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She Became Her Own Boss and Discovered There Are No Rules

The pros and cons of being out there on your own

By Jill Smolowe

Two years ago, I traded in my Manhattan office, steady paycheck and commuter bus ticket to become a self-employed writer and life coach. Along the way, I’ve discovered something I hadn’t anticipated about being the boss of me: When you’re out there on your own, there are no rules to guide you.

Exciting? Yes. Unsettling? You bet. During my decades as a staff writer for various newsweeklies, I answered to editors (tight deadlines, performance reviews) and administrators (expense reports, cab slips). Now, I answer to no one but myself — which has meant having to make up my own rules as I go.

Take the salary thing, for instance. When I first hung out my shingle as a coach, a friend offered to place a notice with her network of working moms. Advertising myself as a coach-in-training, I priced the sessions at a bargain rate, candidly stating: “You get the coaching, I get the training.” That yielded a client, who soon began recommending me to her friends and colleagues. As my practice grew, I gave myself a raise, then another. But I applied the higher fees to newcomers only. For existing clients, I held the price steady.

I appreciate that not everyone would make this choice. But hey, I’m the boss of me. To my mind, it seems only fair that if a client signs up at a particular price, that figure shouldn’t change. Yes, I’m leaving potential money on the table. Then again, I’ve got some very devoted low-paying clients who continue to drive new business my way.

Another rule I made up along the way: if a referral results in a new client, I give the referring client a free session. I’ve actually had clients try to argue me out of this. But to me, it not only feels right, it feels like smart business.

Giving Myself A Voluntary Pay Cut

Nine months into coaching, business was brisk and I was charging a fee I considered reasonable. Woohoo, I thought. Then two clients, who worked in commission-driven industries that had hit a dry patch, asked if I would lower my price. In each instance, I spontaneously dropped my fee by 15 percent with the caveat that when business picked back up, we’d return to the higher price point. Later, I wondered if I’d been stupid.

“Truth is,” I told my husband, “I’d rather be gaining coaching experience than stewing about lost revenue.”

“Then that’s what you should do,” he said.

Was it really that easy? If one of those newsweeklies had suggested that I take a salary cut, I would have balked, then walked. Yet, here I’d purposefully pared my earnings and barely blinked.

Like I said, no rulebook to go by.

About a year on, the marketplace threw up a new question. During my coaching training, it had been pounded into me that a practice “niche” was essential. So, I identified myself as a grief and transition coach. After referrals brought several male and female clients my way who were grappling with divorce issues, I began to think it might make sense to expand the description of my services. Where a narrow niche had made sense initially, now it felt limiting.

My inner boss and I debated. Should I instead use the “Certified Professional Coach” (CPC) label of my trade? To my ear, that sounded too vague (and a bit redundant). Moreover, experience had shown me that no one (except other coaches) ever asks if I’m a CPC. Potential clients just want to know if I can help. If, after an initial complimentary session, a person feels the answer is "yes," we’re in business. So, mouthful though it is, I’m now a “grief, divorce and transition coach.”

The Right Way For Me To Network

Here’s another challenge encountered along the way: Clients come — and clients go. While in training, I’d learned that a coaching relationship typically lasts three to six months. So, when my very first client let me know that she felt ready to take on the world without a coach helping her to clarify her goals, identify the obstacles in the way and step-by-step remove them, I was pleased for both of us.

But a few weeks later, another client felt ready. Then, another. Though all three had written wonderful testimonials for my website describing why they loved to work with me, feelings of failure begin to stir.


Was I doing something wrong? Stop it, I lectured myself. Each of these is a success story.

Still, I was losing clients, and income, too. I’d never experienced this sort of churn in my journalism career. Each week when I put a story to bed, I didn’t wonder if there would be a next assignment. All I had to do was show up the following week and the answer was waiting for me. Now, I had to worry where my new clients would come from.

A high-octane male coach with a successful practice had asserted during my training that you have to “touch” people eight times on average before they sign up for your service. His advice? Mail out hundreds of business cards! Start a blog! Send out lots of emails and newsletters!  Really?

I hate it when Facebook “friends” bombard me with repetitive messages about their service, book or widget. If they bug me enough, I “hide” their feeds and relegate their emails to spam (as I’ve done with that high-octane coach). I didn’t want to become a source of such irritation.

Reluctantly, I gave the guy’s “Network! Network! Network!” approach a try and came away from a meeting of local entrepreneurs bored and dispirited. Soon after, a neighbor (himself a small business owner) gave me the name of a woman whose we2me decor business specializes in interior design for new divorcees. I sent her an email, and five minutes later Jodi Topitz phoned. “Let’s have coffee!” she said.

Two days later at her condo, I was treated to an eyeful of Topitz’s imaginative work and lively, informative conversation. We learned about each other; what services we each offered and why each of us might be right for the other’s clients.

Four years earlier when first starting out, she’d printed up brochures and flyers. “It proved a huge waste of money,” she told me. Divorcees, she’d discovered, needed to hear about her work from people they knew and trusted. Topitz had come to feel much the same way about promoting other people’s work. “I won’t recommend someone until I get to know her,” she said.

How did she feel about the eight-touch idea? “Yuck!” she shrieked.

When we stopped laughing, we speculated that perhaps our mutual reaction reflected a difference between the way men and women approach their work. True or not, each of us felt our time was better invested building business relationships one at a time.

“Now that I see we’re a fit,” she said, “I feel really comfortable telling people about you.” And I her.

As I left her condo two hours later, I realized I finally had identified a rule I could sign onto: Do what makes sense for you.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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