How to Keep Your Freelance Business on the Right Track [in 5 Steps]

by Tom Ewer 6 Minutes

Most freelancers are guilty of getting too involved in the day-to-day running of their business at the expense of the big picture.

This “wood for the trees” approach becomes more acute the busier you get, which leads to a curious outcome — the more “successful” your business (in terms of the amount of billable hours you work), the less likely you are to run a business that meets your desired long term goals.

One thing I have learned over time is that more clients does not equal a “better” business. There is definitely more to life than how much work you take on, and keeping that in mind by carrying out periodical health checks on your business is the key to keeping your freelancing career on the right path.

In this post I want to focus on the five step process I follow about once every month to ensure that I am building a business that is successful and which allows me to live the life I want to live.

Note: I would recommend that you read my post on remodelling your business before starting on this.

Step 1: Assess What You Do

In my opinion, nothing is more valuable than time. It is what drove me to freelance in the first place. Why spend an arbitrary eight hours in an office when I can do twice the work in half the time and earn far more per hour in equivalent earnings?

Ultimately I view exchanging time for money as a necessary evil and treat it as such. If I am going to offer up my time for ransom (which is one way of looking at freelancing) then I want to make damn sure that it is time well spent. That’s why I periodically assess how I spend my time.

There are many ways in which you can monitor your time. Personally I use a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique, which segments my working hours into thirty-minute windows. Work that I do is divided intuitively into categories such as:

  • Client Work (I also specify the client)
  • Email
  • LWB (my blog)
  • Social Media
  • General admin

You get the idea. Once you have done this for some time you will be able to assess how much time you spend in each area of your business, which then empowers you to make judgments as to how well spent your time is and take action accordingly.

For instance, say my time spent on email was getting out of hand (this is a common time suck for many of us). I might choose to partly outsource that work by dictating my email responses quickly and sending the resultant audio file to a VA to draft and send the emails. And because I keep track of the time spent, I will be able to see if this time-saving measure has a positive impact.

I don’t necessarily want you to follow my approach verbatim (unless you feel it will work for you) — there are many approaches you can take. For instance, Natalie recently recommended the Rescue Time app for monitoring what you are really spending time on. Find the approach that works for you and stick with it — the key is to know where your time is going and reduce the time taken in areas that don’t directly generate an income or don’t inspire you.

Step 2: Assess Your Existing Clients

Regardless of whether you work with longterm clients (like me) or on short term projects, when your business is established you’ll tend to attract (or seek out) the same “type” of client. Over time you can lose sight of who you truly want to work with and this can lead to a portfolio of work that you do not find particularly rewarding. Or even worse, you can discover that you don’t really like working with some of your clients.

Therefore, it is important to take the time to assess your existing clients periodically. Remember this: unless you are living on the breadline, money should not wholly dictate your decisions. If you’re unhappy with a client and see no means of repairing the relationship, drop them. Life is too short to work in unrewarding or problematic partnerships. As a freelancer you have the power to choose who you work with — wield that power.

I appreciate that this is a tough process — dropping a client is not easy. I tend to get all sorts of thoughts running through my head such as, “What if I lose some good clients and suddenly I need the money?” But as long as you make an honest and objective assessment of the situation and factor risk into your decision-making process, there is no reason why you should hold onto a client that is ultimately holding you back.

Don’t just work for the money — work with the right people to make your freelancing career a rewarding one.

Step 3: Resolve Any Ongoing Disputes / Unhappiness

If you are largely happy with a client (or at least feel that you would be) but for an unresolved dispute or uncertainty/unhappiness on your part, now is as good a time as any to take steps to resolution. Quite simply, life is too short to not take action.

One fear that you may have in approaching a client with a view to resolving disputes is creating a scenario where your ongoing work for that client might be at risk. But if you are unhappy with your existing relationship then it is far more likely that the possibility of a positive resolution outweighs any inherent risk. And besides that, if you do not take action what do you intend to happen in the long run? Are you simply going to allow the issue to fester and grow indefinitely? Probably not — so why not sort it out now?

I personally took the route of largely ignoring issues with one longterm client in particular to my detriment. The fear always was that if I addressed the issues directly that I would destroy the relationship. However, when I did finally let my thoughts be known, the matter was in fact resolved in a satisfactory manner. If you approach your attempt at resolution in a measured manner, you are likely to find that a positive outcome is more likely than you initially thought.

Step 4: Consider Outsourcing

In the first step I mentioned that you might consider semi-outsourcing your emails in order to reduce time spent on something that does not directly contribute to your income. While that was included as an example for how you can effectively reduce your non-billable hours and focus on what is really important, it also serves as an example for the benefits of outsourcing.

I am guilty of not outsourcing enough — until recently, I hadn’t even really considered it. I felt that the value of my service was inherent to me, and as such outsourcing was not something I could consider.

Well; I was right and wrong. Although most freelancers personally hold the key to the value they provide, if you look closely you will see that there are any number of individual tasks that could easily be carried out by a virtual assistant. I’ve already mentioned email management, but other examples include:

  • Outline planning
  • Article research (if you’re a writer)
  • Emails (as previously mentioned)
  • Bookkeeping
  • General Admin
  • Social Media

The list goes on. If you can delegate the non-vital tasks to a virtual assistant and focus your own talents on the areas that matter the most, you may find that your business runs much more smoothly for it.

Step 5: Assess Your Direction

Finally we have the big picture — something you should never lose sight of.

Consider this: if you are a freelancer then you are in charge of your destiny. By not asking yourself where you want to be in a year, two years, or five years time, you are ignoring one of the greatest benefits of running your own business. At no point should you lose sight of what you want to achieve and whether or not your current direction has you on the right path.

Far too many of us get wrapped up in simply making more money with little regard for other (perhaps more important) concerns. For instance, if you earn far more than you need to but spend less time with your kids than you would like, what should you do? The answer is obvious, but if you do not take a moment to step back and assess your direction, you may not see it.

I appreciate how difficult it is to turn down business. Most of us started with nothing and worked our way up to success, so the concept of not taking on available work is entirely alien. But once you are established and profitable, your default answer to any prospect should be “no” rather than “yes.” Start with no, then figure out if there is any compelling reason why it should turn into a yes.

You’re no longer scraping the barrel. You have a profitable business. Therefore you have the luxury of building a business that compliments your quality of life. Make decisions accordingly.

Are You On the Right Track?

I’ve love to get your feedback on the above five steps I recommend. Do you feel that your business is currently on track? Or do you have suggestions for other ways in which you might choose to periodically assess the progress of your business. Let us know in the comments section!

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by Tom Ewer
Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.