Did you know that your creative business thrives because of how you do business and not because of the quality of your work or your talent?
By all means, always do your best work> But creating great work alone does not pay the bills. Running a great business does. Essentially, you need to be good creatively and at business. It takes both. My business didn’t start prospering until I shifted from considering myself a creative first into being a business owner first. I made the shift in five areas, over time.
Before I get into those five areas, I want to first set the stage with the big principle: MINDSET.
Change Your Mindset
Your mindset is how you think. How you think propels what you do.
If you want to thrive as a creative entrepreneur, spend more time working on your business than on your creative work. I know that’s harsh, because you probably got into freelancing so that you could do your creative work unfettered.
The thing is, you can do your creative work and be fulfilled in it without making a living from it. People do this all the time; it’s called a having a hobby.
Self-employed creatives have to earn a living. If you want to prosper materially from your creative work, you must build a business that generates profits so that you can pay your bills, help others and enjoy the fruits of your labors.
If you’re struggling between doing your creative work and taking care of business, stop. Accept the fact that you are a freelancer because you have chosen to earn your living doing what you enjoy, on your own terms. Also accept the fact that, in order to earn a living, you will spend a majority of time working on your business. I figured out that, at this point in time, I’m spending about 60% of my work hours dealing with the business stuff — marketing, planning, budgeting, paying bills — and the remaining 40% on creative work.
Actions To Help Your Freelance Business Thrive
Once you decide you want to thrive, you’ll come to understand that your true role as a freelancer is not to be creative. It’s to grow your business. In my experience, there are five things that freelancers absolutely must do in order to prosper. In my experience working with freelancers, most do one or two of these things, but not all of them.
None of actions are about attracting clients and promoting your work to the world. They’re all internal, meaning, they’re fundamental to your outreach, decisions and client relationships. As you read through these, think about your own business and what changes you can make internally — on the things clients will never see but will feel the effects of in how you do business.
These 5 actions relate to the areas of knowing your role, planning, setting goals, managing money, and managing time. So here we go:
Many freelancers have difficulty describing their value to clients, and even describing what they do in a single sentence. They sell services like web design and logo design. But they don’t sell solutions to business problems.
To thrive, take a different position from that of selling creative services. Present yourself as a creative problem-solver.
Positioning is the process of highlighting how you’re different from others in your niche in order to create a competitive advantage and put yourself top of mind for your potential clients. Positioning is a fundamental of brand-building.
Discover your unique approach to what you do. What makes you different? Understand that, although you’re in the creative services industry, you really don’t provide creative services. You assist people, businesses or organizations in achieving their goals. A deep, robust approach like no other is what’s going to cut through the clutter and get noticed. Focus on how you help clients that’s different from how others in your niche help clients.
Be able to describe your expertise and unique approach succinctly and on demand. No hemming or hawing here. I recommend that you take time to write out your position statement or brand promise and read it out loud to yourself over and over again until it becomes rote.
You must be able to communicate a point of view that attracts the best opportunities for you. Positioning, by the way, is not about pricing or a menu of services. Lack of clients is seldom due to how much you charge.
To put it bluntly, avoid debt. That means avoid using credit cards, equity lines and even leases. If you find you cannot avoid it — credit is the only way you’re going to be able to purchase that 3D printer you need — use it sparingly.
Did you know that debt is a form of slavery? When you take out a loan or charge a purchase, you are bound to the lender until you pay off the debt. Long ago, people who couldn’t pay off their debts were put in prison. We don’t do that now, but you’re still imprisoned in a manner of speaking if you owe money somewhere. If you’re in prison, you’re not free. That’s sort of the opposite of freelancing, right?
It’s so easy to get into debt. It takes just a moment. It’s so much harder to get out of it. Take it from someone who’s made the debt mistake several times over. Paying off your debts takes years, and you end up paying a lot more than the initial amount when you factor in interest and annual fees.
Take out loans only for those things that will appreciate in value — like real estate. Pay cash for what you need both in business and at home. You spend less when you pay cash because you actually see the money going out of your wallet.
While many of us need to use credit to purchase or upgrade the tools of our trade, and there is a good argument for using credit to build your business because the interest you pay is buying time, literally, be calculated and cautious if you take this route. Credit is a trap, and you should be absolutely sure of your ability to pay off the balance before to committing to using it. The proverb that says the borrower is a slave to the lender is true.
