Best Practices for Freelance Business – Part 2

Chris Yeh
Chris Yeh

Last month’s column described how we freelancers can improve our productivity and work environment by borrowing some elements from the structure and organization of the corporate form and culture. Please note that I said "some" — not all. Our goal should be to leverage the flexibility of being a "staff of one", and continually revise our structures and rules as soon as they become out of date.

This kind of constant change may sound like a prescription for chaos, but it’s not. We have a roadmap that gives us direction and focus. We simply realize that to navigate a business terrain that’s in constant flux, we need to be willing to change our map whenever circumstances dictate. Despite these changes, the basic process of:

  • reading your map,
  • determining your position, and
  • charting your new course

remain the same.

In part 2 of this article we’ll discuss five of the most basic practices that can help keep your business on course.

Best Practice 5: Monitor key operating metrics

The difference between monitoring your key operating metrics and "trusting your gut," is the difference between measuring a surgical incision and just cutting until it "feels right." You may have a good feel for your business, but without tangible numbers, you’ll have a hard time conducting even the most basic analysis of what’s going right or wrong.

While big companies devote entire departments to the production of colorful reports, you can probably get by with a simple Excel spreadsheet. In my consulting practice, I track a number of key metrics on a weekly basis, including new contacts initiated, proposals written, and contracts signed. By comparing my numbers from week to week, I can better understand the health of my business, and whether or not my latest promotion is working. The numbers also help keep me on track, even when I’m dealing with the distractions of working from my home office.

Best Practice 4: Hold regular staff meetings

It may sound silly to hold staff meetings when the Chairman is me, the CEO is myself, and the Secretary is I, but the discipline is vital. Think about what happens in a staff meeting: the participants set aside a sizeable block of distraction-free time to discuss every aspect of the business.

When was the last time you set aside two uninterrupted hours to reflect on the issues that face your business? Honestly, have you spent even 30 minutes reflecting without receiving an email, answering the phone, or working on a specific project? I didn’t think so. So once a week, leave your computer, turn off your cell phone, put together an agenda, and hold a staff meeting. You’ll be surprised at the results.

Best Practice 3: Take a systematic approach to sales and marketing

This is a best practice that most Fortune 500 companies don’t get right, let alone us lone wolves. The fact that sales and marketing doesn’t require an engineering degree doesn’t mean that there isn’t method to the madness. Sales-oriented companies know that the best way to generate scalable sales is to adopt a systematic approach.

Far too often, we freelancers rely on the "ASP" approach to marketing ourselves: Acquaintances, Spam, and Prayer. We ask our friends — or worse yet, perfect strangers — to help us find gigs. Then we pray that they’ll make the effort to market our services with discipline and rigor so that we don’t have to. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

The approach I use for my practice is straightforward, even simplistic, but it provides sorely-needed structure and discipline. I focus on three core sales and marketing processes:

  1. lead generation,
  2. lead qualification, and
  3. closing the sale.

For each of these processes, I create a set of programs that I document and measure for ROI. If a program delivers a good ROI (like networking with my business school classmates), I increase the resources that I devote to it. If a program delivers a poor ROI (like offering my services to a general business mailing list), I terminate the program, but keep its specification and performance records on file – in case I’m ever tempted to resurrect it.

Best Practice 2: Maintain an orderly, professional work environment

Big corporations are like your mother – they’ll enforce a certain standard of cleanliness and organization that will prevent your desk from turning into a complete pigsty. It’s a lot like being forced to clean your room when you were growing up. Now, remember what happened to your room when you went off to college..?

My freshman roommate didn’t like to do laundry, so he waited until he ran out of clothes before embarking on an orgy of cleansing. Once he finished his 12 loads of laundry, the clean clothes sat in giant pile on his bed for another few weeks until the end of the academic quarter forced him to fold them and pack them for winter, spring, or summer break. And he was one of the cleaner guys in the dorm!

The point is that once Mom (or your former employer) is out of the picture, you need to discipline yourself to maintain an orderly, professional work environment.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I firmly believe that maintaining a professional work environment can make a big difference in your productivity. One guy I know simply couldn’t make the transition to working on his own. Once he left his semi-orderly office environment for life as a freelancer, his productivity plummeted. The last time I saw his home office, it was piled high with dirty laundry, comic books, and coffee mugs. Needless to say, his business is close to nonexistent.

Best Practice 1: Separate work life from home life

There’s a reason why it’s called "work." Aside from a brief explosion in foosball table sales during the dot com boom, big corporations have always drawn a clear dividing line between the professional and the personal – with good reason.

As freelancers, we make business decisions based on whether or not they’ll make money. If you make decisions about your family based on profitability, you should visit the Emerald City for a heart transplant (and I’m not talking about Oracle headquarters). The very attributes that make you a good businessperson, applied to your home life, can make you a terrible spouse or parent — and vice versa.

Big corporations help us separate work life from home life in a lot of ways. We drive to a completely different place, interact with completely different people, and perform completely different activities. If you’re like me, and you work from a home office, your home life is never more than 10 feet away – and sometimes less.

Nonetheless, you need to find ways to build that mental separation. Dress professionally for work, even if you could sit around in your underwear. Try to keep the door to your office closed. And above all else, do not watch television, even if Jerry Springer has a special on transvestite hookers during spring break.

Winning with a Staff of One

It can be tough to make the transition from the corporate world to being a freelancer, but you don’t have to leave everything behind. Arm yourself with these 10 best practices, and you’ll be able to leverage the structure and organization of the Fortune 500 without giving up any of your freelancer’s speed and flexibility. I’ve made the transition, and I’d never trade my staff of one for all the planning departments in the world.