Advice For Starting A Successful Freelance Business

A friend of mine is getting ready to venture out on her own and start a freelance business. Since I’ve been emailing her advice and support, and generally thinking about starting and running a freelance business, I thought I would share some of what I’ve been sharing with her.

The word 'Art' written on a sign in the shape of an arrow pointing left

Plan a Direction

I think planning is important. Most of what you’ll need to do to be successful you’re going to learn as you go, but I think a week or two of planning out a general direction for your business to take is important. There are going to be a lot of decisions you need to make out of the gate and thinking through them can increase your chances for success.

You don’t need to follow a formal business plan, though I’ve found the sample plans at Bplans helpful if you’ve never done this before. Find one similar to what you’re planning and give it a read. It might point out a few things you hadn’t considered. You don’t need to follow it exactly. For example I ignore all the financial projections, since for me they were only going to be guesswork.

Spend a few nights researching other businesses in your industry. Visit their websites and take notes. What do they all do? You probably need to do this too. What don’t any of them do? This presents an opportunity for you to stand out.

Search sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. See what people are saying about your industry. Are they happy with the service being given? Are there common complaints for things that no one seems to offer.

You should be able to learn a lot about your industry in a few days and be filled with all sorts of ideas about how to set up your business. There are a few questions I find particularly useful to think about and answer.

  • Who will be your clients?
  • What services will you offer?
  • What will you charge for your services?
  • How will you differentiate your business from the competition?
  • What story will your business tell?

With the first 2 questions above be focused. When first starting, it was easy for me to think that my clients included anyone looking for a website, but that was too wide a net to cast. You can’t appeal to everyone. Find a smaller market you can appeal to. Similarly with services, don’t try to offer everything possible. Again it’s casting too wide a net. Pick a core service and focus on it.

If down the line your business grows you can increase your market and services, but early on you’ll find it easier to focus on a smaller niche.

Where pricing is concerned you aren’t looking to be the cheapest. Small businesses can’t compete on price. It’s the Walmarts of the world that can because of their scale. You’ll do better as a freelancer to determine a fair pricing structure based on the value you offer. Then think about how you can add more value in order to charge more.

What you use to add value is also what can help you differentiate your freelance business. If your business is the same as everyone else, you offer no compelling reason for someone to choose you. If anything your competition with a proven track record will get the call. Think about what you can offer that your competition can’t or doesn’t. Think about what makes you different from the competition.

Ultimately the above is leading you to a story you’re going to tell about your business.

  • Apple makes beautiful, quality products that are easy to use.
  • Walmart has everything you need and will charge you less.
  • CopyBlogger provides content marketing solutions for WordPress that work.
  • BMW sells the ultimate driving machine
  • Allstate ensure you’re in good hands

Take a look at this list of company slogans or this list of advertising slogans. Think about the story each slogan is telling and what it says about the company. Each story won’t appeal to everyone, but it will resonate with some and when it does those someone’s will likely become clients or customers.

The story you tell becomes your brand and it’ll be the most valuable asset of your business. Every aspect of your business should be in harmony with your brand story.

Sneaker by Nike with the slogan Just Do It

Get Started

It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of trying to plan a perfect business before you start. Don’t do this. You can’t plan perfection and the experience of doing will teach you more than endless research and planning. You’re going to make mistakes along the way no matter how much you plan so accept it and get started.

The planning gives you a direction and the story that comes from your planning will determine the types of clients who want to work with you. and again I think it’s important to start with some direction, but I guarantee you’ll need to adjust this direction over time. You’ll set prices too high or too low. You’ll choose to go after a market that already has a better solution. The story you tell won’t resonate with enough people.

The thing is you’re only going to learn from your mistakes by making them. If 2 weeks have passed and you’re not taking concrete steps to get your business started, you’re planning too much.

The easiest way to get started as a freelancer is to put up a website and start telling people about it. Find a designer or install something like WordPress and get some content up. If your freelance business will be a design business then by all means take a little time to design your own site. If your business won’t have much to do with web design start saving money in the budget to hire someone to at least customize your theme. Think about hiring someone to write your copy too.

The point of this section is that you need to do it. Move past the planning and launch your business. Don’t think you can plan away mistakes. You can’t. Every business makes mistakes. Your’s will too. Accept it and get started.

Sign for a marketing your business workshop

Market Your Business

You can be the best in the world at what you do, but unless you learn how to market your services you won’t have any clients. Your marketing should come out of the story you’re telling and be in harmony with that story and it’s central message.

Tell everyone you know that you’re in business and what you do. Let friends and family start spreading the word. Both have recommended me over the years, leading to clients.

There’s no one way to market yourself, but I find the basics of marketing boil down to a few concepts.

  • Figure out who your clients are
  • Figure out where they spend their time
  • Build a presence (your brand) in those place
  • Convince them you’re the right choice
  • Iterate

The first two you should have done while planning. You should be focused on a select group of people that share a common set of characteristics. They could be local. They could all be part of a single industry. These common characteristics will help you determine where these people are likely to spend time.

Once you have an idea where you market spends its time, start building your brand in those location. Make potential clients aware of your existence and show you can solve their problems. For example when I started I spent time answering questions at small business forums. The communities were my potential customers and by answering their questions I not only let them know I existed, but that I also had the knowledge and experience to help them.

