Category: lifestyle

Hard Lessons I’ve Learned in 7 Years as a Freelancer

lessons for freelancers
Day 11 of 15 Days to a Successful Freelance Business – a reality check

It’s no secret that I love the freelance life and the freedom and opportunities it brings that just aren’t possible when you have a boss, and a long commute.

However, it’s not all coffee mornings, dog walks and smiles.

Sometimes it’s stressful.

Sometimes it’s lonely.

And frankly, sometimes I wonder what the hell I’ve done.

Of course, I’m here to help make your Journey to Freelance a wee bit easier, but there are hard lessons to be learned along the way, and it does no-one any favours if I don’t at least mention them.

 

1. Your Earnings Are Likely to Drop

Yep, I’m sure you’ve read loads of blog posts about people who are raking in 6 figure salaries in part-time hours that they could never have dreamed of when they were employees. But the reality for most freelancers is that your earnings are likely to drop before they start to increase.

You are probably starting from ground zero.

You may never have had to market yourself before.

And it’s quite possible that you don’t have a ready made list of clients.

Instead of every day spent working on projects and client work – like you do in your employed life – you will have to spend huge amounts of time marketing yourself and your freelance business AND doing admin. You don’t get paid for these activities.

Of course, many of us go on to enjoy good earnings on part-time or flexible hours – just don’t kid yourself that it’s going to happen from the start (although I’m sure it does for some people, I suspect they are in the minority).

It took me 3.5 years before I was back to earning anything like I used to in my previous well-paid job. This is partly because I took the decision to cut my hours – so in fact, I was earning what I used to but in less hours – but it is mainly because I underestimated how much time I would have to spend on marketing, networking and admin.

Most small businesses spend 20 hours a week on marketing & promotion Click To Tweet

 

2. You Will Work Long Hours

I had this Utopian dream in which I only worked school hours, earned a nice amount of money, and took off all of the school holidays.

Pah!

The reality is that I started out working while the kids were at school, picking them up, feeding them, ferrying them to various activities, and then working again once they were tucked up in bed until about midnight before starting the whole rollercoaster at 6am the following morning.

I have always taken off Christmas, but usually only manage a few days at half term, and Easter and – apart from this summer – I’ve only ever taken off 2 of the 7 weeks summer vacation that they have here.

Now that I’ve been freelancing for a few years now, I don’t have to put in such long hours, but I still work at least 4 evenings per week. I work 14 hour days on a Monday (because my other half is off work and so does all the child-ferrying/dog walking activities) and I usually work while the kids are doing their homework or are at their various after school activities on the other days.

 

3. You Have to Do Stuff You Don’t Like

In my old job, I didn’t have to order stationery – the administrator did that.

I didn’t have to figure out the database – we had a database manager for that.

And I never had to remember invoices or check payments, because our operations manager did all of the financials.

Fast forward to now and I have to order the stationery, change the ink in the printer, manage the budget, market & promote the business, liaise with printers/designers, manage my website – including all of the updates, issues, plugins and problems. And I have to file my annual tax return.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like the marketing and promotions side – just as well, as it takes up a huge amount of time – but invoicing and chasing those invoices. Hmm, not so much.

Until your business has got to the point where you can outsource some of these activities – and some will never be worth your while outsourcing I would say – you will have to be chief cook and bottle washer.

 

4. You Will Find Out Who Your Friends Are

Not strictly work related, but I was surprised to find so many naysayers in my life when I started my freelance consultancy business.

People who thought I was crazy giving up my highly paid ‘management’ job (I hate managing staff).

People who scoffed at my idea of writing a business blog and selling ebooks, who questioned why I used social media (as though I was some sort of saddo who needed attention from strangers rather than, you know, using it to promote my business).

People who couldn’t wait to point out job adverts for work I could be doing – instead of freelancing (as though it wasn’t a career choice in the first place).

Some of these people were good friends of mine. Or at least, so I thought.

While I’m not suggesting that I fell out with everyone who had something negative to say, I was surprised that some of these friends weren’t more supportive.

As I said in my last post, you need to surround yourself with positive people if you’re going to stay productive. So, while I haven’t had any major bust ups, there are a few people that I don’t see quite as much of these days.

 

No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.
Alice Walker

 

5. The Buck Stops With You

If there are any mistakes with client work that you’ve missed because you’ve been juggling work – or because you’re human – you have to take it on the chin and face up to the fact that it was down to you.

No-one is going to chase that late invoice – you know, the big one that you really need paid because it’s nearly Christmas? – except you.

And those business cards that came back with a mistake in your email address? That’s because you forgot to proof it.

Frankly, I like the fact that the buck stops with me and that successes – as well as failures – are down to my hard work (or lack of), but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there are times when it would be nice to hand the responsibility over to someone else. But that person doesn’t exist.

 

6. It’s Lonely

I work from home and, while Murdo is here to keep me company, it’s not quite the same as having a good old natter with a work colleague over lunch. Or coffee. Or in the ladies loos (gossip related in those circumstances, of course).

