Strategic Web Usability

5 Years as My Own Boss

5-year birthday candleMay 1st was the official 5-year anniversary of launching my consulting firm, User Effect. In the fall of 2005, I quit my job as VP of a 16-person software company (after 8 years). I liked the people and the work was ok, but something just felt wrong.

I can give 100 reasons for why I quit, but only one really matters: when I walked from the car to the office door, I could feel a storm gathering, like one of those rain clouds that follows people in a Peanuts cartoon. I hated my job, and I was tired of pretending that I didn't.

Last year was a big year – I really solidified my direction, doubled my revenue over 2009, finally incorporated and did a lot of i-dotting and t-crossing, all while turning 40 and being a first-time dad. You'll never hear me say that I've "made it" (I'm my own worst critic), but I've learned a lot in the past 5 years, and I thought it would be a good time to share a few of those lessons:

1. You're never the boss.

If there's one thing I'm tired of hearing from people, it's probably: "It must be great to be your own boss." At one point early last year, I counted and realized that I had something like 17 bosses. In other words, 17 different people could call or email me, and I would most likely agree to do what they said (if I wanted to keep them as clients).

Of course, I'm a consultant, so you might think it's different if you're a writer or creative type. Even if you don't have clients, you have an audience, and make no mistake – they're the boss. I write for a 90K-subscriber search marketing blog, and I can tell you that each of those 90,000 people are my boss when I'm working on a post.

You'll always be accountable to someone, and that's probably a good thing.

2. You have to want it.

There are a lot of thankless tasks when you're your own boss. You know how someone at your office sells the projects, picks up the phone, pays the phone bill, changes the toilet paper, makes the coffee, bills the clients, pays the taxes, mows the grass, and makes sure you get paid every 2 weeks? Those "someones" are all you now.

For techie types, the hardest part of that is that you have to sell, and you can't sell if you don't want it. Pick your word: "passionate", "hungry", "motivated" – you'd better be all of those things.

3. Freedom is terrifying.

Some people think that the worst thing in the world is being told what to do and when to do it. Freedom sounds good, until it's staring you in the face. There's something about the void of limitless potential - of knowing that you could do anything today - that can be absolutely horrifying. You'll stare at the computer, paralyzed, and you'll second-guess yourself into a fetal position. Make sure you're ready for the reality of total freedom, and not just the fantasy of it.

4. Look wide, aim narrow.

When you're just getting started, you want to do everything and please everyone. It's normal to not want to turn away any business, but when you aim for everything, you end up with a vague, indecisive message. Worse yet, no one you talk to can really communicate what you do to the next person (in other words: goodbye referrals).

It's tough, but you have to pin yourself down and take aim at something small. When I launched my packaged site audits (usability-focused), it was really tough. I'm a generalist, and I wanted to keep my options open. As soon as I did that, though, people started getting what I was all about. Ironically, even though they didn't usually buy the audit, it got them talking to me and actually broadened the scope of my client work.

It takes good aim to get your foot into a closing door. You've got plenty of time to widen your reach once that door opens.

Stepping away from business, I see this same issue in my broader life (and my friends' lives) as we've hit our 30s (and now 40s). We don't want to make choices, because picking a direction means giving up on some other direction, and that would mean throwing away one or more of our dreams. I think that's the essence of mid-life crisis.

Make no mistake - if you never choose, you're throwing away all of your dreams. At some point, you have to pick a direction – moving North means you can't go South for a while – but your only other option is to stand still.

5. Envy is completely useless.

When you go out on your own, you'll be bombarded by envy. Your friends will envy you for having freedom and being your own boss (see point 1). You'll envy them for having a steady paycheck, health insurance, and a 401K. Once you start working, you'll envy everyone on the internet who's doing everything better than you.

Let me be blunt – all that envy is absolutely fucking useless. Every decision in life has tradeoffs, and some things are going to be harder when you're on your own. If you sit at your desk staring out the window feeling jealous of everyone who walks by, you will fail.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I'm not sure I've painted the brightest picture of self-employment, and there are plenty of tough days, but I'd make the same choice over and over (if the warp core breached and I got stuck in a time loop or something). I've realized over time that I don't work the way people are supposed to work.

Sitting in an office from 9-to-5 (or 8-to-8) is like wearing my skinny jeans because I ran out of laundry – it's uncomfortable, I can't breathe, and my manhood gets squeezed in unfortunate ways (figuratively-speaking).

I love not commuting, I love making lunch in my own kitchen, and I absolutely love spending even a few minutes extra time with my daughter. I'm not saying I'd never go back to an office, but I have no regrets at all about the direction I've chosen.

I can't close this out without thanking a few people, most of all my brilliant, lovely, and hard-working wife, Nancy. I'd also like to thank my old friends and clients at Seminar Information Service and Tews Interactive, as well as the great teams at SEOmoz and Walker Sands with whom I have the good fortune of working. Special thanks, too, to everyone who's read and supported the User Effect blog and my work across the industry over this past 5 years.

