How I went from freelancing to building my dream team working on 7-figure projects remotely
It took me close to a decade to get us where we are now. In this post, I’m aiming to share everything I’ve learned along the way. This is basically everything I wish I knew before I got started.
It took me close to a decade to get us where we are now. In this post, I’m aiming to share everything I’ve learned along the way. This is basically everything I wish I knew before I got started.
I started my career by designing blogs. By designing I mean I was stealing a few CSS lines from here and there, dropping them into my code and then spending hours trying to figure out why it didn’t work. Little did I know then that it was basically what I was going to repeat for the rest of my career. Meaning just experimenting with a bunch of different things to see what works, what doesn’t and figure out the why. Just like how we learned how to walk, talk, bicycle, make friends, etc. So on my own, I learned how to code, design, hire, manage, negotiate, systemize and more. But unlike when we were younger, it came with hesitation almost every step of the way.
You see, when we were young, we had this power of focus without worrying about what-ifs or obsessing with what everyone else was doing. We just focused on what we wanted to learn and we did it until we got it right. But as we grew older, we've learned to shift that focus from what's within and what's ahead of us to what's happening around us. We spend way too much time thinking about what sets us apart from others than focusing on what we have in common with them. We look at someone's success and think it's beyond our abilities to reach there. Because we look at their current state and assume that they've always been that way. That they were born this smart or they were just cut out for this job because they certainly make it look so damn easy. Then we look at ourselves, our struggles and think we are doing it all wrong because we think it can't be this difficult.
As the years went by, the more experience I gained and the closer I got to those that I looked up to, I realized that everyone is doing the same thing. There's a tremendous amount to learn about the reality of success once you get to move pass the curtains. You learn that failure is part of the process so you stop seeing them as blockers but as progress. You start getting motivated by challenges and look for opportunities in every fall. In short, you start believing in yourself because you now know that nobody really knows what they are doing and everyone is figuring things out as they go. Everyone who pushes themselves to reach higher grounds experience the same anxieties. And the cherry on top of it all, all of those businesses that you think are super successful, they are all put together with duck tapes. And that's ok. Because there's no finish line, there's no set goal, we are just making it up as we go. It's just a constant work in progress with the timeline set to infinity. We all start out blind, hit a bunch of walls until we learn how to see. We learn to see which walls to avoid, which ones to go around and which ones to break and walk right through.
With that being said, let me walk you through how I built 3drops and what I learned along the way. I've learned that you can't copy and paste something and expect the same results, but you can take bits and pieces and mix it with what you already have to create something even better.
Mastering a passion
Bet on yourself.
I started spending almost all of my awake time on learning how to design and code right after high school. It wasn’t really a strategic career choice of mine as I had a different career path in mind when I was studying. I was aiming to become a dentist as my sister, or so I was told, just like any other Persian you've met, but luckily, due to the lack of residency permit, I couldn’t continue my studies at University in Sweden. So I figured the only valuable thing I could do with my time, was to invest it into learning a skill that had the potential of making a living for myself and my family which didn't necessarily require any higher education. To many, making that jump from following what you are told to what you are passionate about is hard. Because you have the freedom of choice. And the more options you have, the harder it gets. I was lucky I didn’t have that freedom.
I believe choosing your passion as a career raises your chances to succeed for 3 main reasons:
- I believe you need that strong emotional investment to be able to endure the rainy days/weeks/months/years, because rest assure, it will happen more than you think you can endure.
- I believe when your job is your passion, work becomes a play that makes spending time on improving the skills necessary to succeed somewhat effortless. Because to master a skill, you need all your available time, focus and energy and there are no shortcuts.
- I believe it's easier to build the relationships you need to grow your business when you are passionate about your work. It's one of those things that's obvious to others right from the start and it attracts like-minded people like a magnet.
Building a body of work
Fake it til you make it
Once I've learned the basics, got comfortable in photoshop (the dark ages before Sketch, and now Figma) and learned my way around CSS/HTML, I started building a portfolio to test my skills on real projects. From what I've witnessed in the past, most people wait way too long to take this step which is another proof of how we set our own boundaries. I started working on my portfolio when I didn't even have anything to show for. My first portfolio was a few fake projects that I designed while learning. I created designs that were aligned with the type of work that I wanted to get. A super simple, single page portfolio with a few projects was all I needed to get things started.
