4 Things I've Learned Since Starting my own Business
It’s been a few months now since I set off to do my own thing. I’ve had a lot of people ask how it’s been going. Some are curious about what my typical week looks like, while others are wondering how I keep all the balls in the air. And to be honest, sometimes I don’t! There aren’t enough hours in the day to tackle all of the side projects I want to invest in, plus complete work for my clients, in addition to taking care of myself so that I don’t burn out in a month’s time. But there are a few lessons that I’ve learned in the last two months that have made things a little bit easier for me.
1) I need to be strategic and intentional with my time.
Between “time blocking” and Pomodoros, I’ve got techniques and plans up the wazoo, but saying that I’m going to do work for “x” client on Wednesdays doesn’t always mean my brain agrees to cooperate when it comes time to focus. Here’s my basic strategy for keeping myself on track.
I start with the overall weekly structure:
Monday is for writing.
Tues/Thurs are for one client.
Wednesday is for the other.
Friday is a catch-all day.
Fridays usually include some combination of the following things:
- 4-Hour Decompress (shout-out to J. Paul Reed for this concept!)
- What haven’t I completed that I meant to?
- What meetings do I need to have?
- Do I have any administrative tasks to take care of?
If I can stick with that (fairly strict) plan, the week speeds by and all is well. But what about when I have potential clients ask for meeting times, friends who happen to be in town who want to grab lunch, a conference talk to write, a podcast to record, or a complete and utter brain block on what to write next? Far too often, this great schedule gets set aside and revamped on a whim, which is ok from a “do what you need to do” standpoint, but not so great for either effectiveness or morale.
It seems like the easiest answer is just to keep things less structured and get them done as I have the motivation/wherewithal/inclination. But for whatever reason, my brain works in the exact opposite way. Less structure = less assurance that I’ll get something done, because I’m a master of finding the projects I want to work on (which may or may not include any source of income) and stalling on the projects that I actually need to make headway on.
So I’ve gone in the opposite direction, returning to an old pattern of calendaring everything. From the time that my alarm will go off to how long I’ll allow myself to check Facebook/Twitter/Instagram in the morning (since I know that’s going to happen regardless), to how long it will take me to make and eat lunch.
I’ve created these schedules on Google calendar in the past, which has been rather effective, especially when I use the alerts to tell me it’s time to switch gears. I’ve also used the SELF Journal — essentially a day planner that helps with goal planning. Both of these have worked in their own way at their own time, and frankly, either is better than nothing! My key with this is to make sure that I have the flexibility to accommodate the interrupt-driven society we live in, but enough structure to keep myself on track and not let myself slip into the “I’ll just read/Facebook/play this game for 5 more minutes” trap.
These days, a combination of these two — the alerts from Google Calendars along with the satisfaction of writing down my daily plan (and the consistent recap every day) — helps to keep me on track and moving forward at a pace that feels right.
As my good friend Matt Broberg told me last week, "Behaviors are habits, and habits take time.” I have to be intentional about creating those habits that will eventually become second-nature. Time is a resource, and habits are simply a way to make good use of that resource.
Planning out my days also causes me to be more conscious of everything that I’ve committed myself to, which leads me to my second point:
2) Too much of a good thing is still too much.
Those of you who know me might be rolling your eyes right now — after all, this is a lesson I should have learned long ago, right? I’m often the person raising my hand, offering to help out, wanting to be involved, and getting myself in over my head, not because I’m not capable of doing the work, but because contrary to popular belief, the amount of hours in my day does not expand simply because of the number of projects I’ve committed to.
I re-learned this lesson during my very first week on my own. I was onboarding at two companies at once (if you ever think this is a good idea, rethink all of your life choices. Right now. I’ll wait. tl;dr: Don’t put yourself in this situation if you can help it, for your sake… for your significant other’s sake… for your friend’s sake… just… don’t do it.), recovering from 2 intensive weeks of off-boarding at SparkPost, struggling with a 4-year-old MacBook Air, trying to keep up with my writing schedule, revamping the podcast, taking on more responsibilities with the DevRel Slack team that I help manage, finishing my website design, and responding to queries about my new consulting business from all of the people you lovely folks sent my way.