I really like my own company and don’t need to be surrounded by people all of the time – in fact, I need my own company. But there are still days when it would be good to have a blether with someone to bounce off ideas or have a moan or just try to figure out a problem. Of course, you can get a business mentor or join networking groups – but sometimes you just have a need to vent about something there and then. I’ve found Murdo and the cats don’t really pay that much attention. And their advice is rubbish!

 

If any or all of the above has you questioning whether or not you want to do this freelance business thing – then good.

You will have given it serious thought and consideration (probably more than I did to begin with) and will know for sure if it’s the right life for you.

Yes, there’s tough stuff and hard lessons and crap to deal with when you run your own freelance business.

But there’s also…

Freedom to work the hours you want, to choose the work you want (probably not in the early days though) and to choose the direction you want your business to take

A determination to work hard and work long hours BECAUSE it’s your baby and you want to make it work

Passion and enthusiasm about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it

New ideas, new people and opportunities to branch out and learn more skills than ever before

Control of your own destiny – much more than you ever had as an employee

Excitement of having your own business and determining which way you want it to go

And, my personal favourite, an extra 4 or 5 hours spent with the kids EVERY DAY that I wouldn’t have had when I worked full-time hours with a 1 hour commute each way. They are, after all, only ‘on loan’ until they become adults and make their own way in the world, so I’d rather make the most of it while they still need their Mum.

 

So, have these lessons from a seasoned freelancer completely put you off – or made you more determined than ever? Or, if you freelance already, do you have any other hard lessons to add to the list?

 

UPDATE: Just read this post on Work Awesome – which sums up some of the above beautifully, and also gives 5 questions you should ask yourself BEFORE quitting your job to start your business. Great read!

How to Survive the School Holidays as a Freelance Parent

how to survive the school holidays as a freelance parent

 

For the first summer EVER since my eldest started school, I decided to take the entire summer off work.

No childcare, no meetings in the diary, no summer camp type activities booked – unless the kids wanted to do them rather than so I could have childcare cover for when I needed to work.

The plan was not to do no work, but to make sure that the kids came first and I would just work around them.

So far, so idyllic.

Except of course, for one tiny fact.

I’m an idiot.

Sure, taking the holidays off is a splendid idea. My eldest is going to high school and it seemed like a wonderful way to mark is transition by being totally available parent.

Apart from the bit about the fact that I HAVE to work.

I mean, I’m not so much of an idiot that I’d forgotten that fact, it’s just that for some bizarre reason (especially when you consider how much I like to plan things) I had sort of imagined that my work would just ‘happen’ in the random gaps and downtime in the day.

In reality, what happened was that week 1 didn’t go quite according to plan.

My son (formerly an early riser) suddenly became a teenager who wouldn’t get out of bed, and didn’t want to do anything – and all his friends had gone on holiday. Meanwhile, my daughter discovered a whole new set of friends around the corner and was out all day every day playing with them.

So, instead of trips for the 3 of us along with moments where both kids were out playing with friends, I had 1 kid who was never here and didn’t want to be with me, and another who was here all the time (although admittedly, he probably didn’t want to be with me either!)

And suddenly, I realized that a week had gone by during which I’d achieved nothing beyond trying to entertain grumpy almost teenager, being constantly interrupted by requests for food or complaints about boredom, while being unable to go anywhere because he wasn’t enthusiastic about anything and she was out playing with her friends. And the emails were starting to back up.

As soon as my other half got home from work, I would do precisely the following:

a) moan for half an hour about how I’d achieved nothing all day

b) feed us all

c) spend the entire evening on the computer panicking about how little I’d achieved all day and then panicking some more about how much I needed to do (without actually doing any of it) while being constantly interrupted by either the kids, my other half or the dog!

I hadn’t written any Apricot Ginger blog posts in advance (noticed the tumble weed on here for the past few weeks? *ahem*) and I hadn’t scheduled in any social media beyond week 1. By the middle of the 2nd week of the holidays I was starting to panic. Big time!

So, a few deep breaths later, one slightly ranty email to my other half and a pleading phone call to my mother, and I had secured a full day to myself to get my s*&t together.

In the interests of helping you to avoid the same fate and, if I’m being honest, to avoid making the same mistake myself in future, I thought it might be helpful to share a few words of wisdom to help any self employed or freelance types out there that I learned from my week and a half of stress at the start of the holidays.

 

Have a Plan

Yes, unbelievably, I sort of shimmy-ed up to the holidays all bright eyed with expectation about how fabulous it was going to be spending time with the children, while managing to still balance my work through the social media and remote working without actually having a plan as to how I was going to manage my workload.

In my utopian dream of a summer off with the kids spent taking advantage of new experiences as they arose I had forgotten the first rule of how to be as flexible as possible:

i.e. having a plan!

Ridiculous really when I am usually Mrs Organization but, because I had never taken the holidays off before, I had forgotten to apply my usual rules.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a blog post plan in the sense that I know what’s coming up. I just hadn’t actually planned when I was going to write the little babies!

