What does it take to be a freelancer?
An independent spirit? A certain swagger? Cash in the bank? A disregard for the line between weekdays and weekends? Comfortable work pyjamas?
Well, don’t get too comfortable. If you want to go freelance, it takes pretty much the same skills and resources that it takes to start a small corporation… give or take.
You might not think so, because it’s only you, right?
It’s as tough as you decide to make it.
You’re not going to be burdened with the complication of having to draw anyone else into the decision making, the planning, the doing-the-work, or collecting the rewards, are you?
You control the whole shebang.
That leaves an awful lot on your head. And maybe you do need a little help figuring out who you are, what you’re about, what you offer, how to start and who’s going to give a damn.
So settle into this overview of what you might need to kick start your big, bold idea. I doubt if there’ll be any surprises but sometimes you just need someone to lay out the pieces of the puzzle.
Freelancing is a serious business.
Here’s the least you’ll need – 12 things – before you can confidently stand up and proclaim “I’m a freelance business.” Ready?
1. A product or service loaded with potential benefit
Some people are endowed with a skill or capability and turn freelance with no clue as to how to make it valuable and marketable. Others may have a sixth sense about doing business – they can see the deal but they don’t demonstrate the capacity to see it through with the necessary attention to detail. Both positions are common but both are ineffective as models for building a commercial practice.
You are at the mercy of the market as an independent worker. You need to find a way of packaging your offering so that it speaks directly to the needs of your potential buyers.
For instance, an electrician may be super-skilled at fitting out a building. But the value in her work might be in her knowledge of energy-saving and cost-efficient techniques and materials. That’s where the value is.
A designer may be especially knowledgeable about typefaces and use them with great style. The commercial value in his case might lie in his deep understanding of the power of legibility and the persuasiveness of a good read.
A chocolatier who makes the most beautiful confections is only ticking along until a joint catering venture places the product perfectly among the after-show canapés at a gallery opening.
The key, as shown in these examples, is to find the benefit of the service or product you are bringing to market. Position, package and promote it to communicate the value it brings to your customers – in practical and emotional terms – not how smart it makes you look.
2. One Paying Client
You simply don’t exist as a freelancer – or as any kind of business owner – without having at least One Paying Client on your books. This is an absolute. The very reason for your entrepreneurial, freelance existence is to make money.
So, where do clients come from?
If you’re starting from scratch, you need to let people know what you’re about.
To do that with any precision, you need to be clear in your mind about who your future clients are. What are they doing, reading and watching? Where are they doing it? That’s where you need to get yourself noticed. And find a way of singling out and talking directly to the exact people you want to work for. Find a way of “entering the conversation that’s already going on in their heads”.
A great way to make your presence known is to connect your service with those of aligned professionals (Business Buddies, Power Circle – whatever you want to call them).
If you’re a plumber, your aligned professionals might be electricians, utilities providers, builders, estate agents. They might be people looking for the same clients you are, or they may already have those clients on board.
It’s a kind of piggy-backing, but if (and this is a big ‘if’) you’re offering an excellent service, it’s in your buddy’s interest to have you tag alongside them. When you look good, they look good.
These relationships are like gold and deserve nurturing.
If you’re in employment and looking to go freelance, a great route for you is to do a bit of ‘moonlighting’ to get some supplemental income going.
Some employers frown on this, others encourage it. In some cases, it may even be a breach of contract, so check your terms of employment and act with extreme caution. If you know it’s not a problem, then kicking off your freelance practice as a side project is a great way to go, but don’t let it interfere with your ability to perform in your day job.
The better way to go if you’re employed is to be more strategic.
Work super-hard and smart at the job, build a reputation and following, save like crazy and create yourself a buffer of cash and resources to let you quit the job when you’re at peak performance. It can make you a more attractive prospect for potential clients and may be potentially newsworthy, even if only in your immediate universe – which is where your reputation has the most clout.
So be ready for a bit of PR-worthy promotion at the point when you go independent.
