How spying on your competition leads to bigger and better freelance gigs

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Here’s a quiz question for you:

How do you grow your business exponentially? Do you: (a) try figuring things out on your own as you go along and improve one step at a time, or (b) spy on people, stealing their processes and adapting them to your business?

I guess you can figure out where I’m going with it.

Of course, (b) is the right answer.

***

This is part three of a three-part miniseries on how to get started today and have a real, profitable freelance design business within 12 months. We’re almost at the finish line and just about to take this series and turn it into an ebook (we hate lame ebooks too, so it’s not just a standard PDF; it’ll be packed with custom design, bonus content, tools, resources, and more.).

The first part was all about getting your wheels rolling and the second one was about why thinking big but starting small is the wise man’s approach. Check them both out to get the full picture of how we’re going about structuring a shiny new freelance design career.

***

Month #8: Spying on people

Well this gets interesting, doesn’t it? Okay, hear me out.

If I were to point out a single best thing you can do to grow your business, no matter what the business is, it would have to be spying on other successful people.

The point here is that a lot of what we call “running a business” has already been figured out by some great entrepreneurial minds.

You’re surely not the first one struggling to get clients, or struggling to stay productive, or struggling to expand your range of services. These are all quite common problems, and trying to get your head around them in solitude isn’t the best of ideas.

For that reason, it’s a lot easier to succeed if we just devote ourselves to analyzing what others are doing and mimicking their actions in some way.

Now, this is not about pretending to be someone else. This is about doing our research and learning what makes others successful.

So what I encourage you to do is the following:

  1. Pick one designer who you know is successful and, at the same time, is public enough as a persona – has a blog, shares a lot of stuff, etc.
  2. Research their online footprint. Check their social media profiles, find their profiles on social news sites, find them at various forums. In short, be a bit of a creep.
  3. Start paying attention and breaking their work habits down element by element.
  4. Whenever you discover something interesting, try it out. For instance, maybe they use Fiverr for very simple outsourcing tasks; maybe you should too?

Having these insights acts somewhat like working with a mentor. You pick an authority figure, learn from them, and grow along the way.

Month #9: Begin erasing, automating, delegating, and outsourcing

Month #9 is a decision point on your path to freelance design stardom (ekhm!).

Are you going to be in this on your own or do you want to eventually expand and get other people on board?

I know that this might sound like it’s too early for those kinds of decisions, but let’s just think about it for a minute.

The thing we’re going to be doing this month is trying to find weak points in your processes and your style of working, so you can fix them either by automating some of them, using some new tools, creating a script so it can then be handed over to your future outsourcer, or erasing it altogether.

No matter if you end up outsourcing any of those tasks right away or not, you still get some great insights about your current business and the things you can do to make it more efficient.

In other words, it’s never too early for improvements.

Let’s focus on a couple of areas of your work and answering the following questions:

  1. What are your most common daily challenges? These are the things that you do every day, but don’t feel you’re effective enough yet.
  2. What are the tasks that keep repeating themselves throughout many of your projects?
  3. What are the tasks you’re absolutely dreadful at?
  4. What are the tasks that you know have to be done, but you don’t want to do them?
  5. What are the tasks that you like to do, but know that they can either be done more effectively by someone else or by a group of people?
  6. What are the things you’d like to improve about your client communication?

Once you have the answers jotted down on a piece of paper, you can begin creating systems to improve on them and optimize the way you work. For example:

  1. For things that make up your common daily challenges, try looking into individual tools that can help you out. Maybe you should introduce a productivity tool like Trello (a favorite here at GDB)?
  2. For tasks that keep repeating themselves, create written processes – describe the steps needed to execute them.
  3. For tasks you’re absolutely dreadful at, place them on a shortlist of things to outsource first.
  4. For tasks that you don’t want to be doing and tasks that you know can be done more effectively by someone else, create written processes as well, and then put them on the outsource shortlist. (This is maybe a good list for your PSD-to-WordPress work. This can be done quite effectively by other people.)
  5. Your client communication is one of the most important areas of your design business. And new processes can do a great job at improving the situation. For instance, one of the common daily challenges for freelance designers is keeping up with all the stuff that gets sent one way or the other. One of the best tactics to fix this is by using a CRM software like Highrise (update: Highrise is rumored to go off-line soon).

