You’ve finally taken the plunge and launched your own creative business. Congratulations! Welcome to a new way of working. Now you have to worry about surviving the first 12 months, so you never have to return to full-time employment again.
It will be tough. The income will be inconsistent, and you’ll initially struggle to find new clients and get your name out there. That’s why you have to hit the ground running, immediately proving how good you are and why you’re better than the competition. You have to establish how you position yourself, decide which clients you want to pursue and set routines in place to get going in the right direction with the perfect online invoicing application.
As someone who has gone freelance, grown a small agency and survived nearly nine years of running a business (with some battle scars to prove it) – I thought I’d take the time to share some of my tips I’ve learnt along the way. And because I’m by no means an expert, I’ll also attempt to share the advice of people I admire – so you get a good dose of inspiration.
If you’re a little anxious about your first year of freelancing, don’t be. Aside from the obvious advice of ensuring you have plenty of savings before you take the plunge, follow my tips, and you should be well on your way to establishing yourself as a successful business owner.
1. Note the things you’ll have to do
There are many things you have to do to build a thriving business. Some will come naturally, while others will take you well and truly out of your comfort zone. Speaking of my own experience, I’m quite the shy introvert, but most people who meet me would never guess it. I’ve learnt how to be confident (although I do still struggle sometimes) and cope with anything my business throws at me. Before you kick off your own company, understand that you’ll have to do the following critical things if you want to survive:
Become a businessperson
Yes, you’re terrific at graphic design – but how do you fare as an entrepreneur? Because when you run your own business, you’ll soon discover that you need to wear many different hats to survive. You’ll become a bookkeeper, an account manager, a marketer, a receptionist and a cleaner – all in one hit. Because it’s you, and only you running the show.
Look and act the part
You might be working from home, but that doesn’t mean you can adopt the scruffy look or forget your manners over the phone. You’re the owner of a small business, and you’ll be meeting and speaking to people from all walks of life. So dress and act accordingly.
Be confident and assertive
If you’re usually shy and reserved, freelancing is going to be challenging for you. Running a business requires you to believe in yourself and not be afraid to speak up or sell your skills and ideas. If someone hires a freelancer, they expect that person to be highly experienced and able to carry out the job at hand. There’s no room for hesitation or insecurity when clients are looking at you for all the answers.
Now is not the time to be quiet or humble. If you want to generate business and build your profile locally, you’re going to have to learn how to market yourself. Marketing, as you’ll soon discover, is going to play an incredibly important role in making your business a success. More on that later.
2. Establish your brand
Choose your business name, sort a logo and consider your value proposition. Figure out what makes you unique compared to your competition and be confident about how you sell that. It’s an exciting opportunity to establish your brand before you go out there and attract new business:
Pick a name
When choosing a name, think of something memorable and relevant. I decided on Boomerang because it seemed friendly and gave a perception of ‘giving back’ – as in, I’ll throw your business out there with PR and marketing, and you’ll get back results. A Boomerang is also a weapon of communication.
Be careful about how you position yourse If
Seems ridiculous to offer this next piece of advice, but don’t call yourself a ‘freelancer’. The word has negative undertones and to many suggest your unemployed or unreliable. That is changing, but – to play it safe – avoid the word altogether, especially if you’re thinking of adding ‘freelancing’ to your chosen business name. ‘Katy Cowan Photography’ sounds far better than ‘Katy Cowan Freelance Photography’, after all.
Instead, position yourself as an established company providing services. You’re not lying. People don’t need to know that it’s just you. Allow them to pick up the phone or make contact first before you divulge that information. Because once they’ve enquired, you can win them over with your telephone manner or sell yourself in that initial meeting. By positioning yourself as a larger sized firm, you’ll give the impression of stability. So bear that in mind.
3. Know Your customer
Ok, so you’ve established who you are and what you do, and you’re pretty sure you know how to sell yourself. Now it’s time to consider the customer you’re targeting. Who are they? Where are they active, and what are they reading?
Once you fully understand the type of clients you’re chasing, you’ll be able to better build a marketing plan around reaching them. Just need to be found online? Get your local SEO nailed. Are they more likely to read Creative Review? Send the magazine some of your latest work. Are you merely targeting agency owners? Get out to any local networking events where they might be present.