This is not to say “Build it and the clients will come” (hope is never a strategy) but it will prepare the ground to make your marketing easier.
3. A Home Base
You need something or somewhere people can find and contact you.
The minimum might be as simple as a wad of business cards with a telephone number and having a reliable, always reachable, mobile number. It can be that simple if you’re running a local business and you’re physically present in your community.
But, while that might be enough to get you off the ground, you need to demonstrate more substance as early in the game as possible.
If you can boast a business address, even if you’re working from home, so much the better. (Sorry if that sounds obvious, but not everyone starting out has that luxury.)
Starting from zero? Could you get a cubicle desk, studio or workshop in a shared workspace? Is there anyone in your Power Circle, for instance, who might be able to give you a leg up here? Your co-workers may be a good source of early work and could well evolve into being the closest and most valued strand of your business network.
And if your startup workspace is actually a table at your nearest coffee bar, your relationship with such a public space is going to be critical. Permission, gratitude, respect for space and impeccable manners around the other clientele and serving staff will all be part of your daily work ritual. Unless you’re dating the barista-in-chief, make this a very short term fix.
Nearly everyone in business started, like you, from nothing. Stop thinking about how alone you are, because you’re not – you’re really not. Here’s proof.
People (paying customers) like to know something about you that they can identify and connect with. That means showing a bit of infrastructure or history.
A website is the home base of choice. It’s not only where you can be found, it’s also where you can communicate everything about your business that will make it relatable. With that, in most countries you’re legally bound to show a real-world address. It makes good sense and good business etiquette to do so anyway. In case you don’t have an address you can publish, there are services that offer this very thing.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can use online social media to host your home base, just because it appears to have no cost attached.
No social media or social networking site – not Facebook, not Twitter, not LinkedIn, not any – gives you the security and freedom of expression that your own digital real estate will provide. You would forever be at the mercy of their rules and policies, so it’s imperative that you host your own online presence.
Instead, use social media for the things they’re best at, especially to help you build and expand your presence, your story and your audience engagement.
4. A Value-based Proposition
Sounds like tricky marketing speak. What you have to do is define what you do and the one thing about the way that you do it that makes your way stand out head and shoulders above everyone else’s way. Oh, and how it brings value and benefits to your client.
It’s simple but not always easy. That One Thing could be something really tiny, yet it makes a world of difference if you package it right, so it’s not just what you say, but the way that you say it and who you’re saying it to.
Remember this about your proposition: it’s not about you. It’s not about what you offer either. What’s it about then? It’s about your ideal client.
You’re not the hero. Your product or service is not the hero.
The hero is your customer.
Think of your business from your customer’s point of view. What problems are they hurting from that you can fix, painlessly and memorably? What opportunities can you provide that will transform their lives in some way that is significant or beneficial to them?
How can you package your proposition?
One useful way to structure it is by shaping it into your ‘Elevator Pitch’: that’s the thing you can say to advocate your business offering, with passion, in the time it takes to climb the full height of the Shard by high-speed elevator – just inside a minute. (Clue: getting this right should give you the same head-rush as that whiz to the top).
That’s what you need to nail. Succinct, precise, different, engaging, emotionally charged.
5. A Freelance Mindset
Of all the elements essential to you going it alone, this is possibly the most fundamental.
I won’t dig too deeply into it here. Rather, I offer you a list of 14 attributes and traits that you either will or will not recognise in yourself. If you fall short, it’s fixable. It’s up to you to build them up to a workable level and you may have to make some changes in behaviour and habits to get there.
And, like so many of the objectives laid out in this article, the solution is simple.
Do you possess:
- The desire to succeed. An attitude that’s primed for growth?
The ability to create new habits and dump old ones?
The strength to make choices that will move your freelance business forward?
The discipline to do the work when body and spirit argue against it?
Generosity towards clients, collaborators, suppliers and your wider network?
A warm regard for your peers and rivals – understanding that competition is a good thing (and remembering that, if you get your value proposition right, you’ve differentiated yourself and excluded you competitors anyway!)?
An affirmative view of your role as a leader and provider?
