Graphic designer Adrienne Johnston shares how she went from being stressed out and overworked in a $60k-a-year creative business to working less and without stress making more than $200k a year by focusing on presentation design in PowerPoint.
Adrienne Johnston is a presentation designer who specializes in helping clients visualize their content in PowerPoint for the purpose of landing new clients, educating existing internal or external clients, or securing investment capital. With 15 years of experience in marketing and operations for small and mid-sized businesses, she understands the challenges of keeping your audience engaged during a meeting—and the importance of doing so in order to reach your objectives. Her clients include Meta, Microsoft, Samsung and Marriott.
Getting to Know Adrienne Johnston
Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Adrienne. I’m so excited to talk to you today.
Adrienne Johnston: Thanks, Colleen. I’m so excited to be here.
Colleen: I thought we’d start off with a few fun questions like usual. The first one is: would you rather be stuck on a broken ski lift or in a broken elevator?
Adrienne: Oh, my gosh. This was one of those questions where my initial reaction was, “You’re never going to get me on a ski lift.” But then I thought about being stuck in an elevator versus the view of being on a ski lift.
I still think I’d have to play it safe and stay in the elevator. But the views would… I mean, if you’re going to be stuck someplace, that’s the place to be, right?
Colleen: It’s funny because I don’t like heights. If I was stuck in an elevator, I’d become claustrophobic very easily.
But I once actually got stuck on a ski lift. And again, I don’t like heights. It was the first time I was skiing and I could not get off the ski lift fast enough.
It started turning around and they had to stop to get me off. By the time it turned around though it was a little too high. It was really hard to get down from there. That was really scary.
Adrienne: Oh my gosh. That would be so scary.
I’ve never been on a ski lift. But I—even as a kid—hated jumping. It always hurt my knees and ankles. Now in my 40s, that definitely seems like I would break a hip or something.
Colleen: The other question is: what software or app can you just not live without?
Adrienne: I am a really big fan of QuickBooks. It’s taken a long time for it to grow on me.
I really liked FreshBooks. But my CPA made me switch to QuickBooks. I can’t imagine trying to do it manually. I use it for everything, from invoicing clients and keeping track of projects.
I’m in it every single day. It’s such a robust tool. It’s such a nerdy tool. But obviously quite essential for staying out of—I always call it—IRS jail.
Having a Freelance Business That Isn’t Niched
Colleen: You have used niching to go from $60k a year in your business back in 2018 to over $200k a year, which is really impressive. I want to get into what your $60k year business is like.
What types of clients did you have? What kind of hours were you working? What were your rates like? What kind of work did you do? What was your stress like?
Let’s paint the picture of what that business was like.
Adrienne: Oh, that was a brutal business. It was largely based on Upwork clients. I had quit my job and I thought I would find another full-time job and didn’t.
I was like, I’m going to get on Upwork and bridge the gap. I was doing everything. I was building websites on all the different platforms.
Colleen: Oh, wow.
Adrienne: My favorite example of the crazy things I was doing was there was a client that had a drapery business.
They had all these different fabric swatches, which they physically mailed me copies of so that I could actually see them and then they would give me the digital copies as well. Then I would have to make sure that the scale and everything were right on all these markups. What a nightmare! It was a $500 project that I spent weeks on.
Colleen: Oh no!
Adrienne: Trying to figure out how to make it all and get the file sizes right, and then their WordPress wouldn’t upload them. It was a whole thing.
It was a lot of stuff like that was just across the board. It wasn’t efficient. I was always having to figure out the nuances of every unique thing that I was doing. I pretty quickly realized that just wasn’t going to scale.
Colleen: Yeah. I hate that!
Adrienne: It was stressful. I was making some money, but not as much as I had in my full-time job. I was working just as many hours. I was working like 80 hours a week.
I was super stressed all the time. I was at that point where it was like make or break.
I really loved the idea of working for myself now that I’d had that experience but it wasn’t going to work financially and certainly not from a stress level either.