A couple of things to keep in mind when you are building your first portfolio:
- Keep it simple. I usually recommend following a simple template and spice it up with something extra at the end to it to make it stand out.
- Present your best side. All you need is just 1-3 projects that really resonate with the type of work you want to get. And write a paragraph or two about what made the project interesting to you. That's all you need. Don't overdo it.
- Focus on one channel. Don't go creating a bunch of social accounts that you can't keep updated. Just focus on one channel and do your best to keep it as active as possible to slowly build an audience and expand from there.
- And at last, don't underestimate the power of testimonials. And please no skill charts. You are killing me with those.
Finding your first client
Create your own opportunities
My first few clients were local companies. I got my first client by checking local business websites to see which one needed to update their online presence the most. I usually started with an email or a phone call explaining what I liked about their business, who I was, and a few lines about the potential they were missing out on. Back then, it wasn't really about who has the best messaging or user experience, it was more about just having a functional website online with all the necessary info. And to be completely transparent, I never knew how to do it before the project started. I always learned the skills required on the job. I was very confident in my commitment to turn this passion into a living so I just knew if I put in the time, I will eventually succeed. And that's what I've been doing until this very day. The day you get too comfortable is the day you stop evolving. I like to jump, then figure out how to swim.
A couple of things to keep in mind when you are approaching your first potential clients:
- I believe you need to present your future self than your current skills. Growth becomes much easier when you constantly communicate your potential than your current state because after a while your brain fully buys into that image of yourself and starts showing you the path to make it happen.
- When pitching new projects, put yourself in your client's shoes and think about the possible blockers/questions they might ask themselves when they consider your proposal. You need to focus on their problems more than your solution for it. Once they understand the depth of the problem, then they are willing to listen to your solution.
- In the beginning, you won't be able to make much money so you need to come up with other creative ways to get what you need in return. For some early clients with high traffic websites, I used to ask for ads placements on their website for a fixed timeframe which served very well at the beginning. I also tried a monthly subscription billing to keep their site maintained for a fixed timeframe.
- Everyone likes a good deal but be careful to drop those big discounts right from the start. Instead, I would recommend offering an introductory price and make sure to include the original price on the invoice and whenever you talk about the price, to make sure they constantly get reminded by the value they are getting.
- And at last, set your expectations right. The goal at the beginning is to gain experience so failure and mistakes are granted. Don't let it discourage you as we've all messed up at the beginning and we still sometimes do. It's part of the work. But that's where experience comes from and that's what you are seeking.
Growing your client list
Build relationships, not portfolio pieces
I've always prioritized relationships over money. To me, money is just a tool that if invested and spent well, it might get you to where you want in life, but relationships are the pillars that hold your life and business together. So make no mistakes, every interaction counts. And while we are on this subject, f*ck not being personal at work. I believe there's no separation between the two. We have one life. And most of our time in life, we spend working, so tell me again the difference between the two. And to that end, this is why I've always been very careful with whom I choose to work with. Whether it's a client or an employee, it's important to me that I see a friendship beyond the work we do together, because people are my motivation, not the money. And to enjoy that process, you need to surround yourself with people you admire and respect, because that's the only way you can enjoy your time working.
Here are a few things I believe that helped me to sharpen my skills, grow my network and build a better portfolio in considerably less time:
- Treat clients as friends. And just like any good friendship, there will be some good times and some bad times. But with equal trust and respect in place, you should be able to move pass the disagreements by putting trust in each other's expertise. Also remember, that this work, never ends. So don't waste time and energy arguing about small details.
- Always deliver your best work, no matter what. Focus on delivering your best work possible regardless of the pay or your experience with the client. Remember that you learn the most from your worst/challenging projects. It might be tough now, but you will benefit from these experiences down the road, way more than your good/easy projects. So treat them accordingly.
- Prioritize transparency over silos at all times. Both with your client and online. Always keep your portfolio updated and share everything you do online on your chosen channels. Remember, being blocked by small details that are not perfect enough in your opinion or not feeling confident about your work is a sign of weakness that will only grow stronger with time. Sharing and pushing work online is the confidence you need to succeed so exercise on that from the start to lead a more fruitful career.
- Nurture your relationships. Build a list of all of your clients from the start and send them follow up emails/updates to strengthen the relationships and slowly build your network. They might know someone who could use your help.
