Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Expanding Your Business
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
For the last six months, I have lived in a constant state of panic—and weirdly, that panic exists mostly in my own mind. From the outside, everything is going well, extremely well, in fact. But inside—well, a few mini volcanoes are going off—all of them triggered by the digital revolution.
I had already come to terms with the fact that I have more story ideas than I can write. Somewhere in the past, I figured that the marketplace would take care of some of them—meaning that the marketplace would deny me the opportunity to publish some of those ideas. In fact, the marketplace has closed the door on a number of projects, deemed unworthy by major New York publishers to be taken to readers.
I don’t give up, but with so many projects, some have taken the back burner while others—more viable by publishing standards—rose to the forefront.
And then the digital revolution happened. This Guide happened. Kindle, Nook, and smart phones happened. Suddenly, I can publish what I want. Five thousand readers might seem small to New York, but to my little cottage industry, five thousand readers is huge.
All of those story ideas on the back burner? They’re crowding the forefront of my brain, boiling over, and causing a mess in my writing kitchen. (Or to stretch the metaphor in another direction: they’re children who used to sit quietly in the back of the room and are now crowding the front screaming, “Me first! Me! Me!”)
Add to that my entire backlist of already published material, most of which I control all the rights to. (For an idea how big that is, click on my bibliography) Over three hundred short stories and more than two dozen novels.
Not to mention all the work that’s already in play, stuff I’m currently writing and stuff I have committed to write. Plus the teaching that I do because I believe in paying forward (I can’t pay my wonderful teachers back, so I’m paying forward by teaching the next generation), and the reading I do to keep up, and the stories I watch on TV and movies—again to keep up—and the music I listen to because I love music (and without it, I would not exercise) and the newspapers, the magazines, the blogs, and…ack!!!!!!!!!!!!! Internal panic ensues.
Now, those of you who have regularly read the Guide have already figured out that I’m very, very disciplined and very, very good at time management. I make lists, I know my priorities, I meet my deadlines.
But I want to step into this brave new world of publishing, and to do so I need to make choices. First, I need to prioritize my projects. Then, I need to make a budget of both time and money (projected incoming and projected outgoing). Then I need to figure out my timeline. And finally, I need to factor in where (if anywhere) I need help.
Let’s start with the last thing first. Do I need help? (Okay, you wags. I mean employees, not, y’know, professional help of the kind you’re thinking of.)
There are some things in my business that only I can do. I’m not like Alexander Dumas or James Patterson: I can’t farm my ideas with a great outline to other writers and be happy with the result. I recently told an editor who proposed just such a project to me the same thing: I have learned through several long hard lessons that I don’t play well with others when it comes to the actual writing.
So all those new backburner projects currently bubbling over from volcano #1? My problem. Something I’ll have to solve through time management and discipline and sheer joy (can you tell I’m looking forward to this?)
But that pesky backlist. I don’t have time to put it online—not and write new material. If I wanted to retire right now, I could and live off my backlist, thanks to the brave new world of publishing and some other changes in the industry. (See my husband Dean Wesley Smith’s post on The Magic Bakery to understand how backlist translates into money for writers.)
Of course, once I figure out what I want to do with that backlist, I could hire someone to do the actual conversion to online formats for me. The question is: do I want to do that?
If only it were so easy. In a magical world—the ideal world—the world of expectations (see last week’s post), I could just hire someone and all of my problems would be solved.
But I’ve run enough businesses to know it doesn’t work that way.
First, look at the Guide sections on employees. You’ll see that often employees are more trouble than they’re worth. You have to train them, supervise them, and pay them. All of this costs money—and worse for me—time.
So I have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth my incredibly precious time to train an employee who may or may not work out? Is it worth the money to hire someone? And if I do hire them, where would they work? Do I bring them into my home office? (okay: that sound you just heard? Me, screaming. Apparently no. They can’t work here, in my home.) Do I let them work in their home office? (Nope: can’t supervise very well there.) Or do I rent an office for them to work in?
