How Freelancers Scale Up

According to the Small Business Association in 2018, there were 30.2 million small businesses (< 500 employees) in the US and 80%, 24.3 million, were one-person ventures, i.e., Solopreneurs. Although just under 6 million small businesses have paid employees, those businesses nevertheless employ 47.6% of private sector workers, 59 million of 124 million employed Americans (factoring out government and not-for-profit organizations—schools, hospitals, social welfare agencies, the arts, religious institutions). BTW, there are fewer than 20,000 large businesses in the country—19, 464 in 2018. 2017/08/04125711/Frequently-Asked-Questions-Small-Business-2018.pdf

I suppose it can be said that in American business small is beautiful, or perhaps more accurately, small is the reality. Many of those 24.3 million Solopreneurs attempt to turn what could easily be called a Weakness in the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) strategic planning matrix into a Strength (me!) and use terms such as “boutique” to describe our business, along with marketing-spin phrases such as “personalized service” to communicate to prospective customers that the experience of doing business with us will be very positive and that no one is treated as a commodity.

Operating a boutique business is all well and good, however “boutique” can easily turn into “broke” if the proprietor continues to just scrape along, trying to bring in enough customers to pay the rent and keep the lights on. In order to make a go of being a business owner/ operator, it is necessary to scale the business. A business has successfully scaled when it can deliver its products and services to a significantly larger customer base while maintaining or improving operational efficiency and quality control. Good strategy and execution are needed to scale, but it’s often do-able. Read on and learn tactics and inspiration that will help you decide how to scale your venture.

Scale the Brand

The process for scaling your Freelance business starts with knowing, articulating and communicating your Brand. To attract more clients so that you can double or even triple your roster over a 3-year period, for example, you must communicate in various ways—client testimonials, case studies, LinkedIn recommendations, social media, company website, your newsletter or blog and other marketing channels—that you are highly competent, trustworthy and dependable. You deliver every time and you meet and often exceed client expectations. You bring value. Invent a Branding tagline to help yourself stand out from the 24 + million Freelancers in America and add it to your email signature block.

Be advised that Branding doesn’t simply refer to the colors you use for your business card or logo. Branding encompasses all client touch points during which your client encounters or interacts with you and your company, from the initial contact with you, interaction with employees, the tone of emails, visiting and navigating your website, your payment and billing systems, social media posts, advertising and everything in between. Articulating and communicating your Brand not only enhances the perception of your know-how as a Freelancer, but also makes it easier to scale your business in the future.

Scale client acquisition

Freelancers tend to get stuck in a rut of competing for projects in the same way over and over. We find a tactic that works, whether it’s cold emailing potential clients or applying for jobs posted on sites like Upwork.com and Guru.com. One will eventually figure out how to get hired on those sites, but you’ll still leave a lot of work on the table. It’s been reported that 27% of Freelancers find assignments via referrals made by friends, family and clients; 24% find projects through online job boards, email marketing and social media platforms like LinkedIn ProFinder. How can you make the most of these sources?

You don’t have to chase down all possibilities but do get into the habit of exploring alternative client acquisition methods, to get your name and expertise in front of a wider audience. Your current clients are also a potential source of referrals (I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen). Get the ball rolling by making a referral for your client first, so that you will come to mind if one of the client’s colleagues could use your services. BTW, unless you’re in IT, job boards attract clients who low-ball the money. Not only that, but Upwork now requires Freelancers to pay to submit a proposal and then pay again 20% of the fee when one is hired. I will not pay to apply for a job and that service is off my list.

Scale your network

Networking can potentially deliver significant benefits that accrue from the relationships you build. Networking helps us meet new friends, find a future spouse, get invited to join a board, learn of a house for sale when we’re looking to move, or get a job referral. Networking will also bring to you potential collaborators, for those times that you need to bring in a Freelancer colleague in order to take on a bigger project, or the gift of community support when it would be helpful (and when is it not?).

