My first six months self-employed, and the joy of work

By Mike Nicholson
Managing Partner at Six Sells

In October 2018 I made the decision to start working for myself.

My wife had already been a self-employed marketing consultant for four years at that point, after spending 20 years working in marketing on some huge brands, so we merged our combined 46 years of sales and marketing experience to create Six Sells.

Many people have asked me how it is going, what is it like, and would I recommend it. This article aims to be as open and honest as I possibly can be about the pros and cons of working for yourself in the hope it may inspire or frighten somebody into making the right decision for them.

Honestly, the decision was absolutely exciting and terrifying in equal measure. It still is today. Some days I am flying and full of confidence and other days I am plagued by self-doubt. Having spoken to many other people who have started out on their own, this rollercoaster of emotions appears to be a fairly standard human response to such a new environment.

After reflecting on my first 6 months, here are some of some of the key take-aways that I hope will be of interest to others:

  • You can choose who you work with:

All I want to do great work with great people. Or at the very least, with good people. Working for yourself enables you to pick and choose who you work with, and for me, that has been a truly liberating experience. When I find good people I naturally want to work hard to help them succeed. We are working with CEO’s who have fantastic businesses of their own and a vision. That’s inspiring. All we want is enough good people who will allow us to do enough great work so that we are all successful.

  • You can design your own working week

As a part of my UEFA B licence course in coaching football, I have been encouraged to identify my core values. It has been a really useful exercise that I would recommend to anyone. It has helped me understand what my working environment should and should not look like, and has helped me to understand what inspires me.

For what its worth, here are my core values:

Open and Honest
Organised & process driven

Understanding and reflecting on this allows me to design a working week that is fulfilling and inspiring, while side-stepping some of the things that drain my energy.

  • You can choose when and where you work:

For many years I have found the concept of a 9 to 5 office environment outdated, and not just because the hours in a 9 to 5 are actually closer to a 7 to 7.

The TED talk by Jason Fried on ‘why work doesn’t get done at work’ is so brilliant and blindingly obvious to me, yet still, offices are created, working hours are set, commuting lines appear and staff are expected to grind along to a one-size fits all working day. Meetings and Managers get in the way of great work says Jason Fried, and he’s spot on.

For me, one of the most liberating things about being self-employed has been the ability to work more when I am inspired to do so, and wherever makes sense to me at the time. Of course sometimes you have to work when you are feeling less inspired, we all do, but with a MacBook and an internet connection I can now spend my 168 hours a week far more productively by maximising my inspired working time.

As an example, I have woken up at 3am with an idea, and got up to do hours of uninterrupted, focused and dare I say, great work. I have been inspired by working in my garden with the sun on my face, and bird song as the soundtrack to help me focus. I have worked from coffee shops, pubs, the Institute of Directors, my local Indian restaurant and my living room.

If I were still in a 12-hour-a-day office-based job, getting up at 3am to do hours of inspired work couldn’t happen, because I would be asleep on my desk after lunch. Now I have found that if I want to work between 3am and 7am, but sleep for an hour between 2pm and 3pm, that can happen. I find I am far, far more productive working this way.

Where was I? Oh yes, offices. Human nature dictates that people will like some people more than others. Some people will annoy the bejesus out of others, that’s life. Yet people are still herded together into offices to coexists for hours upon hours, like it or lump it. Some people are better at hiding their dislike of people than others, but the result of this forced, fake environment is cliques. Many people find it stressful to keep a positive front when surrounded by dick-heads. When genuine people feel an almost allergic reaction to another person, calling them a prick to their face is often frowned upon in the office. So they bottle it up causing themselves stress, and then pour it out to others in poisonous little cliques to release that stress. It’s corrosive but happens in every office I have ever known. Meanwhile, David Brent style managers are running around saying “You will never work in a place like this again. This is brilliant. Fact.”.

  • Being inspired.

I am working with some fantastic clients that have amazing, interesting and inspiring businesses of their own. I am working with CEO’s with a vision. The work is varied, stimulating and more fun than at any other time I can remember in my career.

  • The worry

Working for yourself is of course not all positive. All Karen and I want, is to be allowed to do great work for great people, to the level where we have a comfortable lifestyle that better balances our work with the rest of our life’s passions.

At the moment we are delighted to be in the position where that is working out well for us, but on the darker days your mind works against you. What if this client takes it in house, what if this business goes away etc. On the positive days, I recognise I have made millions for others in my career to date, and my modestly priced offering today adds real value to my clients, but there are definitely darker days as well.

The trick for us is the balance. How can we have enough clients but not too many? Enough clients so that if one or two left us, we would still be OK, but not too many to stretch ourselves too thinly. We are on the cusp of hiring somebody to help, dependent on some new business relationships that are poised to start. Things are going well today, but the ‘what if’s’ nag away and have to be managed.

  • Being around to see my family

I won’t lie, we are having decorating work done on the house at the moment, and it is half term, so being around is not always a positive thing. That is when working remotely comes into its own! Mostly though, and on balance, I see my wife and kids a lot more than I have done for years.

  • In summary; The Joy of Work.

In his brilliant book, The Joy of Work, Bruce Daisley pretty much nails all that is wrong with office culture, and how businesses and individuals can ‘Fix your work culture and fall in love with your job again’.

That byline to Bruce’s book feels to me like a perfect summary of what we have achieved so far, but there is a long way to go.

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to connect with me if you are thinking along these lines – would be happy to help.

p.s. Those who know me well will understand that resisting the temptation to call this article ‘the joy of six’ was excruciating.