With the shift from being ‘an employer’ to ‘being your own boss’, a lot of people are opting to be freelancers.
Here are a few more tips to be a successful freelancer.
Use more than just a spreadsheet to keep track of your finances
Freelancers don’t have the luxury of a company’s accounting team or HR department, so it’s especially important that they stay on top of their personal finances. Dedicating a block of time each week to making sure your finances are up-to-date.
Using a simple Excel spreadsheet to track your finances can lead to unnecessary headaches. She recommends GoDaddy’s bookkeeping services ($9.99 per month) or Intuit’s Quick Books (starting at $18.86 per month). These programs can help you keep track of your income and expenditures, as well as calculate how much you owe in quarterly self-employment taxes. If you don’t keep detailed track of your finances, you could get hit with a bigger tax bill than you anticipated.
Have steady clients and an anchor gig
No matter what your profession, prioritize jobs that are more than one-time deals, and build relationships with bosses or clients that are easy to work with. Try to acquire an “anchor gig,” a part-time job that will serve as a reliable source of monthly income. This will help you avoid a desperate scramble for jobs to pay the bills, giving you some peace of mind.
When you’re a freelancer, you are much more of a small business owner than you are an employee without social benefits. Thinking that I am the CEO of my own little company helped me to understand my areas of action and to focus my energy on what ultimately matters most for a business: to create value and to generate revenue.
As a freelancer, you’re responsible for the whole value chain from lead generation and sales, to accounting and operations, to customer support and overall strategic direction of the business. Letting one of the areas slip your attention for too long can lead you into a critical situation that impacts your whole existence. That is both the beauty and the difficulty of being a freelancer.
Customer acquisition is crucial to keep your pipeline of projects filled. When you start out as a freelancer (or better before!), spend 80-90% of your time approaching potential clients. A potential client is everybody in your network that could buy your services or somebody that might know somebody that could buy your services. Approach them via email, via social networks (no, not only Facebook but LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora, your blog, Medium and others) or at networking events. Talking to people about you and what you do is crucial. For freelancers, a random chat with a new client can turn struggle, self-doubt and existential fear into an awesome opportunity. I try to spend at the very least one day every week on customer acquisition.
Since you’re now competing with millions of freelancers on the open market, you need to be at the cutting edge and tap into your creative spirit. As a freelancer, this should come naturally, since your specific skill set is already unique. Your creative task already starts with defining your profile and your services.
Don’t try to copy the web pages of other freelancers. You should, however, study your competitors carefully, try to understand how your offering is different and work on your unique selling points. As an independent worker, there is no boss to dictate what you should do, and there are no brand guidelines that determine the style of your presentation. It’s all about your talents, your brains and your ability to utilize them. Take a piece of paper and draw out the concept of your service, the value you’re creating for your clients and how you can communicate that in everything you do.
When looking for new projects, try to approach the task from a different perspective. Instead of thinking of how you can find companies that want to work with a freelancer, approach companies that are already looking for somebody to take on tasks. They’re just not aware yet that their best choice is a freelancer – you!
All the romance of working from home with the cat on your lap aside, by now it probably occurred to you that being a freelancer is primarily running a small business with you being the CEO, COO, CTO, CMO, CFO and all interns. There is probably one principle that all freelancers would agree on: You need to hustle. Just as running a startup with multiple people filling several roles, running your freelance business is a marathon with euphoric moments and stretches of despair and helplessness.
And when the latter comes, you need to be prepared. Before making the decision to freelance, think carefully about why you want to do it and analyze how functional your motivation is. Personally, I don’t believe one should freelance for any other reason than personal and/or professional growth (which can also mean financial improvement of course but statistically speaking it usually means the opposite, at least in the beginning).
A growth mindset is a good tool that I found very useful when running behind leads for days without closing even one of them. Although the financial aspect of rough patches in a freelancer’s life is very troublesome, the hardest of all can be the psychological effects of the rejection. Don’t take a “no” for the evaluation of your skills and self-worth. Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs. growth mindsets helped me to understand the motivational losses I was experiencing when facing long phases of without success. I developed a healthier approach to challenging situations and saw them as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Don’t isolate yourself
As I already mentioned before, you are part of a globally growing group of people that face similar challenges. Connect with this group. Other freelancers know the challenges you’re going through because they’ve been there and know a couple of war tricks that you might use for your own battles.
So, put your party hat on and befriend some freelancers. Furthermore, just as with every other challenging situation, one of the most important resources to keep you going is friends and family. Although they might not understand all of your challenges, they will support you no matter what.
A good reputation travels further than your work
There’s nothing more important than to show there’s a real person behind the name. For example, I provide help and advice to a few creatives, giving them honest advice on how to proceed with their careers. You want to be approachable and friendly when you give an opinion on other people’s work. A good reputation travels further than the campaign that’s history six months later.
You’ll work with surprising clients
My most memorable highlights involve meeting amazing people and clients. Everyone has a different story to tell and every project is different.
Rotate your clients
When you stop working for a regular client, you think it’s the end of the world. You need to find a replacement – it could be a bit anxious at first. However, you need to rotate your clients to make sure you keep producing good work. New clients always come.
Look after your health
A big lesson I’ve learned is to look after your health and wellbeing. I’m an all-or-nothing person and I could easily spend my whole seven-day week working 18 hours a day. Sooner or later you’ll crack and need twice the time to fully recover.
The goal posts are moving…
I believe any creative person – especially those in charge of steering the projects – has to be a lot more versatile than ever before. We need extra skills that go beyond the job title, as well as unparalleled knowledge to make a project and its final outcome bulletproof.
