3 Steps to Triple Your Freelance Business
How I learned to Find a Herd of Mythical Ideal Clients
I launched my freelance business when I converted my then boss into my first client. It was by accident. I was a technology and training specialist for a large travel company with two small children and a husband that transferred cities for his career every couple of years. When I followed my husband to his next corporate assignment in South Texas, my boss agreed to give remote work a shot.
My list of duties had expanded so much that neither of us knew what my job exactly was anymore. I managed the shiny new website, created all the print and digital marketing, trained the employees, and handled any technology questions. That was just the big stuff. I also did some of the more sophisticated reporting and accounting technology programming. It was a different job every day, and I loved it. It kept me interested and engaged. I was blazing trails and creating solutions to new problems that popped up every day as the result of being on the bleeding edge of modern technology. It was during the first dot com boom, and new ideas were endless. My boss loved being an early adopter, so I had a multi-million-dollar technology playground all to myself. The business tripled in just 18 months, putting me on the radar of a lot of colleagues (and competitors) of my boss. Vendors asked me to beta test software for our larger corporate office — a Fortune 50 global entity.
Life Comes At You Real Fast
When I approached him with the news we were moving seven hours away, he didn’t want to lose me. We worked out a deal and documented what projects I would continue to manage. Remote work was still in its infancy, and he was wary.
It failed. Miserably. But it wasn’t for lack of potential or opportunity to make it work. It was because he hadn’t realized that I wouldn’t be at his beck and call 24/7 anymore, as I had been when I lived four minutes from the office. He’d gotten used to having me drop everything and come drag and drop something into the trash from his desktop. He liked being in a meeting with an important client and summoning me to close the deal. I was a trophy employee.
After the tenth contentious phone call, he hung up on me. And something in me snapped. My husband came home from work to a seething creature ready to rip someone’s head off and gnaw on it. Ever the self-preservationist, he said the smartest thing possible, “Why don’t you quit and start your own business?”
Happy Birthday, Idiot. You Quit Your Job. You’re an Entrepreneur. Figure it Out. — Drunk Voice Mail to Myself
And the rest, as they say, is history. I did just that, and my boss became client #1.
He also became my first lesson in being careful what you wish for. Because while I loved his money, and if I’m honest, the fact that I now had the power in the relationship, he wasn’t my ideal Avatar. I didn’t even know what an Avatar was. It took me many years to finally understand how powerful they are when carefully crafted and deployed.
What Exactly is an Avatar?
Avatar is a reasonably recent buzzword used to describe a target. It might be a customer. Still, it’s not that simple because depending on the industry or business model, the goal might be any combination of readers, influencers, fans, superfans, prospects, leads, or buyers. Avatar is used as a catch-all.
When I stepped out on my own, my Avatar was anyone willing to pay me whatever amount of money they thought I deserved. You can imagine that my naivety (and desperation) cost me quite a lot of money.
The Benefits of Defining An Avatar
The best advantage of a global economy is the ability to be specific about what you do and then find people that need what you offer. That wasn’t always easy or possible. Today it’s the norm.
Now, as a new freelance professional, you can create a niche and then find your target, rather than trying to be all things to all people. You need not take money from whoever flashes cash.
- If you’re an author, you can find readers of the specific genre in which you write.
- If you build websites for lawyers, you can find lawyers that need websites.
- If you’re a travel consultant planning small tours to Paris for women over 50, you can find 55-year-old women want to see the Musee d’Orsay.
Bad Clients are Worse than No Clients
My first client only lasted six months. In those six months, my business exploded. I built websites for large travel consortiums with hundreds of members and created courses on email marketing, and I wrote a book on how to close leads. I would also cable offices, install networks, and provide tech support. I was an outsourced technology and training department for travel agencies that couldn’t afford full-time staff.
Like when I worked for one employer, I wore a lot of hats. I went from one client to over five-hundred, then a thousand. It was luck, and a lot of ‘right-place, right-time.’ Planets and stars aligned.
The bad news was I was too busy to pay attention to Client #1 the way he wanted. He became a disgruntled client. My pride wouldn’t let me give up trying to keep him, even though it meant I was spending a disproportionate amount of time on his projects. I was quickly approaching burnout.
