It’s been 5 years since I started my own nutrition consulting business.

As my 5th business birthday approached this month and I started to receive the LinkedIn prompted “congrats on your anniversary” messages, it was a reminder to stop and reflect, like I do each year at this time, on what the last year of running my own business has taught me. The moments I succeeded, the moments when I wish I had taken a different path. The highs and lows of winning and losing business, the doors that opened and the ones that shut, some by me and some of their own accord. I am proud as punch of what I have achieved. I left the securities of a well-paid corporate job and ventured down this unknown path. No matter what lies ahead and where the path shall lead, these have been the best five years of my professional life.

I have reflected on my business learnings on my first, third, fourth and now fifth birthdays. It is fascinating when I look back on previous blog posts and realise how much has changed, yet how much has stayed the same. Like many small business owners that I know, I don’t have a blue print business plan. I don’t have a 3 and 5 year forecast (something that is often advocated in business books), in fact I often don’t even know exactly what work I will be doing next month! Like all consultants, I am always ‘working’ on my business every minute of the day, be it during so called ‘office hours’ (these don’t really exist when you run your own show), school pick up, before I drift off to sleep, whilst I am exercising, doing the grocery run and pretty much during every waking minute. You see, as a consultant who is relying on new business coming in, you always need to be looking for opportunities. This is probably the key thing I have learned over the past 5 years. If you want to run your own show, you need to think like a business owner and be comfortable (or at least willing) to seek new opportunities anywhere, everywhere and all the time.

During these reflective birthday moments, my mind is flooded with memories of days when I felt myself caught by surprise that I get paid to do the work that I do as it seems way too much fun to be called work. I recall meetings with clients where there is more laughter than business because of the friendships we have formed from working together. And the best memories of all, the times when people have thanked me for changing their lives via empowering them with knowledge and tools to use nutrition to influence their own personal health outcomes.

I also have memories of the never-ending hours spent on business development (all unpaid of course) only for projects not to proceed for a number of reasons… and the times when I have lost clients due to factors out my control but the loss still hurt a lot, both financially and emotionally. I remember days when the clock ticked by slowly in my home office and the motivation levels were nonexistent, or the months when I reconciled my billings and realized the bank balance was much less optimistic than my expectations.

Whenever colleagues, mentees and friends remark how lucky I am to be a business owner and work for myself, I wholeheartedly agree with them and acknowledge the amazing privileges I have as a freelancer. I get to work from home most days (yay for uggboots and tracksuit pants), I have very few overhead costs, I pick up my kids most days from school and spend the precious moments with them before they grow up too quickly, and I get to work across such a broad range of nutrition industries that my work is never mundane or boring . But I also bring a dose of reality to these conversations. I remind those who put me (or at least my business) on a pedestal and think I have the best job in the world, that whilst the grass may appear greener on the other side, there are big water bills that come with greener grass!

So as I keep myself strapped in for yet another year ahead on the rollercoaster of freelance life, I share my reflections below and the lessons, heartache and thrilling joys that I have learned over the past year.

1. Your ideas are worth just as much (if not more) as your time

When I was a student and newly graduated dietitian I volunteered and did a lot of work for free to gain experience. These days I limit my unpaid volunteering time to activities where I can develop my knowledge and skills (e.g. my role as a board director) or when paying it forward for my profession (e.g. mentor to new graduate dietitians). But that’s where the free stuff ends.  I have had many a business meeting where a client has tried to squeeze as many ideas and thoughts from me to help drive their brand plans and they think that just because they are paying for my cup of coffee, they can expect free reign over my intellectual property that I have developed over a 20 year career history. Sharing ideas is important to show the value you can offer, but at some point if a client wants to use your ideas for execution, then you should be compensated accordingly.

2. If you pick the brain, then buy the coffee

Every single time I have a first coffee meeting with a potential client, I always pay for coffee, even if I think there is very little chance of anything progressing to paid work. I know I don’t have to, but I believe it is the right thing to do. Yet I am amazed by the number of times colleagues of mine have asked to meet for a coffee to “pick my brain”, where I spend hours advising and providing mentoring, yet they walk away without so much as offering to buy my coffee. I certainly don’t care about the $4 that I need to lay out, but it is a kind gesture when someone has provided value and spent time to help you and your business. And another thing, if someone has recommended you or given you a new business lead, send a quick email or text to say thanks. It doesn’t take much to show appreciation yet it is an integral part of developing long lasting networks, never mind good manners!

3. Do your research on everything and everyone

Recently I reached out to a food brand that I really wanted to work with. It was a cold call and surprisingly I received a response from the marketing manager and we scheduled a time to catch up. One of the first things I asked at our meeting was “how long have you been in your marketing manager position?”, only for her to inform me that she owned the business! I felt like an idiot as with basic desktop research I could easily have found that out prior to our meeting. So don’t only do exploratory research on the brand or company, make sure you get as much information as possible about the people who you plan to meet, as showing you have done your homework will go a long way to winning the work.

