Who doesn’t want to be their own boss? As the internet has reshaped the nature of work, freelancing has become a viable option for more and more creatives. The shift to working for yourself full-time can be intimidating, though. You have to forgo a steady, regular income and answer to yourself and your clients, without the middleman of a supervisor or manager. Working from home is a dream for many, but it also comes with its own challenges.
That being said, life as a freelancer can be incredibly liberating. Working on a schedule based around your creative process is huge for many entrepreneurs, as is choosing projects that interest you, working very specifically in your niche, and breaking out of the 9-5 office cycle.
Excited by the prospect, but nervous to take the first step? We’ve got your back. Read on for an exhaustive guide to building and maintaining a successful freelance business.
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1. Start planning early
Starting out as a freelancer takes a lot of effort, and it’s worth putting some serious elbow grease into the process before you quit your day job. First: start saving money. You’ll want to be able to survive for a few months on zero income- hopefully you won’t have to, but don’t depend on that.
Build a network. Connect with any contacts you have, even before you have a specific “ask”. This will give you the space to discuss working together without putting too much pressure on those relationships. The company where you currently work can also be a good source of leads. If your situation allows for it, consider connecting with a colleague and letting them know that you are hoping to move into freelance and are interested in continuing projects for them.
An online presence is another vital piece of your network. LinkedIn, social media, and a personal site dedicated to yourself and your work are all extremely useful as you start hunting for assignments. Guest blogging and self-publishing are great ways to get your name out there and build out your resume- thought leaders in many industries get there through professional writing. Sites like the ones on this list can be great places to start finding clients and doing small jobs before you move to freelancing full-time. For more options, check out this enormous collection of sites where you can find freelance work.
2. Focus in. Hard.
One of the biggest pitfalls that many creatives fall into when they start freelancing is attempting to be all things to all people. Spreading yourself too thin can happen in a lot of ways, but, in a nutshell, it’s vital to find a niche and work within it. Keep in mind that it’s okay to say no to work. You will likely be offered projects from time-to-time that you are too busy for, or lack the specific skill-set to do well.
It’s vital to be up-front in these situations. If you don’t feel confident working on a specific assignment, say so. It’s better to refuse work than to do it poorly. Your clients will likely be your biggest source of recommendations and word-of-mouth marketing, so building open, professional relationships matters. As much as possible, avoid burning bridges.
Build your portfolio specifically around the things you do well. If logo design is your main skill, focus in on that and bring your designs front-and-center on your page and in your promotion.
3. Set expectations
Try to steer clear of working for “free” – it will undervalue the work that you do. Instead, find opportunities to volunteer your services and do work that is still client work but “discounted” for charity purposes- i.e. a tax write off. You need to determine the value of the work you do and stick with it. Joining an existing community of freelancers can be really helpful for getting a sense of the standard market rate for the kinds of work you do.
You will likely want to put together a contract for every project you work on. Make sure expectations are clear on both sides- particularly in regards to the final product. Clients refusing to pay is a real concern as a freelancer, so consider putting together a payment schedule; i.e. 50% up front, 25% first deliverables, 25% upon completion.
4. Build a healthy workflow
Since you’ll likely be working from home (or a co-working space or coffee shop), finding ways to properly manage your time is vital. It’s absolutely possible to build a natural work/life separation, but it won’t necessarily happen if you aren’t intentional about the process. In particular, client communication can fill up a lot of time. You will need to find ways to avoid being “on call” at all times. Consider setting aside “office hours” to facilitate regular communication with clients.
There are tons of digital tools available to help with productivity. Evernote is a great way to centralize your thoughts and notes, set alerts, and keep your materials with you, even when you’re hopping between devices. Hemingway Editor is a great tool for cleaning up your writing. It finds and highlights everything from passive voice to awkward sentence constructions. Easily distracted? Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit killing your productivity? StayFocusd is a Chrome extension for restricting the time you are allowed on certain sites.
There are also physical ways to shape your living space to help your productivity. Even if it’s just a corner of a room, setting up a dedicated office area can really help with the vital periods of focus you’ll need to finish assignments. Check out this post on working from home- it’s full of tips and tricks for maximizing productivity.
Remember that planning time is still time that you are working. And, as mentioned above, client communication IS work, as is finding new gigs and taking care of your fledgling business. Account for this as you organize your new schedule. One last note- put away money for taxes, and consider filing quarterly to avoid dropping a huge chunk of your income at one time.
5. Always be on the lookout for new projects
Marketing yourself is an aspect of freelancing that many creatives find frustrating, but it’s also key to keeping yourself in work. Networking is vital. Sites like Network After Work make it easy to find opportunities in your area. Don’t just show up the night of, either. Find reasons to reach out before and after- keep your conversations going and build relationships over time.
Remember, YOU are your business. You are the product and the boss. Proving that you are a responsible, trustworthy person is vital, and it’s generally much easier to do this in-person. You’ll need business cards. Lots of them.
Building community with other freelancers is another important way to make this career switch work. The fact that you may exist in the same or similar fields does not necessarily make you competitors. When setting prices for your work, it’s incredibly helpful to see what others are charging. If you have too many projects to handle at a given point, consider reaching out to other freelancers to see if they’re interested in picking something up. Hopefully, at some point they will reciprocate. More than anything, since you won’t generally have co-workers in the same way as you would at an ordinary 9-5, a group of people to brainstorm, commiserate, and work with is vital. Who knows- you may even collaborate at some point.
6. Never stop learning.
Becoming a lifelong learner is vital to staying on top of your game as a freelancer. You can not only charge more for your services as you gain experience and skills, but also take on a broader range of assignments with confidence. Workshops, conferences, and classes can all be added to your resume and show professional experience.
Consider setting aside time each week to dig into Lynda, Coursera, and other learning resources. Youtube has an astonishing range of information available, so subscribe to some channels that you enjoy and find informative.
Keep up with new technology and online tools. Flexibility and the ability to adapt to a range of situations are vital as a freelancer, and the broader your knowledge base, the more you’ll have to draw from when the time comes.
Still hanging in there? It’s not easy, but becoming a full-time freelancer is 100% possible, and the benefits can be truly astounding. Start planning today, and take your time getting going- with enough drive and determination, the sky truly is the limit.