To say that I was overwhelmed is putting it lightly. To say that I was reconsidering my entire plan would not be an exaggeration. To say that I was (and am) incredibly grateful for the support of my partner Jeremy, my best friend, and my parents, is the truth.
I made it through that week with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and resolved to set boundaries for myself. I didn’t need to be bringing on new clients right away, so I followed through with the intro calls that were already scheduled, explained that my schedule was currently full, and told them I’d check back with them in the new year. I didn’t have to be meeting up with friends for lunch every day, so I got a rain check. It wasn’t essential that my website be absolutely perfect right this second, so I finished setting up the skeleton, took a deep breath, and walked away.
Learning to say no is one of the biggest ways I protect myself from burnout, but it’s also my biggest downfall. Re-learning what activities provide “net oxygen” for me on a daily basis (oxygen being the energy I need to take care of both myself and others; net oxygen being the activities that give me more energy than they take to organize) and building those things into my schedule isn’t just a “nice to have” for me… it’s an essential part of staying sane while running my own business.
Along those lines, figuring out exactly what I want to do is an effective way to build a business around the things that not only give me energy, but are valuable to others as well.
3) I know what I want to do.
Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern. Every time I have a meeting with someone who’s trying to build a new community or struggling to figure out the best strategy for Developer Relations, or I have time to talk with my fellow community managers about the nuances of our job, I tweet about how it’s the best part of my day. Engaging with and investing in the community is what I thrive on, and it consistently brings me energy, excitement, and motivation to keep pushing the DevRel industry forward.
I met with a contact of mine a few weeks back to catch up on life as well as give some advice around an upcoming community position they’ll be hiring for, and she made an interesting observation. She said that when she was doing consulting and contracting work, she struggled with the fact that she couldn’t do as much of a deep dive with the community as she wanted to. This observation stuck with me, considering that I’m usually the same way. I love digging into a community and getting to know people on a personal level.
But when I take a look at the projects that are energizing me the most these days, they seem to be on a slightly different wavelength:
- writing a book about the business value of Developer Relations
- managing a Slack team with more than 700 DevRel and Community professionals
- co-hosting a podcast about community building
- publishing a weekly round-up of DevRel resources (coming soon!)
- working with companies to figure out the best strategy as they tackle the evasive challenge of engaging with a technical audience
It may not be a technical audience that I’m digging into, but it’s definitely a specific community, and one that’s near and dear to my heart: Developer Relations & Community Management professionals. This group of unicorns has been on their own to find resources, figure out the best place for themselves somewhere between sales, engineering, product, and marketing, and beat the drum of relationship building for years. As a result, many of these amazing professionals have moved on to other careers.
It’s time that this meta community had their own advocate, and I’m ready to take on that mantle. My goal? Build a better community for those taking care of the communities.
4) If I find I don’t love what I’m doing anymore, I have permission to move on.
As exciting as this prospect is for me, and as energized as I am to do what I can to make this industry a better place for the DevRel community, I have to recognize that if someday, I find that it’s not as energizing as I’d hoped, I can lay down this mantle and move on. It’s not only up to me to take on this responsibility. Every movement needs a leader, sure, but I’m not the only leader. I’m just one that has more time on my hands (hypothetically ;)) and a drive to improve the industry. The moment that this effort starts to pull me down, I give myself permission to take a break, reevaluate, and move on if necessary.
(Sidenote: I recognize that I am in an incredible place of privilege, and that so many others don’t have the option to walk away from a job when it’s no longer fulfilling. I’m incredibly grateful for the blessings that I have in my life and the people who have made it possible for me to pursue this dream.)
But for right now, I have a new sticker on my laptop that reminds me to do what I love, which is exactly this. And as long as I’m loving what I do, I’ll continue onward. As a good friend of mine says, a rising tide lifts all boats. I look forward to exploring this ocean with you and seeing where the tide takes us.