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How I went from freelance designer to creating my first product

Here’s a question I saw recently that hit pretty close to home for me:

I’ve been freelancing for a while and my work is steady. However, I’m wondering where to take things next. I’d prefer to not be trading my hours for money anymore. I have enough time on the side to start something else, so I’ve been looking into bootstrapping a product.

But I’m wondering what’s the best way to go from freelancer to product that has the highest chance of success?

It’s a great question — and one that a few years ago I was asking myself. Since then I’ve made precisely the type of successful jump he’s describing. I went from selling my time as a freelancer to selling a product as a badass. If you’ve ever wanted to make the same leap, this article is for you. I’m here to tell you: you can do it! It’s going to take action, adjustment, and a solid approach, but you can get there. I’m proof. That’s why I recommend one type product above all else for your first product.

The shift away from selling your time

I loved the idea of selling a product. As a freelancer, no matter what I did, my time would always have a cap on it. It meant that my income would be limited forever. But with products I could sell as much as I wanted.

So I decided to make the switch. After some back of the napkin calculations, I realized that if I could replace about $3,000 worth of revenue per month, quickly, I could make the leap. I had about 2 weeks before my next client project so I got to work.

9 days later I had reached my $3,000 monthly revenue goal. Looking back, it was largely due to the type of product I chose. I don’t see this type of product used very often but it was key to my success with my first product.

What makes an ideal first product?

My main goal was to move away from selling my time. When I started looking at what type of product I could create I realized I also wanted:

  • Minimal work upfront — something that was quick to launch.
  • Scalable — something I could sell to many people at once.
  • Recurring revenue —something that I wouldn’t have to start from zero every month.

After much consideration, I arrived at my product type.

A paid newsletter

Why did I choose a paid newsletter? Unlike most other products, paid newsletters are great because they have a few distinct qualities:

  1. You don’t have to worry about creating anything until you’re paid.
  2. You don’t have to do more work to get paid more.
  3. You can sell the same newsletter to hundreds of people.
  4. You’re selling a product instead of your time.
  5. You’re naturally positioned as an expert.

Types of paid newsletters

Paid newsletters come in many different shapes. Some sell advice, screencasts, marketing tips, coupons, hacks, analysis, curation, licensing and more. (In fact, there’s a great example of each of these you can get at the bottom of this post.)

But at their heart, paid newsletters all provide the same thing — a point of view. This makes the product come naturally to a freelancer because a freelancer is also paid based on the value their point of view has. This doesn’t mean your paid newsletter has to be related to what you do for your clients (although that’s probably a great place to start) but it does mean you have to provide value.

Side note: Your paid newsletter doesn’t even have to be something you do full-time. You can keep freelancing while your paid newsletter earns you extra income on the side. It can even be on a totally unrelated topic, I’ve seen paid newsletters on fun topics that take your mind off your regular work.

How to start one

Going in-depth into each step is outside of the scope of this article but this section will hopefully provide you aa high-level view of the general concepts for starting a paid newsletter. If you’d like a more detailed look, join my newsletter — I answer specific questions from subscribers and I’ll be writing more about this topic soon.

  1. Find your ideal customer
    The best way to narrow down what type of newsletter you want to send is to choose a group of people you want to work with. It’s best to go with a group you know well. Bonus points if you’re a part of this group yourself because it will make everything easier. For example, for my paid newsletter I chose freelancers. This made it easy to relate to their struggles because they were my struggles. I didn’t have to guess, I experienced them too.
  2. Start a free mailing list
    This is who you will launch your paid newsletter to. It doesn’t have to be huge. I had 200 people on my list when I announced my paid newsletter. These 200 people were the first to hear about my launch, give me feedback, and help share it with other people. No other type of marketing had more of an impact than when I emailed useful, value-filled articles to my mailing list.
  3. Ask your list questions and study their behavior 
    I created a welcome email that asks everyone who joins my list what their biggest struggle is. This lets me tune my content to them. I also offered to answer their questions almost every time I emailed them. Why? Finding an awesome idea is one of the hardest things about paid newsletters. Your list is your best source for this.
  4. Study them in the wild
    You should also go to places they hang out to get ideas on what your paid newsletter should be about. Read reddit threads, youtube videos, forum posts, amazon reviews and anything elsewhere they’ve written about what they’re struggling with. (H/T to 30×500 for providing me an awesome framework for this.) Once you’ve found people talking about what they’re struggling with: write down their exact words.
  5. Use this research to email your list value for free
    Look at this as a test run. Reverse the problems you’ve observed and create solutions. The key here is to focus on making them better people, not making a product. Figure out a way to give them meaningful progress then email this solution to your list for free. Don’t be worried to giving away too much. Just deliver value.
  6. Post your 3 most popular pieces to Medium
    You’ll notice that some of the stuff you’re sending is getting a better response than others. Post the best to Medium and ask your list to help spread the word. Include a link at the bottom of your post with a bonus goodie that ties directly to the struggle you address in your article as an incentive to sign up for your free newsletter. This creates a list of qualified prospects likely to buy your paid newsletter.
  7. Create a sales page
    To pitch your paid newsletter, focus on describing your customers pain points vividly, then paint a picture of what the opposite dream scenario would look like, and finally give them the ability to pay you money to make it a reality. That’s all you really need: a pitch, a price, and a buy button. Don’t overthink it, just launch. You’re looking to see if your idea is worth paying for. The only way to do that is to ask for the sale. You can tweak it later (and you will).
  8. Create paid content for your customers
    I launched to 1 paying customer. I spent 4 hours creating my first paid newsletter for one person. It was all worth it when he immediately replied “holy shit, this is awesome.” So launch. If you don’t get that first customer, try again. Keep tweaking and adjusting your marketing, your market, and your message. Keep at it and eventually you will make a sale. If you get even 1 paid subscriber (like me) than you know people are willing to pay for your idea. Keep pushing.
  9. Now do all of this again
    Once you get your first sale, you’re on your way to replacing your freelance income. Awesome. Now, remember all that research you did? Keep doing it. Attack every topic again from a different angle. Create a drip campaign with your best stuff. Always remember to include a link to your paid newsletter at the bottom of your emails. As your list grows, you’re creating a revenue machine that prints you money in your sleep. Bye-bye client work.