Derek Owens

Translated by Núria Adell.

It’s been a few years since I became a freelancer and founded Nelio Software with my partners, a company specializing in WordPress services.

Looking back, I realize how little I knew at that time about the business world and what it was supposed to be like to create your own company and be your own boss. Luckily, it hasn’t gone completely wrong and here we continue, much more knowledgeable thanks to our mistakes and the lessons that followed (is there another way to learn?).

The purpose of this article is to give you my opinion on the entrepreneurial world that I have developed from my personal experience within the WordPress ecosystem. I don’t intend to pontificate or convince you of everything I’m going to say. I’m writing this post because my past self would have liked someone to show me the reality behind the big successes shown on TV.

So without further delay here I leave you the 15 most important things that I learnt and experienced through being self-employed. If one of them ends up being useful to you, it’ll already have been worth the effort ?.

Lesson 1: If you expected to become a millionaire, you chose the wrong path. Unless…

Much is said on TV about the figure of the successful entrepreneur. There’s no day in which the next ‘Steve Jobs’ doesn’t appear on the media with some revolutionary idea that will change the world. But what we don’t see is that many startups actually end up failing or, in the best case scenario, they manage through going unnoticed.

Don’t be dazzled by all this. I’m sorry I have to be honest, but if you become self-employed and build your business, surviving isn’t going to be easy. If you manage, you can feel very fortunate.

A duck swiming in gold
No, it won’t happen. Seriously, it won’t.

I know, there’s a whole world of investors and financing, and they can catapult you to success. But keep this in mind: if you play the game of financing, you can do well, but it’s very difficult and it doesn’t just depend on you. There are many factors, including luck, that can tip the scale to stardom or the biggest failure (which isn’t necessarily bad, at least you learn something).

In short, if you want to be a millionaire, it’s much easier to hunt for someone who’s already one and convince them to marry you, than becoming self-employed, starting your business, and earning millions with WordPress. It’s not impossible (we still think we can do it ?), but the odds are low.

Lesson 2: Surround yourself with people with your same goals.

One of the things that you’ll hear most often and learn the fastest is that your team is one of the most important factors. And the truth is they’re right.

If your partner is a fan of Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour workweek, get yourself another partner. Don’t even hesitate, you’ll have to work like a beast to pull your business forward. If you surround yourself with people with a different mindset, you might end up having to do all the work (and you’ll eventually explote), so better get away while you can.

Homer Simpson sleeping on a couch
If your partners have other “concerns”, make sure they’re the partners you need.

Keep in mind that if you’re an employee of your own company, your responsibilities increase exponentially. Besides being a worker you’re the owner, act as such. Of course, don’t flip and become a dictator with your colleagues (whether they’re partners or just employees).

Also, be aware that people’s goals can change from one day to the next, so it’s always best for the whole team to publicly voice their concerns to avoid uncomfortable situations later on. Honesty, humility and sincerity are essential. Otherwise, it’s not going to work.

Lesson 3: Goodbye privacy.

When you start a business with other partners and work with them side by side, there’s one thing you have to be aware of: you just married those partners. I know, maybe not in the traditional meaning of the word, but believe me, you can consider it that way.

If you can’t go to work because you have to go to a meeting with your daughter’s teacher, your partners will know. If you’re heading over for a vacation to Honolulu, your partners will know. If you have to get a colonoscopy and you have to stay home for a few days, your partners (effectively) will know ?.

People looking out a window
To gain trust with your partners you’ll have to lose some of your privacy. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad.

This doesn’t have to be a problem, but if you’re a very private person who likes separating work from your personal life, you should know that it’ll be harder to do so than if you were working in a company as an employee. In such a case, you’d be able to keep aspects of your life in private more easily. Instead, when you’re self-employed and found your own company, hiding information from your partners can lead to tensions and mistrust that’s not worth facing.

Lesson 4: Prepare yourself for a journey through the desert on the first two years.

When you start a business from scratch, the initial excitement and desire to move forward can easily be frustrated with a harsh reality. You’ve done everything you should, following the successful entrepreneur’s manual, but when the moment of truth comes, the numbers aren’t as spectacular as you hoped for. Did you fail?

As I previously explained, if you stick to what you see on the media, if in the first year your startup doesn’t bill millions, it means that either you’re doing something wrong or you suck. Luckily, this is not true. But trust me, that’s what they’ll tell you.

Watch out, not just the media. You’ll also have to deal with social pressure when you don’t become Elon Musk. Relatives, friends, and acquaintances are very likely to tell you: why don’t you look for something more stable? Is it worth all the hours you spend on it if you can barely get a salary?

A man throwing a dart
Don’t give up if the numbers grow linearly and not exponentially. Do the math and don’t get caught up in social pressure.

These aren’t simple questions to answer, but my advice is to persevere if you believe in the idea and the team, and if the numbers are growing (even if they don’t do so exponentially). Starting from scratch is very difficult, since no one knows you. In Nelio we started with very little, but we’ve been continuously growing until we’ve reached numbers that aren’t negligible.

Lesson 5: Take advantage of your strengths, minimize your shortcomings.

