This week instead of chatting with a freelance creative, we are so excited to turn the tables and share our interview with business consultant Sarah Schulweis of Anchor & Orbit. Sarah works with business owners (most are freelance creatives!) to uncover goals, set timelines, and implement forward motion to create a sustainable and successful business for her clients. Sarah was so kind to share her incredible wisdom - be forewarned, after reading this you may just want to book a session (or 10!) with her.
Tell me about your path to becoming a business consultant
Thank you so much for having me! I’ve been thinking a lot about my path lately. After several years and iterations of my business, it seems like all of the winding, bending roads are finally leading somewhere – and let me tell you, the scenery is getting much better. I’ll give you the long version below, so you can see how everything ties into the present.
First of all, I’ve always been a freelancer. Even when I was on “payroll,” I was technically a contractor, so a sense of time and budget has always been built into my workflow. Babysitting got me through college and taught me how to develop client relationship skills, ask for what I need, set boundaries, and, most importantly, work for people who advocate for my success.
The transition from being a student of Communication and Entrepreneurship to a professional was a long one! I was an aspiring dancer, but that path was derailed by injuries. So, when I decided to go back to school, most of my peers were graduating.I found that Entrepreneurship, and the program at San Francisco State, made me creative in ways I never had been before.
After school I needed a job and wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to start my own company. The PR / Communications position I took on filled in all the implementation gaps that the Entrepreneurship program was missing. My position was eliminated a few years in, which turned into the perfect opportunity to move forward with my budding business idea. When I started working with small businesses, helping them with problem solving, goal planning, decision making, I felt like I was using my entire brain. I was making a difference. Would I have liked to have more of a financial nest egg? Sure. But, as they say, pressure is good for you. I leapt at the opportunity.
People took a chance on me and my ideas. They invested in my business as much as I did in theirs. Even now, every client that I take on also takes me on.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
Every client I have worked with was a referral in one way, shape or form. If the client is happy, and my friends know what I do, they talk about me. If they’re talking about me, I have people coming in the door and from there it’s up to me to keep the cycle going. Overall, that means exceeding expectations.
Not every project goes exactly as planned, but I aim to give much more than my clients are even expecting. These businesses have tight budgets and usually I am a big investment — both financially and logistically; I require their time and attention.
Launching my website this month was a conscious business decision. I’m excited to let the world know about my work. Until now, it wasn’t necessary or even the right thing to do. I needed to focus on my work and my clients. Now I know more about the specific value I can bring. I still hold firmly that each client and situation will be different, but now that I’ve worked with 30+ clients, I have a better idea of what will be most effective for a given project.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Productivity is fascinating! I spend so much time thinking about and working with people to uncover what’s best. I read books, articles, and listen to podcasts as much as I can — It seems business owners are as fascinated by the art of working better as they are doing actual work.
Routines: I reference Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, as my first foray into the genre of “honing one’s creative prowess.” She expands on the merit of ritual and routine. Simply, we humans are routine and structure driven animals, so embrace it.
Self Awareness: The Zingerman’s book, Managing Ourselves, outlines “12 Tips for More Effective Self Management” (this book is way more fun than its title suggests). Get to know yourself. What do you need to be most productive? Where do you need structure? Where can you be more lenient? What do you need outside of work to be your most productive?
Calendar(ing): We have those two ideas — routine and self awareness. To make those two work you need a calendar system.
I plan my week in conjunction with my meetings and deadlines. I input the hours that I have promised (or feel are required of me) to complete a project, which all revolve around fitness classes and friendship time. If I don’t put the time in the calendar to do projects (or take time off), they won’t get done.
Three-hour blocks seem to be a good amount of time to get into flow for bigger projects.
Be Realistic: If I wake up restless or don’t sleep well, I won’t be productive until I take a hike, read a book, freewrite, or sit at a cafe and people watch. Clear your mind, do something different than what you’re struggling to achieve. For example: I wrote the answers for this interview in my head on my walk around Lake Merritt! I needed time to process my thoughts, strategize the tone and, most importantly, figure out a way to talk about my work that will help other people with theirs. But this comes with a price — taking the morning off to get into your groove might mean your evening plans are cancelled. Being your own boss is hard.
Colleagues & Friends: A morning phone call or coffee chat with a like-minded friend will help sort through road blocks. Everything you do is your craft. Share and listen to others. It’s endlessly inspiring to have people in your corner.
Other good ideas:
Deadlines and money — those always boost productivity ;)
"A morning phone call or coffee chat with a like-minded friend will help sort through road blocks. Everything you do is your craft. Share and listen to others. It’s endlessly inspiring to have people in your corner."
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Business Development: Maintaining the balance between current clients and future clients is always a struggle. Simple as that!
Client Systems: Coming up with systems that work for me and my clients simultaneously has been challenging. Just because I work best in the morning, for example, doesn’t mean that my clients do too. Everyone’s work style is different. At first, I thought my systems were the gold standard (ha!), but figuring out how people learn and think is one of my favorite parts of the job. So, instead of implementing what I think is best, I look at what they have and try to improve it. They’re the ones that need to be in their business everyday! If the best way I can help is to organize their paper lists rather than try to convert them to an online system, then I’m here to help in any way they need it.
