Making the leap from freelancing to building your own business

By Benedict Smith
Freelance Writer

Founder of Levo London, an agency specialising in content & copywriting, communications strategy and PR.

By Christina McLean
News Correspondent

It’s hard to get a handle on the number of freelancers who go on to grow their business. I’ve often thought it would be a significant amount, but the research isn’t there to confirm or rule out my theory.

But last time I checked, there were nearly five million people working for themselves in the UK. Considering this figure was 3.3 million in 2001, it’s safe to say the rise of business ownership overall isn’t a trend. There’s been a structural shift in the way people approach work. There are more small business owners in this country than ever before, from one-person companies to thriving little enterprises that employ people.

I’ve always thought that out of the hundreds of thousands of new companies started every year, freelancers are maybe best qualified to grow one. Not least because we get to learn a lot about what works and doesn’t. We get to try before we buy.

For some of us, self-employment evolves. You start out as a freelancer – a little unsure about how things will go. You develop into an out-and-out independent professional – someone who sees this way of working as a career, not a stopgap. Then – and not for everyone – a further evolutionary stage happens.

Don’t underestimate the time it takes to get things done – to win clients, to find the right people and collaborations.

You start thinking about building a small business. One that could grow, could be successful beyond just you and your skills. If this realisation hits, you might want to know how to do it. To go for growth. It was certainly something I wondered about – and still do.

The experts come at this from different angles. But if you do enough reading, a common set of ideas emerges about how to make this transition. So from here, I’m going to paraphrase to make their advice digestible and a lot less complicated – offering the following to help any freelancer who might harbour the vision of their future empire.

Look at your market

Is there room in your market for you? Is what you have in mind going to be valuable to your target audience? How sustainable is demand? Who are you up against? Figure out if you’re going to be different or the same, but better. Know the price charged by your competitors. Know their profit margins and work out yours.

Nail your offer

Get really clear on what you do and what value it brings to the people who buy it. Work through every aspect of it and decide if you can deliver what you want to promise. Know the benefits of buying from your business. Refine this until you love to talk to people about it. Imagine and articulate the customer experience.

Think strategically (to a degree)

This is a tricky one. Just about every management guru tells you to see the bigger picture. The word ‘strategic’ is used – or overused, if you ask me. You’re supposed to know how everything will unfold before it does.

Here’s my take on this: do your best to see what’s around the corner, but get too far ahead of yourself and you might miss the thing in front of you that creates your future.

Set realistic goals

Don’t underestimate the time it takes to get things done – to win clients, to find the right people and collaborations. Progress is usually slower than you imagine and the best growth is sustainable.

Marketing and sales

This is a deal-breaker. You need to work out what good marketing looks like. If you don’t possess these skills then you’ll need to find someone who does, either as part of your team or bought in as a service.

When you get in front of a lead, are you persuasive enough to convert it? This isn’t about smooth talking. It has far more to do with preparation, relevance to the target client, clarity on what benefits you bring, commitment to delivery and your ability to build trust.

Organising a team

If you’re a proven contractor, you probably know what good and bad delivery looks like in the real world and understand how teams should be led. You also have the big advantage of knowing how skills can be brought in from other contractors. You have the benefit of understanding the beauty of flexibility when building a team. Bear this in mind as you focus on growth.

Of course, there are other things – steps and processes – to consider. Finance and accounting should be on the list and the big questions of investment and your exit plan further down the line. But I’ve focused on what I think of as the qualities you’ll need when you look in the mirror and ask the question, ‘Can I do this?’

It should be said that I’m not proposing that all self-employed people want to be – or should be – business builders. Millions, I would guess, want to remain independent, earn good money and enjoy the freedom to live life in a way that suits them. Hats off to them.

But I also expect a lot of freelancers entertain the idea that they could grow a successful company. The very fact that they have had the courage to sell their skills and knowledge independently makes this a fair assumption, in my opinion.