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 ( 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

Would I want to…

Yesterday I talked about making a quick buck and how it’s not the way to be a good long-term business owner.

Unfortunately, many businesses allow deceptive practices to creep into their interactions with clients. For example, what may start as a monthly support package for clients may turn into a minimal amount of service charged at hugely inflated rates — with no mention to your clients about competing services like WP Site Care.

The best way to test any new business practices as you develop them is to ask yourself:

How would I feel if a company treated me this way?

Be honest with yourself. Think about it: Ninety-nine percent of us wouldn’t want our business equated with an airline because so much about the flying experience is terrible.

Nor would we ever want to be accused of having service contracts and lock-in policies like cell phone companies (and to my mainly US readers, know that it’s worse in Canada).

So ask yourself that question when you develop any new business practice. Ask your spouse/partner. Ask your mastermind group.

Run an awesome business that values your clients.

photo credit: pmiaki cc

Is that quick buck worth it?

No, my bank account is not full. There’s plenty of room in there, and really I could add an infinite amount of bits which equal money.

But I won’t lie or deceive people just to get those extra bits into my account. It’s not worth it.

If you use those tactics just to get more money, at some point you’re going to be found out. You’ll burn bridges and clients won’t be referring others to you. Everyone will figure out you’re not trustworthy.

Being untrustworthy means you’ll eventually run out of friends who are willing to help you, as you end up burning through new ones faster than you can replace the old ones.

That quick buck you thought you could earn is going to mean that each ‘next buck’ is harder to earn. You’ll have to dig deeper into the lies and deception to make that quick buck.

Your goal should always be honesty. If you can’t handle a job, don’t let greed cause you to lie. Tell the prospect when you can’t handle the job and send them on to someone who can. If you’re stuck, tell your client you’re stuck, then go and hire the right person to help with that portion of the project, so you’re still delivering what you promised your client.

Yup, this method may mean it takes you longer to earn that initial buck, but it will pay off in the end. You’ll get referrals and your business will start growing. Your peers will respect you and send prospects that don’t fit with them to you.

In the long term you’ll have a healthy business that people want to work with — because you’re honest and trustworthy. That’s going to translate to more earnings later and a better lifestyle.

Sure it’s harder to start that way, but honesty and integrity will build a sustainable business, not a flash in the pan.

photo credit: liwnik cc

Attitude is a Choice

When exchanging greetings and someone asks, “How are you?” my typical response is something like, “Fantastic, how are you?”

This same exchange occurred one particular morning at my workout, and after I had given my typical response, my workout classmate came back with, “Do you ever have a bad day?”

Of course

Yup, of course I have bad days. In fact, on that particular day when this guy asked how things were going, I actually had crazy itchy feet from camping at the lake two days before.

Seriously, wearing shoes was like putting fire on my feet.

But just because my situation isn’t optimal doesn’t mean I need to complain about it. I can have itchy feet and still be fantastic.

Your choice

It’s my choice to complain or not. I could have said my morning was terrible and my feet hurt and I could use more sleep, but how on Earth would those statements improve the course of my day? And how would my complaints affect those around me?

They wouldn’t improve the course of the day. If anything, statements like that are more likely to make my mood worse.

So why would you want to guarantee that a less than optimal day stays that way?

I wouldn’t, so I choose not to complain.

Do you make that choice too?

photo credit: isherwoodchris cc

My list of books I think you should all read

It’s no secret I read a lot. If you didn’t know that then you’ve clearly missed my monthly book lists.

Now, I’m lucky in that my wife and I both love to read, so I’m able to put in 1 – 2 hours a day of reading after the kids go to bed, and that’s in addition to 25 minutes of reading at the start of my day. I can maintain a long reading list and still have time to read other things.

I realize not everyone reads like me, nor do they have to. I don’t expect you to read every book I recommend — it’s not a matter of keeping up with the ‘Joneses’ (well, in this case THE McHale), but I do urge you to read some of the key ones.

So what’s on that key list? Following is my list, which I’ve divided up into a few categories to make it easy for you to select the ones you’d like to start with to help you really dig into your business.

Getting Started

If you want to start running a business and need guidance on some key concepts, here is where to start.

Found the Road

You’ve been running a business for a few years and it’s going decent, but you’d like to dig into some deeper strategy? Well, once you’ve finished the books above here are the next steps.

The Challenge

My challenge to you is to read one of these books a month and track how your business changes as you start really feeding your business brain. Institute the things you learn and refine them to suit your business.

If you do, I predict that in 12 months you will have a more successful business.

Another Great List

photo credit: tzhaya cc

You Want Those Customer Complaints

Yeah that’s right, you want to have some of your customers complain. Otherwise, how on Earth are you going to figure out what you’re doing wrong?

If all you hear is how awesome you are then you’re never going to get better. You should never feel you’re at your best — always consider that there’s room to grow and improve.

No matter how long you’ve been at your craft, you can always be better. There is always something new to learn. There’s almost always room to refine and improve your skills. As you learn, grow, and get better, the end result is that you can treat your clients better and bring them more value.

