Growing By Scaling Back to Freelancing

ilise-new-thumbSome people start off freelancing and grow into something bigger. Others do it the other way around.

That’s the case with Bennett DeOlazo of Studio B in Alexandria VA, who came to CFC last year in Boston after being in business almost 20 years.

He wrote this to me last week: “Life is awesome, and I feel that so much of it came together starting last May. My work life was literally killing me, and I knew I could not survive another year in the same groove. With the help of what I learned at CFC, and with the support of my circle of advisors, my work-life balance has improved dramatically.”

Check out how far he’s come in the last year and why he’s coming back to CFC for more this year in San Francisco….

I’m really excited to return to CFC this year! Last year’s CFC was a powerful catalyst that is helping me evolve into a new phase of my BennettDeOlazo_photobusiness life.

2013 marks twenty years of self-employment, during which time I’ve tried out many business models. For the first 10 years, I freelanced onsite as a designer and art director at agencies and marketing firms, while maintaining several independent clients. The advantage of working onsite during those years allowed me to observe the inner workings, successes and challenges of many different kinds of design businesses. In 2002, I entered a business partnership. We grew the business, increased our visibility and had 3 employees. But a business partnership is very much like a marriage, and though the experience was valuable, it wasn’t a good fit. We split the business partnership in 2006. I rebranded as Studio B, renovated a 1,000 square foot space closer to home, and hired new employees.

For 6 years, the business hummed along. I had a pipeline of work 6 to 9 months in advance, and business was profitable enough to include a healthy 401(k) plan and profit-sharing.

But it was becoming increasingly stressful to keep it all going. Managing employees and running the  business were taking me further away from the creative work that I really wanted to do. On the outside, the business was going well. But I was exhausted, miserable and resentful. Something had to change.

Shortly before CFC last year, a full-time employee left, and not long before that, a regular freelancer became less available after having a baby. After 10 years as an employer, I realized I had a very unique opportunity to make substantive changes to my business without affecting the livelihood of employees.

At CFC in Boston, Luke Mysse’s amazing talk — about his own trajectory of growing, partnering, expanding, contracting and evolving the vision of his business — resonated deeply with me.

I realized I had been following someone else’s definition of success: an “empire-building” model focused largely on client growth and revenue. I had believed that “scaling up” was the natural progression of a business, and the only choice I had. But it wasn’t working for me. The way I was running my business model wasn’t scalable and I didn’t have the proper support in place. Consequently the business ran me, and I was caught in a reactive cycle of “feeding the machine”. The work was becoming less creative and more safe. My roles as an employer (chief motivator, psychologist and authority figure) were wearing thin. 70-hour weeks were coming at a very high personal cost. And I was tired of being the last one paid.

So in the past year, I decided to see what it would be like to go it alone again — and the experience has been incredibly freeing.

I had been to seven HOW Conferences in the past 10 years, but in 2012, I thought the CFC track would be the most valuable. I needed a different lens on my business, and what I learned at CFC came at the perfect time.

When I returned from Boston, I took a hard look at my business, particularly about how I qualified clients. Here are some of the actions from the last year:

  • I have engaged trusted advisors and confidantes who always have my best interest in mind.
  • I’ve learned that saying “No” more often creates room for bigger “Yeses”. By saying no, I’ve actually become more in demand. When I’ve turned down clients with supposed rush projects, they’ve sometimes said, “OK, we can wait until you’re available.”
  • I categorized my clients into three levels based on creative value, business value, and client relationships.
  • I dropped three “C-level” clients that were a increasingly a poor fit. These clients often had insufficient budgets, unreasonable expectations or timelines, or the work wasn’t going to be shown in my portfolio.
  • I kept three “B-level” clients who provide steady long-term income, good working relationships, reasonable timelines, and great profitability. I work with a lot with associations (a unique niche in the DC area), so much of the work is cyclical. This allows for a pipeline of work as much as a year out. I have these clients booked through 2014 and they account for about 50 percent of my revenue.
  • I stepped up two “A-level” clients that are high-profile and profitable. The projects are creative, but very intense — although they require a high level of maintenance, effort and energy. I’m still learning how to set proper boundaries with these clients. I also realize that I can’t have all A-level clients because it’s hard to keep that level of intensity.
  • I have less overhead, so I’m making more money with fewer clients.
  • Sarah Durham’s CFC talk on pricing was golden. Now when I estimate jobs, I no longer need to use a blended rate (one rate averaged across the studio), so I estimate and bill at a higher rate. I have several years of project data from tracking hours in TimeFox, so I can estimate projects properly and build in reasonable profit.
  • Profit and savings are way up. I’ve always contributed a ton to retirement as the primary way to reduce my taxable income. I’m also automatically moving more money weekly into savings and investments.
  • I’m still working a lot of hours, but I’m not as resentful because I feel like I’m being adequately compensated for my efforts. But I am still figuring out what I now need to do to cut back my hours.
  • Since I no longer have employees, I’m evaluating the need to keep a large commercial office space. Although I love my renovated studio, ultimately I’m paying someone else’s mortgage. I work with most of my clients virtually anyway, so I’m considering a smaller space or virtual options to reduce overhead and the need to generate that additional monthly income.
  • I’ve been very proactive in tending the “life” part of work-life balance. I am prioritizing time for family, friends, and non-work-related activities.
  • I’m more physically active, have dropped 20 pounds and have returned to two of my favorite activities: tennis and yoga.

I just reviewed my “Three Big Action Items” that we filled out at the final session at CFC, and that you consequently mailed back to us in January as a reminder. I found I only have one more to go. And I hope to have that complete before CFC in San Francisco.

I’m looking forward to seeing you in June!

And we can’t wait to see Bennett again. Kit Hinrichs of Studio Hinrichs will also be there to share his similar experience by leading a Breakfast Roundtable on Monday June 24 called, “Transitions: International Consultancy to One Man Band.”

Join us at CFC June 22-24 in SF! Get $50 off w/ promo code “ILISE”