Eight strategies to grow your freelance business

Making more money is perpetually on the list of goals for many freelancers. And even if you’re satisfied with your freelance earnings, you still need to pay attention to maintaining those profits, which means getting new clients or additional revenues to make up for client attrition over time.

When big companies want to grow, they have a variety of strategies they can use: entering new markets, launching new products, pumping more money into their marketing efforts, or even buying other companies. All of these strategies, though, require considerable money, time and expertise that most freelancers don’t have.

Every freelancer’s growth strategy is unique. But here is a universal framework that can be used by any self-employed knowledge worker or microbusiness owner (or, really, any company).

Growing revenue and profits

Though you may think about your growth plan in terms of “getting more clients” or “doing more projects,” your real goal is probably to grow revenue and profits. Getting clear about this is important, as it helps reveal all of the ways you could grow your business — some of which may not even require doing more work.

All revenue growth strategies boil down to two approaches:

  • Earn more from existing clients/customers
  • Increase the number of clients/customers you have

When it comes to increasing your profits (the amount of revenue you have left over once you’ve paid your expenses), you’ve got the above two options plus a third — cutting costs. We’re going to focus on growth instead of cost-cutting since most consultants, freelancers and self-employed professionals probably have pretty low costs already and there’s more potential on the growth side.

Earning more from existing clients

The easiest growth strategy is to earn more money from existing customers and clients. Why is this easier? Because they already know you and have already agreed to buy from you at least once. It should be easier to persuade them to buy from you again.

There are two ways to grow your revenues and profits from existing clients:

  • Charge more.
  • Do more work for them.

In fact, you can do both of these things — charge your existing clients more and also do more work for them. Since every microbusiness and freelancer is unique, I’m not going to be too prescriptive here, but here are some approaches to consider:

Strategy 1: Raise your rates

You shouldn’t do this with new clients, but if you’ve had a client for a few years and they’re happy with your work, try telling them that at a certain date in the future you’ll be raising your rate. Explain to your client that you enjoy working with them, but that your costs have risen (inflation, etc.) and you’ve gotten busier. You might be surprised at how easy it is to get a “no problem” from your client, especially if you’ve got a solid relationship and they’ve been happy with your work.

It is good to be prepared for some pushback, though, so you might want to go into this conversation with a few points to support your position. For example, how do your fees compare to others in your industry — are yours lower? Make the point that because you’ve worked so long with them, you understand their business, are able to work more efficiently for them and therefore offer more value.

If they balk, you might consider breaking your increase into two parts — half this year and half next year — to make it easier for them to swallow. If that doesn’t work, you might still agree to continue working at your current, lower rates, but caution them that because you’re busy there may come a time when you’re not as available.

Obviously, you want to be careful with these discussions. Take them one at a time, starting with the clients you feel are likely to be most open to an increase and go from there.

These kinds of negotiations may feel uncomfortable to you. The key is your mindset: You’re not an employee asking for a raise; you own an independent business and you’re negotiating with one of your buyers. Your economic interests are just as important as your client’s. That said, be polite, professional and friendly as you go into these conversations, and make sure they’re happy with your work.

Strategy 2: Do more work for existing clients

Doing more for existing clients is one of the easiest ways to earn more money. As with increasing your rate, I’m starting here with the presumption that you’re doing good work and the client is satisfied with it. If that’s the case, why not simply ask if there is more work they need done? Tell the client you have some extra time available, that you enjoy the work that you’re doing and would like to do more.

In fact, as you work with all of your clients, you should keep your eyes and ears open for other projects or needs you might be able to help with. When you see those opportunities, ask about them.

The key here is not to be pushy — nobody likes that. Instead, ask questions about these potential opportunities: What’s the goal with that project? Why are you undertaking it? When do you hope to complete it? Is it something I could help you with?

Strategy 3: Do different kinds of work for existing clients

In addition to doing more of what you’re already doing, you can also take on new responsibilities that align with what you’re already doing. In some cases, this is simply a matter of letting clients know that you have additional skills you could put to work for them.

A copywriter with decent photography skills might offer, for example, to handle headshots and product photography for marketing materials that she’s already writing copy for. A web developer might offer to help a client design email templates or pitch-in with SEO efforts or web analytics. A freelance media planner might offer to take on project management duties for an upcoming ad campaign.

Of course, it’s important to only undertake work that you can do well for your clients. That means you have the skills, knowledge, time and resources to handle them.

Strategy 4: Bring partnerships to your client

In some cases, you may know that your client has additional needs that align with what you’re already doing, but you don’t have the skills to handle that work. In that case, you might profit from a partnership strategy.

In this case, you’d partner with another trusted freelancer who does have the skills your client needs, and then you’d offer that person’s services to your client to provide additional value. You can earn some extra money for this by charging to manage the other person’s activities and even billing — operating as a sort of micro-agency. Your client gets the additional services without having to worry about another freelancer that needs to be managed.

