Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business


Sometimes – in a land of magic and rainbows – having a job can feel like being part of a big, happy family. And sometimes, being a freelancer can feel like being a free spirit who only associates with people of her own choosing. (No Wall Street douchebags here in my Bushwick apartment where I silk-screen t-shirts that say “fuck” on them!)

Feelings can really cloud a person’s thinking.

As I mentioned in Bullish: How Business is Like Dating, you might be monogamous to your job, but your job is not monogamous to you. Members of big, happy work families get laid off all the time. Companies do not have feelings.

Similarly, in the freelance world, sometimes your clients are a lot like friends. Or they are your friends. Which makes it difficult, for instance, to raise your rates.

Running your career like a business – with no apologies – can solve a lot of problems, and keep you from the sorry state in which you later find yourself out of work or unable to work and are attempting to feed and house yourself with feelings.

Growth is good

Back when I made $17,000 a year, I decided I was going to increase my income the next year by 50%. That seems pretty reasonable, doesn’t it, that someone making $17,000 would want to make $25,500?

Screw “reasonable.” Who decides what’s “reasonable” for you? The world is nothing like your parents giving you an allowance. (“What do you need more than five dollars a week for, anyway? You’re a child! In my day….”)

Let’s just accept that growth is good. Why? No reason other than that we are Americans, and our stores contain over fifty types of toothpaste. Or, if that’s offensive: because we are growing in every area of our lives, and we wish our careers to reflect that.

Or, even better: because the companies we work for consider growth for its own sake to be good, so why should we accept any lower of a standard? I remember once hearing that the stars of Friends wanted a raise to, say, a million an episode, which seemed unreasonable, until I also read that the producers were making something like eleventy-thousand-million per episode, at which point it only seemed reasonable to pass the cash around.

So, toss away any guilt for wanting a healthy rate of growth. And feel free to constantly say “healthy rate of growth.” It’s hard to argue with “healthy.” You don’t need a reason for wanting growth. Growth is good.

Also consider that, as I wrote in Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE, if you plan to have (biological) children, you really only have about twelve years between graduating from college and needing to get started with the babymaking in order to have a safe biological window. (Grad school or, obviously, health issues could shorten that window at either end.)

So, you need to use your twenties and early thirties to grow more than you “need”, in case your career slows down later. And if you don’t plan to have children, you still might consider that an awful lot of people get cancer (or, less depressingly, that it would be fun to retire early!)

A 1.5% “raise for inflation” wouldn’t be acceptable to a corporation’s CFO, so why should that be an acceptable growth rate for you?

Sometimes, I find myself saying things that translate to, “You know that thing I do for you that you pay me pretty well for? It has come to my attention that other people will pay me even more for it. So, I think we will have to renegotiate, or part ways as friends.”

When I say things like this, I think I have sometimes been afraid that someone might ask, “What do you need all that money for?” But, in actuality, no one has ever asked that question. If they did:

“It’s important to maintain a healthy rate of growth in my career.” (Again, who can argue against “healthy”?)

“While there are certain intangibles to consider, it would be financially illogical for anyone to choose a lower-paying option over a much higher-paying one, of course” (Now shrug as though you’ve just said, “It would be illogical to add two and two and expect to get seven.” Peer quizzically at your interlocutor and see what anyone can even say to that.)

Years ago, when I set the goal of increasing my income by 50% in a year, I achieved that goal, and decided to just keep running with it – by which, I mean, aiming for 50% growth per year. I’ve actually averaged 30-40% growth per year, which pleases me, and which has forced some new ways of thinking. You can’t generally increase your income by more than 10% per year as a regular employee.

Let go of good things for better things

When you’re making a pretty good living and wondering how you can get to the next level, you quickly realize that there are some limits to being an employee. You might be in a position that doesn’t directly generate revenue for the company, so it’s hard to make a case for just how much value you are providing. It may be that company policies or politics dictate that you can’t get paid more than others at your level (or above you, obviously). The larger and more stratified the company, the harder it is to get around this.

And, of course, in some jobs you can work overtime, and in some salaried positions you can negotiate de facto overtime (such as taking on additional temporary responsibilities in exchange for a bonus), but there are serious limits to how many hours you can work.

Sometimes, I manage to book 11 billable hours in a single day (this becomes possible when I tutor people in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East over the Internet at hours that are convenient for them and ungodly for me). And then the next day I do … not much. Pimping out your time cannot lead to double-digit growth unless you can raise your rates accordingly – because you certainly can’t work 10-50% more hours every year.

For this kind of growth, you will need to think beyond hourly labor and beyond employeehood. For instance:

• You could start a business on the side.

• You could turn your on-the-job expertise into a book, e-book, manual, video series, or some other information product that would generate royalties or ongoing income.

• You could become an intrapreneur (heading up a “startup” within an existing company, generally with a profit-sharing arrangement or actual ownership in the new “company”).

• You could quit your job and start your own business. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you have to burn your bridges. Maybe there’s a way to start a company that your current company would like to do business with. Is there a vendor your company works with that isn’t doing a very good job? Could you use your inside information to found a new company that would do a better job? Could you partner with your current company? Could you go from being a small part of your company to being its peer?

Overall, you might have to make the painful decision to let go of something good (a job, a client, an opportunity) in order to reach the next level. Companies discontinue pretty cool products all the time (leaving us to stockpile our favorite shampoo, etc.), because the numbers just don’t work out. Having a target for growth gets you thinking in this way as well.

Multiple Streams of Income

Finally, I’ve spoken often about multiple income streams. You might say that I hardly ever shut up about it. I think anyone who has all their money coming from one place (and doesn’t have an enormous savings account) should consider that an emergency situation needing to be immediately rectified.

Businesses diversify, as should we. Do you have products or services you can offer at multiple price points? For instance, can you offer consulting for $100/hr and then a how-to manual, or a DVD of a talk you gave, for $40 so people can use your expertise for a do-it-yourself option? (Of course, some of those people will likely decide they need you as a consultant after all).

(See also: A Question About Multiple Income Streams and I Like My Job – Do I Really Need a Side Gig?)

All that said – obviously, there are some professions where double-digit growth isn’t very likely, as those professions cannot be practiced freelance, or require millions of dollars to go into business on your own in (for instance, it is very difficult to start your own pharmaceutical company).

If you’re in one of those professions, I’d ask some hard questions: Do you love the profession enough to give up the chance to have the kind of career that can be run like a business? Enough to give up double-digits in growth per year? If yes, because you are down at the lab curing cancer, then god bless. If not, I might re-think, or at least branch out. (We contain multitudes! We are unicorns!)

There are an infinity of options out there, and they can be embarked on, tested, combined, abandoned without regret, and retooled to create careers that grow, satisfy us, and give back in generous proportion to what we put into them.

originally published on The Gloss

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