Running an independent business certainly has its perks. You are captain of your own career destiny. You can choose the people you want to collaborate with, and with a little luck—and a lot of hard work—you can pick and choose the clients and projects you want to take on.
Freelancers know it’s a great life; in fact, per a recent study 68 percent say their quality of life improved since they went out on their own. What’s more, a quarter of independents say the No. 1 reason they did so was to have greater flexibility.
As the saying goes, responsibility is the price of freedom—and for freelancers, that price is quite steep. From finding new business leads and developing sales strategies to invoicing clients and managing self-employment taxes, running your own business is a lot of work. Non-billable work, to be specific.
Time is the enemy of ambitious solopreneurs who want to expand their hours devoted to billable work and decrease the hours spent doing operational or admin tasks that can take away from their ability to generate more revenue. At most major businesses, the executive team exists to execute on the company vision and strategy, and they’re supported by several (or perhaps an army of) people who are paid to get things done efficiently.
Solopreneurs have these same needs, but with fewer resources. Here are some quick tips for running your business of one like a well-oiled machine.
Prioritization is the most important skill you’ll learn
As a freelancer, it’s not uncommon to look up from your laptop and realize the time is past 8 p.m. You haven’t eaten dinner, you totally missed your spin class, and you still have that expense report sitting in front of you, just waiting to be completed. You might feel like there are never enough hours in the day, and for many solopreneurs, there simply aren’t!
Ambitious independent workers have visions for their career paths. They want to grow, and whether that means taking on bigger projects, or more clients, it’s always a stretch to get things done to standard and on deadline. As your business grows, so will your to do list. And you might even find that there really aren’t enough waking hours in the day to do it all.
This is why prioritized task management is so important. Some things need to be done right now, but other tasks can wait. Sometimes you can push tasks off a day, a week, or maybe longer, and that’s OK. Remember that prioritization will be your saving grace as a freelancer, and sometimes a little bit of strategic procrastination can be a sanity-saver during particularly busy windows.
Remember that data is your friend
Data isn’t just for giant corporations with layers of employee data to track and optimize. In fact, data can be just as powerful when you’re a business of one. One way to ensure you are optimizing your working hours is to keep close tabs on the actual time spent against various tasks.
Using a time tracker (AND CO has a super easy-to-use time tracking tool that even syncs with invoicing to kill two birds with one stone) is imperative if you are working on multiple projects across several clients. Say you are splitting billable hours across five clients, each with a different scope. Tracking your time against each project will ensure you’re putting in fair and accurate work against each client. More realistically, it will help you avoid “scope creep,” or instances in which the volume of work or revision cycles exceed what you’re getting paid to do.
In Daniel Kahneman's book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” he discusses something he calls the “planning fallacy,” that is, the tendency to grossly underestimate how long it takes to complete a specific task. Why? Because as confident and competent independent workers, we tend to overestimate our own capabilities with regard to speed. We think we can do it all, because we want to do it all. Without diligently tracking our time and using this data to inform future scopes, we risk working for free—arguably the No. 1 mistake a freelancer can make!
Templatize and optimize
With data at your disposal, you’ll gain a clearer perspective into how long certain projects and individual tasks will take you to complete. Over time, your proposed client scopes should get smarter and more accurate. The data, combined with your experience, will help ensure expectations are better managed and met.
As your freelance career progresses, you will find that certain projects feel easier. That’s because you are crystallizing a sweet spot comprised of those clients and engagements that best line up to your talents and work style. Pay attention to the patterns. Lean into when things feel “right” or “easy,” and develop a templated approach to future engagements so you can replicate what’s working.
For example, if you’re contracting as a communications expert, perhaps there are documents you can reuse across each of your clients: marketing architectures, creative briefs, recap decks, and more can be templatized to save you time in the long run. Be flexible to optimizing these over time as you learn horizontally from your partners and collaborators. If you stumble upon a better way of doing something, implement it. By continuously optimizing, you’ll continue developing and growing in your career, and as an added benefit, you’ll save yourself loads of time along the way.
Know when to say, “No”
Going back to Kahneman's “planning fallacy,” you might want to do it all, but that doesn’t mean you can. All business are limited by resources, and your freelance business is certainly no different. A common mistake among newly-minted independents is to take on too much as their businesses gain momentum. This can lead to over-stress, a decrease in the quality of your work and unhappy clients—all of which can threaten the future livelihood of your career.
Knowing when to say “no” is tough, especially since many of us subscribe to the philosophy that it’s important to strike when the iron is hot. Pushing yourself to take on bigger and broader challenges is a positive step, and perhaps the reason you went freelance in the first place, but you should always be realistic with yourself. Instead of piling on more work, look for ways to optimize your billable work (e.g. by using templates) and automate the non-billable tasks that eat up time that might otherwise be spent on paying projects.
Being a successful freelancer is as much about excelling at the talents your clients pay you for as it is about being the best task manager you can be for your own business. Fortunately, you’re not alone. Communities like Freelancers Union, tools like AND CO’s freelance utility app, and countless other resources exist to help you get there.
Katie Perry is editor at AND CO, an app that helps freelancers, solopreneurs and digital nomads manage their operations. For the latest and greatest freelance gigs each week, check out The Gig List by AND CO.
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