Stepping back one weekend at a conference, I talked to a colleague who helped me with my perspective. She noted that a bad client is worse than no client. Moreover, it would be best for the client to let him go. It simply wasn’t a good fit. I had to be okay with that. I fired him a week later after finding someone that could better serve his needs.
She also encouraged me to avoid burnout by drilling down to a specific service. In the six months prior, I learned what the intersection of what I was good at and what I liked doing looked like. I chose WordPress websites, and I let go of the rest. Kinda. But that’s a story for another day.
My Avatar was already somewhat defined, despite my ignorance of the concept. I worked with travel agencies.
But here’s where I could have done better, and here’s the first lesson for new freelancers starting. I should have better defined the traits and values that were the best fit, based on how I could best meet their needs while also building a sustainable business.
Lesson One: Be honest about how you can best serve your Avatar.
I work best with clients that are relatively self-sufficient and require less direct hand-holding. I’m great with training and advice. I’m terrible at doing menial things that need doing. I prefer working with clients that could jump into WordPress and make a change to their website. It was a win/win when I could teach them, make a video, or write up instructions.
By teaching them, I met their needs, and everyone was happy. However, if they wanted me to make the change for them, I would add it to a never-ending to-do list and get around to it someday, maybe. Probably not.
Knowing my strengths led to happier clients, more money, and less chance of burnout.
Lesson Two: Scale Down to Scale Up
No doubt, at some point, you’ve been made aware of the 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. It says that 80% of the effect is generated by 20% of the cause. In this case, 80% of my income was generated by 20% of my clients. The rest were contributing to burnout.
I took a look at the worst offenders. The ones that called for every little thing. The ones that muscled in on weekend time. The ones late paying or behind. These attributed to about 20% of my total client roster. Over nearly 12 weeks, I raised rates, increased late fees, and implemented after-hours charges. My rationale was that I would either make it worth the cost of doing business with them, or they would go away. All but one went away, and we parted friends.
Acknowledging that I couldn’t do all things for all people was hard, but eventually led to a healthier client roster and a more reasonable work/life balance.
Lesson Three: Be Ruthless When Valuing Your Worth
There’s a great story of a consultant that’s called in to save the day for a company whose operations have come to a crashing halt. The consultant assesses the issue and says, “I can fix the problem for $10,000.” The owner says, “Yes! Yes! I’ll pay whatever, get us back in business!”
The consultant pushes a single button, and the company is back online immediately.
When the company receives the invoice, the business owner calls the consultant and complains, “But you only pushed one button! It seems so excessive.”
The consultant offers to itemize and send over a more explicit version for the business owner.
The consultant adds the following to the invoice:
- Pushing the right button — $1
- Knowing what button to push — $9,999
The owner pays the invoice without another word.
What this illustrates is that many times as freelancers, we suffer from what I call #FOPO, or, Fear of Pricing Out. We undervalue the time and energy it took for us to attain the knowledge we have, and we worry about our Avatar pushing back on our rates and invoices. I’ll share more about how to overcome that in greater detail, but in terms of creating your Avatar, be sure that you consider targeting those that will value your worth.
Avatars Aren’t As Elusive as Unicorns
Once I specified my niche, considered my strengths, and outlined some of the values I shared with the clients I liked doing business with — they paid on time, respected time boundaries, and were reasonably self-sufficient — I created a pretty great worksheet that let me finish out my Avatar.
Some people think of the ideal Avatar as a mythological creature, like a unicorn. I found them to be far less elusive. Knowing precisely who I was chasing, I was able to grow my business with the profitable work I liked doing and was good at, for clients that valued what I did for them. I could set up advertising and marketing campaigns that were so specific that I closed almost every deal. And because the leads were so well-defined, it was work and clients that fit very well. Myth busted.
If you’re a freelancer struggling with burnout, lack of focus or you know you’re not being paid what you’re worth, take a look at your Avatar. It could be a quick key to retooling your business, and getting a host of happy people you serve, paying you what you’re worth, doing the work you love and are good at.