For the past 7 years, I have owned my own business and worked as a full-time freelance consultant for Fortune 500 companies. As part of that experience, I have worked with many other freelance consultants as well. I have seen some be very successful. I am not perfect, and I have had a few slow months here and there, but overall I stay very busy. I also have seen some consultants repeatedly removed from projects or not succeed. What were the distinguishing characteristics of those who succeed and those who fail?
1. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. If you are a rigid person who only likes to do things your way or the “way they should be done”, get ready for disappointment in the freelance business because not everyone will share your standards. In my business, business operations managers put first priority on their business and customers, so any consulting or coaching I do must be flexible based on the demands of the business. The consultants that I know who succeed always recognize that the client’s business and customers come first, and they are flexible within those priorities to accommodate client requests and needs. I am there to serve, not to dictate.
2. Do what the client asks you to do, not what you want to do. We all have our own specialties, sweet spots and stories that are comfortable for us. I have biases and agendas that govern my approach to my work. But when a client is paying my bills, they get to dictate what I say and do. Of course, there always is some flexibility to bring my own self to the task, but the client’s priorities, processes and requests are non-negotiable. It is not my show. It is theirs.
3. Diversify your income streams. In my first three years as a consultant, I was lucky to win the business of a large client that kept my schedule full Monday to Friday of most every week of the year. It was good for my pocketbook in the short run, but it was detrimental to the long-term growth of my business. I settled for the security and comfort of that client’s business while I did not take the steps to build business with other clients or those in other industries. Today, I have over six clients who provide a revenue stream with more than 20 companies, and that allows me to rest a bit better every night because I am not dependent on one source of income for my wellbeing.
Every client has good and bad times economically or organizationally, and work will sometimes dry up for periods even when you are at your very best. For your business to succeed, there must be multiple streams of revenue from a diverse client base or diverse business offerings. If you are good, every client will want to dominate your time, but you must place boundaries around your time to protect yourself and your business today, but most importantly, in the future.
4. Dance with the one who brung ya. Show loyalty to your client by never taking business that belongs to them. A client’s business is the greatest professional honor I can imagine. If they entrust me with that business repeatedly over months or years, why would I try to lure that client’s client or business away to myself or to others? It is true that I don’t show complete loyalty to any one of my clients by working exclusively for them, but I draw the ethical line at any attempt to lure away business that belongs to someone who pays my bills and puts dinner on my table. Does this happen? Shockingly, yes.
5. Don’t complain. Don’t be negative. Don’t be difficult. All projects have their issues and difficulties, and that is just part of doing work together and being human. Sometimes we will disagree, and that is ok too. At times, we have to communicate disappointment, mistakes or unmet expectations to our clients in emotionally intelligent ways. But if your essential “vibe” is Negative Nelly, or you constantly pick over and complain, or you openly challenge the client in a public forum (email or in a meeting), then don’t be surprised when the work goes away (by the way, every consultant that I have seen who is this way has no idea that they are, so you might ask for feedback from other peers or clients). We all want to work with people who delight, challenge and inspire us. If you sap the energy of others or irritate the daylights out of them, they will choose someone more positive and proactive than you.
Do clients say that you delight them or you make things difficult for them? That perhaps is the most important question you can ask yourself as a freelance worker. After all, your clients are your customers. What kind of customer experience are they having with you?
6. Communicate constantly and apologize often. There is nothing worse for your business than not meeting the client’s expectations. If something is getting in the way of serving the client in the way that they expect, communicate immediately and consistently. A mobile device with access to email, texts and calendars at all business hours is an essential tool for success for me and others who manage multiple clients and deadlines. And inevitably, as you serve multiple clients and your headspace is stretched across multiple projects and deadlines, you will make mistakes. Own them and apologize quickly.
7. Learn to say no. We all have to pay the bills, but I am on a journey of learning to say “no” to those projects that are not aligned with my best strengths and my passions. When I say “yes” to clients or projects that are not aligned with my strengths and my passions, I procrastinate, do half-hearted work and complain that I ever signed up for the project in the first place. When I say “yes” to things that are not aligned with me, it crowds my schedule so that I am forced to say “no” to things that come along later that would be much more aligned with who I am and the work I want to do. Every time I said “yes” to something that is not my desire, it was out of fear that nothing else will come along. Trust God, the universe or your good clients (whichever of those works for you) to bring you the work that is close to your heart and strengths. The more you work in that space, the less paying the bills will be a problem. The more you accept work with fear and resentment, the more you will have to worry about paying the bills. That’s just how things work. Confession: Yes, I sometimes take projects to pay the bills that are not tremendously exciting, but I make sure that they do not occupy the majority of my time. I want to work mostly in the place of my passion.
8. Be the expert. In my field of training and learning, I immediately can tell the difference between a consultant who is resting on information they learned in Dale Carnegie in the 1970s and those who are reading the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review. Reading current books, listening to podcasts, joining associations that represent our industries, and attending workshops to expand our expertise are necessary in a world where every business person must be informed, nimble and current. How do you get this done and still make a living by producing? You schedule it. I do not schedule client meetings or calls before 10:00 am because 7:00 am – 10:00 am is my reading, creating and writing time of the day. When I board planes, I do not open my computer or connect to WiFI. I use that time to read the most current books in my field. Every night I check blogs and articles from experts in my field using the Internet aggregator Feedly. It is not a matter of time but intention if you want to be the expert in your industry.
9. Hire an attorney, CPA and coach. You will save yourself thousands of dollars and hours of headaches if you structure your business well, know how to plan your financial future and align your life with your values.
10. Be generous always with everything. A friend but potential competitor needs to know someone in your network or would like to know the designer of your website? Give it to them. There is more where that came from, so trust generosity. Refer other freelance business owners to your network. Eagerly connect others to those they would like to know. They will do the same for you. Begin all client work with a generous question: “How can I best assist you with your priorities?” Lead with generosity. Default to trust. What you give will come back to you tenfold. That’s how the universe works, and how freelance entrepreneurs thrive.
And, finally, if I could add a #11 … Don’t confuse planning with productivity, and don’t substitute marketing for networking. I could write for hours on those two mistakes and their consequences. Quit planning and start producing. If you struggle with procrastination through planning and playing, see the book Linchpin by Seth Godin. Once your website and LinkedIn are in fantastic condition, stop marketing and start networking. The payoff will be so much higher than another day refining your website one more time.
This article is part of a series on the freelance career. See part 1, the myths of the freelance lifestyle.