Fran: What are we gonna do?
Joe: That’s what everybody wants to know.
Dialogue from Heist, by David Mamet
Why do some people do well, and others badly – whether in freelancing, or life generally? Our personalities play a part, as does chance. But far more important are the choices we make – our strategy.
What is strategy?
At the simplest level, business strategy is about choosing where and how to create and capture value. A business creates value when it does or makes something that people want or need. And it captures value when it benefits as a result of what it does.
A freelance business is no different from any other business. In order to do well as a freelance, you have to make choices about where and how you will create and capture value. And you’re far more likely to make the right choices if you think carefully about them first – in other words, if you have a strategy.
Strategy focuses and channels our energies towards a goal. Without strategy, our actions are scattered and impulsive – things happen, but they don’t come together in a coherent narrative. With strategy, the things we do have meaning and purpose.
Who, what and how
- Who will you create value for?
- What products or services will you offer them?
- How will you make it happen?
Let’s explore this beautifully simple framework in the context of a freelance business.
Who will you create value for?
Deciding who your customers will be means deciding who you would like to work for – and, by implication, who you don’t want to work for.
You can define your freelance clients in many ways: their location, the industry they work in, the size or age of their company, their culture, their budget.
You might bring several attributes together to form an ideal client profile, or profiles. For example, an IT consultant might define their ideal clients as ‘SMEs within 50 miles of central London with 20 to 50 workstations’.
Defining your clients is an essential stepping-stone to a host of marketing activities: building a website, direct mail, networking and many others.
Many freelances probably feel that their careers are shaped by clients selecting them, rather than the other way around. That may be so, but there are still choices to be made.
For example, it helps to decide which new-business prospects are worth pursuing, or which clients are worth going the extra mile for, so you can put your efforts where they’ll bring most benefit. Attuning yourself to your ideal clients helps to identify or attract them; as the saying says, ‘chance favours the prepared mind’.
Finally, considering your customer base is a valuable reminder that you always have the choice about who you’re going to work for. That choice may get buried under financial worries, but it’s there – and staying in touch with it is crucial when you come to set prices.
What services will you offer?
Answering this question is about developing a service portfolio – which is just a flashy way of describing a list of things you can do for your customers.
At the simplest level, every freelance must know how they will create value for clients. This sounds obvious, but the nature of in-house careers means that many freelances approach their work from a different perspective: what they’d like to do, what they’ve done before or what they studied at college rather than what clients want.
Knowing how you can create value means matching skills with needs. What can you do that would add value for a client business? Answering this question often involves thinking outside the box of academic disciplines or job descriptions. Non-work skills and interests might be relevant.
If you’re starting out as a freelance, think about all the skills and knowledge you have and list them. Put everything into the pot, including out-of-work interests. Then discard the genuinely irrelevant ones, sort the rest into services, and see how they hang together as an overall offering.
Ideally, you’ll be able to offer some kind of value innovation. This simply means creating more value than competitors in one or more dimensions. For example:
- Price. You could offer a lower price than competitors, or more value for the same price.
- Focus. You could become a specialist in certain tasks, or working with certain types of client.
- Location. You could come to customers rather than them coming to you, or offer a very location-specific service.
- Convenience. You could offer online ordering, flexible payments or something else that makes life easier for customers.
- Service. You could offer a more comprehensive or responsive service than competitors.
- Format. You could add service elements to a product, bundle services in a new way or ‘productise’ a service by turning it into an off-the-shelf purchase.
An example of service innovation is First Direct, the first internet-and-phone-only bank in the UK. They realised that face-to-face interactions and fixed opening hours at bank branches didn’t suit every customer, so they got rid of them, instead focusing on adding more value in terms of convenience and service.
It’s easy to see how value innovation forms the basis for marketing messages. Whatever makes you different is going to be a big reason why people choose you.
Having defined your services, you’ll probably want to choose (or create) a description for yourself. Sometimes an established job title will fit – like ‘copywriter’, ‘web designer’ or ‘sound technician’. The advantage here is that people will easily understand what you do; the challenge is differentiating yourself from everyone else who uses the same title.
If you opt for an unusual or unique title, like ‘business content consultant’, you’ll have the exact opposite problem: you’ll sound different and exotic, but you’ll have to explain what you do. However, if your skillset or service is unusual, you might feel that an unusual title is essential.
How will you make it happen?
One view of strategy is that it’s all about obtaining and directing resources in order to achieve a goal. You decide what you want to do, assemble the resources you need, and get on with it. Resources are just the things that enable a business to create and capture value.
That makes it sound ridiculously simple. But the story of every successful business can be understood as a process of identifying, obtaining and using the right resources. Remember, resources aren’t just physical things like buildings and computers. Some are intangible – like ideas, know-how, relationships and brand equity. Unlike tangible resources, intangibles can’t be ‘used up’ – and they can enable you to access other resources in turn.
Consider a new freelance business. (It’s really just a person, but it’s helpful to think of yourself as a company sometimes.) It might have tangible resources such as a computer, a phone, a suit and a car, as well as intangible resources such as skills, motivation and professional relationships. To get started, it might need other resources such as premises, client relationships, marketing material, capital and so on. How can it use the resources it has to get the resources it needs? Well, the professional relationships might turn into, or provide, some client relationships. Premises can be sourced on the market. Buying marketing material requires knowledge of marketing, which can be found in blogs and books… and so it goes on.
The resource view of strategy makes everything simple. If you don’t have a resource, or if you don’t have enough of it, you need to find a way to make, obtain or access it. The resource mindset breaks everything down into manageable chunks.
Note that you don’t have to own or control a resource to be able to use it. Once, getting knowledge meant spending time and/or money visiting libraries or buying books. Now we have Google. Professional advice is easier to access too. Even tangible resources like premises can be shared through hotdesking.
Bringing it all together
For much of the time, your strategy will probably live in your head. But I’d suggest writing it down. Writing has an awesome power – whatever we commit to paper tends to come true! So a one-page summary of your strategy is definitely worth spending 30 minutes on. Here’s an example:
XYZ Web Design: Business strategy
I will serve small and medium-sized businesses in the London area – primarily those who do not yet have a web presence, or are new to digital marketing.
I will offer them a competent and competitive ‘off the shelf’ web design service, so they can get online for a reasonable cost. I will also offer some related services such as SEO, although for larger projects in these areas I will partner with other freelances.
To do this, I will draw on my experience as an in-house web developer. My experience running a small cleaning franchise will help me organise the business and also relate to my clients as a fellow business owner.
Resources available: web design skills, business skills, some SEO skills, laptop, mobile phone, website
Resources required: premises, bank account, local network of contacts, overdraft, mailing list, sales letter
A final thought: strategy isn’t a one-time deal. It needs to be revised and revisited. That’s why writing it down can be so productive. Return to your strategy document a year later and see how far you’ve come – and where you’d like to go next.