Operating your own agency or freelance business comes with some incredible opportunities: setting your own rates and hours, selecting your own clients, and – most importantly – being your own boss.
But doing it successfully also means weathering the harshest storms of an independent practitioner’s career – plateaus.
Rate plateaus can stall your income. Raising rates can stir up issues with clients, or even cause them to take their business elsewhere.
Client plateaus can mean being forced to continue working with more difficult people simply because times are leaner and you can’t afford to lose their business.
The times your career stalls completely in one area or another can lead to frustration and affect your overall motivation to be out on your own.
If you’ve arrived at a plateau in your career, fear not. There is, in fact, a systematic approach to expediting your freelance success, which will help you move on from any stagnation in your career for good.
Growth Lessons from a Decade of Freelancing
As a self-employed web developer of more than 10 years, I have experienced first hand the duality of working your hardest, yet still somehow running in place. In all of that experience, I’ve learned the fastest way to accelerate an independent career is through these things:
Maintaining daily accountability
Making the leads come to you
Creating new revenue patterns
From discussions with other freelancers and agency operators, I can say that this is true no matter how you operate your own business as a web developer or designer.
Growing your freelancing business or agency gets simpler when you start telling yourself where you’re going. In the freelance world, you’re striking out on your own, which means you’re simultaneously having to write your own roadmap.
In the same way you wouldn’t start a road trip without knowing which direction your destination was in, your daily efforts in your freelancing career should be a part of a larger goal and direction.
The core step will be really taking the time needed to choose a goal that is both challenging and realistic. For me, it was to make a six-figure salary as a freelancer in a 12-month period. Here’s how I got there, and then some.
Maintaining Daily Goals and Accountability
The path to success with a freelance business model is through a collection of small, daily wins, over and over again.
Overnight success simply doesn’t exist.
Becoming more successful requires you to both set and measure your goals on a daily basis – starting today. This is where you consider your road trip: Where is your destination? Set your daily goals of how many hours you’ll need to work, and at which rate, based on your projected monthly or yearly goal.
Keep It Simple
Unfortunately it’s not enough to simply set goals, but the good news is your daily accountability system doesn’t have to be time-consuming or stressful. My daily accountability spreadsheet system takes seconds to update each day. I use a few simple categories like: the date the project was opened, who the client is, the date the project was completed, the total payment amount, the date payment was issued, and any referral source (more on that later).
With this type of organization, you can combine daily outcomes for a view of weekly, monthly and yearly stats to check your progress along your goals. The trick is to still be prepared for any fluctuation and stay the course you’ve outlined no matter what. On your worst days, you’ll bring in $0. However, I’ve personally experienced days where I’ve earned 10-times more than my daily goal, either for single, large projects or for multiple projects that happened to place deposits simultaneously.
Focus on the Big Picture
The greatest lesson I learned through my goals and accountability was to never be discouraged by daily shortfalls. Just because you didn’t meet your daily goal doesn’t mean you won’t meet your weekly goal. The same is true for your weekly goals compared to monthly, and so on.
For example, back in 2017 (the first year I’d started tracking my daily progress), I missed my daily goal more than 100 times, but actually achieved my yearly goal by more than 150%. At the beginning of that year, I’d set a pretty lofty goal for myself and how much revenue I planned to bring in. If I had just written that down without putting a daily action plan behind it, there’s no telling how short of the mark I would have fallen …
Increasing Inbound Leads
One of the biggest challenges for freelancers and small agencies is generating inbound leads – for free. Anyone can pay for leads through advertisements … but for greener freelancers, growing your business from within a smaller, professional network of referrals can be strenuous and leave you at a professional plateau.
Ideally, leads should cost you nothing other than the time it takes you to respond to them.
So how do you transition from actively chasing down leads to exclusively responding to inbound leads? And where would they even come from?
The easiest way to increase inbound leads for free: Join freelancing networks.
For freelance developers and designers who pick the right outsourcing service, business can start booming exponentially.
Choose the Right Freelance Networks
Over years of reviewing what seems like hundreds of freelancing platforms and programs, I’ve found the best ways to determine if a service is the right fit is to simply consider the following five elements:
Network Exclusivity – Higher-level platforms will require a skills test, or potentially an interview, in order to gain access to its network and clients. You should be self-aware of your level of expertise, but try to stay away from platforms where anyone can join regardless of skill level.
Colleagues or Competitors? – Some networks are competitive, “every freelancer for themselves,” with a race-to-the-bottom to cheaply win client projects. Other platforms place all freelancers on an equal field where they act more as colleagues making recommendations or passing along work to one another.
Payment Processing and Commission – Most services will have a small fee that will come out of your earnings, and you need to know how much. You also need to research their payment process to know how you’ll get paid in a timely manner for the work you complete.
Dispute Resolution and Support – Hopefully you won’t experience too many conflicts with clients, but it’s good to know how to proceed if you find yourself in a disagreement and need additional support.
Current Member Success – Always consider what active members have to say and what the current client nature of the network is. Are freelancers on this platform actually increasing their inbound leads? Are these quality clients and projects being put up for bid?
Keep Your Intake Flowing Smoothly
As your leads across the different platforms you’re connected with start flying in, your goal is still to quickly convert them into paying customers.
For new clients, I am willing to invest five to 15 minutes into discussing a project with a client. If the scope of work isn’t clearly defined after that amount of time, I always propose a one-hour paid consultation. This eliminates clients who are not serious in paying for your expertise, which isn’t free.
