I love this tweet from today’s guest! I feel it captures the essence of this podcast, extending well beyond this episode.
The knowledge you hold could change someone’s life.
Share what you know.
— Tom Hirst (@tom_hirst) October 9, 2020
I’m about to celebrate my 2-year freelancing anniversary and it was pure serendipity that this podcast episode comes out so close to that moment. It’s especially important because it combines three of the elements that combine to make up most of my work: building a company of one (aka freelancing), decision-making, and the growth mindset.
My guest today, Tom Hirst, generously shares how he’s progressed on all three fronts during the last decade, highlighting the decisions he used to achieve balance and the thinking behind them. The way he considers the choices and actions he’s making today and their future impact is a highly valuable lesson in strategic thinking. I learn a lot from this conversation and I hope you will too!
This is a fast-paced episode that packs a lot of energy and that might be just what you need to find your own priorities and engineer your growth from here on. Keep a notebook close, you’ll want to take notes!
About Tom Hirst:
Fresh out of college, Tom Hirst went straight into freelancing.
That was 11 years ago, when resources for freelancers and what it’s like to work as one were scarce. For over a decade, Tom, who is a freelance WordPress developer, has been building his mindset, processes, skills, and know-how, refining them to design a lifestyle he enjoys while doing the work he loves.
I met him on Twitter a few months ago, when a thread he did on pricing freelance projects snowballed to viral levels. In just a few weeks, he turned that into an ebook that every freelancer should read.
What especially caught my eye about Tom Hirst is his incredibly articulate and thoughtful observations around the decisions and actions that make a freelancer a true pro.
Beyond building his way to success in his freelance web development career, Tom also recently started to create a big audience on Twitter. When you understand the thinking and work that goes into his tweets, I bet you’ll instantly appreciate his transparency as much as I do.
Tom shares a lot of useful tips, methods, and inspiration for self-employed people. With everyone working from home, I feel this way of thinking now extends to everyone, as being self-managed, proactive, and owning your path is essential to anything we want to achieve, no matter how or where we work. In other words, Tom is a very good mentor, sharing his honest thoughts, perspectives, and experiences with you and me and everyone who wants to listen – and then do.
No matter what your job or role is, Tom’s perspective and advice are golden! And they’re easy to transfer to your own context.
Listen to this episode to learn more about his ideas, thoughts on freelancing in a very uncertain environment, and how to build a foundation that maintains your discipline as well as helping you enjoy the flexibility and freedom of being a freelancer.
Listen to this episode to learn:
- What really works to achieve a balance between work and your personal life
- How to set your deadlines more realistically
- How to maintain your discipline during a period of high stress and anxiety caused by work overload
- Effective ways to keep track of your progress at work and all areas of life that matter to you
- Why achieving a balance between income and having a good relationship with clients will elevate your work and sense of achievement
- What you can expect from a freelancing career and which stereotypes to avoid so you can set yourself up for success
- The difference between “nice to have” and “need to have” in everything you do and how it can change your perspective and decisions.
A few ideas that stuck with me:
- Freelancing involves discipline, maintaining good mental health, and taking control of your future. All that depends on becoming a good boss for yourself.
- Freelancing is not for everyone because it requires you to play a range of different roles.
- Doing any form of sports is fundamental for your mental health and it also forms the basis to build a bunch of other life-changing healthy habits.
- Being a freelancer means you are a business owner. It can be a way for you to turn your passion into a very well paid job IF you take it seriously.
- It’s very important to cultivate a strong relationship with small groups of people who share your interests and principles. It’s one of the best ways to open yourself up to amazing opportunities for your work and personal development.
Connect with Tom:
Resources mentioned in the episode:
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Full episode transcript:
Andra Zaharia: The knowledge you hold could change someone’s life. Share what you know, it’s enough. I love this quote from today’s guest. I feel it captures the essence of this podcast. Fresh out of college. Tom, went straight into freelancing. That was 11 years ago when resources for freelancers and what it’s like to work as one were pretty scars. For over a decade, Tom, who is a freelance WordPress developer, has been building his mindset, processes skills, and know-how referring them to design a lifestyle he enjoys while doing the work he loves. I met him on Twitter a few months ago when a thread he did on pricing freelance projects blew up and snowballed to viral levels. In just a few weeks, he turned that into an e-Book that every freelancer should read. What especially caught my eye about Tom Hirst is his incredibly articulate and thoughtful observations around the decisions and actions that make a freelancer a true pro, no matter what your job or role is. Tom’s perspective and advice are golden, and they’re easy to transfer to your own setting. We talked about things like setting Kelsey boundaries between your work and the rest of your life, self-motivation, accountability and making choices that improve your life in the long run. This fast-paced conversation was a massive boost of energy. And I hope it’ll be the same for you. Let’s dig in Tom! I’m very excited to have you on the podcast here, even though I’ve only kind of relatively recently found you on Twitter, I’m extremely excited to talk to you, especially because I’ve been digging into your work a lot and your ideas around freelancing and decision-making and positioning, and kind of the entire mindset that you talk about. It’s such a rich ground for so many interesting conversations and I can’t wait to talk to you today.
Tom Hirst: Yeah. I’m excited to be at a hundred. Thanks for having me on.
Andra Zaharia: So, tell me, what’s kind of the toughest decision that you’ve had to make this year?