The best way to be adaptable to new opportunities is to have a plan in the 1st place Click To Tweet

 

Automate

OK, I’ve written about automation before in this post here so I won’t go into masses of detail about how to do it or why, but that little day that the kids spent with Granny was a godsend when it came to social media. Because, beyond the first week, I hadn’t actually scheduled anything in.

Ordinarily, that’s no big deal as I do this once a week, but of course, I had no plan for when I was going to schedule in anything beyond this first week – a time when I was sole carer of the kids for 12 hours each day. So, now I have blocked off an hour on a Sunday morning while my other half and the kids walk the dog/do something away from the house when I can spend an hour bulk scheduling everything on Hootsuite.

 

Ask for Help

I am super lucky that my Mum lives a short 20 minute drive from me (actually, it was more by design than accident as we moved here for that specific reason after having the kids, however…)

I realize that not everyone is in the same position as me, but even if you don’t have family close by, ask friends for help with childcare – particularly other friends who freelance as they will understand your pain for a start. And of course, you can help each other out in times of urgent childcare need.

 

Don’t Forget About Execution

To be clear, this is not a childcare strategy – I’m talking about workload (honest).

I found myself half way through week 1 of the holidays not really enjoying myself, not spending any quality time with the kids, and generally feeling slightly anxious. I had half an eye on my work and half on entertaining the kids – which meant I wasn’t doing either terribly well (to put it mildly). In my mind, when I’d promised to take the holidays off, I had a vision of 6 weeks of chilled out bliss.

Of course, what happened was that I didn’t have my work planned out properly (or effectively is probably more accurate. I had a plan of WHAT needed done – I’d just forgotten the HOW I was going to achieve it part!).

In those 8 hours my Mum so generously gave me at the start of July, I wrote out when I was going to work on each of the areas I’d identified as work priorities to the middle of August by working back from 19th August (which is when the kids go back to school here) to the beginning of July and planning when I was going to work on each area in order to get them done.

 

Be Realistic

If you’ve little or no childcare for a month and a half, it’s unlikely that you’re going to achieve as much as you usually do. So perhaps your plan to write a book, develop an ecourse, gain 10 new clients and revamp your website are over ambitious? Look at the time you have and be realistic about what you can achieve.

I’ve given myself 3 priorities over the entire holidays:

Plan out 15 – 20 posts for Apricot Ginger and write/publish 6 of these

Deliver 6 guest posts plus 10 new outlines for my blog clients

Plan and initial prep for a promotion for my consultancy business (note I said, plan – I’m not launching until the end of August!)

Those are 3 areas that I would normally deliver in a much shorter time frame, but I simply don’t have that luxury.

I’ve also blocked off the days I have available to work between now and mid August and for each of those days, I have 3 daily priorities that will help me to reach my bigger objectives.

 

Carve Out Time Where You Can

My kids are 12 and 9 and the beauty of that is they don’t get up early during the holidays anymore. That means that – as I’m not an early riser – I can get a full hour of work done before they emerge from their rooms in the morning (Who am I kidding? I can get 3 hours done before my son appears!).

There’s no way I could have done this when they were little, as my son used to get up at 6am (which is about as early as I could possibly get up without needing to sleep for an hour at lunchtime myself!).

In those days, I did more work at the end of the day than at the beginning, but I much prefer getting an hour or 2 done in the morning, as it makes for a more relaxing day with the kids. Then I usually squeeze in another 2 to 3 hours in the evening depending on what we’ve had on that day.

Work when you can.

I’m not particularly good at fitting in bits and pieces of work in the odd half hour here and there as I much prefer having some time to focus.

I know it works well for other people – so if you can do that, go for it. But if, like me, you prefer some head down time to really crack on through the work, getting a chunk of time at either end of the day is a life saver.

 

Learn From Others

I noticed the other week that I was starting to obsess about productivity – everything I was saving onto Pocket, blogs that I was commenting on or sharing on Pinterest or Twitter – they all pointed to productivity.

There are fantastic tips out there if you’re really struggling to use the limited time available during the school holidays:

How to Be Self-Employed Over the Holidays Without Going Insane

12 Productivity Tips from Incredibly Busy Entrepreneurs

30 Quick Tips for Becoming More Productive

7 Tips for Writers Drowning in a Sea of Unwritten Content

I particularly like Ali Luke’s suggestion for batching common tasks (in the 7 Tips for Writers post). Sure, she’s talking about writing but you could apply that to anything in your workload, whether you’re a freelance event manager or a graphic designer. What can you batch and work through more quickly as a result?

 

I hope you’re enjoying the holidays and not finding the need to balance work and family too stressful – well, no more than usual 😉

I’d love to hear your tips for managing to stay sane during the long summer break so please pop them in the comments below.

And, as Jo Gifford says in her post above, remember why you’re doing this.

If you’re anything like me, you chose a freelance career BECAUSE OF and not in spite of, your family. The first step towards that is to have a clear plan for your work – and the rest should follow.

Book Review Tuesday: Be a Free Range Human

book review tuesday

Hello and welcome to the first of my Tuesday book review series.

