From Start to Finish: The Guide to Your Freelance Business

So you want to go freelance? That’s awesome — but it’s a lot of work. As you consider this shift in the way you do work, I’ve got some questions for you.

What should you be doing in the months prior to going freelance?

What about the first month you’re running your own business?

Do you know what annual tasks you should be reviewing monthly, then yearly?

Today we’re going to walk through the things I believe you should be thinking about as you prepare to set up your own freelance business — beginning 90 days (or more) prior to making the freelance leap, all the way out to the things you need to track on an annual basis.

We both want you to succeed with as little pain as possible.

30 – 90 days out

All the days/months before you start are about building a solid foundation for your business. Figure out your project management system. Doesn’t matter much what it is, as long as it works for you and your clients. I currently use Todoist (August 8 2016: I use OmniFocus and have for a number of months again mainly for the review features) for my personal tasks and Redbooth to manage projects with my clients.

What checklists do you need for design deliverables or site launches? What are you going to send your clients after a successful project?

Take the time now to work out all those details so that you’re not scrambling around randomly trying to figure out how to get things done while simultaneously trying to manage the tasks associated with building your business.

A second big thing to deal with before you go on your own is your finances. Make sure you’ve saved at least 3 months’ worth of income. Better yet, have enough in savings that you can pay your bills for 6 months if you need to.

Sit down and work out your budget. If you’re not sure how, read the series my wife wrote on budgeting and start the process. Work with your budget in the months leading up to going out on your own.

Yes, you need to market yourself. Yes, referrals are going to be an awesome source of work, but you won’t be getting referrals until you build up a client base.

Even with a fairly steady referral stream like I have, doing interviews like this one with WP Engine can bring in clients. That one interview with WP Engine has actually brought in $40K in revenue because prospects read it and then felt I was the right person to work with.

Was the 40 minutes of my time worth the interview? Obviously it was.

More than that, start blogging. Write at least one post a week about the problems you’re dealing with in your business. My site at WP Theme Tutorial yielded around $20K in client revenue per year from people that watched me solve a problem similar to one they had, then they hired me to solve their problem. (Update August 8 2016: I shut this site down about a year ago after not writing on it for 1 year. The neglect stopped it’s usefulness as a lead generation machine.).

This site brings in about $8K a year in revenue from product and affiliate sales, and client work. I regularly get contacts from prospects who read here about how I run my business, and are interested in working with a business that’s run like mine. I’d estimate about 40% of my annual revenue is a result of people becoming familiar with me from this site.

Blogging is totally worth your time, so do it. You don’t have to write a long post like this every time, and the more you write the easier it gets. If you’re not sure how to start, read my series on blogging.

What other supports do you have in place? Are you part of a mastermind group that can help keep you accountable for your goals, as well as telling you when your ideas are good, or bad? Can’t find one? Then go start a mastermind group.

Having people around you that care about your business will help you go so much further than you would on your own.

I know these tips are under the heading of 30 – 90 days out, but really, this foundation-building phase can be as long as you need it to be. By the time you go out on your own, you should have so much side work — while still doing your full-time job — that you simply can’t get it all done without working every evening and all weekend. You should also have that savings in place.

If that takes you 12 months to get done, then it takes you 12 months and that’s fine. Work through this list for as long as it takes so that when you finally can go out on your own, you’ve got a solid foundation.

First 30 days

WooHoo!!!! You made it. You’ve got a solid foundation set (hopefully) and you’re now basking in the glory of being your own boss. Don’t enjoy it too much.

I’m going to tell you a story of my first month on my own. Here is what my day looked like:

  • 8 a.m. – Out of bed
  • 9 a.m. – Sit down and check Twitter
  • 10 a.m. – Open email
  • 10:30 a.m. – Walk the dog (hey, it’s a nice day and I’m my own boss)
  • 12 p.m. – Man, I’m hungry
  • 1 p.m. – Back to work (Twitter is work right?)
  • 1:30 p.m. – Man, I need to write some code today — like, NOW
  • 2 p.m. – OOOO….Crap! I really need to write code now!
  • 3 p.m. – Wow, that was a good coding session; it must be…wait, it’s only 3 p.m.
  • 4 p.m. – Can I be done yet? I mean I was in the office most of the day
  • 5 p.m. – Whew, I’m done…wait, that’s only an hour of billlable work 🙁

Yup, that’s how I started. It took me a month — the first time I had to pay myself — to realize that I really hadn’t added anywhere near enough to the bank account if I intended for this business to keep paying my bills for the next few months, let alone years.