Start building your professional network ASAP, compiling connections who are Freelancers themselves and maybe also potential clients. Try connecting with fellow Freelancers in the comment section of industry blogs and industry-related LinkedIn and Facebook groups and participating in relevant Twitter discussions.

Scale your skills

Whatever one does for a living there is always training and development involved, that is, if one is lucky, because professional development is an investment in you and no one can take it away once you have it. In order to find work, the Freelancer must be considered a trusted expert. To be considered an expert, one must be better than the rest and that means your knowledge and skills must be bleeding edge current.

When preparing to scale your business you have to grow as a person and a professional and that means learning new skills, keeping up with the newest trends and learning to use applicable tech tools. This can be challenging, as well as time consuming, but what you learn can perhaps lead to new business ideas, smarter planning for the future and implementing new systems and approaches. Online education sites like Coursera, Udemy and Codecademy are a good place to start. Serving on a board, teaching and even judging a business award (I’ve judged the Stevie Awards/ Women in Business category https://stevieawards.com/women for 6 years) are other ways to keep skills current and learn new competencies (and network as you do).

Scale your creativity

To effectively scale your Freelance gig and transform it into an enterprise, you need to break out of your service-based mentality and the best way to do that is to create a product to sell. Think about it—once you’ve created your e-book, course, or physical product, you can sell it over and over, whereas you’re limited to providing a certain amount of services per week to clients.

Not only does a product give you the ability to reach many more people, but creating a product also provides you with passive income, giving you more time to work on other areas of your business. Put on your thinking cap and see what you can dream up. An e-book or online courses are probably the most accessible products for B2B service providers to produce. I don’t have an online course to sell (yet), but I’ve been teaching business-related subjects for more than a dozen years.

Scale your systems

In order to grow, one needs the tools to keep revenue consistently coming in at a steady and abundant pace. To support opportunities for that business growth, it pays to systematize certain business functions and responsibilities. Outsourcing gives you the pleasure of employing a fellow Freelancer as you devote more time to the pursuit of lucrative clients or identifying another product to sell.

Invoicing, bookkeeping, newsletter or blog editing and social media account management are popular outsourcing functions because they do not require a deep knowledge of your business. Outsourcing (or automating) routine tasks gives you the time you need to work on your business, not in your business and that will enable you to scale.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: (Reuters) Master Baker Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro, owner of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, NJ and star of the reality television show Cake Boss (TLC)

6 Questions to Ask a Prospect

Woo-hoo, you’ve got a live one here! You’ve stumbled upon a prospect and you do not want to screw up and lose what might be an opportunity to get paid. You want to keep this fish on the line and figure out 1.) if s/he is serious about hiring a Freelance consultant to work with and 2.) if the project is something you can handle. A series of easy-to-remember questions that help you to encourage the prospect to open up and tell you what s/he needs and also move the process toward a commitment for further discussion are essential. Your goal, of course, is to obtain a project that will both enhance your revenue and if possible, enhance your CV as well.

Picture this—you and the prospect have each given the meet’n’greet (short) versions of your elevator pitch and the prospect is showing an interest in your offerings and would like some details. You’re asked if you’ve ever worked on a particular sort of project, or provided a solution for a certain kind of challenge or problem. Presented below are questions designed to make it easy for your prospect to share information and allow you to position yourself as a good candidate for hire if a project actually becomes available.

  1. How can I help you?

“A customer’s time is valuable, so that first question must be impactful while still respecting their time,” advises Eng Tan, Founder and CEO of Simplr, a customer service and customer experience start-up. ‘How can I help?’ is open-ended enough to invite feedback, but also show that the customer comes first.”

2. What is the problem or pain point?

You cannot jump into a sales pitch until and unless you hear the prospect describe the matter that must be resolved or challenge that must be overcome. Only then can you determine if you have the expertise and resources to provide the desired solution. Allow your prospect to tell you what s/he would like you to do.

3. What is your goal?

Get the prospect to articulate the purpose of the proposed project and what the resulting deliverable means to the organization. Determine if this is a mission-critical goal and the date that the deliverable must be received. It is to your benefit to understand why the prospect feels it’s worth paying outside help to get the project done. The proposal you write and your pricing structure, if negotiations get that far, will be impacted by this information.

