If you want to be a successful freelancer, you need a system. Flying by the seat of your pants can work for a while, but if you want to build a better business, you need a freelance system. Systemization is the key to success.

We’ll explore what a freelance system is, why it’s valuable, and how to create one.

What’s a Freelance System?

What are we even talking about? A freelance system is about how you do business: Moving a client from first contact to proposal to contract, scheduling your work and getting content, actually building the website, launching it, and finishing a project. A system formalizes that process. It offers consistency and frees you up to do better work.

An effective freelance system is three things:

1. A consistent set of tools and processes for every client, every project, every time.

A system allows you to approach every project the same way. You build on the work you’ve done in the past so you’re not having to figure out the same problem over and over again. It’s a common stack of themes and plugins you use for every site. It’s the same tools you use to build a site and the same process you go through with a client.

2. A system is repeatable by someone other than you.

Seat-of-your-pants freelancing is not scalable. If everything relies on you, then your business is severely limited. To really have freedom and growth in your freelance business, it needs to be able to function on its own.

A freelance system can enable your business to operate without you. That means you’ll have the ability to grow enough to bring on some help. Maybe someday you’ll even have a business you can sell or pass on to someone else. That only happens with a freelance system.

3. A system evolves.

Let’s be clear that no system is perfect. Every good freelance system is a constantly evolving organism. Every difficult encounter you have with a client is an opportunity to improve your process.

Why Do I Need a Freelance System?

OK, so hopefully it’s clear what a freelance system is, but why do you need one?

Here are several ways a freelance system helps:

  • Makes you more efficient, more productive, and more profitable.
  • Helps keep problem clients in check. Learn more about how to protect yourself from terrible clients.
  • Makes your work more enjoyable. A system can free you from drowning in chaos and allow you to focus on your strengths.
  • Brings value to your business.
  • A system is the difference between owning your job and owning a business. You have to be there to do a job, but a business can run without you. That gives you freedom, whether you want to sell your business or just take a vacation.
  • If your process isn’t defined, it can’t be refined. In order to optimize or automate your business, you need a clearly defined process so you can determine what to improve.

The reality is that a freelance system will keep you from getting burned. It creates better relationships with clients and makes the entire process smoother for everyone involved.

How to Create a Freelance System

Now comes the hard part—actually creating your freelance system.

Sample Freelance System

First, let’s look at a sample freelance system.

This is the system Nathan Ingram uses and shared in our Freelance Summit training earlier this year. You can watch that webinar series for more details on how his process works (and a whole lot more quality content for how to be a successful freelancer).

Remember that this is Nathan’s system; it works for him, it may not work for you. This is not the only way to create a freelance system. It’s just a sample to get you started. You should refine your own system to match your workflow.

Freelance system: Every client, every project, every time.

Think about your system like a board game. You want to work your client through the system, moving across the board toward the finish line. Every client will go through this same process.

1. First Contact

The goal of your initial contact with a client is to qualify them as a legitimate potential client and move toward having a consultation meeting with them. So you should determine where they came from, how serious they are (give a minimum dollar amount to ward off casual shoppers), and schedule a consultation.

2. Initial Consultation

Nathan’s next step is to offer a one-hour consultation with a client to determine what they need. The ultimate goal of this meeting is to be able to write a complete proposal. Nathan goes into more detail in a separate Freelance Summit webinar.

3. Proposal & Contract

Then put together a proposal for the client to review that clarifies all details of the project. If they’re on board, they can sign a contract and send the first payment. Need to know more? Don’t worry, the Freelance Summit includes an entire webinar on the proposal and another on the contract.

4. Content

One of the biggest challenges freelancers face is getting content from clients. So tackle this early in your process. No code before content.

5. Design

Create the visual design and get client approval before moving forward. You should separate the design and coding process as much as possible to eliminate back and forth changes.

6. Development

Now it’s time to build out the site. You should maintain consistency by using basic templates of pre-built WordPress sites with themes and plugins ready to go. You’ll edit these to match your design, add content, and create any additional functionality you haven’t already built into your templates.

7. Review & Testing

Next the client reviews the site and any final changes are made. This is where you need to be careful to properly limit the changes a client can make. Design changes? The client already approved the design, so changes should cost them extra (as stipulated in your contract, right?). Content changes? The client should be able to do those themselves when you hand over control of the WordPress dashboard.

8. Launch

The site is finally ready to go and be released into the world wide web. But not before getting final payment. This step should also include client training and a post-mortem meeting with the client.

9. Maintenance

Now the project can move into maintenance mode, where you generate recurring income (and yes, the Freelance Summit includes a webinar on recurring revenue).

Creating Your Own Freelance System

Now that you’ve seen a sample, it’s time to create your own freelance system.

1. Map Out Your Process

Get away from the computer and use paper or a whiteboard to lay out your process. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by software. Think about how you want to work, and make that a reality.

2. Make Templates for Everything

The next time you do a project, save everything you do and make it a template. Make scripts for phone calls and canned emails, save questions to make a content collection tool, create baseline WordPress setups with themes and plugins ready to go. Make sure your templates are designed to be used by anyone and not just you.

3. Checklists Are Your Friend

Make checklists for everything. If it depends on your memory, document it. Having these checklists frees up your brain to focus on other things and allows you to hand off tasks. Check out the book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande for more on checklists.

Just Do It

Bottomline: Don’t make your business depend on your heroism to step in and save the day. Rely on the process, not heroics.

That’s how you create a freelance system. It’s really not that complicated and doesn’t require special knowledge. The hardest part is simply executing—taking what you already do and defining it into a specific process that you can then refine.

Get 11 Hours of Freelance Training with the Freelance Summit

Check out our Freelance Summit training with veteran freelancer Nathan Ingram for more help on refining and boosting your business. The Freelance Summit includes more than a dozen videos that average 45 minutes to an hour in length—covering everything you need to know about being a successful freelancer. The three sessions cover process, profit, and productivity, going into great detail with specific examples and practical ideas. Watch it at your own pace, and take your freelance business to the next level.

Learn More About the Freelance Summit

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