How to start your own freelance or studio business

The last few months have seen more layoffs, more uncertain futures, and creative frustration, which has many people wondering if they should go out on their own.  It could be as a freelancer, consultant, or starting their own business. But there are so many questions, uncertainty, and few answers. In this episode, we are going to look at the foundational questions you need to ask yourself about the type of business you want to start, the questions you need to ask to figure out the type of business you want to create, share some insights in my journey launching my own studio, and more.

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Hello again… It’s been a while since I said those words…

Since we talked last, things have not improved in the job market. Layoffs are still rampant, the hiring process is as broken as ever, companies are tightening their budgets and not hiring, and so much more.

It’s been nearly a year since the last episode of this show because as you may know I started my own independent strategy and design studio. I feel almost guilty saying that this move was long overdue for a lot of reasons. I am having a ton of fun, have amazing clients, and am doing work I am so proud of again, and I haven’t been this happen in the last 10 or 15 years.

Plus on top of all that I love the move back to my hometown of Pittsburgh after a 4 year process of building our dream home.

But since I started the studio, I have been getting a ton of questions from people who want to understand what they need to do if they want to do the same thing.

I sat down and started to write this episode and like always I started doing some research and looking up a lot of articles and advice. I found a TON of things with titles like ‘7 easy steps’.

We will get the massive problem with the word easy in an undertaking like this but they all also pretty much make me want to scream because they don’t talk about the things that will really matter. They mainly focus on how to create your logo or your marketing materials That is important, but it is NOWHERE near the top of my list of what needs to happen to be successful.

So, in this episode, we are going to look at things like the foundational questions you are going to need to ask yourself, figuring out the type of business you want to create, insights into how to launch it, and more.

How do you know?

So, this conversation usually starts with a simple question – how did you know you wanted to go out on your own?

The answer to this question wasn’t what I thought it would be because it really focused in on one moment. The moment in the morning when my alarm went off. Laying in bed thinking about the day to come. Meetings, work, leadership, politics, etc

I would think about how to survive the day. At the time it didn’t seem like much but in hindsight it was very telling of my mental state. Now I can compare that to the same moment when my alarm goes off and I so excited to get the day started. The things I get to work on, the people I get to do it with, and the fun I am having

Your moment will probably be different but I would just say to start to pay attention more to if you are surviving or thriving and it will be the start of figuring out if going out on your own might be the right move.


Before we get started, let’s make a few things clear

First, parts of this episode will talk about setting up a business in the United States.  You need to talk to professionals to understand the laws in your state or country, as they are going to vary.

Also, these are things that I am telling you to look into and research. This is not legal or financial advice because I am not a lawyer or financial professional.

We are going to talk about things that will have a direct impact on you, your family and your livelihood so do your own research and talk to professionals to be sure you have the best plan for your situation and location.

The big questions

Enough with the disclaimers

Let’s start with the basics of some simple-sounding but critical questions where the answers are going to have a profound impact on your business

How long do you want to do this?

We have to start here because the answer to this is going to determine how much of what follows you will want to engage in

Is this something temporary to get you to your next job? Do you want this to be your future? Are you not sure?

For me – it was the last one because I fell backward into starting my own studio. More on that later.

What is your risk and uncertainty tolerance?

I know this is a question you need to ask because mine is pretty low

But how much instability can you handle? Do you always need to know how much you are going to make more like a constant paycheck at a job? Can you handle the ups and downs that come with a more project-based approach?

This is someplace where being honest is going to matter as it will inform how you handle a lot of the upcoming questions and work you need to do to set up your business

Who is in this with you?

Going solo? A group? There are pro’s and con’s to both of these paths so be sure to think it through.

I decided that for my studio, I am the only full-time employee, and I will pull in expertise as we need it

I do have people who are dedicated to my clients, but they are all on 1099 and are not full-time employees of my business

Your differentiators

Those were the really big questions – now let’s to the big questions you will also need to think about

Remote? Hybrid? In-person? Willingness to travel?

For me its remote teams who are willing to travel as needed to key meetings, photoshoots, etc.

Your name or a company name – not going to be as important as you think. 

For me it was CRZY – because I wanted a link to my brand but I didn’t want it to be Stephen Gates Design or something like that

I know most companies like to work with other companies, I was going to be bringing in other people so my name made it sound like a one-man band

What is going to set you apart? Why will people give a shit?

This is essentially your brand and what the name you just came up with will stand for which is why I said the name alone isn’t as important as you think it is

And this question is really about how you want to work. What do you hate about your old jobs? What is going to make you successful and happy?

I did a lot of thinking about this as I wanted my studio to address the things that I either loved or hated about my past jobs

Buying my time (partnerships)

True partnerships (trust)

Big results out of a small group (no red tape)

What size clients do you want to work with?

For me it is

Working with clients of all sizes but I like small to medium-sized companies the best as I am able to have the biggest impact 

How many clients do you want?

For me it is 
No more than 3-4 clients
I am strongly anti-scale 
It creates exclusivity and demand

Don’t be generic

Set up the business of your business

This part is suggestions based on what I have done, but you have to consult real financial and legal professionals to understand the laws and regulations of where you like and get advice on what will be best for your situation

Get an accountant

I know that having the first thing as spending money to work with someone like an account sounds like something most people avoid – but trust me it is money well spent

Talk to them about setting up a company – LLC or S Corp

Setup a business bank account once you have a real company

Get a lawyer or legal service

You need documents like a SOW, contracts, etc.

Figure our your pricing – hourly rate? engagement model?

A simple way to start is to write down the salary you want to make every year

If you want to make 150k a year, divided by 52 is 2,884.62 a week, divided by 40 is $72/hr.

I say lowest because you will have overhead above that salary like expenses, monthly design application charges, etc.

Also if you want to work less than full time then the number of weeks per year or hours per week will need to be adjusted.

Get some basic tools

Create your business infrastructure

This doesn’t have to happen all at once

Final thought

Throughout this process, you have to know that nothing is scared and you will have to embrace the discomfort

Discomfort is the cost of fulfillment

Something will work and others wont

Be honest with yourself about what you want, what is going to make you happy, and what you think is realistic

Keep what works and rework the rest

You will have to adapt, pivot, and evolve constantly

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