Kick Starting a Freelance Business… When You Can’t Afford to Fail
Photo by thebittenworld.com.
Like so many others before me, I realized long ago that freelancing is the only way to take full advantage of life in a free society. We all want greater control over our own daily schedules and future accomplishments. But while many of us can plainly see the allure of never having to ask a boss if we can go on vacation (or take a nap at 2pm), we often don’t view ourselves as entrepreneurs in the traditional sense… you know, those dynamic people who can make a business hum along profitably whether it’s an ice cream parlor or a rubber band factory?
As a result, we often find ourselves excitedly enlightened about the existence of a better life as freelancers, but without the practical vision to get there. Additionally, we may lack the financial resources that we imagine are a prerequisite to launching a freelance business. As a result, fear of failure paralyzes us.
Years ago, my solution to this dilemma was to work really hard at making myself indispensable to people who actually did have that entrepreneurial aptitude, working alongside them as they launched various ventures on a shoestring budget. Although I eventually realized that this did very little to actually liberate me from the more burdensome constraints of life as a paid employee, it did allow me to witness a basic template for success emerge, one that I would personally put to use… twice.
Before I detail the particulars, I want to emphasize that I am not for a moment suggesting that this template represents a “good business model” in the formal sense. Business majors would be appalled by it, artistic purists all the more. What I am saying, because I’ve done it twice, is that it worked for me. It worked when I founded my first company, one that is still humming along nicely after 13 years. And it worked a second time four years ago, when I launched a freelance graphic design business from a home studio just weeks after moving two states away. Here’s the basic outline:
1) Prepare in advance. Then quit your old work life cold turkey.
While you’re still punching the clock at your current gig, make a list of the essential things you need to purchase. Buy only the most basic equipment and materials you’ll need to be ready to deliver finished work on day one of your new venture, preferably without borrowing any money. Cut back on your monthly expenses now, not later when circumstances require it. Then make a list of prospective clients you feel certain will use your services. When possible, approach them and secure their interest in advance.
When you’ve got a solid plan that you have strong confidence in, drop your job like a bad habit and don’t look back (unless your old employer is a prospective client).
When I was a kid, I used to stand at the side of the pool dipping my toe in, and then I’d slowly descend into the water an inch at a time, trying to avoid any abrupt change in temperature. Frankly, it was cowardly. How much better to dive right into the water, suffer the jolt of the new for a few brief seconds, and then get going? So it is with freelancing.
Do your very best on every job. Continually improve your skills. Make sure the only complaint your clients have is that they didn’t find out about you sooner. But nothing will ensure your success like having no other option.
2) Set your hourly rate where you really want it. Then quote only flat fees.
From day one, set your hourly rate at the figure that you want to be making when you’re successful. After that, never mention it verbally to your clients unless absolutely necessary.
Quote flat fees for each job based on multiples of your hourly rate, using some common sense discretion to offer a finished cost that will garner the work. When you bill it, break the quoted flat fee down into your hourly rate and show it that way on the invoice, even if it isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of the time spent on the job. By doing so, you’ll accustom your clients to the hourly rate you really want and deserve, without scaring them off at the beginning.
As your business grows and you gain confidence, you can bump up those flat prices without raising your hourly rate. If clients see the hourly rate staying the same on invoice after invoice over a long period of time, and they know you deliver as promised, they likely won’t protest.
3) Do not turn down profitable work, no matter what it is.
You can get selective later, but for right now, if someone will pay you to pick the gum out of the bottom of their wastepaper basket, do it. Your goal is to get as much money coming in the door as possible, and to build a broad client base that provides a steady stream of paying work.
It’s a pretty cool feeling to tell people you’re a freelancer. What isn’t so cool is to tell people that you’re a wealth transfer machine. But if you can’t afford to fail, that is exactly what you had better be. Your immediate goal is to transfer money out of the pockets of others and into your own, and any job that accomplishes that aim is exactly your kind, at least for now.
4) Deliberately precipitate a crisis.
If you’re talented, if you’re delivering quality services for fair prices, and if you’re spending time promoting yourself and benefiting from healthy word-of-mouth, you’re going to be very busy. I rarely work weekends. I work late only one night each week, but I bust my butt to make sure my available work hours are absolutely packed.
I recommend that you work a set schedule to start, just like a “real job”, and if you’re done at 3:00pm, do low-cost email marketing (or something equally productive) until quitting time. Once you can barely get all the work done that you’ve got coming in, once you’re almost overwhelmed by it all, smile… you’ll be in the driver’s seat.
5) Steer your freelancing business in the direction you want to go.
Now you can get picky. At this point ask yourself one simple question: “Is my primary problem that I’m not busy enough, or that I’m not making enough money for as busy as I am?” That’s the only question you’ll need from now on.
If you’re not busy enough, go right back to step 4. If you’re not making enough money, raise your flat rate prices, which you can do without raising hourly rates for as long as you’d like.
Starting a freelance business isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely possible for anyone with a genuinely marketable skill. You don’t need a giant loan, you don’t need to live in your parents’ basement, and you don’t need an MBA… just confidence and talent, and a determination to get started right now.
What are you waiting for?