Tom Hirst: Oh, this year. Hmm, I mean, in terms of business, the toughest decision that I’ve had to make was to start transitioning, I guess, into being more of a content creator than a freelancer I mean, I’m at the very beginnings of that process. As you mentioned before, starting to build the audience on Twitter and things like that was the basis of it but it still was a tough decision to make because the money has always been good in freelancing for me. So, the decision to take the initial hit to, you know, spend a little bit more time on building an audience, creating products, talking a little bit about how I got there and things like that. That was probably the toughest decision that I’ve actually had to make in business. The sheer so far.
Andra Zaharia: That’s very interesting to me because I’m kind of on the cusp of trying to do the same. And I know that many freelancers would like to devote more time to kind of doing their own stuff, saying and running their own projects, but they’re scared of the same things. They’re scared of their, you know, their revenue going down. They’re scared of taking that risk. What kind of prompted you to do this? When was the moment that led you to choose like “Hey, I gotta do this, and I’m going to definitely stay committed to this!”
Tom Hirst: Yeah. I think maybe a bit subconsciously it was the birth of my daughter. Because I just realized I wanted to spend more time with her and not be working all the time. So, I think the primer there was that, but then I also think that the short-term change for the long-term and game is always in the back of my mind. So, what I’m trying to think of is building assets that will continue to pay dividends as I get older.
Because my goal is to work less, not work more, right, and especially as I get older and older. So yeah, I mean, not the retirement plan per se, but the lifestyle I think has always been very important to me. And I think that was the driving factor behind the conscious effort to make that decision to change.
Andra Zaharia: I love that you touched on lifestyle and I think that this is, you know, so many people are questioning the way they work. They’re crushing their jobs, their motivation, their sources of meaning. So many things, you know, there used to be “I’d solid it last year that there was kind of this hunger for meaning but I feel like, obviously, this year is just balloon to, you know, the top of our priorities.” So, you had talked about wanting to design a certain lifestyle. Was this something that you had in mind when you started freelancing or did you build it, you know, gradually realized and work towards it as you went along?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, definitely. I knew from a young age that I always wanted to work for myself because I like to be in control, I guess. So, designing my own lifestyle back then was really so that I could play more games and things like that, but doing it now, it’s to spend more time with my family. So yeah, it’s always the freelance lifestyle, it has always been something that appealed to me, even though I’m a completely different person now to what I was when I started for both reasons, for 22-year-old Tom and 33-year-old Tom, the freelance lifestyle was a big part of it.
Andra Zaharia: And that difference, you know, unpacking that just a little bit, because there are so many people who think freelancing is sort of glamorous and they come into it with so many wrong assumptions. And for example, for me, you know, when I decided to give this a shot, to stick with it, I told myself that I would stick with it at least for at least three years to see how it goes, to give myself a chance to work through those challenges and stretch myself.
And before I went into that, I listened to Kelly Morris and Paul Jarvis’s creative class podcast, which helped me a lot in setting the right expectations. But so many people, you know, don’t. They’ll do that kind of exploratory exercise beforehand. So, what do you think are some, let’s say, misconceptions about freelancing that maybe you had when you went in and then, you know, started deconstructing along the way?
Tom Hirst: Yeah. sure, I mean, there wasn’t as much information available when I started as there is now. But all the information that you do see was like, “You can work far, I was a week from the beach” and that’s applicable to everyone, even right at the beginning. And it’s just not true.
I think the thing that I’ve found with freelancing is that the truth is not just about working smart, it’s about working smart and hard in the time that you allocate to do to, to work. So yeah, I mean, that’s the biggest misconception for me. I think a lot of people sell the freelance dream as been realistically achievable quickly for everyone when that’s not always the case because this thing’s not for everyone. And I’m full, I mean, I’m obviously, I’m a massive proponent of the freelance business on lifestyle, but I do also acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. And there’s a lot to be said about turning up to a job nine to five and being able to switch off, you know, and I think that is a big misconception. You’ve got to train yourself into that level of separation. There’s a lot that comes with freelancing that you don’t at first realize.
Andra Zaharia: Tell me a little bit about who you think this is for, you know, what kind of, let’s say mindset and skills. To me, I think the mindset is the most important part. Everything else comes second.
Tom Hirst: For sure. I’m a big, especially in the last five years or so, like, I’m a big believer in “the mindset controls everything”. So yeah, in terms of relating that to who freelancing is far, I think it’s, you’ve got to be disciplined, right? You’ve got to not need someone on your case all the time, telling you what to do. You’ve got to have, you know, your future. You’ve got to understand that your future is in your hands and you know, how hard or how smart you work. Is going to be of direct benefit to you, short term, medium-term and long term. There’s no longer someone to tell you what to do in this game. You’ve got to take control and take accountability. And I think if you’ve got that, then you’ll do well in freelancing, and perhaps you’ll do well in a lot of other things in life as well.
