Thinking like a business, rather than a medieval knight (or an idiot)

Knight Riding His Horse
I boldly ventured out as a freelancer…

When I first went freelance, I mused at length on the freelancing ethic. I pondered the idea of freedom, the notion of independence, and the sweet air far removed from the stifling miasma of the corporation, the office, the boss and the 9-to-5 routine (not that I had ever experienced offices or routines). I conjured up images of masterless, lance-wielding medieval knights: like them, only with qualifications rather than armour, a laptop instead of a lance, and internet access instead of a horse, I supposed myself travelling a knightly path through the world using my specialist skills and experience. Thus, for weeks and months I led this quixotic life, all the while making an income of about £50 per week.

My unproductive philosophizing masked the chaos and cluelessness of my new life. Occasionally I would be asked what exactly I did.

“I’m a freelancer,” I would reply, confident that I was explaining all.

“But a freelance what?” persisted my questioner.

“Well, lots of things, I guess…”

“Such as?”

“I do a bit of tutoring, I write a bit, I blog a bit, I’m a kind of independent academic, I do a bit of editing and proofreading from time to time. That sort of thing.”

“Okay,” my inquisitor would say with a look of bemused disdain, evidently concluding that my state was desperate.

At this point another interlocutor invariably took over the questioning: none other than my own inner voice, privately screaming at me, “Yes, Stephen, just what the hell do you do? This is pathetic! Get a grip!”

Rather than getting a grip, I decided to call myself a freelance writer. I dabbled with self-publishing; I wrote numerous essays, some of which I blogged, but most of which are snugly tucked away in obscure folders somewhere on my laptop; I commenced various literary projects. It was around this time that I read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; it didn’t take long for me to begin living it. Like Hamsun’s starving writer, I could just about endure my austere diet of bread and water thanks to my conviction that I was on the brink of making a small fortune. Luckily, I was not mad, so a natural erosion of my conviction gradually occurred; not even my fondness for fantasy could sustain, for too many months, the illusion that everything was going well. Eventually, as complete destitution announced its likely arrival within weeks, I came to realize—miraculously, given the stress I was under—the fundamental mistake I had made.

What was this mistake? It was that I thought of myself as a freelancer rather than as a business. Had I thought of myself as a business, and drawn up a proper business plan based on market research, and costings, and strategic thinking—instead of romantically thinking of myself as a medieval knight or as a starving writer with Dostoyevskian aspirations—then I might have avoided getting into a complete mess.

I knew about business plans: I’d seen enough of Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice to have a pretty good sense of what they are. But I watched these programmes much as I watched fascinating documentaries about the mysterious language and culture of alien lands. These were worlds of wonder that I might observe with a mixture of pity, amusement and horror, but which I never imagined ever needing to inhabit. Business plans intrigued me—and meant as much to me—in the same way that a shaman’s drum does.

Moreover, I had actually had experience of drawing up a business plan. My self-employment resulted from my participation in a government scheme for the unemployed (for I’d been signing on for a few weeks after being designated as redundant to the future requirements of academia). The scheme provided career advice and a temporary allowance, in exchange for participants creating a business plan to be signed off by professional careers advisors.

Perhaps inevitably for someone more in tune with medieval scholasticism than marketing strategies, I whimsically treated it as a box-ticking exercise. I am not proud of this; but it was less arrogance on my part than the naivety of someone who had been immured in academia for a quarter of a century, and who now felt as at home in the world of business plans as a chihuahua might in a Siberian forest. My plan was unsurprisingly terrible; but its inept research and tenuous grasp of reality were glazed with fine prose and adorned with a dash of personal charm, and hence it was approved. (My slightly cynical suspicion all along was that the scheme was intended more to reduce unemployment figures by shifting people into self-(un)employment than to provide genuinely constructive help to entrepreneurs. This all happened at a time when the government was getting ever more creative in its zealous drive to tear up the social safety net of welfare.)

Two years later—I’m a painfully slow learner when it comes to business—I’ve finally understood that terms such as “market research”, “marketing strategy”, “branding”, “monetization”, “pitching”, “customers”, “selling”, and even “business” itself, are not an arcane argot limited to entertaining quasi-morons on The Apprentice. It turns out that these concepts are useful in a world without money trees, golden geese and magic beans. I might have mocked the contestants on The Apprentice, but all along their idiocy was outmatched by my own.

I’m still fond of the freelancing ethos. The prospect of self-determining the type of work I do and how I organize my life and time is hugely appealing. But to be fixated on these grander and vaguer ideas risks distracting from the grounded need to see myself as a business in which I both employ me and am employed by me. Of course, most freelancers have no problem understanding, and more importantly putting into practice, the idea that they are professional businesses. But perhaps it takes some of us to notice the threat of homelessness or starvation on the near horizon to have such a light-bulb moment.

Rather late in the day, therefore, I have not only embraced the idea of business, but also begun acting as a proper business. Slowly I am learning to say things like “monetization”, “brand creation”, “loss leader” and “adding value”, without having to seek immediate existential consolation in a book of modern French philosophy. Even better than learning to say these terms, I am actually trying them out and applying them. And as I immerse myself more and more in the thought, language and practice of business, I’m genuinely growing to like it. After all, I’ve always enjoyed learning about bodies of theory and practice: I have happy memories of devoting myself, among other things, to researching the labyrinths of Protestant theology or to delving into anarchist notions of freedom. Unlike a grasp of Protestantism or anarchism, however, a commitment to the theory and practice of business may supplement my diet of bread and water with tea and jam.

Reassuringly (to me at least), my heart remains that of a bohemian and my head remains that of an anarcho-liberal socialist (which is just a way of saying that I still unsystematically wander the terrain of the Left while indulging in wine, cigarettes and “culture”). The only difference now is that I pay some attention to how I monetize, brand, market and sell my head and heart. Those appalled by the previous sentence are welcome (if unable to figure out that it was intended as a joke) to send me their ideas about the best ways to put food on one’s table and a roof over one’s head.