You must also understand what will happen if the client does nothing (and nothing is precisely what most of them do anyway, am I right?). So do your best to find out what it all means to the prospect and the company and how the proposed project fits into important goals.

BTW, not every project that gets funded is tied to a meaningful goal. I know someone who probably makes 3x what I make in a year by producing an ultimately ridiculous vanity-driven deliverable for well-known for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Enhancing reputations can be big money, it seems.

4. Have you done anything about it so far?

With this question, you’ll learn if the prospect has worked with a competitor. You can follow-up and ask if there was dissatisfaction with the competitor’s deliverable, price, or customer service. If the matter has so far been handled in-house, you can follow-up and ask why outsourcing looks like a good option now. In short, you’ll learn why your decision-maker or stakeholder/ decision-influencer prospect is motivated to talk to you about the problem and inquire about how you might resolve the problem or produce the deliverable.

5. Is it you who decides how this matter gets resolved?

At this point in the conversation, it is both prudent and politic to ask who makes the decision to bring in someone from the outside, i.e., a Freelancer. You will have earned the right to know if the individual with whom you are speaking has the authority to green-light a project on his/her own, or in concert with a select group of stakeholders. You need to get a sense of how superiors, colleagues, or stakeholders feel about bringing in a Freelancer and I recommend that you get an answer before proceeding with the conversation.

It is possible that your prospect is alone in thinking that an outsider should be brought in to manage the project and his/her opinion may or may not prevail. Now is the time to get a sense of whether outsourcing this project is wishful thinking or a possibility.

6. What would you like to see happen next?

With this question, you invite the prospect to commit to follow-up, be it a face-to-face meeting, an email, or a telephone call. The prospect will be able to reconfirm his/her confidence in your capabilities as s/he shares more information about the proposed project and digs deeper into the how and why your product or service can address pain points and facilitate realization of the company’s goal.

This conversation will determine whether you are considered a serious candidate for managing the project and if the company is serious about hiring a Freelancer. You could very well be invited to submit a proposal and if that is the case, it is a big vote of confidence (but alas, still no guarantee).

If asked upfront about pricing, you might like to respond “What’s your budget?” If it’s smaller than you hoped, work with the prospect to provide the project must-haves, minus the too-expensive extras, at a price the organization can afford. Then again, they could surprise you and appropriate more money. You just never know!

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: The Fuller Brush man visits a prospective customer (circa 1950)

Harnessing the Cloud: You’ve Got an App for That

Freelancers and other business owners are nearly always pressed for time and we need to get things done, quickly, efficiently and accurately. Advances in technology have yielded many apps that can make our lives easier and make us look good as we take advantage of their features. Below is sampling of free to low cost apps that will help your business.

 SIMPLIFIED GRAPHIC DESIGN

Canva. If you’re in need of professionally-designed marketing materials for your business but don’t have the budget to hire a graphic designer, you can successfully DIY with Canva https://www.canva.com. This useful app features attractive design templates that allow you to create beautiful visual content for the images that are the core of social media marketing. You can also design logos, brochures, infographics, business cards and templates for Instagram, Twitter and Facebook posts. Canva will also allow users to crop images and enhance photos. The website provides good support, including tutorials on how to use Twitter for marketing. The free version of Canva offers most of the features a Freelancer or business owner will need and an upgrade to the Pro version costs $9.95/ user/ month.

MANAGE RECEIPTS AND EXPENSES

Expensify. All those who travel for business must collect and organize a stack of receipts very soon after returning, whether you’re a Freelancer who must save them for quarterly taxes or an employee who must submit receipts to your boss.  Expensify makes an onerous task much more bearable by automatically scanning the printed paper receipts and adding them to pre-designed templates that facilitate a seamless transition into your electronic records. Other features include reimbursement calculation based on the number of miles travelled, hourly billable amount or wage, a choice of four currencies for calculation and synchronizing directly with your bank account. Free  – $4.99/ month for most users.