Having your processes and your lists of things that can be outsourced gives you many great possibilities. For example, you can examine each process, find its weak points and improve each one gradually. And once you do get to decide that it’s about time to bring some outsourcing help on, you’ll be set perfectly with all the possible tasks that someone can do for you.

(For more info on how to hire a VA, please check this post.)

Month #10, #11, and #12: Going after bigger gigs

Since you’ve gone through all the months leading up to this, I truly believe that you are more than equipped to start landing some bigger deals.

The funny thing is that when it comes to the tactics themselves, there isn’t anything that changes. The same methods that got you smaller gigs are likely to give you some of the bigger ones too. You just need to open yourself to the concept that more money (and more responsibility) can be coming your way if you just decide to take it.

(So just to recap, if you’d like to go through individual gig-landing tactics again, go back to month #3.)

Use the last three months of the year to focus on those better paying gigs. Should you ditch the smaller ones or not, is on you.

From a business point of view, it’s always better not to have all your eggs in one basket. Working on 3-4 projects simultaneously will always be safer financially than working on just one huge project.

Month #12 / last week – the review

Wow, it’s been a ride, but we’re done planning the whole year at this point!

The last week is naturally the perfect moment to review and reevaluate your goals and the direction you’re going to take with your freelance design business going forward.

Here are some questions that can help:

  1. Is your website still relevant (still attractive) and do you still want to cater to the same types of clients? Maybe you should check what’s trendy in WordPress design at the moment?
  2. What about the content you publish on your site, does it resonate with the audience you have? Do you have any ideas on how to improve it? (Remember, check what other successful designers are doing with their content.)
  3. Are your social media profiles growing steadily? What you can do to make them grow even more?
  4. How’s your presence in various communities related to design? Are you happy with the business training you’re part of?
  5. Are you still doing simple, small tasks? Do you want to keep them as part of your business? If so, should they account for 20 percent (30, 40, 60, etc.) of your work?
  6. Are you using a CRM? Is it helping you with your daily client-related tasks?
  7. What about your email newsletter for clients? What are you doing to improve the way you’re using the newsletter to interact with your leads and clients?
  8. How many guest posts did you manage to land? Are you planning on increasing your activity in this area?
  9. Who’s your mentor – the person you’re looking up to in terms of running a business?
  10. Have you started outsourcing or bringing other people on board? If not, do you plan on doing it?
  11. Have you had the chance to work on some bigger gigs? How will you pursue them in the upcoming year?

As you can see, the first year is just the beginning of your freelance design journey. And who knows, maybe later on it will turn into a fully fledged design agency. I know that it might sound like a far-fetched idea right now, but the fact is that most of the agencies in operation today have started as one-man bands.

But wait, there’s more!

This concludes the online version of the guide, but it’s not the end of the story.

As I mentioned before, we’re taking this guide, adding some exclusive info (bonus content, action points, cheat sheets, examples, tools and resources), and releasing it as an ebook. We’ll share exactly how to get it in a short while. Stay put!

And in the meantime. Here’s to you and your freelance design career!

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About Karol K.

Karol K. (@carlosinho) is a blogger and writer, published author, and a team member at codeinwp.com. Check us out if you don’t like converting your PSDs to WordPress by hand, we’ll take good care of them for you.

 

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About Karol’s business: Karol is a freelance writer working with codeinwp.com, The top-notch PSD to WordPress service. YOU DESIGN, THEY CODE. As simple as that.

