Side Hustles

From $0 to $200,000 in 12 months: the truth about solo growth

Starting a business has been one of the most exhilarating and scary times in my life.

I went from a regular monthly salary at a prestigious digital agency to no clients and no security overnight.

But, believe it or not, I think I needed that in my life. If you’re like me, you’ll know what I mean. That burning unknown of ‘what if…’ stays stuck in your head no matter how badly you try to shake it.

I’ve always wanted more but betting on yourself is tough.

This is a reflection of the last 14 months. Whatever this is, I’m not sure. But I’ve learned a lot about business, money and, myself in the last year — there’s bound to be something I’ve done that’ll help someone, right?

This is going to be a no-holds-barred detailing of what it’s like being a solopreneur.

I’m going to dive deep into:

  • How I found my first client.
  • How I used LinkedIn to generate $100,000 in leads in 9 months.
  • The importance of balance.
  • The impact on my personal life and health.
  • The highs and the lows of being a freelancer.
  • Everything else I can think of.

Finding your first client is scary

I’m not a salesman and I’m not a confident person.

The thought of going out there and speaking to businesses is likely what deterred me from starting a business in the first place.

But, without customers, your business isn’t really a business.

You can have the most talent in the world but if you can’t sell yourself or your business — failure is almost guaranteed.

With that in mind, I focused on what I was good at; giving people value. Rather than hard-selling anything, my marketing plan was to give information away for free.

I didn’t have a timeline in mind. I just planned on doing this as much as possible until people took notice.

Sounds counter-intuitive, right?

Yeah, I thought that, too.

However, within a couple of weeks of me doing that, it sparked a conversation with three potential clients. I managed to secure:

  • A website audit for $750.
  • A retainer for $2,000.
  • A retainer for $3,000.

And all three clients said the same thing: ‘I saw your posts on LinkedIn through a friend and liked what you were saying.’

Giving away value allowed me to break down the trust barrier immediately. I didn’t have to validate who I was (like you do when you’re cold selling) because they already knew.

So, by the end of my first month as a freelancer, I had secured just under $6,000 with $30,000 in retainers over 6 months.

That was my yearly salary at the agency I had left no longer than 21 days prior.

I owe my business to LinkedIn

LinkedIn has fundamentally changed my life.

By continuing on with my marketing plan (giving value away for free) I built my audience every single month. It went from 100 people seeing my posts to 1,000 to now, where I regularly get 15,000–20,000 people each time I post.

To be transparent, those 20,000 eyeballs on my posts generate between 5–7 leads per month.

Now, you might think ‘Ryan, those numbers are low…’

But in the first year of business to have 5–7 inbound leads a month is how you keep the lights on.

There’s this ridiculous notion that you have to go from $0 to $1m to be successful.

My goal was to earn my previous yearly salary but to do it on my own terms.

Anything above that in my first year was a bonus.

Anyway, I said I wanted to give helpful advice, so, here are three things you absolutely have to do if you want to grow your business on LinkedIn.

Drive engagement in the first hour of your post

I’ve tested this over the last year and, without fail, initial engagement to your post within the first hour can accelerate your reach.

Do this however you want. Hell, like your own post if you have to. I did (and still do sometimes when I’m feeling proud of my content).

I would get 5–7 likes with 2–3 comments in the first hour of posting every time that I posted.

I’d take the share link, head to WhatsApp, and send it to my incredibly small group of friends.

Chances are you’re more popular than I am. So, your engagement levels will likely be higher than mine.

Dedicate 30 minutes every morning to engaging with others

Even now, when I get comments on my post, I take the time to respond to all of them.

Or all of them that deserve a response, at least.

But, it’s also incredibly important that you go out and offer advice on other people’s posts, too.

And when I say advice, try not to be controversial. Try not to be too opinionated. Engage with people with the sole intention of being helpful and open to their views.

In the first 3–5 months, I would spend 30 minutes each morning finding posts that I knew had my type of audience.

Why?

Because I knew two things:

  • It would build my personal brand to a very relevant audience.
  • Potential customers could very well be in that audience.

The number of messages I’d receive on LinkedIn was crazy. I’d get anywhere from 10–15 messages a day through doing this.

Even if those messages weren’t potential customers then, there was the potential they would become customers in the future.

Use hashtags properly

I tested out a number of strategies with hashtags that failed.

But I found the sweet spot and doubled down on it.

Here’s what I can tell you:

  • The position of your hashtags helps. Adding 20 at the bottom of your post is spammy and ugly.
  • I’ve used 1, 3, 5 and, 10 hashtags in posts. I’ve stuck with a maximum of 5 and a minimum of 3 — anything below/above doesn’t seem to help.
  • Pick the most popular hashtags for your audience. Dig through people’s posts, see which got the most engagement and, steal their hashtags.

Let’s talk cash

Counting all that money.

Everybody loves money talk.

In the interest of making sure I don’t give up too much, I’ll be bracketing my income so that I don’t give away individual retainers/projects.

In the last 12 months, I’ve generated just over $200,000 in revenue.

It’s by no means a multi-million dollar empire but, it’s near 10x my previous yearly salary working at an agency.

  • Over $40,000 came from project work (audits, migrations, content planning).
  • Over $150,000 came from retainers.
  • Over $20,000 came from consultancy (calls, training, strategy).

Let me be clear — this isn’t me bragging.

This isn’t me trying to say I’m better than the next person. I’m not the richest guy in the world, and I’m under no illusions that these aren’t groundbreaking figures.

The reason why I shared this is that too many freelancers make the same mistake.

Underselling themselves to get clients. Or believing that they can’t earn good money from freelancing.

I’ve spoken to countless people about their business and the number of times I’ve heard: ‘Oh I have 30 clients, they’re paying me $500 each’ is insane.

30 clients?

And, in SEO, $500 isn’t a huge budget. This means clients weren’t getting the true benefit of working with a freelancer and, as a freelancer, you won’t have any freedom or life.

This brings me to my next point…

Find your balance early

When I started my business, I lost all interest in everything else.

I thought about nothing else. I wanted to speak about nothing else.

I was all go, all of the time.

Which, initially, wasn’t a bad thing. The desire to grow something from zero is exciting. But after six months of only sleeping five hours a night and working seven days a week — it catches up with you.

I completely isolated myself.

I regularly found excuses as to why I couldn’t do things. When the reality was, I didn’t want to go to social events in case my business burned to the ground.

Sounds stupid but it’s a very real and very unsettling feeling.

I was so afraid that this momentum would stop or clients would cancel that I worked myself into the ground. I was an excellent freelancer but a pretty shitty person to be around.

My best piece of advice is not to overthink your situation.

What I mean is, if a client cancels, or you don’t hit a deadline or, your business fails; it isn’t the end of the world.

The chances are you’ve started a business because you’re incredibly talented at what you do. If you lose clients, or you have to start again, do it. If you need to find another job to save pay your bills, do it.

There is absolutely no shame in any of it.

If you ever feel judged or insecure, just remember you tried. You scratched that itch. And you’ll either never be able to go back to a ‘normal life’ or you’ll realize it wasn’t for you and you find a job you love.

If I could do it all again, I would. But I’d do it differently.

I’d focus on my health first. I’d remember that money doesn’t define success. I’d remember that my family is everything.

Or, at least I’d try.

To help you do that here’s what worked for me:

  • Have regular check-ins with your clients — get real feedback to eliminate unnecessary worry.
  • Have structure in your day. You pick your hours. Build your day how you want it but never overdo it.
  • Stop checking your emails when you’re having time away from work.
  • Have genuine hobbies that you love and, when you have them, completely distance yourself from anything work-related. Don’t saturate a clear mind with thoughts of work when you should be relaxing.
  • Get out of the God-damn house. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast, go to the gym — don’t spend 18 hours a day in your home office.
  • Set boundaries early on with your clients. Set your communication precedent early on and, if they abuse that boundary, be sure to confidently remind them that you’re not available 24/7.

My final thoughts on being a freelancer

If you’re thinking of going solo, I couldn’t recommend it more.

You’ll never be fully happy if you don’t try. I’d rather be on my deathbed saying ‘I gave it a shot’ than ‘I wish I’d done this.’

In the early stages, selling is going to be a major part of your business. If you’re not comfortable with that, figure out how you can grow without being that person.

Find someone who can generate you leads and you pay them a referral fee for doing so.

You might lose a little bit of money but, if the volume is there, it’ll pay for itself.

There is absolutely a cap on how much money you can make alone. For me, I found it’s between $15,000 — $20,000 per month. If you have a team of people, the sky’s the limit.

I would say have an idea of what you’d like your business to look like in 3–5 years. If you’re planning to build a company, rather than a personal brand, be strategic about it.

Finally, networking is everything. Your network is your net worth (as they say).

I’ve been lucky enough to meet some incredibly smart people along the way.

I’ve built friendships that I think will far outlive the life of my business.

Nothing should be free. It should be mutually beneficial for you and the other person when you network. I found out very quickly that people lose respect for those who are connecting for their own selfish needs.

If I can do this, anyone can do this.

I’m not anything special but I took a chance on myself and it paid off. There’s absolutely no reason why it can’t happen for you, too.