How to Start a Sustainable Freelance Business

Every freelancer at some point asks “How to start a freelance business?” or “How to start my freelance career?” This may not be directly to someone or as a search, but they will ask this question to themselves at some point. I think a better question is “How to start a sustainable freelance business?” Adding “sustainable” in there allows you to build a business and your freelance career in a way where it allows you to reach the goals you want by going freelancing in the first place.

When starting your freelance career, often times it is alongside working a full time job. It starts out by continuing similar work to that of the full time gig, only now done off hours. So for a web designer, it could be doing home page designs. A web developer, implementing design mockups into functional pieces within a web site. A writer, crafting blog posts. And so on.

This only works for a short period of time until the side contracts start to become too varied where there is a learning curve with almost every task, adding time to each freelance project. What is worse, it’s eating profits.

Why does this happen? The answer is simple, it’s because at the full time position you have one boss with a one process. With contract projects, you have a number of bosses each of which has their own requirements and processes.

It becomes overwhelming because there’s only so much time in a day. Any freelancer then begins to ask “What skill should I choose to offer clients? What solution am I offering? How come this is feeling much like the full time job? ”

Basically the question here is “How do I start to build my freelance business in a sustainable way?”

The Freelancer’s Framework
Your guide to starting your sustainable freelance business

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

It’s easy as a web developer to become a freelancer because there’s so many different companies and projects out there that can use someone to put lines of code into the screen. The web developer then needs to know how to write front-end code (HTML, CSS, Javascript, etc) as well as back-end code (PHP, Ruby on Rails, etc). May even have to know a bit of DevOps as well (Ansible, Puppet, etc).

mega-swiss-army-master-of-none

These are all awesome skills to have. It makes anyone with them highly valuable to the company that’s hiring. However to the freelancer this could create issues.

The first issue is that you’ll want to leverage and market your skills and take on just about any project that mentions any of them.

Secondly, it makes it harder to estimate projects, time, and lay out a proper workflow.

Say one of your skills is WordPress development and there are 2 potential projects that come across your desk for custom WordPress development. Yes they may be 2 WordPress sites, but one could be running version 3.9 and the other running 4.5. One could hosted on Flywheel and the other be on AWS. One could be using Ansible for the deployments and app builds and the other is managed by the host and uploaded via FTP.

These slight variations in what seems to be very similar projects can eat away very quickly at time and eventually profits.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome to have the knowledge of all of these sorts of skills. Especially when it comes to being a partner with your client. However marketing yourself as a Jack of all Trades is not a path you want to embark on. Your services should be narrowed enough so that no matter which client walks through your door, you can properly estimate the time to implement your solution.

Picking that solution

Look at Dave Winfield. He was drafted by 4 professional sports teams in 3 different sports. However with all his options he picked baseball and turned it into a Hall of Fame career.

In the beginning freelancers need jobs to keep the lights on. I get that. However the sooner you can define what it is you are offering the better you’ll be.

Is it a specific skill I’m good at that I should offer?

Should I only work with those clients I enjoy/like working with?

Is there a skill that’s in high demand?

All these are questions that play some role in choosing your freelance service. There’s a very fine line that you want to toe in this selection.

Remember why you are creating a freelance business in the first place. It could be because at some level you want to be your own boss, work on projects you want to work on, make the type of salary you want to make, or all three. But also you want to be happy, have a flexible schedule, and possibly work from wherever you want.

It’s hard to give a 100% definitive answer for every freelancer. But there is a framework that’s easy to follow to get your own answer.

ah-ha-moment

My AH-HA moment

When I started out as a full time, freelance web developer I worked on custom PHP, Ruby on Rails, and WordPress projects. Most of my early clients were design agencies with all sorts of different types of clients. This was obviously a HUGE mixed bag of projects and quite honestly there was not one day where I knew 100% exactly what sort of code I would be working on for the entire day.

This put my brain into the spin cycle. I would work within Ruby on Rails for the better part of several months for one project. Then the next project was a custom PHP project in which I would have to catch up to the PHP world that I had “missed” over the past several months. Then the next project was WordPress, so I had to catch up there. Only to go back to Ruby on Rails which at this point close to a year later after I had finished working on the last Rails project.

