Growth as a freelancer is something that you need to define for yourself. It’s going to look different for everyone. You may want to start freelancing and grow a team in order to start an agency. You may want to grow and take on larger projects with highly skilled collaborators. You may want to build your profile so that you can get a better job. None of these options are better than the other, they can just be better for you. And I think that’s really what’s at the heart of my thought here - you are in charge of your growth, and your goals only have to make sense to you. It’s okay if they aren’t what everyone wants. Freelancing isn’t what everyone wants. But it’s what you want, and you are in charge of making it work.
No matter what growth you’re chasing, momentum is crucial. Momentum builds confidence. Confidence empowers you. When you’re empowered, you can do anything. It’s a snowball effect - once you get going, everything is easier.
How do you build momentum? Find something you can succeed at - no matter how small. Do it really really well, and then keep doing it over and over again. The more you do it, the more proof you have that you're capable. This builds a kind of success story for yourself, creating a cycle of momentum, confidence, and ongoing success in your journey to grow. If you’re stoked on yourself, and know you have potential to succeed, others will see that too.
If you don’t feel like you can find that success in your work at the beginning of your freelance journey, find it outside of work. The biggest growth in my confidence came from pursuing sport. You might find momentum in a different hobby. But whats important is that you carry that momentum with you in every aspect of your life, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
An exercise that I found really helpful in early freelance was to imagine what my life would look like as a successful freelancer. I thought about what kind of projects I wanted to work on. What my day would look like. Where I would work. What my clients would be like. What my desk would be like. How I would feel about myself. How I wanted others to feel about me. And I wrote it all down and distilled it into a few points. Those feelings of what I wanted my life to be like, turned into my goals. And every decision I made about projects or work, if I was in doubt, would be checked against those goals. If they didn’t help me get to the situation I had outlined, I didn’t take it on. Beyond any quantitative metric, this type of goal setting has been the most powerful for me.
While a more feelings-based approach to my goals has served me well, the only concrete quantitative goal I set for myself each year is an income goal. Income isn’t the only measure of growth, but because it was one of the core reasons why I decided to freelance in the first place, it’s a big priority for me. My goal in my first year was just to earn more than I did at my studio job. After that first year, I looked at how much money I made, and I picked a slightly higher number for my next goal. I continue to do this every year, picking new numbers of what I think I can do. And then I look at it again and if it seems too reasonable, I’ll adjust it so it feels a little bit impossible.
I’ve managed to meet my income goal every year I’ve set it for the last three years. I know that that may not always happen, but I’m really driven by setting an impossible number for myself, and pursuing it with my full effort. Nothing bad happens if I don’t meet it, but I would be disappointed in myself. I think that regularly pushing yourself beyond what you think is possible is the best way to build confidence. Its worked for me in sport, and it’s worked for me in business.
Once I knew that I could make my functional hourly rate consistently, I started bumping it up. When I did the calculations for my rate after my first year of freelancing, instead of basing it on what I needed to live, I based it on what I wanted to make, and then worked backward from there. In 2022, I wanted to make $200,000. I worked back from that goal and knew that I needed to charge around $150/hr in order to hit it. That’s what I charged, and I met the goal.
Another area of growth to focus on is your skillset. Combination skillsets can skyrocket your value - if you are both a great designer and a great developer, a whole new world of opportunities can open up for you. The same could be said of many different combinations, from video editing to motion graphics to copywriting. It’s relatively easy to find a freelancer who is good at one thing. As soon as you add more skills to your resume, you’re able to take on more niche, high value work.
If you already have a combination skillset, you can focus on growth by becoming the best you can possibly be at each, or adding another skillset to your collection.
Some functional ways to focus on growing your skills are to take courses in areas your are curious about, follow creators in disciplines you admire and want to get better at, or like we talked about in ‘The Work’, force yourself to learn by incrementally adding pieces to your work that you aren’t quite sure how to do yet.
One of my personal favourite ways to grow as a freelancer is by working with people I admire. I regularly parter with brand designers. We talked about this a bit in ‘winning work’, but besides a way to grow your client list, partnerships with other designers can be very educational in learning new processes, new industries, and new mindsets. I have adopted many of my ‘best practices’ from working with other skilled designers.
These kind of connections are best built in organic ways. Becoming friends on social media. Going to networking events. Building real, authentic relationships with designers you admire.
We talked about outsourcing earlier in the course, and I mentioned how I don’t love the idea of outsourcing work when the client doesn’t know about it. But sometimes, you need help on projects for things that are outside your skillset. Finding partners that complement your work, and being upfront about that with your clients, is a great way for you to learn and also build trust with the people you work with. I am upfront and honest with clients about things that I don’t do, or don’t do well. When I bring in a skilled partner to support on something, whether it’s custom code or logo design, it actually ends up making me look like more of an expert, because I am aware of what needs to be done to make the project as successful as possible.
If you are highly skilled at your core competency, parter with other people who are highly skilled at theirs, and you’ll find that together, you do the best work possible.
As a one-person service based business, you will likely, eventually, find a ceiling for your work growth. When you are trading time for money, there is only so much to go around. A lot of freelancer-internet seems to be focused on constant growth, and I’ve been guilty of falling into it’s traps myself. “I made x dollars last year, so this year I need to make xx”. The constant hamster wheel to do more and make more and be more.
I’m here to tell you, you are still successful even if you are not constantly growing your business. You can have a thriving business, even if you don’t make more money than you did last year. Life is all about ups and downs, and as a freelancer you’re going to experience them too.
My general mindset to growth is that everything happens in seasons. If I’m going through a particularly challenging time with work, where I feel overbooked and overworked, I try to frame it as simply a season. With this busy season, another slower season will follow. Enjoying the busy times alongside the slow times, and knowing that each of them will pass if you let it, helps me stay calm through storms.
I find myself falling into this mentality every few months and I have to pull myself out by going back to my goals, and making sure I’m still in alignment.
Your growth as a freelancer doesn’t have to follow any set trajectory. You can really set out to do anything you want, as long as you are clear about your goals. Build momentum, build your confidence, and go after what you want.