Staying on the right track
Always have the end goal in mind
In just a year or two into freelancing as a remote designer, I started getting job offers from household companies like Facebook, Spotify, Heroku to just name a few. Thinking back to those days, I remember being proud and feeling a sense of reassurance that I was on the right path but not for a second I considered those offers, regardless of their pay or title. The same goes for acquisition offers for 3drops later on or investment offers in our product, Roadmap. To me, all of those "opportunities" seemed like the shiny signs on the side of the road that if you stare for too long, you will crash. My eyes have always been on the end goal, owning my own time in mind. This has helped me tremendously throughout the years to make life-changing decisions without hesitation.
Couple of things that I've learned that helps you to focus on what matters:
- Start from the end. In my experience, most people think they don't know what they want in life until you ask them the right question. And for me, that is, if nothing was holding you back, where would you like to see yourself 5-10 years from now and reverse engineer your path to today to learn the steps you need to make in order to reach there on time. Sure what we want in life changes from time to time but where we would like to end up is usually a picture that only gets clearer with time. So let that picture guide you in your career/life and never settle until you reach there.
- Make your own path. I don't believe working at a company just to get the experiences you think you need to run your own company is a false belief and a waste of some of your most precious years (your twenties). I believe not being brainwashed with how things supposed to be done, especially early in your career, you get the space and freedom you need to experiment with new possibilities and methods. And believe it or not, this will be your biggest advantage later on because that's what will set you apart from the rest.
- Reach out to people you admire. The only shortcut in life is to get to know the people that have already done what you are looking to get done and hear their stories. This alone will save you years. They will show you the reality of the success you are seeking so you can align your expectations accordingly. And you also learn that it's as hard for you now as it was for them when they started. So you know if you put in the work, it is very much possible.
- Prioritize independency. To me, that's the only thing worth striving for in a career. I believe we are living in an amazing time where individuality and independency are celebrated more than fitting in and relying on others. That means it's never been easier to launch your own business that will one day enable you to live your life, on your own terms. Is there anything more beautiful than that?
Present your future-self
Let me start this by saying that the majority of us are not charging enough. By majority, I mean a good 97% of us. The other 3% is a handful of agencies and some freelancers that never showed up when we were all standing in the line to get our Imposter Syndrome injection. Between you and me, I never liked that word. Imposter Syndrome. In fact, anything with Syndrome attached to it, I'm allergic to. It makes it sound permanent. It's not. Nothing is. Well, most things aren't. For years, people kept telling me that I should charge more, that I didn't know my own worth, that I'm selling myself for short. And they were right. It's hard to realize these things when you are always head down, focusing on the next step.
Couple of things to keep in mind.
- The pricing ladder: Fixed -> Hourly -> Daily -> Weekly <-> Fixed. You start by selling your time to gain the experience you need to be able to estimate tasks accurately so you can slowly move into value-based pricing.
- When charging fixed, always require an upfront payment of 30-60% depending on the size of the project/risk you take on. And to keep yourself and your client accountable, aim for at least 3 payment milestones to ensure a smooth process.
- Raise your prices after every quarter to raise the bar for yourself and the people you work with. As long as your clients agree with your pricing without too much back and forth, you are probably not charging enough yet.
- Set a minimum engagement fee as early as possible to save time early on in the process. That means you won't take on a project unless its x amount of hours/days/weeks/$$$. Mentioning your MEF in the first reply will help you to filter out the unserious clients and if you do it right, you'll get their budget in the next reply so you can have a productive conversation once you schedule the call.
Looking for a win-win
The beauty of this career is that it never gets boring. Since you are playing all the different roles at the beginning of this play, you get to both, write, direct, act, manage and organize the entire show, all by yourself. That means you are completely in charge of how this thing is going to play out. Each role is as important as the next one so you need to learn the characters one by one. But this one, is one of the main characters and the livelihood of your show depends on how well you play this role, so pay close attention.
Learn to separate your creative self from your business-owner self. When you are negotiating with clients, you don't do it from a makers position but the business owners position. It's important that you feel equal to whoever you are negotiating with so the communication feels more natural than formal. You are two equal business owners looking to understand each other's businesses to see if you can help each other to unlock each other's next step
- First off, to hell with all RFPs. You are better off investing that time to strengthening the bond with your existing/previous clients than wasting your time with these companies, sitting on their high horses. A relationship that starts with an ask with no return, is not worthy of your time and energy. Remember that, when your most favorite brand reaches out to you. You'll learn to say No and that will one day set you apart from the rest.
