Insights from 2020

I started the year feeling tired. I was running an awful lot of workshops around the south east, many of them weekend events. Thanks to the vagaries of our rail system, I spent countless hours stuck on uncomfortable trains. I dreamed of running virtual events from the comfort of my pope cave. Indeed, I’d tried to convince clients that webinars and online courses were a good idea, but everyone wanted in-person events. Ha.

After a weekend event in February in a tiny, overheated room, I came down with what felt like flu. I was out of action for a couple of weeks and it took a few months before I was restored to my former vigour. Thanks to an antibody test, I now know it was almost certainly COVID-19. Normally, I like to be in the vanguard of new developments; this time, not so much.

While I recovered my energy, COVID took hold of the country. I remember coaching a client back in March. She was trying to decide whether to expand her business, a business that involved bringing together large numbers of people. We didn’t yet know what was to come. I suggested that the fate of the London Book Fair would give us a strong indication of what might happen. As a high profile event involving 25,000 people converging from all around the world, nobody was going to cancel it without good reason. There was a lot of money at stake. Just after I waved off my client, I saw the headline: “London Book Fair cancelled”.

That was the trigger. The next day, I received a succession of emails that started, “Hello Catherine. We’re very sorry but …” I’d had workshops booked through to the end of July - around £20,000 worth of business - and it all went in an afternoon. I allowed myself a couple of hours’ catastrophising and swearing, then came up with a plan. I designed virtual versions of all the events and pitched them to clients. Some were webinars, others a mix of webinar, online course, and 1-2-1 coaching. I managed to retain 95% of that business, and also picked up some additional work. Overall, I ran 40 webinars, created 14 online courses, and wrote 1 book.

Here’s what I’ve learned during 2020:

  • If your business is digital, you need an awful lot of contingencies. I discovered that my broadband at home can sense when I’m running a big event and it slows down to the speed of a 1990s modem. Other equipment can be capricious, too. I now have two of everything - computers, webcams, microphones - just in case one refuses to cooperate. My elderly Android phone has been a star, doubling as a webcam and also a surprisingly speedy wifi hotspot.
  • Although online events can’t compete with meeting real people, they do improve inclusivity. I noticed that my webinars attracted a much wider range of attendees who would normally be unable to participate, due to caring responsibilities, disabilities, or work commitments. Not only was it fun to meet different people, I also learned a huge amount from them. And I’ve been able to offer pro bono coaching and teaching on Zoom.
  • Whereas my business had previously been focused around London and Brighton, going online meant I could build an international audience. This had been tough to do when I was attending a lot of local networking events - most of which I didn’t enjoy. This all made sense when I read Derek Sivers’ blog post You Don’t Have to Be Local. He writes, “Two hours spent with one person who wants to “pick my brain” is two hours I could have spent making something that could be useful to the whole world, including that one person.”
  • Scalable income is a huge help when you’re self-employed. Although the Government has provided significant financial support to businesses during 2020, it has been patchy, with some receiving nothing at all. There’s no sick pay if you’re self-employed and certain sectors have seen their turnover plummet. I got over the worst of COVID within a fortnight, but at the time I had no idea how long it would take to recover. Income from books I’d published years ago meant I could cover my basic bills without raiding my savings. I’m now even more focused on creating assets that’ll keep on earning money for me.
  • Spending time on asset creation feels risky - after all, you’re investing many hours with absolutely no guarantees. However, this is one of the best ways to protect yourself against future uncertainty. If you just sell your time, your income disappears when you’re out of action. I spent most of September finishing a book, yet I still earned the same as previous months. I received a flurry of royalties on digital products I’d created earlier in the year.
  • Asset creation involves an investment of money, as well as time. Initially, I tried to create some of my online courses with basic equipment and software. Investing in an expensive camera was one of my best decisions this year. Filming is less frustrating and the results are better. Perversely, it’s when times are hard that you need to spend more money, not less. I often wonder whether I’m too risk-averse and should pay myself a higher salary. My caution has been rewarded this year, though, as I’ve had the cash to invest and a decent buffer against future mayhem. Some of the best advice I ever received was, “Don’t treat your business like a cashpoint.” If you extract the maximum every month, there’s nothing left when your laptop explodes. Paying yourself more when times are good means you have less when everything’s harder. You need to invest in yourself, as well as your business. I’ve probably spent at least a day a week learning how to do stuff this year. There’s always some tension in my mind - I should be doing, not learning - but that time has been vital for building my skills, knowledge, and mental agility. Again, having some scalable income has given me the freedom to pursue new areas. Everything feels uncertain at the moment, but it’s never been certain - that was just an illusion. One of the most useful books I read this year was The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. For him, the pandemic was entirely predictable. We can’t know exactly what will happen, but we should know that these events occur every so often. If we’re nimble, we can both protect ourselves from the ramifications and even benefit from them financially. Speaking of which, it’s never been clearer to me that the stock market is all about emotions, rather than mathematics. Although the world seemed to be going to hell in a handbag in 2020, the stock market was buoyant and I was getting a 20% return on my investments for most of the year. Another one of my top reads, Morgan Housel’s The Psychology of Money, explains why. Despite numerous temptations, I stuck with my original plan, plodding along with index trackers and regular pension contributions. My strategy will change in 2021, once I’ve had a chance to ponder it over Christmas with a small sherry. Conclusion The only certainty for 2021 is more uncertainty. Although we now have several vaccines (thank you, experts), it’ll take time to roll them out. In the meantime, we also have to contend with the challenges of Brexit. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the state to look after us or even provide leadership in times of crisis. For those of us who are able, we need to work this stuff out for ourselves and do our best to look after those who can’t.

I think 2021 also offers many opportunities. It’s never been easier to start a business, reach a global audience, and create scalable income. It’s not about attracting squillions of pounds in venture capital and pursuing world domination. Instead, we can grow small, ethical businesses that help other people and also allow us to enjoy financial security. With a financial cushion, you can afford to slow down and make better long-term choices, while technology skills allow you to go faster and respond to rapid change. You can stay small and nimble, but still make a big difference.