Shannon Ford began her career as an elementary school teacher, but always bore an interest in editorial work. When an opportunity presented itself to combine her talents in educational publishing as an editor for the Everyday Math program at leading publisher McGraw-Hill, she took it.
After starting a family, Ford sought the flexibility of freelance work and left her job at McGraw-Hill. She now owns her own business, providing editorial support and consulting for educational publishers. In addition to editing hard-copy text books, Ford helps publishers adapt their material for e-books and online teacher guides, allowing students and teachers to better embrace technology in the classroom and at home.
Ford recently shared with us her views on how to succeed in the often-unpredictable freelance marketplace.
How did you get started with your business?
I left my full-time job at Mc-Graw Hill to stay home with my young son, but I wanted to stay busy and relevant in my industry. Like most freelancers, I was approached by a former colleague and asked to freelance, and my business spiraled from there. Having connections like this are so important for freelancers, because freelance work is something difficult to just go online and apply for. Work comes more by word-of-mouth.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
There wasn’t a lot of overhead for startup costs because I already had a computer and pens and things, and that was really all I needed to get started!
Running The Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I am not the entrepreneurial type or a salesperson. I just try to do a really good job and meet all my deadlines. This has always led to being asked to do more work. I’ve also used social media to inform contacts that I am looking to fill more hours when that’s been the case.
Who was your first customer?
My first customer was Kendall Hunt publishing, a mid-size publisher located in Dubuque, Iowa. I mention this because I don’t live anywhere near there, but that’s the beauty of freelancing, you can often work remotely.
My former colleague who also lives in the Chicago area worked for them remotely full time, and she was the one who reached out to me and asked me to freelance for them. Once I got to know people at the company, they started asking me to do other projects.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
I needed to be more patient in the first year. I got my first job and I really liked it. I enjoyed being back in the workforce. The publisher told me they had so much more work for me because they were gearing up to do another edition of a textbook. But then I just had to wait for the work to come until they were ready. I waited several months. Waiting for the work made me discouraged, but my work has been steady since then.
I have a friend who is supporting her family solely on freelance work. I think that would be very difficult. Freelance work has an ebb and flow. Sometimes you don’t get paid on time. You really have to learn patience.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
Right away I set up a home office to make work pleasant for myself. I painted it a color that I like and bought myself a new desk. Setting up a dedicated workspace was the smartest thing I did the first year.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I like that I don’t have to work in an office with fluorescent lighting and windows that don’t open. I like my little office where the windows do open and face the street where I can watch the outside world go by. It’s great to be able to work from home in an environment where you feel comfortable.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
I think the unpredictability of the hours is very difficult. Particularly when you fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m home during the day, so I’m going to sign up for every possible volunteer opportunity at my kid’s school. I’m also going to the gym every day.” You suddenly realize that you don’t have any dedicated work time.
The challenge is to figure out when you’re most productive and try to be in your office during those hours. Try not to overextend yourself with other activities. And accept that sometimes, even when you do that, you’re going to be working at night.
What has been the most surprising thing about running your business?
Flexible hours does not mean fewer hours!
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. I think a good business leader looks ahead to the trends of the future, and Amazon.com does that.
Obviously, I’m not running the world’s largest online marketplace like Jeff Bezos. I only have two co-workers who are cats! But I try to think ahead. For example, if I can see that some of my projects are ending, I start to do what I need to do to find more work.
What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
When you work at a company, a project is like your child. You raise it up completely and handle all the steps until it comes to fruition. But with freelance it’s more like you’re babysitting the project. This can be good, because someone else sets everything up and says, “We just need you to do X, Y and Z.” But you need to adapt your mindset a bit to be focused on serving the client. I like to quote Tennyson, “Mine is not to reason why …”
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
If you are going to go freelance, have a job in mind. Be sure you already have a job promised to you before you leave a traditional job if you really need the money, which most people do. Have your foot in the door somewhere, because that’s how you’re going to get more work.
Connections at your old job are probably going to be your most successful route into freelancing. My former employer had a policy that you could not freelance for the company for a certain period after you left. That made it difficult for me to get started at first, since all my connections were at that company. Since I got the ball rolling, it’s been easier to keep the momentum up.
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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.