Levelling Up: The Geek’s Guide to Growing Your Freelance Business
While many of you were merrily wishing the rain away this May Day, Craig and I were holding an AGM: awesome…growing…methods. Or something.
We can’t strictly call it an AGM because we had one in September. If sitting down with a notepad and doughnuts counts.
This time around, our meeting had a little more structure – using the guiding principles of Michael E. Gerber’s The E Myth. If you’re not familiar with the book, it was written in 1986 and revised for the internet age.
Why The E Myth?
Let me start by saying I am a passionate self-help book sceptic. Anything that promises to give me the secrets of the ‘gurus’ was probably written by somebody who’s never done a day’s work in their life.
But we vetted this one.
Craig trawled the Reddit forums for “genuine business advice” books and was recommended The E Myth. I sucked up my cynicism and cracked on with it.
The resounding message? You can “get bigger” without actually growing.
Entrepreneurs, managers and technicians
Gerber prefaces his tips with a stark warning for start-ups. Most people are technicians – they have a talent and like what they do, so why not start a business?
Managers focus on “achieving results” while entrepreneurs focus on growth. What many freelancers fail to realise is that we’re all technicians at heart. Business development, marketing and accounting are a completely different world.
The fallout from this is that we undersell ourselves, we waste time with tedious tasks, and we forget to look at the long term. So, what does Gerber suggest?
Introducing the Katie Lingo team: all 22 of us
By virtue of being a one-man band, “technicians” have to wear a lot of hats. The E Myth tells us to draw out a hypothetical organogram detailing all the roles we play in our business. As you can see here, they include but are not limited to:
- Creative (the technician stuff, in my case).
Now, while I’d love to say I employ 21 people, I don’t. In fact, I don’t employ anyone. But what’s important about this is that it gives us a guide for how we could grow. And you can do the same.
Note the colour coding. In theory, the yellows are my roles and the greens are Craig’s – plus our (orange) accountant. What’s particularly important is that this is a hierarchy, so while my data vis bod Craig might be a ‘junior writer’, I’m certainly no senior data vis technician.
How one little chart saved us a lot of time
Said organogram is also ideal if you want to take a look at your processes. I know. Shudder. ‘Processes’ are the preserve of only the stuffiest of agencies, and nothing but time-wasting red tape, right?
Not always. Do them well and you’ll save time. Let’s take a little workflow example, blending the sales (entrepreneurs) and creative (technicians) teams.
Then it’s onto accounts, who process the invoice and the whole shebang starts again. Everybody has their role; the account managers have run their quality checks and all parties are happy.
How this translates to client management
As a business owner, it’s natural for you to have different relationships with your clients. You might consider some ‘high value’ – not necessarily in terms of revenue, but because you value them. It could be sentimental (they treat you well) or commercial (they pay on time). They might even have connections that will open doors for you.
While no client should ever be underserviced, there will be those who require a specific skillset, and others whose briefs are less challenging. This helps us organise our time. Said hypothetical ‘juniors’ can focus on the less challenging briefs. The managers can afford to sweat a little.
Nobody wants to play Sophie’s Choice, but if we approach this with a completely commercial head, we can categorise our client base. A frequency/value matrix will help you to make strategic decisions for the future:
|High frequency||Low frequency|
Kiss their feet – they can do no wrong
Give them a nudge and target your marketing
|Low value||Assign juniors/focus on upselling||
Consider outsourcing to free up resources
Of course, life is rarely this simple, and nobody’s about to go culling clients based on this cut-throat mentality alone. Some clients might be high value but a royal pain in the ass. Some clients might have a lower budget but make you feel special. Use your head and heart here, kids.
How is this conducive to growing my freelance business?
By gaining better visibility of your workloads, you can identify the weak spots. You can level this up with time-tracking software or by dividing your work into billable/non-billable. Very often, it’s not always about chasing the next big client – it’s about showing the existing ones a little love.
Based on this matrix, here are the actions I’d take to free up time and work towards that 22-strong staff team:
- High frequency, high value: Keep in touch and don’t get complacent. Don’t assume they will always throw work at you – send friendly emails and offer complimentary catch-up calls.
- High value, low frequency: Analyse their work patterns. (More on that below.) Do they always get busy during X month? Is it time to give them a nudge a few weeks in advance or ask for feedback on the latest campaign?
- High frequency, low value: It’s tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one, which is why you need to look at your accounts. These clients may not feel like they offer much value, but is their loyalty tiding you over during quiet months? Now that you have a good relationship with them, there could also be upselling opportunities.
- Low frequency, low value: Again, head and heart here. Is there something sentimental keeping you there – are they a personal friend, for example? In cases like these, it’s likely a client whose rates you’ve forgotten to increase as they dip in and out. A gentle reminder that your prices go up with inflation…unless they treat you like crap, in which case…
And another thing…
You may or may not have noticed that Craig has been beavering away building up the ‘data visualisation’ arm of Katie Lingo. Basically:
- You give us all that lovely data you can’t understand
- Craig turns it into beautiful, simple-to-read charts
- I write recommendations to accompany said charts.
So, if you are thinking about ‘growing’ your business, whether in staff numbers or client value, you might want to look at seasonality:
There’s something about May…
Interesting visual. May has ALWAYS been my quietest month.
Am I going to cry about this? No. Am I going to use the extra time to be proactive and focus on my #content? Yes.
— Katie Thompson (@katielingoyork) May 4, 2021
I published this recently because I realised May is always a slow month. Not sure why – trepidation about the new financial year? This bar chart shows the years 2017 to 2020, going from bottom to top.
So, what does this tell us? Perhaps, rather than slogging myself to death in Q4, I should invest a little more time in marketing to help even out workloads over Q1 and Q2. Or perhaps I should upsell to the Q1 and Q2 customers.
Are you a technician, entrepreneur or manager?
Be honest with me. When did you last sit down and take a look at your accounts like this? Full disclosure: we used our Harpoon CRM and Tableau to visualise the data. (And we can do it for you, too.)
Whether you’ve got two staff or 22, there are always opportunities lying in the data. You’ve just got to find them.
And if nothing else, it’s a good excuse to sit down with some doughnuts.
6th May 2021