7 lessons in starting again

October 2010.  I packed up two boxes and left my last full time job.  I chose to take redundancy, and I didn’t ever regret it.  At that stage, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew I was tired.  At many times in my previous career, I had willed the world to stop turning – just for a nanosecond – so that I could catch my breath, and now here was that very opportunity.

And just over a year later, here we are.  You are reading this article, part of an idea that I have been germinating for a good part of the last year.  In many ways, it’s everything that I have learnt;  advice from friends and colleagues, mistakes that I’ve made, false starts and all sorts.  I have held on to one thing though, and that was the desire to start something for myself that might conceivably even make me a living.

So I thought that I’d begin by sharing a few of the things that I’ve learnt.  Perhaps they might even help you!

1. People are generally smashing

Top of my list, and subject of a later blog post, the most important thing that I have learnt is just how amazing, kind, supportive and generous people are.  Starting with the friends who called, invited me for coffee or lunch, and including the new friends that I’ve made on this journey.  All these wonderful people have given me valuable advice, support and friendship – just at the point where I really needed it.

They have given me the confidence to know that I will never be alone, whatever I decide to do.  That someone, somewhere, will pick me up and propel me forward.

Above all, I’ve learnt that most people want you to succeed in your ventures.  That’s in contrast to my experience of working in organisations, where generally it doesn’t do to be too successful.  You might show others up.

2.     Working at home doesn’t work.

Yes, I do fit the Myers-Briggs profile for an extrovert.  But I know other freeworkers who are less ‘out-there’, and I still think it’s really important to be around others to be productive.  That may be counter intuitive, after all, when I worked in offices, it was easy to be distracted by others.

What I mean is that I don’t know many people who enjoy working from home all day, every day.   I hate it.

I’ve tried all sorts of solutions to this over the past year, and spent a lot of time and money in coffee shops.  I’ve also discovered a whole new movement towards so-called co-working.  These are hubs with desks where, if you are a member, you can just rock up and plug your laptop in and, bob’s your uncle – you are officified.  There are hubs for techies like Techhub and hubs for creative types like The Hospital Club or socially-minded types like Hub Westminster.  Companies like Near Desk and Work Snug are doing their best to link up people who work independently too.

In short, there are hubs and clubs for pretty much every type.  As long as you work in London or a big city.  More on that another time…

I still work from home the odd day, but have discovered that my productivity goes up when I’m bouncing ideas off others, and making connections, and sharing highs and lows with other human beings. 

3.  Be clear about who you are

If I had 10p for every time someone said to me ‘so what do you do?’…

That’s a  tougher question than you think when you are starting out on a journey to an independent life.  Not many of us really know the answer to that.  OK, some do.  But most of us mere mortals have to think about it.  Especially if we are over 40, and have a history and experience.  The chances are we’ve done and succeeded in several fields.  That’s quite hard to reduce down to an 140 character Twitter pitch.

I was recently interviewed by a professor at the Cass Business School.  He wanted to show the first year undergraduate students that your career doesn’t necessarily pan out like you think it will.  I talked about a few points in my career where I had turned a corner to a different set of experiences.   It did make me concentrate on what really makes me what I am.  Not a list of marketing tricks that I’ve learnt, or famous websites I’ve been responsible for, but a distillation of all that I am.

Friends will help too.  At one point on my journey, and just as I thought I had it nailed, a good friend reminded me that the business idea that I’d had would require some experience of operational delivery in the hospitality industry.  Not something that I have had much experience of!  She also reminded me of two things that she thought I was really good at.

I’ve even (almost) managed to get it down to 140 characters.

4.  It doesn’t necessarily work first time

I’ve never been a completer-finisher.  But I became conscious that I was flitting butterfly-like from one big idea to the next.  A good friend told me that I shouldn’t stress about that, because butterflies pollinate – which is a good thing.

The fact is, that part of knowing who you are and what you have to offer does require some experimentation and internal discussion.

I know I had THE idea when I started to obsess about it day and night.  When my friends started to get excited and send me links, articles and to get involved in my planning.  But it took 9 months of flitting to get there.

5.  Have a buddy.  Or two.

Well, I’ve already given you some examples of how friends and colleagues can support you, but I want to make a special point about having a buddy on the journey.

Fact is, I’m not very good on my own.  For a start, there’s not much point in getting excited about your idea if you can’t discuss it by the minute with someone.   But critically, I have also discovered that whilst I love the freedom of freeworking and being in control, I also need structure.  Most freeworkers that I speak to say the same thing.

So I have a couple of buddies, including Michael Edge, my co-conspirator in Kindredhq.  They prod me, give me deadlines, interrogate my thinking and, most important, they push me onwards.  I honestly don’t think we would have got this far without it.  I would still be examining my navel.

6.  Give and take

A lot of what I have outlined is about what people have done for me on my journey.  But I’ve also had time and space to help others out too.  The whole idea of reciprocity in our relationships is one that I want to explore with you over the coming months.  The idea that we all have something to offer, that others will see value in, and that that there is huge hidden potential in swopping one set of skills, contacts, advice, experience with someone else.

7.  Start small or you will feel overwhelmed

Well it’s obvious isn’t it?  But if you have a genuinely big idea, it can be unwieldy to get off the ground, and expensive.   I was genuinely scared that I couldn’t do it.

The best advice I’ve had was to start small, testing out my idea bit by bit.  Low cost, low risk.  Doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work first time.  Without losing any of the bigness of the idea.  Eric Ries started a whole movement based on this idea – The Lean Start-Up.

And that, dear Reader, is how we got to here.

If you’re inspired and you want to take the plunge, here are a few great blogs and sites to further whet your appetite!

Wikihow’s guide ‘How to be an adventurer‘.

The Blog of Impossible Things

Lifehacker.  We can’t do without this one….



Who is Alex Butler

Hello, I'm Alex Butler and I founded the KindredHQ community and blog back in 2011 after I re-started a freelance career. I LOVE freelancing and I wouldn't swop the freedom, control and joy of working for myself for anything. But I realised how much I missed the company and energy of other people - of having a team around me. So, I got a few people together one day with our laptops, a jar of coffee and some jelly babies and we sat and worked together one afternoon. We've been doing that every week in London, UK since then! I am still 100% freelance and I like to share the everyday highs and lows of being a freelancer here on the blog.

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