Since starting this freelance life of mine, I have read blogs, books, taken courses and coaching sessions – all to help me to figure out how to get better at what I do and how to use the skills I already have to best effect.

book review be a free range humanAnd, with that in mind, I thought one of the best books I could kick the book review series off with would be Marianne Cantwell’s ‘Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9 to 5, create a life you love and still pay the bills’

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT an affiliate or sponsored post.

So you want to work for yourself but have no clue what you want to do.

Or you are bursting with ideas but can’t figure out where to start.

Or maybe you just have a nagging feeling that there’s more to life than your current job and that it is, indeed, a short one so you want to make the most of it.

If that sounds like you, then Marianne says that this is the book for you.


WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Marianne’s philosophy is pretty much that we shouldn’t feel like we are trapped in our career cages (i.e. the 9 to 5 job) due to needing to earn a living or worrying about what society might think of us doing something crazy like – starting a business or living a location free life. Instead, she advocates that we should find the work that we are best suited to, that uses the skills and strengths that we already have and that makes us not just get up in the morning, but look forward to the day ahead.

STYLE

Written in a no nonsense tone, Marianne’s prose is not for the formal or faint hearted. Yep, she will thrown in the odd expletive. Her writing style is bolshy, energetic and enthusiastic. All of which means that, if you’re looking for a formal business guide – or you don’t like a conversational tone – then this isn’t a book you’re going to want to read. It’s not a formal business guide. And Marianne certainly doesn’t do boring.

OUTLINE

Marianne has walked the talk. She lives a free range life after having been in the career cage herself and has built her business up from scratch through sheer determination. However, what I like most about the book is that she doesn’t just focus in on her own story, but instead features case studies of people who have started their own free range careers – from someone who started a t-shirt business (that made 6 figures before he moved on to something else) to a guy who was terrible at languages at school who now earns a living, yep, you guessed it teaching languages online.

Each section deals with a specific aspect of your free range journey, so you can work through it at your own pace and filling it in according to your own situation. I bought the Kindle version so used a notebook as I read it, but it’s great to jot down ideas, thoughts and work through the exercises in the book.

The first time I read it (I’ve read it 3 times now) although I felt inspired, I was a tiny bit overwhelmed too. It’s a lot to take in and is a different way of approaching our working lives – so it takes a bit of getting used to (particularly if you’re used to the more formal career cage life). I did have a moment of panic when I got to the end of the book, but still didn’t really have an idea that I loved or that said ‘That’s me!’ in any definite way.

However, because Marianne is a believer in ‘play projects’ or just getting stuck in and trying things out in a small way before you dedicate your life to it, that doesn’t necessarily matter.

By the second reading, I had gotten used to the approach and started to form some more concrete ideas on where my focus would be. And, because Marianne thinks you should try out ideas in a small way first, you don’t need to bet the house on your new business venture or dedicate yourself to years of learning a new skill. In fact, that’s entirely against the ethos of Free Ranging.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT IT

This is a practical guidebook, where you are inspired by the content and then work through the exercises tailoring them to your specific wants/needs. And that means that there’s no ducking out or skimming through it only to come to the end, stick it on the shelf and forget about it.

Marianne knows her stuff – so read it, work through it, and get the most out of it.

MAIN TAKEAWAY

One idea that really resonated with me is that we spend so much time trying to improve the aspects that we’re not so good at, that we forget about the areas that come naturally to us. And those are the ones that we need to concentrate on if we want to really shine in this life. Wouldn’t it be better if we were all encouraged to work to our strengths and build those?

WHY YOU SHOULD READ THIS

This book was a slow burn for me – although I suspect there are others who will read it and be raring to go the minute they put it down. I found that having the opportunity to think it through and then go through it again (hey, that’s just the way I roll) worked best in helping me to form my ideas and get clarity on the way forward.

If you’re looking for a standard business/how to manual then this isn’t the book for you. But if you want to have a different career – even if you’re not sure what that might be – or if you have aspirations to get more out of your life AND build a career that works directly towards your own strengths – then this is a must read.

 

Have you read Free Range Humans? What did you think of it – what were the best and worst bits for you? And if you have any other books in a similar vein that you’d like to see in the monthly book review, please let me know in the comments below. Or get in touch if you’d like to submit a guest book review.

 

12 Best Small Business Tools

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small business tools

When you’re running a small business, particularly when you’re just starting out, money can be tight, so here are my top 12 best small business tools that won’t break the bank but will help increase your productivity.

