Because I run a freelance-driven agency, I interviewed 93 freelancers in 2010. The most important questions I ask them tend to focus on where they are trying to go.
What are your dreams for your business?
What are your dreams for your life?
The most common aspiration I hear is:
“I want to work on bigger projects, team up with these other freelancers. You know — turn it into a real company, like you guys … or something … maybe.”
Which is awesome! Taking freelancing to the next step of building a bigger business is a great goal, and a way cool business model, if you are the right person.
By the time we finish discussing what the end result looks like, you’ll either get more excited (like I did) or you might consider other paths to follow and grow your existing freelance business.
I am going to compare six full years as a freelancer with the following five years as the co-owner of an agency. I’ll try my best to account for the fact that during these time periods my life changed.
I got a dog, who is the spawn of Tigger and Richard Simmons, and despite his growing age has yet to chill out. I have a 2-year-old toddler named Serenity, who has drastically changed my working patterns. I built a real estate business on the side, become politically active, started a conference series, got married, then focused on my marriage (cause I wanted to stay married). I also now speak at conferences, and a lot more.
So while it may not be a perfect apples to apples, this should give you a glimpse into the differences that I experienced between being a freelancer and the owner of a larger business.
What’s life like as a solo freelancer vs. the owner of a larger business?
Life as a freelancer
- I spend great gobs of time buried in deep (& fascinating) technical or visual (or both) challenges.
- I pay some attention to finances and sales. They take about 25% of my workday.
- I usually work alone, but sometimes collaborate with others.
- I have a few tools and very low overhead.
- I have 100% control of quality.
- I work on some pretty cool personal projects & most my clients are small to mid-sized.
- I have relatively few meetings.
- I work when I have the most energy.
Life as an agency owner
- I talk to people all day long and rarely get very technical.
- I pay a lot of attention to finances, project management, and sales. They take about 75% of my workday.
- I am part of a core team that I love to work with.
- I need a pile of tools to track and coordinate all my work.
- I spend a fair bit of my time making sure other people don’t botch it.
- I get to work on epic big-name, big-impact projects.
- I spend more time looking for both cool projects and cool contractors (or employees)
- I have a lot of meetings.
- I work when my team & clients need me.
Rewards and freedom
The good and the bad of freelancing
- Decisions are my own.
- I play a lot when everyone else is working.
- I surf pretty much every day (cause I can work at night if I have to).
- I make decent money (although I plateaued at 5 years).
- My income is 100% tied to my time.
- I take a break and my income vanishes.
- I work whenever I want to, time really has minimal impact.
The good and the bad of owning something larger
- I work more.
- I make lots more money and my income is still growing.
- I surf some days (but not all).
- I am building assets in the business that have value without my direct influence.
- I can take a month off and my income keeps going (every year for 5 years now).
- I influence more people’s lives.
So which path is for you?
Should you stick with freelancing, or branch off and create a larger organization like an agency? And how do you go about deciding?
Start by making a list of the top 100 things you would like to have, do, and become in your life. (Don’t skip this step, it’s important.)
Then take that list, and go find someone who seems to be living the life you want. If it is legal, moral and ethical, grab their coattails and copy them.
A business is simply a vehicle to get you to the life you imagine. If your dream is to get to Hawaii, it doesn’t really matter how nice a car you pick. Even the world’s fastest Ferrari will only get you a couple hundred feet offshore before sinking you to the bottom of the ocean.
You need to pick the right vehicle for your ideal life.
I started taking bigger and bigger projects because I loved the challenge, the influence, and the budgets. I loved working with people as much as I liked working with code and with content. I found myself with more energy at the end of the day then back when I was programing.
My dreams were shifting. When I was 25, I wanted the time to play. When I turned 30, I found myself interested in trying to make a difference in more people’s lives, becoming aware of the cost of kids and retirement, and wanting my nights and weekends back to spend with my family. With a shift in goals, an agency became the right vehicle for my life.
The Cliff’s Notes version:
Freelancer = fewer meetings & less structure = flexibility to schedule around your energy levels and lifestyle.
Agency = more meetings = rigid schedules + attention to business management = more wealth and reach.
Don’t know anyone running an agency and want to talk it out a bit? If you are coming to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, ping me on twitter at @justlikeair, grab me after one of my talks, and I’ll be glad to hang out and chat.
(By the way, if you’re interested in the question of whether to work for an agency or go freelance, here’s an an awesome article laying out those pros and cons.)
By the way, we have a great talk on the topic of using freelancers in your business. You can check out the slides, and if you are at SXSW, join Peter & I at our session on Monday March 14th at 5pm: “Freelancers are Slutty, but So Are You”. We’ve convinced Seagate to give out some free hard drives, so come and give them a high-five.
I am also moderating a panel with Copyblogger’s very own amazing Sonia Simone on Making Money with WordPress on Sunday March 13th at 9:30am. We will be giving away all kinds of serious (and expensive) WP goodies for free, so it will be worth dragging your hung-over corpse out of bed after the Copyblogger party. Plus Sonia and I both really want to meet you. Come by if you’re there, ok?