The freelance business growth dilemma

How do you grow beyond yourself, when your success is tied to your personal reputation?

All businesses need to grow and evolve, and a freelance business is not an exception. How do I earn more money? How do a attract bigger clients and better projects? The answer to those questions usually involves business growth, especially if you’ve reached a plateau in rates.

But the options for growth of a one-person freelance business are not so straightforward.

I run a successful freelance design business. I’ve been doing it for 17 years. And I’ve been struggling with this issue for most of that time.

In a traditional business structure, employees are somewhat interchangeable. If you lose your designer, you can hire another one with similar skills. If you’re growing your business and bringing in more work than your company can handle, you can hire more employees to expand your resources and range of skills to service those new jobs.

If you run your own indie freelance business, you are not interchangeable with anyone else. At least I hope not! If you are, you haven’t done a good enough job of articulating your value and marketing your services.

As a freelancer business owner, your personal reputation is your business. You’ve build it up over years of professional communication, reliable work ethic, strategic thinking, and world-class deliverables. Clients want to work with you because they know what you deliver.

Until human cloning is a thing, you can’t make another you. So what are your options for business growth that don’t tread on your valuable reputation?

Let’s compare a few options, each with their own pros and cons.

Partner with an experienced pro who possesses complementary skills

One option is to find another person of similar experience and reputation as yourself, but with complementary skills, and join forces to form a broader enterprise.

Pros

  • No training required. This partner already knows the ropes.
  • No reputation loss. Instead you’re combining two good reputations and two healthy client pools.
  • Broader service range may be able to attract better clients and projects.
  • Little extra management time required, as your partner should be self-sufficient.
  • Easy division of labour as you each specialise in your own strengths.

Cons

  • No increase in direct opportunity for profit. You and your partner both continue to earn the good rates you have now, but not likely much more.
  • Potential for personality clash. If you’re both already successful, you may be stuck in your own processes and resistant to changing to work more collaboratively.

Choose this option if you want to increase your total service offering to provide more comprehensive, turnkey solutions to clients. Gaining bigger clients and more interesting projects is more important to you than increasing profit.

Partner with an experienced pro with the same skills

Similar to above, you could partner with another experienced pro. But this one has a similar skillset to you.

Pros

  • No training required. This partner already knows the ropes.
  • No reputation loss. Instead you’re combining two good reputations and two healthy client pools.
  • No adjustment in marketing required. You continue chasing the exact same type of work — just twice as much.
  • Little extra management time, as your partner should be self-sufficient.

Cons

  • No increase in direct opportunity for profit. You and your partner both continue to earn the good rates you have now, but not likely much more.
  • Potential for personality clash. If you’re both already successful, you may be stuck in your own processes and resistant to changing to work more collaboratively.
  • No broadening of services offered, limiting your ability to attract a different client base.
  • Tricky division of labour — you don’t want to compete amongst yourselves internally.

Choose this option if you are currently bombarded with potential work and want to be able to take on much more of the same kind of work. But only if you have a system for clear responsibility and division of labour with your partner.

Hire a junior

Hire a previously educated and trained, but less experienced person, either with complementary or similar skills, and allow them to help you grow your business as they grow their experience.

Pros

  • Increased opportunity for profit. Your junior will cost less, which means potential to markup their work and skim profit off the top.
  • Low risk. They won’t command a high salary so even if you fail to keep them busy you won’t lose money.
  • Clear hierarchy and division of labour. You’re the boss.

Cons

  • Some training required. You’ll need to impart your skills, processes, and experience to help your junior grow. There will be extra up-front effort in upskilling your junior to take on some of your responsibilities.
  • Work quality will not live up to your standard (at least not at first). This must be rectified with your reputation and client expectations.
  • Workload challenges. It may be difficult to scale up the pipeline of new jobs enough to support another person’s workload (since they aren’t likely bringing their own clients, as in the partnerships above). You may have to start this person as part-time until the demand grows.
  • Marketing adjustments required. You now have to actively search out work that can be performed adequately by your less experienced junior. Getting more of the exact same work you’re used to doing yourself — with the same client expectations — is unlikely to work out.
  • Admin time. Congratulations you are now managing people. You’ll spend more time than you want on managing his/her work, with not enough to get as hands-on as you want with your own work.

Choose this option if the opportunity presents itself with just the right person who you feel will fit in well and learn quickly. But only if you don’t mind spending more of your time managing projects and other people.

Mentor or apprentice a rookie

If you like the profitability factor of hiring a junior, but worry about being able to find someone who you can trust to maintain your standard of work and business reputation, why not train them yourself? Find a design grad straight out of university, and mentor them to mould them into your ideal business partner.

