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Not So Elementary: The ‘Sherlock’ Guide to Freelancing and Small Business

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” says Sherlock Holmes.

Well, okay, Holmes never actually says that to Dr. John Watson in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But the point is, it’s simple to deduce who committed a crime from just a few clues. Simple for Holmes, anyway.

His cranial prowess is what makes him such a great detective — and he uses that skill as a self-employed consultant, the only consulting detective in the world. Unfortunately, it’s not so elementary for the rest of us looking to become our own bosses or start a freelancing business.

Sherlock Holmes lived in a different era, but the Holmes of BBC’s excellent modern adaptation, Sherlock, shows us how the detective would operate in the 21st century. From the series, we can deduce a few pointers for entrepreneurs thinking about starting a small business or becoming a freelancer.

Do something you love …

Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes)

Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes)

Sherlock works as a consulting detective because he likes to solve crimes. He describes himself as “married to his work,” hates the boredom that comes in between cases, and is positively gleeful when there’s work to be done.

If you’re going to work for yourself, make sure it’s something you enjoy. You’ll be putting a lot of time and effort into this endeavor, and you won’t succeed unless you have the passion to keep pushing forward.

… But remember it’s also a business.

Sherlock cares little about actually getting paid for his work. Luckily, John is there to accept checks from clients when Sherlock neglects to. Sherlock also turns down many cases, even when he and John are low on funds.

Keep in mind that, unlike Sherlock, you will probably have to take work you don’t want in order to pay the bills, at least initially. There are plenty of other details to iron out as well. Sherlock works from home, but maybe you want to rent office space. Perhaps you plan on hiring other people. Don’t forget about administrative costs and other behind-the-scenes chores, such as tracking your finances and developing a website.

Invest in good marketing …

Even before he meets John, Sherlock hosts a website where potential clients can contact him. As the two of them solve more high-profile crimes, their good work leads to newspaper features and word-of-mouth recommendations. John also writes about the cases they solve on his blog (warning: spoilers!), which increases interest in the consulting detective and brings them business.

It’s a simple notion: If you don’t market yourself, you won’t attract customers. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to publicize your company — networking, placing ads, maintaining social media pages, updating your website and blog, etc. — in addition to actually doing your job.

… But focus on customer service, too.

Sherlock yells at, insults, and patronizes his potential clients. John can usually diffuse the situation when things get tense, but Sherlock’s dismal customer service is definitely not good for business.

If you know your people skills are lacking and you have the money, you might consider hiring your own Watson — someone who can answer phones, address concerns and complaints, and handle whatever else you’re not comfortable with.

With or without an assistant, though, you will always have to interact with customers in some capacity. Therefore, be sure to treat your clients with kindness and respect and deliver excellent service at all times. You never know what leads even the most unpleasant clients could bring you!

Surround yourself with people you trust …

Martin Freeman (John Watson)

Martin Freeman (John Watson)

Though he says he has no friends, Sherlock relies on a core group of supporters. This includes Detective Inspector Lestrade, who consults Sherlock regularly; Mrs. Hudson, the motherly landlady; and Molly Hooper, who works in the morgue and lets Sherlock use the hospital’s equipment (and body parts) for experiments. And then of course there’s John, the heart to Sherlock’s head and his partner in crime-solving.

Even if you don’t hire anyone, build a network of friends, colleagues, and mentors. Connect with fellow entrepreneurs who can offer advice and recommend your work. Establish relationships with your repeat customers. Call on loved ones outside of work who can cheer you up during rough patches.

… But watch out for saboteurs.

Though Lestrade respects him, Sherlock faces friction from others in Scotland Yard who want to see him fail, such as Sergeant Donovan and Anderson from forensics. Understandably, criminals don’t like Sherlock either, especially evildoers like Jim Moriarty.

Obviously you’ll have competitors to contend with, but also be aware of the Debbie Downers and Negative Nancys in life who just don’t like seeing other people succeed. Furthermore, put policies in place to protect yourself from clients who try to take advantage of you or who don’t follow through on payment.

Starting your own business is a huge undertaking. But if you’re enthusiastic, determined, and willing to work hard, you can do it!

Keep Calm...

Do you own your own business? If so, what other tips can you share? Is there anything else we can learn about business from Sherlock Holmes?

Image credit to alun.vega, mimosveta, Rachel Hamsmith, and Scott Monty.


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  1. Jen

    What a great write up Rachel! I’ve always been a fan of Sherlock Holmes (in movies and t.v. shows), but I’ve yet to watch this show for some reason. It sounds awesome! You’ve compiled a lot of helpful info here for anyone looking to become an entrepreneur. Nice job!

    • Rachel

      Thanks! It’s an excellent show, and there are only 6 episodes so far (90 minutes apiece), so it’s easy to get caught up if you’re ever in the mood. And you can learn a little bit about being an entrepreneur while you’re watching, hah. 🙂 Glad you liked the post, Jen!

  2. Jana Quinn

    Brilliant, Rachel. I’ve been dying to get into the BBC Sherlock Holmes (love the short stories, the movies, and House), but I know that as soon as I start, it’ll suck up my weekend. I’m waiting for things to be a little less crazy.

