(This is a guest post by Brian Casel, a speaker at the upcoming Double Your Freelancing Conference. Don’t have your ticket yet? Buy your ticket while they’re still available and join Brian and 13 other speakers in Norfolk, Virginia, this September 16th – 18th)
In 2011 I made my fulltime living from billing clients for my time. Financially, that was a pretty good year for me.
But was I happy? Did I see a bright future ahead of me? Not really. I knew I needed a change.
So in 2012, I made it my mission to transition from being a freelance web designer to being an owner of a product business. A product business could scale and grow over time. That idea excited me. That’s where I wanted my career to go.
I thought it would take about year to get there.
It took three.
It turns out, launching a product business, and growing it to a point where it can fully replace a comfortable freelance income is a lot harder than it seems!
But I did it. I eventually figured it out. I built and scaled up a business, then sold it for a six-figure exit. Now I’m building and scaling up another product business.
How did I make it happen? It’s easy to point to the nuts and bolts. The product decisions, the marketing tactics, the “lucky” breaks, and whatever else that appears on the surface.
But underneath it all is what really makes the difference: My mindset.
As I look back on these past few years, what really sticks out is my change in mindset. It really has completely transformed in ways I never could have predicted or expected back when I started this journey. And although it took many months of trial and error before arriving at each of these mindset shifts, I believe that once they settled in, they allowed me to truly crack the code on this long, hard, road from billing by the hour to selling products.
So let me share with you these key mindset shifts. Maybe you’ve already embraced these. Maybe you’ve yet to discover these. My hope is you’ll take these and think a bit deeper about where you’re at in your business, and where you want it to go.
Let’s dive in!
Just kidding. I’m not telling you to just “be happy”, like that’s a solution to not being happy.
But what I am saying is to be aware of your current level of happiness, as it relates to what you do for a living. Let me explain.
I mentioned that back in 2011 I made a decent living, but I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t happy with the type of clients I was working with and the type of work I was doing for them. I kept running into the same frustrations. They didn’t see the value in what I did, and I found that my projects continously went off the rails.
It got to the point where I’d have a new client sign a contract to start a $20,000 project with, and instead of a feeling of celebration, I felt trapped. “Shit. Now I have to deal with this client and this project for the next 3 months.” Is what I distinctly remember saying to myself on multiple occasions.
So why did I continue to do this work if it made me feel this way? The answer is, I don’t know. Or more accurately, I didn’t know, for a while.
It took me several years of freelancing and living project-to-project that I actually realized that this model added stress to my life—despite the financial comfort it brought me. I didn’t realize until later that there were alternatives that I could explore.
This is not to say that running a product business is all rainbows and unicorns every day. I still have stressful days and seemingly insurmountable challenges to face. But I learned to remain in touch with how happy I am with what I’m doing. This is a major driver in the decisions I make about where I want my business to go.
When I worked as a freelancer I never thought in terms of growth. If I did, it was after the fact. Usually around tax time when I figure out exactly how much I made last year. Was it more than the previous year or about the same?
What did I do with that information? Not much. I just went back to work because I had a deadline this Friday and my email inbox is piling up, and oh wait, the phone’s ringing…
Once I was knee-deep in building a product business, it became all about growth.
How many customers did we add this month? How many email subscribers do we have? Is it time to hire another employee? These are the surface-level “growth” questions that a business owner thinks about.
But I also took on a deeper growth mindset. Now, instead of looking at growth after the fact, I’m thinking ahead of it. What will this upcoming year look like? If we hit this target, how can we leverage that next year? What am I learning? Am I making progress, both personally and professionally?
You can see how this growth mindset starts to seep into all sorts of areas where it wasn’t before. I find that it makes “this job” a lot more interesting.
Managing “What To Do”
This one is a bigger deal than it might seem.
If there was one thing I (kinda) miss about my work as a freelancer, and before that my full-time job for that matter, it was that I always had a crystal clear idea of what I should be working on at any given time.
Sure, I juggled many balls and simultaneous projects. I had to prioritize and use my time wisely in order to make sure that all deadlines were met. But that’s the thing. Nearly everything in a freelancer’s job (or any full-time job) is deadline-driven. Deadlines dictact which projects get added to your plate this week.
Once I phased out client work to focus most (and later all) of my time on my products business, a funny thing happened.
I didn’t know what to work on!
I had a thousand things that I knew I needed to do. But I had no idea which ones I should work on first, second, third, or tenth. For a while, I jumped haphazardly from project to project and I chased shiny objects.
I felt like a toddler who just learned how to walk. Where should go? I want to go everywhere! Like… Now!
I read a blog post about an email marketing strategy, I’d go drop everything implement it right now. A potential customer requests a certain feature, I’d do everything to get that feature built stat! And wouldn’t it be great if this other thing existed? Hey, I could build that in my spare time…
Eventually this caught up with me. Remember the growth thing? Yeah, things stopped growing.
That’s when I got serious about managing what to work on. I started dedicating time in my schedule just to figure out what to work on. I held planning sessions, both solo and with my trusted advisors. I’d make strategic decisions about what we’ll tackle next, and what the bigger initiatives are. I’d map out the timeline for these. Most importantly, I’d decide what I won’t be working on and which things I’ll push off until later.
I thought the day I left my job to go freelance was the day I became my own boss. But really, it wasn’t until I decided what would be worked on and when that I truly felt like I was the one in charge.
Not Doing The Work
I used to think that hiring help was a luxury, not a necessity.
As a freelancer, I did all of the work. In some cases, when the project was large enough, I’d sub-contract parts of it to other freelancers. But generally speaking, the work being delivered to my clients was handled directly by me one way or another.
My product business was and still is a productized service. That means that many parts of it are operated using manual processes, executed by skilled people.
The mindset shift that happened was that the way I’d scale up this business was through people and processes. In other words, I knew going in that I would not be the one doing the work. In fact, I decided that if the business requires me to do the work, then this wouldn’t be the business for me.
Once I accepted this fact, I took concrete steps to make sure that I designed the business to run without me. This isn’t to say I don’t work at all. I still work a ton. But the work I do each day is focused on process, strategy, and building assets into the business that will help it grow, run more effeciently, and create more value. If my time is spent doing the technical work of delivering the service, then there won’t be any time to devote to building the business itself.
Picking up on that last point, a big question that stuck in my mind for years, was “how do I get to the point of being ready to hire help?”
I thought that it required a certain dollar amount to be sitting in my bank account. But what really matters more than the financial aspect of growing your team is the work itself.
It’s all about building predictability into the work. The more focused you (and your business) is about what it does, how it does it, and who it does it for, the more predictable everything becomes.
And the more predictable things are, the easier it is to build systems and processes. And once you have those systems and processes, you have a clear path to bringing someone in to fit the role that the process requires.
So the mindset shift here is to be ruthless about what you decide will be part of your product or service, and what won’t. It’s easy to let anything and everything sneak it’s way into your feature-list (remember the days of “scope creep”?). But every time you say “OK we’ll do that just this once”, you’re moving farther away from that goal of predictability.
Like I said, I’ve become somewhat of a “specialist” in building productized services businesses these past few years. I found productized services to be the path of least resistance when you’re making this long hard transition from freelancer to product owner.
If you’d like to dig deeper into how I build productized services from the ground up, I invite you to join my newsletter and check out my free email course on productizing your service.