(SOME OF THE LINKS ARE AFFILIATE LINKS)

Planning

Trello helps you to plan and organise projects, and share them with your team. You can plan out marketing campaigns, product launches, website creation – whatever you are working on. Then, you can assign these tasks to others with dates for completion and notes alongside task, which they can then mark off once they’re complete. You can create checklists, add content from the web, add comments, schedule times and add labels. Trello is free to use and even if you don’t have a team, I find it helpful for planning blog posts, particularly if I am running a particular campaign to promote specific eproducts or training that I’m delivering.

best small business tools
Evernote is a workspace that can also be used to organise your projects and campaigns. Use it to store, organise and share content with your team. When I was writing my ebook for non-profits, I used it to clip articles and research from the web and store it all in a notebook that I’d created in Evernote. All of my research sources were then in one place, which helped the writing process flow more easily AND made it easy to find and credit my sources too. The basic package is free and the most expensive is £34.99 pa.

small business tools

Operations

Skype is the low cost/free (depending on what you’re using it for) way to make calls. For a small cost, you can get your own dedicated number with your a local dial code, which anyone dialling will only be charged local rates for regardless of where they are. It’s also a great way for liaising with clients or working with remote teams, as you can use the video call setting to feel as though you’re in the room with people. I particularly like the record feature which means that, if I am doing a Skype consult with a client, I can record it and then send it onto them to keep for future reference.

FreeAgent is the accounting software that I use for sending out my invoices, keeping track of my payments and helping me to fill out my tax returns. This is for UK based businesses only – as it sets out your tax for HMRC purposes rather than the IRS. My favourite feature is the payment reminder scheduler. No matter how good your clients are – even some of my very best clients have been terrible at paying on time – there will be times when you need to chase invoices. By setting up a reminder email series when you create your invoice, you don’t have to keep remembering to go back and chase them – the system will do it for you as often as you like. At £180 pa for sole traders it’s not cheap – but then again, when you compare it to the cost of an accountant, it’s an absolute bargain!

small business tools

Marketing/Communications

MailChimp is email marketing software that allows you to manage all of your subscribers in one place, send out email campaigns, run split tests. It will help you to optimise your emails by advising when you should send, and giving you detailed analytics on open and click rates. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t have first hand experience of MailChimp but I will be using it for Apricot Ginger in the near future. Free for up to 2,000 subscribers, this is perfect for small business startups. You can send out professional looking emails in a range of different formats and templates, without having any design experience. And the best part? You can figure out what your customers are interested in (or not).

Prezi is presentation software – think PowerPoint on caffeine. It allows you to create and share presentations that look as though a professional designer had created them. I’ve used it for training sessions, web presentations – and even to create video footage for my YouTube video series (I added the voiceovers using GarageBand on my iMac). In my personal opinion, Prezi is a cut above PowerPoint in terms of usability, as well as giving a professional edge to the overall look and feel of your presentations. Prices start from $0 for the basic package to $159 pa – well worth the investment.

Canva is the place I go to when I need to create graphics for my blog (like the one above). You can use their free images and text (there are lots to choose from), upload your own or pay a small amount (usually around $1) for graphics on their site. As well as making your blog images look a cut above the rest, you can also use it to create images for Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or headers for your emails. It doesn’t stop there though, as you can also use it for offline purpose, such as tickets or posters, as Canva gives you the option to download the image in various versions – some that are good enough to print, others that you can use online. Personally, I love Canva!

 

Sales

ejunkie is the platform I use to sell my ebooks. At an affordable $5 per month, all you need to do is upload your product to ejunkie, set the price (you can also run discounts or offer codes), add in details such as for the sales process, then add the html script that ejunkie generates to the webpage you are selling your product from. Then you can start promoting your product. ejunkie carries out all of the fulfillment (ie it sends on the product to your customer), processes the payment and applies any discounts that you have set up. You can also add your products to their affiliates scheme – or join other sellers affiliates schemes and start earning money that way too.

PayHip is my new selling platform love. Similar to ejunkie – although without the monthly charge – you can use it to sell your ebooks only, but I’ve been really happy with it. Again, you just set up your prices and discount codes, get your html script (in the form of a payment button that you add to your site) and PayHip then deals with all of the payment processing/order fulfilment. The charge is 5% per transaction.

 

Social Media

Hootsuite is my one stop shop when it comes to scheduling my social media. There’s a free version (which I use) or a business version which comes in at £6.99 per month. As I said in my post about improving your online presence, you shouldn’t rely on this for all of your social media communications, but for a small business short on time and resources, scheduling in some of your updates is a fantastic way of making sure your brand is promoted consistently. They also have analytics so you can track which of your content is being shared. I particularly like the fact that you can use it to set up your messages in advance for Twitter, Google +, Linked In – whatever.

small business tools
Facebook Scheduler – you can use Hootsuite to schedule in your Facebook messages too, but apparently, Facebook doesn’t like that, which I suspect means it either doesn’t promote these messages in other people’s feeds or they don’t show up properly. I’m not entirely sure but either way, I tend to schedule in my Facebook updates direct through Facebook itself (which is of course, all part of their plan). It’s easy to use and, if Facebook is your main social media platform then it’s worth doing.

small business tools
Tailwind is a social media scheduler that I’ve just discovered for Pinterest and, while I am still learning how to use it, I’m finding it really useful. Tailwind helps you to plan out and schedule the pins that you share on Pinterest in advance, allowing you to drip feed them over the course of a week or more. You can either set them up in the queue or schedule them to go out on specific days/times depending on what you need. There’s a free or paid version – I am currently getting to grips with the free version. It also provides insights and analytics so you can figure out where you’re getting the most engagement and what you’re doing right.

small business tools

Must Read: the top 12 Tools for Small Businesses to help save time & money. Please RT! Click To Tweet

 

So those are my favourite small business tools – any that you use that you think I’ve missed or that you’d like to add to the list? Or are there any here that you really don’t like?

Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear what you think.

 

How many sleeps?

christmasOnly 25 days until Christmas! You can even keep track here:

Xmas Clock

I know that lots of people post about what a nightmare it is and how they’re fed up with the whole Christmas bandwagon (rather than Band Aid) but if you’re looking for a spot of bah humbug, then look away now.

I bloody love Christmas!  I always have and – I hope – I always will.

However, this year there’s a bit of a fly in the ointment.

Having entertained my family for the past 7 years, I’ve decided to take a year off and not cater for 11 people, but instead, just have the 4 of us for Christmas (8 if you include the cats and the dog, which I don’t as I don’t have to cook for them!).

It has, it would be fair to say, caused something of a stir.

First of all, rather than stepping up to the plate, both of my sisters have used my ‘year off’ to opt out of doing anything with the family. I had (perhaps naively) thought ‘well, I’m spending it with my husband and kids but one or both of my sisters will visit Mum and Dad or cook dinner.’ But guess what? Neither has.

Secondly, my Dad has thrown all of his toys out of the pram, and said that if I’m not doing it this year, he’s never coming again and that he’s not coming on Boxing Day either (I had decided to do a Boxing Day buffet instead of the full Christmas spread).

Brilliant!

So, in the hope of having a quiet Christmas for once with my own family and making the most of what will probably be the last year that my youngest believes in the big man in red, and one of the last before my eldest becomes a teenager who probably doesn’t want to spend the whole day with us, I have also been delivered the early Christmas present of a full on guilt trip.

Has this put a dampener on my favourite time of year? Actually, no.

Had my family ever pitched in on the many years when I’ve cooked for them all and, you know, loaded the dishwasher, entertained the kids or walked the dog – instead of leaving it to me to do on top of cooking for them all – I might be feeling bad about having told them not to pitch up this year. But, as their rush to help out or play with my two has rarely happened, I don’t actually care!

Anyone who knows me (which is no-one who reads this blog) will know that this is completely out of character. Usually, I worry at length about what people think and letting people down but I have totally surprised myself by not giving a sh**.

Bad daughter/sister..

On the other hand, when I look at the alternative – staying in PJs until mid morning; eating a fab breakfast accompanied by fizz; taking a leisurely walk with the dog without having to run back to put the potatoes on; eating dinner over a number of hours as and when we feel like it – I find it difficult to stay feeling guilty for too long. Besides which, neither of my sisters feels remotely bad about their lack of effort, so why should I?

So, much as I love this time of year, for the first time ever, I am not going to attempt to have THE best Christmas ever.

I will not spend 4 days preparing meals – well, in reality 4 days preparing 1 flippin’ meal!

I will not care if I don’t manage to make all of my own mince pies from scratch along with 4 Christmas cakes

I will not feel bad about only providing soup and leftovers on Boxing Day

But most of all, I will say NO!

I’ve always loved Christmas but this year I think I’m going to love it a whole lot more! I’ll keep you posted…

What do you mean, you’re not ready yet?!?

“Get dressed!”

“Clean your teeth!”

“Have you got everything you need?”

“What do you mean your homework is due this morning!!??”

Yep, back to school usually means that the stress levels in our house go up to 11 out of a possible high score of 10.

My son doesn’t know what hurry means and my daughter is incapable of eating her breakfast at a rate faster than a sleepy snail who isn’t that keen on food.

So, barring shrieking like a banshee (although I have been known to do that too) how do I get the morning off to a better start?

Two ways really. Neither of which are rocket science.

1. Get organised the night before

Ah yes, sounds simple but sometimes you just want to flop on the sofa with a cuppa – or something stronger – to watch ‘Bake Off’ on iPlayer.

However, I know that if that’s what I choose to spend the evening doing, then the cost of my sloth-like behaviour is a morning of shouting, stress and disorganisation (see script above and imagine it played on a loop).

So, the night before, I lay out the school clothes (although I get my eldest to do this himself – he’s 11!), make sure the children have checked their homework diaries to see what’s due, and put it in their bags along with any snacks or other items they might need for the following day. Finally, I check shoes are polished (or at least clean) before leaving them all out and ready to go the following morning. Simple.

My son manages to layout all his clothes neatly for the day...
My son manages to layout all his clothes neatly for the day…

2. The chart

As my two are getting older (11 and 8) my ideal situation is that they will get themselves ready without constant reminders from me.

In reality, that doesn’t work.  So we have a chart on the wall that I gently – admittedly sometimes less gently – point them to when they seem to be stuck on ‘slowly, slowly’ mode. They also do seemingly endless after school activities, so it helps them to see what they’ve got on and what they need to get ready for the day.

Wednesday is the worst day of the week. My daughter has swimming at school, followed by hockey at 4pm then swimming club at 6pm, while my son has hockey at 5 – 6pm, followed by athletics at 6.30pm – in another town.

