Melissa Boban is a Creative Lady Directory member and the brains behind SMAL Marketing, a social media and digital project management studio that prioritizes simplicity and authenticity as a driving force.
Her journey to freelance began when the agency at which she was working lost her account. It was the job she had always imagined having and losing it felt scary. Part-time freelancing was a temporary solution that has turned into SMAL Marketing and she wouldn’t change it for the world! So much to enjoy in this interview including an inside look at how she stays organized and productive.
Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance social media and digital marketing professional.
My freelance journey was an accident and I set out with the intent to do it only temporarily. I was working at a large agency as a social media manager here in St. Louis, MO and we lost the client I spent 100% of my time on. The agency luckily had me stay as a part-time employee, but I felt very stuck and lost in that role knowing that I would have to transfer jobs eventually. Luckily, the stability of part-time allowed me to have some cash flow while I took on freelance projects and looked for another job. I applied for over 50 jobs and interviewed for over 20, and none of them felt right. I was enjoying freelancing, the freedom, the clients and the pay, too. I eventually left the part-time agency role to pursue freelancing "until I found the right job" but it turns out, freelancing was the right job. My clientele grew and it inspired me to see where I could take it. About two years in, I gave myself a business name and established branding for Smal Marketing, and I never plan to turn back!
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
In the beginning, I took on any and all work I could find to fill my time (free time was tough for me, it felt weird to have a whole day to myself). I was mostly finding work through creative staffing agencies and luckily a lot of those clients kept me on for ongoing continuous social media management work. I still work with some of those clients today. I also trained to become a fitness instructor to stay social and try something new and keep my energy up. Once my schedule was full with project work, I started trimming and shaving my workload down to my favorite projects that had the best rates - and it's still an ongoing process. Three years in, my top clients are still a mix of work I found from the temp agency (several of them bought me out of our contacts so they could work directly with me), and clients that came through as referrals from other clients. My instagram account has been a great way for potential clients to find me and I cater my messages very particularly to attract my dream client. I still teach fitness classes, and it's a great way for me to meet new faces, release stress through movement and balance out all of my digital work.
What do you love about the work that you do?
I absolutely love my clients and the relationships we've built. Although I am a small piece of their larger marketing puzzle, social media is impactful - especially to small businesses. Work is work at the end of the day, but the people make it special and meaningful. I have met some true change-makers, traveled to some amazing onsite projects, and have accepted the winding ride that it's been. I love the surprises and the excitement that comes with freelance - you never know who you will meet or what kind of shenanigans you'll get into. My husband and I took a river cruise through Holland and Belgium last year, and I met a new client on our cruise. ;)
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Working solo and especially at home is the ultimate test for productivity. The boundaries get crossed, and you find yourself changing laundry on a conference call or leaving the dinner table to make a last-minute edit for someone. The only way I've been able to stay sane is a project tracker that I use daily to be sure I'm on track with every client, and a work block system on my calendar. Every task I have is an appointment on my calendar, and I follow it through the day as a guide. That way, I can physically see if I have time to take on additional projects from clients, or if I have a lot of open time - to either enjoy the peace and quiet or look for new projects. My favorite part is that it's up to me.
For my calendar, the colors are all meaningful so I can visually see how much white space I have (literally) in case I get more requests, and in this example you can see I packed my Monday-Thursday because I have a planned "unplugged day" on Friday. All of my fitness classes are orange, my work is purple (onsite is deep purple), personal is blue, and I share the green items with my husband for items we are doing together. Little one-off emails or quick 5 minute tasks are to-do's at the top, as well as holidays/home reminders. You wouldn't believe how many times I forgot to put out my trash on the curb before I just added it to my calendar - calendar or it doesn't happen!
Knowing exactly when I'm planning to get something done is really helpful when a client pops in and says "when can I see my calendar?" and if they want to see it sooner, I can simply swap some tasks around, but everything is accounted for.
Kinda crazy, but organized crazy :)
Many in our community do their own social media management. Do you have any tips to share with our community for stress free yet impactful posting?
Yes, I sure do! Social media often falls to the side when time are busy, and I am guilty of doing the same with my own. Making a plan or just spending an hour mapping out your monthly content plan can help big time. The months fly by, but consistency is key. Whatever you do - don't let your social media lay dormant for too long!
