Living in Italy FAQ: Working for Yourself

April3

Every Monday I'll be adding a new post to our "Living in Italy FAQ" series. With a new baby in Casa Hash and very little time for personalized email responses, I'm answering the questions we get asked most often and archiving them on the site for future reference. Enjoy!

QUESTION: We love your story and can totally relate. My question is, I'm trying to change my line of work in order to do what you guys did (be location independent) and we're wondering if you can tell me a bit about how you started your business and what you do. -Alex and Stacey

Our path of self-employment and location-independency (did I just make that word up?) starts way back in college. I (Kate) majored in journalism and while writing is still one of my biggest passions, I realized early on that I would spend years slogging through the journalism world for low pay and long hours. Therefore, in my junior and senior years of college I focused more on the public relations side of journalism and interned at one of the largest business-to-business media companies. I got a job there after college working as a marketing manager. That is the job that really set the stage for what we do today -- I learned the ins and outs of marketing, copywriting and branding. The company specialized in construction industry publications and this was 2005 -- boom years. So, I was able to do a ton of ridiculously fun stuff at a really young age. Also, the marketing department was packed full of brilliant women. It was a great environment for me at 22 years old.

When Rob and I decided to move to Louisville, KY, I kept freelancing for this company and also picked up more work on the side. Even when I started working full-time in an office again (in higher education marketing) I still kept the freelance work for nights and weekends. A big tip: working freelance on the side in addition to having a full-time job is GREAT preparation for owning your own business. When you work for yourself you need to be prepared physically and mentally for 70 hour weeks -- and 20 hour weeks, too.

At the same time, Rob was working in project management for a non-profit. He does all of our client services, project development and management now and he learned a lot of those skills in this position. I hate to be cliche, but he is a people-person to the nth degree. Maybe it's because he grew up in Indiana, went to boarding school in California, college in Washington, DC and is married to a Philly-girl...he just gets along with everyone. His business development skills are crazzzzy good. We are lucky that while some of our skills overlap, we are really good in different areas.

Anyway, I share all of this because working for yourself doesn't happen overnight. Rob and I soaked up all of the skills and information we could from our full-time jobs. The problem with most office jobs, however, is that there isn't a ton of opportunity for growth. Freelance work meant that I could stay as up-to-date as possible with what was new in my industry. I also taught myself web design, CSS and Photoshop in my "off" hours. I'm now pretty darn advanced in all of these areas.

In December 2009, I decided that I just couldn't take my job anymore. This is also when we decided (really decided, not just talking about it) that we wanted to live abroad. So, we sold our house and I started working full-time doing my own thing. The stars aligned because not many months later I got so busy that I asked Rob to come work with me part-time. Ironically, a terrible living situation was the catalyst for us to bite the bullet, move in with my parents and start working for ourselves 100%. We've never looked back!

So, what do you do...exactly?

We work mostly with small businesses to develop and expand their online presence. From web design and development to SEO to copywriting to social networking, we really do it all. Because it's just the two of us we're able to work fast and efficient. Clients also love that they get to interact with us...which isn't always an option with bigger companies. I think what we both love most about working for ourselves is that we're always challenging ourselves and problem-solving for our clients. No two clients need the exact same thing and it's fun to figure things out for them!

The other wonderful thing about working for yourself is that you can learn new skills whenever and however you want. We read constantly about best practices and are always looking to expand our offering -- for instance we now build mobile sites for our clients, too! This is great not only for our business, but if one (or both) of us ever decide to go back to the traditional workforce we have a leg up on someone that may not have been in such a growth-friendly position.

So, how can I make this happen in my life?

The best advice that I can offer is that in 95% of cases you can't jump into self-employment overnight. Develop a plan for how you want to make your dream a reality. Set goals and slowly chip away them. You really need to commit to it. I spent three years freelancing on the side and 8 months working full-time for myself before Rob and I started our own business. Be patient, but aggressive -- if that makes any sense.

Also, know what you're good at. I think a lot of people fail at starting their own business and/or the location independent lifestyle because they aren't honest with themselves about what it is they're good at and would enjoy doing every single day. Similarly, it's important to find a niche. We love (and thrive at) working with individuals and small businesses. We understand the challenges they face and right-size our solutions to fit their needs.

Finally, it's important to know that working for yourself isn't easy. There are a ton of unknowns and it can be scary at times. I think a lot of people assume working for yourself is a breeze -- in many ways it's much, much harder. We just value our personal freedom so much that it makes these tough aspects OK.

Time to sound off...I know a lot of our readers are fellow expats that are self employed. Any advice we're missing here?