Comments

  1. Spy on people, stealing their processes and adapting them to your business”, don’t “try figuring things out on your own as you go along and improve one step at a time”?

    As designers, our role is to do our work, to build our skills and our client relationships with care rooted in own design perspectives; It is not to run around stealing ideas, styles and cutting corners by copying any designer we look up to.

    Your advice is irresponsible and discourages organic personal and professional growth.

    This kind of advice also creates a climate of distrust in our industry – as if the only secret to success as a designer is to steal – and encourages a lack of originality in vision and execution.

    I can’t even put into words how angry this post makes me.

    • I think you missed the point Susie! What Karol is trying to say is to learn from other, there are great freelancers that share their process, great companies that share their processes, of course I agree that you need to do things on your own and learn from them, but you won’t progress just doing that.

      Imagine that a designer worked 10 years to refine a process and worked with 1000 clients, why not ‘spy’ on him, get in touch, learn more about his process and improve it ? In this way you get his 10 years of experience and add 10 mores on top, rather than building from scratch .

    • Karol K. says:

      Just like Ionut said, you’re missing the point. What you call organic growth has never been truly organic for any of us. All our careers are built on top of what other people have already achieved and taught us in one way or the other.

      For example, why are you even here reading articles on the web? Why aren’t you sitting in your office, offline and trying to figure everything out by yourself? Whenever you’re reading any article about business, design, or anything else that’s work related, you’re indeed taking someone’s ideas and trying to adapt them to your situation.

      I just gave it a name – stealing ideas.

  2. It has been a while since I came across such a bad written piece. I read regularly GDB and appreciate very much Bianca’s and April’s input (no offence guys!) so I was not expecting this…

    Susie’s comment is right on. I could not agree more.

    The article is wrong at all levels.

    #1 encourages stealing & spying
    #2 assumes that all businesses are the same
    #3 mixes freelancing with startups and running business at many levels
    #4 has a paternalistic language (“So what I encourage you to do is the following:”)
    #5 assumes that delegating & outsourcing is an easy to do strategy and the right one to adopt.

    Your article’s main question “How do you grow your business exponentially? “ was a valid one.

    It would have been much useful to get in touch with 10-15 well known designers who are either freelancing or running their own business and ask them to share their experience by answering the question.

    • Karol K. says:

      Commenting on your points:

      1. [Comment above.]

      2. It assumes that basic business principles are the same for all businesses. You have a product and you want to sell it. Every business starts at that point. Later down the road we all have to face different challenges, but finding some common denominator is the only way to provide advice that’s applicable to more than one person’s situation.

      3. You’re right, it does. But I’m not quite sure what’s wrong about that?

      4. Well, if that’s your impression then okay. But personally, I’m not convinced that encouraging someone to do something is paternalistic.

      5. The whole part about outsourcing starts by pointing out that whether you want to outsource or not is entirely up to you.

  3. I think this is a very good post and have to respecfully disagree with previous comments.

    It’s easy to forget we are influenced every hour of every day by other people and ideas. We take what we discover, separating what we think are the golden nuggets from the dross, and adapt these things to our own circumstances and experiences.

    We’re bandits taking bits and pieces from every which way to mould into our future endeavours, whether we realise it or not. It’s human nature to wonder how someone did something, whether a magician on TV or an entrepreneur we respect.

    Mimicking our parents was how we developed as children but most people are not clones of their parents when they reach their teenage years are they?

    Karol is articulately describing what we do anyway but with some added directions for freelance designers.

  4. This article offers great advice and I think it’s irresponsible of any designer NOT to be closely following the industry leaders in their segment and imitating when applicable.

    Karol isn’t advocating corporate espionage, he’s simply recommending to keep an eye on the trends, insights and best practice information industry leaders are making publicly available via their blog or other media outlets.

    I follow 10-20 RSS feeds of companies similar to mine and I have learned a lot from their postings…in some cases even finding that we have similar goals or projects that we’ve been able to later collaborate on.

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