Do you work alone, but try to appear larger? Maybe you throw a “we” into your website’s copy to sound like a team, when it’s really just you and your dog?
There’s a misconception that only full-service agencies are trusted with mission-critical creative work. That you have to be big to attract innovative clients, complex projects, eye-watering budgets, and important jobs. You don’t. What you need to do is be honest and build trust. Lying about your size is a terrible start.
I’ve run a solo design business for nearly two decades. Over that time I’ve been responsible for managing the design of websites that earn millions in annual revenue. I’ve completed work for multinational corporations and retailers, educational institutions, international charities, and tech startups with millions in venture cap funding. I’ve done projects that span a year or more, with hundreds of moving parts and nearly as many stakeholders.
All the while, I’ve never pretended to be anything I’m not. I present myself as an experienced freelance consultant. I work with great clients because they know exactly what they’ll get from me, and they’re fine with the fact that it’s me alone. In fact, they prefer it.
Here’s what you can do to hook larger fish than the average freelancer will catch.
Present Yourself Honestly and Confidently
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t try to sell services you’re under-qualified to deliver. Be upfront with clients when their requests fall outside of your comfort zone, and be equally confident when they land in your wheelhouse.
You can be that confident if you’ve honed your processes and skills over years of real-world design experience. Don’t “fake it till you make it”. Just work hard until you’ve actually made it, and then maintain that work ethic to uphold the reputation you’ve built.
If a client’s requirements are so diverse that they need a full-service agency with a large team to support them, be honest about referring them somewhere that will better suit their needs. If you can meet their needs, convince them why you’re the best choice to take care of them.
Fill Them With Trust
By starting off your relationship from honesty, you’ll build trust more quickly. Demonstrate your experience and set expectations early, so they have no doubt you’re a safe pair of hands. Anticipate things they haven’t thought of yet so they never have to remind you of what you might have missed.
Your organized project management, efficient communication, attention to detail, and reliable delivery needs to take all their worries away. If your project management skills are up to the task you’ll make them feel more at ease and in control than they thought possible with a project of this magnitude.
If they had a stigma about freelancers being flaky and not running professional businesses, they should forget it after meeting with you. Blow them away by being ultra-professional, and asking insightful questions that anticipate their concerns before they’ve had to express them. They’ll feel they will be making a mistake if they trust their most important projects to anyone less acute.
Do Exceptional Work, Consistently
Your portfolio and references need to back up your reputation for exceptional work. Excellence can’t just happen under perfect conditions. I feel guilty if I deliver anything less than my best, no matter who the client and how big the project. You need the same mindset if you want to become an expert at anything. Your strategic thinking can bring them added value they weren’t expecting, and that over-delivery turns them into passionate fans and referral engines.
Consistent, repeatable excellence is how to build a strong reputation. That reputation is necessary to get a foot in the door for bigger clients and their most impactful projects.
Be a Multi-Hyphenate
Having a broad range of skills makes you more valuable to clients who don’t want to coordinate a team of narrow specialists — something very important if you’re aiming to compete with full-service agencies for complex jobs. But don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none. The sweet spot is being a specialised generalist. Some call it T-shaped, M-shaped, comb-shaped, deep-generalist, or multi-hyphenate. It means being good at a lot of things which allows for better collaboration and more creative problem solving through lateral thinking.
Showing your range can be a huge asset as long as you also demonstrate areas of deep expertise within your field. T-shaped creatives make for the best employees and “unicorn” independent contractors. When your client finds a unicorn, they want to keep you forever.
Your Price is Right
And by right, I don’t mean cheap. It’s expensive. If the quality of your work can justify it, charge more than most freelancers in your field, but less than agencies. Position yourself as the high-end of freelance options — almost a bridge between freelancers and agencies. You can provide the level of service they’d expect from a quality agency, but in a streamlined package, price point, and personal relationship an agency could never match.
If you have the nouse to position yourself this way (and deliver to that expectation), price is a filter that attracts only the kind of clients that make for good partners. The kind of projects that are too important to trust to just anyone. The kind that need only the best, because they’re not in this to produce a mediocre product.
Become Part of Their Team
If they prefer email, be on email all day long. If they prefer Slack, get there too. Video calls? No problem. Do whatever it takes to fit into their process so they know they can contact you. (Also, set firm boundaries for when you’re not available. They must respect your time if they want the most value from it.) Be as easy to work with as the guy sitting at the desk next to them, even if you’re seven timezones away.
Know how to facilitate the design process — when and where to ask the right people for the most useful feedback at each stage of a project. Play to the strengths of your client’s team members to get the most from the creative process, rather than trying to be the lone creative genius. This makes them confident their needs are being heard and your result will match the high demands of their most critical work.
Take critique like a pro, and learn how to guide them to produce better feedback when they aren’t holding up their side of the creative relationship.
Your transparent pricing and honest process should tell them they are getting top value from your time without hovering over your shoulder. If they feel the need to micromanage, you’re earning a junior rate, not being the senior consultant their project demands. You need to be flexible enough to be completely autonomous and drive a project yourself, or let your more control-craving clients remain in the driver’s seat and act as a straight-talking wingman.
Your job is ensuring the best design outcome, so take whatever role is necessary to facilitate that.
Build a Network of Partners to Support You
I rely on connections with trusted colleagues of complementary skills who I can call on when a large project stretches my areas of expertise. If you don’t have a network like this, start building yours now.
You can even recommend third-parties for parts of a job you could do yourself, because a specialist in that area could do it better and more efficiently. By making that recommendation (even though it loses you a bit of work) your client sees you doing them the favour of reducing their cost and increasing quality. While they also grow in confidence knowing you’ll coordinate the talent for any problem they can throw your way.
It’s important to act as manager, art director, and primary communication channel to facilitate any third-party partners you bring in to support your services. Ensure there’s no extra burden on your client’s time or attention, and that they’ll receive the same level of quality (or better) than you would produce yourself, all in a seamless manner.
This gives you the power of a big team of diverse specialists, without the overhead and bureaucracy.
Leverage Partnerships to Access Larger Clients
Build relationships with larger agencies who call upon you when they need extra expertise on an important job, or to fill a gap in capacity during times of growth. This can give you access to larger clients you might not have otherwise connected with. If you rub enough shoulders with the big shots, you’ll get an occasional invite to a table that’s larger than your solo stature. Fill that chair with aplomb when you get it.
Massive, High-Budget Jobs Are There for the Taking
Not only do they make you more money, but they also keep you busy for longer so you’ll have less new work to hunt.
Dream jobs don’t come without the environment to attract them. You must build connections to refer them, organisational skills and expertise in your craft to pull them off, and the professionalism to put your clients at ease as you guide them through the most high-stakes projects of their lives.
When you demonstrate reliability, size is no obstacle. The smallest businesses can work with giants.