My 7,5 lessons learned in being 18 years self-employed 


On the first of October 2004, I started my business.

That’s 18 years ago. Time to share some lessons?

And because life can be understood backwards but lived forwards, as philosopher Kierkegaard once said, I’m happy to lead you through my seven and a half biggest lessons learned over the previous 18 years.

To better understand and happily live forwards?!

When reading these lessons, it’s good to know that I’ve filled 3 major roles in the previous years:

1. 6 years being a trainer in creative thinking methods

2. 6 years taking the role as facilitator of brainstorming sessions

3. 6 years of being a professional speaker 

But let’s head over now to those 7,5 important lessons that helped me in building a successful business along the way. 

1. Don't invest in the things that you're not good at, but focus on your unique strengths.

If you don't like to write, don't write - and then maybe work with a freelancer to support you.

When I was a trainer, several people told me that I should be better at French, if I wanted to work in Belgium. And yes, to be honest, I'm a 'bad' Belgian guy because most Flemish people speak quite well Flemish ánd French, but I don’t. And that’s ok, because I felt that I didn't want to put in a lot of time and energy into something where I could go from a 6 to a 7. I’d rather improve my facilitation & speaking skills from an 8 to a 9 – which I did – because I’m convinced clients hire you for a certain quality.

Your time, money and attention are limited. So dare to choose. 

2. Follow-up is crucial

This sounds like a very boring tip, but it works. I guess that around 33% of the people don't answer your email, question or even proposal. It has happened more than once that I got a request for a training or speech, created a tailor made proposal and then received no answer at all. I didn't hear anything back, while they asked me to send a proposal quickly. Sometimes I had to follow up 3 or 4 times to hear only at my fifth call that they were sorry, that they had been very busy, but that they still wanted to work with me. So for every important email, I'll immediately create a follow-up in my to-do list for one week later, checking out if by then I got a reply. Because no immediate response from the other side, doesn’t mean a no. A good and kind follow-up often pays off. 

3. Build and invest in your network from the start.

I have around 16.000 connections on LinkedIn. I started with zero, like everybody else.

Consistency in building my network and connecting with new people has definitely contributed to my success. During the whole pandemic, I guess that 70% of my assignments came out of those previously created connections (so not new clients).

So if you've met a nice, interesting person, then send a LinkedIn connection request with a personal message. At this moment, LinkedIn is still the best platform for keeping your connections up to date! 

4. Be generous & flexible

I always try to go the extra mile for a client. I’m looking at how I can over-deliver without charging a fee for every extra action that I have to take. I have a very decent speaker fee so I’m not charging more money for that extra meeting with the CEO who wants to hear me in advance. I’m flexible if they have to change the date last minute. I send them 2 books when they order one. I know a lot of professionals who have contracts and procedures for every detail that can go wrong in an assignment. That doesn’t work nor resonate with my personality. In 18 years, I never had a contract or terms & conditions with a client - unless it was a requirement from their side - and it happened only once in 18 years that my trust was misled (and quite sure a contract wouldn’t have made any difference in that case). I go for generosity, flexibility and trust instead of charging every single action and trying to control everything.  

5. To be a professional speaker, you have to be in for the long run.

The process from a prospect to a client was quite short in my role as trainer or facilitator. I could meet somebody new and if they were interested in a session, it could take 2 to 4 months between the first meeting and the delivery of my session.

In my role as a speaker, this acquisition process is really different. It can take up between 2 weeks (shortest process for me where somebody saw me at a conference and changed their own agenda to get me on the speakers list 2 weeks later) to several years (it happens more and more that somebody saw me 3 or 4 years ago and only now has a bigger event where they can hire a guest speaker).

So patience is definitely handy, if you want to become a professional speaker. 

6. Quality breeds quantity

This expression is the opposite rule of a creative process where you want to have a lot of ideas that will lead to a few top-ideas. Investing in good systems and processes is important, but investing in yourself, in your personal development is crucial. I always tried to get inspiration and coaching from the (world-)top. It costs a lot of money, but it will speed up your learning journey tremendously. Everybody can teach the basics, but the real value is hidden in the details. I have worked with business coaches, voice coaches, speaking coaches and try to follow a deep-dive personal development training every year. The quality I gain through these learnings really breeds the quantity of speaker requests I receive. 

7. Simplicity is key

It took me quite some years to discover this one. During all those years, I have collected a lot of expertise around creativity, innovation and change. I can easily fill 1 or 2 weeks talking about those topics. But I've discovered that giving people some simple, specific tips and tools has more added value than overwhelming them with too much information. Lots of trainers and speakers are trapped in the curse of knowledge. They know so much about certain topics that they forget the essence they want to share.

A good curator hand-picks the artworks that might work for his audience. And I can assure you, it's not simple to explain something simple. 

7,5. Create and follow your own path

I gave this one only half a point because it’s so logical but I still see a lot of professionals making mistakes on this one. At the beginning of every 'career-role' I was following and listening to all the advice of the 'experts' out there. Authors, speakers, LinkedIn experts, … who told me that I should write a book, record my own podcast, work with organization X or Y, if I wanted to achieve certain things. And it's perfectly okay to get inspired by those sources, but the most important thing that I've learned was staying close to my own values and strengths. To be successful, you don’t need a book, you don’t need a podcast, you don’t need to do cold calling, … if it doesn’t feel right for you. Nothing wrong with doing experiments to test whether or not something is for you, but the most important element is: ‘Create your own path (and methods to reach out to clients)’. 


Do you recognize some of these tips for yourself or in your own business?