I thought that this hasn’t actually solved any problems. I have the same stress and I’m making less money, so now I have a new stress to add on. It was chaotic (it probably at best is a good descriptor).
I started out charging hourly. I was doing $40 an hour because that seems nice and average. I had a client within a month, who said, “You really need to be charging more. I hired two people to do the same job because I wasn’t sure what I was going to get off Upwork.”
He added, “This other person’s hourly rate was lower but they billed me so many hours. I can’t even use what they did. If I were you, I wouldn’t be shying away from charging more because of the quality expectations people are going to have with that.”
That’s when I started raising it and I got to $75, and then all this was pretty quick. I started in January 2018 and by April 2018, I was charging $100 an hour. I wasn’t doing less than that.
I very quickly realized $100 an hour, there’s a lot of psychology around that hourly rate. People kind of converting it into what I make.
Now, hourly pricing is not how I charge at all. I do package-based pricing and I find that that removes the ability for people to calculate what they think something costs and takes, and how simple it is and are willing to pay for it.
I switched to that pretty quickly. But starting out, it was hourly because it was simple.
I could give somebody an estimate. I knew how long it was going to take me so I could box it in for them and keep it from feeling open ended.
Colleen: I know what you mean about that with the rate for sure.
Why Specialize as a Graphic Designer
Colleen: What happened in your business that made you decide maybe I need to specialize?
Adrienne: My background is in marketing and operations. I intrinsically am looking at the data and trying to figure out what’s broken and wrong, knowing exactly what was wrong.
I was spending more time Googling. Every project took too long because I wasn’t proficient in any one thing.
I knew that there were a couple of things that were really broken with my business model.
I didn’t think Upwork was the right long-term strategy. There are plenty of people who will beg to differ and have had great success on the platform. I don’t want to knock it. It’s definitely how I got started and I love it for that context. But I didn’t see that working sustainably long term. I’m a huge introvert even though I’m a talker—people always find that shocking.
Colleen: Me too.
Adrienne: I’m like, “Oh, I’ll talk your ear off if I’m with you. But I will never go look for you to talk your ear off.”
Adrienne: I really had a perspective going into my business that because I’m not a salesperson and I’m not an extrovert that I couldn’t really have my own business because I could never sell.
I knew that that was an area and why Upwork filled that initial gap for me successfully. Because it was just people coming to you and you can just say, “Hey, I’m here to help,” and that really fit my personality well.
But looking at it now, it was the operational efficiency and expertise.
I needed to be charging more, I needed to be able to do it faster and I needed to have a reason to charge more—not just charging more for the sake of it, but to be able to command that expertise and authority.
I don’t think Upwork is as easy a place to do that as with your own platform. I really laid it all out. In hindsight, it seems like such a small thing but I was just like, I wonder what other…
Well, I guess let me start with niching. I said, let’s look at all these projects across the board. What do I do quickly? What do I do and what am I winning more of these bids on Upwork than other people?
I was winning 50% of bids on Upwork for presentation design. People were paying just as much as they were for website design and it was way less work.
It’s not all the technical aspects of HTML. That drives me crazy! I applaud everyone who has the patience for it. I want to put something somewhere and have it stay there.
Presentation design is the thing that I am, for some reason, uniquely qualified to do, able to do well and quickly that other people seem not to want to do.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Having been in corporate for so long, we just use PowerPoint for staff meetings, client training, and for everything.
I used it even more than Photoshop and Illustrator most of the time because it was so easy and accessible. So I said “I have to fix that part of the problem.”
But then the other side of it is “If I’m going to be a presentation designer, how am I going to get people coming to me?” I didn’t see Upwork working and so I went to Google, and I Googled “freelance presentation designer.”
I was thinking that these search results must be the crème de la crème of presentation designers. They must be the best because Google said so.
At that moment, I started going through the sites, and I was like, “This works okay, that works okay, and this site isn’t even a presentation design site. I don’t know why this is here.”
I realized that my perception of the authority of those people was solely based on those Google search results.
