If you’ve been freelancing or running a small business for any amount of time, you’ve learned a few things you probably wish you knew from the start. In this episode, I’ve asked a few of my freelancing friends (as well as Twitter), “What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started freelancing?” There’s lots of great advice, so let’s get to it!
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“What’s one piece of advice you wish you had when you started your business?” For me, it’s definitely more than one piece of advice. I was lucky enough to have a mentor though – Mr. Joe Rizzi owned the deli I worked at in high school and college (reinforcing NY Italian stereotypes), and we’d talk about my small web design business while we cleaned up after closing. This was before Twitter, podcasts (mostly), and Freelance Switch, the first freelance community I was a part of.
These days, you can find scores of advice on freelancing and starting a small business. You can ask Twitter or other social media platforms. In this episode I decided to ask a few of my friends and Twitter followers that very question, and I got some fantastic advice. You’ll be able to find a link to the original tweet, as we as to everyone who answered, in the show notes over at https://howibuilt.it/152/.
The first piece of advice comes my friend Jean – let’s hear what he has to say
Jean: Hi, my name is Jean with design theory and one of the things that I wish that I knew when I first got started in a freelancing that I know now would’ve been for me to identify the product or service that I know is going to be profitable in a very sooner or quick amount of time versus trying to offer a bunch of different products and services and hoping that on all of the things I offer, I’ll be able to attract a whole bunch of different clients and be able to service almost everybody. And what I learned it as going through my business was that it kind of drove me crazy because I was doing too many things that were outside of what I was really, really comfortable with. Even though I could do these things instead, I was not focused on the one thing or maybe the one or two things that I did really, really well that found that I was better skilled at or better talent or you’ll have better talent for and therefore niching down on just that product or service and finding the target demographic or the target marketplace for me to offer that part of the service, which is what I’m doing now and I feel like I’m much more comfortable with now.
And so the risk of going into burnout, the risk of doing things that were outside of my scope and maybe not doing them as adequate or as fast or as efficient as somebody who is much more versed in that, in that product or service now I feel much more comfortable. So that’s definitely something that I wished that I learned that I wished that someone could have told me or I wish that I would’ve learned when I first got started that I would have saved me a whole bunch of time and effort and sleepless nights, if you will. And that’s all I have on that one.
That’s definitely a hard one for many freelancers, myself included. But it’s important! We’ve heard the importance of niching down, but focusing your offering is important too. You want to make sure you’re not spreading yourself too thin, and that you’re putting the right amount of time into your your products or services.
Following Jean’s advice, this year I’m doubling down on podcasting. Not only How I Built It, but services surrounding podcasting. I’m launching my Podcast Liftoff course, and offering a Done For You Podcasting service to help others launch.
Along with making sure you focus on the right offerings, my good friend Sal has great advice on how to become an authority on those offerings:
Sal: One piece of advice I wish I’d gotten sooner was that I should blog everything. Every time I figured something out, I should turn it into a blog post. Every time I had to explain something to someone, I should write that explanation as a blog post and point them to that. Yeah, and I wish I’d known this sooner because when I started doing these things I found that there were lots of benefits. Writing out that blog post helped me understand the concept better and then I became a resource for myself. There are lots of times that I need to remember how to do something and I know I can go to my website and find that information there. Also at the same time, it could become a resource to others, other people could find it and by doing that I was establishing my reputation. That in turn was marketing.
Now I’m marketing myself. Either people have already found me and they want to find out more about me and they see that I’ve written all this information or people find my answers and then that introduces them to me. Either way that is helping build my brand and marketing myself. And it sounds like a lot of work, but there were two things that helped me with that. One is to keep in mind, there’s a lot of value that I’m getting out of this, but the second one, and I think this is more important, was I needed to lower the bar to hitting the publish button. A quick blog post is better when it’s published, been a long blog post that doesn’t get published. I’d like to have a, an image with each of my blog posts and I don’t always do that, but it’s better for me to hit that publish button and get that post out. Then to have it sit around while I wait to find that image. So lowering the bar was a big part of that. So the big thing is blog. Everything.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve referenced my own blog posts or books. Writing down how you did something can be so valuable not just to others who read your blog, but to you as well – just like Sal said! And lowering the barrier to publish – fantastic. Next time you have a thought, just blog it! Former guest Colin Devroe also has lots of advice on blogging. That will be linked in the show notes.