Once you’ve figured out who you’re targeting, craft a ‘customer persona’ so you always have that person in mind whenever you’re writing a blog post, crafting fresh copy for your website’s home page or even just meeting people in person.
One final tip – consider your customer’s problems. What things do they want to be resolved? How can you address those issues? Make it clear on your website how you can add value as a freelancer. Talk directly to your customer in everything you write.
4. Get online and activate your content
Now that you’ve established your business name, figured out how you’re going to sell yourself and started to build your brand – it’s time to launch an online portfolio or website.
You don’t need to spend thousands to get online. There are plenty of solutions to get you started quickly and cost-effectively. Squarespace is marvellous and incredibly easy to use. WordPress is still going strong, and there are plenty of themes to choose from over on ThemeForest. Just make sure you choose a platform that’s SEO-friendly, so you can work towards smashing your ‘local’ keywords, such as ‘graphic designer Manchester’. Check out my six easy steps to create a successful online portfolio and 60 ways to create a successful website for some further reading.
Once the website is up and running, don’t just let it sit there. You have to make it work hard for you and attract traffic. Keep adding new work to your portfolio; blog regularly for SEO and to have something to share via your social media channels (remember to consider your customer and their wants and needs); market your website via directories and listing sites, such as Behance. Be bold, be active and make a name for yourself every single day.
5. Spend every day marketing yourself
Once you’ve got your brand, value proposition, target customer and online presence established – it’s time to start throwing yourself out there to show potential clients the quality of your work and your availability. How you do that varies greatly – from basic SEO to smart techniques that will get your name in front of the right people. One key point is that you need to be present across many channels these days. It’s not just a case of relying on one type of marketing – you have to hit your potential customers at different times of the day and via various means.
Be active on social media, get your work published on one of the many great art and design blogs, go to all your local networking events, work on your SEO, get into your local newspaper or business magazine, and exhibit your work locally. Do anything and everything to build your profile.
6. Create some personal work or launch a side project
No work coming in despite your marketing efforts? Phone not ringing? Not got enough to showcase in your online portfolio? Don’t just sit there, twiddling your thumbs. Be proactive and carry out some of your projects.
Craft a new typeface to raise your profile and see if you can sell it through Hype for Type or MyFonts. Rebrand an existing company that you admire, and make it your best work to date. Write and illustrate your fictional book. Start a creative blog (that’s what I did with Creative Boom) and share other people’s work whom you admire… with their permission, of course. Curate a local exhibition with other creatives.
Then, when you’ve carried out your idea – tell the world about it! Get in touch with all your favourite art and design blogs: It’s Nice That, Creative Review, Design Week, Computer Arts, Creative Boom. And tell them about what you’re doing.
7. Get out and network
Make a name for yourself even before you register as self-employed. Get involved in local creative events by volunteering to help out or contributing in some way. Hell, do a talk, if you can. Go to anything and everything, armed with a positive attitude and plenty of business cards. Nothing beats face-to-face communication, and in all my years of running my own company, networking remains to be the best way of making new contacts and finding work. For further reading, check out my article on how to make the most of networking if you’re a freelancer.
8. Work smart, work efficiently
Time is money – so ensure you have tools and processes in place and a massive dose of self-discipline to get the work done, on time and budget. Don’t mess about and waste precious working hours on procrastination or self-doubt. Get to it.
I use loads of tools to make my life easier as a business owner. Teamwork for team management (although I’m thinking of a change – here are some suggestions); FreeAgent for accounting; Mailchimp for e-marketing; SproutSocial for social media management; Buffer for a little more social magic and Squarespace for my agency website – why use anything else? These tools are cheap, reliable and save me loads of time and money.
As for self-discipline, in my early days as a freelancer – before I had my own office and staff – I used to follow a strict work routine. It was especially important, as I worked from home. I turned a spare bedroom into my office, allocated working hours and adopted a professional image, i.e. I got up every day, got showered and dressed, and adopted a ‘work’ mode. Whatever it is that’s holding you back, change it. I’m a lover of change, and it’s never done me any harm in business. It will only lead you down more fruitful paths if you’re wise enough to choose the ideal online invoicing app.