Pros

  • Increased opportunity for profit. Your apprentice will cost far less, which means potential to markup their work and skim profit off the top.
  • Better likelihood of culture fit and trust. They’ll be a sponge and soak up your own processes and values, which means you’ll foster great trust in their process and skills over time.
  • Gain the joy of teaching your knowledge, which also helps you clarify your own thinking and processes.
  • Less risk. If the apprentice doesn’t work out as a business expansion strategy, simply don’t hire them.

Cons

  • Your apprentice will be super green. So much training required! — way down to the basics. But they’ll also be very eager to learn — even more than a junior.
  • Work quality may take years of training to meet your expectations. Until then, what kind of work can you give them? Practice projects? Research? Really unimportant stuff that even a Monkey could do? They won’t start showing their value for a while, so be in it for the long haul.
  • Short-term pain for long-term gain. The initial part of this relationship will cost you a lot of your time as well as a shift in mentality. It will be difficult to make this pivot if you’re already over-busy. But if you can manage it, it may pay off in the end.

Choose this option if you like teaching, and you’re unsure if you’ll be able to get the skills and experience you need from a junior. It’ll take more out of you at first, but may set you up with an ideal #2 in the long run.

Form a network of independent partners

What if adding to your team of one simply isn’t for you? You can still gain many benefits, like a broader service offering to attract larger clients and projects, through a more informal structure for growth.

Many successful independent creatives are making this work as collaboratives. SuperFriendly by Dan Mall is one such example. They are a collective of freelancers and small agencies who work together as needed to build the right mix of skills for each job.

While I don’t know the inner workings of their setup I imagine it’s quite democratic in nature and flat in structure. Each member must buy in to the idea enough to pledge their availability for the group.

Pentagram has taken this concept even further and more formally. Their agency is a highly successful international organisation — far beyond a casual collective. However the underlying fundamentals of flat management, democratic decisions, and partner ownership/investment is the same. They’ve built something special on the idea of combining the reputations of some of the world’s best designers into a structure that everyone on the inside, as well as the client side, love. It’s a business model that’s still disruptive 40 years later.

Pros

  • Gain the benefits of broader service offering, more collaborative process, and greater resources without the risk and added admin of hiring.
  • You design your own collective structure democratically so that it serves everyone involved. This helps members/partners feel ownership of and investment in the enterprise.
  • Have the chance to work with others at the top of their game. Become partners instead of potential competitors.

Cons

  • The initial collective setup, governance, and work process can be difficult and time consuming to perfect. You have to define a relationship that rewards collaboration and sharing of clients without internal competition and potential resentment.
  • Finding and vetting the right talent to join is challenging. The best independent creatives will already be busy, so the idea of the collective as a source of more work is not alluring. They need to buy into the concept because it solves a problem of theirs or presents an opportunity they don’t currently have. Learning how to articulate and sell the concept is key. Your location and current employment market will also affect the availability of quality independent creatives and agencies willing to join.

Choose this option if you aren’t keen on employing others but still want the benefits of working with a larger and more diverse team. But only if you have the organisational skills to conceptualise and sell this vision to others.

My trials, failures, and next steps

The idea that initially stood out to me as the most appealing was to form a collective. I went very close to starting one with Tasman + Pacific. That venture has yet to take off, but not through lack of desire or interest. I simply got too busy to devote enough time to building it. I still hope to get that off the ground one day.

I learned that it’s more difficult to find the perfect people that you might imagine. It takes the just the right kind of entrepreneurial designer, with the right ambitions, at the right point in their career, to buy into that vision. You’ll get ample interest from beginner to intermediate creatives who see it as a step up and a chance to generate new leads. But you’ll struggle to find those at the top of their game who are willing to take a chance on a new idea when they’re too comfortable where they are.

To me it was only an interesting concept if it was a collective of the best and brightest. A chance to form something truly better and disruptive to the agency norm. That’s where the idea really shines. But it takes getting those first few partners on board to build momentum. I never quite got there but I will one day.

More recently I’ve been debating about starting a mentorship or taking on an apprentice. I enjoy teaching under the right circumstances and I feel this path could result in the best trained and most trustworthy business partner. However it comes at the cost of a long period of training. I’m trying to set myself up for that opportunity. It will take substantial planning to make sure the arrangement offers great value to both parties.

How do you want to grow?

If you’ve been freelancing for a long time and feel like it’s time for growth, consider one of these options. You may feel like there’s potential for bigger projects with better clients. You may want a change of pace or a more collaborative proccess. Or you may simply want to find a way to earn more money. All of these are worthy goals. Choose the growth option that best matches those goals, and start planning the steps for how to make that a reality for your business.

Have better ideas?

I’d love to hear them. If you’ve successfully scaled up your one-person freelance business please share your process in the comments.


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