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Moving away from general advice, let’s hear something from Topher that everyone needs to hear:
Topher: Before I went freelance full time, my regular rate was 65 an hour. When I made the decision to go freelance full time, I thought I’d better boost this if I’m going to really try to make a living off it. So I went up to 75 an hour and it was only about four months before I realized that to really pay the bills and live a normal life, I needed to be at a hundred an hour. But by that point, I’d already started working with a number of clients. And changing the rate was awkward. I did it. I didn’t lose anybody, but it was awkward. It would have been much better for me to do the research and more than research, cause I did some research. It would have been better to have more conversations with people who were making a living as freelancers and set a good high rate at the beginning so that you don’t have to go back to your existing clients and say, Hey, I’m going to raise my rates.
And this is different from a normal raising of rates annually or something like that for standard of living. Uh, it’s, I have a policy now. I raised my rates at the beginning of every new year. It’s usually not very much and they don’t really care. But that first one where I made the mistake and I needed to raise it substantially, it was painful. So do your research, talk to a lot of people and at the beginning, set a relatively high rate so that you don’t have to go back to them and say, ah, you know, I’m sorry I have to charge you more now.
“Raise your rates.” When you first started, you were almost definitely undercharging. You might still be. This was one of the first lessons Mr. Rizzi gave me in the deli. “Joey – you do good work, right? Then your prices should reflect that.” The right people are willing to pay the right price for quality work. And not everyone is looking for a bargain. As you talk to more potential clients, you’ll learn that. And in an upcoming episode, Nathan Ingram tells us all about it.
Speaking of screening clients and the sales process, now seems like a great time to hear from Birgit Pauli-Haack.
Birgit: On Twitter Joe had asked freelancers, “What’s one piece of advice you wish your had when you started out?” My reply was if the communication during the client acquisition process is high, it’ll get worse after you make the sale. Plan for it. Now, during my early years in business, I connected with some potential clients – small business site owners who had a lot of questions before they made a decision about who to hire for the project and I spent quite some time answering, hoping that if they explained everything in detail, I would earn their trust and they would hire me. Sometimes that was the case. Then sometimes it wasn’t.
I also attributed this time spent on back and forth communication to the cost of doing business and part of the client acquisition process. My intention was when I explained everything upfront, I would have few interruptions while we’re working on the project ,and working on the site wouldn’t take as long. But that’s not the reality of it. The number of emails and voice messages actually increased once we started working on the project. I kept time sheets down to a quarter of an hour and my contract stated that time spend on support and Q &A emails are among other things, billable hours. My standard project management line item in my estimates just wasn’t enough to take care of. The additional amount of communication required.
The site owners weren’t particularly pleased that the site costs so much more than what I originally estimated. I did get paid, but blowing past the budget total wasn’t a good outcome. No matter how brilliant the site turned out to be in comparing estimated hours versus real hours over a few projects. I found that getting through the communication process sometimes took as much time or more, but then the actual work I was hired to do. After awhile I was able to recognize the particular pattern of behavior upfront for future high communication clients. I considerably increased my estimate for project management to reflect their communication style. Now it was a win-win situation. The client received all the answers and I was on budget again. We created a great site, exactly what the client wanted, and we both were happy. And that’s the story behind my early, you have freelance advice.
This was a hard lesson for me. I thought “free consult” was something that carried throughout the project, and that I should only charge for the websites I made. But there are some clients who will take advantage of that. I had one who would call me daily and he’d keep me on the phone for at least an hour each time. When I told him I was going to start charging, the calls stopped, and pithy emails replaced them. There are also some clients who need a lot of handholding. That’s OK, but as Birgit said, you should be aware of that.
There’s also a hidden tip in Birgit’s advice: time track! You should know where your time is going, especially when you’re starting out. I use Toggl and a fantastic iOS app called Timery. It integrates with Siri Shortcuts, so I can prompt Siri to start a timer, or have a timer automatically start when I do something (like start an app, or scan an NFC tag).
Related, and rounding out the audio advice, is Jonathan Bossenger:
Jonathan: Speaker 1: One piece of advice that I wish I had when I started out as a freelancer is to always expect the unexpected. Um, projects very rarely go the way you expect them to. There might be some piece of information that you don’t have, something that you missed.
