The business of creativity (part 1)
Culturally, we’re sorted into two summer camps, typically just after we can walk and talk. The artists get put on one side of the lake. They’re the empathetic, artsy-fartsy kids who’d rather daydream and draw and write all day. On the other side of the lake, the practical kids learn about science and math and business—and talk about the companies they want to run when they grow up. The business of creativity is avoided, since it would mean merging the two camps (or a bridge…)
(At the end of summer there’s a dodgeball tournament that always ends in the art kids crying in the corner, soaking the t-shirts they painted themselves, earlier that morning.)
Why is empathy associated with art and not business? And, maybe more importantly, why does the word empathetic include the word/root pathetic?
I am in the business of creativity. This has taken many forms over the last 20 years, but the common thread is that my work, my interests and where I seem to make the biggest difference is at the intersection of creativity and commerce. I paddled out into the middle of the summer camp lake and set up shop there.
I’m honest about the fact that I enjoy making money off my art. A purist (also known as a delusional person) might think that I’m a sell-out. I trade art for dollars by selling products, courses, writing, sponsorships and more.
I love selling out—I do it on a daily basis (sometimes many times a day). It means someone is willing to trade their money for my creativity. It’s pretty much the best.
How I can easily come to terms with being a sell-out is that while I let money guide my work and its direction, I don’t let money change my work. To be more clear: I would never do something for a buck that I wouldn’t do for free if I could. And I definitely wouldn’t do anything that doesn’t align with my values as a creative.
As a society, creating this separation is one of our dumber accomplishments. Commerce has the ability to ruin, dilute or sully creativity, for sure. Throughout history, well meaning artists have been taken advantage of by business (just look at the music industry). But it doesn’t have to. In fact, the more creatives know and get savvy about commerce, the better artists they can become.
I treat business the exact same way as I treat my writing, speaking and design work: as a way I can stretch my imagination to accomplish what needs doing.
Savvier artists than myself do the same thing (only better). Commerce is simply another type of creative skill that can completely align with who you are as an artist. And if you’re in control of it, then you get to call the shots.
But you’ve got to make sure your art makes business sense. This will easily take up half of your time. If you aren’t cool with being in the business of your creativity, that’s fine. Do art on the side and make a living elsewhere. There’s no harm, shame or problem with that.
But if you are interested in having a long-term career in trading creativity for commerce, then you’ve got to figure out how you’ll get paid and how you can ensure that you getting paid will happen – consistently and bring in enough to support your life.
Maybe as a society we should be interested in tearing down the two separate camps and building a new one in the middle—which happens to be the middle of the lake, so it’d have to be underwater (which would be pretty fucking cool, right?!)
PS: Part two of this lives here.
Specifician to a generalist?
It’s overwhelming, right?
There’s so much to learn about freelancing or making products and so many varied skill-sets required to do either (or both, in my case).
It’s hard to know where to start sometimes. Especially when you look at the folks who’ve been doing it for a while and they all have around 38 different skills they use regularly and deftly. Jerks.
I got an email the other day from someone asking me if being a “Jack of all trades”, generalist freelancer was on purpose (since I do everything from design to programming to marketing to audio/video production, etc). They wondered if they should try to learn all those skills or just focus 100% on their craft.
It’s a good question.
Should you focus on just one skill and master it 100% inside and out? And then, just outsource the other pieces you need, as you need them? Or should you become a generalist with all the skills required?
While I don’t have the answer, here’s my thought process on the subject: do both, but in a specific order.
Start with a single specific skill, and add complementary skills as your understanding of your audience and their needs increases.
I started as a programmer, then added design many years after that. Then over a decade later I added things like writing, marketing (and whatever it is I do on the interwebs now) to my pocket.
If I had to map out moving from a specifician (yes, I just made that word up) to a generalist, it’d be:
- Start with a single and specific skill. For the purpose of this example, let’s say web design.
- Hone in on how that skill applies to and helps a specific audience solve a specific problem. I.e. that audience values the skill enough to gladly pay for it.
- Add new skills, one at a time, that directly help that same audience with that same problem. Since this example is using web design as a skill, additional skills that could help an audience that needs websites might be SEO, content marketing, programming, funnels, course development and so on.
- Now that your varied skills are potentially better able to solve more of the problem for your audience, test those skills with your own products or with a small sample of your existing clients (refining them through experiments).
- Increase your value to your audience by offering those skills to them, now that they’ve been learned and tested.