- Skip the formalities right from the start. Talk to your leads/potential clients as if you've already had those long late-night calls chatting about something deep like what's the meaning of life. This helps to ensure an honest conversation focused on what matters instead of dancing around the real subject and avoiding the real talk.
- Get the basics down in the first reply. What you are looking for is 3 things, what, when and how much (if you include your minimum engagement fee in your reply, chances are they are going to reply with their budget which saves you both, a lot of time). If those 3 things match your criteria, then you look up the profile of the team and schedule a call to get to know them to understand the story behind the project. Make sure to schedule the call with whoever is going to lead the project and is directly responsible for the outcome.
Hiring help/Expanding your horizon
Bet on characters, invest in potentials
A couple of years have now gone by and I've been able to make a comfortable living for myself as a remote freelance product designer, working with some of the world's industry-leading teams and learned a bunch. At that time, when I was going back and forth on hiring my first few designers, I had already 1 full-time project, 2 other part-time gigs and I believe a few smaller fixed projects on the side. I was telling myself that I'm doing this build a good enough timeline for myself with the pipeline and budget needed to make it work with new hires. But the truth was I was just pushing myself to the limit to experience the pain of continuing this on my own and force myself to take the first step and hire help. I had already built a trustful relationship with those clients and I knew they wouldn't mind me hiring designers in the background to help me with the workload as they were happy with my work for the past few months. And I had already communicated it to them that nothing would change from their point of view as I would still partake in the calls, designs would be led by me and I'm just getting a few more pairs of eyes to further improve the quality of work. If it didn't work out, for any reason, they would tell me so on time so we could talk about it.
My preference was to hire someone young and talented with the potential to grow in a short period if they were given the right type of projects to work on with a team that inspired them to push beyond their limits and build their own skills. Right off the bat, I hired 2 freelancers (remote, more on this later) and tried to guide them as I would've wanted to. But just like any new start, it came with some challenges. But that's part of the process. Here a couple of things I learned from hiring my first few employees:
- First: Juniors > Seniors, later Seniors > Juniors. That is mainly because they are more open-minded and haven't been shaped by their past experiences yet. So with enough guidance and freedom to explore, you can unlock their potential and be impressed by the result they are producing than Seniors. The other reason is, of course, the cost. So you first start by hiring a junior that has the potential to become senior and later, once you've grown the team and can afford a senior, you can carefully start looking for one. Just don't think because someone worked at a well-known company, they know what they are doing.
- Get your handbook in place. Document everything you do to make it easier for others to produce the outcome/result you are expecting. I'm covering this in a bit more detail in the next chapter but without a clear understanding of what you are expecting from others, you can't be disappointed or discouraged by their delivery. It's always on you.
- Your first few hires won't probably work out as well as you thought. Just like your first few client works that didn't go as smoothly as you planned. And that's exactly how it's supposed to be. What's essential here to have an open dialogue with your team members to learn what you are doing well and what you need to get better at and do the same for them. You are both new to this. Be open about it. So you can both grow together.
- Test before commit. Before hiring a freelancer to offload a big chunk of work, always test them on a portion of that project with a fixed timeline so you can learn how they work in terms of their thought process, speed, and quality. Here, your focus should be on the big picture and their potential and not the details as they can be taught.
- Don't forget to water your plants. Probably the biggest mistake most of us make when we make our first few hires is that we think we can just assign them the tasks and magically expect that they would produce the same result as you were doing the work. For that to happen, it takes time and care. Set clear goals and expectations to ensure fruitful career growth. Schedule regular one-on-ones to ensure you are aligned. But in my experience, it's better to communicate things as they happen instead of waiting on the one-on-one calls to foster an environment where people are encouraged to speak their mind at all times.
Systemize and move up
Enabling your team to succeed without you
It took me a couple of hires to learn how to properly lead my team. In the beginning, even though I had a team next to me, I would still do most of the work by myself as I still couldn't let go of the things that I was good at. And that's one of the biggest blockers in growth. You stick to what you know best for far too long. That being said, I was still able to grow the team to over 20 full-time remote members in 2016, before deciding to pull the breaks on hiring and start rethinking the type of organization I wanted to build. This is something I'm going to talk more in-depth, in my next post, so for now, let's focus on why you should remove yourself from the decision making processes as early as possible.
