On Labor Day, I celebrated two decades of independent creating and consulting. As with many long-time creators, my business has morphed over time: Freelance newspaper journalism turned into magazines, books, public speaking, bootstrap entrepreneurship, and business coaching. And for every best-selling book or acquired company, there has been more than my share of bad deals, malicious agents, and sunk cost. Independent success isn't reaching a plateau or stability--that doesn't exist--but rather keeping a strong center and focus as opportunities and challenges come your way.
Whether you're a corporate consultant, a business coach, or a journalism stringer, I have found three tenets will help you build for the long term.
Understand the business of your business
Focusing on just the work isn't going to cut it. You may be able to do that when you are within an organization and there are structures in place--people to tell you what is expected of you, rules and guidelines explaining your place within and without the business, and set salaries for what you do.
When you go independent, those things do not exist. You are the organization.
Tara McMullin calls this the business of the business.
If you are an independent painter, then it isn't just knowing the best palate, studying your art, and practicing the craft. It is also funding the paint you buy, figuring out how much your work is worth in the open market, and building a community of other creators to be on top of changes within your industry. Even if you don't want to take this on, then you need to hire an agent, representative, or manager who does, and that requires sound judgment of character, a network connected to the best agent for you, and so on.
Without respecting the business of the business, you are essentially building a complicated hobby.
Shift to passive income as soon as possible
If you stop working, then do the checks stop coming? As an independent, one of my scariest moments was getting sick and abruptly realizing that I wouldn't have any checks coming next quarter. It took about three months to go from signing a contract to getting paid. It is like looking ahead on the fast highway and suddenly noticing it is unfinished.
Be clear: No matter how prominent your business, independent money goes up and down. There is no guaranteed check every other Friday. Money could be seasonal, it could depend on global trends, it could be anything. It is never a flat line. The goal should be to create income that is a nicety during the feast and a potential lifesaver during the famine.
Understanding the business of your business could help you see how you can create passive income. Twyla Tharp is an artist, but she wrote a best-selling book about the business of her art. Seth Godin is a marketer, and now he teaches others about their own marketing. I am an entrepreneur, and now I guide other people through their startup process.
In each case, we're able to get royalties from creating something once and being paid infinite times. It applies to online classes, streaming platforms, profit sharing deals, or any case where you are rewarded more than one for your creating.
Assume the chess board power will always change
The longer you are in a business, the more you recognize that things change fast over time. Essential collaborators when I started have passed away, agents have become creators and vice versa, and interns have become kingmakers and queenmakers. In talking to and guiding other independents, I understand that my experience isn't the exception but the rule.
If you are temporarily independent, then you may be able to get away with treating the dynamics as static. If you are looking long term, though, then you need to respect every relationship you've got, even if an individual can't seemingly do anything for you at the moment.
This should be part of you running a good business. But even from a basic, self-focused standpoint, treating others poorly because of what they can or can't do for you will eventually make it harder, if not impossible, for you to do good business. People talk. In every industry I've worked I've seen people lose work and become persona non grata--usually because of how they treated people they believed didn't have any power. And unless you're going to change professions, no independent work coming means the end of your career.
Everything is built on understanding your business, stabilizing income as much as possible, and seeing that most power is hidden.
Knowing that hidden power also means recognizing your own. As an independent, no one is going to give you a raise, a promotion, or a certificate. It is up to you to recognize that you aren't just hired talent.