Are you a freelance or contract web developer who wants to work with bigger clients, earn more money and build a team, but you’re not sure how?
In this article I’m going to help you move from freelancer to agency owner by improving your processes so you can become more efficient and effective.
By the end, you’ll have a model you can take and make your own.
Before that, a quick introduction
I’m Matt Saunders, an accountability coach for freelancers and founders.
I worked 15+ years as a freelance web developer.
I decided to make the shift from freelancer to agency owner myself in 2018 when I began integrating brand design and copywriting into my service, and outsourced web development to another freelancer.
This was the catalyst for two major changes in my business:
- It freed me up to focus on business direction and keeping the sales pipeline topped up
- It enabled me to charge significantly higher fees because the overall quality of my offer increased.
If you’re on the fence about whether to make the shift yourself, read on as I guide you on this exciting journey.
Improving your processes
The key to growth is your ability to work at scale.
Structured processes enable this.
When I began working as a freelancer, every project looked completely different.
That is to say, my work had no consistency from beginning to end.
At the time, I would have said “that is just the nature of web development” and made some argument that “all websites are different”.
And whilst the deliverables themselves may vary dramatically depending on the needs of the project, the underlying delivery process should remain largely the same.
You must determine the client journey.
Getting clear on this when you have fewer clients will stand you in good stead for when you scale.
Here are three things to consider as you develop your processes and working practices:
- How will you generate leads consistently?
- How will you onboard new clients?
- How will you deliver the work?
Let’s take a look at each.
As a coach I’ve had hundreds of conversations with freelancers and the biggest challenge they face is how to generate interest in their business.
This is a process and you must crack this, first and foremost, in order to create the foundation for your agency.
No leads means no clients which means no money and, ultimately, no business.
Here are some common ways to generate leads for your business:
Create an SEO-driven landing page to deliver leads from search engines.
Focus on one or two longtail key phrases, such as “web design service in [your city]” and then build links to it elsewhere on the web.
It’s beyond the scope of this piece to go into detail here but Neil Patel offers some tips here on his blog.
When I launched my agency, which predominantly offered web design to charities, this was my approach and it delivered warm leads every week.
Sending messages to cold prospects on LinkedIn or over email can be a challenging game, not least because you may struggle to get responses at first.
But with the right approach, you can build relationships which turn into sales over the longer term.
One of the best ways I have found to generate leads through outreach is to use a marketing scorecard.
In short, you offer something of value which builds trust in the mind of your target customer.
Done consistently, this can work wonders for your business and help you on your way to growing your agency.
When I began my career I leaned heavily on Fiverr and PeoplePerHour.
I don’t believe these are long-term solutions for most freelancers, especially if you want to grow an agency, but for starting out they can be very powerful.
What’s more, a small percentage of these clients will turn into high quality customers you can support over the longer term, away from the job platform itself.
Nurturing these relationships is vital if you are to move from freelancer to the agency model.
Remember – without consistent leads you cannot grow a business that needs to pay staff.
Therefore, every agency owner must make lead generation their priority.
Do whatever it takes to start conversations consistently.
This is your first process to establish.
You also need a process to onboard clients.
If you ever find new clients asking “what are the next steps?” and you don’t know the answer, it means you have not defined your process properly.
Here are some things you’ll need to get in place to move toward the agency model:
A scoping process
When I first started freelancing everything would be done over email and I wouldn’t even take the time to speak with my new clients, if I could at all help it.
I held them at arm’s length, and this was a mistake.
When a lead comes in, the first thing to do is to arrange a call to assess the scope of the project.
Remember, before a client becomes a client, you need to work out if they’re a good fit, assess what they need and if you can actually deliver it.
Here is a three step process you can use to onboard clients easily:
- Organise a discovery call with a new prospect to assess their needs and establish rapport. This should take 20-30 minutes.
- Organise a paid scoping session (2-3 hours) so you can interrogate the project properly and meet the team. This could range between £300-£1,000 depending on what you deliver and for whom.
- Using everything you’ve learned you can now create a proposal for the work. I recommend delivering this as a live pitch with slides so you can have a real, in-person conversation. Most freelancers email over proposals, so this is your chance to stand out and connect.
This might seem like a lot of work, and in the beginning you may find it overkill. But as you scale and grow, which is needed if you are to create an agency, this model will serve you very well.
Very few clients will hand over five figure sums without a bit of schmoozing first.
A contract or statement of work
Lastly, to onboard new clients you need a contract. But contracts are unenforceable right?
But you don’t ask your client to sign a contract so you can enforce it; you do it for the sake of having a contract.
Let me explain.
Requiring that your client signs a contract adds a smart level of formality to your process.
It sends out a subliminal signal to your new client that you are serious, demonstrates your understanding of the relationship and sets out a statement of work.
It requires commitment from both of you.
Do not underestimate the power of signing on that dotted line.
Because I genuinely want to see your business succeed, here is a copy of the contract that my clients signed.
This is intended as inspiration only, and I accept no legal responsibility for how you use it.
In short, a contract does not need to be extensive or scary, but you do need something in place before work can begin.
Once again, onboarding is a process.
The way you make proposals, take payments and start the project should follow a repeatable pattern.
Now this has been established, let’s take a look at your delivery process.
As a web developer you want your delivery process to be simple.
Website projects by their nature can get complex without a strong foundation to build upon.
Let’s take a look at some of the things you’ll need to transition toward being an agency.
It’s easy to overthink and over-engineer the way you deliver work for clients but it boils down to just a few things:
- A method for tracking requests and tasks (Trello works well for this)
- A platform for providing support (Glow is ideal for this)
- A way to track your time (I use HourStack for time-blocking)
The specific tool you choose matters less than implementing it in a useful and consistent manner.
Whether you’re just one person or a whole team, being able to know where a project is at, at any given moment, is very important, so be sure to invest in this area.
Most web developers freak out at the idea of using templates because they feel they’re restrictive, or worry that all the websites they build will look the same.
These were my concerns too, so I built my own instead.
What I built were more like proprietary frameworks than templates, consisting of reusable modules that we used to develop client sites more quickly.
Documentation is your friend here, because this method can get out of hand quickly.
We used a combination of self-documented modules and some light resources in Google Drive to describe their usage – perfect for guiding clients and onboarding new developers alike.
I could write another 10 articles on the subject of templating in web development but my general position is this: do not create websites from scratch every single time.
As an agency you need to be more nimble, productive and efficient than this.
In all cases bar just a small percent, templates will not only lead to quicker delivery but higher quality work as well.
Don’t make things hard for yourself.
Unlocking the next level and becoming an agency
James Clear says in Atomic Habits “you do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems”.
This wisdom is true to web development.
If you’re serious about expanding your operation, you cannot continue to think like a freelancer.
You must take control of your processes and, once proven to yourself that the way you work works, begin the hiring process.
Something that helped me was mapping out an organisational chart to illustrate all my business functions.
I used traditional roles such as CTO, brand designer and senior web developer.
At first, I fulfilled all these functions myself, but as I increased my prices and targeted better clients, I enlisted others in these roles.
It was a breath of fresh air to get help, and it freed me up to focus on business direction.
Moving from freelancer to agency owner can be a challenging path, but one trodden by those with the courage to invest, work hard and create a clear vision in their mind.
The vast majority don’t make it, because they never even try.
All this means is that there is plenty of space for those who dream big.
And that just makes the destination an even better place to be.