June 29, 2015
From Freelance to Agency, Eleven Steps to Success
Freelancers across the world started their own business on the basis of working under independent constraints and conditions.
Being your own boss, establishing your own schedule and working the type of work you really enjoy doing is what makes the freelancing route so glamorous. With this freedom, comes some pitfalls a lot of regular employers would normally handle for you. If these hurdles are dealt with correctly they can allow any freelancer to develop a long-lasting career.
I myself fell into the role of being a freelancer by accident. I quit a job I wasn’t happy with and didn’t have a fallback. While looking for a new job I began taking on new clients to help pay for bills. Little did I know that I would never really need to find that job I was looking so hard for. It was right in front of me. My skills improved, I learned new things, and more clients came to me for help. Everything feels in place and because of that, I feel very lucky.
If the business is good and you have a lot of work coming in you have to ask yourself what comes next? You really can’t handle all the work yourself. So what do you do?
At this point, you have to consider your options. Transitioning from an independent freelancer to an agency is a pivotal step that can either make or break your business. This article is meant to give you an overview of ways to do it right as well as obstacles to avoid along your way.
1. Develop a Business Plan
Going into a business without a plan is an instant recipe for disaster. So many businesses fail because little preparation was done from the beginning. There will always be problems. Your job as the business owner is to find the solutions. Finding as many solutions from the start is how to achieve success and this is why customers come to you for whatever work, service or products you provide.
Clients want to feel a sense of security when working collaboratively. You need to establish that bond and coach them in the right direction, doing so in a way that promotes good business etiquette.
Working on your business model will allow you to stay on course at all times. Deciding what services you will offer, what industry you will pertain to, or even how much products will cost are all important things to think about when getting your business off the ground as well as keeping it afloat.
2. You Can’t Have An Agency Without Clients
To operate a successful business, it should be a no-brainer that you need clients. Depending on your services or offerings, you don’t necessarily need a large number of clients but enough to cover costs and hopefully make a profit.
Some freelancers think that to start an agency you need the team, equipment, location, and more before you can truly begin. That theory is the farthest from the truth. You need clients to start an agency and you should never start elsewhere. If you’re freelancing and making the switch to an agency, you really only should if your availability is so sparse that you need help with the work. Having clients as well as co-workers to handle their requests is crucial to getting anywhere you want to be with your business.
You need clients to start an agency and you should never start elsewhere.
Your clients don’t care how the work is done or if you have a fancy office or computer. The final result is all they care about and how it can help them pursue and succeed in their own business.
3. Decide Where Your Strengths Are And Focus On Them
I found out on my own that you really can’t be a freelancer or agency that is good at everything. Some agencies prefer specific niches when targeting their customers or clients. This works best because if you are the best at something, you will be known for it and it will show in your work.
Say your agency builds websites and apps as a general focus. Do you think it would be wise to offer something like screen printing services too? Sure it’s possible, but if you are better at building websites and apps then that is what your customers will come to you for, thus eliminating the need to offer other services.
A lot of times a client or customer may ask for a request that you don’t know how to provide or do. In this case, you will need to call upon someone who does. Outsourcing or subcontracting happens all the time. Don’t be afraid to say yes to something before you know if it is indeed possible first. Having other colleagues or freelancers in mind for specific duties is always smart as your agency progresses. You can call on them for advice or ask questions when applicable.
This can be a double-edged sword because sometimes saying yes can hurt you. Typically, the experience will hold true in a situation like this. Use your best judgment when making deals with new clients or customers.
4. Establish Ways To Communicate Effectively
Modern technology has made communication extremely feasible no matter where you are in the world. Whether on a device or near a computer, you can get in touch with virtually anyone at any time. This factor means there is no excuse not to communicate with your co-workers within your own agency.
Communicating with clients can happen the same way. Tools like instant messaging apps, project management software, video chatting and more are all widely accepted forms of communication these days. You can now have clients all over the world which is such a powerful advantage to have, depending on the type of products or services you provide.
Years ago you would either need to meet with a client face to face or talk over the phone. Those methods still hold true today (and should be utilized), but the need to always communicate in a specific way is non-existent anymore.
Some useful communication-based apps I’m a big fan of:
5. Contract or Hire
There’s no doubt that there will be times you may have to seek other professionals to pick up the pace for your business or just to solve a problem you don’t know how to solve yourself. You can always hire people but that sometimes gets expensive fast. Depending on the clients and work coming in it should be pretty black and white which way to go.
When starting out, subcontracting would make much more sense than hiring anyone only unless it was a team-based agency from the start. More employees mean more bills and overhead costs to keep track of just to keep the lights on.
If you have many clients and many projects adding more team members is a great route to take to grow rapidly as a business. Starting an agency is essentially what this all entails.
6. Let Apps Work For You, Not Against You
Apps like I mention earlier can be a great way to save some time and be more productive in an agency setting.
Unfortunately, I’ve often found there is such a thing as app overload. By this I mean, having so many apps in your arsenal that you end up spending all your time updating or using them rather than doing actual work. Your clients may be more familiar with different apps as well, so to make things easier, you may have to adapt to their process temporarily. This leaves you with so many apps to track that so much time is lost.
If you can, stick to a handful of tools that allow you to work smarter, faster, and be more efficient as a team. If you’re aggravated by one app, scrap it and try another. We live in an app-based world now. There’s an app for everything. Be sure and use the ones that work for you, not against you.
Some apps I make use of with many different clients are listed below. If I had my way I would only use one project management/issue tracking tool but to make things easier on the client I got familiar with their own tools for their benefit.