Trust me, this strategy works more often than not where clients will take you up on your offer to help them properly define their scope of work. Of course, these consultations won’t convert 100% of the time. But the point is if you’re not offering paid consultations, you’re leaving money on the table.
Creating New Revenue Patterns
Your value to a client can go far beyond the task in the initial lead.
As you’re striving to grow your professional relationships long-term, the recipe is pretty simple: start by providing five-star services, then suggest even more five-star services you can provide.
Being sure to present these opportunities is a critical part in growing your agency or freelance business. Over the years, I’ve found these to be extremely useful methods for generating that essential revenue.
Utilize Affiliate Programs
These programs are simple, so let’s use hosting as an example. A client asks for a recommendation of a hosting service, and I direct them toward one that I’m affiliated with. Then, when the client signs up for the service, I earn a bonus for the recommendation.
Choose your affiliates wisely. Keep it to a variety of services that you fully believe in. And you’ll only be adding value to your client relationships, while making a little extra for yourself. It’s worth noting not all programs are created equal, so it’s vital to do your research and focus your energy only on what works best for your business.
I personally believe affiliate programs are the best-kept secret in the freelance industry. They can be the quickest way to scale your business with a passive income strategy.
Upsell More Effectively
Being able to upsell your clients is one of the cornerstones in quickly converting new customers into repeat business.
You won’t be jumping the gun by introducing the next item for business as long as you make your proposal at the appropriate time. The best time to introduce additional work to your client is at the end of your current project – when their initial scope of work has been completed successfully.
In my experience, it’s much easier to get client’s to open their wallet the second time than the first. When your client does bring you additional work, you might have a few clarifying questions. But since you’ve worked together before, the timeline for this phase is drastically reduced.
Consultations can sometimes get messy. Throughout your career, you will undoubtedly examine many client projects that are overrun with issues beyond their ask. But just because you’ve identified a host of items in need of repair, it doesn’t mean you should bombard your client with every suggestion you have to offer. Pointing out too many issues at the same time almost guarantees your client will get overwhelmed and run for the hills.
Instead, prioritize your recommendations with intent.
Share your suggestions one-by-one until the scope of their project is back under control. Suggesting one additional improvement converts more effectively than upselling multiple services at once. Of course, for the situations when you do feel compelled to pass along multiple suggestions at the same time, batch together smaller items and present blocks of segmented ideas with proposed timelines.
Remember That “No” Isn’t an Insult
Even with all of the well-researched reporting you’ve presented to your client, it’s important to remember they can still reject your proposal. Don’t be discouraged. Whatever the explanation is, chances are it won’t ever be one you need to take personally. Sometimes budgets tighten, or other projects take precedence. Whatever the reason you’re given, try reminding yourself the client is really trying to say, “Not today.”
When clients do say “no,” politely thank them for their time. Remind them how to get back in touch with you directly should their situation change somewhere down the line.
Keep in mind there is no perfect timeline with converting new clients into repeat business. Even if you can’t transition your client into their next project immediately, situations change constantly. Simply checking in with your clients monthly or quarterly may get you the go-ahead on that upsell after all.
Establish Retainers and Recurring Business
Monthly or quarterly retainer agreements are the golden nugget for freelancers and agencies.
What’s better than guaranteed income without any additional work requests?
Clients on retainer are more likely to value and respect your skills, more likely to refer you to potential future business, and will save time otherwise spent searching for new leads. Retainers are cost effective and breed familiarity by streamlining specifics between client businesses and the expert – you.
Some freelance businesses base a majority of their income on retainers, particularly if the services can be repeated month after month for the same client. The best retainer tasks are the ones an expert like you can essentially do in your sleep.
Choose the Model That’s Right for Your Clients
The most traditional way to build retainers into your freelancing business is by selling hours in bulk, but on a monthly or quarterly basis. Essentially, you agree to complete a certain scope of work over X-number of hours per month. You communicate to your client along that same timeline all of your updates and completed work.
Another model is productized retainer packages – which are structured across multiple pricing tiers based on the services included or completely custom-built by the client selecting only the services they need. Clients know the exact costs of the recurring tasks. And they get to choose from which products and services you hand-selected and packaged to complement one another.
However your retainer agreement is structured, the contract created between you and your client will clearly outline the full scope of work, any expectations for either party, as well as a predetermined pay schedule. Just be careful not to overbook or over-promise hours that aren’t available.
Communication with your clients is also a necessary pillar of recurring revenue. On whatever timeline you scheduled your retainer work, have a communication schedule to match.
Routine tasks by their nature are pretty quiet work. In all likelihood, your client won’t even notice you’re doing any work at all, which is why it’s important to let them know what you are doing with consistent, detailed reporting for all benchmarks and milestones.
Traditionally, monthly or quarterly reports are sufficient in detailing any notes or updates for what you’re maintaining for your client. Include all of your supporting data and analytics, and let your client know as each stage is completed in their deliverables.
Consistent, open communication is all your client needs for peace of mind as your retainer reloads each month.
Locking in retainer agreements with your clients can start to build the foundation of your freelancing business as you continue to take on outside new client projects. By finding a balance of both, you’ll experience far more good months than bad.
Successfully scaling your freelance business is done one day at a time, even on days you miss.
These are just some of the strategies I’ve used to create growth in my personal web development business to ensure I achieve the goals I set for myself.
Still, my best advice is to never shy away from your plateaus. Identify where you need to focus more effort to round out your business and get yourself climbing again.
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