This week marks my 10th year in business as an independent UX consultant. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge as a freelance UX designer, here are 10 tips to help you stay afloat for the next 10 years and beyond.
1. Always Be Curious (“ABC”)
Clients want and need your help. You must be constantly curious and willing to help them identify and solve problems. Your goal should always be to help your client improve from their current situation to their desired situation.
2. Keep Your Prospect Pipeline Full
Do you have a roster of potential new clients? Are you upselling existing clients? Constant “deal flow” is critical to staying in business. What happens if you lose a client? Is someone waiting in the wings to work with you?
As you service existing clients, it’s important to also keep your eyes on the horizon. Most UX engagements are one-off projects, so unless you can setup a monthly retainer it’s a good idea to always have “the next thing” lined up well ahead of time.
My next project is usually at least 90 days away, so I try to plan ahead and forecast sales as far into the future as possible.
3. Stay Current
Lifelong learning is a requirement for success in digital marketing. The interwebs are constantly changing. If you think the same stuff you did 10 years or even 10 months ago will work today you’re wrong.
4. Set Regular Business Hours And Stick To Them
Whether you work full or part-time, clients need to know when they can reach you. What’s most important to them is responsiveness and consistency.
In his wonderful book “The Five Hour Workday”, author and Tower Paddle Boards CEO Stephan Aarstol said that when he changed his customer service hours to 8am to 1pm from the standard 9-5 there was virtually no impact.
Aarstol’s company earns over $9 million a year with just a 9-person team. My clients know I’m not available after 3pm Eastern time in the US and it’s never been a problem. Set your hours, communicate them to your clients and stick to them.
5. Guard Your Time
Besides having a consistent work schedule, productivity is crucial. As an independent consultant you can’t afford the cost of interruptions. If you work from home, make sure friends and family understand your needs for quiet periods.
Define and prioritize your workload and setup systems (see below) to support you. Technology will help to some extent, but self-discipline is really the kicker here. For example, stay off chat and Facebook when you need to get work done.
I like to use the Pomodoro Technique, which is just a fancy name for dividing tasks up into 25 or 50-minute sprints with a break in between. It’s a huge help when I’m on large projects.
6. Stay Healthy
Independent workers do not get sick days so take care of yourself. Eat organic, clean, whole foods. Stay away from packaged crap. It’s not good for you.
Party if you must, but know that you can have plenty of fun without compromising your health. Besides eating right, remember to be AWESOME each day.
It means get lots of fresh Air, drink plenty of Water, touch the Earth, enjoy daily Sunlight, have fun Outdoors, and practice mindful Movement so you’ll have endless Energy.
7. Use Systems
Setting up and using trusted systems can keep you from getting overwhelmed when you get really busy. The more you can get stuff out of your head and into a “safe” place, the more clearly you can think and stay focused on your priorities. Here are some of the online tools I use on a daily basis:
Teamwork – for managing client and internal projects
Things – daily to do list
Google Apps – internal process docs and business proposals
Dropbox – backup client docs
Freshbooks – client invoices
Acuity – calendar and scheduling
8. Review Your Finances Regularly
I learned this the hard way (see below). Like it or not, your finances are the life blood of your business. If you run out of cash, you’re done.
Make sure you schedule regular reviews of what’s coming in and what’s going out so there’s no surprises. Don’t be afraid of it – once you get a handle on it you will have real freedom.
Learning to rock your finances is not that hard, but it is time consuming. Make time for it now and your confidence will soar.
9. Keep Going
In 2011 the US Financial crisis finally caught up with me. At the start of that year I thought I had 8 potential contracts lined up. But during the first quarter, every single one of them either got delayed or canceled. I was devastated. How would we make the mortgage?
What really happened was that I took my eye off the ball and didn’t manage my business appropriately. By that point I had exhausted my savings, run up some big expenses and hadn’t been realistic at all about these 8 potential clients. They never made any commitment other than they “might” have a project at some point during the year.
It was a very hard lesson. I had to get a full time job to make ends meet while I ran my consulting business on the side for over a year. Thankfully I was eventually able to turn things around and keep going. But at the time I really thought it was over.
Don’t let that happen to you. Keep watch over your business and it will take good care of you in the long term.
10. Stay Humble
Most of all, try to live in the moment since all we have is right now. Good or bad, all things are temporary. Life can and does change in an instant. What’s your bank balance look like? How is your health? Who have you helped today and what do they think of the experience?
People will talk, so give them something good to talk about by doing your best work. Above all, remember that most people are decent, smart and hard working. You can have a great time helping them solve problems and learn a lot from them by just listening.
What About You?
Do you agree with these 10 tips? What would you add to them or do differently? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!
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