Like most small business owners, I hate saying “No” to new business opportunities. However, you have to ask yourself, “Are those extra clients actually weighing your business down?”
I had been freelancing for five years, and had steady work, but it felt sluggish and—let’s face it—for the hours I worked, it wasn’t terribly profitable. Also, I always seemed to have at least 2 to 3 “bad” clients.
It seemed as though we were perpetually almost finished with their design projects, but these projects would drag out and collide with other scheduled projects which would get me behind and stressed out. After a week of all-nighters trying to get everything back on schedule, I finally decided it had to stop.
So, I decided to look at my revenue for the year and focus on my two biggest clients, while wrapping up and passing along the others to freelancers. It wasn’t easy, but my rational was this: If I cut my workload, then I could relax for the first time in years and gradually build my client base again.
Instead, I had the most profitable year ever as a freelancer. Here’s how cutting my client base and focusing on two quality clients, helped me grow my business:
When you have fewer clients, you can provide a better overall service for the ones you keep. When I was dealing with 6-8 clients at a time I was busy just juggling — I didn’t have time for follow-ups or to initiate new ideas. Suddenly with just two clients to focus on, I could follow-up on new project ideas and contribute to the team, which meant more projects flowed my way.
Find Your Niche
Before this experiment, I’d always avoided specialization. I made the classic freelancer mistake of wanting to provide a service for everyone, everywhere. When I cut back on clients, I realized I could focus on a niche: specifically, beauty and lifestyle brands. Having a focus made it easier for me to start watching trends and competitors for my clients’ industries and add value.
When you’re overwhelmed with work, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. It’s easy to get stuck and just want to focus on getting through your to-do list. It can be hard to step back and get a broader perspective. Without so much busy work, I could provide my thoughts on higher-level strategic issues and delve more deeply into specific challenges facing a client. Whereas, before I was interchangeable with hordes of other freelancers, I became an essential asset.
Give Yourself a Raise
They say time is money — better clients will probably expect faster turnarounds, but they are also willing to pay for it. A couple months in, I was providing lightning fast turnaround, but still hadn’t made up for the loss in other clients. So, I decided to raise my rates by almost 30%. They didn’t flinch because I’d proven my value.
Having a little extra time gave me a breather to think about how I was running my business. I started to smooth out my workflow, put systems in place and find tools to help me automate business tasks. While this actually meant I had less work, it also made me look more professional so my clients started to refer me in turn to new, high-quality clients.
All of these steps led to higher caliber clients, less frustration, more satisfaction and higher profits. Now I say “No” a lot more to projects that just aren’t a good fit. It’s sometimes scary because I still don’t like to turn down work, but my more relaxed work day and improved bottom-line convince me otherwise.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Larissa Pickens is a visual designer with a over fifteen years experience including book design, advertising, packaging and interactive. Today she runs a small digital studio focused on lifestyle and beauty brands. She is also co-founder of Mommikin — a source for inspiring creative moms. Connect with @mommikin on Twitter.
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