I wondered how I could be in that position so I did some SEO research and took a class to figure out what I was actually going to be doing. It was really interesting. The reason the search results weren’t great is because it wasn’t competitive at all.
It was decent traffic, with 150 searches a month in the U.S. alone. So you think about…
Colleen: Really? Only 150 searches a month?
Adrienne: For “freelance presentation designer,” but there are millions for presentation templates, free templates, and blue presentation templates or healthcare.
Adrienne: That’s really kind of a specific search. The great thing about it is buyer intent.
As a freelancer, I’m not running an agency, I don’t need volume. I need a couple of leads a week and I stay in business and do quite well.
I was looking at my data from last year and 87% of my revenue is from clients I’ve had for over a year.
But if you ask me, where’s my time? I feel like it’s on all those new clients. It’s just not as efficient as you’re getting to know people’s brand guidelines.
I thought it was really interesting but at the time I didn’t realize that. If I knew then what I know now…
I did all the search results, I did the SEO piece, and said “How am I going to figure this out?” I gotta go execute.
That was April of 2018. I said I’m only doing presentation design. I redid my website, which was in hindsight just a travesty. I can’t even believe it. I really wish I’d taken a screenshot of it so I could show it to you.
Colleen: We can go to Wayback Machine.
Adrienne: Oh. Is that a real thing?
Adrienne: Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to see if I can find it.
Colleen: It’s WayBackMachine.org.
Adrienne: I’m going to have to try.
June or July of 2018 is when I started to get leads to that website related to presentation design, like onesie-twosie’s nothing quick.
But three months to start ranking for a search term was actually pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. But again, it wasn’t a high volume or high difficulty. But I was very strategic about it having buyer intent.
By September, enough of those leads were trickling in and then closing. I had my first $10,000 month, and then by January I was hitting $15,000 months consistently.
Adrienne: All just from really kind of niching. It was like that commanding the expertise, but also being able—through that niching—to leverage SEO, and not just from Google.
I was also getting leads from LinkedIn, Upwork, social media platforms, and referrals. It’s just amazing how quickly that happened.
People say it, “You don’t believe it until it happens to you.”
Once you’re the person everybody knows as the presentation designer, everyone’s going to refer people your way.
Adrienne: You think, “Yeah sure. Who needs a presentation designer?” But it really does happen that way.
Colleen: It does, yes.
That’s funny because that’s what accessibility did for me. Out of all the things I ever did to help my business. That’s the one that gains me the most traction.
I sat there for years going, “Well, what is my niche going to be?” I’m not really sure.
I’ve always worked with nonprofits because I worked for one out of college, that was my first job. I ended up doing freelance work for other nonprofits.
And then they would refer other nonprofits. I became known as that nonprofit designer and I had the work coming in. But nothing really gave me so much traction as accessibility has.
Like what you’re saying about presentation design, a lot of designers don’t want to get into it.
With accessibility, there are so many designers that don’t even know about it so it just makes it that much easier to position yourself in that niche too.
Colleen: The disdain for PowerPoint is there. It is really there. It’s funny.
Adrienne: It is and it was so funny because even I knew it was there.
I was talking to my best friend when I was talking about niching. I said, “The thing is I’m not a real designer if I’m using PowerPoint,” and she said, “If you’re making $100 an hour, what do you care if somebody thinks you’re a real designer or not?”
Colleen: Right. Exactly!
Adrienne: It’s a good point. Maybe I need to redefine what I think.
But it’s really funny because even on Facebook people I go meet write nasty comments like, “You’re not a real designer. You’re using PowerPoint. Hahaha” and I’m like, “Well, we are laughing all the way to my bank account.”
Adrienne: I think PowerPoint does get a bad rap and it’s a different tool from the Adobe Suite.
But once you figure out what those nuances are, and how to work around them… you’re not going to make your own vector shapes, for the most part, in PowerPoint.
You’re going to go do that in Illustrator but you can import them in as native PowerPoint shapes.
Clients don’t care how they get it. They just care that it’s something they can change and recolor, and it’s a vector and looks nice and crisp on the big screen.