Be ready to evolve – fast
You need to be prepared to be versatile and ready to evolve at great speed. I’ve seen people fresh out of uni with a single undeveloped illustration style wondering why they need a second job at a coffee shop. Styles and trends come and go. You need to be compatible – but without losing your soul.
Be transparent with your clients
As a freelancer, your business is just you running it inside out. That’s something you must be proud of, so don’t hide behind a façade. Be the name and face of your business, because your business is you.
From a client’s perspective, if I were to hire you to provide a service, I would want to know who I’m giving my money to. So be sure to inject who you are into your brand. You can shape that however, you’d like, but the key is to be personable.
Also, when a client is interested in working with you, be transparent in conversing with them. If they’re going to hire you, explain to them how your process works. Show your interest in them and their business, then break down what they can expect by working with you step-by-step. This helps build trust and confidence and can be what seals the deal in a proposed project.
Write, write, write
This is the most important tip I can give you to take your freelancing to the next level – and that’s to write. I don’t care if you don’t think you’re a good writer. Writing is the doorway to getting your name out there, having clients find you, and to truly grow yourself as an individual and freelancer.
I personally don’t think I’m a great writer, and you can only imagine how I felt about my writing a year ago. It comes with practice. I owe everything I’ve accomplished this past year to my writing.
Focus on the now
Watch your feet so you don’t trip while looking at the end goal. You know where you want to be one day, so focus on what you can do now to end up there. Too many freelancers get hung up on envying those they aspire to be.
If you wish to have a reliable client base, a product that can help supplement your income, or if you don’t want to have to rely on a single client to make a living, then what are you doing today to make that happen?
Make a daily to-do list with small tasks that you can easily complete by the end of the day. Progress is progress, and if you start taking it one step at a time towards your long-term goals, the sooner you’ll get there.
Split your income for taxes and savings
If you’re serious about freelancing, then start separating your income and savings. For every dollar I make that’s business related, I split it up like this:
- 12% of Business (for business-related expenses)
- 16% of Business Taxes (this will save my butt when it comes tax time)
- 12% of Personal Savings
- What’s left over goes into my personal checking for living expenses
I’m not saying this is the way to handle and split your finances, but it’s what works for me. What’s important here is putting a minimum of 16% of every dollar earned towards taxes. It’s the same concept of an employer taking taxes out of your paycheck. Once it comes tax time, you’ll then use this savings to pay what’s due. (I recommend paying quarterly, so you’re not dealt one large payment in April.)
As a freelancer, there is no monthly paycheque, unless you’re on a long-term contract. This can make it very difficult to plan you’re business and personal finances. Also, try applying for a mortgage! Smoothing out the typical boom and bust payment structure is essential.
Raise your rates
I once met a potential client who, after agreeing to hire me, said, “I nearly didn’t call you, you’re too cheap to be really good at what you do.” That bit of rare honesty had a big effect on me. How much potential business had I lost this way?
‘Raise your rates’ is advice that you’ll hear a lot, but it can be hard to put this into action. The understandable fear is that you’ll price yourself out of potential work. You will. But there are two things to consider here:
- Will raising your rates actually bring you more enquiries?
- Is the work that you’ll miss out on the type of work that you want?
I would suggest the answers are yes and no. In my experience, every time that I’ve raised my rates I’ve noticed a drop off in the total number of enquiries, but an increase in the number of higher quality leads. This means that I spend less time on the ‘can you build me Facebook for $500’ enquiries and more time on the serious projects with sensible budgets.
If you are competing on price alone, then everybody loses. You’ll end up being stressed and resentful of the tiny budget, and your client will be disappointed by the rushed job. Also, your portfolio will never have anything decent in it, therefore making it difficult to attract the better clients.
You’re now an expert in your niche, so your rates should reflect that.
Think about how much you should earn as an expert and work out your rates from there.
Don’t feed the monster
Crap, low-budget work leads to more crap, low-budget work. O touched on this vicious cycle earlier. There’s a bit more to it though.
The idea behind this was that you would never get to the stage where you had to take on work. You’ll have been there before. The end of your current project is approaching and you have nothing lined up. A job appears in your inbox. The budget is tight and the project isn’t well thought out, but you have bills to pay so you accept it.
The job turns out to be worse than you imagined. It drags on and you have long since lost any kind of profit. To make matters worse, while you’re in the middle of it your dream client calls with a project starting next week. You have to turn it down.
If you could have held out for a week or two, with no work, you could have taken that dream job.
OK, so maybe your dream job wouldn’t have come along. The point is though that it pays to be picky. You won’t win great work with crap stuff in your portfolio.
The client isn’t always wrong
This ‘clients are always wrong’ mindset is a dangerous one to fall into. The client blaming culture in our industry is getting out of control. I think that it’s time to take some responsibility for when projects go bad.
YOU are the web developer/design (or other industry) expert. You need to be leading the process. This includes structuring the project in a way that the client ‘buys in’ to the decisions, and controlling the type of feedback that you receive.
Freelancing is a great way to follow your passion and earn a living, but there are major differences between freelancing full-time and working for private enterprises. The great news is that many have walked in your footsteps before, and there is a great deal of information out there on how to become a successful freelancer – plus what you can do to get the most out of yourself.
As a freelancer, there is a lot of advice out there, especially in the web industry. You’ll probably have heard some of these tips before, some might be new. They’re not necessarily the best, or most important, they are just the ones that have made a positive difference in my career. I hope they can work for you too.
By recognizing the common areas that freelancers tend to find challenging, and developing solutions that help you overcome these obstacles, you’re going to really help yourself dive into the pool as a freelance professional and come out ahead.
Above tips aren’t the end-all and be-all for freelancing, but honestly, I wish I knew these when I was getting started. Since I’ve put these tips into my work process, I’ve seen some major growth, and I hope you were able to pick some value from them.