Taking the Plunge

Let’s be honest. Going freelance or setting up your own agency isn’t the utopia we all thought it would be. We thought it would give us more time with our families. We thought it would mean that we could get rid of that nasty boss. But in reality, we work longer hours than ever before and drive ourselves far harder than our old boss ever could.

In fact, for many of us, our businesses have turned into a hungry monster we have to feed with an endless stream of new work. A monster that eats us up and spits us out.


It doesn’t need to be this way. Our businesses can work for us, rather than us working for our businesses. They can (and should) be facilitating our goals, not the other way around.

To do that, we need a clear vision of what we want from our business.

Establish a Clear Vision

Why did you set up a business? What were you hoping to get out of it? What would success look like to you? Did you want to build something that you could sell to fund your real passion? Or were you just looking for some more time with the family?

It is not enough if your only reason for going into business was because you hated your old job or were made redundant. You need to have a clear vision of what you want to get from your business. If you don’t have that the business will grow wild and become out of control. Before you know it the business will be running you rather than the other way around.

Worst of all it may well start to grow out of control.

Control Your Growth

Growth in a business is often equated to success. If you have so much work coming in that you have to start hiring people, surely that is a good thing? Well, not necessarily. That depends on what you want from the business.

If you are excited by the idea of growing a large, thriving agency then by all means, grow like mad. But the rest of us we need to be careful and manage how we grow.

For example, let’s say that your aim is to work on only the most creative projects. Well, taking on staff could potentially hamper that. Sure, it means you can take on larger projects. But it also means you have to bring more work in. Eventually, this means you cannot be as choosy about which projects you accept.

Maybe you really want more time with the family. Well, the more staff you hire and the more projects you take on, the more pressure you will be under. Don’t get me wrong: A large agency and family life are not mutually exclusive. But you will need to control how you grow or else you risk becoming the bottleneck for your growing agency.

But whether you grow a large agency or choose to remain solo, there’s one firm rule: never stop marketing yourself.

Never Stop Marketing

One of the largest digital agencies and freelancers make is boom / bust marketing. They get too busy or overwhelmed with work, which leads them to stop marketing to focus on delivering client work. Then, because they stop marketing, the leads begin to dry up and so does work. Panic ensues and they and start marketing again which, in time, leads to another busy period.

Many business owners survive for years with this reactive approach to marketing. But it has a large drawback beyond the obvious stress. It becomes harder to turn work away because you cannot be confident new leads will come in. That means you often end up working on projects by necessity, not enjoyment. You want far more offers of work than you can take on so you can cherry pick the ones you most like.

Set aside a percentage of your time to focus on marketing every week and don’t allow it to get pushed out by project work. If you don’t feel you can afford the time, then you may well have to start working smarter.

Work Smarter, Not Longer

When I mentor business owners, they always moan that they do not have enough time. Working evenings and weekends appears to be the norm.  But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Your business will take as much of your time as you allow it. So if you want to work less, you just need to decide to do so. Not overnight, but you need a concerted campaign to reduce your hours each week.

I know what you are thinking – “I will never get everything done!” But that is not true. You will adapt. You will start to find ways to work smarter. You will start creating reusable assets rather than starting from scratch. You will set up repeatable processes. You will become more focused and less distracted.

Yet if you cannot do enough to make ends meet within a reasonable number of hours, it might be time to review your pricing.

Price Realistically

Many business owners live in a fantasy world when it comes to pricing. They look at their overheads and the number of hours available and put together a charge out rate on the back of a napkin. This napkin-sanctioned rate often under estimates the cost of doing business.

You see, it’s easy to overestimate the number of chargeable days we have available. We forget public holidays and vacation time. We don’t factor in the inevitable sick day. But most of all, we forget the huge amount of non-chargeable work involved in running a business. In fact, I work on the assumption only 50% of my working days will be chargeable.

In Review

A business is a complex beast to manage, so review your workflow (and yourself) often. We often need to take a step back and review how we do things in order take back control. But we cannot just do that once – it’s an ongoing exercise. Constant monitoring, both early and often, will prevent your business from becoming an uncontrollable monster that runs your life.

About the Author Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation. He is a leader in digital and user experience strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice. More by this Author