Andra Zaharia: Let’s pick that apart a little bit. So, you talked about two things: you talked about accountability, and you talked about discipline. How do you maintain that discipline when you get tired? When you’re, let’s say in an environment because I know that many freelancers, as well as, obviously, many employees struggle right now with anxiety, with burnout, with so many things you don’t want it, you don’t know if your revenue is going to stay stable over the next few months, because there’s so much uncertainty and you want to do all the work that you can do to the best of your ability. So, it’s a tough choice to make. How do you stay disciplined when you have times like these?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, I think it’s tough. I mean, obviously, everyone is going through a little bit of a weird period right now, but what’s been the saving grace for me has been consistency. So obviously before all this happened, I’ve always just been a really consistent person. Like I get up at the same time every day, I go to the gym at the same time, you know, three or four times a week. I walk the dog at the same time. And I don’t know for a lot of people that need a little bit more flexibility, but what I’ve tried to design is like a baseline. I call it a semi-flexible routine, basically. So I have like a baseline level of, you know, non-negotiable things that have to get done at certain times, because I know that’s the best time to do them. And then I also try and build in, you know, I call them Tramadol slots. So, let’s say if I am to go to the gym three or four times a week, I’ll schedule five times for that. But then if something comes up in the household, like I need to look after my kid or, you know, sometimes I might just be a little bit more tired, then I can kind of pick and choose the slots and make it work, in reality, because I think sometimes, we’ve, you know, consistency and routine life does get in the way, but it’s how much you are prepared for that. And how much you are willing to prioritize certain things over others. So, yeah, having like that baseline semi-flexible routine is really important to me and gives me that peace of mind, especially when times, you know, times are not quite as good right now, perhaps for some people having that level of… It’s like a constant basically. I think having that constant and keeping that going, just relieves the anxiety a little bit.
Andra Zaharia: It definitely does. I love this framework and I think you’ve already shared so many powerful things that we can actually do and try to apply.
And I love how actionable all of your work is and all of your content is. I really, really love that about it. So, you talked about making things non-negotiable, and that kind of sparked an idea for me. I recently read Shonda Rhimes, The Year of Yes. Shonda Rhimes is the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and how to get away with murder and a couple of other incredible shows. She runs everything. She’s incredible. And she talked about, you know, she took a year of… She used to say no, a lot too many opportunities because she knows she’s an introvert. And then she just started saying yes. And she talks about how that unfolded over a year. And at some point, she says that she was about to go to a gala. And her kids said like, “Hey mom, can we call her?” And then she just, you know, she was late, but she decided at that moment that when her kids need her, she’s going to make that non-negotiable. But that’s such a difficult thing to do, isn’t it? You know, take time for yourself, take time for going to the gym and you know, maybe sleeping a bit more, working, getting some slack time into your schedule, as you mentioned. So things come up, you can accommodate them. How do you make that leap? How do you overcome that limiting belief? How do you go from, “this is nice to have” to “this is need to have”, because otherwise, I’m going to burn out and get sick?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, I think for me it was health. So, what I tried to do is kind of think, “Look, I’m going to perform at the best of my ability as a husband, as a father, as a businessman, as an entrepreneur or whatever you want to, whatever you want to call what we do if my health is in order and that’s not just physical health, but mental health as well.” So, what I kind of realized the older that I got is a lot of my problems were based around I was overweight. You know, my diet was poor. My relationship with alcohol probably wasn’t the best. I never exercised and I just got stuck in playing games for hours on end and just did the bare minimum amount of work. So a lot of this was all connected. When I made this realization that if I improve my health, then I’ll improve my life, that’s kind of where it all started for me.
Andra Zaharia: Many people make that decision, but they don’t stick with it and I think that this is where the accountability factor comes in, that you mentioned earlier. So how did you keep yourself accountable? How did you design a system to keep track of your progress and keep fueling that motivation through small wins and progress?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always expected a lot of myself, so I’m quite self-motivated and I keep myself accountable a lot of the time. But I keep going back to the exercise thing. But with the gym, when I first started, I had a friend who I would go with and even though he wouldn’t, if I didn’t want to go one day, he wouldn’t ring me up and say, “Why you not here?” Well, just knowing that someone was relying on me to meet them was kind of, you know, a bit of an accountability thing. I knew that he’d be waiting for me to start his workout. So, in the back of my mind, I guess he wasn’t an accountability partner at that time but other than that, I think it was just the desire for a better life. It’s kind of weird, but the flip just switched in my mind and I just realized that there must be a better way to live my life. There must be a better way to achieve the things that I want to achieve. And then having that overall, it’s not necessarily a single goal, but having that overall mindset than just kept me honest basically.
Andra Zaharia: Do you have an accountability partner now? How do you keep yourself accountable for big things, big projects, like sticking with the content projects, for example?
Tom Hirst: Yeah. I’m a big believer in personal deadlines. It’s weird. I did a tweet about deadlines the other day, and I find sometimes deadlines in a team counterproductive, but I think sometimes having deadlines, especially personal deadlines are really useful because for me if I set a deadline for something that I know it’s getting done, because I just cannot break the deadline, I’m really strict like that. And maybe sometimes it’s been to my detriment because I’ve not slept as much as I should have, but getting setting a date for me, especially when it’s a project that I’m in full control of, I find highly useful for accountability purposes.
Andra Zaharia: And that’s very helpful. What is the difference between a personal deadline and a general deadline?
Tom Hirst: So, I mean, what I would call like a team deadline is, like say there’s more than one person involved in a project. So, you’re relying on each other perhaps to get things done. Someone gets their work done and then you get your work done. And I think sometimes when you rush to a deadline in a team basis. Perhaps the project might not be quite as good quality as what it could have been, perhaps some decisions that are quite critical get overlooked and things like that. I’m a big proponent of semi-flexible deadlines on team projects. But then, personally, when I’m in full control of getting the work done, then I can be more realistic with the deadline dates because when you’re relying on other people, then it’s a lot to sometimes meet those goals.
