How Creatives Can Create A Thriving Business

With Gabrielle ChipeurEP 37

Are you ready to love not just your work, but also the business that supports that work? Are you tired of spinning your wheels in your service-based business and know there must be a better way to grow your revenue, avoid burning out, and attract high-quality clients?

Thankfully, this week’s guest on the show is Gabrielle Chipeur, marketing automation specialist and author of Secret Weapon: Attract the Best Clients, Charge What You’re Worth and Fall in Love with Your Work Again. Gabrielle works with web professionals, designers, and coaches to help them discover the areas of their business they should be focusing on (and the ones they shouldn’t) in order to grow their revenue and feel more fulfilled doing it.

In this interview, Gabrielle and I discuss the best practices that work for optimizing the systems and processes in your business so you can spend your time, energy, and resources on what really matters. We talk about how to ensure the perfect clients come to YOU, so you can show up for yourself and your clients and achieve true work-life harmony.

If you’re ready to level up your business, this episode is not to be missed.

Listen and enjoy!


How Creatives Can Create A Thriving Business

Gabrielle, thank you for joining me.

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

You were introduced through a friend. It was season one, Daniel Gefen, which has an amazing story on its own. One of the things he does is he helps to get people that have important messages, something that they could share with the public to get out there on other podcasts. What I liked about it when I saw your name and your expertise because we speak a lot to freelancers, people in the service industry, coaches, web professionals. I felt that you speak to that crowd. You have much to share. It’s an honor to have you here. Let’s start by giving us a little bit about the background. What was your history? You didn’t start as a consultant. Tell us a little bit about what inspired you to get into space and what exactly you do.

After graduating from high school, I went into secondary to be a graphic and web designer. I never had any big plans to be an entrepreneur. My sister and I were raised by my mother who was a small business owner and an entrepreneur back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and was a single mom. She was always gone. We were raised by a litany of family members, nannies, and babysitters. My first impression of being an entrepreneur and being a business owner was that you were always gone and you are always busy and you weren’t there for your family. I went to school thinking that I wasn’t going to do that and I was going to get a job as a graphic designer, web designer and work in an agency and maybe eventually work up the ladder and get to be a creative director or something like that.

That was my plan. After I graduated post-secondary in college and had my degree, that’s exactly what I did. I went for a couple of different agencies, a couple of different companies. I kept slowly working my way up the ladder. When I was 24, I got turned on my head. I was headhunted by Shell Canada and they needed someone with my design and tech skills to come into their online learning department because they were making a big move in class learning to online training. They plucked me out and they offered me a very lucrative contract to do that. One of the caveats of the contract was that I needed to be an incorporated company in order to work for them, be a contractor. I had to march myself down to the registry office and open a business.

Optimizing Your Business Process: After a long period of freelancing, you’ll realize that you need to make a change, and get more serious about becoming a business owner.

I did grudgingly and with a few grumbles and then I started working for Shell and it was fantastic. I worked there for about 2.5 years and then I got pregnant with my first child. I realized that because I was a contractor, I didn’t get any of the lovely maternity benefits or employment insurance that we enjoy up here in Canada. I was going to be out of luck as soon as my contract ran out and I had this child. I had two choices. I could either take a couple of months off and then put my child in daycare and go back to corporate and find another job or another contract or I could do something with this business that I had. I chose the latter because I wanted to be there for my kids and be at home and raise them and make money while I was doing it. I decided to start a freelance web design and graphic design for my home.

In the process of doing that, I failed miserably for the first six years because I didn’t have any background in business administration and management, in any of that. I struggled and I stagnated. For the first six years, I didn’t make any progress. My company didn’t grow. I set the same goals year after year and never met them. It was frustrating. Six years after I opened my business and started freelancing, I realized that I had to make a change because I couldn’t keep going the way I was going. I decided to get serious about becoming a business owner rather than a web designer, rather than a graphic designer. I started making steps towards running a sustainable and profitable business and saw some massive results. Once I’ve made that commitment and I completely turned my business around, I tripled my revenue in one year. I started working those fewer hours that I had as a goal for years and years before. I started seeing the success that I wanted in my business. It was an amazing transformation.

