Making the leap from freelancer to fully-fledged creative marketing agency is no mean feat. Whether you’re a designer, developer, copywriter or marketeer, having had the courage to start out as a freelancer in the first place takes courage, grit and determination.
Nice work. 👏
Making your own way also takes sacrifice. Saying ‘yes’ to opportunity often means saying ‘no’ to hanging out with gang on Saturday night. Don’t feel guilty, though. You’re the one with the vision. The passion. You’re the one with that irrepressible little voice inside your head that only you can hear.
While at times it might feel like you’re alone, rest assured you aren’t. In fact, according to Micro Biz Mag, there are currently over 2 million freelancers in the UK. Are you one of them? Are you now considering switching your business model from freelance to agency?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you’re in the right place. Read on for tips and insights into how to build a creative marketing agency on a budget.
When’s the right time to start a
If you’re perched on the proverbial fence deciding whether to make the jump, understand this: the freelancer to agency transition is all about timing.
Luckily, there are some common signs to look out for that the time is now right. WPMU DEV’s article on this subject rounds them up beautifully:
- You’re working more than 8 hours a day
- Demand has exceeded your own capacity
- When someone asks you to go on holiday you start sweating
- You’re turning down work
When your business starts pushing you to grow rather than you pushing it, it has become bigger than one person. Your baby is all grown up. It has become its own thing; a quasi-sentient brand which knows what it wants.
So, respond in kind and start expanding. And, doing so doesn’t require pockets deeper than an offshore oil well. In fact, it is possible to build a creative agency on a shoe-string budget and I’m here to tell you how…
Turning your freelance business
into a profitable agency
From client management, business development to tax affairs, you’ll have accrued valuable skills during your travels as a freelancer. These are all adaptable to the agency life. Be mindful though, starting an agency will throw up new challenges. There will be a steep learning curve when it comes to hiring staff, putting processes in place and building up your client base.
So create a bullet-proof business plan. Set yourself realistic targets and a realistic schedule. Understand what your competitors are up to, that will inform you on niches you can exploit, possibly even highlight gaps in the market, and it will inform you about setting competitive prices. Remember though: a plan needs to be flexible so you can adapt and act on new opportunities as they arise.
In building your agency, consider retaining your current setup. In this brave new world of remote working, you don’t necessarily need to invest upfront in a fancy office space. This can wait. Add it to your wish list. You can and you will get there. For now though, consider keeping your overheads down. If this means working from home, great.
To get that professional look, you could consider renting a commercial address from a local business centre. For a low monthly cost, this will give your business more weight and credibility in the eyes of prospective clients. You could also get a landline business number which forwards to your mobile. It’s about creating the experience somebody seeking an agency would expect to see.
While it’s important not to underestimate the value of communal space for your team of creatives and clients to collaborate in, again, it’s all about timing.
Pro tip: Weigh up the pros and cons of investing in office space. Keeping your overheads down means you can invest in essential tools for your new hires including computers and specialist software such as Adobe Creative Cloud, or access to online asset libraries, such as Shutterstock.
Do a Freaky Friday and jump into the body of your prospective buyers. View your existing brand through the prism of their eyes. Does it say ‘freelancer’ or does it say ‘agency’. How you position yourself in the marketplace will reflect the type of clients you attract.
Undertake market research. Build user personas. It could be, for instance, that you want to create profitable conversations with marketing managers in large businesses. So understand what keeps them awake at night. Understand what they are looking for from an agency.
This will likely mean you’ll need to consider a rebrand. And not just your logo, but everything that your prospect buyer comes in to touch with from visuals to content.
If you want to be an agency, say “we” rather than “I”. Create a sense of size. Let buyers know you have the skill, experience and capacity to meet and exceed all their needs. You are the one-stop convenience they’ve been looking for.
The royal “we” has a long and interesting history. Historians attribute its first usage to King Henry II, who many years earlier in 1169 used it to imply he was speaking for both himself, and for God. Over time, business leaders have adopted this language to indicate they speak on behalf of others – in other words, it’s not just you.
Ensure your new brand wraps across all your in and outbound marketing platforms from website to social media feeds.
Pro tip: If you’re a graphic designer, the only cost to reviewing your brand will be time. If you’re not a designer, look to partner with a freelancer designer. Going forward, building relations with external partners will be key to building your agency. As it’s your own brand under the microscope rather than a new client, this also presents a low-risk way to test your new freelancer connection out with a mind to bringing them on to client projects in the future.
