Welcome to a brand new Small Business Chat interviewee, fellow South Birmingham freelancer Lyndsey Michaels, who goes under the business name Lyndsey Michaels Bid Writer. Lyndsey works in a very specialised and high-pressure area of the copywriting business, writing tender documentation for companies, often at short notice and with very little information to go on. Lyndsey’s been working a s a freelancer for a while now (how many of us secretly know that we’re not exactly suited to working in an office after spoiling ourselves living our flexible lives outside one?) and has loads of experience to share with us. Find out how she got into this high-pressure job and why she likes doing it so much …
Hi, Lyndsey! What’s your business called?
My official business name now is just ‘Lyndsey Michaels’, although I do tack on ‘Bid Writer’ in any blurb for clarity.
I spent a long time trying to think of a good name for the business but never found one that properly reflected what I do in a snappy enough sound bite. Ultimately, I realised that what I’m ‘selling’ is me: not just my skills, my experience and my knowledge but also my personality – how I work and communicate with my clients is a key selling point.
When did you set it up?
I’ve been a contractor for most of my working life, with intermittent freelancing between contracts since the early 90’s, so in that respect I’ve been freelancing on and off for 20-odd years. In 2006, I formalised it through a limited company with my then partner but still took on contract work on a regular basis. The business as it is now really came into being in early 2011; I made some decisions about the type of work I was looking to do, the type of clients I was hoping to attract and the lifestyle I wanted to achieve. Since then I’ve been full time freelance and I no longer work as a limited company.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
I’m basically unemployable! What I mean is, the temperament and values that make me a good freelancer and that help me get the best out of and for my clients are the same things that make me a terrible underling – to do my work well, I need to be flexible, be able to think on my feet and make fast decisions, advise clients honestly, meet deadlines and still find ways to work solidly and focus without interruption. Having worked in numerous corporate environments, I know that some or all of those needs just can’t be met within a 9-5 role with layers of management and inflexible processes.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
A process of elimination. In late 2010 I was feeling unsatisfied with both the level and type of work I was doing, whether contracting or freelancing. At that time, I was predominately offering marketing and communications services, with bid writing almost as an afterthought, tacked on just because I’d done a fair amount of it within the marketing/comms roles I’d had over the years. I spent a couple of days making lists – so many lists! – of how I felt about every aspect of my work, and work in general. I rated them on a scale of ‘I’d rather eat my own eyeball’ to ‘this task makes the Rocky soundtrack play in my head’, with ‘mostly indifferent’ somewhere in the middle.
When I finished all the lists, it really stood out to me that what I really should be doing was the very thing I’d just added in as a bonus service. I took a deep breath, ditched everything else and started to focus purely on bid writing and management.
After years of trying – and failing – to determine what I wanted to do versus what I knew I could do, flipping it round to figure out what I definitely didn’t want to do left me with a specialist line of work that I’m not just good at but am really passionate about. That was a huge surprise and something I’d not been able to see clearly before.
The added benefit of specialising was that potential clients now knew what I did – previously I’d offered so many varying services that people never really understood how I could help them and that obviously affected how many clients I could attract
Had you run your own business before?
Sort of but not in any meaningful way. The limited company set up in 2006 was there to collate all my contracting and freelancing efforts but even at that time, calling it ‘a business’ felt laughable and somewhat grandiose!
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
I winged it. Flew by the seat of my pants, knocked on wood, saluted magpies, made wishes on shooting stars and generally panicked my way through. I would have loved to have had a financial buffer of some sort and had actually been planning on being more sensible about the whole thing, taking on another long-term contract and building up some reserves before making the leap to full time freelance. But then I found myself between contracts and with a freelance opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up. So I jumped anyway. It was terrifying on a daily basis (still is, sometimes) but apparently for me, fear is a great motivating factor!
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
That the value lies in the quality of the work I do, not the length of time I’ve ‘officially’ been doing it. I severely undervalued my services in the beginning, assuming that this was necessary to ‘break into the market’. In fact, that caused more problems; potential clients didn’t trust a low-priced service and consequently I had to work much harder for much longer, in terms of finding and securing clients and in terms of hours in for cash out.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
Trust your instincts. Maintain your boundaries. Don’t assume other people know better than you just because they talk a good game. And never feel guilty about having an afternoon nap.
What do you wish you’d done differently?
That’s hard to define as I feel it’s been an organic process and any ‘mistakes’ I’ve made have been useful in the long run. I wish I’d been more confident from the start but I think that, for me at least, that confidence could only come with time and experience.
What are you glad you did?
All of it. Even any less than wise decisions I’ve made along the way have ultimately turned into lessons, red flags or benchmarks for the future.
I’m glad I set up a proper office space in my house. It really helps me focus on my work and take myself and my business seriously. I know a lot of people can work from their sofa or a coffee shop or shared co-working space but for me, having an office is crucial.
I’m also glad my partner and I decided to get a dog! She gives me a non-negotiable reason to get out of the house and away from my desk a few times a day and she’s very good at listening to ideas, although her feedback isn’t very useful.
What’s your top business tip?
Be clear and up front about your expectations for your clients. Whether that’s payment terms, input they need to give or their access to your time, it’s vital to nail down anything and everything that could possibly cause you an issue – good relationships with clients will not be harmed by being clear and firm up front but they will certainly be damaged by unfulfilled assumptions and resentment.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
It’s gone better than I originally expected! I have no plans for growth in terms of adding staff or premises, as I developed this business model to suit me personally and I have no interest in managing others. I have made a lot of contacts within my industry though and am now in a position where I can either outsource certain aspects of the work or can pass on whole projects to other freelancers.
There are a few things I tried out and ultimately decided against, including working under a retainer for a tender services company (basically an agency) and taking on a part time bid writing job for a national charity. Both were with the aim of maintaining a guaranteed and stable source of income alongside my own work to allow me to build the rest of my business without risking everything. But in both cases I felt the quality of my work on all projects suffered and it also forced me to turn down many of the other opportunities I’d been hoping to capitalise on. They were both worthwhile exercises though and I am glad that I tried them out
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
More of the same! I’m happy to be settled in both my job and in the local area and am content to keep ticking along. I have a few added extras I’m working on – more resources for both clients and other bid writers – but the core business will remain the same. That’s what it has always been about for me: stability and ownership of my own time. It may not seem terribly ambitious but it feels like ‘success’ to me.
That’s certainly a definition of success that I can identify with. For all the differences in how we launched our businesses, Lyndsey and I have a lot in common, and it’s very interesting to see how she’s refined her offering, pinned down what she really does well and can make clear to her clients, and how she has tried, evaluated and changed different aspects of her work. I agree with the need to have a separate and defined office space, too – working within the home, it’s vital that you can close the door on that office and keep up with your everyday life as well. Find out how this interview was helping Lyndsey’s business a year later here!
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please see more small business chat, the index to all the interviewees, and information on how you can have your business featured (I have a full roster of interviewees now so am only taking on a very few new ones). If you’re considering setting up a new business or have recently done so, why not take a look at my books, all available now, in print and e-book formats, from a variety of sources.