Andra Zaharia: That is so true! How did you get more realistic about setting personal deadlines? Because for me, for example, especially in the first year, things always take less or take longer than you expect, but it’s difficult to know how much longer is it? 10%? Is it 30%? How did you learn to kind of build muscle in this area?
Tom Hirst: I think a lot of it does come from experience. Let’s say, on a website project that I might be developing, I’ve got a rough idea how long things are going to take. I’ve got a rough idea of how long things might runoff. But if I’m working on a content project, for example, I’ve written two eBooks for now. I’ve only got minor experience. To be honest, for the second book the deadline probably wasn’t that realistic because I got to work more than what I wanted to. But I can use that experience now, into the next eBook to give myself another week or so. I’m always trying to gauge “If I did this again, how long could it possibly take?” And then I will use that factored in with all the other things that go off in my life and whether that’s business projects, whether it’s, you know, family occasion, social occasions and just try and work out roughly when that will be. So yeah, being realistic about deadlines is sometimes… people like to make them unrealistic, just so they do it quicker and I found that, especially on the last eBook, to be a bit detrimental to my health, because I kind of needed at least two weeks of nothing. You know, I push myself, I got it done. Well, then I, needed those two weeks of nothing. I think for the next personal deadline that I’ll do set. I’ll use the experience and I’ll try and give myself a little bit more… Not too much because I still think it’s important to give yourself that push but I just want maybe another 10, 20% more.
Andra Zaharia: That’s very helpful. It’s kind of building, let’s say internal documentation. Let’s call it that, which helps you boost awareness a trick. Well, just a general piece of advice that I learned from my coach is that, at some point last year I put you know, following his guidance, I put everything in Google calendar, like everything, everything that I do so I can see how all the slots fill up. How everything plans out and how much I can squeeze into a day. I wanted to obviously, you know, the spirit of overachieving, try to do, you know, everything today now. And what I realized by doing this, first of all, you have a complete visual awareness of what’s going on. Second of all, I went back and actually adjusted how long it actually took. So I can go back and see if I have a certain project in mind, I can go back into my calendar, see how long that actually took. So, I don’t you know, fall into my own trap again and again. And this exercise… there are so many moving parts to freelancing, right? So many of them and keeping track of them and building awareness gradually around them. I think they are so, so incredibly important. If you are to evolve, to have the lifestyle that you described, where you actually enjoy your work, but you don’t let it consume you because that’s a very easy pitfall to fall into, isn’t it?
Tom Hirst: Oh, definitely. And I mean the calendar thing is something that we do as well. I try and keep the business calendar on the live calendar as the same one and the same. My wife has a calendar and I have mine, and then we share them as well. So, I can see everything that she has going on off, and I can see everything I have going on and vice versa. And that’s been really useful for us. So yeah, I can definitely adhere to that what you said but I liked the idea about going back and actually, you know, putting the real-time that things took next to the estimated time. Yeah, I need to start with that one.
Andra Zaharia: Well, I’m glad, you know, I’ve learned so many things through coaching. I feel like it’s been one of the most intense learning experiences that helped me level up. And the thing that I love most about it is that it was super practical with things like these. And I love it that I can share them now with everyone and they can, you know… it’s about choosing what you need and just leaving what you don’t. I feel like that’s also kind of my learning style. And I think that it may be the same for you that we pick and choose things from other people’s experiences. We’re from things that we read, learn, do, and so on and so forth and form our own style of working and doing things. So, you talked about, just to go back a bit on, that mental separation that you talked about between doing work and the rest of our lives. It’s so easy to get sucked into just doing the work. It’s a place that we control. I have some control issues as well. Hence me being a freelancer and wanting to have Antonin ownership on as many things as possible. But it’s true that you know, we get really good at this, but we need to invest the same amount of time and effort into our personal lives to let’s say increase the performance, but then not in that very critical kind of way. So how did you build that separation? For many people, it’s so difficult. I feel like your experience right now could help a lot of people who are working from home, but don’t know how to set boundaries and who actually suffer from the fact that the lines have gotten so blurred that they don’t know what they’re doing and for who anymore.
Tom Hirst: Yeah. I think this is a constant struggle for all freelancers or any person that runs her own business. You’ll always have some form of the lines being blurred, but I think why this, especially in the last, like maybe four or five years, is that separation for me is the key. So, what I try to do with air is that, when I’m working, that gets my full attention on interrupted, and when I’m not working the same. I found it completely beneficial to both aspects of my life. So, you know, the business prospects went off and started my life prospects. You know, I felt a lot better when I was, I didn’t feel guilty anymore. You know what, I’m spending time with friends or when I’m with my family or. I haven’t always got my eye on something else. Because I know a lot of people do say that they like the kind of an hour here, an hour there and then nip out and pick the kids up from school and come back. And I mean, sometimes you have to do that kind of thing. But I think for me, the separation enables me to get more out of the time basically and allows me to be more present. So yeah, that’s separation for me has been a big thing. And it’s only I try and increase all times. I try and separate as much as I can. I don’t really want to be thinking about work at all. Especially on a weekend, things like that. That’s how I do it. I know everybody, you know, flexibilities to be embraced in freelancing and that’s something that I always say, but for me, it works nicely in my family unit that I have the weekends when I’m not thinking about work. And that’s what I usually try and do. So yeah, that’s how I manage it.
