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The Real Reason Why My Freelance Business Failed

andystitt829 profile image Andy Stitt ・8 min read

In May 2016, I quit my job of nine years to go into freelance web development full-time specializing in WordPress. My last day on the job was June 3.

In October 2016, I saw the writing on the wall and started looking for a full-time job while freelancing. I landed a full-time job in January 2017.

I had to shut my doors seven months after I started. It was a dream I had for about a decade. And I failed.

The obvious reason why I failed is because clients ran out and money dried up. However, I didn't know the real reason why I failed until recently.

My business failed because of unhealed trauma

My unhealed trauma caused me to go into business for myself without setting myself up for success.

I was absolutely obsessed with going into business for myself. I wanted to be a web developer and marketing consultant. I dreamt about it and prepared myself for it in the best ways that I knew how.

When I made the decision to quit my job, everything in my body told me that it was the right thing to do. It was a year after my ex-wife had left me and completely turned my life upside down. We got divorced, and I had a little of bit of savings stashed away after we split the money up.

I figured I had already lost so much that I didn't have much left to lose. Might as well go for it, right?

I lacked what I needed to succeed

I decided to become a WordPress consultant for nonprofits since I had spent a decade working in the nonprofit space. I wanted to take on projects where I built custom WordPress websites for nonprofits that would help them increase their fundraising.

I wanted to build a six figure consulting business.

I didn't have anything that it took to actually make this happen. Let me count the ways:

1. I wasn't a very good developer yet

I wanted to do freelance web development, and I wasn't a very good web developer. I had a pretty solid handle on HTML and CSS, though I knew far less than I thought I did. My JavaScript knowledge was almost nonexistent except for a few simple jQuery methods.

I loved working with the Genesis Framework in WordPress because the child themes gave me such a head start that I didn't have to do all the coding myself. Custom builds were not yet something that I was comfortable with.

Yet I was marketing myself as a service provider that could do just that.

2. I wasn't a proven marketer yet

I got my MBA in marketing. I worked with an external agency that helped build our website at my old job. I was the solo marketing person at my old job before we started working with that agency. However, I had no experience actually doing marketing work that brought in leads that then brought in cash.

Yet I was marketing myself as a service provider that could do just that.

3. I didn't have nearly enough leads in the pipeline

I had no idea just how many leads I needed in the pipeline that would convert into project sales and monthly maintenance retainer clients. I started with basically nothing and tried planting my seeds as I needed them to harvest. It didn't work out so well.

I had part-time contract work that slowed my demise, but otherwise I had next to nothing.

Even if I had leads, I didn't have a pricing plan that would allow me to charge enough to have profitable projects. I set an hourly rate that I thought was reasonable, but otherwise I had no plan.

4. Oh yeah, my trauma....I was afraid of people and was hoping to be saved

At the time, I had no idea that I had been carrying around trauma since I was a baby/toddler. It manifested itself in many symptoms, including anxiety, depression, OCD, kidney stones, and allergies.

I always looked at these symptoms as symptoms to be treated with medications instead of thinking that they had a root cause. The root cause was trauma that I, and everyone around me, were completely unaware of.

The trauma that I was carrying caused me to be unconsciously afraid of people. I was afraid that everyone was out to hurt me, and if I reached out to people and asked for something that they would respond negatively to me and hurt me.

This is very, very problematic when you go into business for yourself doing client services. You have to reach out to people all the time for many reasons, including to drum up business, move projects along, etc.

If you're a good consultant, you have to set boundaries, defend your decisions, and communicate persuasively with clients.

If I'm afraid that people are going to hurt me if I reach out to them, then how the hell am I supposed to do any of that?

A characteristic shared by many victims of childhood trauma is that they are looking to be saved. The trauma takes away their sense of agency and capability, and so they look for someone to save them since they feel that they can't hack it on their own.

I carried this childhood trauma into adulthood, and so I was always looking for someone to save me.

I was drawn to the WordPress community because of how open, friendly, and accepting they were. I also saw that people would frequently refer work to each other when they were at capacity with client work.

I went into business for myself with full confidence that people would refer work to me and that it would keep me afloat for as long as I needed.