But in many ways, it’s a really powerful tool. In terms of the animations that it can do. You can make GIFs in it.
At conferences, a lot of clients will do this kind of kiosk things where you can walk through to their products and services, and then go make them interactive and cool and on a loop so that they just kind of keep going.
They’re never really done if that makes sense. You can click through and they can take their own journey.
They can say, “I want to see this piece,” and they’ll come all the way full circle back to the start screen, and they can pick a different piece.
There are so many things that PowerPoint can do. You just have to know how to use them, know what the limitations are, and what parts we’re going to have to do in Adobe then bring in.
But it is funny because once you get used to it… I don’t actually open Adobe that much anymore. Mostly Illustrator actually over Photoshop. It’s kind of surprising.
Colleen: So then you save a lot of money on that Adobe subscription probably too.
Adrienne: Oh, no, I still have the full one. I don’t know but I can never part with it.
How Specialization Helps Your Freelance Business
Colleen: Now that you have specialized, how has that changed your business?
You were talking about getting more leads and working on your SEO, but how has that changed your business in other ways too?
With what you charge and how many hours you’re working, the types of clients that you’re getting, the sales process, and all those things—how has that changed?
Adrienne: Fundamentally, the source of my leads has changed. There are people who are coming to me, they see my website, they see my portfolio, so they’re self-selecting right there.
But on Upwork, where I’m getting in front of people, and then they’re deciding, I never even have visibility to people unless they’re interested.
They could come and say, “Hmm. This portfolio isn’t for me or I don’t like the way she writes. It just doesn’t feel like the right fit.”
What’s really interesting about that is for the most part, it’s people who’ve then decided that they think I’m a good fit for them. Then I get to decide, do I think they’re a good fit for me?
I always laugh… I have so many leads I can be particular at this juncture and if somebody’s like, “How many revisions do we get in this pricing?”
Colleen: Oh, red flag!
Adrienne: Yeah, exactly. You know they’re asking that question because they’ve had a problem with that in the past.
I have other people in my network who are so patient, and they really love iterating on the same thing and getting it perfect.
But I can’t stand 30 versions of one thing.
Colleen: No. I can’t either.
Adrienne: I want to move on to the next thing.
I’m like, “This has eaten up my time. This isn’t creative anymore. We’re not moving the needle at all. We’re just wasting time.”
Colleen: Right. It’s just because of busy work.
Adrienne: Yes. It hits that operational part of me that’s, “No, no, no. We are not making this perfect. We’ll never get there. This was good enough.”
I would say there’s that aspect of it. When I feel like I can charge more over the years and truly people have found me. I think other than Microsoft, everybody else has found me through my website.
Across the board, it can be people in marketing teams, it can be executives like the team I work with at Meta and Facebook.
It’s an executive who really values design and she doesn’t have the time to waste internal resources in trying to get things done.
She pulls out her corporate card and once a quarter, she needs something for a board deck or something and she’s just like, “Here we go. Let’s get it done.”
There are actually a lot of higher-level execs like that, going into board meetings and things are like, “We have internal resources but I can’t compete for them in the timeframe that I need.
I want to have more control over this and so I’m going to whip out the corporate card or onboard you as a vendor and just get it taken care of.”
That’s through their own flexible spending or however all that works at that executive level. You can meet a lot of really cool clients.
Then what happens is within that, they start introducing you. You go to the board meeting and somebody would say, “Your slides look really good.”
They’d say, “I know a person.”
It is funny, too, when they said, “I’m just introducing you to this one person. I don’t want your time to be tapped out and you get to work for me.”
From that center, it’s almost this kind of abundance that comes with it. That’s been totally different from before when you felt like you had to take on these clients and projects because you needed the work.
Now, you’re like if this isn’t the right fit for me… I ended up firing my biggest client last year because, one, they weren’t paying their invoices on time. It was a lot of money.
When I’m having to call you up, because I’m thinking, “Am I going to be able to make my bills this month?”
Because you are sitting on so much money. That’s a stress I don’t need in my life.
Two, it was a big corporation, and stuff rolls downhill, you know?
They wouldn’t tell you things… Colleen, you probably know exactly what I mean.
They wouldn’t really set expectations about what they wanted, and you would go down a path, but then they would act like you did something wrong.
Instead of just saying, “I think this isn’t the direction we want to go. Let’s consider something.”
It didn’t feel like it was collaborative, it felt like they were trying to say you did something wrong.
It’s not going to work for me. I don’t need to feel bad about myself, or have you act like I’ve done something wrong when I haven‘t.
Colleen: Oh. I’ve had one of those. They are probably one of my bigger-name clients too.
Adrienne: I think it’s a corporate environment where it just…
Colleen: I think it is and I don’t like it.
Adrienne: I don’t either. It rolls downhill and you’re just…
Colleen: There’s a lot of that.
Adrienne: I would say that’s the biggest shift in my business and that has brought a lot of stress relief.
Whenever I start feeling stressed, I’m like, “There’s something wrong here. This isn’t working for me.”
I think that was, for me, a big shift between you being in a corporate environment, and just starting on my own. When I was starting on my own, that’s when I realized that you are the lowest common denominator friends. You now actually have the opportunity to be in control of this.
It’s like that Taylor Swift song, “You’re the problem.” I was the problem and so now whenever there’s that stress, I would think, “I either have to maintain those boundaries with this client or they’re just not the right fit for me,” and that’s totally okay.
But I can’t do the last-minute pandemonium. It stresses me out and throws my life upside down. I have enough other clients who are willing to plan in advance that I don’t need to do that anymore.
I would say those are the super big shifts. I mean, certainly, with all of that, like empowerment and abundance, you raise your rates.
I’ve got students that I’ve helped with building their presentation design business. I got some of them charging more than me.
We’ll get on a call and they say, “I raised my rates,” and I’m like, “Oh, that’s cute. You’re almost up to as much as I’m charging.”
It’s funny because you’re surrounded by other people who are doing really well. I’m not even charging as much as some other people.
When people are saying you’re too expensive there’s a gamut and you’re maybe in the middle, not as much on a high end as you think you are, which is kind of like…
Colleen: Oh. I’d rather be called expensive than cheap. Absolutely.
Adrienne: 100%. Because for cheap, you’re going to also think that you need to micromanage me and everything’s going to take 10 times longer.
Colleen: Right. That also goes along with lower rates, too.
Adrienne: Have you seen that meme? Where it’s like, “It’s $10 an hour for me to do it. And $10,000 an hour for you to tell me how to do it.”
Colleen: Oh, yeah. Or if you want to watch over my shoulder or something.
Working Fewer Hours for More Money as a Freelancer
Colleen: You were working you said 60 to 80 hours a week before, and then you’ve got it down to 20 to 30 hours, but making much more money.
Adrienne: In that first year, I was working 80 hours a week. I would say, into the first part of the next year, I was still working too many hours.
That was like a real moment of reconciliation of “You are the problem,” I was.
It was a Friday night, and I had a client who—one of those—I was on version 30 of something because he didn’t like to proofread.
Every time he would go make changes, it changed all the copy and the layouts. It was in PowerPoint, so not even how we are doing it in InDesign or something meant for that.
I hadn’t even started on his stuff. I was on version 30 for a $200 project. I thought, “What are you doing? This has got to stop.”
You have to be the one that’s accountable for this. Maybe your bad habits are exactly why you were this way in the corporate world of working too much, and not feeling appreciated and all that.
You have allowed that to happen and maybe even have brought those bad habits with you.
So I started being diligent about telling clients I’m not working outside of these hours. If that’s a problem for you and you don’t understand that you’re just not the right fit.
The other thing that I started doing was being more disciplined about pricing too. If I could raise my rates, that was also the switch from hourly to project-based.
Now it’s not tied to how many hours I work anymore. I don’t need to work 40 hours because I’m going to make the same amount of money if I do it in two hours or five hours.
With time and experience, you get faster at what you’re doing.
