What Stage is Your Freelance Career at?

Some freelancers tend to effortlessly attract clients and business opportunities. They don’t have to push sales, clients seem to call incessantly and they hardly have any time to fit all the new business in. For others, business is always a struggle. There’s never a guarantee when the phone will ring again, there’s a perpetual shortage of cash and a seeming need to always go out there and win new business.

Then there are people who have left all that behind and are playing a much bigger game. Just as Henri Cartier-Bresson has become a huge influence in photojournalism and Steve Jobs did in the digital world, some artists get to a point where a freelancer label no longer applies – they start a movement or a company which takes on a life of its own and becomes a symbol of the cause they care deeply about.

The important thing to note here is that each one of these artists not only have a very different experience of business, but – much more importantly – they’re driven by very different motives. It’s tempting to look at their businesses and try to replicate the successful business models, but it’s important to get that their businesses are just a product of the motivations which drive their owners. You can never replicate the success of their business without first getting in touch with the headspace which gives rise to that success.

When building your freelance business, the temptation may be to do what you’ve been taught is the right thing to do: put your head down, work hard, learn more about business and persevere endlessly.

The trouble with that approach, though, is that anything you create will always be limited by the headspace you’re in. Our motivations determine our scope of vision which, in turn, will determine our actions and will shape the kind of business we build.

If you are a freelancer and feel stuck, the fastest way to experiencing success is not by doing more work that is driven by your current motivations, but by taking a closer look at the motivations that drive you, rising to a new level of thinking and exploring business strategies which present themselves to you when you’re there (and are not visible to you now).

There are three types of motivations that most freelancers will find themselves in – and they represent the stages that their business will inevitably be in.

Examine these stages to get an idea where you’re at, but use the labels loosely – you’ll probably find that you tend to drift between two stages (or maybe all three). There will be, however, a stage which you’ll notice most resembles your life and your business. And the single most important thing you can do right now to experience effortless success is to get to the next stage.

Stage 1: A “Me” Freelancer

First stage freelancer is involved in a “me” business. Me, me, me, you say. It’s all about you.

Your thinking is primarily driven by your own needs – you need more money, you need to get out of your day job, you need more traffic, more conversions – and so you build “me” – centered strategies to achieve those goals.

First stage is epitomised by the saying “I need to make money” – which is a dead giveaway of where a person’s focus is. Money, of course, needs to be “made”, but at this stage the freelancer is not driven by a desire greater than wealth or status or a desire to quit work entirely once the money has been made.

(As a side note, the idea of “making money” is a complete myth – unless you’re in the business of printing it, I suppose. I find that a much more empowering way to look at it is that money can be generated as a welcome side effect of creating value. And as a freelancer you can easily create value – but you can never make money).

First stage freelancers are easy to spot – and you’ve probably had a few clients who are in that boat. Their communication has not yet developed much past themselves, which means they have difficulty articulating what it is they do (and for which niche). They also don’t firmly know what problem in the world they solve through their services and why it is they do what they do.

Their website is likely to say something like “I’m the founder and CEO of XYZ Design” and, of course, they’re a “chief executive” only by the virtue of the fact that they’re the only “officer” in the business.

You’ll find they don’t produce much content that is relevant to their niche and the value proposition isn’t strong because the person in charge hasn’t stopped thinking about their own needs for long enough to deeply consider real, current market needs.

I’m not writing this to bash anyone in stage one – there’s no right or wrong stage here – and I myself end up there at least a few times a week. I’m writing with the aim of identifying this headspace well so that if it resonates with you, you know what is stopping you.

It’s important to transcend stage one because it’s a hard slog. It’s a confusing and testing time – and this is where most freelancers abandon their dream of being a self-employed artist and settle for yet another corporate gig.

The key is to recognise this time as just a stage – not an indicator of how your life as a freelancer will always be – and get out of it before it beats you. And if you’re experiencing a degree of success as a freelancer, you’re probably very familiar with stage one. You’ve been in its trenches for a while and are starting to grow to stage two.

Stage 2: A “We” Freelancer

A second stage freelancer is involved in a “we” business. You begin to become curious about problems other people experience and wonder how solving them will benefit you as well. It’s epitomised by “let me scratch your back, and here’s what you can do to scratch mine” kind of mentality. Your focus is on adding value to the world while profiting yourself.

Doing a great job – not just any job – becomes imperative. You push yourself as an artist and get more clarity on what your talents are – and how you can use them to create value for others. You notice problems in the world and engage them not as things to complain about (as you did in stage one), but as possible opportunities for you to do business with other people.

Customers and other business owners begin to occur as potential partners, rather than identities whom you can get some money (or a link/retweet/like/etc) from. Business opportunities begin to occur as relationships, rather than transactions. You begin to think on a level of group. You find yourself getting inspired easier. “Contribution” is a word that begins to resonate with you more – you begin to see that the act of contributing to someone can be just more rewarding than getting something from someone.

Social media begins to make a lot of sense here. You’re looking for opportunities to contribute, partners, connections, problems, and inspirations – and your social media feed is ALL those things. (In stage one it was probably just a way to procrastinate and get some validation).

Second stage business is a golden place to be – compared to the confusion and futility of stage one, here you experience a good degree of effortlessness. Opportunities seem to present themselves almost by luck. Doors are opened to you. Customers come out of “nowhere”.

Of course, none of those things are accidental – they only seem so. You create them as a by-product of using your talents to add real value to the people and businesses you choose.

Stage 3: An “Idea” Freelancer

Third stage is not something I’ve hit for any great length of time yet, so I understand it mostly on a conceptual, rather than experiential, level.

Still, I’d like to throw it out there as something to mull over, to wonder about and something for us to develop and discuss. Perhaps, if you’re reading this, and are familiar with this headspace, you can expand on what I say here.

I see this place as a narrowing of focus and a pursuit of one idea with the aim of creating a greater good. It’s the stage of being able to clearly answer the question – “how am I going to use my life to make the world a better place?

freelancer lightbulb idea bright

It’s being driven by desire to make a real difference, and that pursuit is an end in itself – not for rewards it might bring to you. In fact, it might be of a detriment to you. There’s no recipe for what you might create in stage three – you may build a huge company that takes over the world or you may sit on a hill and draw grasshoppers.

The important thing here is not what you create, but why you choose to dedicate your life to creating it. The answer to that question will be very clear to you and it will be what feeds you and nurtures your soul.

How To Get To The Next Stage

So, where to now? Well, awareness is the first step. If you can identify what’s driving you right now and how that’s shaped the kind of business you have, you’re already way ahead of most freelancers out there.

The next thing is to remain conscious of your motives as you go about your life.

I know this sounds almost like some kind of hippie advice rather than sound business knowledge, but that’s the key to it – your business is not separate from you. It’s a direct extension of your headspace and no amount of great business knowledge will yield results if your head is not in a place which gives you power in your conversations with people and opens your scope of vision wider than that of your competition.

Each time you’re about to take an action, implement a new strategy, write someone an email or put up content on your website pause for a moment and think – why am I doing this, right now? What’s my purpose? What’s driving me? The answer will give you an indicator of what stage you’re in right now.

The next question to ask yourself would be: how would this action look if I was thinking from the next stage? Would I still do what I’m about to do?

The more you train yourself to think from a new place, the sooner it will become the norm and the sooner you’ll experience the amazing results you deserve and are capable of.

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