Many freelancers dream of making the switch from service provider to product founder. The stability of passive income is never more top-of-mind than when your earnings are dictated by the hours in a day or by the number of one-time projects in your pipeline. You’re hustling every day to complete client work, market your services, and keep the work coming at a steady pace.
Nathan Barry, CEO of ConvertKit, recently caught up with us in our Founder Chats podcast. He spoke about how he was able to learn valuable lessons from freelancing. And today, his product pulls in over $10M yearly. How did he get there? How can freelancers, and those who want to go from service provider to product owner, follow this path to successful founder?
Freelancing is useful for many reasons
It will give you your first taste of entrepreneurship
Starting a freelance business requires almost zero startup capital. You can get yourself up-and-running as a registered business in no time, and with as little as a hundred bucks or so (in most states).
You learn how to manage your time and finances because some months are leaner than others. Maybe you scrape together your own website for the first time. You learn to sell something; maybe you close your first deal. You learn how and when to delegate, like to a virtual assistant or referral partner. You learn to seek advice from experts like an accountant. You have many firsts and many hard lessons.
Most of all, you learn about failing and not giving up. Because there are days when all of us panic about having zero clients or too few projects.
Nathan’s first form of passive income came from iPhone apps he created out of fear of losing too many clients at once. Nathan’s fear provided motivation—and the need to build a product.
It can help you raise funds if you want to bootstrap your way up
Established freelancers can make a darn good living. Developers and designers can earn 5-figures for a project. Marketers can earn 5 to 6 figures per client per year. I know a freelance writer charging $5k for one sales page – cha-ching!
Nathan started out with smaller projects, like a $5k web design gig, before landing larger projects for $10k. Eventually, as larger projects came along, he was able to outsource some of the work.
He used money he’d saved from freelancing and publishing to launch ConvertKit. The point is, freelancing is a great way to save up cash to fund your product idea.
If you’re just getting started as a freelancer and are dreaming of becoming a founder, you might not be earning a high income yet, but hang in there. The better you get at your craft, the more you can charge. You’ll learn to productize your services.
Your negative experiences will spawn innovation
With more and more knowledge and experience comes the ability to think beyond where everyone else in your field is thinking. Thought leadership, anyone?
Experts, thought leaders, and innovators are solving problems they’ve encountered themselves. You’ve probably had a handful of eureka moments prompted by events that gave you headaches – Why not start taking steps to validate those eureka ideas?
After Nathan published several books and was making around $250k per year, he hit a pain point. He realized that there wasn’t a marketing tool built for content marketers like himself — a tool that would allow him to grow his audience through email campaigns. ConvertKit was born.
Sooner than later, something is going to become a pain. Love your pains. Even the tiny ones. Write your pain down. Ruminate on how you can fix that pain for other people like you.
How to journey from freelance to founder
Step 1. What are you good at? What’s your expertise? There may be more than one!
Nathan was always a builder. He started making wooden figures when he was a kid, and as an adult, he built tech products. Nathan is also an excellent writer. The multi-talented prevail, so don’t be afraid to practice more than one of your passions.
Discovering your talents doesn’t always come early in life – or easily for that matter. If you don’t know what you’re good at, but you know what you love, then do what you love. Get better at it. Read all the books. Develop your chops.
Step 2. What pains have you experienced?
Be like Nathan, and jump on the opportunity to alleviate pain as it arises. Nathan didn’t waste time overthinking what ConvertKit would be, he built the thing. When we asked Nathan why he built ConvertKit he said:
The goal was to get to $5,000 a month in revenue in six months, and then ConvertKit came pretty quickly because I needed a better email tool. Like all of my sales are coming from email. I can do better than MailChimp, and build something just for myself.
There are big problems, and there are small problems. But pain is pain, and if you fix something for enough people, then you’re probably gonna see some results.
Step 3. Whose pain can you alleviate?
When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is nearby to hear it, does it make a sound? — Physics, Charles Riborg Mann and George Ransom Twiss
You have a product idea. There is no market for it. Is it really a product/business?
ConvertKit was built by a content marketer, for content marketers, who needed a better way to stay engaged with their audiences via email. Clear problem, clear market.
Do a little market research before deciding to jump right into product development. Product-market fit is essential, and you can’t be a business if no one buys what you’re selling!
Step 4. Can a product alleviate those pains?
Will your product idea be able to truly rid your market of their pain? Or, at least, lessen the pain? If a product can’t fix a problem, then it will have no value to a market.
Businesses typically care about time, money, and their people. Does solving the particular problem save them time? Can it save or make them money? Does it help their people? ConvertKit helps content marketers earn more money through better email campaigns.
But, if your market is consumers. . .
People want to live a more fulfilling life. Does your solution improve their lives? Will they feel gratified?
Articulate specific pain alleviations in your marketing messages. You can even ask these questions in places where your future customers might be before you decide to launch. Like, social media groups, industry blogs, a landing page, etc.
What do you do with your product idea?
Map out the bare essentials
Once you’ve identified that there’s a market need and that your product will solve a problem – it’s time to start mapping out its features. Your minimum viable product (MVP) is a “dumbed down” version of your product. The simplest possible version.
If you’re not familiar with web development, you might find it helpful to write out all the product features you’ve imagined, and sit down with a UX/UI designer or developer, so that they can help you determine what’s essential.
If you’ve got your product ready, it’s time to test. You can share it with folks you trust, like family, friends, or a co-founder. You can test the beta version, and record all that useful user data. Remember, user data is going to dictate your product’s future.
For the very reason that user data should dictate your product’s future features, don’t sweat finding a co-founder. Nathan’s a solo founder and, in fact, startups with single founders raise more money and are more likely to have successful exits than startups with multiple founders.
Ship now, not later
It’s more important to ship a not-so-perfect version of a product than it is to wait around while you’re perfecting it. You’ll lose momentum doing that; you’ll lose potential early adopters, you’ll lose money.
During his chat with us, Nathan spoke on the importance of shipping new features despite a product’s imperfections: This doesn’t have everything that it needs to, like all MVPs. But then, if they see it (the MVP) improving fast enough, and they like you, and they like the direction of the product, then they’ll stick with it. But if it’s not improving fast enough, then they’ll just bounce.
Keep moving forward
It’s not going to be easy. Whether you’re going from contract to contract or bootstrapping a tech product, the going will get tough. Keep moving. Even successful founders second-guess themselves.
Touching on ConvertKit’s early days of growth, Nathan said:
I started to lose motivation. I was like, “I can’t make this thing (ConvertKit) grow.”
And now, ConvertKit is a $10M/year product. Perseverance pays!
The important thing is that Nathan kept moving forward. Kept growing his market. Kept shipping features, even if they weren’t perfect yet.
What about you?
Are any of you freelancing (or providing a service) and trying to make the switch to product? What have you learned? What’s it been like for you? We’d love to hear about your experiences!