Guilt: Letting go of the guilt of not having a “9-to-5” has been a challenge. Like I said before, if I can’t get into flow in the morning and I have to push off plans, I only have myself to blame. I do find that evening (or morning) plans help structure my day. If I commit myself to not canceling unless absolutely necessary, the pressure is on to complete the work. A little bit of pressure doesn’t seem to hurt productivity. But it’s a struggle to hold yourself accountable for the work and to maintain other parts of your life. It would be much easier to blame your boss because you’re working late …
Guilt Part 2: I had to let go of the guilt of both my long days and my short days. Some days I only bill one hour, some I bill 6 or more. Once I figured out that I only have 6 productive (read: billable) hours a day felt enlightening! But those are fully-focused, productive hours. But, oy, the guilt!
"Instead of implementing what I think is best, I look at what they have and try to improve it. They’re the ones that need to be in their business everyday!"
What is your favorite thing about freelancing?
I love running my own business. Its benefits outweigh the difficulties. At this point, freelance life is ideal.
Some people say it’s about controlling your schedule, but for me I feel like I have control over my own destiny. I guide my career with every new project and with my long-term clients. Being a part of their growth is a huge part of the sustainability of my business, too.
The intentional variation of my clients keeps me on my toes as my creativity thrives within inconsistency. If I’m working on financial projections, switching to strategy feels fresh and exciting. I take the knowledge I have about one aspect of their business and apply it to the other. Business is a beautiful cyclical adventure.
I genuinely enjoy people and I am curious about who they are and what makes them tick. When I work with my clients, it’s heavily based on understanding them, their industry, and their vision. I’m a big picture thinker so to complete the whole picture I have to learn and understand. By knowing them so deeply, I turn into their business partner.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
My ideal client is someone who works as hard as I do. It’s pretty simple and I think we feel the “fit.” They want more for their future and they’re dedicating themselves to doing just that. I can quickly tell who will be able to work with me and who won’t.
Overall, my ideal client wants to create a happy existence. We work to sort through their goals and create a plan to achieve them.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
This is my wheelhouse! I could talk about this all day. Some big things that are on my mind lately…
Figure out what you don’t do well, not just the things you don’t want to do. Do not give anyone else the work that you enjoy. It’s tempting (and maybe not conscious) to hire someone whose work you understand instead of someone who will complement your work. Instead of a junior designer, maybe you’d be better off with a project manager or copywriter. Better yet, hire someone who sees the weaknesses in your business, the things you literally can’t see, and let them run with it.
Don’t lose what makes your business special (oh, hey! That’s YOU) Everyone wants an assistant so they can give away answering emails or client inquiries, but If you’re winning work because of who you are or how you work with people, letting go of that will be the death of your business (or worse, you’ll have to clean up after someone else’s mediocre work)
Maybe the “nitty-gritty” has nothing to do with your business directly. For me, if my house is clean I will feel calm and accomplished. Knowing that I make sure to have the extra help of a housekeeper. It makes me feel taken care of and, most importantly, I get my limited time off to really relax or see friends instead of scrubbing the tub (though that’s satisfying sometimes)
Hire a bookkeeper. Just do it.
"Figure out what you don’t do well, not just the things you don’t want to do. Do not give anyone else the work that you enjoy. It’s tempting (and maybe not conscious) to hire someone whose work you understand instead of someone who will complement your work...hire someone who sees the weaknesses in your business, the things you literally can’t see, and let them run with it."
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
The two sides of running a business — the one where you’re doing the work and the one where you’re maintaining the business. Oh, and don’t forget the other personal stuff like staying in shape and relationships. That’s three full-time jobs, my friends!
My first piece of advice for balance is to actually like your work. I think of it as a life-life balance. If you’ve chosen to go out on your own, I hope you’re choosing work that you enjoy. Running a business is so hard, why do work you don’t love? Of course, not everything about work will be fun, but I hope you find joy and motivation in at least half of it. If you happen to know how, but don’t actually enjoy the work, please don’t take it on. If the work you want to do can’t pay the bills, then we have a bigger issue.
Systems also help with balance. If you are your business (you are) create the systems that make you feel in control. Do the work that needs to be done and go after the jobs that make you feel like you’re in the zone. Then be done. Do whatever it takes to be done with a project. Track your time, know what’s coming, keep yourself on that schedule. This usually takes experience and foresight to understand what’s on the horizon and completing the aspects of the projects that get you closer to DONE; you’ll know when to stop working. This also means that you have to figure out how many hours you are productively working a day. Is it 3? Is it 6? 12? (it’s not 12, trust me)
I could spend (have spent) all day spinning, looking at numbers, projecting, analyzing, planning. But my happiest days are when I’ve completed my (reasonable) to do list. Create the lists, cross things off, don’t move them to the next day, know what’s in store and deliver what you say you’re going to deliver. That’s when the life balance begins.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
A desire to hone your craft, tolerance for ambiguity, a sense of humor.