Andra Zaharia: I mentioned the fact that, you know, switching from back and forth, let’s say from personal to business or just in between tasks is such, it takes such a toll. It’s called residual attention and it basically takes us 20 minutes to readjust… To just get back into the flow of whatever it is we’re doing. So, it definitely, you know, freelancing comes with a lot of flexibility, but that flexibility, depending on how you use it comes at a cost and the cost we may not consciously realize. Could you give us some, let’s say very practical examples of how you manage to make the separation? Did you turn off all notifications on your phone? Do you only read emails at certain times of the day? How does that look in your life?
Tom Hirst: I think that the main one for me is I’ve always had a dedicated home office whichever house we’ve been living in. And kind of the unwritten rule in our house is that if the doors shut, I’m working and I know it’s really simplistic, but it’s super practical and it works. So yeah, like a typical workday when I’m in the office, the dog comes with me, he falls asleep, but then, you know, my wife would be at work and my daughter would be at nursery, normally. But if they’re in the house, they know that if the doors shut and I’m working and that’s the physical separation helps them with a mental separation, because I know that I’m not going to be disturbed. So that’s the main one that I do there. But yeah, no notifications. I just don’t have them at all. My phone lives in do not disturb mode, whether that’s social, our business. I never take on solicited calls either. So, I never display a phone number on my website or anything like that because I don’t really want people calling me when I’m in a deep work state. That’s been a really good one for me and I, whether that’s a business thing or whether that’s a friend thing. And I think you can kind of train people as well, not to call you at certain times. So, my friends know, like when you first saw your friends that you’re freelance in, so going back like 10 years now, they’ll be like “Oh, can I come round for a coffee? I’ve got a day off!” And it’s like “No because I’m working”. And over the years, they’ve eventually learned that if they call me nine to five, Monday to Thursday, there’s no way I’m picking that phone up. So, they just stopped doing it. So, yeah, that’s been a good way to training people not to call me out of the layer of separation between the business and the life aspects.
Andra Zaharia: So, so, so important and I feel the same! My mom used to call me, she’s like, “Hey, you’re working from home. I can call you anytime.” I’m like “No, no, you cannot. It’s not that, you know, you can call me if something’s urgent, obviously, but otherwise, everything can wait. If it’s not life or death, anything can wait.” And I’ve also found like request that “Hey, let’s jump on a call and discuss X”. I’ve made a rule that you always please email me with your specific request. And this is a very good filter for bad clients. If you can articulate what you need before we get out of the call, why should I do the work of articulating it for you? I’m happy to do that. If it’s part of a project and you know, we’re doing it in a formal way. There are so many interesting things. I think about freelancing that involves personal well, social dynamics. It’s, so interesting too, you know, first of all… you have to have the mindset that you’re a business owner.
And I think that that’s such an important thing that many freelancers miss. They feel like they’re well, they’re in a place where they’re not employed. So, you don’t have all that support system. You don’t have, let’s say, the reputation that comes with being part of a company, big or small, whatever it is.
You’re not… but you don’t think of yourself as a business owner while I think that is incredibly important. So, what kind of decisions come when you think of yourself as a business owner?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, that’s a really good point because I think a lot of people get into freelancing. The skill that they have that they sell started perhaps as a hobby, a lot of the time. And that was true for me. I spent, you know, with the program and I just saw it as a hobby and I made that into a profession. And I think sometimes that switch, you fail to realize that as soon as you step over that line into freelancing, you are your business. You’re not just a hobbyist, a program around whatever you want business. Yeah. So, you just like put the business hat on, I guess. And you’ve just got to think this is a serious… My life, you know, my life, my living depends on what I do with this time. So, if I’m just going to sit here and do things that are not bringing in the money. Then, you know, it’s not a business. Yeah, if you’re not making money, you’re not bringing revenue to your business. So, I think that’s the decision you’ve got to make is that context switch between just being very leisurely about it all, but then making how I did a tweet about this the other day, actually, and I think it was… What did I quote? Something about being serious about how efficient you are and how effective you are with your time, taking that seriously! I think that’s a big decision that you have to make when you make that switch into freelancing.
Andra Zaharia: So, so true! It’s so easy to fall into reading emails, checking social posting, things like that, doing admin work, which is a big part of being a freelancer and, you know, should have the process around that. Speaking of processes, I feel like having a good process is not just something that this is instrumental for any business, no matter its size, no matter what it does, but it’s also important for us as a freelancer. So, when you have your business hat on you design processes that help you get there, what kind of processes do you have in place to, you know, keep you making those good, healthy choices for yourself and your business?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, that’s a good one. In the pricing book that I wrote, I wrote about something called pricing preferences. So that’s essential, it’s kind of like a list on a reminder of all the pricing methodologies that high we’ll use with clients and how I will apply them. And that’s not necessarily now because it comes second nature. But in the beginning, especially when I felt “Look, I’m going to try” and, price things in a more effective way that really helped me as a process to look at the sheet is the discussion that I’m having with this client going along these lines. Am I applying what I want to apply effectively? Am I actually following through with what I said I would do? And if I wasn’t that I could use that as a reference and not say “Look, pastor Tom told the future. Tell him to do it this way, so use it.” And that’s kind of one of the processes that I really benefited from. And I write about that a lot in the pricing, freelancing projects, book all the processes that I use. I mean, I use a lot of template emails. So, a lot of common, queries that I might get, that I’ve got kind of a basic template that I can copy and paste and then just flush out. And then I guess the process with email in general, I mean, I think you touched on this earlier. I batch emails. I’m a massive believer in that. So I have a process for doing emails. What I’ll do is I’ll star all the important ones so that they stand out, I’ll do those first and I do them in priority. So, my process with email isn’t to do them in the order that they come in. It’s the order in which I prioritize them and I find that to be really effective too.