- Optional bonus: split focus between doing 1–on–1 work for your audience and doing 1–to–many work on your own products, using your new varied skill-set.
However, being a generalist only makes sense when the set of skills you’ve got work together in some way to help solve a problem for your audience (whether it’s to sell client service work or products).
Your varied skills shouldn’t just be a hodgepodge of non-connecting things you can do. To be useful, you need to string them together.
You can easily see if a skill fits by mapping out the problems your audience has that one of your skills helps solve. What’s missing from what you know that’d help with the same problem? What do you have to source or refer to another expert?
The more complementary skills you add, the easier it is to be more valuable to your audience (see: you can charge them a lot more).
If you think about it, that’s often how creativity and art works as well. They’re a mashup of two areas of practice that are used to make something new. Picasso blended western with african art. Early web designers smushed together print layout with technical screen limitations. Content marketers mashup words and psychology. The blending is where the fun bits of thinking come into play.
You can also note that you don’t have to be incredible or have decades of focused study in your auxiliary skills to use them. Know enough about them to make them useful. That’s what good generalists do, they learn the parts of a skill-set they need and don’t worry about the rest.
Even if I’m wrong and it’s better to be a specifician forever, I can tell you one thing for sure: never, ever, ever stop learning.
Never believe that you’ve learned enough about your craft or about life itself. Anytime you scratch the surface of anything, more layers (that you probably didn’t even know existed) are always just below the surface.
Not enough freelancers know that projects are a two-way street. Meaning: you’ve got just as much say in what you do or don’t get hired to do as the people and businesses that offer you projects.
It sounds picky or self-centred or elitist (i.e. only for those who’ve “made it” as freelancers), but it’s not. Getting a little choosey means that you are aware of the fact that your portfolio isn’t just a record of past work, it’s a crystal ball showing the exact type of work you’ll do more of in the future.
Yes, you need to be in a place where you can turn down work. Rent needs paying, food needs eating and families need taking care of. But the pickier you are, the better you’ll be able to do all those things.
The art of picking clients is also difficult because it’s assumed if you’re in business and if a potential client is offering you money, then you’re going to say yes. But, if you’ve got integrity and the ability to make a choice, you’re going to leave money on the table sometimes. Sooner or later a client will come along that represents the opposite of everything you stand for or hold dear.
“OH HAI, I’M THE DEVIL—LET’S DO BIZNEZ. HOW MUCH FOR A WEBSITE AND ALSO… HOW MUCH FOR YOUR SOUL?!”
(Ok, perhaps a tad dramatic.)
You’ve got to develop your own client-picker.
This is a combination of science and guts (which, by the way, are proven by science to be truthful). The better your picker is, the better the projects will go and the better the outcomes will be.
Even if there’s a bit of woo-woo (also known as “feelings”) involved, there’s still a way to quantify how good a fit a client is with data. Because if you don’t quantify the strength of the fit, you’re more likely to make the wrong decision (and end up working with a bad client).
Like most parts of figuring out working for yourself, you’ve got to do a bit of introspection. In order to know if it’s a good or bad client for you, you’ve got to have some shit figured out about yourself:
- What kind of work do you want to be known for or get more of?
- What are your favourite types of clients? In what industry?
- What personality traits mesh the best with you for collaboration on projects?
- What industries or types of clients would you never want to work with? (For example, if you’re a vegan (like me!), then butchers are probably off the table).
- What projects have gone the best for you? Why is that?
- What projects have gone the worst for you? Why is that?
Now that you’ve got a bit better understanding of the how’s and why’s of your work, you can start to quantify the makings of a good client.
It’s hard to pick the “right” clients without knowing what “right” means to each of us.
By coming up with a set of internal questions to keep score of when you’re considering taking on a new client or project, you can use data to help make your decision. You don’t share this scorecard with clients, but keep track of it privately (during calls, emails, reviewing project planners, etc), and if you’re on the fence about working with someone, let the numbers do the talking.
Here’s an example of an internal Client Evaluation scorecard
- [ ] Are they interested in collaborating with me?
- [ ] Do they trust me/my skills?
- [ ] Do they understand the work I do enough to value it?
- [ ] Will this help me grow my skills and experience?
- [ ] Will this help me with future sales?
- [ ] Do I think this business will succeed?
- [ ] Are they part of an audience I wish to serve?
- [ ] Do I have enough time to do my best work under their deadline?
- [ ] Are they willing and eager to pay what I charge?
- [ ] Are they making assumptions about how easy/quick it is to do the work?
- [ ] Do I understand the goals of the project?
