I’ve been meaning to read Marianne Cantwell’s Be a Free Range Human ever since a colleague recommended it to me right before I left my last job. There’s something undeniably seductive about the subtitle of this book – Escape the 9-5, Create a Life You Love, and Still Pay the Bills. And given that at the time, I was still working for the BBC – which, for all its many delights – is still a ginormous corporation, the title really spoke to me.
Fast forward two years and I’m in a very different place. As I sped through the first 3/4 of Cantwell’s book, I realized I’d already put into place most of her excellent advice for how to figure out what you really want to do with your life. So I focused mainly on the last part of her book, which is all about launching your own business and making a decent living from it.
I’m so glad that I did. Although I’ve learned a lot from my own foray into entrepreneurship over the past year and a half, there is always more to learn. Continuing to educate yourself, as Cantwell reminds us towards the end of the book, is the single best investment you can make in your career. So here are five takeaways for those who’d like to deepen your “free range” career:
1. Ditch the Business Plan. Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to do with your life, you may be tempted to spend loads of time crafting a business plan. Don’t. One of Cantwell’s counter-intuitive pieces of advice is that you will benefit far more from just getting out there and doing whatever it is you want to try, rather than endlessly fine-tuning your idea. I learned this the hard way. Once I’d decided to launch my communications consultancy, I went and took a one-day course on “How to Craft a Business Plan” at a local university. I then spent at least a month editing it feverishly and shopping it around to various friends. It’s not that there wasn’t any value in doing that, but the best advice I got during that period was from a friend who read my concept note and suggested I put it down and go deliver a few workshops. He was right. Less than a year later, I’d considerably broadened my repertoire of workshops and had a much clearer sense of what I could – and could not – offer. Moral of this story: don’t get trapped in paralysis of analysis.
2. Ditch the fancy website. Another early mistake I made was thinking I needed to have a fancy website *before* I went public with my business idea. How would I ever demonstrate my value as a communicator if my website wasn’t pitch perfect? Thank goodness I didn’t have enough money to do that a year ago, because it turns out I didn’t need it. As Cantwell notes, a lot of people get so caught up in having the big, shiny things that they forget to just get out there and invest in getting clients. Right now, most of my work comes from repeat business and referrals from people I’ve worked with who liked what they saw and tell their friends and colleagues. Turns out, they don’t seem to care what my website looks like. They care if I’m actually any good at what I do. The website can wait. Building my reputation – and income stream – can’t. Ditto branding. Right now, my consulting business doesn’t have a name. Nor did Cantwell’s when she started. Free Range Humans came later. Someday I would like to have a kick-ass website, one that unites my blog with my professional website, all under the RealDelia brand. But that’s not my priority right now.
3. Figure out your free-range style. Another piece of advice that really hit home was Cantwell’s suggestion to figure out your “free range” style before designing your business development strategy. Given the number of personality tests I’ve taken over the years, I didn’t think I needed another typology. Again, I was wrong. Cantwell lays out three different free-range styles: the attractor, the connector and the trusted person. Attractors bring in clients and income through their brand or name. They are all about making their story, products or ideas visible. I’m a connector. This means that I typically win business through personal connections. I tap into those relationships to go out and create new ones. Trusted advisors, in contrast, tend to be more introverted in their style and win clients through expertise, qualifications and quiet interactions. All three styles work. The trick is to figure out which is the most natural fit for you.
4. Figure out what makes you stand out. Cantwell calls this your 1% difference. The best way to differentiate yourself from competitors isn’t by scanning the field and figuring out how you can tweak their offer. Instead, you need to start with yourself and determine what makes you distinct. For Cantwell, it’s her smile. Time and again, clients tell her that they are drawn to her smile. For me, it’s my energy. I also have a PhD, which gives me a huge advantage over others competing for work in the higher education sector. So figure out what makes you special and how you can capitalize on it to win over clients.
5. Change your mindset for sales. Sales is a vital part of any business. Most of us hate doing it because it makes us feel sleazy. Cantwell has great advice for those of us who think of “sales” as a four-letter word. Her advice is that instead of “selling your soul,” that you “sell from your soul.” If you love what you do (which is a pre-requisite for a free range career) and can’t wait to get started, try selling that enthusiasm, rather than trying to convince someone to buy something. She encourages you to consider how you’d describe your product or service if it were someone else’s product and you knew a friend would really benefit from it. When you believe in and love what you do, it doesn’t feel like selling. It begins to feel more authentic.