I want to dive in a little bit deeper into what you mentioned. A lot of our readers could definitely relate to this. In your opinion, why don’t those service providers, web developers and the graphic designers, when they’re doing freelance, think that they’re running a business or they don’t have that mindset?

Because we’re creatives by nature and that’s what we want to do. We want to work on the projects, we want to create the websites, we want to design the things and we want to focus on that because that’s what lights us up. That’s what we’re passionate about. That’s what we enjoy the most. We often forget that there’s this whole backend business part of it that either we maybe blissfully ignore or we don’t want to do it, so we shove it off. It’s always the last part of our to-do list. That is detrimental to our business growth because in order to have a business and in order to do all these new projects and get these new clients and do what we love, we do need to be a business owner first and a creative second.

Why would you say is the creative space different than any other service provider? Meaning to say every business you have, you have to deliver the goods and then you have the business side of things, which is the economic, the ARAP and so on. Is it because we got caught up in the creative process or it’s something that nature of a creative person’s lacking?

It comes down to what we have to leverage in our businesses. A lot of more traditional businesses like product-based businesses or consumer-based businesses, they have more assets to leverage. When you’re creative and you’re someone who is a service provider, the only thing that you have to leverage is your time and your energy and you don’t have things like money or other people to leverage. That throws us for a loop because a lot of the standard business advice out there is aimed at someone or at another type of business that has some of those other assets. When you’re a service provider, what you’re selling is not only your time and your energy, but you’re also selling you. You’re not selling a product.

You’ve had to walk that fine line between doing the work in the business and doing the creative work, which is what you’re selling. I find that a hard balance to strike for a lot of creatives because we do want to prioritize that creative. When we sit down at our desk first thing in the morning and we look at our to-do list, we’re always prioritizing our client’s stuff first because that’s what we want to work on and that’s what we’ve felt is most important in our business. It comes down to a little bit of prioritization and a little bit of realizing that the business tasks, the admin and financial stuff and all that stuff, is going to support you and being able to do that creative stuff easier, faster and have it be more of your to-do list.

We run a large agency for years now where we help businesses flourish with branding and marketing and other services surrounding digital, and we’ve seen these many times. We all got great talent. People that love the creative process may be failed or got burnt out by running the business side of things and then decided, “Let me focus on my creative skills and let me continue to grow that way,” instead of trying to do that, including building my own business. I have first proof of the concept of, “Let me speak about what you’re teaching,” because the freelance business is booming.

Something I’ve heard, I think it was Ryan Deiss of DigitalMarketer. He said that, “There’s a new phenomenon where we call it the Hollywood economy, the same way that a movie is produced where you bring in experts for a project. You have your core team and you bring in other people.” Even for an agency, it’s the way to scale. I speak for ourselves and our agency. Once upon a time, every project was done, everything in-house. Now you’re bringing in other people through compliments for the success of the project. What would you say for those freelance service providers out there? What are the steps they need to take in to have a sustainable business?

The first step is you have to focus on your foundations. That means making sure that you have clear and set financial guidelines in your business. That comes down to being aware of your numbers. I walk my clients through this one process in terms of finding your breakeven number and your profitability number. That comes down to an hourly number. The amount of money you need to make per hour in order to break even, that’s covering all of your basic expenses, both your personal living expenses and your business expenses. You come up with a number that is your profitable number. That’s the number that is going to let you achieve a margin of profit in your business and be able to reach that lifestyle that you want in your personal lifestyle.

You have to be realistic about the number of hours that you can work in a month. We can say, “I charge say $120 an hour,” but if you can only work six hours a week because you’re working at home and you’re looking at it after little kids, then you need to adjust that number to be higher. In order to meet your needs with the time you have, you need to be able to massage those numbers and know them. That was one of my biggest downfalls. I would pick pricing off the top of my head. We’d say, “This sounds right,” but then the client would say yes and I would start working and I would realize that it would either take me longer amounts of time. By the end of the project, I was burnt out and didn’t have time to take on other clients.

