30 Mar 2009 2 pm eastern

“Freelance to Agency” Podcast

PRESENTING the full audio recording of “From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small”, a panel at SXSW Interactive 2009 featuring Roger Black (founder of agencies huge and small), Kristina Halvorson (freelancer turned agency head), and Whitney Hess (agency pro turned freelance), and moderated by yours truly.

The panel was about quitting your job (or coping with a layoff), working as a freelancer, collaborating with others, and what to do if your collaboration starts morphing into an agency. We sought to answer questions like these:

  • What business and personal skills are required to start a freelance business or a small agency? Is freelancing or starting a small agency a good fit for my talents and abilities?
  • Is freelancing or starting a small agency the right work solution for me in a scary and rapidly shrinking economy? Can the downsides of this economy work to my advantage as a freelancer or small agency head?
  • I’ve been downsized/laid off/I’m stuck in a dead-end job working longer hours for less money. Should I look for a new job or take the plunge and go freelance?
  • What can I expect in terms of income and financial security if I switch from a staff job to freelancing? What techniques can I use as a freelancer to protect myself from the inevitable ups and downs?
  • How do I attract clients? How much in-advance work do I need to line up before I can quit my job?
  • How do I manage clients? What client expectations that are normal for in-house or big agency work must I deliver on as a freelancer or the head of a small or virtual agency? Which expectations can I discard? How do I tell my client what to expect?
  • Do I need an office? What are the absolute minimum tools I need to start out as a one-person shop?
  • How big can my freelance business grow before I need to recast it as a small agency?
  • What models are out there for starting an agency besides the conventional Inc. model with all its overhead? Which model would work best for me?
  • Who do I know with whom I could start a small or virtual agency? What should I look for in my partners? What should I beware of?
  • If I’m lucky enough to be growing, how do I protect my creative product and my professional reputation while adding new people and taking on more assignments?
  • How big can my agency grow before it sucks? How I can grow a business that’s dedicated to staying small?

Whitney Hess has written a fine wrap-up of the panel, including a collection of tweets raving about it, some of Mike Rohde’s visual coverage, and links to other people’s posts about the panel.

LISTEN to “From Freelance to Agency: Start Small, Stay Small”.

[tags]design, webdesign, podcast, recording, SXSW, SXSWi, SXSWi09, panels, panel, freelance, agency, smallagency, transition, survival, economy[/tags]

Filed under: business, Community, Design, development, Freelance, Self-Employment, Small Business, Surviving, Web Design, work, Working

21 Responses to ““Freelance to Agency” Podcast”

  1. Ruben said on

    I was there and liked the panel, but I missed a large company in the panel. The panelmembers all shared the same thoughts about staying small, which wasn’t really good for discussion.

  2. Jeffrey Zeldman said on


    Thanks for your feedback, and sorry if the balance was more small than large.

    Panelist Roger Black founded the Interactive Bureau (100 people) and was part of Circle.com (700 people, including 400 designers who were his direct reports). I wouldn’t call that small.

    But the focus of the panel was about the transition between being unemployed, being a freelancer, working collaboratively with other freelancers, and starting your own small agency.

  3. AJ Kandy said on

    Great discussion! Wish I could have been there. I echo Whitney’s point about charging what your worth — bad clients always want to lowball you. And was Roger really thrown through a window?

    (One suggestion, you might want to have someone EQ out that high-pitched digital noise that runs all the way through the file…Add some compression and limiting to even out the volume levels…GarageBand can do that with its podcast compression settings.)

  4. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Good suggestion, AJ.

  5. suBi said on

    Very interesting discussion!

    How do you manage a firm with 400 designers? It must have been “41 shades of blue” x 400 and some !

    Thank you for posting this!

  6. François Nonnenmacher said on

    I love when you imitate my French accent. ;-p

  7. Mike Rohde said on

    Jeffrey, I had a great time sketchnoting the panel, because it was a nice balance of inspirational fun and practical reality. Thanks to your team of panelist for sharing some great information.

  8. Ryan said on

    Really enjoyed that. One thing I would have liked to hear more on was money. Namely, what are those that run agencies making? Just via the agency, not book sales or speaking, etc… Seems to me that a lot of freelancers hoping to build a small agency have what may or may not be a disillusion about a of a (small) pot of gold at the end of that? What’s the reality.

    We wouldn’t get into it unless we loved it, but is the financial reward worth the risk of financing to have permanent people on board?

  9. Michal said on

    Team of 200 designers… That’s really scarry… I wonder how I manage to keep 3 of them:)

  10. Un podcast pentru oamenii din industria web - Web Design Arad said on

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  11. mike said on

    finally blocked out some time to listen to this. awesome. awesome. as a freelancer (trying to get my head around the business aspects and client acquisition), i wanted this to go on for two or three or more hours.

  12. Shane said on

    I’m currently trying to go build up a client base, so I listened with great interest.

    Thanks for making it available!

  13. Alessio Carone said on

    Thank you very much for sharing. It is quite interesting listening while working on boring code. I have a suggestion and a question

    Suggestion: It would be great to have an alternative content version, even if generated with some automatic software. Sometimes I find easier to follow a discussion or digest some of the keypoints by reading that listening.

    Question: do you think that you will be able to make more people in the web design/business talk about this same topic?
    I am really curious to know more and look at various point of view. I think that everyone has an unique experience working as freelancer to find a successful way or living that it cannot be reduced simply to some general solution. For me it is more instructive than any tutorial on photoshop even because it is difficult to relate with people that are doing your same business, especially because everyone looks like a potential competitor, or we get too much tied down in the isolation of our working desk.

    Anyway thanks to all the people at the conference foryour input (an thx to Mike Rohde I really enjoyed your panels :) )

  14. Freelancing as a Web Professional — simpledream web studio: standards-based web design and development said on

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  16. [Eng] Freelance to Agency Podcast - Forum LavoriCreativi said on

    [...] Per vostra informazioneZeldman e vari designers o persone che hanno agenzie parlano di come hanno iniziato la loro carriera da freelancer a gestire una aziendahttp://www.zeldman.com/2009/03/30/freelanc…agency-podcast/http://www.zeldman.com/u/FreelancetoAgency2.mp3 [...]

  17. BarCampPortland this Saturday | Code Sorcery Workshop said on

    [...] by an excellent session at this year’s SXSW, plus the fact that I’ve now been working on my own for two-and-a-half years, I proposed a session [...]

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