If you’re also going to handle the money in these relationships — so your client pays you and you pay your freelancer partner for their portion of the work — you can charge your client a higher rate for those other services and pocket the difference. Here’s how that works.

Let’s say you’re a freelance social media strategist and you’ve partnered with a copywriter to provide your client with landing-page copy. The copywriter charges, let’s say, $90 per hour. You charge your client $110 per hour for the copywriter’s time, and then you pocket the difference — $20 per hour.

What did you do to earn that extra $20 per hour? Plenty. You brought the copywriter to the client. You managed the work the copywriter did for the client. You managed the flow of money — including tax filings — that your client would otherwise have to shoulder. And you took on additional risk by providing services you don’t fully control and that therefore might not work for your client (that’s why you need to only work with other freelancers who you trust in these partnerships).

Keep in mind that this is exactly what all sorts of businesses do all the time: They hire employees who provide services and earn a profit off the difference between what those employees are paid and what you pay the business.

Winning more clients

The second approach to increasing your revenues is to find more clients and get more projects — to do more work. As you think about this, keep in mind that two of the strategies outlined above (doing different kinds of work and partnerships) can also be applied immediately to new client opportunities, allowing you to potentially earn more from each new project.

The first step in getting new clients is to get in front of people who might potentially hire you. The number of new projects you win will always be limited by the number of new potential clients you have a chance to talk with. Here are four ways to increase the number of new client conversations you’re having.

Strategy 5: Reach out to your network

First, reach out to your network and let them know you have some available capacity and are looking for additional work. Your network, which you should be cultivating all the time, includes friends and family members, as well as old classmates, people you’ve worked with in the past at old jobs, and other acquaintances.

For some of these people, you might choose to reach out one-to-one via an email or phone call. For others, posting on your social media networks might be enough to generate some business.

Two things to remember about this: First, you’re not necessarily asking these people to hire you (though some may). You’re asking them to think of you if they, or their employers, or their friends and acquaintances have a need for the kinds of services you provide.

Second, particularly as you do one-on-one outreach, keep this light. You’re not selling people here, you’re connecting with them, letting them know what you’re up to, and also hearing about what’s going on in their lives. You should be willing to do the same — keep others in mind for opportunities (professional or otherwise).

Personally, I try to schedule at least a couple of meetings — lunch, coffee or something else — each month with current clients, past clients, past work colleagues and others in my network. These are low-pressure, minimal agenda “catch-up” sessions, but they help keep my network healthy and are instrumental in driving a steady stream of new work.

Strategy 6: Ask for referrals

Secondly, this is a good time to check in with your existing clients, especially the ones who like you and your work the best. Let them know how much you appreciate working for them and that at this time you have some extra time to spend on additional clients. Then ask them directly: “If you can think of anyone who you think might benefit from my services and would be a good match for me, I’d very much appreciate a referral.”

If you haven’t already asked this client about additional work for them, sometimes this request may actually generate some work from the client. But just as often, it might generate a lead on some new business.

If you’ve never done this before, you might feel awkward asking for a referral. That’s OK — the first few times you do something new, it feels awkward. Keep in mind that all sorts of professionals and salespeople do this all the time, and your clients have probably gotten the same request from others.

Strategy 7: ‘Clone’ new clients

As you look around at your network and your community for new clients, consider what the best new client might look like for you. One way to do this is to consider your favorite existing or past clients and think about what distinguishes them from other clients. Was it the industry the client was in? The community where the company was located? The professionalism of your client contact?

This exercise can allow you to identify potential new clients that you can reach out do directly. Let’s say, for example, that one of your best clients was the marketing director for a mid-sized law firm. You’ve done some great work for that client, were paid well and enjoyed the process. Now you can do some research and identify other mid-sized law firms, figure out who their marketing directors are, and reach out to those people directly via email or phone calls.

Your pitch to these new clients who you don’t know should look something like this:

Hi, I’m a freelance [web developer/social media strategist/copywriter/whatever], and I’ve done some work with mid-sized law firms before. I’m wondering if it would be worth a conversation to see if you expect to have any projects this year that you might want help with. I really enjoy working with law firms that have invested in their growth by hiring marketing staff.

Your goal here isn’t to win a new project with that first email, it’s to start a conversation. If you start enough conversations over time, some of those will turn into new revenues.

Strategy 8: Reach out to past clients

Finally, consider clients that you’ve worked with before. This is when it’s worth an email or phone call to these companies to ask them how things are going and if they have any upcoming projects you could help them with.

Not every project or client has to be new. After a few years of freelancing, you might find that most of your work comes from a revolving cast of organizations and individuals that you’ve worked with over time and who turn to you when they need the kinds of services you provide. Staying in touch with these contacts can help you maintain a thriving freelance practice.

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