How to use data to run your business

data facts or information, especially when examined and used to find out things or to make decisions

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries

Every year, I try to go to at least one event at the Wells Festival of Literature, which takes place a ten-minute walk from my house. Over the years I’ve seen some great speakers, including Rachel Clarke, Nicci Gerard, Jonathan Bate, Owen Sheers, Claudia Roden and Zoe Williams. I’ve even been up on the stage myself as part of a collection of local writers. I was particularly happy to go last year, masked up, as it was the first live event I’d been to in a long time, and it felt like a miracle.

Last night we decided to take advantage of a rare evening without my children, my partner’s children, or even my weekly yoga class, and go to whatever was on that looked interesting. This turned out to be Mary Ann Sieghart speaking about her new book, The Authority Gap, on why women are still taken less seriously than men. It was an excellent talk, and Sieghart was an expert and engaging presenter.

It was this aspect as much as the content that preoccupied me afterwards. This is what always happens when I go to the literary festival, or any event involving live speakers, even our own CIEP conference. I am starstruck by anyone who can get up on a stage and speak for the best part of an hour with authority and confidence, managing not to trip over their own feet, or tuck their skirt into their knickers, or mangle their words and say something completely nonsensical. I marvel at their poise, their superb trouser suit, their command of the laser pointer.

When I descend into this fangirl mode, I conveniently forget that I have also been on stages and spoken in front of people who have chosen to be there, and they haven’t always fallen asleep (one person did, once). I have even gently wrested the microphone from talkative colleagues on occasion to take my turn speaking. In other words, I can be and have been confident and authoritative, just like the people on stage that I fleetingly so revere. But it doesn’t seem like that at the time. I simply forget everything I have done, and the evidence of everything I have done, in the face of others’ perceived brilliance. I ignore the data.

Unhelpful comparisons

I’ll tell you something else I do, which almost warrants a post of its own. But first, let me contextualise. I’ve been freelancing now for nearly fourteen years, and in all that time, I’ve had about two weeks where I really didn’t have anything to do in terms of work, apart from weeks and months where I have planned holidays or short breaks to have children. So in general, every day when I sit down to work, I have a list of paid tasks to get through, which I know will fill the time I have available. I can look at my calendar ahead and know roughly what I am doing for the next few weeks. Some of it, I won’t know almost until it happens, because not all clients plan far in advance, and some work is quick-turnaround by its nature. And I’m fine with that: it keeps things interesting.

However, the thing that I do is, I might stumble across an editorial colleague on Twitter, or LinkedIn, who says that they are booked up for the next six months. Or until next summer. Perhaps all through next year. (‘Now taking bookings for 2025! 😇 #amediting’) And then I experience something I can only describe as awe, because that has never happened to me. I’ve never been booked up for more than a month or perhaps two in advance. Not once. And even then, I’ve almost always been able to squeeze in something extra at short notice. Then, hot on the heels of the awe, comes a feeling of inadequacy. And you can imagine where it goes from there – if I’m not careful, a spiral into thinking I am not good at my job. Just because someone else is good at theirs.

So this is clearly an unhelpful comparison. I’m using other people’s data to inform me (incorrectly) about the perceived failings in my own business.

Telling my own story

The other day, a colleague asked me for advice about freelancing. Little did they know they’d get an essay in return! I love writing about freelancing, and I feel passionately that if you can make it work, it’s an extremely satisfactory way to make a living. While writing about it, I told part of my own story, because it was relevant, and as I did so, I felt quite proud of myself.

When I started freelancing, I had quite a few contacts, and a good working relationship with many people, including my soon-to-be-ex-employer. But I also had no safety net: I was living in a rented room in London, which was quite expensive, and I had only enough savings to buy my first Macbook. I didn’t have a plan B, or anyone ready to cover my bills in the event that I couldn’t. So I hit the ground running because I had to, and for the first year or so I winged it and it was OK. The weight of stuff I didn’t know was not yet pressing on me, which enabled me to make a start.

After that, the weight of stuff I didn’t know began to crush me, so I swallowed my pride and retrained in areas I thought I knew inside out. It turned out I hadn’t known as much as I thought I did. I joined the SfEP, as it was then, and gradually began to deconstruct the editor I had been, and put her back together stronger, better and more humble and enquiring. Throughout all this, I somehow maintained my confidence and conviction that I was essentially good at my job, that I could bring value to a project, and that I should damn well charge my worth.

Many years later, I am still finding things out. I have managed to take criticism and turn it into a learning experience. I have worked on nightmare projects that, with hindsight, have made me more resilient and more discerning. I have had two children and done my share of looking after them, while continuing to run my business. I am still busy and interested. I love working with new clients, and I value very highly the ones I have worked with for years. I help to mentor newer editors, and I am part of the CIEP’s information team. Objectively, I have made a success of this, however much I sometimes play it down or attribute it to luck. And I am happy to share what I’ve learned with others, even if technically they are my competitors, because I believe that this mutual sharing and support makes us all stronger. I can use all of this data to sustain me into the future.

This is how to use data to run your business

All right, I’ll come clean. When I sat down to write this post, I considered several titles for it that, taken out of context, would have been woolly or meaningless. Usually, I don’t let that stop me, as regular readers will know. But recently, I’ve been thinking that I should try to be a bit more outward-looking with my blog posts, and this is also backed up by data. (I’ll be interested to see the outcome of this tweaked approach in my stats.)

But this title is not purely cynical. When we think of data, we might consider how long jobs take, how much they earn us, what the trends are. Which are our ‘best’ clients, and which might we let go? How can we become faster, more accurate, more efficient, better paid? But I think the data required to run a freelance business extends far beyond all this. It’s about gathering evidence in the form of experiences and memories of our wins, which come in all shapes and sizes, from an amazing finished book or website to a glowing text message from a grateful client. It’s about not filing these gems away and moving on, but taking them out to give them a little polish sometimes. It’s about seeing where we have come from, and what we have achieved. And this will be different for all of us, and what keeps us going will be different for all of us. And there is room for us all to be successful – whatever that means – in our own way.

6 Comments on “How to use data to run your business”

  1. Dear Liz
    Thank you for this lovely and considered piece, which resonates deeply within me. If you were using it to collect data, I’d probably tick most boxes!

  2. What an interesting post Liz, thank you. I’ve been running my editing business since 2009. The business is thriving, but I certainly made many mistakes, particularly in the early days, and had one disastrous year when my two main clients both put their work on hold. But one of the driving forces in setting up on my own was that I could take my own decisions, and I still really love being my own boss.

    1. Thanks, Hilary. I’m glad to hear you still love it! Mistakes can be useful, I guess, as long as we get past them. At least, that’s what I’ve found…

  3. Brilliant post which, like with Hilary, really resonates with me. Being of the, let’s call it. detail oriented persuasion means I have built up a magical and detailed data spreadsheet which gives me lots of dimensions of analysis around clients, potential clients, job logs, rates, and the economics of my business in micro-detail over 5 years. The irony being I am no now longer using that data day-to-day, due to having a near full time job. But even in the full time job I maintain an hour-by-hour diary which gives me and my sponsors useful information. AND YET, even with all that valuable data, I don’t always use it to avert Imposter Syndrome. That’s why your post is so helpful: a reminder to do exactly that!

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