You see, you are your companies biggest bottleneck. That is because your team relies on you for every decision that needs to be taken so they can carry on. So they move at the same pace as you do. And you are just one person. And many decisions need to be taken daily that you can't possibly process without burning yourself out. And let's be honest, your decisions at this point are not as good as they should be, because you don't have enough time to pay close attention to the details. So your decisions are damaging the future of your company at this point. So you decide to hire a manager hoping that he/she would help you to manage the team. Which to some extent, they do. They will take care of the day to day operation for you so you can focus on what you do best. That is if you have documented the routines and results that you expect from each member to deliver. But that's still not efficient enough because now, somebody with no hands-on experience is making the day to day decisions for the people with the experience. And as your team grows, the number of managers needs to grow with them until you need to hire managers to manage those managers. Do you see where I'm going with this?
- Fewer managers, more doers. In an environment where decisions are being made by managers with no hands-on experience, innovation becomes much less likely to happen as creatives don't have the power to call their own shots. And that's what creative people need to feel valued. They need the freedom to experiment.
- Give them the tools to make their own decisions. Spread the power across your team and avoid hiring managers for as long as you can. That is one of those things that will hurt at the beginning but if you stick to it, you will lead a much stronger team and a lot more profitable business because the decisions your team is making are getting better and smarter as your company grows and not vice versa if you were making all the decisions all by yourself.
- Build small teams. As your company grows, keep making 3-5 members teams to work on a specific task and let the one with the most experience lead the work. Of course, everyone should take responsibility for their own output but teams need to be lead by an individual so they can move forward faster. That being said, don't be afraid to let juniors lead projects as well. They might surprise you.
- Let go. You need to learn to let go. Let go of the day to day decision making and instead focus on your thought process when you make decisions and write it down to share with your team. Let go of designing/developing as your main job. Instead, write down what makes a good design/dev in your opinion and share it with your team. Let go of whatever you spend most of your time on and let your team take care of it for you. The goal here is to gain the time you need to focus on observing your business objectively and see what it needs to become more efficient. Then you spend your time learning how you can make it happen. That's what you need to become great at.
The only way forward
I started hiring after my first deportation. Because of my stateless situation, I've never been able to be in one place for a long time so my only option was to hire remotely. But I never saw it as a limitation but more of an exciting opportunity to perhaps find people like me. Not stateless but people that are driven stepping outside of their comfort zone to explore new things and new places as they make a living for themselves doing what they love. To me, that's the kind of people I want to be around. And the majority of the people that I've hired, had a launched side project. To me, that's the best resume. It's like the greatest school for the type of work we do. You had an idea, you put in the work and shipped it. There are so many skills that you need to learn that to successfully pull that off. That means you've already graduated from the greatest school and you are ready to work. So with a team of like-minded people that like to get things done their way, we need a few ground rules to better collaborate online.
- Trust. You need to fully trust your team members when you are remote. You need to trust that they will get the job done within the estimated timeline that was given by them, and if not, they know they can reach out to you and you will work things out together. That's teamwork. Tracking every minute of a team member's time and micromanaging how they should do their work into the details is just not healthy for anyone.
- Transparent communication. You need to be able to communicate your thought process when sharing your work so members of your team can understand the thinking behind it so they can better give you feedback. We discuss work in tasks on Roadmap and communicate with each other in the team channels on Slack. We try to stay away from one-on-one direct messages to avoid creating silos between members/teams.
- Organized. You need to implement a few routines to keep everything organized across the tools you use so anyone from the outside can simply jump in, when necessary, and do the work without spending any time looking for things. So we have the same page structure in all of our design and development files across the tools we use. Remember, the more organized you are as a team, the more you will be able to accomplish in less time.
- Tools. Limit the tools you use so it's easier for everyone to remember where things are. Tools are like the rooms in your office space. You only need as many as you have people. The more room you have, the harder it gets to know where you can find things. So be very careful when you are adding a new tool to your processes.
- Sync. It's important to know what your team is working on, when things are due and the current status of all projects you have going on, without dropping a DM in Slack or jumping on a "quick" call to get aligned. There's an app for that. We use Roadmap to see who's working on what, and the current status of all of our on-going projects and spot the bottlenecks in just a glance. We built it as an internal tool and turned it into a SaaS for everyone to enjoy. You can check it out here →
I hope you find this post useful and let me know if you would like me to dive deeper into any of the topics mentioned above in another post. You can reach out to me on Twitter @FarzadBan. See you there!