When you know those basic financial numbers, that’s one of the key pieces. You also have to have some set processes and systems so that you’re not doing everything from scratch every single project. A lot of the time, especially when it comes to web design and graphic design, your end result is the same a lot of the time. Why would you start off with a completely blank slate at the beginning of a project? Anytime that you can create either templates or systems or processes so that your projects go smoother and you’re not creating everything from scratch, that’s optimizing your business processes so that you can get the most out of it. That’s the first step. Making sure you have those solid operations and financial systems in place and your business.

Let me ask you and speak about this. It is a topic that’s very much discussed in the creative space and the freelance world, charging by the hour or by the value you bring to the table. What’s your opinion? Is your opinion based on where the freelancer is in his or her career?

That is a hot topic. It’s important to know your own hourly cost. I don’t recommend charging an hourly rate because I find that it’s harder to sell to a client. That’s a big thing. Value-based pricing is one thing. I don’t essentially agree with it. I always prescribed project-based pricing, so you have a set project. It has set parameters and you give that project a price based on how long it’s going to take you, the skill level it’s going to take, whether you’re outsourcing part of it so that you can make sure that you’re profitable on anything. Make sure that it’s not something that’s wildly above or below the client’s value. Value-based pricing is a hot topic and I don’t necessarily prescribe to having one project being a separate price for a large company and a separate price for a smaller company. It should be the same price no matter the company, but as long as it’s incredibly profitable for you as a freelancer to do.

Let me ask you, going back to the comment you mentioned about the limits of the assets, if it’s hourly based and somebody is charging $120, maybe they’re not looking at how many hours they could work. All of a sudden, their hourly rate will shoot up to $300 because that’s the amount of the minimum charge in order to be able to make a living. How do you justify that? Ultimately, there’s still value-based pricing because project-based pricing is still based on the hours you’re going to be putting in. You have limited assets. Does that mean you’re going after different clients? How do you scale that up?

When we’re in a pickle like that, especially when someone is dealing with a limited amount of time to work within their business, you have to strike a balance between both the work that you can offer and the value that you can bring. In that regard, sometimes we do need to accept that there’s not one right answer for everything. Value-based pricing does have some merit. I’ve always been a fan of the project-based pricing and it is based on an hourly assumption in our backend. It could be that someone who is working with a limited number of hours needs to accept that they need help.

They can scale up the number of hours they have to work or they need to quite simply adjust their pricing so that they are charging more per hour. Honestly, as a freelancer, we tend to make many adjustments to the way we work based on our clients and outside factors. That leaves us in a place where we’re in a rock and a hard place where we quote a project based on what standard or what someone else tells us to, but then we’re left in a lurch if something goes out of scope or if it doesn’t fit our lifestyle or the lifestyle that we want. We need to make those personal adjustments.

Part of the process that I went through when I changed my business was that I looked at all of the business advice that I was that was out there and all of the gurus, what they were telling me. I started applying it, but I wasn’t afraid to tweak and adjust it and make it my own. There is no one size fits all for everybody, but we can take some good advice, try it out and say, “That did work.” Maybe that didn’t work, maybe I have to adjust it and tweak it to fit me. That was what helped me because I implemented and wasn’t afraid to change it if it didn’t work.

Optimizing Your Business Process: Anytime that you can create templates or processes so that your projects go smoother and you’re not creating everything from scratch, that’s optimizing your business processes.

Another point that basically connected us from our conversation before which is the better processes you have in your own agency or in your own way of doing business. The more you don’t start, it’s on. What happens is those project-based pricing is taking less and less time, which automatically the value per hour goes up.

When you optimize your projects so that they are taking the least amount of time as possible and then they are going as smoothly as possible, then you do maximize that profitability in each project you work on.

You’re the author of the book, Secret Weapon: Attract the Best Clients, Charge What You’re Worth and Fall in Love with Your Work Again. Tell us about what inspired the book and the core message of the book.

The book started out as one thing and got turned into something completely different by the end of it. I started off, I wanted to write a book to solidify my expertise in what I did, which was web design and marketing automation. I realized as I started writing the book that what I was writing was going to be obsolete in six months to a year. The world of technology, marketing, and automation especially, is changing so rapidly. I had to reconfigure it. I realized that the only thing that wasn’t ever going to change was how I ran my business, how I worked in my business and the lessons that I’ve learned along the way, especially from the six years of doing everything wrong.

