Stop trying to automate every task in your freelance business

It's tempting as a one-person business to try out the latest hot software or look for the silver bullet app; but is it procrastination in disguise?

It’s the ultimate dream for most; build a (design/dev/writing) business that can grow to not need you. The whiff of passive income, the tempting allure of well oiled automated processes and the Zen-like harmony of a four-hour workweek.

If you can almost taste the Piña Colada and feel that gentle sea breeze I’m here to bring you back down to earth… stop trying to automate everything!

Which software do you use for X?

It’s one of the most common questions I’m asked and something that hits hot topic status in the Slack community whenever it’s raised.

What do you use for creating videos, what about time tracking, your thoughts on [insert new design app here], project management etc?

You’ll notice that I have precisely zero blogs, videos or ebooks comparing software features because I fundamentally believe it will just give you another reason to engage in ‘empty work’, or procrastination.

Spending 5 hours aimlessly registering for 14 day trials and poking around new software interfaces doesn’t help when the problem is the lack of a process, not a lack of a system to manage that process.

Your time has value, which is why you’re looking for a system or software or magic bullet to make the clock work harder, not you.

My view is that your intentions are good you may just be looking in the wrong place. (Side note: Mismanagement of time was number 5 of my list of failures first time around as a freelancer so believe me when I say I do understand why you’re looking!)

Software won’t help when the process beneath is broken

I’m a big believer in efficiency, process and solid business fundamentals. Hell, it’s why I named my book ‘Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer’. I’m also a strong advocate for beating procrastination and getting stuff done, quickly.

But if you take one thing from this post make it this – software won’t help if you don’t already have a system to do what you’re trying to do.

Photoshop was a killer app because it helped automate a lot of processes that were either manual (non-digital) or took lots of time to do digitally.

Freshbooks flourished because it is speedier and more intuitive than the spreadsheet users were working with before.

Basecamp took off like a rocket, as it streamlined email conversations already happening into a task level system.

Mailchimp managed email addresses better than an Outlook and allowed users to bulk send rather than via a workaround BCC hack.

There was already a process in place to carry out these tasks.

It wasn’t scalable, it took time and in some cases was painful but it was there, and it worked.

The ‘job to be done’ had been solved, the fundamentals were understood; these systems stepped in and made the process 10x more efficient and 100x more scalable.

Too often I find that I’m being asked for software recommendations for tasks haven’t been tried and tested manually yet.

Example: What software do you use for cold emailing potential clients?

A short time ago I put together a 6,000+ word, complete guide to finding freelance clients using cold email and this methodology is a key part of my recommendations for getting more attention as a freelancer (marketing and getting attention is Module 7 of Freelancelift Pro).

Yet nowhere did I recommend how to actually do this at scale.

“What software do you use for finding email addresses in bulk”

“Where do you find large lists of leads you want to reach out to”

“What platform do you use to actually do the sends?”

All valid questions, but only questions I will entertain when you’ve tried it and gotten results the manual way.

Without that, the software becomes quicksand, you get too focused on understanding every feature of the platform and allow your mind to wander about the possibility of scaling this system to email 1,000 people a day on your behalf.

All the while you’re sinking…. sinking… sinking.

Busy work gets you setup on the system but your energy to actually put the system to work fades. Roll up your sleeves, understand the fundamentals and do things that don’t scale to begin with.

In doing so you’ll learn the fundamentals of what you’re trying to achieve first, get good at it then look to find how you systemize it, go faster, do better now it’s second nature. Wax on, wax off.

I’ll leave you with a passage from a classic business mind, Paul Graham from the epic piece ‘Do things that don’t scale’:

“Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going.

A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going…

… the unscalable things you have to do to get started are not merely a necessary evil, but change the company permanently for the better.”

So focus on the fundamentals, understand the core freelance business principles for whatever you are trying to achieve. Get good at them, do things the long way at first.

Then use software, systems and scale your marketing, accounting or project management to maximise your time and earn more from your work in less time.

Maybe you’ll get that Piña Colada after all :)

Learn anything? Please share

When you’re held ransom by client work and income instability how are you supposed to find time to work on “growth” (whatever that means).

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  • justinhein

    Powerful stuff! I’ve got some SaaS platforms to unsubscribe from. XD

  • mike brady

    Couldn’t agree more- have always started “on paper” – and even so have still spent more hours vetting SAAS than I care to think about…but there real gems for certain tasks that work across a segment of scaling. Ultimately, finding a “fit” is an ongoing project which needs awareness around scope creep – SAAS evolves continually and the economics of these companies bounce around as they apply their algorithms. I consider the application of these SAAS innovations as a necessary cost of doing online biz.

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