How I Rebuilt a Full-Time Freelance Business Three Different Times


After a kid, after a concussion, during Covid


After I did it once, I knew it could be done. After the second time, my confidence had steadied. After the third time, my worry has vanished.

Three different times, three different situations, I re-built a full-time freelance business. The first was moving from the part-time work of sleep-deprived early baby years. The second was moving from the part-time, pain-wracked work of a two-year recovery from a concussion. The third was after leaving a full-time job during Covid and adjusting my work level up and down as needed for over a year to meet the realities of virtual schooling happening at home, one desk over.

For me “full-time” freelancing means “full-time income,” making a living from the mix of small business, freelance, coaching, and consulting activities that have comprised my life for the last fifteen years.

Lest you think you may not be able to create this for yourself, I assure you I am no ambitious, goal-tending workaholic with super-human focus, drive, or will power. I’m more of a freedom-loving hippie who understands long-term strategic thinking and has developed the mindsets, habits, and enough discipline most days to live as I wish.

In reflecting on what has worked, I’ve identified six broad approaches that have moved things along reliably for me each time.

 

Morning Brainstorm To remind myself that there are always options and that I can create solutions, I’ve often fallen back on an idea I adapted from one of Steve Chandler’s books on sales to spur business. It is brainstorming a list of 20 things every morning that responds to the biggest concern of the moment, e.g., How can I make money fast? What other services can I offer my clients? What things should I put in place to generate a steady stream of clients? Then, it’s picking the best idea of the list and taking action on it that day. The best remaining ideas can either be kept and implemented on their own or recycled for future days’ brainstorms.

Needs Review Navigating the sea of needs can be energizing. It activates caring, curiosity, and a mindset of service. I find attention to the needs of others to be a remedy for underemployment, an antidote to despair and disruption, and a linchpin in a defensive entrepreneurship plan.

  • Remind self that business is about filling needs (and wants) and to focus on what others, especially those in my spheres of influence and connection, need (and want).

  • Stay extra attuned to particular sort of needs — where people hurt and the situations in which they readily open up their wallets.

  • Expand one’s concept of human needs with the Needs Inventory of the CNVC (Center for Nonviolent Communication).

  • There are 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. Here’s how you can start filling the overlooked needs of the small businesses all around you.

  • Take a grand tour of needs near and far and see what sparks for you.


Skills Review You have more skills, abilities, and valuable personal characteristics than you usually tout. Reviewing and documenting — for yourself or for your marketing efforts — your strengths; your go-to services; lateral, parallel, and additional services; as well as new things you’re learning or would like to learn is another key step in expanding possible ways to build your business.


Outreach With a broad review of needs, a service mindset, and a skills catalog top of mind comes a more strategic edge and flexibility to the critical work of outreach/networking/connecting.

  • Devote a portion of each workday to outreach and nurturing your connections from here on out. I’ve found that 30 minutes a day is about right if I have a full or almost full slate. If there’s nothing, make it four hours a day. If moving from part-time to full-time, make it two hours.

  • If you need work, schedule this for your most productive time of day. If you’re doing the maintenance/business development 30 minutes a day, schedule it for your least productive. For me, this is the last 30 minutes of the workday and I look forward to the connecting with new and old contacts as a relaxing finish to the day.

  • Podcaster Jordan Harbinger has a free 12-mission networking course that can go a long way in priming your mindset and boosting your confidence and skills for outreach efforts.

  • Commit to a plan that involves contacting everyone you know and enact the plan systematically. Customize your mode and approach for the recipient — personal email, business email, casual text, phone call, video call, lunch date, walking meeting.

  • Start by contacting current clients. Do they need anything else? Can they refer anyone? Move next to past clients and ask the same. Find an adroit way to suggest services (more on that below).

  • You know more people than you think you do. Get out your address book and your holiday card list. Add your email contacts, your phone contacts, your Facebook friends, and those who attend civic, hobby-related, and organization events with you. How can you ask them for help and how can you offer them and their networks help?