- [ ] Do they understand the goals of the project?
- [ ] Do they understand how much work on their end is involved?
- [ ] Does my gut say this project is a good idea?
- [ ] How organized are they (written and verbal)?
Let’s say you score each answer between 1 and 10, meaning the potential client can receive a maximum score of 150. I consider 75 and below to be a fail (and probably a bad idea to work with that person), between 76 and 113 to be a decent fit (meaning it’s likely that they’ll be a good client and the project will go well) and 114+ to be a smashing success.
Remember, these are just sample questions. Yours will be different since you have different values, personality traits and markers of good and shitty projects.
But at least now you have a relatively easy way to gauge the fit of any client that may want to work with you.
Choosing the wrong clients can mean the difference between a profitable future and wasting your time for months (or years) on work that won’t go anywhere or help you in the long run. But being choosey is a long term strategy that’s focused on having a long-lasting freelance career that’s filled with projects you enjoyed and are proud of.
The surefire way to turn a profit as a freelancer
Let me spoil the whole article for you in the first sentence: if you spend less money than you make, you’ll be profitable.
Seems simple, right? Boring, but simple. Wealth (which is what you earn, minus what you spend) is easier to build up when your spending column is very small.
When you work for yourself, it’s much more fun to do super awesome creative client work instead of managing money and expenses. Heck, you’re doing what you love AND getting paid for it! You make good money, so you assume budgeting is only for “financially challenged” folks.
But that’s some flawed logic.
Because if you aren’t keeping track of what you’re spending your money on, both personally and for your business, you’ll end up having to make more of it to turn a profit. Or, you could be spending more than you’re making. Or, you could not know how much to even spend on useful things like housing and transportation.
According to StatsCan, families in Canada that make over $100,000 account for 37% of the nation’s debt. In 1982 we stockpiled about 20% of our income as savings or investments. But by 2014, we’re saving less than 4% of our income. Yikes!
You’d never tell a client, “Hey boss, the budget is whatever, you’ll just spend some money and I’ll do the work” — so why would you not want to keep track of what you’re spending your own money on? Keeping track is important, so you will know what you can afford (and what you can’t).
The secrets to budgeting as a freelancer
- Cheque yourself. Yes, you’re the business, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a regular pay cheque that’s the same amount every month. Don’t know how much to pay yourself? Take the average amount you made over the last year, and pay yourself 70%. Keep 30% in the company for taxes (if taxes are less — invest the rest). That way you know how much money you’ve got to play with, since it’s the same every month now.
- Keep track of everything. You could use fancy accounting or budgeting software that costs money, or you could use a spreadsheet every month (free). In it, write down your income (money in) and your expenses (money out). Every month, start a new spreadsheet. From here you can see if you’re spending too much and where.
- Know your bare necessities. Figure out what you need to make to pay for housing and food. You’ll need to make approximately double that each month for your budget to work. If you can’t, maybe it’s time to spend less on housing, that car, etc. Be practical about housing and cars — since both always cost more than their ticket price (maintenance, repairs, upkeep).
- Build a buffer. I like to save 10% of what I pay myself, for “just in case.” Just in case I can’t work for a few months, just in case work is slow, just in case there’s a massive global economic downturn. Once that 10% savings each month works out to a year’s salary, you can sleep well at night knowing that even if things go to shit, you’ve got enough money to live for a year.
- Prioritize expenses. If there’s a lot of things (personal or in your business) you need to spend money on, make a list of all the things you need to buy and put them in order of priority. What has to be bought now versus what can wait a month or two? Most things don’t need to be bought immediately (unless, say, it’s plumbing fixes). You don’t need the latest and greatest hardware, software, subscription service, etc.
- Find easy wins to save money. Regardless how much or little you make, find ways to make your money stretch further. Cut cable (youtube is free), cut your landline (use Skype), cut eating out (cooking is fun, especially if it’s for other people), cut buying new clothes (your clothes aren’t rags), cut buying lattes at the store (homemade coffee can be good), unplug everything that’s on “standby power.” The less you spend on items you can live without, the less you have to make and the more you can spend that time enjoying life. If you’re keeping track of your spending and look back over a few months, see what you’re spending on non-survival things. They add up!
- Diversify your income. As a freelancer, you’re in charge of how and where you make money. There’s nothing stopping you from looking for multiple sources of income. I currently make money in a number of ways: doing design work for clients, consulting, podcasting, running a course and writing books. That way if one income stream isn’t going well or making money, I can lean on other sources. I like to have a mix of products and services, so the products can make some money even when I’m not working (if they’re set up well and I continually work at them). Just like your investment portfolio, diversity is key to growth.
