stricken with what he calls an “entrepreneurial seizure.” Suddenly, they begin asking themselves, “Why work for somebody else? Why not just work for myself? At least I’ll have a nice boss and great working conditions.” So, they take the plunge, based on what Gerber calls “the fatal assumption,” i.e., “if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does that technical work.”

Apparently, that is rarely the case. Writers understand the technical side of the business because, essentially, we are technicians—creators, doers—and we are happiest when we are doing. At least, that is true in my case. When we do decide to make writing a full-time occupation, no matter how well prepared we seem to be, for many of us, it is no less than a seismic shock to discover that, if we don’t find the work, keep track of and service the clients, send out invoices, collect the money, do the marketing, pay the bills, buy the supplies, and all the other “stuff” that must be done, no one does it. The buck really does stop here.

At first, that may seem to be a bit of an adventure—a growth experience—but, after a while, all that growing gets exhausting. Personally, I would rather not do most of what one must do to be in business. All I ever wanted to do was write, and that’s what I thought being in business was going to be about. Wrong. Sometimes, it seems that being “in business” is about everything but writing. It’s more about keeping it all together, returning phone calls, going through the mail, organizing files, chewing my nails over unpaid client invoices and the resulting unpaid bills, wading through daily e-mails, learning new software, reconciling my checkbooks (for separate accounts), making sure there is money for estimated quarterly taxes, and on and on and on. If there is time after that, I write.

This is not a unique problem nor one that is exclusive to writers. It’s the universal lament of many creative people and other “technicians” who experience that proverbial “entrepreneurial seizure” and act on it. The choice faced by those of us who want to become full-time, independent writers is this: We can survive by clinging to our identity as writers and somehow managing to stay afloat; or we can thrive by becoming savvy business owners, as well as top-flight, professional writers. Many freelancers opt for the former, insisting that they just don’t have the requisite business sense to be entrepreneurs.

It’s true that not all of us are born with it, but business acumen is not quantum physics. It can be acquired, nurtured, and expanded. If you truly want to be a successful, independently employed writer, you have no choice. The question now becomes, where and how do you begin?

Here are a few fairly painless suggestions:

• Start with an attitude adjustment.

Running your business as a business is certainly not as bad as cleaning out a hopelessly cluttered basement or finally getting started on your income taxes the night before they are due. In the first place, it is an essential part of earning a living. In the second, if you are smart enough to be a writer, you are smart enough to run your own show. Even if the business side of the business is not your strong suit or your preference, that doesn’t mean you’re not capable of handling it. So, your new attitude should incorporate these assertions: I am a professional writer and an entrepreneur. I know that my ultimate success depends on mastery of both aspects of my business, and I am going to excel in both roles.

• If you don’t already have one, hire an accountant.

There are things you can do and should do; and there are other things that will eat up your time, zap your energy, and create needless stress. Taking care of every single aspect of your finances, from paying your bills to filing your taxes, is not necessary. Decide what you must do yourself and what you can comfortably delegate. Personally, I would like to delegate everything, but I can’t afford a full-time bookkeeper/accountant yet. When I can, believe me I will hire one.

• Master the basics.

Make a list of what has to be done that you either are not doing or don’t want to do. If you’re not sure what you should be doing, buy a book, take a business course, or ask your accountant. Admit that there are things you don’t know, and learn how to do them. When you bought your first computer, chances are you were not an expert. When you start a business, unless you’ve done it before, you will definitely have a lot to learn. You can’t operate with only a manual typewriter in today’s technologically sophisticated environment, and you can’t run a professional operation on a wing and a prayer.

• Make time to wear your business hat.

It can be maddening to do all the things that must be done when you have assignments and deadliness, but the business will not run itself. Carve out a particular time to put the administrative side of the business in order. Send invoices on time, and resend them on their due dates if they have not been paid. Keep up to date on record keeping. Client management, time and billing, check writing, and scheduling programs all speed up and simplify these essential tasks.

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