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The freelance business growth dilemma

How do you grow beyond yourself, when your success is tied to your personal reputation?

All businesses need to grow and evolve, and a freelance business is not an exception. How do I earn more money? How do a attract bigger clients and better projects? The answer to those questions usually involves business growth, especially if you’ve reached a plateau in rates.

But the options for growth of a one-person freelance business are not so straightforward.

I run a successful freelance design business. I’ve been doing it for 17 years. And I’ve been struggling with this issue for most of that time.

In a traditional business structure, employees are somewhat interchangeable. If you lose your designer, you can hire another one with similar skills. If you’re growing your business and bringing in more work than your company can handle, you can hire more employees to expand your resources and range of skills to service those new jobs.

If you run your own indie freelance business, you are not interchangeable with anyone else. At least I hope not! If you are, you haven’t done a good enough job of articulating your value and marketing your services.

As a freelancer business owner, your personal reputation is your business. You’ve build it up over years of professional communication, reliable work ethic, strategic thinking, and world-class deliverables. Clients want to work with you because they know what you deliver.

Until human cloning is a thing, you can’t make another you. So what are your options for business growth that don’t tread on your valuable reputation?

Let’s compare a few options, each with their own pros and cons.

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Partner with an experienced pro who possesses complementary skills

One option is to find another person of similar experience and reputation as yourself, but with complementary skills, and join forces to form a broader enterprise.

Pros

Cons

Choose this option if you want to increase your total service offering to provide more comprehensive, turnkey solutions to clients. Gaining bigger clients and more interesting projects is more important to you than increasing profit.

Partner with an experienced pro with the same skills

Similar to above, you could partner with another experienced pro. But this one has a similar skillset to you.

Pros

Cons

Choose this option if you are currently bombarded with potential work and want to be able to take on much more of the same kind of work. But only if you have a system for clear responsibility and division of labour with your partner.

Hire a junior

Hire a previously educated and trained, but less experienced person, either with complementary or similar skills, and allow them to help you grow your business as they grow their experience.

Pros

Cons

Choose this option if the opportunity presents itself with just the right person who you feel will fit in well and learn quickly. But only if you don’t mind spending more of your time managing projects and other people.

Mentor or apprentice a rookie

If you like the profitability factor of hiring a junior, but worry about being able to find someone who you can trust to maintain your standard of work and business reputation, why not train them yourself? Find a design grad straight out of university, and mentor them to mould them into your ideal business partner.

Pros

Cons

Choose this option if you like teaching, and you’re unsure if you’ll be able to get the skills and experience you need from a junior. It’ll take more out of you at first, but may set you up with an ideal #2 in the long run.

Form a network of independent partners

What if adding to your team of one simply isn’t for you? You can still gain many benefits, like a broader service offering to attract larger clients and projects, through a more informal structure for growth.

Many successful independent creatives are making this work as collaboratives. SuperFriendly by Dan Mall is one such example. They are a collective of freelancers and small agencies who work together as needed to build the right mix of skills for each job.

While I don’t know the inner workings of their setup I imagine it’s quite democratic in nature and flat in structure. Each member must buy in to the idea enough to pledge their availability for the group.

Pentagram has taken this concept even further and more formally. Their agency is a highly successful international organisation — far beyond a casual collective. However the underlying fundamentals of flat management, democratic decisions, and partner ownership/investment is the same. They’ve built something special on the idea of combining the reputations of some of the world’s best designers into a structure that everyone on the inside, as well as the client side, love. It’s a business model that’s still disruptive 40 years later.

Pros

Cons

Choose this option if you aren’t keen on employing others but still want the benefits of working with a larger and more diverse team. But only if you have the organisational skills to conceptualise and sell this vision to others.

My trials, failures, and next steps

The idea that initially stood out to me as the most appealing was to form a collective. I went very close to starting one with Tasman + Pacific. That venture has yet to take off, but not through lack of desire or interest. I simply got too busy to devote enough time to building it. I still hope to get that off the ground one day.

I learned that it’s more difficult to find the perfect people that you might imagine. It takes the just the right kind of entrepreneurial designer, with the right ambitions, at the right point in their career, to buy into that vision. You’ll get ample interest from beginner to intermediate creatives who see it as a step up and a chance to generate new leads. But you’ll struggle to find those at the top of their game who are willing to take a chance on a new idea when they’re too comfortable where they are.

To me it was only an interesting concept if it was a collective of the best and brightest. A chance to form something truly better and disruptive to the agency norm. That’s where the idea really shines. But it takes getting those first few partners on board to build momentum. I never quite got there but I will one day.

More recently I’ve been debating about starting a mentorship or taking on an apprentice. I enjoy teaching under the right circumstances and I feel this path could result in the best trained and most trustworthy business partner. However it comes at the cost of a long period of training. I’m trying to set myself up for that opportunity. It will take substantial planning to make sure the arrangement offers great value to both parties.

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How do you want to grow?

If you’ve been freelancing for a long time and feel like it’s time for growth, consider one of these options. You may feel like there’s potential for bigger projects with better clients. You may want a change of pace or a more collaborative proccess. Or you may simply want to find a way to earn more money. All of these are worthy goals. Choose the growth option that best matches those goals, and start planning the steps for how to make that a reality for your business.

Have better ideas?

I’d love to hear them. If you’ve successfully scaled up your one-person freelance business please share your process.

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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.