The tenacity to bounce back when times are tough?
The sense to build reserves when times are good?
Organisation and routine? Your wild and creative spirit may rail against this: repetition may seem dull, but it breeds consistency. That’s a good thing.
Respect for your own time and resources as well as those of others?
Care and pride in selecting and maintaining the tools of your business?
The ability to let go of negative emotional baggage that could hold you back from achievement?
Instinct for survival?
There’s more to say – that will be for future posts – but I believe that these form the nucleus of the freelance mindset.
6. A Money Machine
You have your product or service, a proposition and your first potential paying client. You need a means of getting the money in. The basic components of a money-making system are:
A price list
Or, at the very least, a pricing policy and framework. This is not necessarily for publication. It’s more a set of guidelines for you to set the actual prices that you present to your customers.
It may be a simple formula. For instance:
Cost of materials + Time spent at £n per hour + Expenses + Profit = Price
Will you bill by the hour or on a project basis? Or is there specific unit pricing?
In reality, there’s probably more to it than that. Factor in things like Value and Intellectual Property and whatever esoteric add-ons might apply to your skills or industry and you will have a more nuanced pricing system.
Whatever the complexity of your pricing, your customer needs to see simplicity and clarity. Devising a pricing formula that works for both sides of the contract will be critical to the success of your business.
Be careful about cutting your prices or offering discounts. Start on this path in public and you could be in a race to the very bottom of your market.
Here’s a useful introductory guide to the many ways of arriving at a price point.
Simply never forget the value of what you provide. If you compromise on that, you’re on a slippery descent to competitive hell.
A billing schedule
How will your invoicing track the progress of the work in hand? Do you save it all up for the completion of the job, or do you put in an advance fee and stage the rest as you go? Maybe all the billing is up front, so you carry none of the risk. What about a monthly retainer?
This is just a sample. As you can appreciate, there are many ways to structure your billing style and some approaches are more appropriate to some businesses – and to some personalities – than to others. Find a set of methods that work for you and build them into your system.
Be consistent. The main thing for your clients is that there are no surprises and that your chosen system is transparent and feels instinctively right.
A budgeting / estimating / quoting system
Here are some of the questions you will be asking yourself when designing your project budgeting system. Add your own based on the type of work you do.
How do I set my prices?
What are the contributing factors?
Do I have like-for-like competition?
What’s my break-even point?
What level of profit do I want to make?
What gets repeated?
What is bespoke?
Where is the value based?
What looks like a fair price?
What will the customer be most vigilant about?
What elements fluctuate beyond your control?
How much of the presentation of this information can you automate?
What is the cost of failure?
What kind of life do you expect your business to give you in return?
You need enough cash to be certain of covering your needs before you begin to earn. How much this is depends on various factors. But you need to work it out. A window cleaner probably doesn’t need the resources of a photographer. A writer can survive on less than a freelance chef (unless she’s a restaurant critic!).
And even when the money starts to slide in, you should be hoarding away as much as you don’t need to run the business, build a foundation and be ready for the tax people to come for their share.
Think in terms of saving enough to live on for a minimum of six months. Add to that what you can.
A bank… (duh)
…where all your money gets stored, managed, distributed and documented. And where you can count it.
Nobody ever seems to talk about this but the relationship you have with your bank can be one of the defining aspects of your business and the way you perceive it.
Make it a great relationship.
Accept that banks are immovable corporate behemoths. They have their way of doing things. The onus is more on you than it is for them to manage this relationship. Play by their rules, explore their boundaries, because their methods are more entrenched and they are less likely to budge on an issue.
And they will always be bigger than you.
7. A clear sense of where you’re going
To be specific, let’s break this down into Purpose; Vision; Goal; and Plan.
These are aspects of running a business which cut right to the heart of everything you do and will affect how you connect with your circles of influence and your customers.
I’ll lay these out as simply as possible:
Purpose: your deepest driving force in pursuing your venture. Your ‘Why?’.
Vision: your view of the perfect shape of the venture that will fulfil your purpose.
