Master working for yourself without crushing your soul
I became a freelancer by accident.
I quit my job at an agency, and was looking to find another agency job. My plan the day after I quit was to go to the library (don’t laugh, this was the 90’s) to learn how to write a resume. I was hired straight out of school, so I hadn’t written one before.
A funny thing happened before I could get to the library though — I started to get phone calls from clients of that agency, wanting to know where I was going to work next. I had basically handled everything for the clients I worked with and they appreciated my attention and customer service. So much so that they wanted to bail on the existing agency that no longer had me and bring their business to wherever I went next.
After 3 or 4 of these types of calls, on the day after I quit, a lightbulb went off…
“Maybe I can work for myself with these clients instead of bringing their business to another agency? I’m going to do that!”
That decision started me down the path of freelancing that I’ve charted over the last 17 years.
There’s obviously more to it than that, and while there is no one way to guarantee success as a freelancer, the following plan can certainly help. And not just help you make money, but help you actually enjoy the career you’re building. Because you’re the boss now, so if you hate your job, it’s your own fault.
The freelancer’s master plan
Brands aren’t just for the corporations you hate
Your brand isn’t your logo. That’s just a mark that goes on your business card or website. Working for yourself, you are your brand. So everything you do, say or share is part of your personal branding.
This is a good thing, because in order to succeed at freelancing, you’ve got to stand out. You do this by telling your story and being yourself in your articles, videos, sales pitches, newsletters and everything else. You also do this by sharing the stories that your clients have that illustrate the results of working with you — in your case studies, portfolio, blog posts and success stories.
You may be drawn to act like a company with stiff brand guidelines and rigid corporate-sounding tweets and website copy. After all, if you want to be a professional, you’ve got to sound professional, right? WRONG. The more you come across as a trustworthy, real and authentic-sounding human being, the stronger your brand will become. Don’t be afraid to have a voice or an opinion.
Your brand works when you let who you really are shine through — like a lighthouse in the darkness. The effects of this can be seen because the right people (i.e. the folks you want to work with) will be drawn closer to your light, and everyone else will be pushed away (hopefully not into rocky shores where they crash and get stranded on an island with weird smoke and polar bears).
I say no a lot to potential clients, and for good reason:
- Saying no means I am 100% committed to what I’m currently working on (or doing), and those clients get my full attention and creativity. And they always come back for more.
- Saying no means I’m not putting unreasonable stress on myself to fit everything in or work 20 hours a day.
- Saying no might mean turning down income in the short-term, but it also means that the people paying me are so happy they become sales people for me in the future (i.e. lots more income).
- Saying no doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not going to work with a client. It could also mean no to now, but yes to when my schedule is open.
- Saying no sometimes means I get a feeling that the client could be tricky to work with, or not be the best fit with how I work. It’s ok to turn down projects I have a feeling might not go well, because chances are they won’t. I trust my gut.
Sure, there are times when “no” isn’t an option (i.e. you have no work and bills piling up), but when the choice is there, you’re allowed to say no to what won’t serve you. Plan A is sticking to your creative vision and not doing things that don’t fit. Plan B is doing what it takes to survive. Aim for A, be ok with B. Which brings me to my next point.
Know your purpose
Defining why you do the work you do creates a powerful decision-making filter. Know your purpose, so you can make the right choices in clients, what you share, what you turn down and what you move towards.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What does your work stand for?
- What’s your vision and goals for your work?
- What makes you different from every other freelancer who shares your skillset?
- What do you want to accomplish for yourself — and achieve for your clients?
Your gut instinct is a good reflection of your purpose — if you’ve been honest with yourself as you defined it. That’s why you might get a nagging, uneasy feeling about a new project or client, even if there are no issues on the surface. Or why you feel like you need to change the audience you serve or the problem you solve. Your gut is your internal purpose-checker. It will warn you if you’re veering away from your purpose or if it needs to change.
50% craft, 50% hustle
You can’t just open shop and refresh your inbox (freelancing doesn’t work like that…actually, nothing works like that).
There’s nothing wrong with getting out there and selling what you do. No one will come and take your “creative” licence away and stamp “SLIMY SALES PERSON” on your forehead.
When you work for yourself, you’re the chief sales officer. This is ok — sales doesn’t mean tweeting in all caps, BUY ALL MY THINGS. Sales is about connecting and building trust. Anyone can do that.