What I’ve learned in 18 years as a freelancer
Money’s taboo, I know, but tough shit. It’s a conversation that should be had, especially with folks who work for themselves.
In my years working for myself, I’ve become ok with being cheap. I don’t need a fancy car or a place to live in an expensive city. I make every dollar I earn stretch, so I don’t have to spend as much time making them (instead I can spend time enjoying my life).
Treating a budget more like a game you can win each month instead of “oh no, I really have to do without ALL THE THINGS?!” makes it much more fun. I even give myself mini-games like: see if you can skip groceries and just eat what’s already in the pantry/fridge or see how long you can go without buying coffee at a coffeeshop or even only spend money on rent, food and gas for six months. Make your own money-saving game!
I also find I enjoy free things more, if I give them a chance. Experiences like walks, working in the garden, swimming in lakes/rivers/the ocean, picnics, board games, and having people over for dinner (instead of eating out) are fun. My wife and I don’t even do presents for birthdays or holidays for each other — instead, for each event, we plan an EPIC meal and cook it together. We don’t need stuff, but there’s no limit to needing enjoyable experiences.
The take aways
True to my promise in the first line, you’ve got to spend less to gain wealth. The nuts and bolts of it?
- Pay yourself a regular salary even if your business’ income isn’t the same each month and even if you’re the only employee.
- Know your income and expenses each month by keeping track of them.
- Plan for taxes and buffer for emergencies/life shitting on your face.
- Remember why you’re making money (because life is about more than work, money and spreadsheets).
Now go forth and manage your money. It’s not as fun as super awesome creative work, but it’s just as important.
To learn the nuts and bolts of running a freelance business, check out my course, Creative Class.
Why you shouldn’t take a client’s money
TRUE FACT: As a freelancer, you’re not obligated to work with anyone.
That’s why you’re a freelancer. No boss is there to tell you that you have to do this gig or work with this person. You are the boss, so you get to make that call. And your call, if there’s not a good fit, can be to part ways quickly, before there’s money on the table.
I burst a lot of bubbles. Not because I’m a jerk, not because of my ego, but because I’m relentless in determining fit and value with every client I work with in my business. I only take on projects where it’s likely going to be a win-win.
Which is why I tell potential clients not to hire me all the time. Sometimes more than once a week. Their reactions vary too: some are mad, some are upset and some totally get it. I write them long emails because I feel bad that I must break up our business relationship before it ever even gets off the ground. But I do it anyway. Because I have to. For their sake, and my own. You can be an asshole to yourself (since it’s your company), but no else should.
I only take on clients that I’m sure I can help.
Not only is this why I do ok with my client-based services, but also why my clients do really well (which in turn benefits me in the long run – successful clients = successful freelancer). Some of it comes down to just trusting my gut on whether a project will work out or not, but there are also some very concrete reasons why I turn down work (and why you should too).
Why you might not want to work with a potential client—
They aren’t in your niche
Smart freelancers focus on a specific niche, which helps them build credibility, expertise and a name for their brand. If, for example, you’re focused on creating websites for indie-published authors and a real estate agent wants a site – would that real estate site really benefit your portfolio in any appreciable way? Would it further build your brand in your target niche?
They can’t afford you
My pricing is higher than most for designing websites. If someone emails me and says they’ll need to save up for a few years to be able to afford my services, then they aren’t a good fit. It doesn’t make sense for them to spend money on an expense their business can’t cover in a few months. Yes, what I do (and what most freelancers do) can help build a business, grow an audience or increase sales – but those are all much harder to do if a client is starting from a place where they’re making no money or worse, spending more money than they are making. Not to mention that I also wouldn’t feel ethically good about taking money from someone that’s really stretching to pay for my services.
They assume you’re a miracle worker
As a freelancer, how many times have you been on a call with a potential client, only to hear them tell you about their business idea – and their business idea sounds awful. Freelancers could almost act as investors, since we hear enough business ideas from potential clients that we get a good gauge in our minds about what could work and what definitely won’t work. If a client assumes that hiring you will completely turn their business around instantly, bring them bags of money every day, and skyrocket their brand into the stratosphere…there might be a problem. What you do as a freelancer can and should totally help someone else’s business. But that needs to be tempered with reality – not based on inhuman feats of wonder.