A good rule of thumb is to spend as little as possible to get done what you need to get done. Set a budget and put money aside for big purchases. Hold off on upgrades until you absolutely need to.
A good way to build up a cash reserve for those big purchases or to cover unexpected expenses is to put 10% of your profit from every job into a savings account. When you take money out, build the reserve back up again.
If you’re in business, you’re a marketer. Get used to it. Spend quality time once a week at minimum on your marketing efforts. Schedule time in your calendar every week, and abide by it.
I observe “Marketing Monday” like it’s an event. I have an agenda I work through. I’ve come to this routine late in the game, but it sure makes a difference in building awareness for my business and attracting the kind of work I actually want to do.
I never want to accept a job simply because I need the money. Marketing allows me to target businesses and organizations I want to work with, who need my help and value what I do. These are my prospects — my potential clients. When I market my business, I’m actively engaged in promoting it and building awareness among my potential clients. I don’t rely on word of mouth or wait for prospects to get in touch with me. I go looking for them and also work to attract them to me.
Create a marketing plan and follow through with it. Decide what you will do to connect with your prospects, when you will connect, and what response you hope for. You need to address these three things — what, when, and the hoped-for outcomes — in order to gauge the success of your marketing efforts.
Focus your marketing efforts on the right kinds of clients. Work to attract fewer, high quality clients. This will require customizing your approach for most of your outreach. Use online searches and directories to identify who to reach out to in your niche. Find out what they need and customize your communications for each one. Begin with a small list of half a dozen quality prospects. Reach out regularly (don’t stalk or become a pest). Follow up on every response you get back.
Know what your purpose is. Why are you doing the solo, entrepreneurial, self-employed thing? What are you offering to the world through your creative work? How does what you do fit your larger WHY?
If you’re reason for self-employment is self-serving, you won’t thrive. At some point it will become apparent to clients that you’re not in it for them. Creative freelancing is about serving others — using your talents and skills to enable others to thrive. In return, your business will thrive and you will thrive.
Understand the foundation that sits underneath your creative work. And know why you want to be independent — self-employed, rather than employed by someone else. When you know yourself and your motivations well, you won’t take just anything that comes along and you won’t lose focus or enthusiasm for your work very easily.
A lot’s been written about planning and goal-setting, and for good reason. Many freelancers don’t plan in their business. Instead, they take a serendipitously creative approach to it. They’re not prepared to deal with the client who doesn’t pay, or wants revision after revision. They don’t understand how to deal with business people in a business world, and end up making decisions based on how they feel instead of what’s good for business.
It’s a fact that you cannot thrive flying by the seat of your pants. Planning and following through are absolutely necessary to grow your business.
I’m an advocate for SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-based) goals and push goals, and also for BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals). This is how I approach my planning:
BHAGs are laid out in my annual plan at the beginning of each year.
I subdivide the year into quarters and designate smaller, short-term goals for each quarter. The short-term goals are smaller steps leading to my BHAGs.
From there I plan out each of the 3 months in that quarter, then weekly and daily. Daily planning focuses on details and individual tasks that help me get my larger goals done.
Shorter-term goals break down BHAGs into small steps. By subdividing into shorter chunks of time — quarterly, monthly, weekly — I keep all the bits and parts together. Few things fall through the cracks and get overlooked.
An additional benefit of this approach is that planning takes very little time: maybe a day for annual planning, and less than 10 minutes for daily planning.
Planning saves time when you do it consistently. Commit to scheduling planning sessions — annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily — in your calendar, and then follow through.
What about those three-year and five-year goals that business people say you need? For the self-employed independent creative, things can change quickly and suddenly. You can plan for five years out, but so much can happen along the way that long-term goals become irrelevant. For long-term planning, focus on big life goals.
Setting shorter-term goals allows you the flexibility you need to respond to changes in the marketplace, technology, and your own situation.
So there you have it — five actions to implement that will help your business thrive. The key here is to begin taking action rather than wait until you feel like you’re a business owner. You’ll shift into a business-owner mindset if you act.
If you can’t take steps on all five right away, in what one or two areas can you start making the shift right away? What first step will you take? Leave a comment and share your insights and questions.