It seems silly, but wanting to do everything isn’t always a good idea. True, sometimes you can make very cool things without any previous experience on the subject, like the promotional video that we made for Nelio Content. But usually you should focus on what you’re good at and let others help you with what you struggle.

My advice is that if there’s something you don’t know how to do, either learn it because it’ll be useful later on, or let others do it, delegating or subcontracting it. In the end, you’ll save money.

Bart Simpson looking at a blowfish
The blowfish technique will help you give more confidence to customers who are accustomed to dealing with large companies.

I also really like the blowfish technique, which consists of portraying your company as bigger than it really is, giving a greater image of professionalism (for example, “I’ll put you through to the billing department”). We use this technique sometimes, and the results are good, as long as you don’t get too excited. Try it and let me know.

Lesson 6: Selling on the internet is surprisingly simple. Selling a lot is very complicated.

You set up a website with a bit of common sense, create a page with your products or services and a payment form. The result? Someone ends up buying!

It’s surprising how easily you can make a sale nowadays. However, making these sales continue and grow is another story. No matter how good your product is, if there isn’t a marketing effort behind it minimally decent, don’t expect to make the leap of quality that takes you to the next level.

A man willing to pay a lot of money for something
It can cost you more or less, but if you set up a website where you sell products or services, sooner or later someone will bite.

The WordPress market is huge. You put your product/service on sale and surely you’ll get something, but in order to make a living out of it you’ll have to dedicate resources and a lot of effort. Special mention to the whole issue of collection and invoice management, which is difficult to manage if your profile is merely technical and you don’t have the necessary administrative knowledge.

Lesson 7: Each support ticket is a business opportunity.

If you don’t have a poster in your company with this phrase framed, you’re not doing it right. Support for your customers should be one of your company’s pillars. It’s one of the most natural ways to learn from your users and their needs in order to help them.

You have to be approachable and confident, informing of the following steps to solve the problem. In addition, sincerity is valued very much; if there’s something that you don’t understand or don’t know how to solve, it’s better to say it, as long as you offer valid alternatives.

Homer Simpson at work while there's a crisis
Situations in which your customers are dissatisfied with your services can be a gamble. Either you make your client fall in love with you or they won’t want to hear about you again.

In this blog we’ve talked extensively about the importance of client support. In our case, our clients are located in many different countries, hundreds (or thousands) of kilometers from our office. As you can imagine, going to talk to them personally to ask them for their opinion about our services is not viable. It’s much easier when they’re the ones who “come” to us, and this usually happens when they have a doubt or a problem.

So put yourself in their shoes, understand what’s happening to them (or ask them to confirm it), and do everything you can to improve their life and therefore, your business.

Lesson 8: Learn to say no.

Do you have a client who doesn’t stop asking for changes and struggles to pay? You’re not interested in developing websites for clients? That’s fine! Say no and dedicate your time to something useful.

Many times we forget (especially when starting a company) to say no. Of course at first you need to make money to move forward and you’ll be more inclined to give in and accept certain conditions or projects that you might not like very much. Still, don’t forget about your goals and make sure you set certain limits.

And old man shaking his head
Don’t hesitate to say no, as long as you can afford it.

In our case, we started doing custom projects to migrate websites to WordPress. We didn’t like this very much, but looking at the positive side, we got enough revenue from this to invest in developing our current plugins and gain technical expertise with WordPress.

Once we were able to leave aside this aspect of the business, we didn’t hesitate to do so and stopped accepting this kind of projects to focus on truly scalable services. We said ‘no’, and we don’t regret it.

Lesson 9: Assume it, you know nothing about legal matters.

Unless you’re an attorney, a public notary, or in law school (which I doubt if you’re reading this blog ?), you have no idea about legal issues. Assume it, I did it. That being said, find the best way to get advice.

I admit it, I hate paperwork and bureaucratic issues. I find it inefficient and, in many situations, incomprehensible. But it is what it is, and there’s no way around it if you don’t want to get in trouble later.

Someone shredding some documents
I hate bureaucratic paperwork. But there’s not other option but doing things right.

If you stop and think about it, a percentage of your time will always be spent working directly or indirectly for some administration: tax declarations, notaries, partner agreements. Additionally, if you hire workers, you’ll also have to deal with matters such as social security, times-off sick, maternity leaves, marriages, changes of address, and a long etcetera.

In Nelio we’re fortunate to have the legal advice of professionals (the fact that Ruth is married to a lawyer has its advantages ?) that have facilitated us a lot of the paperwork required when setting up your business.

Lesson 10: Make a name for yourself in the community.

If you’re considering providing products or services on WordPress, keep in mind that belonging to your community is paramount. This now seems obvious, but when we started in Nelio, we had no idea.

Fortunately for you, the WordPress community is growing by leaps and bounds. If you prepare yourself well and take the right steps you can contribute in many different ways: reviews of themes, reports of errors, participating in events as a sponsor, speaker, or volunteer, and even, why not, helping out or creating events for your local community.

Troy McClure, from The Simpsons, saying hello to the camera
Collaborate with the WordPress community to make yourself known and give your business a boost.