It’s an ego project for them
My typical line with clients is that I don’t work for them, I work for their clients and their audience. So if someone wants to hire me simply because they want to look good for personal reasons, then they don’t care about their clients (who I feel is my true boss). Also, ego projects tend not to go anywhere, since they’re only serving an audience of one.
They aren’t ready (yet)
Sometimes, a client has a great business idea and has realistic expectations but it’s just too early on in their business to hire an expert freelancer. If they’re too new, they may not know much about their business or their audience yet. Which means they won’t know enough to make informed decisions about what could work and what won’t work. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something that requires some time and research to fully understand. In these cases I tell potential clients to get a free or cheap website to start. Test the waters, build a bit of an audience and study them, and then come to me with that data and we can really rock it out.
As a freelancer, you aren’t obligated to take on every project that comes your way. In fact, if you continue to take on work that isn’t a good fit, you’ll end up doing more and more shit you don’t like. For the good of your business and the business that wants to hire you – if there’s not a good fit, just say no to the work.
To learn how to setup processes and systems to allow you to properly vet potential clients, check out my course, Creative Class. I’ve taught over 2,000 students how to optimize their freelance business and stand out from the competition.
Positioning yourself as a freelancer
You can find a freelancer labourer on Fiverr or eLance who charges just a couple bucks an hour to complete a task (from web design to copyediting 1,000 words to rapping the lyrics you write). They’re interchangeable, too – if a client gets rid of one, they can easily swap that person out for another cheap freelancer. Labourers compete on price, and it’s a race to the bottom of the price ladder.
Freelance leaders are respected for their skills and the unique way that they transform client problems into smart solutions. Leaders are hired specifically because of who they are. You can’t take one leader out of the equation and swap another in, since the results and problem-solving approach would vary significantly. Leaders are teachers whose opinions support good decision-making. Leaders differentiate themselves on communication (how they understand their clients, provide solutions, and apply their expertise to teach) and quality (how well they apply their expertise).
It’s also important to avoid commoditizing your work. That’s how labourers operate—an hourly price, cheaper than the next guy/gal, simply a technician who applies a technical skill to a task as dictated by a client.
Instead, focus on how much value your solutions and expertise bring to the table – and that’s more than the total hours you’d spend working on the project.
So how does this happen? How do you go from labourer to leader?
It’s all in how you position yourself – right from the onset of communication – with a potential client. Your skillset makes you an expert in your field, so act like one. This begins when a potential client sees your portfolio:
- Are you sharing the problems you solved for previous clients or just listing your skills like a grocery list?
- Do you have testimonials or case studies that back up your knowledge and problem-solving skills? Or do those testimonials just confirm that you’re awesome?
- Are you clear that you offer services based on your industry expertise, and not just because you learned a skill?
- Do you speak to the solutions you provide, and not the commodity of your work?
- First impressions matter. Thankfully, you don’t need special skills to be an expert in your field. If you’re talented and know your craft, then congratulations, you can be a leader.
Positioning also means showcasing what makes you unique. The best leaders express their personalities and quirks in the “packaging” of their work. How can you more fully express who you are when you pitch your body of work? Show why you’re different, why your skills are unmatched, and you’ll be irreplaceable, not interchangeable.
As you think about positioning, ask yourself:
- What’s my most interesting client success story?
- Why do my clients like working with me? What, specifically, is unique and different about working with me?
- How do my life experience and education relate to my current work?
- Why do clients currently hire me? What makes them choose me over other freelancers who work in my field?
- What do clients say about me after we’ve finished a project or a contract?
The secret to moving from a client inquiry to a signed contract or agreement isn’t being the cheapest, fastest, or even the most wildly talented. Focus instead on providing answers that help people to improve their businesses. Be a leader. Ask good questions and understand how to solve real problems.
To learn how to properly position yourself as a PRO freelancer, check out my course, Creative Class. I’ve taught over 2,200 freelancers how to position themselves with clients in ways that lead to less stress, more money, and more enjoyable projects.
Setting Client Expectations
Many years ago, a woman emailed to ask if I could build her new website. She had heard about my work through a friend, saw my name listed on other websites, and gushed about my portfolio.
She clearly wanted to work with me and offered to pay half the project fee upfront, just so we could skip all the formalities and start designing. It seemed like a dream. Someone who loved my work was throwing money my way, and she wanted to start — now.
Was I ever wrong.
I didn’t set any expectations for the project, such as determining whether we were a good fit and defining her goals. I just started designing. I was quickly awoken from my happy dream when I sent her an initial mockup.
