Though I’ve shared pieces of my thinking around freelancing and entrepreneurship, I don’t think I’ve ever explained my paradigm at a high level.
Here’s the thesis: Freelancers need better leverage
Better leverage has become something of an obsession for me.
Back in high school, I wouldn’t have known what that meant even though I was always looking for the best output—an A- or better—with the least input.
- Which tests or projects had the most weight or impact for the grade?
- Which homework assignments did the teacher not take up?
- What about extra credit?
Perhaps a 2-hour bonus project could compensate for studying less and slightly lower grades.
I wasn’t fully aware that I had been solving this input-output equation for each class until the end of my senior year. Our valedictorian, Craig, gave me a compliment: “You know, you could have been valedictorian if you had wanted it.”
Whether or not that was true, Craig’s observation gave me better perspective on myself: I was less interested in being #1 and winning awards than in having more free time to do with as I pleased.
This quirk or aptitude twisted like a golden wire through college and grad school and on into my 6-month stint at a marketing agency and eventual entree into freelancing. As I gained experience as an entrepreneur, mostly through modest triumphs and painful stumbles, I came to understand its value.
Many fields and domains are a hackable puzzle in the same way that solving a Rubik’s Cube is.
The starting configuration may change, from one cube or business to the next, and the seemingly endless variables would seem to create dizzying complexity.
This complexity puts beginners at a disadvantage. However, as John Reed explains in his book Succeeding, amateurs can speed up their progress:
"When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.”
Tim Ferriss offers a good example of what happens when you understand core principles, or to use Tim’s language, when you deconstruct the habits of world-class performers.
Ferriss became a National Chinese kickboxing champion by getting each of his opponents disqualified through a technicality (stepping out of the fighting circle 3 times). He became the first American in history to hold a Guinness World Record in tango (most consecutive turns) not through many years of grueling practice and eventual mastery of the dance form as a whole but by isolating a handful of the most important moves.
Whether you admire Ferriss or not, his exploits present an uncomfortable truth:
The people who work the hardest don’t always get the best outcomes. No, the 80/20 rule is always at play.
And if 20% of your effort produces 80% of your results, why not double down on your most effective effort?
Think of it as strategic laziness.
Instead of relying on the brute force of muscle or time to lift a small boulder out of a hole, you go find a long crowbar (lever) and a small rock (fulcrum) to get better leverage and accomplish the same outcome in less time with less effort.
A lever gives you a mechanical advantage—it’s, er, science—and every business has opportunities for better leverage hidden in plain view. Some leverage points are harder to understand and use. Others are shockingly easy.
Not to get too meta on you, but the concept of better leverage is itself better leverage. Once you know to look, you can figure out where to look.
As I mentioned, a lever gives you a mechanical advantage, and in 2019 I began making a study of what I call “shareable advantages.”
Some of my advantages I simply cannot transfer to you. Though I could share some of what I learned during my B.A. and M.A. programs in Literature, I cannot actually package up those six years of education and experiences and drop them in your memory like a truckload of eggs.
Other advantages have the distinct benefit of being repeatable and transferable—that is, shareable.
Because they have their root in beliefs, principles, and habits, they tend to be evergreen, or non-expiring. They lack the hype of the cleverest, bleeding-edge tactics, yet what they lack in glitter and allure they gain in long-term value. Advantages are like my Bean Boots from L.L. Bean. They don’t win fashion awards, but they have kept my feet dry for over 15 years with zero maintenance.
Those of you who know the difference between knowledge and wisdom, white mushrooms and white truffles, get-rich-quick schemes, and cash-flowing assets will find plenty to get excited about in this list of 15 durable, shareable advantages:
- Your unique mix of skills, work experience, and specialized knowledge (reference “Career Advice” from Dilbert cartoon creator Scott Adams)
- Strong positioning, which I refer to as a “Positioning Cheat Code”
- Client diary of pains and wants, so that you can sell painkillers, not projects
- Nice niche (“nice” or not is defined by 8 specific attributes)
- Juicy offers (offers are different than services and have 7 key pieces)
- Smart, value-based pricing (which breaks the relationship between time and money)
- Well-defined processes (SOPs to achieve scale without sacrificing quality)
- Effective delegation, based on those processes
- Real brand (“real” means tied into a transcendent purpose)
- Daily marketing practice (or, my Morning Marketing Habit)
- Abundance mindset
- Your own audience
- Strategic Simplicity (Simplicity scales; complexity fails)
- Action Bias (taking messy, imperfect action)
- Kindness (a tendency to not burn bridges even when you can justify doing so)
I could keep going, but I’ll stop there. Any of the advantages above will give you better leverage. Better results with less effort.
Levers change with your level. It makes sense, right? A small crowbar serves if you’re pulling nails from old barn wood, but lifting that boulder requires a different tool.
- In finance, you get better leverage with Other People’s Money. To buy a rental property you put down 5% and a bank puts down the other 95%.
- In retail, you get better leverage with distribution channels. If Whole Foods decides to carry your tiny salsa brand, you can 10x sales in a month.
- In technology, you get better leverage with the network effect. The value of the platform or system—whether it be fax machines, Facebook, eBay, or Uber—grows with the number of individual units.
The leaders in every industry find the leverage and use it. For Warren Buffett, it was compound interest. For Sarah Blakely of Spanx, leverage came down to a high tolerance for failure, rejection, and disappointment (in an industry dominated by men) and differentiation (colors, packaging). Testing her prototypes with real women led to superior design as well.
What about freelancers?
- New freelancers get more leverage by pivoting from charging hourly to fixed price, fixed scope projects. That way, the faster you work, the higher your effective hourly rate. You reward yourself for expertise and efficiency.
- Established freelancers get more leverage by pivoting to value-based pricing and creating a Trojan Horse Offer that pays them to do discovery and project roadmapping—something that many new freelancers do for free.
- Veteran freelancers get more leverage by delegating high-frequency, low-leverage tasks to a virtual assistant or specialized subcontractors. They find a Nice Niche where profit margins are fatter, rely on decision-making rubrics to avoid dead-end projects and relationships, and spend significantly more time in their zone of genius (or enjoying replenishing rest).
Once I lay out the progression, the graduating nature of leverage may seem obvious, yet most freelancers don’t hunt for or strategically use better leverage.
I hope I’ve convinced you to start. 🙂