ACCOUNTING AND INVOICING

FreshBooks. If you operate a B2B knowledge economy service business that doesn’t need a high-powered accounting solution, then FreshBooks  will give your organization a user-friendly option that offers a lot of functionality. You can track billable hours here as well and also log receipts and send invoices from your smartphone or tablet. The service integrates with several others, including Basecamp, PayPal, Google Apps and ZenPayroll.  The basic plan starts at $15 a month and allows management of up to 5 clients. More fully featured versions allow unlimited clients for up to $50 a month.

NEWSLETTERS AND EMAIL MARKETING

Mailchimp. This easy-to-use email marketing tool is a go-to for Freelancers and small businesses. It offers easy-to-use templates and intuitive drag-and-drop email building that anyone can use to create a professional-looking email that will enhance your company’s reputation. It also allows you to automate your email campaigns and track subscribers, so you can make the most of your communications campaign. Plus, Mailchimp https://mailchimp.com offers easy integration with many popular e-commerce tools. The basic service is free, but many will want to upgrade to either the $9.99/ month plan, which provides custom branding email design or the $14.99/ month option, which gives users custom newsletter and email templates and marketing automation.

SCAN BUSINESS CARDS

ScanBizCards.  Rather than taking a card from someone with whom you’d like to follow-up, it’s much more efficient—and cooler—to scan the business card or even a conference name tag and know you have that important person’s information will be saved automatically in your phonebook. ScanBizCards

VIDEO CONFERENCES

Skype for Business. The classic video conferencing app is owned by Microsoft and the functionality of its infrastructure is versatile, powerful and seamless. The service offers free online meetings for up to 10 participants, set-up from any device, PC or MAC, Android, iPad, or iPhone and PowerPoint upload capability, Instant Messaging and a white board feature. Unlimited free video conferencing, instant messaging, conferencing and audio calling are also offered and  Skype for Business runs ad free and without interruptions— excellent for a business interview or discussion.  Explore the premium features through Microsoft Office 365—$6.00 / user/ month – $15.00 / user/ month.

TEAM COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION

Slack. There are several real-time messaging and file-sharing apps available, but Slack prevails as a result of its simplicity. It has DropBox, Asana, Google+ Hangouts, Twitter and Zendesk compatibility built into the app and the platform is very responsive and user-friendly. Every message is archived, so searching is quick and easy.  Free – $15.00/ month / user for premium services.

BILLABLE HOURS MANAGEMENT AND INVOICING

Toggl.  This timer tracks how you spend your time, making it an ideal support system for those who must record billable hours in order to accurately and quickly prepare invoices so that they will get paid, Freelancer friend. You can track as many projects or clients as you want and assign your hourly rate to each project, so that you can quickly calculate what you’re earning, export timesheets and sync your numbers with several project management apps. Toggl is priced from $9.00 / month /user for the basic service to $18.00/ month/ user for team time tracking and other premium services.  

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark September 7, 2018. Fog x FLO, a “fog sculpture” installation by Fujiko Nakaya (Japan) that appeared in five Boston locations from August – October 2018. Every hour from dawn to dusk, a blast of steam would be emitted by a special mechanism and the fog would appear—and disappear in a minute or two, depending on how the wind blew. The fog sculpture pictured here was across the street from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Pricing B2B Services

According to Dorie Clark (no relation), Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of Entrepreneurial You (2017), there are four pricing strategies that Freelance consultants might use, depending on the project at hand and the relationship you have, or would like to have, with the client. It is crucial to follow a pricing strategy that will support your objective to persuade the client that your prices are fair, your solution will be effective and you are the right person to hire.

Hourly billing. The most straightforward pricing strategy is to bill clients by the hour. When you are unsure of the number of hours it will take to complete a project, perhaps because your responsibilities will vary from week to week or month to month, then an hourly rate pricing strategy is reasonable. On the other hand, if you do have a good idea of the number of hours that should be necessary to complete the job, an hourly billing strategy is also reasonable, particularly for one-off assignments or sporadic work with the client.