Andra Zaharia: It absolutely is! Batching is key, especially when you deal with many different types of tasks. And when you work in content, for example, and the speaking from experience here, you have so many things, I don’t, for example, I do strategy, but I don’t only do blog articles. I do kind of many things, especially because I work on retainers with clients and we work across a bunch of assets. So, the batching things are super important! Otherwise, you’re going to lose your mind a little by little, and you’re going to deplete your energy. I absolutely loved your pricing book. I thought it was, you know, I first saw the thread, so it just floated. It was massive. It was so clear, so articulate. You know it definitely shows that you speak from experience, but not just experience that you gather because just time, best through it’s because you thought about those things, you internalize them, you reflected on them and improve them. And you constantly doing that. So, what are some limiting beliefs around, let’s say pricing decisions that get freelancers stuck, or keep them from evolving as they would want to?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, I think that the main one is that everyone’s looking for a cookie-cutter pricing methodology that every single freelancer can apply to every single project, to every single client. And that doesn’t exist and it’s a lot more complex than that. So, I think in the struggle to find that magic formula, people stop experimenting with price and research and looking into it. But yeah, I mean, what helped me and what I talk about, I talk about this a bit more in the book is that researching it deeply and actually thinking about the psychology of pricing and going through my own experience obviously as well as the key driver to me up in my game, really as a freelancer. And I feel that people discount freelancing as being a bit of a black call when the, you know because there aren’t that many assets actually out there, there isn’t something that maybe even, as candid as this Twitter thread about the price thing, a lot of people are quite secretive of it. So I think that hinders freelancers as you know when we’re talking about price,
Andra Zaharia: It absolutely does. I think that you know, talking about these things, we’ve not been trained or educated to talk about money. It’s such a sensitive topic for us and it’s such a sensitive topic for clients as well because you never know… they don’t have anchors. What’s a starting point?
What’s a fair price for this? They have no idea. And they often ask for support from freelancers. They’ll often say, you know, you ask “What’s your budget?”, then they’ll say like “Hey, what’s your pricing?” and they’re going to try to figure out, you know, value for money. And that’s why I think it’s so important not to charge by the hour. And I know that you used to support this as well. That’s doesn’t work for anyone. Like, if you want to understand why just read Tom’s book. I’ll add links, obviously in the show notes to it. Just read the book and you’ll understand so much. And again, that sensitive topic. I feel like the pricing is sometimes part of the decision to take on a client or not, but should it be the most important? Is it the most important factor?
Tom Hirst: That’s a really good question. It’s obviously imperative, but it depends on where you are as a freelancer, because if you need the money, then price, obviously it plays a bigger role than if you don’t. But yeah, for me, in my position, price is important. It’s got to be the right price. I’ve got to feel comfortable with it, but also, I’ve got to like the client and I’ve got to like the work and I get; I get a big part of what I do, day to day now is for fulfillment purposes. Really? Money is not quite as important as it was when I was earlier in my career and when I was a younger person. So yeah, I think that for your own. Mental health, I guess, really as well, don’t just take projects for the money, really, especially the quick money, because it always ends up becoming painful in my experience, especially like when I first started some of the quick and easy jobs and never quick and easy. And I did another three that, that kind of looked once and it was like, you know, the lowest-paying clients often the hardest to please. And that is, that is such a true experience. I cannot emphasize how much. Truth is in that one sentence.
Andra Zaharia: It’s so true. Yes, absolutely. For freelancers and often for companies as well. It’s a common thing. I feel like this is kind of a mental pattern. It’s so important that you talked about us and I think that yes, not everyone may be in a place where they can just discount work, but if you get stuck with all these projects and all these clients that you don’t want, you can’t possibly make room for better clients to come on board because you’re not giving yourself that time and that space. And that energy, of course. And I feel like definitely, you know, building confidence in yourself, in your pricing strategy and your processes and your quality of work it does take time. But I think that also, a lot of people struggle with imposter syndrome. They struggle with feeling like they don’t know enough, or they’re not worthy enough to ask for a certain price. I even know freelancers who are incredibly good at what they do, and they have some high-paying customers and they often tell me that “Hey, I know they’re paying me for this, but I feel overpaid.” And still, to this day, they’ve been doing this for so many years. Did you ever deal with imposter syndrome? How did you work your way around it?
Tom Hirst: Yeah! Confidence for me was a major limiting factor. Especially in my early to mid-twenties, I would say. But yeah, I kind of turned that around by exercise. Again, I keep coming back to exercise, but it has been a big driver in a lot of good things that have come out of my freelancing career as well, taught me about consistency, but it also taught me how to be a bit more confident. I don’t really go to the gym for body image reasons, it’s more to keep my mental level. And I think that level of mental stability enabled me to be more confident in my actual abilities to programming, right? And that people would actually care about what I had to say. And the quality of work that I put out was good enough and things like that. So, yeah, that’s the way that I guess I dealt with the imposter syndrome was through exercise and building my own confidence and beliefs in my own self-worth.
