This is a guest post contributed by Stefan Palios. Stefan is a freelance coach, writer, and creator of The Growth Blueprint. He helps other freelancers, coaches, and creators finetune their business practices.
Wanting to make money freelancing is noble.
And a lot of freelancers (53%) earn more than they did at a full-time job while 61% say they have more free time.
Sometimes, people hit these milestones in year one. But I’ve been coaching freelancers for a few years now, both one-on-one and through my group course, and have noticed a troubling pattern: people who set aggressive goals in year one often burn out before they reach them.
That’s not to say goals aren’t valuable. They can be helpful from a motivation perspective if that works for you.
However, in the context of your first year freelancing, setting goals is a fruitless exercise from a business strategy perspective because you simply don’t know what will happen. You’ve got limited control over your environment and need to be focused on surviving, not staring down lofty ambitions.
Instead of setting goals, I encourage all new freelancers to focus on building the right foundation and then shifting focus to relentless progress.
Here’s what it looks like.
Money comes from a strong foundation.
Step 1: Set your foundation
Freelancers are entrepreneurs.
That means you’re not just doing work for pay (that’s employment), you’re providing solutions to your customers through your work.
In order to do that effectively, you need some processes, systems, and ways of work in place. For first-year freelancers, your foundation only needs three parts to get going.
Your focus and one-liner
Your focus is what you do for clients (writing, coding, editing, designing, etc.). To find your focus, think about what you are good at and what you like to do. From there, you can identify potential clients with the TNN (Talent, Network, Needs) framework.
Your one-liner is the easy to remember and easy to repeat way you describe what you do. The formula looks like:
“I’m a freelance [SKILL] for [TYPE OF CUSTOMER]”
The good thing about your one-liner is it can change over time, so don’t fret if you pick something that you’re not sure will work in six months. Just go with it and see if it piques market curiosity, which is when people start asking questions about how you might be able to help them. This is in contrast to intellectual curiosity, which is when someone is confused about who you are and is trying to understand you.
Your online presence
Everyone needs a presence online. You don’t necessarily have to be active on every social media platform, but you need the basics:
Website: A simple landing page that explains who you are, what you do, and offers a way to get in touch with you. I like Carrd and Softr (both no-code builders with free tiers).
Social bios: Whichever platform you choose to be present on, have a clean bio (usually your one-liner) with an easy way to get in touch with you such as open DMs, link in bio, or open connection requests.
Mastering the referral to drum up new business
Too many freelancers ask for referrals with something like this: “I’m a freelance writer! Contact me with opportunities or if you want to talk” or “I’m a freelance writer, do you know anyone looking to hire that you can introduce me to?”
These two examples (and all the different versions of them) are fundamentally asking someone else to do work for you, which won’t go well in the long run.
If you want more success, make your referral request into an offer to help.
Try this: “I’m a freelance writer. If you know anyone facing content challenges or thinking about content, I’d be happy to chat with them and see if I’m a fit to help them out.”
The key here is the word help. As a solution providing entrepreneur, you aren’t trying to get hired, you’re trying to identify people who have problems you can help with or solve. This method also lets the person making an introduction look good – they actually gain social capital because they are solving a colleague’s problem by bringing you into the fold.
Step 2: Measure progress
Once you have the right foundation in place, your first year should be about progress.
That means looking at your whole business:
- Do you have interest from potential clients?
- Are you closing deals?
- Are the deals you close turning into clients you like?
- Is your business progressively easier to run?
- Are you templatizing routine communications to save you time?
- Are you asking for and getting testimonials from happy clients?
Whenever you think about how you can improve, it should be directly tied to revenue. It’s a simple heuristic: if it will make you money, do it. If it won’t, leave it for now.
If you’re a metrics person, here are a few you can track and benchmark:
Book rate: Of people you talk to / who reach out, how many book calls with you?
Diagnosis rate: How often are you able to accurately say what someone needs / that they need your work?
Turn down rate: How often are you turning someone down because they are a bad fit for what you offer?
Offer rate: How often are you making proposals based on the # of folks you talk to?
Success rate: How often are your offers being accepted / you’re making money?
Testimonials: After every successful project with a happy client, are they offering a testimonial? Or if you ask, are they agreeing?
Step 3: Tweak as you go
Seeking progress is great when it’s working. But if it’s not, here’s how you can think about tweaking and adjusting.
You are an entrepreneur, but you’re also working solo. Think about how you’re feeling about certain processes. Chances are if it sucks for you, it also sucks for your client. Think about how you would want the process to go, and see if you can change things.
For example, if you find that your calls feel rushed and impersonal, think about what outcome you’d prefer. If you would prefer a bit of chit chat at the start of the call, add that for your next call and see what happens.
How often did you have to repeat yourself, correct someone, or repeat a task to get the desired outcome? That’s friction.
Do everything you can to reduce it, such as:
Communication friction: How-to guides and FAQs.
Repetitive friction: Templates and checklists.
Misunderstanding friction: Clarify all things in writing.
Money comes from a strong foundation
When you set goals, you state what you want and have to work toward it. However, this can lead to unintended consequences and additional work you don’t want to do. When you focus on a solid foundation and progress, you can still earn great money but you avoid some problems you never needed to address in the first place.
Once you have a solid foundation to stand on, your only job is to get a little better every time you can. Each experience will teach you something new. And the best part is all of this happens while you’re actually making money.