Thanks to our participation in the Spanish WordPress community and also in several international events, we’ve been able to learn much more and also better understand how everything works. Not only this, but being a member of the community has other advantages, such as finding out about the updates before anyone else and meeting very interesting people.

Lesson 11: Plan for the short and long term.

When you set up your own business, it’s easy to lose track of the long term. Day to day problems consume a lot of your time. Then you have to add some task that a colleague asked you to fulfill, fix an error that came up, answer a support ticket that just arrived…

Little by little, if you don’t have a plan of what you want to achieve in the long run, you’ll realize that you’re not meeting your goals in the required amount of time. Not because their achievement isn’t possible, but because you’ve left them aside to dedicate yourself to other tasks, also important, of course.

Mr Burns conspiring
Don’t lose your way. Plan your goals for the short term, but also keep a long-term vision.

The recommendation here is to have quarterly goals. This way it’ll be easy to be able to assess whether you’re fulfilling them or if the everyday management is taking up too many resources (it’s happened to us all).

And of course, always keep in mind that if your business is small, changing its course is very common, so don’t get too frustrated with this.

Lesson 12: Flexibility is a double-edged sword.

When building your own online business based on WordPress, one of the biggest advantages is that you’ll only need a computer and Internet connection to work. This means that yes, being self-employed you can work from home in your pyjamas and have clients all over the world.

Homer Simpson dancing
You can work from home, but watch out for distractions.

Flexibility can also help you find your own work pace, and if at any point you need time off to do other tasks (going to the doctor, running some errands, completing paperwork, etc.), it’s very easy arrange.

Of course, keep in mind that such flexibility can work against you if you struggle to focus and get easily distracted. Remember that you still have to do the work, and that you have goals to fulfill. If you don’t, surely at the end of the month you’ll get an unpleasant surprise in the form of a low salary.

Lesson 13: Time is your most precious resource.

Sooner or later you’ll put a price on the products or services that you provide to your customers. When you do, keep in mind the time you spend on each task. They don’t have to be atomic tasks, you can combine them into categories, but this estimate will help you get a better idea of what your prices should be.

A man pointing at his clock, disappointed at your being late
Be aware of the time you spend on everything, without obsessing.

When we made custom projects in Nelio, time was one of the most important factors to take into account when establishing our budgets. We worked out the hours that each project required, adding some margin not to fall short, and from there, taking into account the price per hour that we had internally established, we were able to provide the right figure to our customers.

Now that we focus on developing plugins, time is still important, not to establish the price of our products, but to know what percentage of the workforce we dedicate to support, product evolution, or other activities.

It’s important that you control the time commitment you make to the different branches of your business without getting obsessed with the exact figures. But working with estimates based on approximate actual data is very useful.

Lesson 14: Disconnecting is a must.

This might be very easy for some and almost impossible for others. If you’ve got a conventional job, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to set aside your work and disconnect when you get home.

A woman working crazily on her computer
If you don’t leave work for a few hours, you’ll end up like this.

However, if you’re self-employed and the founder of your own company, it’ll be harder. Today there are a lot of communication channels that your customers can use to contact you (email, support ticket systems, social networks, blog comments, telephone, etc.) and your clients are located all over the world, so there will always be someone awake that will ask you for something.

The question that arises here is, if a customer contacts me outside of what I have established as my working hours, should I answer? Shall I leave it for tomorrow? If I want to be as fast as possible to give a serious and professional image, surely I should answer it. But this takes away hours of disconnection. Here’s the dilemma.

In Nelio we tried to answer all the support tickets before leaving the office and leave for the next day the tickets that come in later. In the end, we all need a few hours of rest after a long day of work.

Lesson 15: There’s a lot of showing off.

In the business world, the way people see you is more important than it seems. Yes, there’s a lot of showing off. Think that the fight for financing from investors is fierce, and so you must be the most popular one to attract capital. Sometimes, this implies pretending that you’re the best and that you’re going to take on the world.

Two fashion men walking on a catwalk
Boasting in the entrepreneurial world is the order of the day.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, make sure all these flashes don’t dazzle you and read each article with critical thinking. Throughout these years I’ve seen a lot of boasting and showing off, and I’m sure we’ll keep seeing this in the future.

In Nelio we’re not really into these circuses. We continue to pull bootstrapping as our self-financing strategy, and we can’t complain. For now, it continues to work and makes us feel more comfortable and at ease.

In the WordPress world we can’t say that we are exempt of all of this. And it’s understandable, since although there’s an extensive market, the competition is also intense. In any case, it’s not that bad either, it keeps us entertained ?.

Final summary

If you’ve reached the end, congratulations on your patience. I’ll say once again that everything I’ve been explaining is based on my own experience, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt differenty about some of the points (or all of them ?).

What’s clear is that being self-employed entails some additional headaches to being a simple employee. But if things go well, in the end it’ll compensate you. There’s nothing like being your own boss, as long as you’re a good boss.

If you’re in a similar situation or you’re considering setting up your own business, leave a comment with your opinion. I’ll be happy to read them, since I’m sure you’ve got some interesting points to share.

Featured image by Derek Owens via Unsplash.

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