Goal: one of a series of milestones in realising your intentions.
Plan: the strategic overview, the roadmap that describes the goals and the steps you need to take to reach them.
Your purpose is the force that propels you on the deepest personal level. It’s most likely not about the money. It’s more often driven from the heart, not the head. It could be about your lifestyle, it could be about your desire to solve a fundamental problem or contribute to a social phenomenon. Identifying that desire can create dynamic intent in everything you do.
Use imagination and mental projection to visualise yourself in the position of having achieved your purpose.
The process itself can be powerful in helping you to develop a strong sense of self-belief.
Your vision will give you the perspective to understand the steps you must take to get there, contributing greatly to your subsequent plan.
The point of setting a goal is to give yourself a scale by which you can measure progress.
I sometimes hear people say that goals aren’t worth setting because they probably change with time. Well, goals do change with time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue them, adapting them as situations change.
The power of a goal is in its force for positive momentum. So, even if the goal becomes less desirable as you progress, you will at least have made steps in a forward direction.
And like any good leader, you can review, re-orient and switch to a new goal from your more advanced position.
Goal setting is best done within a framework: S-M-A-R-T is a well-worn favourite, urging you to define your goals in terms of being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. You can dig into that here.
Having set your goals, figured out who you are and why you want to commit to doing whatever it is you do in the way that you’ve imagined, you need a structure to lay out how, when and where it’s all going to happen and what resources you need to bring it to life and secure its future.
This is not the business plan that you take to the bank and investors. This is your personal roadmap to getting your work out there. A step-by-step plan that takes into account whatever milestones you can come up with that will define that journey.
Your Vision and Purpose now become the tools with which you imagine a position that you want to be in at a certain point in the future.
Reverse engineer a series of major and intermediate goals that will get you from where you are now to your point of success.
That is to say, for each end achievement, identify the step immediately before reaching it; then the one before that, and so on till you have navigated back to where you are at the moment.
And now you have your plan.
This requires some imagination and disciplined documenting of the steps so you can expand the roadmap with more detail.
This kind of exercise is something you can do alone but it becomes more objective if you can gather a small trusted team around you. See point 9.
8. A Manifesto
You don’t have to be a politician to wield a manifesto.
Your purpose and vision are essentially for your eyes only but your manifesto is how you express these to the outside world. When composed well, it tells people what you stand for and who you serve and represent. It becomes the cornerstone for all your communications.
Like it or not, business is a tribal arena. Show your flag and attract the people who share or appreciate your way of doing things. You’ll find yourself doing business with people you like and understand. The lovers and haters will self-select as your community develops.
Your manifesto could be set out in a simple list of principles. Or you might find it more compelling to communicate it through your story, describing in a heartfelt way why you’re here and what your intent is.
You can be really upfront about it.
9. A Support Team
You can’t do it alone. Well, not for long anyway.
As you build momentum you’ll appreciate that your time is best spent on two things: doing the work that you are great at and marketing your business. And sooner or later, if you want to grow you’ll need to pick one of those and delegate the other.
That means finding new people to do all the jobs you don’t want.
Cleaning. Accounts. Logistics. Office management. IT. Lead generation. Customer care. Organising you. Where does it end?
You decide. But like every other aspect of your enterprise, it’s best to have a plan. This one should, step-by-step, free you up from the finer details of running the business so you can concentrate on what you’re best at.
Looking outside your business, how does your network look? Are you meeting the people who can support your goals? What kind of other businesses could you have alongside you that will add value to your offering?
Creating this network is a matter of building relationships. Find other business owners who share some, if not all, of your values. Develop a spirit of collaboration before partnering to provide joined-up services or to catch bigger clients. There’s nourishing food for thought in The Collaboration Game.
Where freelancing is on the increase, hubs of independent workers are popping up, making these collaborative practices commonplace. Is there a hub near you?
In fact, does geography matter? Some of these hubs are global, based entirely online, connected first by shared intent and world view and then prioritising members on the basis of skill sets and availability. Is there a hub in your headspace?
