It’s pretty unbelievable to think about, but I have been running my business for five years now! I have learned a ton along the way, but it never ends, I’m continuously striving to improve both my work and my business. Today, I want to look back and share a few key things I’ve learned as a business owner and entrepreneur over the years. I hope they can help you build or grow a successful freelance business.
1. Find a Supportive Network
In the beginning, I tried to do everything myself. I filed my own taxes, started to learn web development, and basically just created stressful situations and wasted a lot of time. I realized I should focus on what I’m passionate about, visual brand development for creative businesses. I’m not passionate about learning code or figuring out how to file taxes.
Your support network can include many different types of people from your family and friends to fellow freelancers and blog buddies. Check if there are any local communities that you can join. If you don’t have any local meet-ups, you can start your own or participate in online networking like Facebook groups. Just because you work for yourself doesn’t mean you have to do everything alone!
2. Create an Effective Portfolio
A portfolio should showcase the work you want to do more of and NOT everything you have ever created. Don’t make the mistake of trying to show off too much of your work. Potential clients don’t need to see everything, be selective. Focus on your best work and consider the sort of projects that you’d like more of in the future.
3. Go the extra mile
This is one of my top pieces of advice. Word of mouth is powerful, nothing can help you or hurt you more. While I still had my full-time job, I started getting connections by doing pro bono work for a few New Orleans non-profits. When I decided to make the leap out on my own in 2010, I let them know that I would not be available to work pro bono any more, and guess what? They decided to continue working with me anyway and I still work with many of them five years later! Just because I was doing the work for free in the beginning, I was never lazy and I did my best work. These clients have recommended me numerous times and continue to reach out even when they move on to new positions or totally different fields!
4. Learn to Say no
In business, what you DON’T do is just as important as what you do. Knowing your ideal client and the type of person you enjoy working with can make a huge difference in the success of your business and your sanity. Turning down work is scary but saying no to something that isn’t a good fit (or you just dislike) gives you the time and energy to do the things you love!
When I first starting freelancing, I said yes to just about everything but I quickly learned that there’s just not enough time for that. Take a look at your business. What is it that you LOVE doing? For me, it’s branding, art direction and invitation design. They’re my favorites, so that is what I want to make sure I have time for. You may not know your ideal client immediately, it can be a slow process and can also evolve over time.
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs
5. Establish Systems and Processes
When I first started, I thought I could just jump right into freelancing since I had design experience in the real world. I didn’t really think about the business side. How I’d have to spend less time designing and more time networking, pursuing new work, meeting with clients, invoicing, updating my portfolio, accounting and lots of other things that I don’t necessarily enjoy doing. I didn’t know anything about business and I am still learning as I go.
I slowly created processes (client questionnaires, invoicing, contracts) as things came up. I didn’t even have a separate business bank account for my first few years. It would have saved me lots of time and headaches in the long run if I would have spent some time up front to get all of this in order. A lot of my processes get updated as time goes by, and that is okay! For me, the most important is to always use a contract no matter how large or small the job is, whether it is your best friend or a complete stranger. It is the only way that both designer and client can be on the same page.
I hope these tips can help you if you are thinking about ditching your 9-5 or looking to grow your own small business!