Knowing your numbers is, in my opinion, absolutely essential to treating your self-employed work like the real business that it is. And running a real business means looking at the bigger picture, paying yourself a fair salary, doing more of what works and what feels good, and less of what doesn’t. So here’s how I got serious about my own business numbers, and how it changed everything.
Before we dig into this I want to let you know that I have a free guide all about how I have regular “business meetings with myself” to look at my numbers & the bigger picture, and why this could be the best thing you do for your business. Click the button to download it…
I started my business journey as a freelance copywriter in 2008 purely as a way to make money (at first). I couldn't get a job out of uni, and I wasn't worried about feeling fulfilled, working in my zone of genius or defining my own version of success. I was worried about earning money. I was living a 4-hour train ride away from then-boyfriend, now-husband, Chris (which I hated), and we needed to save up to move in together.
A couple of years in I was earning decent money and I was happy, until I wasn't. Thankfully, things had grown really organically, but I was quickly burning myself out with no idea of what I really wanted to do.
I started to wonder what I was doing it all for and I dove into personal development books and business courses. What I realised is that what I had was actually a business, though I hadn't been treating it like a business at all. Something needed to change, for my sanity, my income and my personal fulfilment.
So I started with the numbers.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
I was busy – so busy – but I forced myself to take a step back and consider the bigger picture. For me this meant first looking at the numbers. Everything else would follow on from here: how I felt about how I was spending my time, systems, outsourcing, my big goals and so on. It all started with the numbers, because I needed to know where I was, what I needed to pay the bills, and what I needed to shape my business around the life I wanted to live.
The first thing I noticed when I looked back at my income was how much I had truly achieved in such a short space of time. I had been through some very lean months a couple of years into my business, but looking at the bigger picture in terms of years gave me pause for thought.
I had only started this business a few years ago. I’d literally taken ideas out of my head, found clients on the internet, and made money almost from nothing. Yes, there were dips in my income. Yes, I felt burnt out and wanted to earn more with less work. But the bigger picture highlighted how special my achievements really were.
When I Started Closely Tracking My Income, Everything Changed
As soon as I started really tracking my numbers, everything in my business changed. I was tracking before, of course, but I was always playing catch up. And even when my bookkeeping was up-to-date, I wasn’t really digging into what all the numbers meant.
So I made a promise to myself to track my numbers as often as possible. I did it nearly every day, in fact. This may sound excessive, or even a waste of time, but I actually found it fun. It only took a few minutes, since I was always so organised, and it was so very enlightening.
Amazing things happened since I stuck to that promise to myself:
- I developed a new level of awareness about my business I’d never had before
- I noticed trends trends relating to seasons and specific products or offers
- I motivated myself to take small actions to increase my income when I noticed I was having a low month
- I took more time out to celebrate my wins when I noticed I was having a good month
- I surprised myself – I was often earning more than I had expected
- I felt a weight off my shoulders when I faced my less profitable periods head on
- I started setting bigger goals based on what I knew I’d already achieved, and what might just be possible
- And I started hitting those bigger goals!
And the biggest and most startling thing that happened when I started really intimately getting to know my numbers? My income grew.
How Knowing My Numbers Grew My Income
I am almost afraid to say this, because I worry that it all sounds quite “woo”, but it’s true: when I started really and truly getting to know my numbers, those numbers quickly grew. If you asked me to go back through my books and pinpoint the time when I started getting serious about tracking and looking at the big money picture, I could tell you exactly when that was.
I know, I know, it all sounds a bit ridiculous. But I don’t think this is magic. I think there are real, practical reasons why this happened. In fact, the clues are in the list I wrote above.
When you know how much your business has earnt and grown over time, often starting from nothing, it reinforces the idea that it’s truly possible to earn more. When you set yourself goals based on those numbers (goals that are realistic but also a bit of a stretch) and you know exactly how close you are to meeting them, you often push a little harder and your brain comes up with some very creative ways to help you meet them.
And you know how much money you’re spending, too. This is important. I found that as my business and income grew, so did my expenses (massively, in fact!) I got to the point where I was spending more on software, contractors and training than I had ever made in total a couple of years before. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part of treating your business like a real business is knowing when to invest funds back into it and when to cut back. Getting clear on the bigger picture just makes all of this easier.
How I Look at the Bigger Money Picture
The exact exercises I use are all included in my course, Clarify: Your Big Picture Business Kit, but here’s a brief overview:
1) Start By Getting Really Honest About Your Financial Habits
We are all different when it comes to the way we approach money in our businesses. Some of us are on top of everything, and some of us pretty much bury our head in the sand. Be honest with yourself about where you need to do better and, if it’s not in your personality to do it better yourself, think about where you could get outside support. For me that looks like hiring an accountant and using bookkeeping software (Xero).
If you’re not in a great financial position, you may not be able to afford that support, and you may also be in denial (I know, I’ve been there). Take it from me, tracking your numbers in whatever form you can is the first step towards improving things.
2) Get Up to Date on Your Numbers & Look at the Trends
Now it’s time to make sure your numbers are up-to-date. If you’ve been in business for a while then you’ll have past years’ tax returns to look back on for profit and loss. But I want you to try and get yourself up to speed on your current year too. This is a big task if you’re behind, I know. I have gotten behind at times, and when I do I break it down into manageable goals. For example, if I was 6 months behind I might set a goal to sort 1 month out at a time for the next 6 weeks until it was all done. Whatever works for you.
Now it’s time to look at the trends. Things like: how much your income has changed over the years, your best years and months, what you sold during those years and months, what your highest expenses are… all of that stuff.
3) Set Goals & Consider Prices
I find that I’m in a much more empowered position to set goals that really mean something when I’ve done all that work beforehand. I like to set next-step goals (that feel good but realistic) and longer term goals (that are much bigger dreams). I also like to figure out a way to remind myself of my goals every month and check in with myself to make sure I’m staying focused.
There are a few exercises I use to play around with prices, to figure out whether what I’m charging actually fits into my bigger plans, or to know whether a few simple changes could actually make a big difference to my bottom line. If anything, it also helps me know that my big goals are more possible than I may have considered.
4) Look at the Big Picture of Your Business
Lastly, I want to emphasise that getting clear on your numbers isn’t just about numbers, at all. It’s also about knowing what matters to you, your core business values, the assets you already have in your business, your dream clients, and your big ideas and action steps. Because it all informs the way you work, the way you spend your time, the decisions you make and more.
My new course, Clarify: Your Big Picture Business Kit, takes you through all the exercises I personally use, and have developed over the past 8 or so years, to get clear on the big picture of my business. That means where I am now, what matters to me, where I want to go and, crucially, how to get there. It includes all of the money exercises, plus the big picture of all the moving parts of my business, and some very practical techniques for figuring out my big, secret goals too!