Given my personality, my choice is the office outside of the home. I can supervise and I can keep them out of my home. But…an office costs money. Rent, utilities, insurance, as well as the employee’s salary, and furniture for the office, a topflight computer so they can do the work, and here it is again…time. I’d have to stop in every day to make sure they’re getting the job done.
The very idea of all of this makes me tired. I really don’t want an employee at this stage of my career.
But what that means is that all of my volcanic plans must take a backseat to time—my time—and my focus. If I’m going to do this myself, then I need to carve out some time to do so, and I need to realize that going it alone will make the changeover much slower.
Again, I’d have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Can I make more money going it alone? Will slow get the job done—without the office expenses, without the employee hassle? Will I be able to make the change?
Is the change worthwhile?
And if I decide that the change is worthwhile, is it something that needs to get done now, this instant, or something that can stretch out over several years?
All personal questions about my business, all with both empirical answers (timeline, money) and personal answers (figuring out what I really want). Let me state here and now, however, that my decision to do work on future projects means that I will not approve fan fiction and I don’t want anyone to do the work for me “as a favor.” I license my copyrights and my worlds, and I am not in any way giving anyone blanket permission to work in them. (Remember? I do not play well with others.)
My analysis here is a textbook example of what all businesses go through when they want to expand. So let’s discuss expansion.
First, let me deal with the elephant in the room. Unsuccessful businesses often expand to increase revenue. It sounds counterintuitive, but some businesses can only get capital (investment money) if they have a new project to spend the money on. This leads to businesses that get stretched too thin. When you hear that a business was a house of cards, and once one card fell the entire thing toppled, you can pretty much guarantee that the business expanded too quickly—whether internally (hiring too many employees, rushing out too much product) or externally (opening too many storefronts). If you’re thinking of expanding to get more capital because you’re already underfunded, stop now. That way will guarantee the collapse of your business. All you’re doing is holding off the inevitable.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss successful businesses.
At some point, every successful businesses will reach a point where expansion looks like a good idea. But is it?
The first question you must answer is this: Can your business continue to thrive without expanding?
Most businesses can thrive without growing. Even though growing seems like a natural state, it is sometimes the death of a healthy business. The owners get spread too thin or the expansion doesn’t work out or the economy has a downturn. The expansion might actually weaken the business itself.
Does your expansion have its roots in changing neighborhoods or changing technologies? If you own a storefront, would you be better off in a different neighborhood with more traffic? Or another neighborhood with a different kind of traffic? Is your neighborhood aging or going downhill, facing economic changes or a retooling? You need to consider all of that when considering moving your business to a large space or adding another storefront in a different location.
Changing technology is another matter, and it happens to be the one I’m facing. My business would thrive just fine on the old technological model. But will my business thrive in five years? Ten? If I believe that the new technologies are essential to the publishing industry, then I need to jump on the wave now. I won’t be an early adapter—that’s Michael A. Stackpole and others—but I’d be in the early wave. Already I’m getting e-mails and tweets from around the world, asking for digital copies of my work. Imagine how many I’d have to fend off if I refuse to cross into e-publishing.
I’ve analyzed my industry and feel for me that working in conventional publishing and e-publishing will be beneficial. (Remember, I have a mountain of real-world publishing experience, as the former owner of a publishing house, a former editor, and a non-writing-related small business owner. In other words, I have a lot more experience than most writers going into this, not counting the goodwill from my writing career.) Now that I’ve figured out that it’s beneficial, I need to figure out what works for me in my expansion.
But moving into new technologies might not work for your business. The technology might be a fad—something that seems like a good idea, but doesn’t catch on. Remember, we have had video phone technology since the 1980s, but it’s taken 20+ years for the technology to garner even marginal usage—and that’s via computer, not through a landline. If you had been an early adapter of video phone technology for your business or running a communications business with video phones as a main selling point, you would have lost money, particularly if you adapted that tech in the late 1980s.
Sometimes letting others adapt early is the best response. They’ll work out the bugs, and take the risks. The key for any business that feels it must grow and change due to changes in technology is research.
