My liberal arts education taught me how to write and think—both incredibly valuable—but I never saw a “How to Make Money As a Writer” course offered.
Six years of post-secondary enrichment passed without anyone enlightening me on actually paying my bills. Despite strong writing and lucid thinking, I capered and stumbled forward with the business side of things.
I hacked together some rough processes but assumed, without fully realizing it, that a big part of the value I was delivering was through bespoke work and wide-roaming creativity.
Weren’t clients paying me for a certain kind of meandering waste? Wasn’t that how the best ideas supposedly originate?
Freelance writing was more collecting wild grapes than snipping off heavy bunches of cultivated ones.
It wasn’t until 2018, when I read Build a Business, Not a Job by David Finkel and Stephanie Harkness, that I realized the error of my ways.
That book changed a lot for me. Other books like The eMyth, Clockwork, Built to Scale, and Traction all talk about more or less the same thing: the benefits of clearly defined processes.
For freelancers, time is money. You can’t sell time inventory you don’t have.
So you have to learn how to move upstream to the sweet waters of premium pricing, and charge more per project.
And you have to spend LESS time on any discrete task in order to complete a project to your own and the client’s satisfaction in LESS time, cumulatively, and therefore preserve MORE time that you can turn around and invest in another project. Or restore that Pinto in your garage. Or finish your children’s book. Or learn Arabic. Or whatever.
You can’t nurse inefficiency like some kind of secret elixir to excellent creative outcomes and also expect to have a simple, sturdy, scalable business in any meaningful sense.
Here is an incomplete list of the drawbacks of murky, squishy, ambiguous processes that live exclusively in your head:
- No matter how sharp you are you’ll still forget crucial tasks and steps.
- You’ll always have to worry about what you might be forgetting.
- You really can’t trust anyone else because how are they supposed to read your mind?
- You can’t delegate effectively.
- You can’t guarantee a certain client experience because it’s not clear to you or the client what the outcomes or experience even are.
- You’ll waste time through inefficiency, extra meetings and emails, extra revisions, and rework. A really tight onboarding form could have accomplished the same thing better than the one or two extra meetings at the front of the project. And so on.
Structure supports abundant growth.
The trellis is to the grapevine what documented (and closely followed) processes are to a freelancer.
This list illustrates just how many processes freelancers need to stay sane:
- How do you put yourself out there and make marketing a priority?
- How do you get new project leads?
- How do you manage them once they’re in your pipeline?
- How do you price and package your services as juicy offers to increase the perceived value?
- How do you sell clients on working with you and win projects?
- How do you navigate project scoping and proposals?
- How do you approach payment schedules and agreements?
- How do you create invoices and get paid?
- How do you onboard clients once they have paid?
- How do you keep the project on the rails?
- How do you communicate with clients through the project?
- How do you handle revisions and any scope creep?
- How do you ask for and receive feedback?
- How do you wrap up projects and deliver the goods, so to speak?
- How do you ask for testimonials and referrals?
- How do you remember to keep in touch?
No wonder newcomers goggle at this thing called freelancing like foot soldiers staring up at the wall of a fortress that some wackadoodle general is insisting they climb!
Where does one even begin with defining processes? Where’s the first handhold? (Meanwhile, some indistinct enemy above overturn a pot of boiling pitch on your head. Yay.)
Most freelancers do exactly what I did for the better part of 9 years. You improvise. You make it up. Over time processes accrete like stalagmites. They’re not particularly strong, attractive, or useful.
Here’s the real problem with them: Organic processes and unconstrained creativity don’t serve freelancers nearly as well as designed, documented processes.
Or, to put it another way, continuously improving your processes yields better results than improvisation. Better structure produces higher yields.
So what is my recommendation to you?
- Start by picking the project you do most often.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes and list out every step you can think of for each phase: a) onboarding and setup, b) ideation and planning, c) implementation, d) client feedback and quality control, and e) wrap-up. You may think of other distinct project phases to add.
- Reset the timer for 15 minutes and think of any of these projects that didn’t go well. See if in the misty recesses of your memory you can remember those valuable insights, those gold coins. What should you always do moving forward? Add anything you think of to your freshly minted SOP. For example, I learned that sending a draft over for review and ending the email with “Let me know what you think” opened the door to all kinds of vague, unhelpful feedback. More specific questions and guidelines elicited better feedback (and created fewer headaches for me).
- List out other projects you do, and assign a date in your calendar for repeating this 30-minute exercise. Shoot for one new SOP a week. No need to overdo it.
The sooner you start investing in a stable business structure and clearly defined processes, the sooner you produce better creative outcomes for clients and higher effective hourly rates for yourself.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
- Freelance Fixes. This short guide walks you through 6 small but important “fixes” that you can make to raise your income without working longer hours. People really seem to like it.
- Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make 6 figures as a freelancer.
- Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.