I wasn’t getting anywhere within my business doing this. Sure I was making money and consistent money, but what was happening was that I wasn’t solving specific problems. I basically became the “web dev guy”.

I knew that had to stop. So I evaluated the types of clients I wanted to work with, what they were willing to pay for, and if I could provide them the solution to it. After a couple of weeks of evaluation and conversations with colleagues I respect as well as family and friends, what I landed on was becoming a WordPress developer, focused on ECommerce conversions. (Later expanded that a little, but still within that space.)

Out of that came an easy enough framework to guide any freelancer to choosing what their business should be.

Ask yourself these questions and start building a sustainable freelance business

The Freelancer’s Framework

  1. Who is it for (your client)?
  2. What problem do they need solving?
  3. Would they pay?
  4. Do I enjoy doing it?

Pay close attention to #4. This one pulls everything together and aligns everything that you do. If you are not happy or don’t enjoy what you are doing, then why are you putting all this added stress on your life? Might as well go back to the 9-to-5.

What “The Freelancer’s Framework” does is boil your offering to being one solution, for one problem, for one type of client. If you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you know that I respect Brian Casel and he preaches this mantra over and over again.

This makes everything else fall into place. Your marketing, where you “hangout” on social media, the conferences you attend, the books and blogs you read, etc.

Which statement seems stronger to you and would you choose if you had an online store?

I provide custom development for small businesses looking to build an online presence.

or

I provide monthly development services for online stores built on WooCommerce who are looking to increase sales conversions.

Both of these are taglines of mine. The latter being the current one.

There’s no confusion about who I’m serving and what problem I’m helping them solve. Once I decided to go down that road, everything else for me fell right in place.

What’s Next?

By using The Freelancer’s Framework and knowing what your focus is now, allows everything else to be a lot easier. Marketing yourself is much easier for example.

Look up some events where your ideal client may be attending. If you have a budget, put yourself into the sponsorships. But if you can attend, that would even be best. This will allow you to go and chat with your ideal clients and really get into their minds with what you have to offer. It also allows you to gain a better understanding as to what sort of new problems they are having that your services could solve. Check out this fantastic article on how to prepare for a conference.

Start writing out some blog posts. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to be regular. Make sure you are consistent with them whether that’s once a week, every other week, or once a month. Your initial list of topics is as easy as identifying the problem your clients have, the solution to that problem, which questions you get most often from clients, and some quick wins that your clients can do without hiring you. That’s your first month’s list of topics right there.

Time to setup your sales process as well. If you already have one, great, now it’s time to tweak it. Even automate some of it if you can.

Tell your closest colleagues, clients, as well as your friends and family that you’ve pivoted your business. These folks are your referral engine. They are the ones who give your name out when they hear that someone needs help. You want to make sure that they know exactly what you are doing and who you are doing it for.

The hardest next step

Turn down any potential new projects that don’t fit your focus. I know it’s hard to turn down projects which really means you are turning away money. But the only way to really position yourself in the market is for you to be working on those projects that are your new focus.

No matter how much money someone throws your way (remember the more money, chances are the more time the project will take) you need to stick to your guns and make sure the project fits the bill. If it doesn’t then you need to make sure that you move to the next potential client.

This part was the hardest for me to realize. It literally hurt me to turn down projects that I normally would’ve taken in the past. However by doing so, I would have never been able to position myself in the market and be able to get on the radar of some of the folks out there.

I really wish that I had this framework when I started my freelance career. I know that I would’ve made more out of the gate. I would encourage you to use this framework if you are starting out or thinking about pivoting your freelance business in any way. Take the time to reflect on what it is that you want your business to be and why you are doing it. Only then will you be able to build a sustainable freelance business.

Clear your desk, take the weekend, run through this before you start

/ Jason Resnick

Jason is a WordPress developer helping small businesses, design and marketing agencies achieve their goals by specializing in Ecommerce and increasing conversions. Learn more about him here.

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