happy little biz

What I learned freelancing in 2014

It's a whole new year, full of possibilities for my business! Very exciting, and I admit a little daunting too; lots of research and work behind-the-scenes before I can launch anything publicly.

But first, I wanted to take a look back at 2014, to write down a few things I've learned over the last year. Perhaps this will be useful to others starting out freelancing as a web designer/developer, or really, anyone with a small business.

Lightbulb and pen

#1 Get clear on what you're offering.

This is great advice for every single entrepreneur out there. We have a tendency to want to be available to everyone and anyone who might want to use our services, but in reality, is that really what is best for your business?

In my case, I launched my business at a time when I was going through some personal hardship, so I wasn't totally clear on what I was doing. All I knew was:

  1. I wanted to work as a web developer and designer full time.
  2. I wanted to work with massage therapists, other health care practitioners (regulated or not), and creative folks like artists and designers of all kinds.
  3. As someone who is eco-friendly, I also was interested in working with people who had that sort of lifestyle themselves.
  4. I wanted a balanced life, working hard during my 'office hours' but then having time to pursue my hobbies and attend retreats.

But I didn't really know where to start and how to make my business viable. I had many years experience working in health care and running a business, but how did I translate that to freelancing as a web designer/developer?

So here's the thing: If you're working in a market where there are a lot of other folks offering similar services to yours (like me, in Toronto), you really need to find a way to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Why should a client choose you over someone else? Developers take note: most clients are not going to be super impressed by your amazing coding skills, or by the cool app you just built as a side-project. They're going to be far more impressed by a clear statement of who you are and how you can help their business grow. So that's what you need to think about. It isn't to say you don't have to have a nice looking portfolio. You should, but it's the 'look and feel' that the clients are going to be aware of, not what's under the hood. Save showing off your awesome programming skills for that conference you're presenting at, or a hackoff night with other local devs.

As well, and this is a big one: it's absolutely fine to not have services that suit every single possible client out there. Be honest with yourself: What types of clients do you love? And which types cause serious personality clashes or make it hard to do your best work? Sure, not every client is going to be 'easy' to work with, but it's absolutely possible to build a business where you really enjoy working with the clients you have and are excited about the projects you take on together. And the clients will be excited about it too!

So, take a look at what your ideal client would look like. Who are they? How old are they? What do they do for a living? What are their particular needs in terms of the services you can provide?

I can't stress this enough, this is probably the number one thing we self-employed, sole proprietor, small biz entrepreneurs need to work on. I've been working on it for the last year and am making it my #1 priority for 2015, so I can better tailor my services to the people who are the best fit for what I do.

Change Ahead

#2 Let everyone know you've changed careers.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it's really hard for some people. I know it has been for me! I feel like I'm bugging my friends and family by reminding them I've changed careers, am taking new clients, and have years experience running a business already so have extra skills to offer.

But I had to work to get past that. And in letting friends and family know, I actually gained a few clients: referrals from a friend who is a fellow web designer but doesn't have room for more work right now. Super awesome, right?

So, it's totally find to send periodic notes out to people you know, reminding them about what you do and where they can find you if someone they know needs your services.

Dry Erase Board... because things change!

#3 Be flexible and willing to change your expectations.

This one is a good lesson for life in general, but yes: things change. Things are always changing.

Freelancers don't have the stability that employed folks have, so you need to learn to be ok with the slow times and use them wisely. Spend time improving your skills, work on your marketing, attend events where your potential clients hang out and network with fellow freelancers in your field.

And on the flip side, work might drop into your lap suddenly. You need to be flexible enough to accept it when it comes, assuming of course you aren't already fully booked with work.

Your schedule day-to-day is also likely to turn on a dime, at least sometimes. Client meetings get moved, materials you needed to finish a project don't come through in time, another client needs something urgently, or something in your personal life came up and it needs attention right away. It's fine to have boundaries so people don't expect you to be available for last minute things all the time and so you can have some personal time in your schedule. But equally important is to be flexible for when things come up on your client's end and they need to change plans.

Talking Cats. Deep communication I'm sure!

#4 Communication is key.

Super, super important! Here's a little story about that.

I have a long-term client who I do work for regularly. He's really busy most of the time, as he has a lot of personal and job-related things he has to do. As well, we have very different styles in terms of planning out our schedules. He is more of a 'wait and see' type, preferring to see how the week shapes up before committing to a specific day and time. Previously if he knew he couldn't meet in the next 24-48 hours, he'd often just not answer my email until he could commit to a specific day. I am more of a planner, preferring to have a set time at least a few days in advance and find it best to have some notice if someone can't meet at the times I propose, so I can change my schedule.

For over a year this was an issue. I'd try to discuss it with him, but it was tricky because neither of us really understood the other person's position. It just seemed to him like I was pushing my method of planning on him, and that wasn't really reasonable, since his schedule is so busy. But on my end, I was having difficulty getting work done, because often I had no idea when we would be meeting until the day before, leaving me in a bit of a bind for scheduling other client work the rest of the week.

It wasn't until I explained that it honestly isn't about my need for having a booked day and time, but about planning work for all my clients — not just him — that it finally made sense. Now he is more clear with me about when he will be available (letting me know if he's really busy certain days, or if there is only one workable day that week, and so on) and I'm much more willing to be flexible about scheduling, now that I have a clearer picture on what days I can dedicate to his project, and what days I can dedicate to other projects.

So my take away message here is communication is really important. Sure, not all situations will work out the way my story above did. However, if you're willing to really listen to your clients, and be able to clearly explain your own position, that will go a long way in maintaining and improving your working relationship.

Extra Butter Coffee

#5 Networking is awesome

This year I met several other female designer/devs at FITC Web Unleashed. It was great talking to others who work in the industry and hearing about what sorts of projects they do. If they bring the conference back for 2015, I'll be happy to attend. And actually, if anyone reading this has other conferences in Toronto to recommend (especially if they have rates affordable to freelancers), let me know in the comments!

I've also run into folks at a cafe I frequent, Extra Butter on Roncesvalles. If you also go there for coffee and see me hunched over my laptop or iPad, please do say hi, I promise I'm pretty friendly, hah! Although I do apologize if I'm super focused on what I'm doing and don't hear you speaking to me right away... I do tune out the ambient noise so I can get things done. Also happy to share my table if the place is packed and I'm not expecting a friend, so just ask. I'm usually hogging the powerbar anyway.

Here's to an awesome 2015 for all freelancers, entrepreneurs and small businesses out there!