I started freelancing over thirty years ago, and never considered that one day I would be a ‘proper’ business, until I opened my first production company in the early 1990s. At the time I had a kitchen table office, a business name and a scrappy attitude, but despite my freelancing experience I felt completely at sea when faced with the grown-up requirements of business.
Around the corner from my house was a local business centre offering free advice for start-ups. I stalked that organisation for a year, picking up their pamphlets and visiting their fledgling website, before deciding not to take part. There was nothing wrong with the offer or the organisation, but I was terrified of taking that step and sitting with someone who could help me. I had a million questions, and I knew I was making mistakes, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take part.
Now I run an organisation that offers business advice as one of our core services, and I meet people all the time who are just too scared to take the same step. The offer is safe and the advice is trustworthy, but the fear lingers. Finding a mentor, a coach or an advisor is such a critically important step in creating success, so why is it so hard?
There are lots of people who provide advice, from those that you engage and pay (like your accountant) to those who offer it up unsolicited at barbecues (like your Uncle Ron who ran a business back in the dark ages). At best it’s the sharing of knowledge, tips, and tricks from people who have experienced what you’re going through and genuinely want to help. Sometimes it’s more like a sales pitch, and the promise of initial free help in exchange for many dollars later. At worst, it’s bad advice, incorrect or irrelevant, or vaguely illegal.
So what are we afraid of when seeking advice, and how do we overcome that fear?
I don’t want to reveal how little I know.
Knowing when to ask for help is not a sign of stupidity, it’s a sign of brilliance. It can be hard to admit that you’re lost, but the paradox is that you don’t know what you don’t know. What may seem like a giant and insurmountable quandary to you could be something that your advisor sees on a regular basis.
People in the business of giving advice only exist because clever people know when to ask for help. It’s in fact the entire function of our work, so please put your fear of looking stupid to one side. If a business advisor makes you feel dumb, it’s their incompetence causing that to happen, not your lack of knowledge.
How will I know that it’s good advice?
This is a valid point. If you don’t know what you don’t know, then how can you validate the information you have been given? Rather than avoiding advice completely, I recommend seeking out multiple sources. Go online and do your own research and see more than one advisor. I’m always happy when clients tell me that they’re trying a few places and people for help – it’s a smart way of doing business, and far more constructive than avoiding advice altogether.
I don’t want someone to tell me I’m failing.
This can happen. Good advisors have a responsibility to sometimes ask hard questions about what you’re doing and why, and how you’re measuring your own progress. You could be failing in a constructive way, as part of the inevitable learning and improving of a new business or career. That kind of failure is very useful, as it’s part of both the creative and business process. All the best elements of my own craft and career have come from my giant stonking disasters. However, you could also be wandering towards avoidable catastrophe, and maybe even legal or financial problems. With the right kind of intervention and advice, you could avoid the worst-case scenario.
I’m going to sabotage the advisory process, accidentally or on purpose.
Self-sabotage is tricky – we all do it, it’s part of the human condition, but it can be extremely toxic for creative and business success (and you can read more about it here). Whichever way you’re operating, most self-sabotage is born from fear and a lack of accountability.
Talking to an advisor honestly about how you choose to shoot yourself in the foot can really help. A good advisor will have lots of tips to help you overcome these issues, and a coach can help you work out why you’re sabotaging yourself in the first place. The accountability provided by ongoing meetings could also help you figure out how to cure yourself of these destructive habits and help your craft and your business move beyond that place of fear.
An ongoing relationship with an advisor will force me to be accountable.
See above. Ongoing visits with a business advisor are a great way to stay accountable to your own goals. The best programs are ones where you set the outcomes, with guidance, and then work towards a finish line. Your advisor is there to help you stay on track and overcome any issues that get in your way of progress. You’re not actually responsible to them, but they provide you with the illusion of accountability and help you learn to be accountable to yourself and your own creative and business goals.
I can’t afford it, and even if it’s free there must be a catch.
This is important. Before embarking on a program, make sure you examine the fine print so you can be certain there’s no costly up-sell after the ‘free’ service. Call the provider or the advisory service and ask them to explain why it’s so cheap, or what the catch might be. If they’re cagey about the details, stay away. Get a proper price list for all services and make your decision based on expertise, cost and verifiable feedback from other clients. We’ve heard too many stories about ‘free’ services that have some sort of heinous upsell hiding in the background. On that note – all our prices are clearly marked on our website!
What if they tell me that my creative practice is not really a business?
When I avoided seeing a business advisor all those years ago, this was my main fear. I had a horrible suspicion that they would question my decision to start a film production company and tell me to give up on my dreams and get a ‘real job’ instead. It had certainly happened before! If your advisor makes you feel stupid in any way, that’s their incompetence and not your fault. Break up with them and seek advice elsewhere from a more professional source.
Eventually I got over my own fear of advice and sought out the help I needed to get my business off the ground. Now, of course, I run an organisation centred around providing education and advice to creative professionals, so clearly the benefits were profound. Good advice from a trusted source is a combination of hand-holding and guidance to help you make your own decisions and be accountable to what you want – from your life, your business or your craft. It’s another way of looking at a challenge, a little push in the right direction, a confirmation of what you already suspect, and ideally a transfer of wisdom between two clever creative people.