What's your barometer of freelance success? Do you find yourself distracted by how many followers you have on Twitter or the size of your email list? Do you have a sneaky peek at what other freelancers' say they're earning? Today's episode is about zeroing in on what really matters in our freelance business and getting permission to ignore the rest.
"When we get more likes and followers and subscribers, we get a dopamine hit. They're monkey brain metrics. All of this takes up time and energy, which are limited resources when you work for yourself. So it's important to be sure that you're focusing your attention where it really matters."
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Louise Shanahan is a freelance health copywriter and content marketer. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.
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LinkedIn: Louise Shanahan
Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host, Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind the scenes stories, and nuggets o' wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help me navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So, grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe!
Hello, and thank you for joining me for another episode of 15 Minute Freelancer. We all know we need to spend time working ON our businesses as well as IN them. And my hope is that this podcast helps you work on your business a little bit more, even if it's just for 15 minutes a week.
So I have a key question for you today. No really, it's about keys. My inspiration for today's episode was a tweet about comment made by one of the owners of Timpson's. For those of you who don't know, Timpson's is a chain of locksmiths in the UK. I think maybe they do shoe repairs and dry cleaning. And I don't know other things like that. It's kind of like the retail version of the big kitchen drawer of handy things. Anyway, a few weeks back I saw a tweet fly by on my timeline, which included a snippet that one of the Timpson's owners had written in the newspaper about how they had acquired a bunch of loss making retail chains. And one of the major ways they turned these stores around was actually really simple. They got rid of the expensive tills and replaced them with a good old fashioned cash drawer and calculator, the fancy electronic tools collected all sorts of data about times of sales, demographic info, whether the customer use a MasterCard or American Express or whatever, and no one was looking at it. It was completely pointless exercise and the kit cost something like £8 million. It was not worth it. All they need to do now is at the end of each day, the store manager tots up the sales with a paper and pen, emails it to the big boss and that's all the info they need. What were their total sales for that day. Mr. Timpson or Mr. Timpson Junior or whatever his name is said, and I paraphrase slightly, I'm going to read this:
"There must be a point at which the cost of interpreting and using data exceed the benefits of collecting it. The businesses we bought were often collecting vast amounts of data from their fancy tools, yet the managers were reading very little of it, and it rarely helped colleagues give better customer service. One piece of data beats everything else: the cash figure each morning. Our second barometer is customer service scores."
So this got me thinking, What's the one number that matters in a freelance business? What is the single piece of data that matters in your business? Are you putting a lot of effort or time into collecting and worrying about certain numbers that maybe you don't need to? What is your barometer of success? It's easy to fall into the trap of tracking clicks or leads, and followers and likes and shares. But do we need all of it? Can we save some time and money and stress by keeping it simple, like Timpson's?
For example, it's easy to get sucked into worrying about how many Instagram followers we have. So we think we need to post every single day at exactly the right time, and do exactly 10 to 12 stories every day, and use all the correct hashtags, or do reels and all the rest of it, in the hope that we get more followers. Or maybe we spend hours each week in MailChimp looking at the dashboard, showing us how many people click links in our emails, or how many people unsubscribed and where and why. I'm not saying these things aren't interesting or useful in some cases. But sometimes we focus on data points because we see other people focusing on them. So we think they're important, or because they're just there, they're easy to see so we may as well look at them. Or quite simply because we feel good when we get more likes and followers and subscribers. Our monkey brain gets a dopamine hit. I call these ones monkey brain metrics. All of this takes up time and energy, which are limited resources when you work for yourself. So it's important to be sure that you're focusing your attention where it really matters.
So that's kind of what I want to dig into today, it's a chance to think about the data that we should pay attention to versus data we can ignore. Don't worry, I'm not going to give you loads of homework with tracking spreadsheets or freelance FitBits or whatever. It's just a thought experiment to help you figure out your barometer of success.
So let's start with some of the metrics that we can ignore. I think deep down we probably all know when we're focusing too much on the vanity metrics like follower numbers. These might be relevant if you're growing a following for a specific purpose. For example, if you know a particular channel as a strong source of leads or referrals, so if you know that maybe you get most of your leads from Twitter, then maybe making more connections is something that you want to put effort into. But is it really about the number of followers? Or is it more about the quality of engagement?
Maybe you've heard of the well known essay by Kevin Kelly, who cofounded Wired Magazine, in which he talks about the concept of 1000 True Fans. I'll include a link in the show notes. His hypothesis is that you don't need millions of fans. You only need a small number of genuine fans who love what you do and will support you no matter what. He's mostly talking about artists and musicians, if I remember correctly, but the idea works for freelancers, too. You're not Amazon. You're not selling to everyone. You don't need a ginormous following. You just need to focus on this small corner of the market who will love what you do and tell their friends about it. It's about quality, not quantity, isn't it?
The size of your audience might be more important if you have non service based offerings as part of your business, such as a course or a product that you sell. Or maybe you have a blog or a podcast that brings in extra revenue through ads or affiliate links. So in those cases, yes, maybe the number of subscribers or downloads or likes and shares might matter more. But for many of us, that can be more of an emotional drive rather than a practical one. We're letting our monkey brain cells strategy.
