How To Scale Your Freelance Business Into A Full-Fledged Company

  • By Stu Smith
  • Published 9/22/2015

Before joining the Able team as Creative Director, I ran a design agency that specialized in branding and web experiences. Most of the time, that meant building the plane as we flew it. I’m hugely empathetic to the responsibilities business owners feel. It can be a lonely and paralyzing feeling not knowing how to navigate crucial next steps.

One particular question someone asked struck a chord with me. I was speaking with a filmmaker (let’s call him Peter) who is having a ton of success creating branded content for well-known clients. Business is going great, and he was ready for the next step. His main question went something like this:

“How do I grow my business from a one-man operation to a full-fledged film production studio?”

Staying the same size was going to lead to the same type of work he had always been doing, rather than the type of work he aspires to do.

As I dug a bit further, it was clear that Peter was wrestling with the implications of the different paths he could take. If he decided to hire an entire crew…

  • What would payroll do to his business’s cashflow?
  • How would he attract and retain top talent to this new company?
  • What does he do when things get slow as they inevitably do in creative industries?

I had to make these same types of decisions with my own business - and the hardest part was knowing that each one has lasting implications.

While brainstorming alternative ways Peter might set up his film consulting business, and hearing his pain points and reservations, I was immediately reminded of something Dan Mall once said about structuring his design business, SuperFriendly, in a distinctively different way. Rather than building a business in the tried-and-true agency model — i.e. hiring a slew of designers and developers — he chose to leverage his super star counterparts.

Dan applied what he calls the “Hollywood Model” of building a consulting business:

Just as a director chooses to cast a film with the right person for the role, it is possible to assemble project teams based on the right fit for the project.

The ‘Super Friends’ that contributed to Dan’s design projects often had other, bigger things going on, and would be impossible to recruit for full-time employment.

Structuring a consultancy this way has some amazing implications:

  1. Reduces the monthly cashflow necessary to produce projects
  2. Increases the quality of work by having the right person for the job every time.
  3. Allows the business to leverage the networks of all of the contributors, or ‘Super Friends’
  4. Removes all of the questions around payroll, insurance, operating overhead, talent retention, etc.

At the very least, this model proved to be an interesting path for evaluating ’s unique situation. Taking this route could allow him to set up a more sustainable business than overextending himself by taking on the extra risk and responsibility associated with growing the business in a traditional format.

Business owners, when you’re first starting out, or figuring out how to scale with less headaches, know this:

It’s easy to fall into the trap of hiring as many people as possible. Instead, focus on bringing in the right players at the right time for the right project.

For me, being able to offer this different perspective was hugely rewarding. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through the business of design and consulting over the last few years. While the perspective I offered isn’t intended to be prescriptive (I’ll never know everything Peter knows about his business), it was awesome to be able to work with business owners and (hopefully) make the grind a little less lonely.

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