I realized that there was much more value in passing along those business lessons and how I became my client’s secret weapon. The title came from one of my favorite clients and she would always introduce me to other referrals and other clients as her secret weapon. I realized that there are some web designers and some freelancers that get that title. They’re referred, they’re the go-to in their industry and they’re this likes a hot commodity and they’re their clients’ secret weapon. I wanted to dive into why they were that secret weapon. How did they get there? What did they do differently in their business and in their work and how they dealt with clients and all of the different factors that went into it? That’s how the book emerged as a way for me to become more of a mentor to freelancers, web professionals, and creative professionals. They can learn what I learned without having to go through it themselves and maybe avoid that six years of stagnation that I struggled with.

Sometimes we discuss challenges. In our company and every company in the stages they grow, they have their own challenges. I always tell my team that we’re five steps ahead and then the next batch of agencies are facing it and will face it in a few years. It’s a growing pain of building an agency and the nature of the creative space in general. You speak a lot about the ideal client and getting paid what we’re worth. What is the challenge out there in finding that ideal client? What is it doing for your business and how can we avoid it?

The real challenge is communicating your value to a client. Finding an ideal client, people make it out to be this big giant process. It comes down to examining some of your best clients so far and realizing what made them that way. It could be what level they are in their business. It could be their personality traits, other factors that you come across. It could be the fact that you guys both like golf, whatever it is. You can find that ideal client and what makes them unique. Finding more of them isn’t that hard. Generally, people hang around with each other. If you have a great client, the chances that they can refer you to other great clients is high. Once we know that ideal client, attracting them or communicating our value can be hard in the beginning. A lot of times, we get this head trash going because if you look out on the landscape, there are places like Fiverr, Upwork, and where everybody there is trying to compete on price.

That’s because they don’t have the opportunity to communicate and properly express their value to these people. You’re basically adding something to a cart. There’s no differentiator between one and another. When we get into more of a deep relationship with our prospects and we can communicate our value better, and that means discovery calls hopping on not being afraid to stand up for ourselves. Show why we’re different than an option, like the Fiverr graphic designer, then we can properly explain why we’re more. We can fulfill that promise. Once we fulfill on that promise, prove that the value we offer is much more than the price, then we start getting more repeat business and it starts getting easier to get referrals of the same ideal client.

Speaking about you coaching freelancers and service providers, what would be 1 or 2 good resources or tools when agencies or freelancers want to create the process or do stuff more efficient with automation?

One of my favorite resources, his name is Brian Casel, he was the first one who introduced me to the idea of productizing your services. Creating those processes and outlining specific project packages and making your projects less custom and more of an off the shelf thing you can do over and over again. Custom work is hard. It’s hard to sell to a client and it’s hard to produce because you’re constantly starting from scratch over and over again. When you have this concept of productizing your services and saying this package includes A, B and C, and this package includes X, Y, and Z and have set boundaries and outlines around them, it’s a lot easier to communicate that to the client. It’s a lot easier for them to say, “Yes, I want that,” or “No, I want that.”

What was that resource?

Brian Casel at He has a great blog on the topic. He has an online course that’s fantastic and I can’t recommend him enough.

What would be a good actual technology tool to grow your agency or your freelance business?

You need good project management software. I am a big fan of Dubsado. It includes contracts, invoices, workflows for onboarding clients, forms so that you can capture intake information and integrates with a schedule so you can come and do your discovery calls and your client calls within it as well. It’s a great all-in-one platform for it too.

I want to switch up and ask you 1 or 2 questions that relate to your purpose. You mentioned you were working corporate. You want to be able to balance that, especially freelance designers, work-life balance. I have my own opinion on this topic. I feel that the word balance doesn’t belong there. How do you coach other service providers and freelancers to deal with this concept of work-life balance?

I am much more along the lines of the whole concept of lean in. There are times in your life where you need to lean a little bit more into your business and other times you need to lean more into your personal life and your family, realizing that that’s okay and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Having this perfect work-life balance probably doesn’t exist. Getting at a place where you’re spending equal amounts of time here and there in overall balance rather than looking at it in a micro-managing balance. The way to do that is to be strict about your schedule. I am a scheduling fiend. My husband laughs because he looks at my calendar and I’ve had my meditation time in there, I have sleep blocked out in my calendar. I have play with the kids on a special block every day. This calendar and scheduling and everything that’s important to me are helpful for me to both realize what a daily plan is and not let it overrun. Also, to make sure that the important parts of my day like my meditation and my sleep are on that schedule and accounted for, especially my kids, my family time.