Insurance Suffolk Brokerage

 · Tuesday, May 10
My only regret about starting my own business 3 years ago is that I didn't start it 20 years ago. Thanks for the article and inspiration!

Mike Coday

 · Tuesday, May 10
Excellent summary of what it's like to work for yourself. Totally know the feeling.

Adam Hayes

 · Tuesday, May 10
I completely agree. Next month with be my 9th year in business for myself and everything above is spot on, and like you, I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

I went into my business hoping to make ends meet and have more time with my family. Everything went better than I ever planned and now I enjoy the best of both worlds: Lots more family time and a job that I love to do.

Insurance Suffolk Brokerage

 · Tuesday, May 10
Oh, and congratulations on your 5-year anniversary!

Fan Page For Facebook

 · Friday, May 13
Very nice post thanks for sharing.


 · Saturday, May 14
Congratulations! Nice to read your story, I just started for myself and hopefully I'll getting more freedom in future.

France Pari

 · Sunday, May 15
And congratulation for the almost 4 years of the website ! (started in June 2007 if i am right).

Lucas Ng

 · Sunday, May 15
Congrats on the five years and thanks for sharing your lessons, particularly the last two which resonate well with me at this point of my life/career.

Also took the time to download a 30day tracker pdf for a particular skillset I want to improve on.

Nice timing Pete! :D

Dr. Pete

 · Sunday, May 15
Thanks, everyone. I'm eager to see what the next 5 years have in store.

@France - That sounds about right. The blog archive goes back to 2005, but I rebranded as User Effect and refocused in 2007.

@Lucas - Nice to hear from you - it's been a while.

Pattesons Glass

 · Tuesday, May 17
Great article. i started our business just over 3 years ago now and it's finally starting to pay off over the last year. I think the most important thing is to have enough money aside to stand a debt, easily said then done in the early years.

Dr. Pete

 · Tuesday, May 17
@Pattesons - I thinks that's a huge one. People assume it only applies to retail or brick-and-mortar, but even if you have a low-cost business, you still have to pay the bills. It can easily take 2-3 years to get back to where you're used to being, and that doesn't count paying off those early debts.

Matt Tews

 · Friday, May 20
Great post, Peter. You nailed it (as you always seem to). I need to shoot right back attcha with the thank you's though. Your patience with me as a time-consuming client in the mid/late 90's got me much of where I am today. Sure...somedays maybe it's only operating a kickass computer in the corner of a perpetually unfinished basement, but I have two kids that think I'm a hero every time I walk over to school and have lunch with them - just because I can. Our families really win with our workstyle. Cheers to you, Nancy and Jordan!


 · Friday, May 20
Congrats, Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, it helps me lot because I am also looking to stable my Own Web Development company. Keep Going


 · Friday, May 20
Peter , this is really great post, I had read ur post regarding the usability of website.
But this post is certainly a great read because I think it takes lot of courage and foresight to resign the job and starting up ur own company. I had read somewhere that job is 8 hrs business and business is 24 hrs job. Thanks for this great post and all the best for fore coming years.

طراحی سایت

 · Sunday, May 22
"when I walked from the car to the office door, I could feel a storm gathering, like one of those rain clouds that follows people in a Peanuts cartoon" well said !!

sewa mobil

 · Tuesday, May 24
Nice article, thanks for the information.


 · Friday, May 27
I can still remember when I walked away from my job to start my own business. It was unsettling, but I knew in the back of my mind that with hard work and determination it would work out. And it has. Nice to hear your story as I can really relate.

Josh Krafchin

 · Thursday, June 9
Awesome post. I know #4 to be true. I tell just about everyone to go narrow in order to go wide. But I continue to struggle with it. I'm curious to know more about your process of actually narrowing down to and settling upon packaged site audits.

Dr. Pete

 · Thursday, June 9
@Josh - To be honest, that process was long and painful, although I'm not sure it needed to be. I don't think the secret was developing a perfect packaged product - I just needed to create a structure (any structure) to communicate what I was doing. Once the structure was in place, and people could wrap their heads around it, the actual package didn't matter that much. I've adjusted it over time and often end up selling something completely different.

i Gagner Argent

 · Monday, June 13
I've been my own boss for a few years now too, and I must say that instead of getting rid of one boss, I now got dozens of bosses!
But well, I chose it ;)

France Pari

 · Tuesday, June 14
Congratulations are good, but there is no more article since this post. 4 years of Usereffect to stop now ? What's happening ?

Dr. Pete

 · Tuesday, June 14
I know - I've been slacking lately. Work is going well, I'm writing frequently for SEOmoz, I launched a new blog, and I had a baby girl last year. I'm trying to sort out a future direction for this blog that fits into all of those things.
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