Many of us view our freelance businesses an alternative to a job, one that gives us the freedom to ditch time-wasting commutes and days packed with meetings and corporate politics. We feel lucky that we can clear space in our lives for the things we really want to do–working on projects we love, starting our day with a hike, playing backyard soccer with our kids, whatever.
But some freelancers find that going indie is a route to a new and unexpected career path: As entrepreneurs running fast-growth companies.
That’s the case for Gabriel Shaoolian. He started out as a freelance web designer in 2001. Today, his New York City company Blue Fountain Media expects revenues of $16 million to $20 million in 2012. It has served clients from P&G to the United Nations.
Shaoolian did not start out expecting to run a fast-growth company. As a young web designer, he left a corporate career to seek greater fulfillment by going solo. “I like working with different people and different projects,” he said.
While he got some great gigs by pitching his services and through word of mouth, he also found the financial side of freelancing tough the first three years. “I did not figure out how to market myself until year three,” he said. “I had constant stress. There are times when you are like, `I don’t know where my next job is coming from.’ I was constantly on the verge of asking: Should I take a job or continue?’”
The tide turned when Shaoolian tried advertising his one-person business online, using pay-per-click ads and Google AdWords. “Because I was in web design, my ads were very simple,” he recalls. He pitched himself as a website designer with a personal touch. “I was a one man show. My strength was giving my clients my personal attention.” The ads used phrases like “local,” “personal” and “holding your hand.” He also learned search engine optimization, so his site would appear high in searches when someone entered certain keywords in Google.
Because his business was new, Shaoolian needed to build up a portfolio, so he charged low rates. His goal was to do such outstanding work on each project that it would open the door to new clients. “I started out at $35 an hour, just to barely meet my living expenses,” he recalls. ” Then it went up to $55 and $75.”
As he kept running his ads and perfecting his portfolio, Shaoolian soon found himself with more work than he could handle. He formed a company called Gabriel Productions in 2003 and Blue Fountain Media in 2006. Today, Blue Fountain Media employs 160 people around the globe.
Shaoolian’s advice to others embarking on a freelance journey is to balance your desire for freedom with preparation. ”To freelance, you have to have an adventurous spirit,” he says. “When you go on an adventure, you don’t know what lies ahead of you. You need to have a backup plan, so if you don’t get any projects for six months, you’re not going to panic. You need to have money in the bank.”
Shaoolian was a single bachelor when he started freelancing, so he had some room for trial and error. Now that he has a wife and child, he recommends that others with families to support to do advance prep work for a freelancing career, such as coming up with a marketing plan and developing a portfolio, if possible. “Don’t just fall in love with the idea of freelancing,” he says.
With his own legwork paying off in a big way, Shaoolian no longer faces the stress that came with drumming up new freelance projects to pay the bills. Now, he’s got a different set of challenges as a CEO. “My goal is to get this company to the point that it runs without me,” he says.
Not all of us will get to the point where we’re wrestling with issues like this, but it’s nice to know that it’s a possibility.