  • Choose the social media platforms (and the quantity of them) that work for you and create a plan that you can habitually follow to serve and connect there. Post useful things, offer your services, engage others. (See my checklist on social media matters for extra inspiration.)

  • If you’re hard-pressed for income, try Diana Schneidman’s 1,000 phone calls in 30 days challenge. She promises that this has worked for her every time she needed it to — like really needed it to (she was a single mom raising three kids when she “discovered” this secret) — and that she never actually had to make close to 1,000 calls to get decent work.

  • Extensive ongoing outreach combined with the need to create income can lead to crippling ruminations of social and financial anxieties. It’s not simple but my three-pronged answer to this is: 1) create a system that works and work it, 2) only communicate in ways that feel comfortable, natural, and honorable to you, then you can tell yourself you have nothing to worry about, and 3) let the rest go. Let other people think, do, and respond or not as they see fit.


Service Marketing What I call “service marketing” is how I and others I know in different fields grew 100% referral businesses over time.

  • Start with the mindsets of service and “work is the price of money”!

  • The basic idea is when someone throws a question or a problem your way to respond with this simple formula: “I can help you with that. This is how…”

  • If they express any interest, propose something with this simple formula: “I can do x in y time for z compensation, and a, b, c, is the process. D, e, and f are some variations you may also want to consider.”

  • Instead of reflexively deleting every email, read those that are obviously not spam closely and see if there’s an opportunity in there somewhere. An opportunity to offer your services or ask for a referral for your services.

  • Even other people’s social media posts hold opportunities. Recently, someone I’ve been following for a few years had an anguished Tweet about her business’s Quickbooks issues. Now, I know my way around Quickbooks, having used it and adapted it for a range of businesses for over 25 years, but I’ve never made money doing it for others. I felt her pain though and knew I could ease it. I dropped her a private message saying, I can help you with that if you like… A message or two later, an email or two after that, and I had a new client in an unexpected area. And now I know of another valuable service I can offer others.

  • As with the example above, when I do something new for a client upon request, I then scan my list of past clients to see if they or those they know could use that same help. I solidify that learning and that new offering as soon as possible. That is how I created a number of websites for authors, such as this recent one, and how I started doing a bunch of print buying for self-publishers.


School Day Model There are many moving parts to building up a business and sufficient full-time income. Everyone will have their preferred ways of carving up the day and the many tasks and responsibilities. What I’ve been using for years is called, I recently learned, the “School Day Model” in Refuse to Choose! by author Barbara Sher. Instead of the subjects that divide up a school day into discrete blocks of time, different areas of work divide up my day on a regular schedule. For example, for me it can be writing, coaching, client projects, book publishing sales, admin work, and marketing. Each category has its own list of to-dos. I work on the most important or interesting or pressing things on the list and when “the bell rings” or that period of the day is over, I just stop. I’ve done enough for one day and let the rest go until tomorrow’s time slot. This allows me both to chip away at all that’s important, and just as significant for a self-employed person who works from home, to build in hard stops for each area (allowing all the other areas their due) and the hard stop at the end of a workday that lets me put work aside definitively until tomorrow and get on with free time and family time.

 

To recap You can build up a full-time freelance income from scratch or from a side hustle by focusing on six proven approaches.

  • A morning brainstorm of 20 answers to your most pressing concern of the moment, acting on the top idea every day.

  • Taking a grand tour of the world of needs that exists all around you and noticing what speaks to you, your needs, and your abilities.

  • Conducting an inventory of your broad range of skills and traits, including those tangential to your go-to strengths and those you may want to further develop.

  • Devoting time daily for outreach — connecting with those you do and don’t know in a systematic way for the amount of time that makes most sense for your business development needs and in a way that’s comfortable for you and does not add to anxious ruminations.

  • Service marketing is an established route to creating a 100% referral business. Look for every opportunity to offer, “I can help with that, and this is how…”

  • The beauty of the School Day Model of carving up your schedule based on your most important activities is that it allows you to methodically chip away at every category that’s important and it builds in hard stops that allow for giving every area its due, including your free time with the final hard stop at the end of a good workday.