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 freelancer. This can be hard because people who take this path are often trying to lean away from their former jobs and create more space in their lives.
However, if you’re hedging, others will know it too. You need to learn to balance your fear of becoming burned out on this path with letting people know you are available for work. Managing this delicate balance is vital to ensure you lay the groundwork for 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 is 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 in doing.
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 turn their jobs into part-time contract gigs and will keep the same “hourly rate” from their annualized salary. This can be a good idea at first (because you are freeing up time to experiment and plot the next steps) but often ends up with people feeling stuck or overworked later.
Hourly work is great to start with and can make sense for hands-on projects where you are the expert but unless you are able to increase your rate to at least 2-3x your former rate as an employee, you will likely end up disappointed with the money you are making as a freelancer or you’ll end up overworked.
Here’s an overview of the three kinds of project-based pricing frameworks and when to use them:
Time-based work is the most common kind of freelance work. It’s simple: you get paid for spending a certain amount of time on work. Examples include:
- Two days a week @ $x/day or $X/week
- Up to 10 hours of advisory or coaching work for $X
- 20 hours of work @ hourly rate
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 could include anything from copy editing work to graphic design. This means that if you try to increase rates, clients may just try to find someone else to do the work. Ultimately, you will want to move away from any highly saturated space toward work where you are differentiating yourself.
Ultimately most freelancers want to find a mix of work with different price structures, or at minimum build in a little more flexibility into the time-based pricing. This could include charging for something like “up to X days” per month for a fixed rate. One of my first gigs was working for a client for three months for “up to 15 days per month” for a fixed dollar amount. The client never checked on my work or dictated how much or where I worked. It was already a relationship I had established and they treated me like a professional. One of the months there simply wasn’t enough for me to do but in the final month, I probably spent a bit more than fifteen days. But it still felt like a good arrangement because of the trust they had in me. They were paying me to get the job done and do it well, not to spend time focused on an hour here or there.
Time-based projects can be great learning experiences early on in a freelance journey. I try to avoid time-based work at this stage of my journey, especially with a child at home these days. But I’ll still do it if it ticks three boxes: I enjoy it, I’m great at it and I can charge a premium. For me, this includes things like 1-on-1 presentation coaching, which I currently charge around $500 an hour for. At this rate, I end up getting good clients too: sharp people who want someone like me who can take them to the next level.
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.
This is a great way to raise prices and your own ambitions of the kind of work you want to do at the same time.
Take this imaginary project below. Let’s imagine a freelancer has been charging about $75/hour for their work. But they encounter a project that they know they can do well, might take a little more work, and know that the client has a bigger budget.
They might think that the project will take anywhere from 100-200 hours, where 200 hours is a stretch. They can pitch something with a $20,000 buget knowing that they have “slack capacity” to spend much more time than they usually would until the project is back at their normal hourly rate (266 hours @ $75/hour)
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 experience 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.
My favorite example comes from Jason Resnick who runs NurtureKit, a company that does coaching for ConvertKit. Take a look at his packages:
His base offer is essentially a time-based offer but its really a productized service because he already knows how to execute on something like this (and likely has many times). The advantage of this kind of work is:
- You get better at it over time
- You can increase prices because you get better at it
- You can increasingly focus it around only what you like doing
- You can eventually bring in people to help you
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 premium positioning (as you can see from my Partner and Enterprise packages below).
I also offer a standardized four-week intensive training program that companies can purchase. I don’t allow customization unless you’re willing to pay a crazy amount of money.
I sense there is a lot of untapped potential in thinking about productized services within the professional consulting industry. They have resisted it because a lot of the productized offerings are coming out of the creator economy. Things like group coaching, cohort-based courses, and virtual workshops. From my own experience successfully introducing these to big companies, I think there will be continued demand for clear offerings like this.
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 a great client.
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 their 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 the 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 which 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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