7. Blog and Promote Yourself
If your agency is just getting off the ground then nobody has probably heard of you yet. Blogging is a great way to start some self-promotion about how your agency can solve problems your target audience is looking for.
These days most people solve a lot of problems or answer a lot of their own questions by googling it. We all rely heavily on this search engine to find goods, services, and answers instantly.
Using a blog to provide a constant flow of rich content will start to show up in search results. The next time someone finds a solution, chances are they will land on one of your website’s pages.
If you work with clients or customers locally, you will have to go about things differently. While it will still be beneficial to have an online presence, you will need to focus more on localized advertising and networking.
Attending local meet-ups or conventions can increase the exposure of your agency’s name. It is up to you to provide a memorable experience during times like these and if done correctly, over time you will start getting more clients or referrals.
Both of these tactics are a lot of work. Over time they are proven to provide great results but you have to understand that these results are not immediate. A blog, for instance, takes a long time to gain traction and dedicated followers. In my case, Web-Crunch started only this year(2015). I don’t expect it to gain a lot of traction until at least a year from now. The key to all of it is consistency. If you can continue to build, write, produce, or create then someday it will hopefully pay off.
8. Have Open Discussions or Weekly Sprints
Meetings can be a drag. Most seem unproductive as hell but really, once a week it is good to assess where all of your projects are. Consider this meeting a status type of sit down. It rarely needs to belong but checking in making sure there are no major problems or issues with anyone you’ve hired.
Some teams work in specific realms and do sprints where there is a daily meeting for a short period to discuss progression, problems and more. To me, these feel like a bigger waste of time than say a meeting to review a new design. In the end, it all depends on the context at hand. Meetings are good for the sake of discussion. Multiple brains mean multiple ideas and hopefully more intelligent solutions to any problem your agency will face.
When coming from the freelance world, you have to learn to work well with others rather than on your own. This itself can be a hurdle but if planned correctly you can still maintain your independence and get a lot of work done.
9. Assign Roles and Responsibilities From The Start
For freelancers, everything is up to the individual to be successful. Administrative tasks, billing, taxes, work and more are all part of the job.
In an agency setting, responsibilities have to be shared. To be as efficient as possible, specific roles and tasks will need to be addressed per team member.
Typically, agencies hire based on talent, qualifications, and a good culture fit. If your specific skill set is design, for example, you will be classified as the designer at so-and-so agency. This title gives you a duty to fulfill in order to work together with other key members of the agency.
Assigning these roles and duties from the start will prove to be beneficial so there is no conflict between employees or clients. Some apps can make all of this way easier to track and refer to. Trello, Jira, Basecamp, and many others allow people with an account to assign roles, duties, due dates, and more to stay on track towards success.
10. Share Thoughts, Ideas, and More on Social Media
Social media is a gold mine full of information. While a lot of the information you find has nothing to do with your industry or your efforts to transition from freelancer to agency, a lot of content is there to help you on your journey.
I discover way more apps, news, and events through social media than finding it on my own. Users post links to great articles or subjects pertaining to how to solve problems they are facing in a given moment.
Twitter, from my own personal experience, has the most informative and useful content. Something about having a character limit makes users cut to the chase with what they are trying to share with their followers.
Using social media as a new agency is crucial. In fact, if you were/are a freelancer this is something you should have been utilizing from the very beginning of your career. The expression
“Sharing is caring”
says a lot about social media and its contributors. People who are passionate about what they do will almost always share it with their colleagues and friends. Doing this promotes a revolution of sorts to get other people on the right path towards success.
11. You Don’t Need Office Space
A remote workforce is still a workforce in my opinion. Too many companies think that in order to do business you have to have everyone in the same place. There is also a common misconception about productivity in the workplace. Most employees have a turn-off point where they just aren’t productive. The stereotypical 9-5 workday really means that your employees may work less because they have too. Forcing anyone to do something is a recipe for disaster. A solution is to offer flexible work schedules and patterns to each individual. Doing this creates variety in their schedule, which in most cases, helps someone not feel overwhelmed or burnt out with their job. It also promotes productivity and gives a sense of freedom which is what everyone wants.
Working from wherever you want is completely possible in this day and age. Old technologies and new make it easier to communicate than ever before. Apps from Google and Microsoft make communication as easy as the press of a button.
If an agency is completely remote I’m not saying face-to-face time doesn’t need to happen. Once in a while, this is a great way to get to know who you work with more. Discovering more about each of your team members is a good way to break down any new barriers that may present themselves with an agency. Scheduling outings or just annual meet-ups give each employee a sense of belonging. Going this route reminds any remote-based employee who they are working for. It also communicates to the team that all the work being contributed is a team effort.
Buying or renting space may seem like something that needs to take place to make your agency a “ true agency”, but realistically you don’t need to go this route at all. Anymore it seems as though it is just a matter of preference to work onsite.
Co-working spaces are popping up in nearly every city. You can rent space for however long you want rather than having to worry about paying a monthly lease. If you need to meet a client and work together for a day, co-working spaces make it possible. Check with your city or freelancing community to find one near you.
Freelancing is hard. Starting an agency is harder. Deep down most people who work for an employer will always view freelancing as a walk in the park compared to what they do. This stereotype, although annoying, is one any freelancer must always face.
Making the switch from freelancing to an agency is a big step. It introduces new responsibilities you may have not planned for. If it’s your agency, no longer are you doing the work, but are rather overseeing operations and making sure everything and everyone is happy. Do you think you are ready to make the switch?