We’ve all seen stories of designers who quit their day-jobs to freelance, only to end up building a design empire from the ground up. While those who choose to start freelancing possess an unrivalled ambition, it takes a unique mix of strategic thinking and tenacity to scale a one-person operation into a fully developed business that manages dozens of employees and clients.
Luckily at Shopify, we’ve had the pleasure of working alongside many individuals who have found success building profitable web design firms — all from their humble beginnings as freelancers. And in the supportive nature of our community, we asked ten of them to share the biggest factors that influenced the growth of their businesses to help those of you striving to do the same.
We hope their insights will inspire you to push forward when things get tough, and overcome the growing pains that come along with scaling any business.
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1. Start pushing your limits
“I think testing your bandwidth is so important. We really started growing when we decided to take on a ton of work. We had no idea what we were capable of until we backed ourselves into a corner with an obscene workload. My advice would be to take on more work than you can handle, discover your limit, then use that as a catalyst for growth.”
— Nick van Gorden, Duck & Cover.
2. Provide customer service that people will never forget
“In addition to building a great website, we use tools to make the process really smooth, we set clear timelines, and always deliver on time. After a project completes, we send hand-written thank you cards, and sometimes even a bottle of wine. These small touches have helped immensely with referrals and clients returning for more work.”
— Tristan King, Shopify Ninjas.
3. Position yourself as an industry expert
“The best thing I've done to help grow my business has been simply sharing what I know and teaching others. It was a little counterintuitive at first — it kind of felt like giving away trade secrets — but over time it's positioned me as an expert in the field. Nowadays, clients are often seeking me out specifically because I've helped them or someone they know in the past via a blog post, workshop, or forum comment.”
— Gavin Ballard, Disco.
4. Focus on your client’s needs, not your own
“I think the biggest factor that has helped us grow is our dedication to our clients. It’s putting the effort into understanding what our customers are really looking for and developing service packages that are tailored to their needs. It is all about what your client is buying, not what you think you are selling.”
— Kim Carruthers, eChic.
5. Specialize your design services
“Finding a focus is incredibly important for freelancers. Existing as a specialist rather than a generalist in the microcosm of creative services means that you will accumulate a great deal of valuable knowledge that goes far beyond what's available via any online resource. This means you’ll have a better chance of winning projects and delivering stronger, better products in less time.”
— Natasha Murphy, Nicely Built.
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6. Value people over profits
“As simple as it sounds, it’s affected every single part of our business. We truly believe our success is tied to the businesses we interact with. If we’re making other businesses become better, we’re going to see the long-term benefits of this. We’re proud to have multiple Shopify clients we have worked with going on seven years now. They know we always give honest answers, bill them fairly, and are quick to respond. Our availability and reliability matter more to our clients than any other aspects of the relationship. If you can build healthy relationships, you can build a healthy freelancing business.”
— Andrew Johnson, Rehash.
7. Build the right team
“Having a clear vision to bring in the right people is so important. Hiring my incredibly talented, driven, and passionate team is the best business decision I've ever made and has been immensely influential at fueling the growth of our company.”
— Sara Mote, Sara Mote.
8. Target a niche market
“The biggest change in my business' growth happened when I decided to be more niche. I had been working as a freelance web designer for a few years already, but was trying to get clients that needed a little bit of everything. At first I thought this was a great idea, however I was having trouble getting clients consistently. I came to realize it was better to be really good at one thing instead of good at a lot of things. So I went niche by focusing solely on ecommerce. Through this I was able to really craft my message to speak exactly to my target market's goals, needs, and fears.”
— Elle McCann, Curious Themes.
9. Trust your intuition about clients
“My biggest advice is to trust your intuition at all times. I can tell from the first phone call if the client is going to be too difficult to work with and, trust me, it’s better to walk away from a bad situation than endure it. I've learned that I can be more productive and creative when I'm not limited by the stress and anxiety that some clients are all too willing to inflict. I'm happier and less stressed, and that’s been reflected in the work I produce.”
— Rachel Farabaugh, Bohemian and Chic.
10. Leverage industry partnerships
“For us, partnering with Shopify has been incredibly influential in scaling our agency. We have made a conscious decision to focus 100% on designing and building ecommerce websites on the Shopify platform. From building features to recruiting and project management, sticking to a single, supported platform like Shopify will allow you to hit every pitch, even if it is a curveball.”
— Chris Pointer, Pointer Creative.
What are some of the biggest factors that influenced your growth? Let us know in the comments below.
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