Andra Zaharia: Do you talk to other freelancers about these things? Who do you talk to? You know, when you have doubts, when you have to make difficult decisions, who do you talk to and how do you know what is your support system looks like?
Tom Hirst: Yeah. I mean, well at home, my support system is my wife and we talk about it. We’re very similar, but then we’re very different as well. Like socially, we are very similar, but like professionally, we’re very different. She’s a nurse and I’m a freelancer working for myself forever, basically. So, whenever I have to get a bit of perspective, I run things by her and that’s always been really useful for me. I also run a mentorship for other freelances. I’m talking daily with all the freelancers who are at different stages of their journeys. So, running things by them as well is useful, and Twitter as well. I mean, it’s been really big for me the last year or so when I made an active effort to start growing my audience. It’s led to, you know, building like connections with people in DMS and things like ourselves, that’s how we got to know about each other. And I know that I needed to come to someone and ask them, run something by them. If it’s in their area of expertise, then they’ll give me their honest opinion. And that’s really reassuring.
Andra Zaharia: I love that about Twitter as well. I think that you know, I’m in three, let’s say main communities. One is cybersecurity, one is content and marketing in general, and one is freelancing and there are so many great people in all of them. And they all shared the same principles in mindset and that level of openness and connection that happens with the right people. I feel like in access and the level of access because you don’t get this with any other platform, in my opinion, not even LinkedIn, although, you know, that’s what it should be for. But it’s simply the type of people, the quality of people that I found the same. So, some of the most interesting conversations, some of the most wonderful people I’ve met over Twitter. And then sometimes we even met in real life, at conferences, even though they were from… they live on the other side of the world, having this type of conversation right now. If I were to give a piece of advice out of freelancers is that you need to find your tribe. You need to find and look to those people, not only that you admire, but also, you know, put yourself out there during the conversation. And you’re going to feel seen, you’re going to see that people have the same issues. You’re going to find out how they work through them and you’re going to learn so much more than, you know, struggling on your own. And so that just struggling on your own, not necessarily an avoid, but just being on there by yourself and speaking about, you know, talking to other people and how we see them, we have this thing, it’s built into the biology that makes us compare ourselves’ sweaters. And that’s such a big issue for so many people. Social media, definitely amplifies that to the point that it makes you feel very bad about yourself. It induces a lot of anxiety. How do you deal with that as a freelancer? You know, what anchors did you build? What helped you to stay away from comparisons and I just actually retain that energy and use it for yourself to build your own thing and to do good.
Tom Hirst: That’s a good one. I never really compare myself directly to other people, but I use their achievements as my own inspiration. If you get what I’m trying to say, I’ll try and flip it. So, I don’t try and view it as a negative thing. Someone else’s success isn’t my failure. So yeah, well, what I try to do is if I see someone doing, for instance, with Twitter a journey and you know, writing books and things like that, I actually drew a lot of inspiration from all the people were doing. I didn’t think “Oh, that guy made $10,000 on selling books on Gumroad. I’m gonna hate on him” or something like that. Like I thought, you know, I can do this myself and I used it as an inspiration as opposed to seeing it as, why am I not doing that already? And then, I mean, you’re only really fighting against yourself. You’re only wanting to better yourself. The challenge is against you and no one else. So, there’s never a direct comparison between you and another person, because we’re all so individually different. And I think, again, we talked about mindset. The beginning is how you will look at that. Like I said before, you can hate on the people who have got success or use it as inspiration. You know you can compare yourself to other people who are, they’re not like you because no one’s like you. So, you might as well just, get over it and use it in a positive light.
Andra Zaharia: It absolutely is so, so true. And one of the things I learned from doing this and it’ll looking to how other people work is that, you have to play into your strengths, even though that will take some time to actually, you know, internalize and be able to do, but that energy is much better using that direction.
But you have to tap into that abundance mindset. There’s enough for everyone. Yes, there is competition and it doesn’t mean you should slack off and not do what you say. You’re going to… you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it, but at the same time, you need to realize that everyone has a thing that they can do very well and, you know, cultivating that makes it a strong suit. So why did you talk about this specifically? When did you, what are your thoughts on you on picking a niche on positioning yourself into a very specific universe-specific way as a freelancer?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, I think it’s really important because I think if you try to appear as a Jack of all trades, you just come across as a master of none. And for me, the biggest upside, I guess was focusing on work on WordPress. So, when I first started freelancing, I just said I was going to be a web developer and that’s how I advertise myself. But people will know what they’re looking for more specific than what you give them credit for. So I knew that WordPress was obviously up and coming and people were really, you know, focused on that. And they would want that platform specifically because they knew how easy it was to use. So, what I did is I niche down from the generalist web developer to being a WordPress developer. And that just made everything easier: marketing, SEO. Whether I wrote any content, every email I would send would be easier because I’ve sent it to similar clients before it specializing just has got so many upsides and it just made so much sense. I never really went into an industry niche. I chose to stick to a platform. I know you mentioned that you go into cybersecurity and both can work. I get a lot of questions about this actually. Shall I pick a horizontal or vertical? Should I specialize in software or should I specialize in the industry? And I think all can work. And sometimes the finer that you go, the bigger the rewards. But you’ve got to obviously assess the market size and things like that. Niche for freelances, for me, is something I’m a big proponent of.