Oh, and all of his homework is due on a Thursday!

The only way to avoid chaos and maintain sanity is to get them to look at the chart every evening to prepare all of the items they need for the following day and then double check it again in the morning. Sanity restored.

Wednesdays require extra organisation for swimming, hockey, swimming, homework!!
Wednesdays require extra organisation for swimming, hockey, swimming, homework!!
'The Chart' - saves my voice in the morning at least
‘The Chart’ – saves my voice in the morning at least

 

Those two simple things are my Morning Wins.

Of course, at the risk of sounding like a Stepford Wife, not all my mornings go to plan.

Often, my son stands for too long in the shower and uses up all the hot water before I get in (cold shower mornings are never happy mornings).

Even more often, my daughter takes AN AGE to eat her breakfast.

Being honest, she takes an age to eat most of her meals, but breakfast is the meal that a) sets them up for the day – so I don’t like her leaving any of it and b) has to be eaten fairly quickly.

She’s definitely an owl rather than a lark sort of a person so getting her up super-early to eat breakfast isn’t a winner, so I was delighted to discover belVita Breakfast biscuits.

I have to admit, I’ve been skeptical of them in the past but, having tried them out for this #MorningWin Linky Challenge sponsored by belVita Breakfast (Learn more at http://bit.ly/belVitaUK) they really do fill you up just like they say they will. And, they taste delicious.

Of course, as with everything with my two, they can’t agree about their favourite type. My daughter likes the chocolate best, followed by apricot, but she doesn’t like nuts so wouldn’t try to the hazelnut.

My son, on the other hand, preferred the apricot to the chocolate with hazelnut being his least favourite too. (A result for me because I LOVED the hazelnut ones. They were for me to try out too, no?)

So, on those mornings when I just can’t get my little angel to eat at a speed conducive to leaving for school on time, and all she’s managed to do is to drink her fruit juice and an apple, I have been known to hand her a packet to eat on the way down the road.

Perfect!

Yay for belVita!
Yay for belVita!
No-one said Mum wasn't allowed them, right?
No-one said Mum wasn’t allowed them, right?

 

They are also a godsend on swimming training mornings (we have a 7.30am in the pool start on a Saturday, so a wee packet of belVita in the car on the way to the pool works a treat for powering her up and down the pool for an hour and a half).

I have to admit that I was more than slightly sniffy about them before. I mean, biscuits for breakfast! Really?! But, I am now a belVita convert, and they’ve been added into the cereal cupboard alongside the porridge and (my) muesli for those mornings when it just all becomes a bit too rushed.

This post is an entry for #MorningWin Linky Challenge sponsored by belVita Breakfast. Learn more at http://bit.ly/belVitaUK

 

4 tips for new dog owners

I have been posting on here now for about a month and have realised that, beyond a couple of mentions, I haven’t really featured ‘the apricot one’ of the title of this blog in all that much detail. So, introducing Murdo…

apricot cockapoo
Murdo the Cockapoo

He’s our 1 year old Cockapoo who has turned family life around (for the better) and who we can’t imagine life without.

He was also the subject of a ‘bit of a ding dong’ between me and Mr ApricotGinger who was convinced a dog would bring nothing but trouble into our lives. It all started about three years ago when my friend’s Lab was expecting pups. ‘Did I want one?’ Too right.

Did Mr AG – er, no. And he felt quite strongly about it too. After several arguments robust discussions, it was decided that we wouldn’t get a dog (by him).

OK, I thought, I will convince him of the big doggy shaped hole in our lives by fostering rescue dogs instead. So I signed up with a rescue agency in 2013 and we took in about 2 or 3 dogs before they found their forever homes. The problem is of course, that often, rescue dogs are either rehomed because their original owners didn’t look after them properly (in the majority of cases) or because they have proved difficult to train. And I’d never owned a dog before.

The first foster doggie was an absolute delight and I would have loved to keep her but, despite the fact Mr AG was fond of her too, I thought it wasn’t really fair to keep our first foster dog, as so many were looking for homes, so she was only with us for 3 weeks before going off to our new home.

The second dog was nuts. I mean box of frogs crazy. She had issues with trying to escape the garden (which she completely wrecked), she couldn’t be let off lead because she tried to kill ducks (and I live close to a river) and she couldn’t be let off lead in the surrounding countryside because it’s farmland and she had ‘previous’ when it came to livestock. After 2 weeks, I had to admit defeat and ask for someone else who perhaps lived in a more town type environment to take her. It was a tragedy as she is a beautiful Springer Spaniel and clearly, hadn’t been trained properly as a pup.

Springers are hugely intelligent but have BAGS of energy and they need to be helped to channel that properly. She was four years old when she came to us with a history of killing game and livestock.  Once they have that, it’s very difficult to train them out of it, which meant that she would have been useless as a gundog – such a shame because she certainly had the energy and the intelligence (if not the restraint and the recall).

