When you quit your job to become self-employed, you finally feel like you can live life on your own terms. You don’t have a boss breathing down your neck; you don’t have to worry if you take a long lunch; and you can work whenever you want. In short, you are your own boss.

But if you have a service-based business and take on clients, you can start to feel like you have multiple bosses if you’re not careful.

I quit my job two years ago to become self-employed, and I did all the things I dreamed about. I slept in, conducted business in my pajamas, and worked when I wanted. But in my eagerness to please clients and do well in my new business, I said yes to nearly every demand, every time frame, and every request – without regard to what I needed as business owner.

Feeling Like You Have Multiple Bosses

After a while, I started feeling ruled by multiple clients. Instead of one boss, I felt like I had many.

I felt as though if I pushed back on anything or said that I needed more time for a project, my clients would let me go. You can imagine what happened next: I started to feel burnt out and began to resent both my clients and the work. I wondered if I had made a mistake by quitting my job to become self-employed.

In the end, I realized I made a rookie mistake as a business owner – I hadn't set expectations with my clients on how I worked and what I needed to run my business. So when my clients needed more, I kept saying yes, and they kept asking for more. You know the saying, “Give someone an inch and they take a mile”? Well, it holds true when you're self-employed. A few extra things here and there can suddenly turn into you having no life and being at the mercy of your clients’ whims.

Set Expectations With Clients

As a service-based business owner, it’s key to treat yourself like a business owner (aka the boss) and not “just” whatever label you place on yourself.

For a long time, I thought I was “just” a lowly freelancer. But once I started to take myself seriously as a business owner, I realized that I needed to set better expectations with current and future clients. This way, we would all be on the same page and I could do my best work.

I like to think of myself as easygoing and nice to work with. I do my best to accommodate requests. So when a client asked me for a tight turnaround, I said I could make it happen. But as my business grew and this request increased in frequency, I had to come up with an explanation.

At one point, a colleague reminded me that, “Someone else’s emergency is not your emergency.” They were right.

Set ‘Terms of Service' From the Beginning

In order to help set things straight, I’ve decided to create a “terms of service” agreement so that clients know what to expect when they work with me. For your terms of service, you can include things like:

  • When your office hours are so that clients know when to hear from you (and when you’re not available).
  • How much lead time you need to produce work.
  • How you prefer to communicate (i.e. how best to reach you).
  • Any additional fees – such as late fees, rush fees, etc.

I’ve learned that if you don’t outline these things before you start working together, you may experience “requirement creep,” and clients may cross boundaries. In order to avoid any unnecessary stress or drama, set your terms and be clear with clients about what you need, how you work, and how much time you need to produce your best work.

The Bottom Line

Remember, you quit your job to be your own boss – not to be bossed around by clients. From my experience, clients have the best of intentions, but they aren’t mind readers. As in any relationship, communication is key. In order to smooth everything out, set clear expectations before signing any contracts or producing any work. That way you can still be your own boss and still have a life.