You can then provide a reliable project estimate, based on your hourly rate for the work proposed and the anticipated number of hours, and that information will be reassuring to the client. But if you underestimate the time needed to complete the assignment the downside of this strategy will emerge, because your final price will overshoot your estimate and your client may not be thrilled.

Another potential downside to hourly billing is the level of scrutiny that it invites. Some clients may challenge the number of hours you record for the tasks involved and that is uncomfortable.

Set fee for services. This pricing strategy requires the Freelance consultant to develop a standard suite of services, where all related tasks are included and there is one price for the whole package. “Productized services” is the term pricing experts use for this strategy. If certain of your services are frequently requested, make life easier for yourself and your clients and create a standard rate sheet for services you perform most often.

For example, if you often conduct half or full-day workshops, billing a flat fee for all tasks involved is a more favorable strategy than billing separately and hourly for the associated tasks. Clients are comfortable accepting a flat fee because the project price is all-inclusive, predictable and transparent. Furthermore, the project specs describe your duties and discourage “scope creep,” those extra unpaid tasks that some clients like to sneak in. If the client would like an extra service or two, then you’ll price those separately and not be tricked or coerced into giving away free labor.

Value-based pricing. Evangelized by Alan Weiss, elite management consultant to multinational companies such as Merck Pharmaceuticals and author of dozens of books, including (Million Dollar Consulting [1992]), this strategy hinges on what Weiss calls “a value-based project fee structure.”

You begin by having a detailed conversation with the prospect so that you will understand the project requirements and the project’s relevance, urgency and impact on the organization. In other words, you and your prospect will achieve mutual agreement on the value of the project to the business. Weiss says that it’s useful to ask questions such as, “What would be the value to the company if this weren’t a problem?” or “What impact would it have if you could do XYZ better?”

Dorie Clark recommends the value-based pricing strategy for Freelancers who work with Fortune 500 companies, because value-based pricing is a way to help the prospect envision and appreciate the value of the right outcomes delivered at the right time. Clark feels it is appropriate to charge a higher project fee when working with big-budget clients because the stakes are so much higher.

Your work for a Fortune 500 company might, for example, create $10 million in new value, whereas even a dramatic improvement for a small not-for-profit organization may only enhance the bottom line by $10,000. Once the prospective client understands the full value that your work will bring to the organization, your fee — a tiny percentage of the overall gain — will in theory seem trivial in comparison.

Retainer agreements. These are an excellent arrangement because predictability is a wonderful thing for both you and the client. Once it is established that you’ll work a more-or-less fixed number of hours per week or month on a certain assignment or category of assignments and a comfortable relationship develops, by all means suggest that you create a monthly retainer agreement. Bring evidence of 6 – 12 invoices to bolster your case.

In the retainer pricing strategy, the client pays the Freelancer a flat fee every month for on-demand access to your services (and that could be anywhere from $500/month to a four or even five figure sum). This allows you to depend on a certain amount of money each month, no matter what. The downside is that unless you’re careful, your client may take advantage of the “all you can eat” pricing by monopolizing your time.

To prevent abuse, be very clear upfront about who can contact you and for which types of services. It is also advisable to specify the hours that you’ll be available ( 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM or longer?), the protocol for weekends and holidays and the methods of contact—email, phone and/or text. You’ll also want to specify whether they only have access to your advice, or if there are specific deliverables you may be asked to produce (for example, you might also agree to generate content for social media or the company newsletter). As you gain more experience and develop long-term relationships with clients, you will be able to propose retainer agreements and institute more control over your monthly income.

Freelancers who succeed are those who are appreciated for the value they bring to their clients’ organizations. An important building block that supports how you communicate your value to the client is your pricing strategy. Study the pricing options discussed above and choose the most advantageous for you and your client.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Courtesy of the Everett Collection. Dink (Margaret Nolan) gives James Bond (Sean Connery) a massage in Goldfinger (1964).