“If I can get 100 clients to pay me $600 each,” Fred tells me, “I’ll make $60,000 a year!”
“Your math’s fine,” I reply. “But how many of those clients do you have today?”
Meet Fred, Maybe the Worst Freelancer I’ve Known
The above is an excerpt from a conversation I had with Fred about 18 months after he started freelancing. (This was over a decade ago.)
Fred’s not his real name, and all other identifying information has been changed. But the bits of conversation you’re about to read, and the accompanying numbers, are all based in fact.
Fred was, at the time, a friend for whom I was doing some complimentary coaching.
But you know what they say about leading horses to water. Ultimately, Fred’s solo business failed, for reasons that were completely avoidable.
Let’s learn what not to do.
What Not to Do: Fred’s Offer
Fred was a financial coach. His selling point was “unbiased advice,” since he was unaffiliated with any of the investment shops.
The downside of Fred’s approach was that he didn’t move money. After a coaching session, he’d hand his client a list of things to execute. So it wasn’t exactly turnkey.
Fred had competitors: Traditional financial advisors; financial resources offered through employers; a Google search; books; and good old inertia.
Against that backdrop, the benefit of “a financial coach who doesn’t move money” was unclear, as evidenced by the slow uptake of his offer.
Don’t swim upstream. It’s easier to sell people something they already know they want or need than to try to convince them to try something new.
If you get lots of questions about how your offer works, it may be a sign that it’s either too unclear or too complex.
What Not to Do: Fred’s Business Model
Fred sought 100 coaching clients that he’d meet with quarterly, for annual fees of $600. That’s a heavy load, and that’s what I told him.
“At one coaching call per client per quarter, you’ll need to average eight or nine calls per week, or about two per day. Add prep time and follow-up, plus some local travel for in-person sessions, and that’s at least half of every workday.”
Fred nodded, his eyes widening a little. I continued:
“But that’s not all. You also need to build a marketing machine that generates a ton of inquiries, especially as you start up. And you’ll have some client churn, so you’ll have to keep that machine up and running.
“You’ll also meet with most every prospect, and some of those won’t turn into clients. That’s more time.
“And you’ll have the administrative time-costs of carrying 100 clients.”
At this point, Fred was starting to look a little ill.
“So you’re signing yourself up for at least 40 hours of hard work, each and every week, to make about $60k.”
Fred admitted that he hadn’t considered all of that. But this was his passion, he protested, so he’d have no problem with that kind of workload.
As we’ll learn, Fred was lying to me, and perhaps to himself.
Play the tape all the way through. (h/t Corrie Oberdin) In other words, as you consider the different ways you can design your business, think things through to their logical conclusions.
One reason I built my consultancy around “fewer, higher-value projects” is that I played an alternate tape all the way through: “Many smaller projects” means I’d need more leads, which means more time marketing, selling, on-boarding and doing admin. And that means less time doing the work I love.
That’s not the business I want to run. So I asked a different strategic question: “What would need to be true in order for me to do fewer, higher-value projects?”
What Not to Do: Fred’s Marketing
As we learned at the top, Fred needed 100 clients, and he had five.
He was 18 months in. By any measure, his marketing wasn’t working.
Fred’s marketing plan was mostly comprised of a few local networking groups. These can be productive, when well-chosen, but Fred’s seemed more social.
He couldn’t point to any leads that came from them, either directly or indirectly. He insisted that “these things take time.”
“Fred,” I replied, “you don’t have the luxury of time. You’re not earning enough to cover your monthly expenses. What you’re doing isn’t sustainable.”
Treat your marketing like a hypothesis.
In effect, your plan says, “If I do these things in these ways, I expect these good things to happen.”
So don’t get attached to your tactics. If something’s not working, cut it ruthlessly and try something new.
And even if things are working, earmark 10-20% of your marketing plan for experimentation. Test, learn and apply – always.
What Not to Do: Fred’s Work Rate
I asked Fred to track his time. It turned out he was investing fewer than 15 hours per week in his business. He couldn’t resist the siren song of the DVR, his hobbies and, occasionally, day-drinking with friends.
Ultimately, this was the root of Fred’s problems. His business was in crisis, and yet he couldn’t even find a second gear, let alone a fifth.
So, finally, I gave Fred a blunt diagnosis:
“You need to make major changes, and quickly” I said, “or it’s time to shut it down.”
Fred seemed wounded. “So you don’t support my business?” he asked.
“That’s correct. I do not support the way you’re running it today, because it won’t get you to where you want to be.”
“But I don’t know what else to do,” Fred said, resignedly.
This is the point at which I decided Fred was a lost cause.
There were dozens of things he could have attempted. With his business on the line, he couldn’t think of one?
But, ultimately, this was not a failure of imagination. It was a failure of will.
Soloism isn’t for everyone.
It requires that you do the important things without supervision. It’s not for people who need to be told what to do, and when, and how.
It’s certainly not for the lazy. And Fred was lazy.
Epilogue: What Happened to Fred?
In three years of self-employment, Fred earned less than $50k in revenue. That’s in total, not per year. The realities of personal finance finally set in, and Fred found a job with a traditional employer.
I don’t mean for Fred’s story to be discouraging. On the contrary, I want you to give yourself credit for everything you’re doing that Fred couldn’t find it in himself to do.
Are you making the tough choices? Playing the tape all the way through? Adapting to market feedback? Investing today for a better business tomorrow? Then give yourself a pat on the back. And keep it up.
We don’t have to endure failure to learn its hard lessons. If in doubt, ask, “What would Fred do?” Then do the opposite.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. I’m not some guy who’s been freelancing for a minute – I’ve been doing it since 1997, with brands you’ve actually heard of. Click here to find out more about how my customized coaching can help you level up.
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