First, she said I hadn’t done my best work, because she hated everything about the design. It didn’t match her audience or her business. Why had I “phoned it in” on her project and given my best work to all my other clients?
I ended up doing five times the work to salvage and complete the project. She still wasn’t totally happy at the end. This experience taught me the value of setting clear expectations before money changes hands.
If both parties aren’t perfectly clear about the deliverables, process, timeline, and shared responsibilities — in writing, before there’s money on the table — you’re basically jumping out a window and hoping it’s not the 27th floor.
My process now involves the following steps. No exceptions:
- Onboarding. I have an onboarding process that serves two purposes. First, it pre-qualifies clients before I put my own time and effort into a new project. Potential clients see my project rates, exactly which services I do and don’t provide, and how the project will unfold, step by step. Then they fill in a project planner, which demonstrates how they communicate in writing (and if I understand what they’re trying to say) and whether their goals match up with my expertise. Second, the onboarding process shows me whether a potential client can follow directions. It seems like a silly test, but I’ve found that if someone can’t read instructions and provide clear answers to my questions, the project is destined for failure. For example, if I ask them to share one favourite website and I get 27 examples, warning bells start to ring.
- Communication. Next, I talk to the potential client on the phone or through video. It’s important to see how well we communicate, listen, and riff of each other’s ideas. This conversation also brings their goals to life, because they explain their motivations and what drives their work. Even though this is a web design project, we talk a lot about their business and what I can do to help.
- In writing. The second lesson in this course covers proposals, so I won’t outline what goes into one yet. But, I always put everything in writing before there’s money involved. It’s essential to be fully transparent–even though costs are mentioned in my onboarding process and we’ve discussed the deliverables in a call–about what services I’m providing, how much it will cost, and how long it will take to finish. Legally, it’s good to have everything in writing, but it’s even better to ensure both parties understand and accept the project terms, so we never reach the point where lawyers are screaming at a judge about witness badgering (like a scene from Law & Order). And if the client starts pushing for more, we can easily refer back to the signed agreement and project terms.
These three steps (onboarding, initial communication, and putting the project in writing) will help you to screen your clients more effectively and significantly reduce those bad project / bad client experiences. After all, you deserve the clients you get–and since you deserve great clients, make sure you do everything in your power to work with ones you’re stoked about.
One note: if, during any point between between the introduction and signed contract, you feel like the work isn’t a good fit, or you get a bad feeling about the project or the client, end the relationship. Gut feelings, especially after you’ve freelanced for a while, often are rooted in fact, so listen to them closely. You don’t need to be rude; just explain that you’re not the right person for the gig or you don’t think your skills / expertise are a good match for the project.
While it might seem smart to quickly accept money for a new project (especially when you’ve got an eager, paying client), it’s definitely in your best interest to set clear expectations about deliverables, costs, and timelines before the work begins. That way there are no alarms and no surprises (as Radiohead said so eloquently).
Common mistakes freelancers make with their business
Most freelancers start their journey in business something like this:
- They get good at their craft.
- They build a website.
- They set up their social media profiles.
- And then… they wait for clients to hire them.
As good as we are at making our art, freelancers miss one of the most important requirements for running a business: representing ourselves.
Don’t expect others to see your talent
Potential clients may not see your brilliance because they aren’t masters at your craft. You’ve got to show them why you’re an expert by teaching or showing them what goes into making what you make and why it would benefit someone like them.
Example: telling someone, “I write website content” wouldn’t do much for someone hiring a writer. Saying, “I wrote the copy for website X after spending 30 hours with their customers to learn their wants and needs and a week after they started using the content I wrote their business increased by 500%,” is a much stronger pitch.
Don’t try to appeal to everyone
This always seems like a good idea but is counter-intuitive because it lacks focus. If you learn what a specific group of people wants, needs or feels is important from you, you can laser-focus your craft and message to them. Be specific.
Example: it’d be almost impossible to be known as “the best web designer ever”, but it’s much more feasible to be known as “the go-to web designer for business coaches.”
Understand what your audience actually wants
The reasons people hire people like you might not be what you think. How can you find this out? Ask people that have hired people who do what you do, why they hired that particular person. Pay attention to their reasons and the specific words they use. Then, put those reasons and words into how you pitch yourself on your website or in meetings.
Example: programmers who focus on tech startups might think they get hired because they write documented and object-oriented code. But after talking to startups that hire programmers, they might learn that programmers like them are hired because they understand the business goals and write software that takes those goals into account.