    That said, all of your advice is brilliant. Incredible, raw talent is one thing, but you also need people people (people persons?) to work on marketing and making sure the bills are getting paid. Everyone just says “follow your passion,” but that’s not enough!

    Great tips, Rachel.

    • Rachel

      Yes, in my experience, it will absolutely suck up your weekend. 🙂 It has sucked up many of my weekends, in fact, haha.

      As to your other points: as sad a reality as it might be, you’re right — it isn’t enough to just be passionate if you’re going to run your own business. Obviously passion is super important, but there are so many other facets to maintaining a business besides just doing the work you’re good at. It’s a difficult truth, but an essential one if you’re going to succeed.

      Thanks, Jana! 🙂

  3. Jill Tooley

    Awesome post, Rachel. I don’t usually think of Sherlock Holmes and marketing together, but I keep forgetting that in this day and age, even detectives need to market themselves! 🙂

    I know several people who freelance for a living, and any of them will tell you how hard it is to get by sometimes — which is why they rarely turn down good-paying work. Even if the writing/design/detective/etc project isn’t glamorous, sometimes it’s necessary to pay the bills. Unless you’re at the top of your field, you have to do the yawn-worthy jobs at times…that’s important stuff.

    This show is pretty high on my to-watch list (I think there’s only 1 or 2 above it right now), so I’ll tackle it by the time summer’s over. I’ll be sure to let you know what I think, although I don’t see how I could dislike it. Sherlock Holmes never lets me down!

    • Rachel

      I don’t usually mix Sherlock Holmes with marketing either, but it ended up being a surprisingly good fit! 🙂

      I know a few people who freelance as well, and you’re so right about taking good-paying jobs, no matter how glamorous or un-glamorous they are. Not true in a television show, maybe, but an important lesson in real life.

      I hope you enjoy the show when you have a chance to watch it! Luckily there aren’t many episodes to get through, so it’s not a huge time commitment. Well, lucky for first-time viewing purposes, anyway — now I am dying for more episodes, hah! But alas, they don’t even start filming season 3 until January 2013 … Good things come to those who wait, I suppose. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Jill!

  4. Jenna Markowski

    Excellent post, Rachel! I’ve not seen this show yet, but it seems really great. It’s interesting how you really need two different kinds of personalities to start a business and keep it running — kind of like a yin/yang. I guess that’s kind of what Mike and Bret have going on here, and how things work between the sales/content departments. Very cool to see these examples at work right here in the office! 🙂

    • Rachel

      Thanks, Jenna! “Kind of like a yin/yang” — I agree! Some people have both those skill sets, but in many cases a partnership can be really beneficial.

      So I wonder … Holmes and Watson vs. Mike and Bret — who’s who? 😉

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    Excellent points all around, Rachel!

    I imagine that many business owners are like Sherlock – they are super-passionate about their work, and everything else comes second. And while it’s great that you’re so passionate, you do have to, you know, make a living.

    I look forward to picking up more entrepreneur tips when I (finally) rewatch season 1! 🙂

    • Rachel

      Agreed: being super-passionate is a must, but making a living is of course just as important. It’s that age-old balance of having both a good product/service AND good marketing — a crucial relationship in any business, whether a freelance gig or a giant corporation or something in between.

      I look forward to you rewatching season 1, too!! 🙂

  6. Eric

    So THAT’S the premise of this new series. 21st-Century spin. I can dig that. Great way you tied everything together, too. When is this show on? Think I’m definitely going to have to give it a look-see, because I grew up reading all those ACD stories, cover-to-cover. Great post, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      Thanks, Eric! The show airs in the U.S. on PBS–season 2 finished in May. Since there are only 3 episodes per season, the run unfortunately doesn’t last long. 🙂 Both seasons are on DVD now, though, so that’s the best way to watch them. I think iTunes is also offering the very first episode for free right now, though I’m not sure how long that will last. Netflix has season 1 streaming, too.

      I really need to get my act together and read the original stories. I started A Study in Scarlet a while ago but never finished it, and I think I’ve read one or two other short stories at some point, but I don’t remember them now. I think I may add them to my summer reading list. 🙂 The two show creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, are huge fans of the original stories, so they drop a lot of references in the TV show–so hopefully that’ll be right down your alley. 🙂 Here’s hoping you enjoy the show if you do end up watching it!

  7. Jeff Porretto

    Well, you’ve definitely piqued my interest! I had no idea this was a modern-times spin. I’ll have to check it out. If it’s only 3 episodes a season, I think I can make that time commitment =]

    I think of all the points you mentioned, the “Surround yourself with people you trust” stuck with me the most. As a manager of some previously…let’s just say “duds”… I can’t tell you how stressful it is to assign something that you just know won’t be done correctly. It wears and tears at you. Having someone reliable to lean on (wink wink) makes all the difference in the world!

    • Rachel

      Being surrounded by trustworthy, dependable people is absolutely a must. I know where you’re coming from regarding assigning stuff to people who you might not trust — even in a school setting, you can find examples of this. I’m sure I’m not the only one who dreaded group projects, if only because there was always at least one unreliable group member who you couldn’t depend on to finish their portion of the assignment. In the “real world,” that group dynamic becomes even more important.

      I hope you do check out Sherlock! I love it — in case that isn’t obvious, haha. Let me know how you like it if you watch it. 🙂

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