How to scale your freelance business

Freelance businesses don't tend to scale very well, in the sense that your day's work (and therefore, income) is limited by how many hours are available to you. Yet there are so many areas that can be automated to streamline your processes that you can really start to win back lost hours and increase output. This extra capacity lets you take on more clients, further scaling up your business. Of course this won't render it infinitely scalable to X clients; that would require outsourcing most jobs coming your way, meaning you cease to be a majority freelance business, but it will get you as close as possible to your maximum working capacity. So which processes can we look at improving?

1. Gaining prospects

Assuming you have a website already, given that it can be the biggest time-saver on the sales and marketing front, provided it is well structured, I'll recommend the two simplest levers for gaining new prospective clients: mailing lists and targeted advertising. Mailing lists allow you to collect interest from those who have gone to the effort of finding your site, but haven't quite got around to contacting you yet. Rather than lose the visitor interest, catch it in a sign up form and send out periodic emails including offers, packages and news on your work. The best mailing list providers are generally free for low usage, and allow fair unsubscribing and spam protection (ensuring messages are delivered to inboxes, which is a tough task in itself). Check out Aweber or Mailchimp for a starting point. When it comes to bringing people to your site, aside from structuring it well for search engines and social media shares etc. you can simply buy traffic. This is useful to test site performance, as well as to bring in new business worth more than the cost of the ads. If you do it right! The founder of the popular product suggestion site recently shared her secret for getting her first several hundred thousand users: she spent $20 per day on Facebook ads. Now, her market can be readily found in Facebook, whereas service buyers are more likely searching Google. Adwords, then, is our first port of call for targeted advertising, but go wherever your market is when it comes to paying for their attention. Running a successful campaign is hard, but they can quite easily pay for themselves if you keep a close eye on keywords and daily budgets. There are many other things that can be done online to funnel new prospects into your 'sales pipeline', such as testing site copy, placement of calls to action and so on, but these two initial moves will almost certainly be quick wins for most freelancers. This automation of prospecting and collecting emails can easily save 2 hours per week over a manual process of cold emailing, researching and calling prospects.

2. Translation workflow

Assuming in this case that you already make use of CAT tools, or related workflow productivity tools, there remain ways to reduce time spent on the job through improving efficiency. Given that corrections and amendments post-delivery can be extremely time consuming, consider teaming up with a colleague to proofread each other's work and cut out any lengthy to-and-fro amendment sessions. Once the client has seen one change they would prefer, we all know they can tend to get carried away and try to change more than is strictly necessary. On top of this I would suggest employing time tracking - that is the logging of time consuming (and time wasting) tasks such as OCR, alignment, tag handling etc. By focusing on hunting down and eliminating, automating or outsourcing these jobs. Finding them is easy, through the use of tools like RescueTime, or even a pen and paper diary of time spent on various tasks for a few days. When identified, automation is simple. You can offer to pay a colleague who is proficient at these tasks, or hire help from one of the many freelance sites online. Either way you can free up more of your time to focus on paid work, increasing your capacity or just earning back some work/life balance. Depending on how much of a priority this is to you, a saving of around 2 hours a week is possible through simply spending less time on the major time-sink tasks.

3. Invoicing

Rather than trotting out and editing the same invoice template job after job, using an online accountancy application (such as Freeagent) can remove all of those repetitive tasks and track any unpaid invoices to help keep your cashflow in check. They can issue reminders automatically, saving you time normally spent manually checking each invoice for due date and payment. Not to mention the mental effort it takes to switch from admin work back to your freelance work. This 'context switching', as I've seen it referred to, is one of the biggest productivity killers going. It can range from a simple interruption to your working day through to having to juggle the various types of task a freelance worker deals with. If you've been on the fence about this one I'd recommend the investment to allow you to focus on your work and let the software handle payments. Even if you save just one hour a month the software pays for itself in increased capacity. I'd estimate a saving of at least 1 hour per week spent on admin if you are working at near capacity - especially when it comes to general annual accounting of expenses and bills.

4. Spend time on a pricing strategy

Having a plan in place for gently easing up prices with new clients can offer more time for each job. This alone has the compound effects of higher quality deliveries (through additional services provided, perhaps) but always bearing in mind the rate being charged has other benefits: it allows you to eliminate the time-sink jobs that eat into your full capacity, and ensure you are working towards building a freelance business that is sustainable. To be sustainable it must always price future growth into its rates, which is what I've endeavoured to do with the Rate Calculator offered with the Translation sales handbook. I'm currently giving this away to those interested, so if you would like to check it out, sign up below and you'll receive a copy. There is the potential for an immediate time saving of 2 hours per week by stripping out the least profitable jobs and focusing on the most profitable - saving time for the same (or higher) level of profit.

5. Health and general task management

Well this is mainly a given. Everyone knows to stand up and walk around from time to time. I'll just offer two ideas for these related productivity areas to make further time savings in your working week. A few years back there was a surge of interest in standing desks. This has persisted, with treadmill desks now even emerging. I am in two minds about these, as standing for too long can also lead to varicose vein and related health issues (just ask a barber, apparently), however I have been using my own standing desk (an artist's easel tripod-mount screwed to a laptop-shaped board, with ventilation holes, mounted on a tripod, placed on a desk) for a good while now and have generally felt better for it, with only occasional discomfort during prolonged sessions. I now try to limit standing to half of the day. To try out the standing workday you can simple place a coffee table/chair/stepladder/box on your desk and work on those directly. It'll give you a feel for it, although expect it to take a week for it to stop feeling like a work out. This alone doesn't seem like it would save any time, yet the feeling of alertness that comes from being on your feet rather than on your chair seems to lead directly to increased output. At least in my experience! I would liken it to a comparison between the mental state of reading vs that of doing DIY or household chores, where sitting is very sedate and can lull you into inaction, whereas standing and being active have a momentum of their own. Finally, to round off the productivity tips, the use of work 'sprints' or time-bounded sessions can really help you to focus when there is a lot to cover at once. Prioritising task lists is one thing, but actually working through the lists often requires a little push in the right direction. Enter Pomodoro. It is a well-known technique in 'getting things done' circles (the acronym GTD, referring to productivity in general, is actually widely used, bizarrely) and there are many apps and sites offering tools to help with this. It works on a 25 minute cycle, with the counter starting when you press start. You focus on the highest priority task for those 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and then come back to your desk and hit start again. The timer acts as an external agent giving you a little pressure to get tasks cleared, which is often all that is needed in the busiest times. These two final methods ought to claw back at least 1 hour per week in time lost to inaction.

Final words

I'd put the estimated total time saved, using all of the above in conjunction, to be at around 8 hours per week. If this is accurate and applicable to your work environment, that would give you one whole new work day per week. Or more than one whole extra month per year. A potential extra month's revenue per year is not the only benefit from streamlining in this way; you also get compounding benefits of an improved client base and better systems for managing them, ratcheting up income levels for the years to come while these systems keep running. Alternatively you can use that whole extra month per year to sit on your nearest and dearest beach, listening to the waves, if you'd rather. Your call! The ideas noted here are really the low hanging fruit when it comes to optimising your freelance business. I've written about these and many more in detail in the Translation sales handbook, which aims to help you create a business that is primed for growth and long-term sustainability. It is due for re-release in a few weeks. To get more tips like this, and to receive a copy of the rate calculator mentioned above, sign up here: --

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-- Thanks for reading! Check out the book's blurb page here: The translation sales handbook

Thanks for reading. I do translation from French and Swedish to English, so if that's useful to you, feel free to connect and message me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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