There comes the point in every freelancer’s working life when they have to ask themselves that all-important question – should you take the leap into the unknown and grow your business?
At this exciting stage, you’ll no doubt be facing a barrier to expansion – and that’s your own available time and resource to handle increasing workload. If you’re in so much demand, what next? Take on other freelancers? Hire your first member of staff or go into business with someone else?
There are various options, of which we’ll do our best to explore in-depth later. But first, ask yourself this: do you even want to grow? It’s a relevant question that often gets overlooked. Because if you’re making good money, have an excellent reputation and are enjoying repeat business – is there a way you can stay there and continue as a freelancer? These are crucial points to consider, first and foremost.
As many of you will be aware, there’s a global ‘startup’ mentality where we’re all led to believe that we’re only a success if we grow huge, profitable businesses – literally overnight. What’s wrong with slow growth or staying where we are? There is no shame in running your own business – even if it’s just you and a modest income.
Ignore the hype and focus on what you feel is right for you. To help further, consider our cases for and against taking that next step to grow your creative firm.
The case against growth
If it ain’t broke: If freelancing suits you, then why change? For many, it’s an excellent way of life and can provide a decent income based on your terms – at least when you’ve established yourself after a year or two. Growing a business brings new challenges and pressures. Do you want that?
Costs go up and pressure increases: Because you’ll be employing other people, you’ll be pressured to win more work and keep going. If you fantasised about having a more comfortable life to freelancing, that won’t exist when you have staff. Instead, you’ll always be looking for the next client.
Stress levels can rocket: That dirty word stress will rear its ugly head again and again, just as it did when you were on your own. There will be times when you are tearing your hair out and feel very much alone.
Profits can go down, not up: You’re taking on more work and winning more significant projects or clients, so where’s all the money you once enjoyed? Staff, office rent, computers, furniture, software – they all add up. Prepare to take an initial hit when you decide to grow.
You’re more tied down: There’s no more working from home or taking the occasional Wednesday off. Having staff and an office requires complete dedication. You have more responsibilities now and have to play a prominent role in your growing business.
The case for growth
It’s now or never: You’re doing incredibly well and have the chance to build something you can be proud of. Something that will protect your future and ensure you have a good retirement one day.
You’ve nothing to lose: How many times have you worried about failure? Of course, you’ll be scared of taking on staff or bigger projects, but things always work out. People can get other jobs, including you – so there is nothing to fear.
You’re not alone: One of the nicest things about employing other freelancers or taking on staff is that you are no longer alone. You no longer make all the decisions (to a point), and two heads are always better than one.
You can’t risk not going for it: You might be in demand as a freelancer today, but what about tomorrow? Can you risk ‘staying put’? What if the next client doesn’t materialise because you’ve stayed small? Growth certainly lessens the risk of ending up with nothing.
Roads? Where we’re going we don't need any roads: Think of all the exciting possibilities of the next five years. Where will this business take you? Freelancing will only take you so far; running a small agency could turn into something big and profitable, and more importantly – it will be satisfyingly challenging and rewarding.
We've looked at the advantages and disadvantages of growth. Now answer this question: why do you want to grow? Sounds like a simple question but again, it’s something that people don’t consider.
Do you want to make more money? Build something you’re proud of? Are you developing something to sell one day to help with retirement? Or is it about legacy and something you can pass down to your children? Have you found yourself at a crossroads and been forced to consider growth, and never really thought seriously about the consequences?
Humour me and jot down five reasons why you want to move beyond freelancing and grow your business, and then five reasons why not. Pin this sheet of paper to your office wall and let your brain mull over these points until your subconscious points you in the right direction.
If you’ve decided to grow, then what next? There are several ways to increase your capacity and transform from a freelancer to a creative agency. Here are just a few options to consider:
1. Hire other freelancers
It’s the obvious first step to growth – finding other freelancers to help you cope. While this path might seem like the less risky and non-committal option, it can come with its own set of problems.
Freelancers tend to be just as busy as you are and will be faced with the same dilemma of trying to squeeze as much work as possible into each working hour to survive. This can mean that they won’t apply as much time or care to your projects as you’d hoped. This isn’t always the case, but it can be an issue.
Great freelancers do exist, and they can help you during that first gentle step to taking on more clients and projects. The key is to build strong relationships with those you choose to hire and to have robust systems in place to ensure smooth project management and profitable long-term success.
But how do you find reliable consultants in the first place? Regularly go to networking events and creative exhibitions, talk to other freelancers on social media and show your support, get yourself out there on the local circuit and you’ll soon discover potential freelancers to work with. If some of your clients are agency owners, ask them who they’d recommend. Ask around or indeed go direct and introduce yourself.
2. Employ your first member of staff
The other growth option is to employ your first member of staff. Of course, when you worked alone you were in complete control of the quality of your output. Now you’re becoming an ‘agency’; your staff will play a crucial role in maintaining that quality. It’s down to you to ensure standards remain high, so recruiting the right talent is vital.
The first step in your recruitment process should be to prepare a job description that can be used for both hiring and employment purposes. When creating a job description, keep the following in mind:
- List the duties and responsibilities of the job, moving from general to specific. Example: “Will assist agency in creating promotional materials for clients. Duties include editing copy, writing press releases and contacting industry experts and media.”
- State job qualifications and pre-requisites in an objective manner. Examples: “Must have bachelor’s degree” or “Must be proficient in PowerPoint and Quark.”
- Include language indicating that you are an “Equal Opportunity Employer” and that nothing in the job posting or description should be construed as an offer or guarantee of employment.
- Do NOT use language that states or suggests a preference for a particular gender, race, age or other such quality. Example: “Looking for a young, energetic team player.” Both the words “young” and “energetic” suggest an age preference and is likely illegal. Better: “Looking for a hard-working team player.”
Next, you’ll want to find potential candidates. These can be found from several sources, including job fairs, local colleges and universities and online jobs boards.
Finally, when it comes down to the interview process, there are many things to remember. Most importantly, you must not ask candidates about protected characteristics and:
- their health
- if they’re married, single or in a civil partnership
- if they have children or plan to have children
For further reading, check out the UK Government’s advice for Employers on preventing discrimination. Recruitment firm Monster also has some great tips on recruiting and hiring.
3. Partner with another freelancer
The third route to growth is to join forces with another freelancer, creating an agency together. It carries a whole new set of risks and rewards, and so it will require careful consideration. If you’ve found another freelancer you think you’d work well with, consider the following tips before you go into business with them.
Try before you buy
Is there any harm in spending some time working together before you make things official? Could you rent the same office space and share work between you? See how you get on and go from there?
Look for similar values
There’s no point going into business with someone if you don’t share the same values in life. Take time to get to know the other person and consider if you’re compatible, as you would with a romantic partner. Do you both have high expectations? Believe in self-improvement? Have a passion for quality work? Values should be something you share in common before leaping.
Have that difficult conversation
Start your business relationship as you mean to go on and ask the uncomfortable questions right away.
- Will you feel resentful if I sometimes take Fridays off?
- I’ve got a family, and you haven’t, how will we put in the same hours?
- Are you only interested in making money?
- Would you want to grow something and sell it one day?
- Where do you see us in five years?
- What would happen if we no longer wanted to do this?
- What happens if we disagree on something? How will we handle it?
All of the above are just a few examples, but they’re all worthwhile. It’s essential to be upfront and straight-talking from the word go.
Keep talking and being open
Never stop talking. Make communication a priority. Be prepared for the odd disagreement, certainly. But don’t be afraid to speak up. That goes for both partners in the equation. Communication and openness will be the tools of your mutual success.
Find someone who is flexible
If there’s one trait you should hope for – it’s flexibility. Is that potential business partner prepared to compromise? Do they listen to your point of view? Are they reasonable and ready to admit when they might be wrong?
Appreciate that perfection doesn’t exist
Finding the ideal business partner is difficult. Truthfully, it’s impossible. We all have our negative traits and less desirable qualities – so it’s unlikely you’ll find someone who ticks all the boxes. But ideally, you’ll want to find someone:
- you can trust - could you give them the key to your house?
- who’s comfortable in their skin - therefore happy to keep talking, compromise and admit when they’ve messed up
- shares the same values as you.