Before I made the decision to add digital onto my writing business, I did two years of research—and I’m still doing research. This blog is part of that research. But I’m reading about digital, trying some of the products on a consumer basis (I have a Kindle and an iPhone, and have already had some hands-on contact with an iPad), and continue to look at pricing, as well as successful—and unsuccessful—adapters of the new technology.
Research—as I say almost every week—is an important part of your business.
If you are going to expand due to new technologies, you also have to look into the future. If it takes 20 years for these changes in your field to establish itself—like a video phone—will you be around to capitalize on it? Do you want to be self-employed in 20 years? Will you be retired? Can you imagine yourself selling the business and moving onto something else?
If any of those things are true, and you don’t need the new technology to maintain your thriving business, then technological expansion might not be for you.
Other things to consider as you expand:
1. The financial cost of expansion. I delineated my costs above. I’d need an outside office and an employee. Here in my tiny town, I’m looking at a minimum of $24,000 per year in additional expenses for just those two things. Will the expansion bring in $30,000 in its first year so that I can afford that change and make a profit? Or would I be hurting my business with the expansion by breaking even on the new office space and the new employee? Or would I lose money?
Be harsh here, because these decisions are the ones that will make or break your business.
2. The time cost of expansion. I mentioned this above as well. Expansion takes time out of your business day. When you’re already pressed for time, such a change can be disastrous. Figure out your hourly wage. Even self-employed people can break down their earnings into an hourly rate. Once you have that, then factor in the time it will take you to establish the new office (say) or train the new employee(s) or learn the new technology.
Will the profit you make off the expansion be worth the money lost because your time is spent on the expansion and not earning like you have been doing? In other words, can you afford to lose 10-30 hours per week of your time to establish this new side of your business? Can you make a profit on the expansion by doing so? Or can it wait?
3. If your math proves that expansion is worthwhile, are you better off making a slow expansion or a rapid one? Sometimes it’s better to lose a month of work time all at once and get the new part of the business up and running. If you extend that month over a year (an hour here and an hour there), you might lose the advantage the expansion would bring or you might actually increase your costs in both time and money. Again, it depends on the type of expansion you’re planning and the type of business you’re running.
Whether or not to expand your business is the second most important business decision you’ll ever make—right after deciding to own your own business in the first place. Look at expansion as closely as you would look at leaping from your day job to working for yourself. Use all the of the tools I mention in other parts of the guide as your blueprint for expansion. Because expansion is like starting a new business. You’ll fundamentally change the business you’ve started and you might jeopardize it.
Plan carefully before you make the decision.
And here’s one other thought on the expansion. If you’re at all in doubt, if thinking of expanding makes your stomach hurt, then don’t do it. Your gut sense on this is as important as all of the number crunching, the facts, and the figures.
If you have made your business successful through hard work and perseverance, then your subconscious knows as much or more about that business than your conscious brain does. Your gut is an informed gut, and if it’s worried that an expansion will fail, then maybe you’re missing something important in your very logical plans.
Never take a leap as important as expanding your business without being fully confident in your decision. You must believe that your business will be more successful if it expands. Not a little more. A lot more.
Because an expansion will cost you more in time and energy than you will plan on. Any change does. There will be unexpected results—good and bad—from that expansion. You won’t be able to plan for everything.
You will have to know you’re making the right decision.
I know that moving into e-publishing is the right thing for me. But I’m not yet ready to commit to a path on how to achieve it. I have more research to do, more numbers to crunch. I have to decide if I need an employee or if I’m simply pushing myself too far too fast.
I have a lot of exploration to do before I commit to a path for my business expansion. I’ve been around long enough to know that research and planning are the only things that will make this decision work.
In the meantime, I have a novel and several short stories to finish. I have some backlist that I will e-pub, slowly. I have to finish the seemingly never-ending Freelancer’s Guide.
My business is thriving and I’m enjoying it. Even with the panic attacks. For once, I’m panicking about having too many opportunities rather than not enough. And that’s a change from 20 years ago. A good change.
One I can appreciate as I look toward the future of my industry, which seems brighter than ever before.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Expanding Your Business” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.