You even start to build assets that you can leverage that you wouldn’t even have thought about before, like infographics and things like that, and you’d realize, “Oh, that could work here too.”
That’s been really a cool way to do it. It definitely ebbs and flows based on seasonality and things. But I average 25 to 30 hours a week now on client design work.
Will You Lose Clients by Niching?
Colleen: I know that the biggest objection I hear from designers about niching is, “I’m going to lose other clients.”
I used to think that way too. But as you said, once you go through it you realize how much better it is to specialize.
You actually feel the benefits and see it. You have a totally different perspective.
Did you ever fear, “I’m going to end up losing a bunch of clients if I focus on this”?
How did you get over that and just decide to do it?
Adrienne: 100% yes! It was a huge fear.
I knew that when I was spending time on those other projects I wasn’t making as much money as I was on presentations.
I wasn’t as good at it. I think that maybe if you don’t have that, I could see how it would be more stressful. But I think that we have this tendency to think niching means I give up—and this is actually what I did. Right or wrong for the most part. I had the financial flexibility to say, “I’m just not doing it if it’s not this.”
But I don’t think it has to be that way. If I could go back now, I don’t know that I made the wrong choice. I was then using that time to invest in my blog and other things that were ultimately driving my SEO.
But that being said, I think we have a tendency to think, “Oh, I have to go all in right now.” Think about it as phasing in instead.
I have a lot of students who have been general designers who now focus on presentation design, and they’ve redone their websites for presentation design. But they’ll still have “other services” on their website. So they can get the SEO value on that page of really being focused on presentation design. But clients who get there can also see that they offer these other things, and they haven’t in any way, ostracized or told old clients, “no.”
So I can keep taking on the website design and the InDesign projects and all those things, as I really focus on building out this presentation design business. Once that gets busy, then I can start to taper off or say, “I don’t have availability for these things. Let me make a referral to somebody else for you.”
I have so many students who are like, “Every time I have to do something that’s not PowerPoint now, it’s just so painful.” They don’t make as much money and they’re not as familiar with it anymore. They’re like, “I had opened Adobe or Illustrator, what a nightmare.”
It’s funny how you just get used to new things.
I would say, don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. Figure out how to phase it in so that you can take advantage of the beauties of niching, and all those advantages without having a drop in revenue.
That’s going to cause you stress and angst and potentially then make you feel like the niching isn’t working. It takes time to build up an asset like that.
Colleen: I think too, it’s holding on to those clients that have those straggler jobs, where it’s something that you’re not doing all the time. The ones that you’re doing all the time are obviously more profitable because you have that process.
It’s very easy because you’re in that same mindset all the time.Yo u’re not going back and forth between say, design and code, and all these different things. It’s so much easier than dealing with all these piecemeal jobs and the pricing for those.
Then you just have this pricing structure for this kind of work and this is what it entails. It’s so much easier just mentally to deal with, and even process wise—pricing it, putting it all together to get a client on board. It’s so much easier than all these other jobs.
It’s like, “What are the details for this or that?” but like what you said, at the same time it’s almost like you can upsell the other services. If you still need to or want to do those other types of design work. You can do that.
How to Specialize Without Losing Clients
Adrienne: Absolutely. You don’t have to just turn it off. You can even decide if you want to keep taking on new projects for that and eventually know that you can hand them off to somebody else.
I think that was a huge thing for me. I am a recovering people pleaser. And so it was…
Colleen: Oh, yes. [ Colleen raises her hand ]
Adrienne: I hate saying no to people. I would say, “I just want to help you solve your problem.” It was really important to me to find referral partners and things from other design groups.
Meeting people who do book design and these kinds of different things that I could say, “I don’t do that but I know somebody who’s an expert in that.”
It made it easier to make those referrals and not feel like I was letting people down. Even now with my existing clients, I had a client reach out yesterday and said, “Hey, can you do a video?”
Five years ago, I would have said yes and spent too long doing this video. Now, I say, “I’m not a video person, but I know somebody who is the expert you need that’s going to be able to get you what you want.” I appreciate the opportunity, but I shouldn’t take it.