It doesn’t matter what your skill is or what you offer as a freelancer, getting new business comes down to who you know. So the more people you get to know, the more chances you’ll have to work with more clients. Don’t confuse getting to know people with pitching them. Get to know people by genuinely connecting with them and putting yourself out there (attend networking events, join and participate in online communities, even ask people you meet on social to hop on a Skype call to talk about what you’re each working on).
Smart hustling is about really connecting with people, asking them the right questions and doing a whole lot of listening.
There is no competition
In the corporate world, we’ve been taught to crush the competition. To be better than they are, to offer more than they do and to do it all for less. We’re told we need to stay one step ahead of them, they’re the enemy and they’d destroy us if they had the chance.
Freelancing doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, it can be the opposite.
Fellow freelancers are people that do the same thing or very similar to what we do. They share similar skills, knowledge and even go through the same trials and tribulations we do. They get us because they’re like us. Yet they’re also different enough to have a perspective on things we might not.
So why are they the enemy again? They sound more like our community than anything else.
Pay attention to the business of your business
You aren’t just creating work that your clients pay you for — you’re also managing projects, billing them, keeping track of expenses, meeting deadlines and keeping books.
Freelancing is a business.
(I actually teach a whole course on improving the business of freelancing here.)
Treat your work like it’s the business it is and that will set you apart from 90% of other creatives who treat work like “I’ll do it when I feel like getting around to it.”
Being a freelancer who does creative work doesn’t mean you get to be a flake, it means combining your skills and your business smarts.
Share what you know
Think about the current leaders in your industry. You know, the ones who get all the attention, work with the best clients, and seem booked into eternity at rates that are almost ridiculous.
What do they have in common?
They may not be the ones with the most talent (although they’re probably pretty close), but all of them, no doubt, share their knowledge with their audience at regular intervals via mailing lists, books, speaking gigs, tutorials, podcasts, blog posts, articles and more. That’s probably how they became known, how potential clients still find them and how you know their name.
Luckily, you can do the same. There are no gatekeepers preventing you from putting your content on your own website (or Medium, LinkedIn, Tumblr, etc.) — you are able to share your thoughts, opinions and ideas all over the Internet.
Add value by sharing what matters most to the people who might want to hire you. How do you know what they’ll value? Ask them. Or just listen to what they’re struggling with, what they are trying to learn, or what they can’t seem to figure out.
Love the work, not the accolades
We are entitled to work, not the fruits of that work. The Bhagavad Gita (an ancient Yogic text) says something similar — we are not entitled to the fruits of our labour, but only to the labour itself. This is a bit of a heady concept, but understanding it keeps us from feeling entitled.
Your work will suffer if you’re in it for likes on Dribbble or retweets from peers or industry awards that only matter to your industry (and not the clients you serve) because you’re focused on attention instead of actually solving a problem. Whether you like it or not, your intentions are evident, so make sure that what you do is indeed what you want others to see and know.
Don’t be afraid of the Benjamins
There’s nothing wrong with making money when you’re a creative who works for yourself. In fact, it’s encouraged! Yet, money can be uncomfortable, especially when it comes to clients and pitching your costs. But you need to be 100% secure in the rates you charge, because if you come across as unsure, the client will too.
Luckily you can practice — both with friends or colleagues (or those industry peers you get to know). You can also practice with potential clients. Even if you’re Dale Carnegie incarnate, your first few pitches may not go as smoothly as you’d like. Luckily, over time, you’ll get a rhythm and flow for how to discuss money with people and exactly how to illustrate to them why you’re more than worth what you charge.
A simple rule of thumb is that if everyone instantly agrees to work with you when you tell them the costs, you’re not charging enough.
Just remember that making money is good, but making money from your own creativity in a way that lines up with your purpose is truly fucking awesome.
People that really do well working for themselves don’t do it for the money fights on their private yachts or the standing ovations (on Facebook), they do it because they want to add value for others while leading life as they see fit.
In order to have a long-lasting freelance career that you’re happy with, you’ve got to pay attention — not just to the work you’re doing but to how you’re doing business.
There’s no one path to “winning at freelancing”, just a few things (like those above) to pay attention to. Now go back to your inbox and start hitting refresh.
Everyone knows that inboxes refresh on their own nowadays…
For a more in-depth guide to the business of freelancing, check out the Creative Class.