As the year draws to a close, it’s only natural to reflect a bit on what has transpired, and what is yet to come; this is true both in our personal lives and in our businesses. Problem is, far too few freelancers start a new calendar year prepared to do anything different or better than the year before. Let’s see if we can reverse that trend.
Every year over here at Cogeian Systems, I try to take some time to look ahead and make sure to be prepared for what’s coming. Sometimes all it takes is a quiet moment at my laptop with a cup of coffee, and other times it takes a bit more research, but finishing the year strong and having a plan for the new year is always worth the effort.
I’ve distilled my own yearly process into a series of 9 simple steps and questions, broken down into 3 broad categories:
Handle any big purchases
If you have the cashflow to do so, the end of the year might be a good time to handle any large purchases you’ve been putting off. Everything is on sale, and the purchase might give you an additional deduction come tax time (I am not a financial advisor and this is not financial advice, please talk to your advisor/planner/CPA before you do anything).
- Is it time to refresh any devices?
- Is there a training course you’d like to sign up for to learn a new skill?
- Have you been thinking about purchasing some software tools to help you do your job?
Pulling the trigger on that purchase before the year is over may put you in a stronger position come January 1.
Get up to date on accounting, taxes & receivables
No business owner enjoys doing the books, but smart business owners make sure they’re always up-to-date.
- Are your books in order, generally speaking? If you’re not using any kind of accounting software, I recommend Freshbooks; we’ve been using it here at Cogeian Systems for a long time. In conjunction with a CPA, it’s a great combo. If you want to outsource your bookkeeping there are affordable services such as Bench.
- Make certain that your business taxes are paid up-to-date.
- Collect those receivables that are still floating around out there – who still owes an invoice payment? Give them a call or an e-mail.
Update your rates
It’s easy to get comfortable and forget all about our rates, especially once we’re past the early-career stage and into the mid-career or advanced stage of freelancing, making good, steady money.
- Have your rates have been stagnant for an extended period of time?
- Look at your projects for the past year and ask, is real value being provided?
- If so, is money being left on the table?
No business is administration-free, and administrivia costs both time and money! Personally, I’ve used Drip to automate some of my email marketing activities, and it’s been great. Look at your typical daily operation and ask yourself:
- What’s non-billable that eats time consistently?
- What repetitive tasks exist as part of your operations, and how could they potentially be automated?
- What can be outsourced – think of outsourcing as human-based automation, and a great first step toward true tool-based automation.
Organize your projects
Staying organized is a consistent pain point for freelancers, especially early-career freelancers who haven’t yet developed systems for keeping projects well-controlled.
- Where do you keep your project info – emails, assets, data, client credentials, decisions, contracts, etc?
- How do you access this information, and is it also accessible to your client?
- Is there any kind of a consistent system in how you organize your projects?
Over here at Cogeian Systems, we’ve tried it all – FogBugz, Basecamp, Asana, Evernote, Excel, BugTracker.NET – heck, we even wrote our own project-mgmt system once. At the moment we’re eagerly awaiting the release of Kwoosh. The point is, which system you use isn’t nearly as important as having a system and using it consistently.
Set some goals
Despite what you may read on the various “productivity” blogs, many successful freelancers never set goals; however, they are successful in spite of this fact, not because of it. Both early-career and advanced freelancers often fall down on this one, albeit for different reasons; advanced freelancers often coast on the momentum of business built and comfortable paychecks (I’ve been there), whereas early-career freelancers often don’t know enough about what’s possible to effectively goal-set. If you feel like you need more structure than making a simple checklist, I recommend Complice to help you keep track of your goals.
- Look at the state of your business – where has it been the past year?
- Where do you feel it can go, that it hasn’t already gone?
- Given your current book of business, your desires, your team (if you have one) and your current market, where should it go? Where do you want it to go?
Sales & Marketing
Prep for Q1 follow-ups
Everyone has that lead. You know the one. They’re a good fit for your offering, they have a budget, they seem like nice folks, you have agreement-in-principle regarding working together, they’re on their 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th contact with you, but for whatever reason the deal just won’t quite close. Conversely, we all have that lead who says they’ll sign up as soon as their budget is renewed.
- Which leads of yours are still straggling? Are you still nurturing them?
- Which of these leads seems most ready to buy?
- Can you think of a better way to pitch them, that might close the deal?
Compile a list and focus hard on these in Q1 of the coming year.
Update your marketing plan
First off, do you have a marketing plan? If not, get one! If so:
- How do customers currently find you online? Is your profile high enough in the market segments you service?
- What aspects of your site and/or overall online presence are working from an lead-generation/conversion standpoint?
- What isn’t working? What about your overall marketing profile could you either eliminate or double-down on?
Audit your SEO presence
There’s an old saying – “the cobblers’ children have no shoes”; this refers to the tendency of people in “technician” type professions to ignore their own need for the very service they provide. Audit your site the same way you’d audit a potential client site. Make liberal use of tools like Moz Local and Varvy to guide your efforts.
- Is your own site out of date?
- Is the content of your site fresh, useful and attractive to visitors?
- Is it ranking competitively?
After taking a look at your own web presence, you can imagine that you are your own client, and what changes would you recommend.
OK, I lied – the title says 9 steps, and here I am giving you ten. What can I say, you’re on the bonus plan.
Taking personal inventory as a business owner is always tough, and often tougher than working through the first 9 items on the checklist. Running a business is a very particular kind of life, reflecting a particular kind of values, and people change over time. The business that served you well as a human being 10 years ago might be completely wrong for you now. The close of the year is a great time to ask yourself some pointed questions.
What do you want from business ownership? Are you getting it?
Is there any are in which you suspect you’re holding yourself back?
Over the past year, how have your desires changed, and can your current business satisfy those new desires? If so, how?
None of this is easy. It’s tempting to skimp. I’m struggling through this process myself, right now, just like you may be. But to truly be in control of our businesses and careers as freelancers, this kind of work has to get done.