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Build your freelance business on values

Success and money will come if you stick to what you believe in.

A few weeks ago I caught up with a colleague, Richie, to suss each other out as potential collaborators (it’s good to do continuous networking of that kind, even if those relationships can take months or years to bear fruit). He’s a long-time self-employed business owner like myself. We chat over lunch to get to know each other’s businesses and what makes us tick. Discussion ranged from clients, tools, processes, and technology, but what we kept circling back to was this:

Working with clients and collaborators who’s values align with yours is the most important aspect of building a successful service business.

If you run your own independent service business, your life-blood is your clients. It should be no surprise that the clients you choose to engage with have a huge impact on the success of your work and trajectory of your business. Yet so many self-employed creatives accept any work that comes their way, without giving enough thought to the impact those decisions have.

You probably have more choice than you realise. Use it! Here’s why…

You do your best work when you’re passionate about the cause.

If you take the time to deeply understand your client’s business needs (and don’t be afraid to advise at the business strategy level if you have something genuinely useful to add) you’re not only providing your client more value, but you’re also getting yourself more invested in the outcome of the project.

In my industry of design — and all other services, whether they are creative or not — there’s no denying that you perform best when you’re passionate about what you’re working on. When there’s some personal connection or deep interest that drives you to deliver your best effort, it’s a win-win for everyone. You get more fulfilment and pride from your work, and your client enjoys an exceptional end-result and a relationship of exceeded expectations.

If, on the other hand, you don’t genuinely believe the value in what you’re working on, it’s easy to slack off, deliver just enough, and move on the next (hopefully better) job. We’ve all been guilty of doing that at some point.

Choose project’s that align with your strengths, interests, and values, and your work will — more often than not — feel like a joy.

Work with good people, and it almost doesn’t matter what the project is.

This sounds like it contradicts the point above, but hear me out.

What’s the most frustrating part of freelance business? Most people would say dealing with bad clients, right? Clients that are rude or too demanding, clients who don’t respect or value you work, and clients who lack communication skills or are unreliable.

On the flip-side, when you work with really good clients, your projects seem to glide along with half the effort, and everyone remains happy and eager to work together again.

If you choose to align yourself with clients who share the same values as you, it almost doesn’t matter what the project is, because working with them will be such a joy. That doesn’t mean take on a project that’s completely out of your skill range, or is the type of work you’ve historically disliked. You should continue to use your good discretion. But these types of clients can be given more leeway.

Even better, if the client AND the type of project are both aligned with your values, you’ve hit the jackpot.

When I say “share the same values”, you could interpret that in many ways. I’m primarily looking for an alignment in business values and professionalism. Also things like ethics, a meaningful business strategy, and a sound product purpose. I want to believe that the client will be professional and easy to work with, but also that their project has potential for success and is worth pursuing.

I look for clients who share my same demand for frequent communication and professionalism. Clients who look at the world of business and design similarly to how I do. And clients who’s ethical compass is close enough to mine (e.g. I wouldn’t work for a tobacco company, a gun manufacturer, or a right-wing nationalist politician). I also wouldn’t work for a business, or help develop a product, if I think their goals or strategy are flawed and doomed to fail no matter how well I perform my role (unless, of course, I can help them turn things around and improve those goals).

For you, the most important values may be different. Maybe they’re religious, or political, or social. It doesn’t matter what those values are, so long as they are important to you and you can identify them in potential clients.

Are you working for cost-clients or value-clients?

Knowing the difference will mean everything to your freelance business.

Work of one kind leads to more of the same.

Have you ever had that one project in your portfolio that seems to multiple into a mountain of similar clients or projects coming your way? Most of us have. That might be a blessing if you love that type of client and project, or it could be a curse if you’re not keen on doing more of the same. You don’t want to get pigeon-holed into something you’re not passionate about.

It’s a simple truth that what you do, especially if you do it well, will lead to more of the same. So you need to be doing what you want more of! If you’re choosing projects that don’t align with the direction you want your business to go, think again. They may be giving you short term income, but at the expense of steering your clientele in the wrong direction.

You’ll never regret saying “no” to the wrong work

…because it gives you more time to accept the right work.

Saying no to clients who don’t align with your values and interests, projects that don’t align with your strengths, or simply work that doesn’t fit within your schedule, is the single most important factor in running a low-stress independent service business.

Every project you take on can mean one or two other projects you have to turn down. If you’re stuck doing a frustrating project with a client you don’t jive with, you might be in a position where you have to later turn down work you’d love because you’ve regretfully committed your time to something else. If that something else isn’t bringing you joy now, and it’s not helping steer your business in the direction you want it to grow in the future, then you’ve gotten nothing out of it but a bit of money.

You’ll never regret saying no to the wrong work. In 17 years I never have. The only thing I have regretted is saying yes a few too many times to the wrong work, and later realising it wasn’t worth it.

Well-aligned clients become long-term partners.

Most freelance business owners stress out more about their project pipeline than anything else. Where is my next project coming from? It can be exhausting constantly hunting for more work. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Having repeat clients is one great solution to the common feast-or-famine cycle. Client’s who share your values and interests tend to become long-term, trusted business partners, who return to you again and again with more work. Cherish those relationships. They are gold. Polish them up with every chance you get because you could be cashing in on them for the next decade or longer (I have a few clients who I’ve worked with for 8–10 years or more).

Not to mention, those are the types of clients who most frequently refer others to you via word-of-mouth.

The longer you work with the same client, the more efficient and enjoyable the process also becomes. You get to know instinctively what you need from them and what they need from you, so the more you collaborate the easier each project gets. Easier generally means more enjoyable and more profitable.

Being selective is a privilege.

It’s a privilege of being in-demand. Most self-employed business owners won’t have that kind of privilege when they are first starting out, and that’s OK. There will be times where you have to accept nearly every project that comes along, and I suppose that’s your way of “paying your dues”.

The good news is, this privilege isn’t one you can be born with or given by someone else. It must be earned. It may take many years of hard work, exceptional service, reputation building, and savvy networking before you can give yourself the privilege of being highly selective in your clients.

Maintain a laser-focused vision towards earning that privilege. It might be the single most important thing you do for your indie business. If it means occasionally sacrificing short-term income to play the long game, take the risk whenever you can afford it. It’s an investment in your business that will pay off ten-fold later.

Once you’ve earned that privilege, freelancing goes from an unpredictable struggle to a secure, enjoyable, and “free” career. After all, that’s why you started freelancing in the first place, isn’t it?

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 17 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

MediumTop writer in Design, Business, and Entrepreneurship.