Within that, being granular about how you’re scheduling your work time. Making sure all of your meetings are in there, that you have blocked off time for specific types of tasks. I’m big on avoiding context wishing, so I won’t open my day and have a block of work time. I’ll have my writing block and then I’ll have my coding block and my design block so that I know that whatever tasks I’m doing from whatever project, as long as I said design tasks, it will go into them. I’m not hopping around and I’m maximizing my efficiency within those blocks of times. Another great benefit of doing it that way is that you have a good overall look at your project load and your client load and your overall life load at any given time. It makes it a lot easier to say yes and no to things that are coming up. If a client says, “I’ve got this fresh project,” you can check on your schedule and say, “No, I don’t have time for that, unfortunately,” or “I totally have time for that. Let’s do it.”

I do the same with my calendar. Some people, when I share with them how I work my ideal, they will say, “How are you so rigid?” I always respond to them, “Because I’m strict with my calendar, I have more time than those people switching tasks all day long, running from one thing to the next. They can give you full attention.”

It can be overwhelming at first, but when you lean into it and embrace it, it frees up time and it frees you to be more intentional about that time.

Let me finish by asking you how does a day in your life look like? Being at your family’s side, you’re running the coaching business, how would the day in your life look like?

I wake up and we get the kids up, then breakfast and off to school, and then I’ll walk the dog, try and get out in nature and get some fresh air before sitting behind a desk for the rest of the day. I’ll come back and I’ll do my morning meditation. I’ll do some journaling. I’ll take some time to reflect and get ready for the day. I’ll go and review my schedule and see what’s on the task list and what’s going on. I’ll get acquainted with my day. I’ll dive into the first block, which is usually my writing block. I may write some content, some blog posts when I do the Secret Weapon Diaries. It’s the weekly show that I do.

I’ll dive into my first block of content, coding tasks for clients. I’ll go through a couple of different blocks. They’ll take a lunch break and then at the end of the day, I wrap it up by doing any business admin tasks. I’ll connect with clients, respond to any requests, do any financial stuff that comes up. I wrap up the day by knowing that my business is taken care of for the rest of the day. At this point, the kids are usually coming in from school and I go right into my family time for the evening. Once the kids are in bed, I’ll relax with a show or a creative hobby with my husband and then it’s time for bed.

Optimizing Your Business Process: There are times in your life where you need to lean a little bit more into your business and other times, into your personal life, and that’s okay.

Let’s close with four rapid-fire questions. Number one, the book that changed your life.

Company of One by Paul Jarvis.

Number two, a piece of advice you got that you’ll never forget.

Never apologize or be afraid of following up because that’s where the money is.

Number three, anything you wish you could go back and do differently?

I would have gotten over my fear of outreach. That would have been the big one. That would have made a huge difference at the beginning of my business.

Last question, number four, what’s still on your bucket list to achieve?

Go to Europe with my family.

Thank you for joining us. I know your time is valuable and that is why in the name of our readers, we will forever be grateful for sharing some of your time with us.

Thank you. It was such a great conversation. Thanks for having me.

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Guest Bio
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Gabrielle Chipeur

Gabrielle Chipeur is a marketing automation specialist who’s spent the last 16 years at the crossroads of design, technology and online education. Besides helping coaches put their business on autopilot, she’s worked with Fortune 50 companies, international best-selling authors and world-renowned motivational speakers to grow their business and expand their reach.
Gabrielle started her freelance business 10 years ago when she decided to stay at home with her children instead of going back to corporate. After struggling with 6 years of stagnation that came from focusing on the wrong things while she juggled small children, client projects and a pesky need for sleep, she transformed her business and documented all the lessons she learned along the way in her book, Secret Weapon.
She lives just outside of the mountains in Canada with her family and a small menagerie of animals and when she’s not up to her elbows in tech she’s usually covered in paint or cooking up something in the kitchen.

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