Getting Taken More Seriously as a Designer by Specializing
Colleen: Don’t you feel that in specializing you get taken a lot more seriously? I certainly feel that way. That’s been my experience. I feel like before I wasn’t getting as much respect. I know I was not getting so much respect in years past because I had no boundaries and I was people pleaser.
But I think the other thing too is I was just all over the place with the work that I was offering and the services I was offering. I really feel like specializing had a big impact there with getting more respect.
I think especially with PowerPoint. It’s funny because there are plenty of ways to do it wrong and people who don’t know that they’re doing it wrong. They just don’t know what they don’t know.
You do a new template for a client and their stuff is not porting over properly and they get frustrated.
The number of emails and messages I’ll get from big agencies that are, “We don’t have anybody that does PowerPoint inhouse. We tried to do it ourselves.
We thought we could do it ourselves, and this client’s really upset. We got to solve this problem fast,” is actually like really surprising and they pay good money for the expert to come in and just fix the problem.
They are so thrilled at the end of it. I think that people who know that they have a particular problem, they’d say, “Yes, I’m willing to pay to solve it.”
They don’t really question how you’re going to get it done. They just want to get it done like just, “Please fix it.”
Colleen: Exactly. Right.
That makes the sales process easier because then by the time they come… well, they’re already problem aware, so they already know they gotta fix this problem. They’re willing to pay more for it.
They would say, “You’re the right person for me. This is exactly what you do.” Because that’s what your website says.
Colleen: As opposed to, “I do 20 different things,” and they’re like, “Well, maybe you could do this for me but I’m not quite sure.”
Do you want to go to a doctor who is an internist, the general medical doctor, or do you want to go to one that is a specialist? If you have a heart problem, do you want to go to the heart surgeon or the general doctor and have him work on you?
That’s what I always tell clients too. When they want you to do something else you could say, “That’s not what I do. That’s not what I specialize in.”
Colleen: Now, I know designers are going to hear that you have done work for Meta, Microsoft, Marriott, Samsung, and Dell. Some would say, “Well, if I had clients like that, I would make more money, too.” How would you respond to that?
Adrienne: You know, I think that those are all really good contracts and they’re big names and they’re recognizable, which is why I share them. But they’re not the bulk of my revenue. It’s actually more from, medium-sized businesses, actually.
I found that there’s this sweet spot. Small businesses are still fiscally responsible, and they’re not trying to solve problems with money. They’re trying to save that money for sales and marketing, and technology builds.
In larger corporations, they do do really well. But again, I’m kind of in at the executive level. I’m not working with marketing teams that are doing big events.
I’m working one on one with individual executives and their teams. It’s maybe a couple of thousand dollars a quarter. They’re not huge projects.
But the sweet spot—my biggest clients—are medium-sized businesses.
You’re either getting in with a specific team that wants somebody to be available on the regular for, “Hey, we’re constantly churning out these decks.”
The medium-sized businesses that I work with do a series of events each year and those are more event based. When they do it, their leadership team is going to these events, and they’re all putting together content. You would think they would reuse it, but they don’t. They’re rebuilding it every time—every time with a different theme. It’s really interesting.
Then once you start doing that, it becomes, “Our CEO has a deck now and so can you take care of this deck, too?
It’s actually really interesting, the ones that you would expect, “Oh, those are the revenue generators,” aren’t necessarily.
When I looked at my data for last year, the majority of my revenue was from existing clients. But my top eight clients were 67% of revenue. I don’t think the big guys were in there, maybe one or two of them were in there.
Adrienne: It’s not what you necessarily expect. But it’s interesting to look at the data that way and start to go, “Ooh, these are clients I give priority to.” If they have an emergency, I’m going to be a little bit more flexible on boundaries and things than some others.
I think, intrinsically, make sure that you’re taking care of your big clients.
I always am taking on new clients and small projects because you don’t know who the next big client is going to be that’s the perfect fit, where things really work out well. But, for instance, the client I was just talking about with their multi-themed events. They had a year they were going public, they were doing all this stuff and so they didn’t do any events last year.