Don’t focus on being better, focus on being different
Always trying to be the best in your field is like chasing perfection’s wily tail. Be amazing at your craft, for sure. But there’s always the risk that someone will come along who is technically better.
Instead, focus on why you’re different/unique. How do the services you offer relate to your unique vision? Anyone can master a tool, but not everyone can offer the expertise that you’ve built up in your body of work.
Example: it’s hard to compete as a designer with $5 logo designers. But if you focus on why your logo designs speak to your client’s audience and how your years of expertise have achieved real results for the people that have hired you, your work is no longer interchangeable with lowest common denominator designs.
Keep in touch
Too many creatives get busy with their work and forget that the reason they’re busy is because of the network they’ve cultivated. Follow-up with leads, reconnect with previous clients, stay in touch with industry peers. This way you’re less likely to be forgotten as the industry expert you are, by the people most likely to hire you for the first time, hire you again, or refer work your way.
Example: the easiest way to keep in touch with lots of people is through a newsletter. Good freelancers know how important an email list is to their business and continually work at offering value to their email list by sending out new content, curated links, behind-the-scenes details and list-only incentives.
Instead of spending all your time working on yourself and your craft, spend a little time figuring out who your audience is, what’s valuable to them and how you can foster a continued relationship with them.
User onboarding: not just for HR and growth hackers
Are you aware of the steps it takes for a client to hire you? What’s involved on their end, and on your end?
You might be spending a lot of time doing and explaining the same things, over and over again, for each prospective client.
I know I was. And I’ve been working with clients for a long time (something like 100,044 Internet years). So I decided to change things up a few months back, and automated more than half of my process to get clients from interested to signed on with me for web design work.
Call me an experimenter. I’m never satisfied with how anything works, and am always trying to change things up to see if something else works better. Since I started freelancing, though, I hadn’t done anything with how I onboard clients.
Here’s what it typically looked like:
- Client finds my name and link to my site on the bottom of a site they visit.
- They click DESIGN on my site and see my portfolio.
- If they’re impressed, they get in touch—sometimes with quick and vague emails, sometimes with 10-page essays that detail everything from how and why they started their business, to notes about their pets.
- I email them back when I have time, and ask them to fill in a project planner (a Google Doc that I make just for them).
- Once they fill it in, they email me back to let me know it’s filled in.
- Then I email them back to suggest a Skype call and a date/time.
- We go back and forth a few times to sync up when we can both get on Skype.
- We talk about the project on Skype for 30–40 minutes.
- I write up a statement of work that details three things: cost, deliverables, and timing.
- They sign it and send me a down payment to hold the start date.
- I send them a checklist of tasks they need to complete before we start.
- We start the project.
That’s 12 steps, and quite a bit of work for each step. When I wrote it out, it became obvious that I could automate the first seven steps. This would save me a ton of time and also get potential clients the information they needed quickly, to see if I would be a good fit for their project.
Onboarding, a brief definition
Onboarding is term from human resources for new hires, later taken by growth hackers and application developers to refer to taking on and orienting a new customer. The process is often broken into three parts: accommodation, assimilation, and acceleration.
Accommodation is giving new people the tools to use what they just signed up for. So when you sign up for Instagram and see their first few screens teaching you how to use their app—that’s their onboarding process. Samuel Hulick documented it here in 71 slides.
Assimilation is helping the new person feel like they belong—like they’re that person’s, that company’s, that app’s rat people. Zappos does this by taking their new hires through a course on company values, so they get not just what the company does, but what the company feels is important. They’re also given the choice at the end of the course to take $2,000 in cash to quit the company. Apparently only 1% of people take them up on it.
Acceleration is making the new person quickly enter the existing community. I do this on my mailing list by sending a very specific welcome email about tattoos. I’ve spent a lot of time on the process and wording that happens when someone signs up for my list, my tattoo welcome message, and it pays off in spades with engagement and retention of subscribers.
All of these things above seem kind of scientific or even a bit disingenuous, but at their core, they’re about making someone new feel welcome, giving them the tools they need to catch up, and making sure they’re in the right place.
If it’s done right, automating an onboarding process can save a bunch of time, but also strengthen the connection and commitment from the user side.
My new onboarding process for web design clients
Here’s how I planned my own onboarding process, to make it as automated and helpful as possible:
- Client finds my name and link to my site on the bottom of a site they visit.
- They click DESIGN on my site and see my portfolio.
- If they’re impressed, they fill in their name and email address, and receive a “Getting Started” PDF. Their details get added to a MailChimp (free) mailing list. This list doesn’t send out regular emails, but it automatically sends the PDF and tracks if they click it or not.