A hurdle implementing some piece of functionality or some external library or even just a lengthy testing process that you expected to take an amount of time and takes three times the amount of time. I’m always, always prepare for the unexpected. Um, I found the best way to, to learn to work around this is to monitor the time spent on the different aspects of the project and see where the unexpected things happen and how much time I end up spending on unexpected. And then factor that in the next time around. Um, a good rule of thumb is to stop to something like 30%. So assume that 30% of your time is going to be, or at least an additional 30% of, of whatever you estimate is going to be needed. So if you think someone’s going to take an hour, add another 30% of that. Um, inevitably I found that doing that I end up more often than not, I end up in a situation where I estimate correctly as opposed to incorrectly. Um, and a good way to, to isolate that, as I say, is to measure your time, measure what you’re doing, measure the unexpected times and see how much of the project you actually thought was right and how much you ended up doing things you weren’t expecting.
Expect the unexpected is something I was taught early on in my college career. Projects seldom go exactly as planned, especially when they get to a certain size. Jonathan recommends building in an extra 30% for unknowns. I might even go higher than that, depending on the project and the client!
Before we get into the Twitter advice, I want to thank Jean, Sal, Topher, Birgit, and Jonathan for sending in their audio. I appreciate them taking the time to record a few minutes of valuable advice for us.
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Looking to Twitter (you can find the whole thread at https://howibuilt.it/152/), there’s advice that reinforces what we’ve already learned, but I want to call out a few gems:
Require most/all of the site content before the project starts. At a minimum, set mid-project milestones for your client to deliver content and pause until they do their part.
— Kimberly Coleman (@colemank83) January 9, 2020
Kim Colman says to make sure to get all the content up front. This is best web design practice, but it will also make the project go much more smoothly. It can prevent the project stalling and put less pressure on you if you say “I can’t get started until I have all the content.”
Also: there are things you should invest in and there are things it’s ok to skimp on. If you don’t know the difference get advice.
— Michelle Frechette – Black Lives Matter ✊🏾 (@michelleames) January 10, 2020
Michelle Frechette says there are things you should invest in, and things you can skim on – know the difference. I LOVE this. As a matter of fact, over on my blog this week there’s a post about 2 things freelancers should definitely invest in.
I’ll just add that running a business is easier and more affordable than ever. My annual recurring expenses total around $7,000. I spent a bit more on that in equipment in 2019 but let’s say I have $15,000 in total expenses on average. I make a lot more than that. Invest in what you need to and don’t cheap out.
No longer freelancing but when I was…
Everyone said pick a niche. No one said if it isn’t working out, pick a different niche. Would have loved to have known that.
— Dave Shrein (@daveshrein) January 9, 2020
Dave Shrein offers some advice to piggyback off Jean’s: it’s OK to change your niche if it’s not working out. I did that a few times! I thought offering premium wedding websites was a great niche because people are spending a bunch of money anyway. What I didn’t realize was that because they were spending a lot of money, they didn’t want to drop loot on a website that was very, very temporary. What I should have focused on was websites for people in the wedding industry – similar to what former guest Sara Dunn is doing now!
In no particular order, here are other common pieces of advice people wrote in:
* Set boundaries.
* It’s OK to say no to projects
* Don’t take cheap projects “just for the experience.”
On that last note, I would add that it’s OK to charge for the learning curve. Just be upfront with your clients. You’re not going to know everything, and they are paying for you to solve their problem. You don’t know every solution.
As for my advice, it’s something I’ve been preaching for a couple of years now: Build. Your. List. It’s not just for selling products. It’s for sending out advice, advertising new services, and keeping relationships with your clients and potential clients. Follow Sal’s advice to blog more, and at the end of each blog post, have an opt-in to join your list. This season has several episodes dedicate to that, so stay tuned!
Thanks so much to everyone who wrote in or recorded their advice. Now it’s your turn: write in and let me know what your favorite piece of advice was. Let me know on Twitter – @jcasabona. Use the hashtag #AskHIBI.
You can find all of the show notes at https://howibuilt.it/152/
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Thanks so much for listening, and until next time, Get out there and build something.