Just because you can spend the day lounging around doesn’t mean that you should be doing it. At least not if you want to keep paying your bills.

Each week, remember to set up your ideal week and do a weekly review every week. If you’re not really sure how to be productive, I’ve got 7 tips for you.

Plan your marketing time each week so that after you get through your first batch of clients you still have work.

Take up reading so you can keep learning how to run an awesome business. I mean read actual books, not just blog posts. If you’re not sure where to start here’s my list. Also watch my monthly reading posts to see what I’m reading and grab the books that interest you there.

Build in time to recharge. You’ve been going really hard working all night/weekends to get this business going. You can probably scale back just a bit now and spend time with those friends you have, as well as your spouse/partner.

Just don’t take it so easy that the fledgling business you’re running goes off the rails and dies in a fiery crash.

First 30 days – 6 months

Now that you’ve made it through the first 30 days and you actually were productive and kept up your marketing, it’s time to start taking a look back at what you’re doing.

Is that project management system you loved really something to be in love with? Do your clients like it? Are they using it? Did you provide them instructions on how to use it? Should you have a project success page?

What about goals? At first it was to survive for 30 days but it’s time to look further ahead now. Are you building the business you really want to be in? Do you really want to work late every day and miss time with your friends or family?

So what type of business do you want to run then? Which of your current clients are going to fit in that type of business? How are you going to keep taking steps to get to that business you want?

What’s your goal for revenue for the next 6 months? How many books do you plan on reading?

What steps do you need to take each month to get to those goals?

Take the time now and review the business budget you created. Is it working and is it reasonable? What can be cut? Really, you should be reviewing your budget every month.

Some other great budgeting resources are Total Money Makeover (Amazon.ca) and You Need a Budget.

Budgeting is no fun for me either, but it’s a crucial thing for your successful business. If you want to run a business in which you’re actually living paycheque to paycheque then by all means, don’t budget.

Of course also keep up all the stuff from the first 30 days like blogging, marketing, reading and generally staying productive.

First 6 – 12 months

Now that it’s been 6 months, it’s time to look back, as well as forward at the next 6 months.

What goals were you not able to accomplish? Why didn’t they happen? If the first thing that springs to mind is a bunch of external reasons you didn’t meet your goals, you likely need to check your mindset.

Sure some of you had your spouse get sick, or maybe even die. Those ARE good reasons that things didn’t turn out as planned. But most of you are just citing minimal things that are actually excuses.

You didn’t choose to spend your time properly and your goals remain unfulfilled because of that.

Review that budget again — not just the monthly budgeting session but really dig deep and cut the things you don’t need. You should always be ruthless with your expenses.

Have you attended a conference in the last 6 months? Not something you speak at but one that just feeds you and can help make your business better? If not, sit down and find one that you can attend. Budget for it and go make connections and get better at your business.

Coaching is good at any time in your business. I only recommend looking into it now and not earlier because I’m assuming that after 6 months of running a good budget, and staying productive and shipping things for clients, you’re in a better position to spend money on coaching.

Many of you are in the WordPress world so I want to note that I don’t mean ‘WordPress World’ money where everything costs around 5% of what it really should and people complain that it’s not 2% of what it should cost. I mean be up for putting aside a few thousand dollars in the next 6 months for coaching.

Hopefully you’re already involved in a good mastermind group. Even then, 1-on-1 coaching is going to help you go further faster. A coach will give you focused attention on a regular basis to help you break through the barriers to your success that you can’t see.

If you can invest in coaching before the 6 month point DO IT!

12 months and beyond

It’s been 12 months and you’re still running your business. Good job.

Now it’s time to review your year. Take a couple weeks off work and decide what was really important last year. What made you feel like a champion? What didn’t work? What are you goals for the next 12 months? How are those goals going to fit into each quarter?

Evaluate those clients again (every 6 months at least) and cut the ones that really don’t fit into your business as it’s grown. Make room for those clients that are going to come that are a better fit for you.

That’s it — you’re on a path that can lead to success. Keep being productive. Keep learning to run a better business. Keep refining your process and evaluating your business tools.

Keep being awesome, and keep running that amazing business.

photo credit: nathanf cc

2 Replies to “From Start to Finish: The Guide to Your Freelance Business”

  1. As always, thank you for writing awesome content. I’ve been kind of thrown into the freelance stuff, so this post is really helpful.

Comments are closed.