Don’t shy away from customer complaints. Embrace them and dig in. Find the root problem and figure out how to solve it so the complaint goes away.

Don’t construct onerous systems designed to shield you from complainers — make it easy for your clients to complain (or give you constructive feedback).

Don’t run away from the complaints. Invite them in, and use them to help you grow.

photo credit: clement127 cc

Does ‘culture’ really mean ‘just like me’?

As you grow your business, consider that there are two main ‘types’ of organizations that are common:

  1. The homogeneous organization, where everyone has the same experience.
  2. The diverse organization, where…well, everyone has different life views and experiences.

Which one do you want?

Which one do you think has the highest chance of really changing your industry?

Which one will challenge the status quo and yield new ideas?

A diverse organization is the one that will challenge the status quo. It’s only through diversity of opinion and experience that we can be challenged and have our ideas refined by those with different experiences.

The farce of culture

When I talk to business owners who push their ‘culture’, 99% of the time what they are really saying is that they want to hire people like them. Of course, that’s not what they say because if they said that they’d realize how dumb it sounds.

But that’s really what they mean.

Of course you don’t want to hire people just because they’re different. You don’t want to hire ‘different’ people who will cause disruption inside your business. You want people who will thrive working in the manner you work (remote, in an office…), and who communicate well in your company’s chosen communication medium.

When you search for people to add to your company, don’t limit your search to someone who’s the same as you.

Well, unless you want to build that homogeneous organization where everyone has the same ideas.

photo credit: clement127 cc

This is your last task in a meeting

While I really dislike meetings in general, they are necessary on occasion. Sometimes, the most productive — and efficient — way to figure a project out can be to get everyone in the room for a bit and hash out details rather than sending 1 million emails for weeks.

But have you ever left a meeting thinking everything was in hand, only to find out that two of the project tasks were totally missed, and two other tasks were on the lists of two different people, so they got done twice?

Not a recipe for an effective or efficient team, is it?

Before you leave

Here’s the last thing you should be doing before you leave a meeting: Ask every person to tell the group what tasks they’re now responsible for as a result of the meeting.

This process will help you find those items that got missed, or any tasks that have been duplicated.

This step will only add five minutes to the meeting, but will save you loads of time over the project, and will yield huge rewards in ongoing team productivity.

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What are your standard operating procedures?

One of the big things that will affect the efficiency of your business — and perhaps even your ultimate business success — is how well you’ve standardized procedures and repetitive tasks. I’ve created some standard operating procedures to remove the decision-making process around repeated tasks or habits, and streamline my days. Stuff like:

  • I don’t give personal information out over the phone
  • I don’t use a credit card
  • I don’t skip 5:45 a.m. workouts unless I’m sick

No decisions

Some people say this represents discipline, but I think it’s really about being lazy. I don’t want to have my alarm go off at 4:45 a.m. and wrestle with the decision about whether or not to get up at that hour. I don’t have to decide each morning if I go to CrossFit, because I made that decision weeks ago. It was, “I go to 5:45 a.m. CrossFit.”

Not setting SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) means I’d be making a series of small decisions over and over, every day. That simply seems tiring and unnecessary.

Client SOPs

For my business, my SOPs are:

This means that when a new lead comes along I don’t have to wonder up front about their request for a phone call. I send them my initial client questions and decline to get on the phone until I have those questions answered.

You can purchase all my emails including my initial client questions in my Effective Client Email Book


Stop burdening yourself with decisions about every thing, every day. Start setting up some SOPs for yourself.

Deciding these things before you have to will make your decision-making, and your life, so much easier.

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc

Lack of trust is a hiring problem

Last week, I was talking with an agency owner who is having trouble with his employees. At least in his eyes, the trouble is with his employees. The main issue is that he doesn’t feel he can ‘trust’ them with a project without his direct oversight every day.

I just can’t trust them to do a good job. – Agency owner

It’s your problem

If you can’t trust your employees with a project, it’s actually not your employees’ fault — it’s your fault. You made the decision to hire them. You created the culture that leads to the behaviour you distrust.

So what are you going to do about it?

Empower them

The first step to take is to empower your employees. Give them the latitude to make decisions without scurrying back to you for approval. Give them one guiding thought as they make decisions. Maybe something like:

If it doesn’t feel right for the client, make it right.

Then step back and let them make some decisions. No, not all decisions will be the exact same decision you would make. Some of them may be entirely contrary to what you would do.

When this happens, talk to the employee about how you would have made a different decision, and explain why you would have made your decision.

This is not about getting them in trouble — it’s about training your employees to make decisions in line with how you want your business run, and how you want customers treated even when you’re not around.

But if

If you’ve gone through several training sessions with an employee and they still are making decisions entirely contrary to how you want your business run, it’s still your problem.

Like I said, you hired them, so maybe you made a mistake and it’s time to let that employee go. Yes, I know you’re busy, but having the wrong person on your ‘bus’ is only going to steer it away from its intended destination.

Get them off the bus with grace and slow down to get the right person on the bus. Getting the right person in your business is way more important than getting a person in your business.

Don’t look at your employees when it comes to issues of trust. Give them trust and train them to use it. Those are the things you can affect.

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc