I think we are born with an innate desire to be liked and respected. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all crave connection & one of the building blocks of any meaningful relationship is a mutual respect for each other. But, like any good thing, this desire for acceptance, love & respect can turn into a demanding slave-master. And that is a miserable existence indeed.
I’ve found this to be particularly true in business. I’m a freelance web & app developer and when I started out I spent a lot of time pretending to be something I wasn’t in hopes it would bring me success. I started freelance almost five years ago and only recently did I figure out that it’s ok to be who I am. I don’t have to copy the “successful” studios to be successful myself.
In the beginning, I tried. I followed conventional wisdom and removed most of my personality, opting instead for a slick, ad agency-like brand & web presence. I made my company appear much larger than it was, offered dozens of services & hoped clients wouldn’t find out the truth.
Let’s be honest, the pressure to conform is a bitch. It starts at the earliest stages of life and many people never escape it.
I struggled to get business & the business I did get was no fun. After a year of doing this I was seriously considering going back to regular employment because I hated what I was doing. I was stressed all the time trying to keep up this image of a full-service agency that could compete with the best in the world. Every time a prospective client would call, I would put on this stone-faced, Don Draper bravado, all the while praying they would accept my proposal because, in reality, I was completely broke.
I thought everything had to be perfect for me to be successful. I had to have all the answers. I had to not need anyone. I thought if I could just be like those guys, clients would come running.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. And the truth is, I wasn’t fooling anyone. People can smell fakeness a mile away.
About a year and a half into freelancer, I started being myself with my clients. I’m a pretty open-book kind of guy. I crave authentic conversations and deep friendships. I can also be pretty sarcastic and a bit of a jokester. And I realized that my favorite (and most successful) projects were those where I didn’t hide these things behind a straight-faced, business persona. I’ve found that realness beat slickness every time.
I saw an immediate change in my business. First, I started really enjoying my work. I wasn’t hiding behind a fake persona anymore. Second, I started getting a lot more work. My business has tripled this year. Clients not only keep coming back, they recommend me to others on a regular basis. Since the beginning of this year, I have had more work than I can keep up with and I still don’t even have a live portfolio. I raise my rates on a regular basis, but clients keep coming.
I’m not going to say that all you have to do is be real and you’re business will skyrocket. Skill & professionalism are essential to success. But you can be skillful, professional & authentic at the same time.
Being yourself will actually attract the kind of clients you’ll enjoy working with.