Brian Casel likes to help freelancers level up. He’s been there himself. He started out with agency work and then went freelance. But after awhile he felt the itch to do more and started transitioning from client work to products.
Today his main business is Restaurant Engine, a WordPress-powered web service for restaurants. He also spends a lot of time blogging and podcasting to share what he’s learned with other freelancers and entrepreneurs.
We talked with Brian to get some insights on freelancing and how to create income beyond client work.
What tips do you have for beginning freelancers?
My very first clients came as referrals from my former boss at the agency. I left on really great terms. So that’s one tip: if you’re coming from an agency and going freelance, leave on good terms.
What often happens is the agency works with very large clients. The type of clients I’d work with are too small for an agency to take on budget-wise, so the agency is happy to pass on smaller leads. So that’s what happened.
You can start out on job boards. These days there are many more job boards than there were back then. You can get a little traction early on by responding to job boards. Then the network of referrals should kick in if you’re doing great work and being reliable—being the guy who delivers on time, delivers quality work and communicates really well. That’s worked out pretty well for me.
You’d be amazed—that alone can set you apart quite a bit. There are so many flakes in this business. If you’re doing those things you’re well ahead of the pack.
What kind of productivity tips do you have for freelancers?
I’ve got three tips:
1. Make an effort to break off a chunk of your time—maybe 20%—to work on your own projects. Don’t be completely involved in just client work. You want to be doing stuff for yourself as well. That’s how you get better, that’s how you push your own creative style further.
Maybe that’s redesigning your own site. I do that every six months just because I want to. That’s a great way to flex the creative muscles. Just because the time is not billable doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using the time to be creative.
2. In years past, every day I would work on something new based on a whim. Today I want to work on this project or today I feel like coding so I’ll open up Coda, or today I want to design so I’ll open up Photoshop.
But I’ve learned in the past year that it’s important to be strategic, to look at the big picture. What are the big projects you want to do? Look at a year, then a month, then a week. Then decide what’s on the agenda for today. Really, there should be one big thing to get done. There’s always more stuff to do, but you at least want to accomplish one big thing every day. Being goal oriented and planning ahead, that really helps.
3. Wake up earlier. When I first went freelance, I’d be happy to wake up at 9 or 10 in the morning. Make an effort to get up early. I get up at 6 a.m.—I go to bed earlier, but you have so much more energy to get stuff done in the morning. If you get your one big thing done before lunch, every day just becomes so much more productive.
How do you choose what to work on?
One day a month, usually during the beginning of the month, I’ll spend a whole day thinking about what should I get done this month, what should I be working on? When you dedicate that time to being strategic, rather than “I’m in the mood to design something,” or “This client’s deadline is looming, I need to work on this, it’s seemingly urgent.” I think it’s important to be strategic about what you work on. Work on things that make you uncomfortable. Be honest with yourself about areas of the business where you’re weak.
Here’s a good example: I completely redesigned my marketing site six months ago because we weren’t selling as quickly as I wanted. I thought the problem was the design, but really I wanted to redesign the site and I was good at it.
But it didn’t help sales. What helped sales was improving our marketing funnel. That’s something I didn’t know much about at the time. So I put it off. When I finally got into it and decided I’d focus on improving our sales and marketing funnel, that’s when we saw a noticeable improvement in sales. All it took was research, learning and trying a few new things I hadn’t worked on before.
How do you know when you’re ready to level up?
For me it was kind of a growing frustration. I had left the agency and become a freelancer, and you have this freedom. After a few years I realized—how much freedom do I really have? I have all these clients, but I’m limited to what they want. Everybody knows how things go when working with clients who don’t appreciate all the work you do or don’t take your advice. That can become very frustrating after a while.
Then there was a frustration with selling my time for money. My income was tied to time. I was still charging per project, not hourly, but still I could only take on so many projects at one time. There was a ceiling to my income as a solo freelancer.
That’s when I became motivated to scale up and build my team, get into products that would be more scalable and detached from my time.
Now I can earn an income in my sleep. Not that I sleep. I still work extremely hard. The income is scalable and the team grows.
Should all freelancers be leveling up to products?
I guess it’s not necessarily for everybody. You might think moving to products means you’re going to become a manager and in a lot of ways you are. But as I got into it, I found you can still use that creative energy in new ways. You can still take all that creative energy you’d normally apply to pushing pixels in Photoshop and put it into designing efficient systems in your business or designing a really effective marketing website for a product. I think it’s important to push yourself into those areas that you might feel a little uncomfortable. That’s really how you level up and grow.
I’m not in this to get huge. I’m very much of the bootstrap mindset.
I find making products and teaching—things that touch lots of people, rather than satisfying the whims of a few clients—to be much more enjoyable work.
Every day there’s something new I learn. There are always things that are unexpected.
And that’s the challenge and joy of freelancing. If a freelancer wants to transition to products, how should they get started?
Start small. Don’t jump straight into doing software as a service (SaaS), don’t get into building the next social network. Start very small, and whatever you think is small, start even smaller than that.
An ebook is a good example—write and sell an ebook. Or design a WordPress theme. Start by selling it on a marketplace just to get your feet wet with designing a product that is intended to be consumed by lots of people, rather than a website that’s really only for one person or company. That’s a different beast, and it requires even more time and effort to make something for mass consumption (and mass could only mean 20 or 100 people).
You’ll learn so much with the first product, so don’t expect that to be your big thing that will consume you for 10 years. It won’t. It might only be a project for the next six months. But the lessons will be incredibly valuable. Take those lessons into your second product, which will be a little bigger than the first.
Start small and take it one step at a time.
What tips do you have for freelance developers’ websites?
Most freelancers’ sites need to be less about you, less about the freelancer, and more about the customer.
They really need to speak more to their ideal client and communicate the benefits that client is going to receive from choosing to work with the freelancer. Rather than saying, “I design websites and I love to use WordPress,” say something more along the lines of, “You can grow your business and manage your own website using WordPress, and I’m here to make it easy.” That’s the angle you want.
That’s one tip: Less about you, more about the client.
Another tip: Don’t just list everything you’ve ever worked on in your portfolio. Pick three to five really great projects that represent the type of work you want to get. Don’t just use screenshots. Put up case studies. Include testimonials: their problem and what solution you delivered. That shows the customer how they can benefit from what you offer.
Any final advice for freelancers?
Never stop learning and never stop trying new things. I think it’s really important to work on your own projects. Even if it’s something that will never see the light of day, just work on something for yourself and balance that with the stuff you do for clients.