Two of the most inspiring and generally lovely women I know are the awesome Alice Reeves and Sophie Turton of The Joyful Web. Their mission is to help businesses make a positive impact on the world, and they do that by bringing joy and love into marketing. They even host a series of events and an online community called Leading with Love, which support and motivate business owners (like myself) to do the same.

Not so long ago, Alice asked in that online community what “love” meant to each of us in a business context. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I have realised that for me it mostly comes down to collaboration.

I spent the last six years of my career in traditional marketing agencies – the kind with chronic cases of presenteeism, where you’re expected to stay in the office as late as possible, and it’s a badge of honour to be working on weekends and holidays. The kind where you’re encouraged to want to crush the competition and see anyone in a similar line of business as the enemy. One former boss of mine even boasted about challenging another agency owner to a fist fight.

That kind of aggressive corporate environment is one that leads to burn out, chronic stress, anxiety and isolation. It breeds tension within and between employees that is most certainly not conducive to top performance. Staff aren’t happy, clients aren’t getting the best results, and those at the top are mostly angry. So, ultimately, no one wins. But somehow we’ve been collectively brainwashed to believe that this is the only way. I certainly swallowed it hook, line and sinker. I worked until 9pm every night, worked weekends, checked in whilst on holiday. I wouldn’t talk to anyone from another agency about my work, especially if they were working in similar areas. I thought that anyone who did a role similar to mine would be looking to stab me in the back, steal my clients and take my ideas.

Then I was abruptly thrust out of that corporate agency world after my daughter was born. I found myself looking to build a career as a freelance marketer. But I had a problem – a lot of my good friends were freelancer marketers. I was seriously concerned: wouldn’t I be competing with them for clients? Wouldn’t they resent another fish swimming in their pond? Wouldn’t we be having to compare ourselves and go up against each other for every opportunity? Would I have to choose between friendship and work?

The reality turned out to be the complete opposite. The majority of work that I’ve had in my first three months of self-employment has come through referrals from those very friends. I, in turn, have been referring work to other marketing freelancers I know. I’ve been working closely with a couple of my friends on shared clients, and am looking at new projects to collaborate on with my fellow freelancers in the new year.

Why is the experience of working for myself so different to that of working for a business? Are freelancers more collaborative by nature, or is it that, freed from the corporate machine, we are able to do business in a way that we feel good about? Perhaps, without the safety net of an organisation behind us, we have more acutely recognised the value of being part of a community. Whatever the reason, it feels amazing to be connected to so many talented and passionate people who support and inspire one another on a daily basis.

It doesn’t have to be just freelancers and one (wo)man bands that operate this way, though. I’ve seen so many former clients be terrified of the competition, not wanting to share on social media any article that mentioned a rival brand, and rejecting any PR opportunity that might involve them sitting alongside another similar company. It was as if they thought that if their customers became aware of competitors, they’d immediately lose their business. But life doesn’t work like that. I don’t know of one single person who shops exclusively in one place. Your wardrobe is comprised of a range of different labels, there are multiple brands in your bathroom cabinet, you’ve probably booked holidays through a variety of different travel agents and you definitely drink more than one make of wine/beer/gin/lemonade. Brands don’t have to be scared of one another. They share customers, they can share ideas and initiatives too.

Amazing things happen when we work together. Great ideas, new innovations, fresh insights. When we collaborate, we push each other forward and improve the output for our customers. The old competitive corporate model is broken, and it’s breaking its employees. One by one, they’re moving away from traditional inward-looking businesses and developing new collaborative approaches. Organisations should join them in evolving the way that business is done. It will benefit everyone – companies, employees, customers.

I’m happier working for myself than I’ve ever been in any job since I first stated working 19 years ago (I had my first part-time job at 16; go on, do the maths). The reason being that the tension I felt every day in that aggressive, competitive environment has gone, and I’m no longer being restricted and isolated. I spend my days having exciting and energising conversations with other freelancers about our work, our businesses and our ambitions. We haven’t had to sacrifice any of our drive or our dreams, or stifle our creativity, to be part of this community, but we can call on one another to help us with challenges, keep us motivated and take our businesses to the next level. We can be fully the selves we want to be, whilst being uplifted and uplifting others. That is what love means to me.

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