Saying no doesn’t always come naturally to people and it is particularly difficult to do when you run your own business. But it is an important skill, as I have learnt over the course of the past year.
When I first set out in business on my own, I was 9 months pregnant with my first child and had just found out we had to relocate to a different part of the country for my husband’s job.
My first thought was shit, I’m not going to be able to go back to my job, what will I do?! My second thought was, how on earth are we going to relocate with a 3-month old?
But we did it. And somehow I managed to set up as a freelancer at the same time, thanks to some fantastic clients who didn’t mind if I was sat on a call feeding my baby or if we had to stop because he needed me.
The next few years flew by and I began to settle into a rhythm of regular work – slowly growing my client base as well as the amount of retained work I had with my existing clients. I even managed to squeeze in having another baby, thanks to an amazing friend who covered my ‘maternity leave’ and helped me to keep my lovely clients happy.
Everything was going well it seemed.
But what I didn’t know was that I was getting pretty burnt out. The pressures of running my own business with two children under four were starting to get to me. I didn’t really take stock of the post-natal depression I’d had after both kids. And without even realising it really, I was getting a bit broken.
Just before the pandemic hit, I wasn’t feeling that great in myself. I was utterly shattered and suffering from a mixture of the effects of my relative business success (which in my mind was simply that I had managed to keep it going!) and just the stresses and strains of life with two pretty small children.
I had loads of support in my husband (thank you!) but it was all starting to get on top of me a bit. The way this manifested itself was a deep anxiety, stress, depression and also, unexpectedly, health anxiety. Not related to the pandemic in any way, just a symptom of the stresses I was under. I don’t know if it was symptomatic of my youngest having been in and out of hospital as a baby, or growing up with a twin sister who was, periodically, pretty poorly. Who knows, but it was suddenly there, and I hadn’t even realised it.
I found that things that were once easy were suddenly hard. I couldn’t concentrate, I was deeply tired, but I couldn’t sleep, my muscles were twitching all over my body, I was dropping things, tripping and I was genuinely worried something was really wrong. The net result was that, all of a sudden, I couldn’t put pen to paper for my clients anymore – for the first time ever, words failed me.
But then I went to see someone about it. And I found out that I was OK and it was going to be OK. I just needed to take a step back and take stock. To look after me.
At the same time, a contract for my biggest retained client was up for renewal. The account had grown significantly over the years – yay, well done me. And their business had grown a lot too.
They needed more of me, but I didn’t have more to give and I just wasn’t in the right place to grow my team and my business. They had outgrown me, and that’s exactly what I had to tell them. So I did.
Being able to be honest with a client I love and with whom I’ve developed a fantastic relationship over the years, felt good. Saying no to growing that account further was the right thing to do.
I would’ve loved to have felt that I could grow my team and take on the extra responsibilities that came with that. But it wasn’t the right time for me. I know that time will come, though.
It felt positive to say no to taking on more work (I know, weird, right!?), but what felt better was the fact that my client still liked me! And they didn’t want to stop working with me. They agreed that they had outgrown the amount of time I could feasibly give them, but we had a really candid chat about what they needed and how I could meet their needs. So, whilst I’ll be stepping away from one aspect of this account, what we did agree was that I’ll be able to focus more on another.
The moral of the tale is to be honest with yourself – and your clients, and to recognise when the time comes to change things.
Listen to yourself more. Try to notice when things are going a bit off-piste in your life and take the time to make the re-alignments necessary to get back on track. For me, that has been the hardest bit – making time, when time feels so short.
Some of the re-alignments for me were about work, and a lot of it was just about life. Remembering who I am outside of work and just being Mummy. Rediscovering who I am on my own, and making time for old passions like watching foreign films and reading books about magical realism!
Take time for you, and also be sure to recognise your achievements too. Because when you work for yourself, you don’t have a boss to tell you when you’re doing alright. It’s up to you to give yourself that pat on the back.
For me, I can look back on the last 5 years and think bloody hell woman, you’re doing OK. You’re still managing to do your thing. And that’s something to be proud of.
I mean, there have been some difficult moments, like that time when I had to prepare a pitch presentation with a baby in tow, pretending to be uber professional, whilst simultaneously sporting a patch of stinking baby vom on my shoulder.
But there have also been some pretty fun and funny times too – like the time after a business meeting in Hamburg when I shared a taxi back to the hotel with the CEO of a Russian business, and my breast pump turned itself on in my bag – sounding suspciously like something else. Oh, the horror!
Yeah, it has not all been easy, but that’s OK. And it is OK, nay positive even, to say no to things sometimes – because it means that you are self-aware. That you can focus on providing a better service, and being a better you – both for you, and for your little people.