So what was normally a $20k to $30k in revenue for the year, last year was like, “Oh, it’s only $700.” In the back of my head I knew they had been quiet, but you don’t worry about it. But then they’ve been back and already done that much this year, at the beginning of February.
I think going into it with the perspective of those big names is nice and I think they helped build authority and a lot of other things.
Colleen: Oh, yeah.
Adrienne: But they’re not necessarily going to be the best clients. I don’t think you should shortchange yourself and think they’re paying more than some other businesses. You just have to know who you’re going after, what their problems are, and how they’re going to value the solution to that.
A lot of the teams I work with in those medium-sized companies, they’re not as big as Microsoft or Samsung, who do have their own presentation designers on staff. They’ve got teams of designers—probably 10—who hate PowerPoint and don’t want to work in it. They’re just trying to make that problem go away without having to hire a full-time employee.
Try to figure out where you fit into those different companies and solve their problems in a unique way.
Colleen: That is perfect, right?
I’ve built my business off of having nonprofits as clients. 98% of my clients have been nonprofits over the past 20 some years.
I hear a lot of designers that think that they have to go and seek out larger companies just to make a living. Some people would say, “I have to go for bigger businesses, or I have to go with large corporations or bigger businesses,” but it’s not like that at all. It’s exactly what you said.
I’ve had nonprofits that have paid me more than some of the businesses that I’ve done work for. I still dictate the price, but it’s a different mentality.
Sometimes it’s a sense of entitlement, with larger companies, at least in my experience, and there’s an ego like, “You should feel lucky to even be asked to do work for us so you should give us a good rate.” That kind of attitude and I can’t stand that at all.
How to Get Clients as a Freelancer
Colleen: Other than working on the SEO on your website, what else did you do? What do you continue to do to ensure that you have a steady flow of leads into your business and don’t get into that feast or famine cycle?
Adrienne: SEO is really the big one. But I will say, off of my webpage, after people find it, the next place they go is Instagram. I have a tracker that keeps track of where people are clicking.
It’s funny, it’s like a hot zone on my site is they go to Instagram. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of social media, I use SmarterQueue. I have a series of 200 social posts that just cycle through once a week. They start to recycle every three to four years.
It creates that active presence and people still find me like on LinkedIn, even though I’m not particularly truly active. I think that’s important.
I think, especially as designers, where our work is so visible, making sure that you have a great customer experience that makes those people want to refer you.
I was laughing when I was looking at those new clients last year. All of them were referrals for which I hadn’t reduced the minimum. They didn’t even meet the average. I’m not sure that referrals are even really the best thing for my business as much as so many people depend on them.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the right people.
Colleen: Right, exactly.
Adrienne: It’s just that. It’s a referral. I would say anything you can do like that.
How to Build a Six-Figure Freelance Business
Colleen: This has been really insightful and I think it’s always helpful to hear other people’s journeys too.
But I think specialization is so important, and I wish I had done it much sooner. I’m continually talking about it to try to help other designers with it.
I really appreciate you sharing your story and even being so transparent about the numbers as well. I think that’s very helpful for people to hear that too.
I know you have a masterclass where you said you help designers do the same thing. Why don’t you share a bit about that and where they can go to find you for that?
Adrienne: Absolutely. So I have a masterclass that talks you through how I built a six-figure design business and how I help other people do the same.
You can find it at designingandthriving.com and I’ve got some other free resources there as well.
I’m happy to connect on social. Feel free to email me because I’m such an introvert so emails are usually the best. Feel free to send me an email I see them all and respond to them all.
I love connecting with other designers. I think that referrals are huge for me in terms of being able to hand off work to other trustworthy people.
And so I love meeting other people who are striving to grow their businesses, whether it’s in presentation design or not.
Colleen: Well, that’s great—designingandthriving.com. I love that URL!
Thanks so much for coming on, Adrienne. I really appreciate it.
Adrienne: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen. This has been so much fun.