Running a freelance business is a dream for many working professionals, but the mechanics of starting one can be mysterious and intimidating, even to most seasoned work veterans. What keeps most from starting a freelance business, however, isn’t a lack of expertise, an underdeveloped client base, or even a bad idea.

The thing that keeps most people from starting a freelance business is not having an idea at all.

If you were to examine the situation psychologically, it makes a lot of sense. Even those who have enjoyed a great deal of success in their careers have done so under the direction of a superior, or at least under the direction of a social-psychological construct, such as “if I do X, Y, and Z, I will be promoted.”

Kenneth Burke called these constructs “scripts.” Scripts make our lives manageable and comprehendible because they organize our thoughts within a framework. In a corporate environment, the framework is built in and manifested by the structure of the organization, with the chain of command representing the structure.

When an employee is uncertain of the correct thing to do, she can approach her supervisor and seek advice. Similarly, when an employee is outperforming her peers, it is her supervisors that notice and recommend her promotion to higher executives. Everything that happens within a structure.

What does structure have to do with being unable to generate an idea for a freelance business? Everything.

Once a person steps outside of a recognizable script or structure, she has to create the rules for herself. It’s difficult to think of even one idea in an undefined space, because you don’t have any familiar anchors to base an idea on. And this can be extremely discouraging.

The thought process many of us go through when flirting with the idea of starting a freelance business often runs something like this: “What will I do? Well, I take pretty good photographs. But who would pay for photos? How would I even get started? What would I charge?”

The inundating flood of questions drowns any possibility of an idea forming — and at this point, you can probably take a guess at where all the questions come from. Lack of structure.

When you don’t have structure you are more likely to be trapped in a state of paralysis brought on by too many doubts and not enough action.

Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to be Rich has said that execution is all that matters in freelance business. Even a mediocre idea can be wildly successful with great execution, and that’s the key. Asking questions is important, but answering those questions is much more important.

Most people allow the fear of the unknown to stop them from chasing their freelance dreams. It becomes an excuse. Don’t let this be you.

The strategy:

Step 1: List your skills.

Give yourself between 3-5 minutes and simply write down everything you are good at. Photography, design, cleaning fish tanks, finance, math, whatever. Set a time and write it all down. It’s important to write it down and not just think about it, because once it’s written it becomes substantial. And don’t worry if some of your skills seem odd or if you aren’t the single best at whatever skills you write down. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to take action.

Step 2: Examine your strengths.

Set that timer for another 3-5 minutes and now write think about and write out your strengths. Strengths are different from skills in that strengths can be attributes and characteristics, and are generally less specific than skills. For this step, it helps to consult with a family member, friend, or co-worker, as they can readily confirm your strengths and even suggest ones you weren’t aware of.

Step 3: Think about your interests.

This step can be the most difficult for some, mostly because some people haven’t thought deeply about their interests in a long time. Still, set your timer for another 5 minutes and list out everything that interests you. If you’re having trouble, think about the things that you do on your free time, or imagine that your work lets you go home after lunch. What would you do with that time? Write it down.

Step 4: Connect the dots.

After you’ve written out your list of interests, skills, and strengths, review them and look for overlaps or groups that work well together. For example, if you wrote down that you excel at taking care of dogs, love exercise, and are very reliable, you might think about starting a dog-walking business for dogs that are overweight or sick. Give yourself no more than 20 minutes to do this. The time limits are important because the longer it takes to spring into action, the more doubt will seep in and cripple you.

Step 5: Identify your market.

Spend some time searching online for possible clients. A good place to start is Craigslist: if you find other services being offered there that are similar to yours, that is a good thing, because it means there is already a market established. When you are just starting out, it’s essential that you constrict your business to a limited number of clients as a test case. If you spread yourself thin early on only to find that there isn’t that big of market for what you’re offering, you’ll have spent a lot of time and energy on a flop. So start small, determine profitability, and then adapt. And remember, you always have your three lists you can turn back to when you need a new idea.

Mariana Ashley is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to [email protected]

Photo by Shane Gavin