4. Sometimes Dr Jekyll needs to become Mr Hyde

As a follow on from the point above, prepare for meetings and get as much intel as possible about your client. I recently worked with an international client who had a very different persona to your typical Aussie. Right from the first time I met with them, the interactions were very formal and businesslike (unlike the more casual Aussie camaraderie), and I believe I won the work because I tailored my approach to their personality. So whilst you want to stay true to your own brand and be real, try adapt to the needs of your client in every way possible way. This will often mean stepping out of your comfort zone and having the skills to read body language and other subtle cues. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your client and sell the value you can offer in a way that will resonate with their needs.

5. Luck or relationships?

Just a few months ago, I secured a new client that will likely bring in ongoing work for many months. You may put this down to a bit of luck and a chance meeting once I tell you the story, but I am not so sure. Over a decade ago, in a previous job, I worked with a pharmacist on an advisory board. Recently I bumped into this pharmacist on a street near my house and he had just been contacted by a company looking for a dietitian. One thing led to another and this company is now my long term client. Yes I was in the right place at the right time, but I had also spent years developing a long term relationship with this pharmacist that that led to him being willing to pass on my details to this company. I think it’s very true that you make your own luck and just goes to show that you never know where sincere and meaningful relationships and networks will lead you.

6. The only consistent thing is change

One thing guaranteed in the world of freelance consulting is that everything will change. There is very little long term security and whilst I have had retainer contracts and long term projects, when businesses are doing it tough, consultant services will be the first to end. You need to develop a thick skin as there is much less certainty compared to being a salaried employee. What has got me through these moments is the strong belief in the cliché that things happen for a reason. There have been days when I have felt like throwing in the towel but just as I am about to do that, new opportunities appear that ironically only could be taken up because previous contracts had come to an end. Having said that, you do need to constantly be thinking and acting like a caveman, And no, I don’t mean adopting a paleo diet, but rather always hunting for new work opportunities . Once you get into the mindset of business development, you will be amazed at the times and places where you think of new opportunities to explore.

7. Not everyone will like you, and that’s ok

When you work with brands and companies, people and personnel change over time. You may go from being best buddies with your favorite client and then someone new comes into the role and you just don’t click. It helps to separate your friendship from business and realise they are different entities and not mutually exclusive. It can be hard when you live and breathe the brands because you have invested in them over the years and they have come to mean something to you on a personal level. I have become much better at separating work from my personal life and letting things go.

8. Find a (real) excuse

All my colleagues who freelance (in nutrition and other industries) agree that one of the keys to success is staying top of mind in your client’s world. They are busy people with hundreds of things on the go and are not necessarily going to think to get you involved in brand projects, even if the business could really benefit from it. But the trick is to stay in contact without being seen as irritating or too in their face. I like to think of myself as my client’s external ‘eyes and ears’ and provide them with useful and relevant info that will make them realise my value. Whether that’s passing on industry updates they may not have access to, or being the first to inform them about a competitor product launch that was promoted at an industry event, you need to proactively find ways to be at the forefront of your client’s mind. After all, getting new work from existing clients is much easier than trying to win new work from new clients.

9. The unpaid business development manager role

A friend of mine is working as a business development manager earning a six figure salary plus bonus and other benefits. I am working in this role and earning diddly squat. Yes of course there are times when my business development efforts translate into work (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about my fifth birthday), but there are many times where it translates into nothing. If I had a dollar for all the minutes I have spent attending numerous meetings before contracts were signed, driving halfway across Melbourne, preparing thousands of proposals and drinking umpteen cups of coffee, I would have retired years ago and be sipping cocktails in the Caribbean by now. I laugh when people ask how many hours a day do I work and as everyone in a regular job gets paid for all the hours they work, whereas a big chunk of my ‘working’ hours are unpaid in order to secure more hours that are paid.

10. Pay it forward and reap the benefits

During the past 12 months, I have collaborated with other consultant dietitians, more so than I have done in the past. I have worked with colleagues on projects where I invested a lot in securing the business and we shared the work load as well as the financial gains. Whilst this meant less income for my business, it has been something I have enjoyed immensely. Two brains became so much more than one brain as we shared ideas, critically appraised each other’s work and together provided an even better outcome to clients than I could have ever done on my own. The feedback from clients has been sensational and this is something I hope to explore further as I enter my sixth year of business. I strongly believe that the power of one is inhibited but the power of many is unlimited.

In my business I wear many hats. I am the CEO, CFO, administrator, cleaner (well someone has to clean the office), business development manager, dietitian, marketer, presenter, analyst and every other role you can name. I am also my own student, learning as I go, working out what I want from my career and how it blends into my personal life. The roller coaster can be scary and thrilling all at the same time but I never want the ride to stop!