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Branding & Marketing

Build a Business, Not Just a Client List

Stuck in a rat race of never-ending client work? It's time to start acting like a creative entrepreneur. Step 1: Build your brand and start creating assets.

If you work for yourself, getting more clients is a no-brainer, right? Clients give you work. Work pays the bills. Do good work and you get a testimonial. Do this enough times and you get a great client list… which makes it easier to get more clients in future. It’s a virtuous circle.

Or is it? One problem with approaching your work purely in terms of “getting more clients,” is that it means you will always have to get more clients. If you don’t work, you don’t have billable hours, so you don’t get paid. Time off will always feel like money down the drain. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself on a treadmill, unable to get off. Spend too long on the treadmill and you’ll risk burning yourself out.

Another problem is that you will expend all your energy and creative talent on other people’s projects. And what will you have to show for it? At best, a great portfolio, client list, and testimonials. But if you want to keep eating, you’ll need to keep working.

This is the classic dilemma described by Michael Gerber in The E-Myth sole traders start out with dreams of independence, but find themselves trapped by their own business. They spend all their time working in the business (doing client work), instead of on it (building the business).

Sole traders start out with dreams of independence, but find themselves trapped by their own business.

The solution is to stop thinking like a “freelancer” and start thinking and acting like a creative entrepreneur. This does not mean you need to get VC funding and take on an army of staff. The opportunities created by the internet mean you can carry on as a one-person outfit or micro-business. What it means is that instead of just working for hire, you start creating business assets whose value will increase over time.

If that sounds a bit daunting, consider these four types of asset, that are within the reach of any solo operator:

1. A Brandcreate and project a professional and consistent image.

Designer and developer Nick Cernis could operate under his own name, but instead he blogs as Modern Nerd and sells his iPhone apps under the name Spiffing Apps. His websites’ design and copywriting are consistent, memorable, and unmistakeable. And because Spiffing Apps is separate from Nick Cernis, he has the option of selling the business in future, allowing the next owner to inherit the goodwill and reputation associated with the name.

2. Online Properties build digital real estate that grows in value over time.

David Airey is an independent graphic designer. Since 2006, he has been writing a graphic design blog at, and more recently at He ploughs thousands of hours a year into his blogs. Hours he could have spent working for clients or hustling for new business. But now he doesn’t have to hustle for business any more. Clients come to his Edinburgh studio from as far afield as Japan and Canada. His blogs have also secured him a book deal with respected imprint Peachpit Press.

3. Permission Assetsbuild lists of contacts who want to know about your ideas, products, and services.

According to Seth Godin, permission marketing is “the privilege (not the right) of sending anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.” A permission asset could be an email list, a blog subscription list, a Facebook group, or a following on Twitter. Every day, Hugh MacLeod sends a cartoon to the folks who subscribe to his email newsletter. They are free to print it themselves or buy a high-quality, limited-edition print from the artist. Enough of them do the latter to make it a very rewarding enterprise for Hugh.

4. Productsturn your knowledge and skills into physical or digital items for sale.

If you can deliver a professional service for clients, you can certainly create your own product range. Doing this successfully means you develop streams of income that increase over time – and it frees you from the treadmill of hourly or daily rates. Photographer and writer Susannah Conway makes a living from her innovative Unravelling e-courses combining photography, community, and personal development. Matthew Inman has freed himself from web design hell by creating the phenomenally popular Oatmeal website as a showcase for his comic strips, which he sells as posters, prints, and in a forthcoming book.

It’s not easy to find time to create these assets – in the short term, it’s easier to justify work on client projects that will put food on the table next month. But for the sake of your long-term health, wealth, and creative fulfilment, you owe it to yourself to make the investment. And it doesn’t have to be a black-and-white choice – think of the Google engineers who spend 20% of their time on personal projects, or David Airey writing his blogs while maintaining a steady flow of client work.

How About You?

Supposing you spent one day a week building your own business assets… where would it take your business in a year? 5 years? 10 years? What’s stopping you? What difference would it make if you found a way around those obstacles?

Mark McGuinness helps artists and entrepreneurs create remarkable things at Lateral Action. For bite-sized inspiration follow Mark on Twitter.

Comments (44)
  • Houston Web Designers

    Making people aware of the service or product that you have to offer that does not only entail an impressive list of satisfied but information regarding the business as well. The name that does matter if you are not able to capture the attention of online readers.

  • Jeff Machado

    I always keep these points in mind. The most challenging thing I’m facing right now though is that I think there is a lot of value in serving clients. I mean, if a business really needs copywriting services or marketing help, there is still a lot of value in serving those clients.

    I just wonder if sacrificing for other people rather than being always focused on self would be a good thing sometimes?

    That’s why I like your point about digital properties. You can build all these things and have your choice of clients, rather than using all your free time chasing down new ones.

    I just don’t want clients to become a bad word – that would be tragic.

  • Mayur Vaishnav

    This is a wonderful article, especially that of making a digital property,,,awesome and thanks

  • Jannatul Ferdous Shumi

    A small or a big business both need to create branding first to make their business popular.

  • April Greer

    I love the idea of working on your own business and creating passive income, but *most* people are going to have to “run the treadmill” a good portion of their lives. It doesn’t matter whether you work for yourself or someone else – if you want to continue paying the bills, you need to continue earning.

    Furthermore, we have this concept emerging of “find some schmuck to do your work for you for peanuts and run around the world doing whatever you want.” Truly, humans need purpose. We need a reason to get up in the morning and to feel like we’re contributing or making a difference. We need to be fulfilled.
    Most of the people I know who don’t work, even if it’s by choice, get the summer syndrome of school kids – they’re bored and less happy than their counterparts who enjoy and are fulfilled by their jobs.
    All the talk of “running off to SE Asia and the beach” is getting old, people. Sure, a vacation is nice, but Thailand is in terrible turmoil right now and I don’t know about anyone else, but living out of a suitcase and in airplanes gets old pretty quickly.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • Jhon

    I like this idea of article business designs.The logo missions assorted more nice stimulation and former many Supervises …

  • Kate

    This article really gave me a confidence boost. I recently founded my own business two years ago and it has been a very slow go. I’ve been to several events surrounded by like-minded people, made dozens of close contacts, sold my services to a few clients and have even been invited to a local radio show to do an interview about what I do and what my business is all about. Despite my efforts, it doesn’t seem like I have been getting as much patronage as I would have hoped. But after reading this article, it is nice to know that I’m doing a few things right.

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