Professional domain and email
It could be that a gmail account has served you well to date. As you reposition yourself from freelancer to agency, consider the benefits of a professional domain and matching email. This will really cement your credibility ratings in the eyes of clients.
With an email address that puts the emphasis on your name, customers new and old will know who you are. Not only does it set you apart from your competitors, but you’ll have an aura of legitimacy that will help build trust with your customers – plus, it’ll look great on CVs, business cards, stationery and packaging. Business email is the best blend of the reliability of a hosted service and the trustworthiness of your own email address.
Assembling the team
Where others say ‘no’ to client requests, always say ‘yes’. In the words of Richard Branson: “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”
It could be, for instance, that you’re a professional copywriter. In this scenario, if a client engages you for design services, never turn them down. Clients often seek convenience – which comes from having one go-to supplier. If they are asking you to do work outside your remit, that means they trust you. And it means you’re ready to build out that account.
Now, you don’t have to go straight out and hire a graphic designer. Employing people directly is awesome from them and you, but it comes with potential risks and headaches while quickly ratcheting up the complexity of your business. After all, if it turns out to be a one-time job for the client, you’ll have a designer sitting there doing nothing once it’s done whilst the fixed cost of their salary remains.
So consider building a freelance team you trust. The great thing about this is you only have to hire their services when the work comes in. You can become the account manager to the client and white label your freelance teams’ services under your own brand.
Where do you find freelancers?
There are various websites where freelance creatives can advertise their specialism and pitch for work – you’re probably registered with some of them yourself, so you know the drill. The obvious places to start are Upwork, Freelancer, Guru, LinkedIn Profinder or PeoplePerHour. If you’re looking for photographers, you can find them on Flickr, while film-makers put their work on Vimeo. There are many more sites like these, so shop around.
That’s one way to find talented creatives, but they will be from all over the world. There is a simpler method you can employ to find people who are in your area: use Google.
Let’s say you’re looking for a Graphic Designer in Brighton. A quick Google search immediately offers up 16 businesses which identify with the search term ‘Graphic Design Brighton’. Wherever you are, the story will likely be very similar. If not, widen your search area.
The nature of outsourcing being what it is, it doesn’t really matter if the people you work with are on the other side of the planet, but it can help with the vetting procedure, communication and building a professional rapport if you can actually meet with them, face to face.
Look at the work they have done, to ensure that it is up to the standard that you want to sell. After all, if you’re selling that work to your client it’s your name and reputation at risk, not your freelancer’s.
You need to be sure that, as well as having the skills you need; they are also in-line with your work ethic and work pace. If your client wants something the next day (which, let’s be honest, is usually when they want it) you need to be sure that you have a bank of people you can rely on to deliver work of high quality at that sort of pace. On the other hand, you need to know that, when a major project comes along, you have people out there who can commit to a long and complicated job.
Find out what their rates are and establish a fee you’re both happy with. Since you will be doing the legwork of finding the client, setting the brief and managing them, consider your margins. You don’t want to be working for free. The trick here is to start to build a business nest egg ready for re-investment – possibly into a full time designer, for example.
When you put your own quote forward to your client, add the total cost (including any freelancer fees). Remember to set payment terms. After all, now you’re hiring freelancers, they’ll rightly expect to be paid on time themselves. Cashflow is key to this.
You might also be able to strike an agreement where you can present your freelancer’s work as being from your portfolio. That will help you secure more work for your agency and, therefore, more work for your freelancers.
That way everyone’s a winner baby and that’s the truth.
Pro tip: Eventually – and this could take a year or maybe two – you will find that you have contracts locked in, you have a steady stream of recurring work – you’ve hit that sweet spot where, instead of farming work out to, say, three or four designers, it would be quicker and cheaper to have one in-house.
Living the agency life
Freelancers and agency owners have one key thing in common: they want to be their own boss. Where they differ is that the freelancer only has so many hours in the day to sell. So, if you want more, living the agency life might be for you.
Your agency journey will be unique to you, but hopefully some of these tips will help you on your way. Start small, think big. Control your own destiny. And live the agency life.
If you’ve managed to grow an agency and you have some advice you can offer to people starting out, drop your experiences in the comments…