Besides filling roles, it’s also worth gathering a development team around you – mentor, accountability buddy, coach, contrarian – whatever it takes.
10. A Legal Status
On the surface, this reflects on how you present your business to the world. Deeper down, it can define your relationships with other businesses or owners, how you earn and divide your income, and how the government taxes and regulates you.
The variations of legal status across the world are many. It would be counterproductive for me to list the available options on this page, since a detailed and updated listing is available here (reader beware).
When choosing your business entity, simplicity and leanness are good guiding principles. Once you’ve reviewed your options, go back to your ‘Why?’ and consider this question:
“What structure will serve me most effectively and efficiently in reaching my personal goals and business objectives?”
11. Proof of Concept
How do you know that your business idea will work? What are the chances that other people will buy into it? Has anyone done this work before?
Many business owners have fallen at the first hurdle because what seemed like a good idea at the time simply wasn’t hammered out in the rough environment of commercial viability.
You’ve got to test it.
If your offering is a product, prototype it. Get people who are in your target market to push it to destruction. Watch them using it. Measure what happens. Gauge their emotional response.
If you can’t afford to kick off with a physical prototype, consider what may be possible with virtual prototyping.
If it’s a service you’re offering, run it as a side project before you go all-in. Offer it to real customers – or people, friends, who fit your ideal customer profile – free, or at a special rate, in return for their feedback. Build in improvements and fixes as you go. Hone it to their genuine needs until you’ve created something that you know they want and will get real value from.
Once you’ve tested it, do you still believe in that product or service?
If you have doubts or there are shortcomings being flagged up, go back and tweak. Keep tweaking till it’s good, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
You can hone it to perfection in the furnace of true commercial demand and competition. In fact, your market will thank you for doing so and is more likely to follow your journey and be engaged as a result.
If the process shows a complete failure, you have other choices to make.
Do you rewind or jettison? This example is inspiring if exhausting.
Thomas Edison had this to say on the subject:
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
In building and communicating the breadth and depth of your offering, you need to be clear – in your own mind and in what you say to your audience – what it is that you don’t or won’t do.
This is really important. It’s another way of defining your position and attitude.
“I don’t do any work in the tobacco- or alcohol-related industries.” “We never work on weekends.” “I only photograph people and only in black and white.” “We do not use materials or components created using child labour.”
If you really have a position on something sensitive, it’s good if you can show the strength to stand by it. It’s a confirmation of your authenticity and integrity.
Customers, suppliers and partners love this. Everyone knows where they stand. There’s that clarity again.
Wrapping it up
There you go. A practical list of business essentials to get you making your dent in the universe.
To recap, they are:
1. A product or service loaded with potential benefit
2. One paying client
3. A home base
4. A value-based proposition
5. A freelance mindset
6. A money machine
7. A clear sense of where you’re going
8. A manifesto
9. A support team
10. A legal status
11. Proof of concept
So, what do you think?
Have I put you off? I sincerely hope not. There are a bunch of people in the world who are waiting to discover the very thing that you and your special sauce have to offer.
At the heart of what I’m saying is ‘Don’t take lightly the process of growing a business’. It may always be only you at the helm but, the better you plan, the more of yourself you bring to the design and purpose of your freelance business, the easier and more satisfying it will become for you to do great business.
Oh, the thirteenth thing.
13. A Lodestar
This is your reference point. Somewhere you can count on, where you look to check, refer and define. To compare, ask and connect. A place to digest, search and discover.
I hope you’ll consider It’s a Freelance Thing to be such a place.
It’s certainly our mission to be exactly that. As a first step, by way of getting to know us, sign up to the blog [link to subscribe page/pane]. You can always unsubscribe if it’s not your thing.
We will be digging deeper into some of the points raised in this post as well as a whole range of topics of specific interest to freelancers and anyone with an independent approach to business.
We’d love to get to know you. If you have a moment, please scroll down and leave a comment. Tell us one thing about yourself, such as your biggest challenge about freelancing.