By Ryan Oakes

A freelancer for 25+ years, Ryan Oakes says he’s never had a “real” job. His childhood interest in magic turned into a globe-trotting career with a long list of blue-chip clients. Ryan has been profiled in numerous media, including Forbes FYI and The New York Times, and he is soon to be the instructor of Freelancers Union’s next educational event in NYC! In this guest blog post, Ryan shares some of his expertise on planning for growth.

Growing up as a child, if you outgrew a pair of sneakers you'd likely go with your parents to purchase a new pair. Yes? Rarely, if ever, did you plan ahead and purchase a pair of sneakers in the size larger, anticipating the next "stage" of your foot development. That's a fine way to manage growth when you're talking about a pair of sneakers, but what about your business? That's an entirely different situation, but all too often we treat it the same way — we don't go out and buy new "shoes" for our business until our current situation is virtually unbearable.

The reason for this behavior, I think, is because we tend to only think of growth in stages, or "periods of growth". We tend to ignore growth signals until we are absolutely crippled by the growing pains. Why can't we train ourselves to foresee these pains and plan accordingly? We're constantly growing as freelancers and need to make planning for that growth a part of our day-to-day operations… starting from Day One. Planning for growth takes many forms, but quite possibly the most important form of planning is your business plan. You do have a business plan, don't you?

If not, let's take a step back. When we began to think about the topics that needed to be covered in a "Planning for Growth" workshop for fellow freelancers, an intriguing question popped up: At what point are you no longer a "freelancer" but a "business"? There are a number of ways to answer this question; perhaps you think you've become a business once you are incorporated, or once you begin to hire sub-contractors or employees, or when you rent office space, or when you start selling physical products. All those would be true of a business, however I believe you are a business the moment you begin to even freelance. You are in business with yourself, and consequently, that business needs a business plan.

Depending on your situation there could be any number of reasons for why you've become a freelancer (you wanted more freedom, you wanted more diversity in your work, you were laid off, you changed careers, etc), but regardless of the reason, becoming self-employed means you are selling your services, and that's a business that needs a business plan, regardless of your goals.

Rarely do I meet another self-employed "freelancer" who has taken the time to truly write out a business plan. Perhaps that's because in today's day and age there are companies without any apparent business plan (or revenue) that are getting snapped up for billions of dollars (I'm looking at you, Instagram). I assure you though, those companies have a business plan. A loose one, mind you, but a plan nonetheless. And you need one too. It won't guarantee that Zuck will come knocking on your door someday, but it will put you on the right path.

It's possible that you already have a general idea of where your clients will come from, what kind of money you might earn, and how you'll generate work for yourself, but there are innumerable benefits to actually going through the process of writing a simple business plan that you can reference and adapt as your business grows. It's basic strategy that will help guide you through the ebbs and flows of freelance entrepreneurship.

There are plenty of excellent resources online on how to write a simple business plan, my favorite being the SBA's guide found here. It doesn't have to be some fancy shmancy multi-page document written in legalese; in fact, it can just be a one page conversational letter explaining what you do and how you expect to get paid for it. In its most elementary form, however, a thorough business plan should define your services (along with your strengths/weaknesses), define your client base, outline your connections and marketing ideas to the client base, outline the financial side of your business (start-up costs, potential income, etc), and finally, set realistic sales targets (measured by dollars, number of clients, etc).

Don't sweat out writing a business plan, because it'll most likely evolve as your business grows. Unless you are looking for a loan or investors, no one’s ever going to even see it. But that's not an excuse not to write one! It's a vital tool you'll use to visualize your goals and focus your business efforts as you navigate your plans for growth. That said, if you don't have a business plan, chances are you aren't doing much planning for growth. And if you're not planning for growth, chances are your business is stagnating, or even worse, deteriorating. Hey, if the shoe fits…

Follow Ryan Oakes at ryanoakes.com or on Twitter @ryanoakes.

Freelancing in New York? Learn more about building your business from Ryan at Planning for Growth: Building a Successful Freelance Future, held on February 18 from 6:30 – 8:30. RSVP today.