Marketing consultant Brooke Wilson took time at the end of 2019 to develop her strategy for self-employment, but no amount of planning could have prepared her for what the world looks like today.
Even when the economy is looking up, self-employment takes courage – although it doesn't hurt that Wilson already has 20 years of impressive marketing experience under her belt.
And by “marketing,” we don’t mean a sandwich board by the side of the road. Wilson takes a holistic approach to marketing, offering advice that improves the business from the inside out. Instead of making something look good, Wilson makes sure it actually is good. Wilson got where she is by telling it like it is. Now more than ever, she’s taking her own advice. “Good PR is based on honesty and transparency,” she says. More than once, a client has wanted to tell a marketing story about great work they’re doing, without putting in the actual work. “They want to make something sound bigger and better than it is,” but Wilson knows, “even if you shine something up, a good journalist is going to see right through that.”
We’ve heard ad-nauseam about the “hustle” of self-employment, but that hustle can come with self-serving connotations. Wilson’s hustle demonstrates a healthy dose of altruism. “You can’t be all about you, you, you,” she says. “People always react when they know you have their best interests at heart.” Here’s how she made the leap to self-employment, and continues to thrive even as the COVID-19 pandemic guts the market. “It was a big, scary leap, but I was ready for a change,” she says.
Her transition came after a short-lived remote position at a small startup, when she found herself with a good setup for self-employment. She had a home office, and more importantly, she had found the confidence she needed to strike out on her own – working for a tiny company had shown her she could rely completely on her own decisions. This marks “the first time I was in a marketing department of one,” she says. “Most of my career I’ve worked for bigger corporations. I’ve led big teams, I’ve been in charge before.” But doing things by yourself is a different ball game, and when Wilson recently presented a 40-page strategic document, she felt nervous. It was “the first time I was presenting a document that only I had seen. I didn’t have anybody to review it, not even to spell check it,” she says. In the end, her bravery paid off, and the client was “very happy.”
The to-do list
At the very beginning, when Wilson felt more anxious about the future, she made lists. “I’m a big to-do list person. Giving myself those tasks reduced my anxiety, because I felt I could make tangible progress.” First on the list: making a website. But Wilson faced a difficult question – how can you create an online portfolio when your final product is a trade secret? Wilson can’t put a marketing strategy on her website, partly because of non-disclosure agreements, but also because she doesn’t want to give competitors the recipe for her special sauce. But working solo requires a web presence, so Wilson bought a domain and uses her platform to show off her impressive roster of former clients. She might not be able to flip over all the cards, but you can tell from her clientele that she’s made the big leagues. Second, she spoke with her financial assistant and accountant to make sure she had enough of a cushion to support her transition. She made the switch to self-employment in December – one of the hardest times to find new marketing clients. At that time of year, businesses have already started their holiday marketing campaigns. “I let myself enjoy the holidays,” Wilson recalls. “I went on a trip, and hung out with my family.” Although she made more to-do lists during the break, she didn’t start reaching out to clients until the second week of January.
Getting on the radar
As Wilson started contacting potential clients, she also sent messages to other freelancers, saying, “I want you on my radar.” With a robust bank of potential collaborators and links to polished portfolios, Wilson can make referrals when a client needs a service outside of her wheelhouse. And her genuine interest has paid off, with client referrals that stemmed from her initial outreach. Wilson often reaches out without expecting anything in return, perhaps with “a nugget of an idea” and a link to an interesting article. Even if she doesn’t immediately get an assignment, she stays on the radar.
With two decades of experience, Wilson had a leg up when it came to negotiating her fee. She says she feels comfortable telling her clients, “You could pay someone half as much, but they’ll take twice the time. I can do it faster, smarter, and better.” She adds, “there’s that cliche – you’re not paying me to do a job, you’re paying me for years of experience of knowing how to do that job.” But even a veteran who knows her worth might need a push to charge more. When she told a mentor how much she planned on charging, they didn't hesitate to tell her it wasn't enough. “It’s scary to put a value on your time,” Wilson admits.
In spite of starting self-employment at a time when so much feels up in the air, Wilson feels certain that clients will find room for her in their budgets. “I think clients are going to need strategic guidance, no matter if they’re putting out ad campaigns,” she says. “My services will still be needed.” “I’m very much someone who thinks that if you truly have a heart to help someone, things come around," she adds. “I’m an optimistic person.”
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