- The “Getting Started” PDF details my pricing, process, and types of projects I do (as well as types of projects I don’t do). It answers all the common questions I usually get asked on email or on the phone. It also includes lots of client testimonials.
- At the end of the PDF, there’s a link to fill in a project planner.
- The project planner is a form hosted on typeform.com (free) that doesn’t need to be generated for each new person. It stores their answers and emails me when they finish.
- Once they fill in the form, the final screen includes a link to schedule a call.
- The Skype call booking form lives in a system called youcanbook.me (free) and syncs with my Google Calendar (so it only shows free time on specific days). Once they pick a time that is open for me, we are both sent an email with the confirmation and reminder.
Everything else is the same as the previous process. I do the call, if there’s a fit, I write up a statement of work, get a downpayment, and get started.
What I’ve found in the first few months of doing things this way, is that my initial fear that maybe people would be put off by not actually hearing from me at first, wasn’t valid.
Every person I asked —“Did you enjoy the process? Were you okay that I didn’t personally get involved until the call?”— were all completely happy that it was so quick, answered their questions, and felt really smooth.
Out of six people who went through the new process lately, five booked projects with me. The sixth didn’t read the part about me being booked four months out and couldn’t wait that long.
For those six people who went through the process, I saved hours and hours by not having to answer questions I’ve answered hundreds of times before or doing the “when are you free” dance.
Accommodating people with automation lets them get to know my business on their own time. I assimilate them by answering all the common questions I’ve heard through my handy (and well designed, if I do say so myself) “Getting Started” PDF. I accelerate the process by using free tools that let them go from curious to a confirmed sales call within a few minutes (that doesn’t require manual work on my end).
You’re going to need to wear a lot of hats
Wouldn’t it be great if being a brilliant artist was all it took to earn a living?
We could spend our days with words, canvases and music, creating our art until we dropped of beautiful exhaustion. Rent, food, college funds, insurance could be worries for someone else.
Sadly, when art mixes with money, we’ve got to take on (or hire) several responsibilities beyond just creating our art. We’ve got to be lawyers, accountants, sales people, researchers, and marketers too, if there’s any hope that our art will sustain us.
Taste (as Ira Glass famously said) cannot be taught, so most of our artistic abilities come from constant work and our innate talent for creating. The rest of what we need to take care of to make our art work for us needs to be learned, and most of the time, learned very quickly.
To pursue your art as a creative professional, here are a few things you either need to learn quickly or be able to afford hiring out:
Not in the sleazy car-sales or travelling vacuum peddler sense, but in a way that actually provides value to the people you want your art to connect with. It’s not enough to price your art at “what it’s worth”. The price has to be “what the market is willing to pay for it”. And if you want your art to sell, you’ve got to tell the right people about it in a way that fits your style.
You’ve got to price your work accordingly, revise as necessary and make sure what’s coming in isn’t less than what’s going out. Keep track of expenses and for the love of Van Gogh, live within your means (or under). Hire an accountant or keep meticulous records of everything you sell and buy, beyond keeping receipts in shoeboxes (or Evernote).
Understand your audience
You aren’t going to please everyone and not everyone is going to want your art. The good thing is that it’s much easier to please the right people than all of the people.
Share your work with them as often as possible. Connect with them, seek them out and offer help/insight when applicable. It’s interesting how much value there is in taking time to listen to what your audience is saying.
Understand how to not get screwed over
Contracts are funny things. Most of us creative professionals can’t afford to actually take someone to court, but we also need to be aware that not everyone is an altruistic, loving, and most importantly, paying, customer.
Contracts are more important to define a mutual understanding than anything legal. What is a client getting, exactly, when, and for how much. Making these things absolutely clear (in writing) goes a very long way towards not getting screwed.
If you aren’t good at or haven’t figured out all four of those things, learn. Take courses, read books, ask others questions. Get good at them quickly or earn enough to hire them out. If you aren’t comfortable connecting with your audience or selling to them, find an approach or style that does feel comfortable for you.
I easily spent the first few years working for myself getting screwed over. By clients and by the government (ok, that never stops happening, but at least now it’s done in expected and planned for ways). And I didn’t have a clue about connecting with the right people, in the right way.
Even after many years of working for myself, I still don’t have all the answers and there’s lots I still don’t understand. But I’m slightly closer, I think.
The good thing is that once you have those four things under control, you can focus more on your art and defining what success means for you.