“The only way I can earn more is to work more.”
That’s the realization that occurs at some point in the life of every coaching, consulting, writing, teaching, designing, or developing business. Sure, you can continue to raise your rates little by little, break into new markets and serve clients willing to pay more, and hone your skills so you can deliver more valuable outcomes… but at the end of the day, your pay is still based on the hours you put in.
Breaking the time-for-money trap has long been a topic of conversation inside the freelance and small business worlds. The universality of the experience of “topping out” your earning makes it fodder for gatekeepers to try to sell you the key to breaking the cycle, whether that’s developing online courses, blueprinting, or selling retainers.
It’s a problem that seems to be solved by changing your business model. But…
The answer to breaking out of the time-for-money trap isn’t to change your business model, it’s to change your identity.
Until you see yourself as someone new, someone who occupies a different role in your business and does something different to earn your keep, you will never fully break out of trading your precious time for a paycheck.
I used to manage a Borders Books & Music.
It was a fun job where I learned quite a bit about the challenges of running an organization. It was also incredibly stressful, as my tenure there coincided with the waning years of the company.
Ultimately, however, this job wasn’t a great use of my best skills. I’d gone to school for religious studies and music with a big emphasis on writing and communication.
When I became a mother after 5 years in retail management, I started thinking about other ways I could earn a living. My top goal was fulfilling, meaningful work that utilized my capabilities. I’d never had aspirations of earning even a median salary so enjoying my work was plenty.
I researched and researched and discovered the world of blogging, freelancing, and micro business. I’d actually started my first blog back in 2003 (oh, Xanga, I will never forget you) so it was an easy leap to see how earning money blogging would help me utilize my writing skills and create more meaningful work.
Six months into my journey blogging, I was off to the races. First I added a few hundred dollars to the family bottom line each month, then a few thousand. Soon, I was making more than my original full-time salary — and we still weren’t paying for childcare.
It was around this point that I realized I needed to change up my business model if I wanted to earn more.
And, boy, did I want to earn more…
I started teaching, coaching, and consulting.
I loved the creativity of my work and I relished my ability to move others to action with a blog post or an email. My little business earned more and more — and as it did, I realized that my goals were still small in comparison to others. I had so much farther I could go!
Now, the decision had to be made:
Was I going to continue coaching and consulting so that I could do this work that I loved?
Or, was I going to move fully into the role of business owner, manager, and entrepreneur?
This decision felt like a huge gamble.
It was the sure-thing versus a chance at something that could be even better, plus a much bigger payout.
Now, it would be a huge lie of omission to not tell you that this decision actually took years to be made — heck, it took years to fully realize that the decision had presented itself. Yet, it was the key decision I faced on my path forward.
To move on and continue exploring a path I had never dreamed of as a child — that of the entrepreneur & business owner — I needed to choose between work I knew I loved and the potential promise of running a business.
Sure, I’d been running a business all this time. But 90% of my time had been devoted to doing the work of the coach, consultant, educator, and writer. I could continue to grow in those capacities and increase both my revenue and impact — but only incrementally. As Breanne Dyck would say, I was my business instead of owning my business.
If I wanted to reach my increasingly expansive goals, I needed exponential growth and I needed to spend 90% of my time on running the business — not coaching, consulting, and writing.
Would I love running a business? Could I find the same flow, meaning, and fulfillment in becoming a CEO?
I decided I was willing to find out.
You don’t have to make the same choice.
You can continue to love doing the work of a coach, designer, consultant, developer, writer, educator, or practitioner. You can continue to level up your prices, your clients, your outcomes, and — ultimately — your payout little by little. You can even take steps toward more freedom by offering packages, outsourcing some work, or putting clients on retainer.
But your rewards will always be tied to your ability to work and produce results in the capacity others hire you for.
This is the key problem with all the time-for-money trap solutions that exist in the market today. Someone will gladly sell you the framework for scaling your coaching business with online courses but they don’t explain that — in doing so — you trade in your coach’s hat for a CEO’s hat (many of them don’t realize this tradeoff themselves). Someone else will gladly show you how to change your bespoke design offerings into a productized service but they don’t explain that — when you do — you trade in your designer’s hat for a manager’s hat.
Because most of us started small businesses to create more meaningful work for ourselves, our identities tend to be tied to our titles.
I am a coach. I am a designer. I am a developer.
Trading one hat for another can become a virtual existential crisis. Wading through this crisis is the only way to get to the other side — if the other side is where you want to go. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t functionally be both a designer and the founder of a design agency. You can’t functionally be both a coach and the CEO of an emerging training company.
While the work may overlap, your identity can not. You can try to hold the duality in place but you’ll always default to what is known and comfortable. You’ll forget you’re the founder, CEO, owner, manager. You’ll make decisions for yourself and not for the business.
Now, I say it’s virtually an existential crisis because, of course, you can always be a coach, a designer, a developer, a consultant. But, if you choose to truly break out of the time-for-money trap, that will no longer be your role in your business.
If that sounds awful, don’t do it! You can have a meaningful, thriving, lucrative business doing the work you love. You might not make much money in your sleep… but you’ll do just fine and be incredibly happy as long as you define your own success and don’t let the entrepreneurial gatekeepers shape your goals for you.
Are you still with me?
Are you willing to wade through this existential crisis and find a new role in your emerging company?
Kudos! Everything looks different from this side. Your budget, your schedule, your next steps. You’ll find you are comfortable with things that seemed impossible before (hiring help, letting others talk to your clients, divorcing your self from your brand, etc…). At the same time, you’ll find all sorts of old things that are now incredibly uncomfortable — and you’ll be okay with it.
You might even find that you love your new role even more than the old one.