A small plan growing from the rocks

Continue to Grow

Hopefully all the above will help you build a client list. Assuming you do your job well these people should be contacting you regularly for work and recommending you to the people they know. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, it will happen. Once you have a client list start cultivating that list and improving who you work with.

Prune those clients who are difficult to work for or who’s projects consistently underpay you. Seek out more of the clients you prefer to work with, by making changes to your business that attract your preferred customers.

One of the biggest lessons for succeeding in business is sticking with it. It takes time to figure out how to make a business work for you. Don’t give up until you’ve figured it out. There’s a lot to learn and you need to keep gaining new skills and improving the skills you already have.

Three things I suggest doing as soon as possible.

You don’t need to ask people to mentor you, though you certainly can. What you can easily do is find someone online who’s successful and who you respect and study what they do. Listen to what they say and more importantly watch the things they do.

You do need to invest in your business. Don’t look at expenses only for what they cost you. See them as investments. If an application that costs $50 saves you 10 hours of your time, which you value at $100 an hour, it should be a no brainer to buy the software. That’s not to say you should spend money on everything. It’s more that you have to think beyond the moment. Yes the software was $50 going out now, but it’s $1,000 coming back in over the course of the year.

And never get too comfortable thinking your business can run on autopilot. Industries change. New competition enters the market. You have to be willing to change and adapt everything about your business. I don’t mean you need to change your entire business model every few months, but you should be prepared to continuously tweak it.

Usually around year’s end, I open a new text document and start making notes for where I want my business to go over the next 12 months. I’ll think about what’s working and what isn’t. I’ll think about new projects and markets and marketing channels and plan out the coming year and beyond. These aren’t radical changes. Think evolution as opposed to revolution.

Never stop iterating, learning, and improving.

Notes on a whiteboard about social media and small business growth

Summary

Hopefully something in here has helped my friend and you as well. Naturally there’s a lot more to starting and running a freelance business than what I’ve shared here. I’ve offered similar thoughts in the past and have linked to those thoughts throughout.

Spend some time, though not too much time, planning out a direction for your business. You should be thinking about the story your business will tell and who that story will resonate with. Your story will guide most of the decisions you make about your business.

Get started as soon as you can. A freelance business can be started simply by installing a content management system and adding a few pages of copy. You’ll want to do more, but that’s enough to consider your doors open for business.

Be visible to your market and spread the word of your existence. Always be conscious of your story — your brand — and act accordingly. Show people you’re good at what you do and be ready when they need your services.

Mostly get out there and do it. If you’ve ever wanted to run your own freelance business, know that you can and that you can be successful. Get out there, get started, and keep improving your business until it’s the success you want.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

9 comments

  1. Great post! I let my freelance business go by the wayside when I started a full time job. Your post has inspired me to start working towards freelancing again. Thanks!

    • Wow! That’s great. I’m glad I could inspire you to get back into freelancing. I’m guessing you’ve missed your freelance business once you took on the full time job. I know I’d have a hard time giving up the freelance lifestyle.

      I wish you success. I’ll offer to help answer any questions I can, though I suspect since you’ve done this before you already know what to expect.

  2. While I don’t freelance myself, I do a lot of work with freelancers, some of whom are established and some just starting out. A lot of them ask me for advice on where to get clients or on how to become more established, and from now on I’m just going to forward them to this excellent write up. The stuff about making a business plan is gold – not enough freelancers out there do this. In my experience most freelancers just jump into it and start looking for clients without figuring out how much they want to charge or what differentiates them from their more established competitors.

    • Thanks Alex Hopefully the post helps anyone you send to it.

      I think planning is good for any business. I don’t think you need to write up a formal business plan, especially if you’re starting a freelance business, but planning a direction your business will take and revisiting that plan annually helps keep you on course.

      I agree that a lot of people just jump in without much thought to how they’ll succeed. Just the act of planning gets you to think about a lot of things that probably hadn’t occurred to you and the document serves as a blueprint from there.

  3. This is one of THE best articles (and i’ve read a lot) on giving you the whole picture of freelancing. Even though I started freelancing over 10 years ago, it’s always important to remind yourself of the overall strategy in perspective. You can easily get caught up in the minute details. Also, from a newbie’s perspective, they can get from this some kind of roadmap. Thanks for getting this into one beast of an article for us all.

    • Thanks Chris. I hear you about reminding yourself of the overall strategy. At least once a year (sometimes more) I review my business and plan and think about whether or not I’m moving in the right direction.

      Having at least thought about where you want to go and generating some kind of roadmap is so important. I think we all forget that at times when dealing with the day to day details.

  4. Hi Stephen,
    I have read about 3 or 4 of your posts/articles recently and have found them extremely useful, informative and more importantly, inspirational.

    I am hoping to start my own freelance business (web design) soon. I have no previous experience and I am self-learning, hoping to take the leap soon and get my business launched. I am finding you articles a great resource in preparing for this.

    Thanks a lot!

    • Thanks Mike. I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts and I’m glad you find them helpful.

      Good luck starting your own business. I didn’t have any previous experience and I’m self-taught as well so don’t let either stop you.

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