Work / life balance for freelancers

20 Traits of Successful Freelancers

By Brennan Dunn

Have you ever wondered what traits separate exceptional freelancers from the average? You know — people who charge huge rates, work on incredible projects, and just seem to be kicking ass with everything they do?

When I was at LessConf, I heard a talk from Jason Blumer (disclaimer: he’s my CPA.) Jason talked about 20 things that that “rich, creative business owners” (RCBOs) do, and I wanted to relay them on to you.

Now, Jason’s in a bit of a unique position to come up with this list. First off, he only works with creative professionals like you and me. And second, he knows how much each of his clients make. Pretty awesome, eh?

So here are the first ten traits of RCBOs — along with commentary from yours truly 🙂

  1. RCBOs understand the difference between freelancing and entrepreneurship — You’ve heard me talk a lot about how easy it is to fall into the cycle of perpetual client work. You work, work, work and spend very little time strategically thinking about your future. A freelancer / entrepreneur knows where they are today, but more importantly knows where they want to be tomorrow.
  2. RCBOs sell knowledge — this implies they don’t just sell time. The difference between a client hiring you as effectively an employee, but with the added benefit that they can ditch you at any time with very little friction, versus a consultant who is hired because of what you’ve got in your head and your ability to execute on that is HUGE.
  3. RCBOs leverage teams — When I ran my consulting business, I had a team of employees. Today, I have part-time contractors and VAs who help me get stuff done. My time is limited, and there are some things I legitimately don’t bring any value to — bookkeping, onboarding new students into my workshop, etc. However, there are a lot of demanding things that I can’t (and won’t) delegate out: writing my newsletter, writing blog posts, answering reading email. The next time you do some routine task, ask yourself: Is this a valuable use of my time?
  4. RCBOs build a brand — When I was the CEO of my consultancy, it was clear I was running a brand. You weren’t hiring Brennan, you were hiring the company he owns. Now that I’ve decided to focus on products, I’m still running a brand — a brand of Brennan. Branding in this context means a way in which you operate, a tone that your messaging takes, and processes and procedures that you use to get stuff done. A brand-less business moves whatever way the wind blows.
  5. RCBOs make time to think, write and learn — Stagnation occurs when you do the same thing again, and again, and again. Thinking big thoughts allows you to clear your head of the immediate and focus on the road ahead. Writing gets those thoughts on paper (tree or virtual), and is just another expression of thought. It’s almost like the act of thinking turns a rough block of marble into a shape, and writing extracts out the details — you need both steps to result in something beautiful.
  6. RCBOs know a lot of the right people — Successful people aren’t hermits, but they aren’t mooches either. I know, and consider friends, a ton of people who have helped me grow my business. But our relationship isn’t contingent on “What can they give to me?” When cold-emailing someone you look up to, or invite a conference speaker out for drinks, ask yourself: What’s in it for them?
  7. RCBOs recognize their own value — Anyone who’s read my first book knows that I have a huge problem with people who undercharge, especially when pressured. The four weeks you’re about to spend on that upcoming project? They’re irrecoverable — like fossil fuel. Undercharging cheapens a resource you’ll never get back.
  8. RCBOs seek out coaching and mentorship — I’ve hired business coaches, and people now hire me to coach their consulting businesses. Truthfully, at first I lumped “coaches” in with “therapists.” I thought they were for those who couldn’t tackle issues and plan by themselves. Wow, was I wrong. Get yourself an advisor who understands your business or hire a coach. Get to know your peers who are a step ahead of you, and mentor those a step behind you. Trust me on this one.
  9. RCBOs constantly innovate new products and services — You know what’s great about each new prospective client you talk to? You’re starting with a blank slate. You can experiment based on the successes and failures of the past, and apply them the next time you work with someone. Early on, I raised my rates because I didn’t consider myself to have an actual rate. I had rates that I had charged in the past… but that had nothing to do with right now. Experiment and play with how you qualify new clients, how you conduct meetings, what you charge, how you invoice. Learn from your past and always be improving.
  10. RCBOs take risks — If you’re a full-time freelancer, you’ve already taken your first big risk… You quit your job, and went out on your own. Successful people know that the greater the risk taken, the greater the reward. But most of us are afraid of failure. We don’t want to slip. But wouldn’t you rather slip moving up to that next step, and landing back — flat on your ass — where you were before, rather than never moving at all?

The next post will include the final 10 traits of RCBOs.