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Starting a Business

From Freelancer to Design Firm Owner

How to transition from freelance jobs to creating your own firm
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the January 2001 issue of Subscribe »

Question: I'm an art director currently freelancing for major advertising firms in New York City. I'd like to break away from that and find clients of my own and do their projects from my home. How do I find these potential clients? I work with major clients now through these agencies-AT&T, 3Com and IBM, to name a few-but I could be doing so much better if I had my own clients because I could charge project fee vs. the daily fee I'm getting now.

Answer: Breaking away to start your own design firm means you may have to go head-to-head with the agencies you currently work for. Fortunately, you can ease into the transition and continue freelancing while getting your new company off the ground, as long as you proceed carefully. I spent the first 10 years of my career working in agencies, and there's one unbreakable rule: Never directly pitch any agency accounts, or it will cost you your livelihood and reputation.

What's your area of specialization? Even if you have experience in everything from direct mail to Web design, it's best to pick one area in which you shine and narrowly focus your efforts to win clients that need your expertise. This will make it less costly and time-consuming to market your firm because you'll focus on fewer, better-qualified prospects. It will also help you compete against the larger, jack-of-all-trade firms. Consider partnering with a copywriter who shares your specialty, and together you can offer turnkey projects.

Your first step is to initiate contact with your top prospects by telephone, so you'll need to construct a short list of companies to approach. Next, decide the title of the person who's most likely to buy your services, and contact each company for the name of the individual who fits that title. After you've initially contacted your prospects, create an ongoing marketing program that reaches out to them at least once every six weeks. Oversized postcard mailings, for example, give you an opportunity to showcase your talents and are a good hook for follow-up telephone calls.

To be successful, you should expect to dedicate at least 40 percent of your time to marketing. And when getting a new homebased business off the ground, it may be necessary to spend as much as 65 percent of your time (or more) each week on marketing. To stay on track, set up a database with all your prospect information using a reliable contact manager that will ensure important calls and meetings don't fall through the cracks in your busy schedule.

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