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Want to Scale a Freelance Business? Start with Systems Thinking



I’m overhauling the way I work.


I believe one of my weaknesses as a one-person business operation is my lack of consistent systems. I’ve built a successful freelance business almost entirely on the merits of craft.


Clients work with me because I produce strong prose and compelling copy. But the processes through which I achieve that work—and run the unseen administrative side of my business—haven't caught up to my progress as a copywriter.


At the beginning of 2022, I decided this was my year to make a change. I’ve determined to challenge myself this year to be a systems thinker, someone who automates, uses templates, systematizes, and breaks things down into incremental steps. As I explore systems thinking this year, I’ll report my findings and progress on this blog (and newsletter), starting with this article.

The (obvious) case for implementing more systems

I’ve achieved some success as a freelancer. I earn a good living and don’t struggle to deliver work to clients or find new projects. Perhaps there’s even an argument to be made that I shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken.


So, why the change? And why now?


There are four primary reasons I’d like to implement new systems into my business:


  1. Calm project overwhelm: I’m bad at turning down work. Without an efficient system, storing project details and progress inevitably leads to overwhelm. The clear solution to this—beyond turning down work, which I should probably do as well—is creating better systems for handling work. Systems will keep me sane.

  2. Scale a one-person business: Freelancers have a handful of ways to scale. We can outsource work, use automation and systems to get more done in less time, consistently raise rates with demand, or create offerings (like digital products) that can sell without our time and attention. I am at a place in my business where scaling is the next obvious step. It seems to me that automation and systems are an easy jumping-off point for the other scaling methods. So, that’s where I’m starting.

  3. My work contains a lot of repetition: Freelance copywriting has a fast project turnover rate. Most projects have clear start and completion dates that last just a few weeks. While every article and website is unique, they are more alike in structure than they are different. In other words: there’s a short-term, cyclical nature to my work that just begs to be systematized.

  4. Move in a consistent, deliberate direction: As a freelancer, it’s easy to get lost in the details of client projects and never look up to see in which direction my business is heading. I find great meaning in my freelance work. But I believe I sacrifice some of that meaning by thinking just about the next project rather than deliberately building something for the long term. By implementing systems, I default to choosing a direction. As James Clear says, “Your current habits are perfectly designed to deliver your current results.”


My favorite current systems

I don’t want to paint the wrong picture. I’m not starting from scratch. I have some systems in my business that work extremely well. In fact, my pivot to adopt more systems this year is grounded in the success I already see in my current business processes.


I have software to automate some repeating tasks. Gusto automates my payroll. TidyCal automates call scheduling. Otter transcribes my Zoom interviews. Not to mention, I rely on another dozen or so tools like Mailchimp, Ahrefs, AppSumo, Stencil, Quickbooks, and Google Analytics to streamline many tasks.


I outsource my personal and business taxes to a CPA. I use a template for proposals so that all I have to do is plug in a few project details and click send. My project management system is a physical notebook with a weekly to-do list.


I believe all these systems barely scratch the surface of what’s possible. My goal for this year is to become a stronger systems thinker and to create processes that help me do my best work with greater efficiency.


The first step toward optimization: direction

The best systems begin with a clear direction. What are you optimizing for?


Creating automation and business systems is like laying train tracks. Once in place, deviation from the track is harder than sticking to it. That’s my hope for this year. As I learn to build greater efficiency in my business through templates, processes, and tools, I will inevitably have to wrestle with difficult questions about the direction of my work.


I have many ideas but I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. I plan to reach out to people in my network who are already doing this well in their own lives and businesses to see what I can learn.


Let’s see where this takes us.

 

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