Dog number three came and went on the same day as the owner realised he’d made a mistake and he made the 100 mile journey from his house to mine to come and pick her up, setting out almost as soon as she’d left him. He was delighted to have her back. My kids were devasted.

That was when I decided that the experiment hadn’t worked and I wanted a dog of our own, but having never owned a dog before, I thought a bit of groundwork might smooth the way for us.

1. Research the Breed
I spent MONTHS researching breeds, to figure out what sort of dog would suit our lifestyle. I love spaniels and, as we live in the countryside, thought a Working Cocker Spaniel might be ideal for us but I have to admit to being worried that a) it would need more exercise than I could give it and b) more importantly, that my asthmatic son might be allergic to dogs.  During my intensive research period, I came across a local Cocker Spaniel breeder (I did mention that I love spaniels, right?). On reading more on his site though, it turned out he’d moved from breeding Cockers to concentrating on Cockapoos, a breed I’d never heard of but which is a cross between either a Working or Show Cocker and a Poodle. They make fantastic family pets, are very intelligent and, even better, are less likely to shed and therefore, can potentially cause less problems for asthma sufferers/people with dog allergies (although it can’t be guaranteed).  Having found out about the breed, I decided that I’d like an F1 (which is a first generation cross where the parent is a pure bred Cocker and the Poodle) cross between a Working Cocker and a Miniature Poodle. But he didn’t seem to have any either planned or available so I just put it on the back burner, occasionally stalking his site.

After a month or so, I just happened to check his site when I discovered he had a litter of ‘apricot’ pups – I phoned him immediately and asked if he had a girl. ‘Only boys left’ was the response. However, after chatting to him a bit more about my reasons for wanting a girl (which weren’t really subject to anything other than all the foster dogs had been girls and I didn’t want a dog cocking his leg everywhere) I opted for a boy instead.

At 6 weeks old, I went to choose which of the boys would be ours and this gorgeous apricot boy with a wee white tip on his tail had to be ‘the one’. He had huge paws, a beautiful coat and the sweetest nature. I stayed and chatted with the breeder for a while and the puppy I’d chosen fell asleep in my arms while we chatted – I was ‘sold’.

Murdo @ 6 weeks
Murdo @ 6 weeks

2. Don’t expect the kids to look after the dog!
3 weeks after meeting Murdo for the first time, we all went to pick up the newly monikered, Murdo, and we haven’t looked back since. My son in particular loves his wee pal Murdo. However, while the kids love him dearly, they are not always keen on walking him – particularly when it’s raining or when FIFA15 is calling on the XBox.  The never remember that he needs fresh water every morning and have to be prompted to feed him. Thankfully, I was more than ready for this – and they do help out with him so it’s not all a disaster.  On the plus side, Mr AG, once so sceptical about getting a dog is quite possibly the most smitten.

3. If you’re not consistent with your training as a family, the dog will be difficult to train (because he’s totally confused!)
Mr AG does love the dog to bits which is fantastic. However, he has also allowed Murdo to develop a few bad habits – like jumping up on people when they come in (I have tried in vain to train it out of him but, as Mr AG and my son encourage it, this has proved impossible. It has also proved extremely embarrassing – the incident with my neighbour, a cream dry clean only coat and muddy paws is not one I’ll forget in a hurry!). Mr AG has also let him sleep on the sofa from day 1. I can leave a room with Murdo happily asleep on his mat only to return 5 minutes later to find him curled up next to Mr AG, both wearing guilty expressions. What Mr AG can’t get his head around though is why he still jumps on the sofa when he’s just out of the river/bath, has muddy paws or is generally filthy. Doesn’t he know he’ll get the upholstery dirty?!? Hmmm…

4. If you don’t know what you’re doing, training is worth the investment
Having never owned a dog before, I went to a dog trainer for some one to one lessons, focusing on recall and things like not jumping up *ahem* and not eating everything he comes across on a walk. To be honest, we’ve had more success with the recall than anything else but he is a delightful, well-socialised, happy wee boy. I had no idea, for example, that the reason he didn’t come when I called was that I sometimes said ‘Come’ and sometimes ‘Come here’. Mean the same to me. Sound totally different to a dog that doesn’t speak human. And who knew that spaniels actually respond really well to whistles – probably more so than voices?

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All in all, while he wouldn’t win any obedience competitions and definitely has his moments, Murdo has a fantastic personality, is regularly complimented by strangers, and more importantly, is one of the family. We all love him to bits.

Before I got Murdo, I always said I was a cat person with aspirations to own a dog but I think I’m most definitely 100% a doggie person. I love having this new member of the family who the kids adore and who tags along with us almost everywhere we go. It’s great having an excuse to escape the house for an hour or so to go for a quiet dog walk by the river or down the beach and most of all, it’s been brilliant to watch the children with him.

And, in an unexpected turn of events, my Mum, a self-confessed animal loather (not normal, I know) has been won over by the power of Murdo.  (She still hates our cats though!)

Right, the sun is shining for the first time this week and there’s a wee doggie and a tennis ball with his name on it…

'So are we going for that walk?'
‘So are we going for that walk?’