Andra Zaharia: Did you make that decision early on or how long did it take for you to reach that moment?
Tom Hirst: Pretty early on. I would say maybe about a year. I would say I was doing a few bits and to be honest, most of it was WordPress anyway, but something kind of just triggered in my mind. I’m thinking I need to amplify that this is my message, essentially in marketing. And yeah, it’s the SEO that really…
What’s the main benefit? So, what I did is I created specific landing pages and one was a freelance WordPress developer. And even, 10 years later, I’m still doing really well for that term. So even something as simple and as practical is, you know, niching down into giving yourself like a really short description of what you do, like a little one-liner or something like that can really help practically in terms of getting traffic to your website and things like that.
Andra Zaharia: It absolutely does. In speaking of that, where do most of your customers come from? I’m really curious how, you know, this evolved over time with you. I feel like, when you start off, it really depends on everyone, but when I started off, I already had like a number of people already knew me.
So I actually got my first customer before I quit my job. And like most of the people that I’ve worked within the past two years are people who already knew me, are people who heard of me, but increasingly now, and especially because of the niche, part I’m getting a lot more inbound request. So that’s how it evolved for me, but I know that for some people it’s the other way around. I’m curious, from your experience, how that evolved and if there were any specific choices that you made to go one way or the other.
Tom Hirst: Yeah. Cool. I mean to go into the history of how I got clients then and get them now. The first thing that I did was just to tell everyone that I was going to go freelance. So, I left University and I just thought I applied for one job. I didn’t get it. And I just thought I’m just going to go freelance because this is really what I want to do. This is what I can see myself staying with for a long time. So I just told all my friends, all my families told them to tell their friends and family, just to see if anybody would want a WordPress Website. And the first client I got came from contact with my dad because I told him that I was doing this about a specific thing. Hearing this buzzword, “WordPress”, he had no idea what it was, but then he made the connection because I told him about it previously. And then we got, I got linked up with this person and ended up being a long-term client for about two years, I think. But yeah, then how lead generation progressed for me was like I touched on before my website buildings, really specific landing pages, advertising just for WordPress websites, nothing else. And even refining that over time as well, to say that I would only take on them from scratch development. So, I went into… I suppose I kind of like to drill down even further in my niche. I said I don’t want to do theme work. I want to do a custom to fall in only. And then that separated me again from the rest of the crowd. So yeah, that’s kind of how it’s progressed for me. And it’s continued to be that my main two or three sources of leads. Now we’re obviously the website we’ve mentioned, repeat business, and just general word of mouth. Those are the three things for me. And I think when you do an issue down that, all becomes easier because people know you then as the really good WordPress developer.
Andra Zaharia: Exactly! Exactly, and they, you know, it’s much easier to build trust and confidence and to explain to people what you do because now with, you know, I feel like there’s a huge fragmentation in types of work and of roles of projects that you can take on. And you don’t have to, obviously trying to be everyone for everything. For everyone is never going to work, simply because they won’t understand why you do. So you need to be very specific and clear about that. When your customers are there, they know it’s for them and there’s like a bunch of things that you can work in the background. I was curious, so you’ve, shared with us so many amazing things, super actionable, very clear, very to the point, what are some resources that you’d recommend, you know, besides from your own, obviously, which I’ll definitely link to what are some resources like books or courses or whatever it was that you found extremely valuable and that actually, you know, helped you level up and cultivate all of this skills and your mindset and so on?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, let’s talk about a recent one. I’m really loving Atomic Habits by James Clear. I think that is, I know that a lot of people mentioned this book, but that’s probably because it’s so good. And I think that it’s kind of, it wasn’t like the groundbreaking for me, but it kind of reaffirmed the things I was already doing. So I kind of noticed that a lot of the things that James talks about in the book I was already doing, the consistency and habit stacking and things like that. So yeah, that book, in particular, is something that I I’ve read once, but I keep going back to it and it just reaffirms my approach. And other than that, I’m trying to think of some other resources. I mean, I haven’t really taken many courses myself. I prefer to read books and watch YouTube videos or things like that. But my pricing mentality to reference that directly kind of was again, reaffirmed by a book called Our Liberal And It’s Notes by Jonathan Sacks And that’s a really, really, really good book for anyone that kind of needs to understand the difference between selling time and selling value. And that, that for me, again, as I said, we have the “atomic habits.” One reaffirmed a lot of the things that I was already thinking and to found an asset that was already talking about, the things that I was already kind of putting into practice in my own life was really, you know, it was really great for me!
Andra Zaharia: And to wrap this up, what’s a decision that you’re building towards, or that you’re, you know, let’s say, gradually kind of constructing in your mind that will shape your future going forward?
Tom Hirst: Yeah, so, I think the main decision for me is going to come to that point where I decided to start ramping down freelancing with clients directly and start to put, you know, a hundred percent of my time into content creation, product creation, and coaching and things like that.
I think that it’s a natural progression for a lot of people. But yeah, I can see that I’m getting to that point now. So, what it is just, you know, getting all my ducks in a row basically to make that transition. So, that is the big decision in my life that I’m leading up to right now.
Andra Zaharia: Thanks so much for sharing all of this. I absolutely loved our conversation and I know that listeners will have so much to unpack and so much to take away from it. I really appreciate your openness and I really can’t wait to see what you do next. Thank you, Tom!
Tom Hirst: Thank you very much, Andra! It’s been great.