Another data point I see people fixating on unnecessarily is other people's data. Specifically, other people's follower numbers and other people's income claims. I definitely fall for this. I see people with 1000s of people on their email list, then think, oh, why don't they want mine! But that's such a huge disservice to the couple of 100 lovely people who do rely on me the honour of popping into their inbox every fortnight or so. Imagine if they were all in one room, that would be amazing. There's a lot of people. And again, my email newsletter is a way that I get to write about why I'm interested in and making more personal connection with previous clients and other freelancers and marketers and copywriters. So I think it does help me keep my name on the radar of potential clients, I do get a reasonable number of leads that way. But yeah, the size of someone else's email list is 100%. irrelevant. And it's the same for their bank balance. I've talked before about this weird obsession that some parts of the freelancing community have with six figures. And it's honestly meaningless. Half the time, you'll see a freelancer talk about making six figures and if you were to look closely, you'll notice that maybe they made 10k one month and just extrapolated it out. Or they've switched for a monthly income and pounds to annual income, i.e. the six figure part in US dollars. So I think there's a bit of creative currency exchanging going on there. You have no idea what their expenses are. And maybe they have a team working with them, or they're forking out a fortune and ads. So again, take it all with a pinch of salt. I love people talking about the success. But there's a difference between feeling inspired by someone else's success and feeling like that's the only measure of success, and feeling demotivated if it doesn't feel doable to you. The reality is that only you know how much you need to make to be comfortable. The only income you should really care about is your own.
So those are the numbers I try to ignore. What numbers should we pay attention to? And this will vary for everyone, of course, but here are some criteria for figuring out what data matters to you and what you can ignore. So number one is, will it move the dial? Will tracking this number allow me to take action that will actually help me grow my business? Number two is is it reliable? There's obviously no point tracking numbers that you can't fully attribute to a particular outcome that you're interested in. And number three, is it a monkey brain metric? Is it just your ego talking? Likes or follows can be fun to track, but it can be really demotivating when they don't go in the direction we want or they don't translate to a tangible impact on our business.
So all that said, here are a few examples of numbers that I think it can be helpful to pay attention to. As freelancers, I think there are two big priorities. Do you have enough clients? And are you making enough money from those projects? So lead generation and profitability are definitely two areas to keep an eye on. Where do most of your clients find you? How much time do you spend on those channels? Are you spending your time in the right channels? So if I get way more clients through LinkedIn than Instagram, why would I spend more time on Instagram? Maybe you generate more leads through cold pitching, in which case you'd be better off spending an hour a week sending out cold pitches and focusing on that, rather than spending an hour a week writing a blog post or a newsletter if that's not really moving the dial for your business. Tracking where your leads come from is definitely a dial mover so you can focus your efforts there going forwards.
And on profitability, we're thinking about how much money you make from a project minus expenses, relative to how much time you spend on it. I don't think this needs a lot of tracking, to be honest, but maybe once or twice a year you can take a look at how many projects you've done, the types of projects they were, how long it took you and how much profit you made from them. Maybe you also look at where the leads came from as well. I did this and maybe talked about it in one of the earlier episodes, I think. And I found that although a larger portion of my income came from website copywriting than from writing blog posts, I could write blog posts far more efficiently in a shorter time. So from a time perspective, they were much more profitable. And that data gives me a few options, I could either find a way to run the website projects more efficiently, adjust my rates, so they're more consistent, or put more effort into finding more content writing clients and focus on that. So I encourage you to do a similar exercise. It could be quite enlightening to see which of your projects are really the most profitable. And of course, you don't have to change anything as a result of that information. If you're happy with how things are, it's just an example of data that could be worth taking a look at.
In the maybe category, I'd put website analytics, and that might be controversial for a copywriter to say. And it's definitely data that I look at 100% when I'm writing copy, but on a personal level, as a business priority, as I say most of my leads come through word of mouth. So SEO ranking and page views and things like that are not really that interesting to me. If you get your leads through Google, then it would make sense to pay attention to this. So if that's you, you can stop worrying about your Instagram following and get to work on an SEO audit.
There are two other factors that I think are really important, but maybe a little bit harder to track. One is a qualitative form of data. And that is feedback and testimonials from clients. Like the Timpson's guy said, next to the ultimate sales figure, your most important metric when running a business is customer satisfaction. If your clients aren't happy with the experience of working with you, then you won't have a thriving business for long. There's no need to get bogged down in some complicated measurement system. Just make sure you're getting that feedback. So you can keep improving your services. And of course, make sure you ask for testimonials. And if you missed last week's episode, you're definitely going to want to go and listen to that. Because it's all about how to ask for glowing testimonials, and find out how to use them properly to generate more leads.
And the other final measure, the other factor, is about you. How happy are you in your business? What's your gut telling you? How your stress levels measuring up? All these other numbers pale in significance if you're miserable. So the enjoyment or fulfilment factor should really be top of the list. Of course, running a business can be hard work, and life throws all sorts of curveballs at us. And for many of us, the enjoyment factor possibly went a little bit haywire over the last year. But you're not a robot. And I hope that as a running average, over time, you're genuinely enjoying what you do.
So do any of these resonate? I'm not saying that you have to track any of these at all, plenty of people fly by the seat of their pants and follow their instincts and do just fine. And equally some of the monkey brain metrics that I've been a wee bit judgmental about – the followers and likes and so on – may be really important to you, or you just really enjoy looking at that and doing that. So go for it. You do you. I guess my message to you today is really more of a nudge to consider where you're spending your time and mental energy. And if it's really helping you create the kind of business that you want.
Okay, that's all for today. I hope that was helpful. Thanks for listening. And as always, I would be eternally grateful if you would subscribe, leave a review or share with a friend if you enjoyed this because those are the numbers that matter in podcast land!
You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me, Louise Shanahan, freelance health copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want answered on the podcast find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing!