I’ve been freelancing for four years. Having made this transition after working in the consulting industry was easier than it would have been if I had made the leap from industry but there was still a lot I had to figure out along the way.
In the past two years, I’ve hired several freelancers and have found that many of them struggle with these things I learned in the early days of working on my own.
Here are five things that will help you be a better freelancer, especially at the beginning:
#1 COMMITMENT: Many People “Hedge” When They Pursue Freelancing, You Really Need To Go “All In”
Freelancing is scary. It puts you at the whims of your personal network, the market, industry cycles, and other variables outside of your control. So instead of committing to freelancing, many people hedge their bets. They might have one long-term project that is paying the bills or only tell a handful of people about their status as a freelancer. They keep looking for jobs and are “open to opportunities.”
This is a mistake.
When you first start freelancing you need to over-identify with the idea that you are a freelance. This can be hard because people that take this path are often trying to lean away from their former jobs and create more space in their life.
However, if you’re hedging, others will know it too. You need to learn to balance your fear of becoming burned out in this path with letting people know you are available for work. Managing this delicate balance is vital to ensure you lay the groundwork to building a lasting freelance business.
To get practical, I urge people to write down the answers to the following questions at the beginning of their freelance journey:
- How many months will you commit to freelancing?
- How much money do you want to make?
- What factors would tell me that this experiment was a failure?
Once you’ve committed, don’t be afraid to tell people. Austin Church likes to ask people, “do all your friends and family members know you are a freelancer?” The point of the question is that if they don’t know, potential clients are going to have a hard time knowing as well.
Hiring freelancers and scoping work are hard enough. The least you can do is let others know that you exist.
Update your LinkedIn profile, e-mail your network and start dropping the freelancer label. Once you’ve made it past your commitment period, you can likely stop overcompensating and build a more sustainable relationship with your freelancing identity.
#2 NAMING: Picking A Name For Your Practice Can Be Challenging
Consulting under your personal name is becoming a lot more normal in the age of social media and personal branding. This does not mean there is not some value to deciding on picking a “firm name” for your practice.
A common strategy is to start with a brand and then shift to working under your name later. In my case, I started freelancing under the name “Vivo Strategies.” I had fun going through the process of picking a name, designing a logo, and building a website. This process helped me to overcome some of the insecurity of becoming self-employed. I was able to disguise some of it behind my brand 🙂
I know many people who started out with brands and then shifted to a personal brand when they became more confident or realized that they didn’t have any desire to grow or build a consulting practice. At this point, I still use the Vivo Strategies for legal documents but rarely use it with anything else.
I was looking back on all the freelancing work I’ve done over the last five years and realized that 95% of my clients have come through my personal network or interactions on social media being myself.
Short answer: If you feel like having a brand name would be fun or you want to build something that scales, go for it!
#3 MATERIALS: You need to help people imagine different ways of working with you, not just assume you
If you want to do work beyond anything that is easy to understand and is commoditized you will need to give your potential clients and clients ideas of how they might want to work with you.
In freelancing, you are often capable and available to do a much broader range of work than you might in a full-time job. This can be hard to wrap your head around.
When I first started freelancing I developed a simple page of the possible ways of working with me. The point of this was to expand the imagination of the people I was working with beyond thinking about designing work for full-time employees.
In addition to this, I also developed a list of types of projects I wanted to work on. I’ve gotten a lot more specific about the type of work I do now (mostly through trial and error) but the point was to give the client an idea of what I was good at and what I was interested to do.
When many people become freelancers, they mistakenly think of themselves as a company. They think that they need to have a set of service offerings and high-level branding.
Part of this is the confusion of how consulting firms operate. If you go to a famous consulting firm’s page, they might have “Supply Chain,” “Manufacturing,” and “Product Development” listed as service offerings. However, anyone who has worked on these specific teams within the firm knows that the internal documents they share with clients are much more specific.
The game of solo freelancing is to keep putting signals out into the world that tell people “this person has skills and can offer value in this space.”
Once you connect with people you can go deeper in terms of helping them solve problems and add value. The key thing to remember is that you aren’t a business, you are a person. The game is not to make money, it’s to find work that you want to keep doing. Don’t create more roadblocks than you need to.
#4 PROJECT TYPES: Know what kind of projects you want to do and what that means for income potential and time
Many newbie freelancers focus on hourly work. This makes sense. This is a great idea at the beginning. Many people stay on in their jobs for a certain number of hours per week at a certain hourly rate (often close to the hourly conversion of their annual salary).
However, focus only on this kind of work and you will miss out on opportunities to work on more challenging projects and to shape the kind of work towards things you want to do.
It’s shifting from “do these things for $X an hour” to “helping a client make change X.”
This isn’t easy but it’s helpful to think about a simple framework of the types of projects:
You get paid for a certain chunk of time.
The simplest version is getting paid an hourly rate to execute specific tasks. The challenge with this kind of freelancing work is that hourly work often is commoditized and competitive. This means it will be harder to raise rates and clients will be more focused on getting things done than seeing you as a partner to help their business.
That doesn’t mean time-based projects are dead-end. In fact, they are often the best kind of projects for early freelancers to expand their capabilities. Many experienced freelancers charge on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. For example, someone might charge $800 a day or $5,000 for up to 10 days of work per month. In both cases, the project is much more dependent on trust, the freelancer’s flexibility to work on a broader range of things and a long-term commitment. These projects enable people to shift outside of their comfort zone and continue to grow.
2) Project / Fixed-Fee Projects
This is the preferred pricing model of top-tier consulting firms. High rates enable a sustainable business model of “over-delivering.”. The secret of this kind of work is not about maximizing your margins but creating slack above the cost of your services such that you can spend extra on experts, outside services, research, or extra time if needed. It aligns the incentives on both sides around delivering value rather than limiting spending.
As a freelancer, this can be a hard kind of project to sell, mostly because you don’t have the excess capacity and services of a large firm at your demand. However, as you get experiencing partnering with other consultants, using contractors to support your work, getting a better understanding of how long projects take, and raising your confidence in your abilities, you will be more comfortable pushing for these types of projects, knowing that you can close the gap between an ambiguous problem and your own ability to be creative.
At its core, this kind of project is a shift from thinking about “here’s what I cost” to “what value can we unlock?”
3) “Productized” / Solutions:
The simplest version of a “productized” offering is a couple-page document or PowerPoint slide outlining a specific problem, an approach, and a price. Many consulting firms have standard offerings and experienced freelancers often have them as well. Think about this as the value menu at a fast-food restaurant. It is a pre-selected group of items for a price. It’s an “offer” that people can react to.
The more interesting evolution of this kind of offer is the use of digital products. I’ve seen an explosion in the number of freelancers, coaches, and small agency owners who have turned their know-how into higher-priced books, self-paced courses, or hybrid course/coaching packages. In fact, that’s exactly what I do with my Think Like A Strategy Consultant course. I offer a self-paced program but also work with many executives through my premium offer. They get access to the course but also one-on-one coaching for their presentations.
There will likely be a revolution in terms of how consulting services are delivered to clients over the next 10-15 years. Instead of companies hiring one consultant to work on a problem, you might have 8 Chief HR Officers doing a cohort-based course with a team of top consultants working on
Bottom Line: The mix of the types of projects you work on is downstream of your interests, ambition, and how you want to spend your time. Many consultants like to have 1-2 anchor clients that pay them on a weekly or monthly basis and then leave time to work on other projects or be ready if an interesting project-based opportunity emergest
#5 DELIVERABLES: Clients don’t pay for reports, but they do pay for you helping them take action and make decisions
Many freelancers focus on the work and neglect the amount of hand-holding they should be doing with clients.
Former strategy consultants often have the opposite problem. They create too much material and don’t focus on getting things done.
The right answer is somewhere in the middle. Creating documents for your client is a powerful way to improve the client experience and turn a good client into great clients.
The best way to think about deliverables is as shared tokens of truth. They are documents, PowerPoints, videos, e-mails, or summaries that force you and the client to look at a written articulation of an issue or a process and answer the question, “are we on the same page?”
Without these, freelancers find themselves at the end of the project where both they and the client are not happy with the results.
Here are three kinds of documents you can create to raise your odds of success:
1) The Proposal:
Proposals are underrated. Even before agreeing to the project, I try to write things up in a short e-mail, google doc, or PowerPoint presentation and send it to the potential client. If I can get them to edit the document directly, even better. The goal is to get them to share the internal perspectives, tell you what kind of phrases or language is used within the firm, and experience what it’s like to start working together.
From the earliest stages of having a conversation with a client I always make sure I am covering these six things:
- Problem statement
- Team & Resources
- Next Steps
2) Check-In Documents
These are ways to confirm that the project is on track, discuss drafts of documents you may share with a larger group, and elevate any issues in the ongoing project. During check-in meetings, I always re-share the material I used in the initial proposal or kick-off meetings. It gives us a way to know where we are in the project and where we are headed.
This is probably one of the easiest ways for freelancers to level up their current projects. Simply create a Google Doc or Word document with the following items:
- Revisiting initial problem & approach
- Where we are in the process
- Items to review/get feedback on
- Open questions from the client
- Next Steps & Timeline
This is a more advanced tool in the freelancing toolkit but an easy way to agree on a shared way of seeing the world between client and freelancer (who is always going to be an outsider). It’s best if you develop these frameworks together but they can often start as a simple list of items. For example, you might do a quick benchmarking of your client against a competitor:
You can then bring this to your client (ideally in a check-in meeting first) and ask them, “are these the right categories?” and then tweak it with their support.
Over time you will likely develop your own frameworks and way of seeing the space you work in. This is how you develop more sustainable offerings, services, and solutions and ultimately, do the kind of work you want to do over the long term.
Although I worked in the consulting industry for nine years, I didn’t know what I was doing until I had to compete in the free market that is the gig economy. It’s been a ton of fun but I wish I knew these things a little earlier. Hopefully, it saves you some time 😊
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