How about telltale signs that someone should hire management or digital marketing help?
My biggest sign that a client needs my help are a few things: lack of quality posts, lack of consistency, or lack of passion for the posts. Today, social media is often the first impression you have, so it's really important to make it stellar. If you don't have the time, or lack the interest in making it really represent who you are - it's time to delegate! Passing it off to an expert frees up your time to focus on your core competency and creates efficiencies.
Social media algorithms keep changing. How do you stay on top of all the changes for your clients?
Woof, this is a hard one. I wish I could say I know everything about each change, but I stay as up to date as I can by reading articles from reputable sources, and staying in discussions with other social media experts. We're a community - and it's important to pick their brains. Nobody knows it all! Luckily, having over a dozen clients gives me a birds eye view of how everyone is doing and what trends I see across the board which REALLY helps.
What are you most excited about in the social media / digital marketing space right now?
I absolutely love how social media never gets stale. Although the constant change is impossible to keep up with, I trust that all the changes are making social media platforms better for the everyday user. It is exciting to learn how to be creative in using the platform to get your message across. I welcome the changes with open arms and enjoy chasing down the best new solution to the latest challenge.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
This is an ongoing battle for me. I struggle with the time it takes to run a business and find new business, along with billing, invoicing and staying organized. Hiring an accountant really helped me stay on top of taxes ( I have no interest in learning that monster!) and keeping a very detailed tracker of every expense, mile driven, invoice sent and check received has been my saving grace. The spreadsheet calculates my average hourly rate, my average hours worked per week, what my salary is so far, and about how much in taxes I should owe. It's my bible! I learned fast that my memory is useless when it comes to those little details - it needs to be tracked or i'll lose my mind.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
The loneliness and the lack of structure. There are no rules and no bosses to guide you through this uncharted territory. Sh*t gets real when you are IT, HR, Accounting, New Business and everyone else in between, alone in your house with your laptop. It is difficult when everyone around you has a lack of understanding , and sometimes a lack of respect, for what you spend your day doing. As hard as it is to venture out on your own, it's my favorite part. There is no cap on my earning potential, nobody I need to call if I'm taking a sick day or feel like blowing off steam at a yoga class, and nobody to tell me how many vacation days I have. The weight of running the show is balanced out generously by the freedom I have to live the life I want to. I've given myself the highest salary, the best bonuses, the biggest promotions and more vacation time than any boss ever did. That makes any paper jam or internet connection issue worth it.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?
As cheesy as this sounds, I just wish I could tell myself that there are handsome rewards for sticking through times that feel impossible. To just keep pressing on, day by day. It is extremely important to find people who are doing what you're doing and band together, lean on them. The advice from my peers and support has been everything - even just following an account like Freelance Wisdom. It makes me feel like I'm not alone, and like I'm not so weird for doing this.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
I absolutely love space-related books and movies. I've read Rocket Men (Robert Kurson), Endurance (Scott Kelly), Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Stephen Hawking), An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth (Chris Hadfield), No Dream is Too High (Buzz Aldrin), and I'm currently reading John Glenn's memoir. Outer Space peaks my imagination and reminds me how small everything down here is. It gives me perspective! It's also so intriguing to me that when we all put our smart heads together, anything is possible.
Anything else that you'd like to share?
I've spoken with a lot of people who tell me "they wish they could do that I do". I truly believe that anyone can do anything they want, but you have to be willing to put up with the challenges and not-so-glamorous parts of the journey. A good portion of my day is spent writing content for companies with products I'll never use, learning how to organize myself and meet everyone's deadlines, and administrative tasks like taxes and billing. And then, in the middle of it all - I have to call the cable company when the internet goes out and update my books every time a new payment comes through. It's not all fun! Some projects are going to be boring with clients you don't connect so deeply with, but they balance out and often result in better work. It is SO important to give the little, non-glamorous clients your full attention and best work, free of errors and typos. If you make typos, you're done. Trust is everything with remote work, and if you can earn it, you will keep getting work. Being a steady, reliable resource for your clients is a sure way to get referrals and rate increases.