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  • 01.23.17

How Much Should Independent Workers Bend To Their Clients’ Cultures?

Your client’s culture creep can doom your solo career. But guess what? You’re a company, too, and you also have a culture.

How Much Should Independent Workers Bend To Their Clients’ Cultures?

Most people who start working for themselves for the first time enter the world of “solopreneurship” with little to no sales experience. This means we often pick up work anywhere we can get it–sometimes without realizing how much the anxiety to get started compromises our efforts right out of the gates.

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Typically, when new independent workers can’t squeeze enough initial business out of their existing networks, they turn to big business that are looking to outsource–and end up accepting the nearest available contract work. Anxious to get started, we prioritize quick money without formally developing a service or drawing up standards to run our businesses by.

Within a year, many are unhappy with our clients and work, wondering why we went out on our own in the first place. Even though we’re making real money, some even wonder if we should go back to a traditional job.

One culprit here is easy to miss, and it’s that we’ve become too absorbed into the company culture of our biggest client. Here’s what it takes to get yourself out of that predicament or–better yet–to avoid it in the first place.

How Their Culture Becomes Your Problem

It isn’t uncommon for independent workers to overextend themselves to match their clients’ work cultures, worried that they’ll lose the business if they don’t.

That often means going against our own work styles, and the signs that that’s happening can be subtle. We find ourselves feeling like we have to request time off, for instance, rather than informing our client of when our business is closed. Our client expects us to be constantly on call or available on a Slack channel all day.

Or maybe they require us to do our work in their office so we can conform to their schedule. Sometimes, being on site in the same physical space as the full-time employees you’re collaborating with is helpful. Other times, it’s pointless. Either way, your client may be treating you like an employee rather than a business owner–and letting that imbalanced dynamic dictate what they request of you, not what the project actually demands.

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And it’s easy to slip into a client’s cultural norms; most of us are used to being employees, not business owners. In situations like these, it soon becomes apparent that while our sales shortcut may have allowed us to get started quickly, there’s actually a hidden cost in failing to treat ourselves like a business. But recognizing that is the first step to fixing it.

You Are A Business, Too—Which Also Has A Culture

Because here’s the thing: Every company has a culture–even your tiny company of one. Maybe in your rush to launch, you didn’t sit down to articulate your values and guiding principles–the core elements of any company culture.

If you don’t set the boundaries up front, the client is more likely to see you as an employee (albeit one they don’t pay benefits to) rather than an independent entity they’ve partnered with. Solopreneurs need to see themselves as an equal party in every deal they strike, no matter how small the project, and that means developing their own rules to prevent culture creep.

How do you do that? There are two parts to it. You have to know what your business believes–these are its values–and then to set guidelines based on them–in other words, boundaries.

Values are often seen as hollow principles, but they’re critical for every business to function; they’re just the set of lenses through which you view the world. To find your values, ask why you started the business in the first place. Also look to things that frustrated you about previous work situations; values often lie on the flip side of those frustrations.

Then, in order to draw your own boundaries, ask yourself how you get your best work done. Consider elements like where you do your work, your most productive hours, and how you handle changing priorities. Once you know what you value and can set down some critical boundaries, you can communicate them to your clients more quickly.

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Making Your Own Work Culture Understood

The next step is simply to educate clients up front. This isn’t just critical for sparing you a lot of angst later on, it’s actually fundamental to your business. Letting your clients know what to expect from working with you is critical to maintaining healthy relationships. What’s more, this process actually begins before you agree to any work, not after you’ve signed the contract.

Twisting yourself into a pretzel at the beginning of a project is a sure way to end up with a difficult client and a whole heap of stress. In fact, the easiest way to educate clients is through your website. When explaining the parameters of your work to anyone who visits your site, you prime them for your first interaction. Those who disagree with your work style won’t even make it into your inbox, saving you precious time and headaches later.

For those who do, carefully evaluate every prospect, even those referred through your network. During those initial discovery meetings, ask questions that get at the heart of your principles. When presenting a proposal, include stipulations that cover your hard boundaries. And never accept a client who violates something on your list of boundaries.

Once you set a boundary, don’t back down–it’s a slippery slope. If you move a boundary, a client may think you’ll bend on others. Something subtle happens psychologically when we say “yes” but we really mean “no.” When we break a promise to ourselves, we stop trusting ourselves; we lose our confidence. And losing faith in yourself is bad news when you work for yourself. So set your boundaries early and often.

Irreconcilable (Cultural) Differences

While you want to be respectful of your client’s culture, feeling like you have to adhere to it over your own is a red flag. Address it immediately, taking care not to step over your own needs as a business owner. The uncomfortable truth is that not all client relationships are salvageable.

If your client continues to demand that you accommodate their work culture, just fire them. Don’t worry–you’ll find another that’s a better fit. They’re out there.

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Finally, give yourself some leeway, especially in the beginning. It’s okay to tap your network or grab low-hanging fruit in order to get yourself started. But while you do, be sure to start treating yourself like a company right from the get-go, articulating your values and setting boundaries–all before you sign a single contract.

Remind yourself that you’re a business owner now, not an employee. Being collaborative and accommodating within reason is a perfectly good, honorable, and humane thing to do, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. More often than not, independent workers do too much of it for the wrong ones. Never let your client dictate your own work culture, and be wary of leaning too far into theirs. You’ll both be grateful in the end.