I reached out to two friends at the beginning asking if they had any work or leads, and they said no but they would be happy to let me know if they saw anything that came up. One even offered to retweet me if I put it out there that I was looking for project work.

This caused me to absolutely freak out. They weren't giving me work. They weren't saving me. And I was too afraid to put myself out there and say that I was looking for project work, because I was afraid that people were going to hurt me.

I learned quickly that I wasn't going to be saved and didn't know what to do next.

5. I did everything alone.

Aside from the part-time contract work, where I worked on teams, I did everything else completely on my own. I also lived alone, having been divorced for less than a year, and did all of my work remotely. This included the contract jobs.

Part of my trauma comes from feeling like I was all alone. So, I managed to recreate this condition by actually being alone trying to execute a business and not having what I needed to succeed to begin with.

The end result: I re-traumatized myself

From July through the end of October, I did my contract work that didn't pay all the bills, got very occasional client work that made me pennies, and slowly burned through my savings. At the beginning of November, my contract gig hired someone else for the full-time developer position and let me go.

My income went to zero, I didn't have much left in savings, and I was alone.

I had outside financial help, so I was never in danger of starving. However, that was not enough to stave off my trauma activation.

The anxiety was so intensely, horrifyingly bad that I took myself to the hospital crisis center so that I didn't take my own life.

I wound up ok, dusted myself off, took a course to help me become a better developer, and landed my first job as a full-time WordPress developer.

How I finally became a good, confident developer

After that full-time job, where I was a solo developer at a nonprofit with the help of an outside agency that did maintenance work for us, I got laid off and landed a four-month contract as a front-end developer on a team with other developers.

I finally had people I could ask for help. When I would receive a project when the client was asking for a particular feature, I could ask if we had working code that did the job. I had a supervisor and team lead that both supported me and gave me what I needed to get the job done.

The four month contract ended, and now I am a long-term state government contractor doing WordPress development on a team with developers, designers, and other creative professionals.

My team is fantastic. They are incredibly supportive. The environment has a nurturing aspect to it, which is something that I really benefit from. My trauma symptoms certainly show up when working with my team, but they've been nothing but good to me, and so it gives me the disconfirming experiences that I need to heal much of my trauma.

Thanks to my current job, I get to enjoy my work and become a better developer and marketer as well. I get to do it in a supportive environment with a steady paycheck and benefits and not all alone with a plummeting income and draining savings.

I think the trauma made me do it

People with unresolved trauma unconsciously do things to try to resolve it. That's just your body at work. Your body is an organism, and the organism does what it does to try and resolve the trauma so that it can release the trapped energy and get back to baseline.

Unfortunately, the organism doesn't work on a cognitive/intellectual level. Therefore, when you unconsciously do things to try and resolve your trauma, your organism doesn't give you the tools that you actually need to succeed, and you wind up at risk of becoming re-traumatized.

I think that's what happened to me. I charged forward with going into business for myself doing marketing and web development that I couldn't really do yet. It was an emotionally charging experience thinking about all the success I would have and how good it would make me feel.

When I quit my job and went into business for myself, I didn't have what I needed to succeed and wound up crashing and re-traumatizing myself.

I think I went into business for myself unconsciously in an effort to resolve my trauma.

Since then, I have thankfully discovered that I had been traumatized and have gotten treatment for it. It is still a work in progress and will be for as long as it needs to be. The pandemic has not helped, but healing has still been taking place.

I wonder if I went into web development itself to resolve my trauma. I really don't know. I have made much of what has been unconscious conscious, and I am still learning every day.

For now, my web development job is enough. I have a wonderful wife (we got married a month ago), and I have wonderful friends and family. Everything I have right now is enough, and my primary goal is to heal my trauma. I am doing that through therapy and reading and learning about trauma as much as I can.

That is my story. I don't have any lessons learned or takeaways for you. We live in a culture that celebrates success and the "top 30 under 30" and super-full-stack-developers who know front-end, back-end, databases, servers, and nuclear physics.

Front-end web development is also getting much more complicated with JavaScript frameworks, build tools, dependencies, and a whole bunch of other muck to wade through. My trauma brain wants to be able to solve complex problems, but my healing brain wants to simplify things.

For now, I have what I need at work, including a supportive team and uncomplicated development practices, and we'll see what the future holds!

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