7 Tips to Becoming a Successful Freelancer

Freelancers are often viewed in a different category than entrepreneurs, but the two career paths share a number of similarities.

“Freelancing isn’t just about selling your talents, advice or wares,” wrote Michelle Goodman in My So-Called Freelance Life. “Working for yourself as a creative professional also means playing chief executive, bean counter, sales rep, marketing maven, tech support, contract manager, and admin assistant.”

Juggling lots of roles, forging your own path, being the master of your own destiny — freelancers, like entrepreneurs, are no strangers to the challenges of running a business and the combination of exhilaration and anxiety that comes when you’re calling the shots.

So why freelance? Some people freelance to explore a side interest or passion that they can’t fulfill in a full-time career. Others simply aren’t a fit for a 9-5, corporate environment and would instead prefer to be the architects of their careers.

Whatever your reasons for freelancing, it’s important to recognize and treat your freelancing career as a business, even if it’s in a side hustle stage. Just as you make a plan to launch a business, that same diligence should inform your freelance career. We’ve compiled seven tips to help you do just that.

1. Find your niche.

If you’re thinking about freelancing, you likely have a particular skill or service in mind—graphic design, photography, videography, writing or marketing, to name a few.

Yet you can give your freelancing business an edge by reexamining what you offer and finding a niche. If you’re a writer, for example, perhaps you excel in a particular industry like finance, real estate or higher education. Or you’ve honed your skills in food photography or lifestyle images.

You don’t want to make your focus so narrow that you risk missing out on work, but by understanding what makes you different from other freelancers, you can more effectively target prospective clients and leverage that competitive advantage.

2.Make a plan.

Spend some time creating a condensed business plan that will help guide your freelance business. At this stage in the game, you may not need to dig deeply into financial or operational details, but you should identify:

  • Your vision — what are your goals?
  • Your services — what do you offer?
  • Your competitive advantage — what makes you different?
  • A competitive analysis — who are your competitors?
  • A market strategy — how will you launch and position your business?

It’s tempting to just dive in and start freelancing, but putting some strategic thought into where you are and where you want to go will help give you a framework that you can expand and refine as your business evolves.

3. Market yourself.

Once you’ve identified your vision, your services and your niche, you can begin marketing your freelance business. Consider creating a basic website that showcases work samples (if available), as well as information about you and what you offer.

You’ll also want to use at least one social media channel, if you’re not already. For freelancing, Twitter and LinkedIn can be particularly helpful. LinkedIn can help you find prospective clients and showcase your work. And depending on your niche and services, you can likely find recurring Twitter chats that will help you virtually network and build your brand. You could also set up lists to follow prospective clients. Many freelance writers, for example, will follow editors on Twitter and keep an eye out for calls for pitches.

Don’t forget business cards (you’ll need those for our next tip!). And if, for some reason, building a website isn’t feasible right now, put together a portfolio that you can send to prospective clients that includes your best work samples. If you find yourself trying to juggle a number of attachments, try displaying your work in a PowerPoint deck, then including applicable links to see the full work or get more information.

Then, start spreading the word! If you’re freelancing while also maintaining a full-time job, promote yourself cautiously so that you don’t run afoul of your employer. Some employers don’t mind if employees freelance, as long as they’re not working on side projects on company time and there’s not a conflict of interest. If you feel comfortable asking, you might want to check with your supervisor or HR department.

Share the news about your freelance business on your social media channels. And if you have a group of trusted colleagues (that may also include prospective clients), it’s never a bad idea to send a quick, personal email to let them know more about what you’re doing. If you have a blog on your website—or you blog on a site like Medium or LinkedIn—consider writing a post that introduces your freelance business and what you offer.

4. Build your clients.

Clients, of course, are the critical element of any freelance business. How you find clients may vary a bit by the type of work you do, but you can never go wrong with referrals—and that’s why a strong network is so important.

If you find yourself needing to build your network, consider setting a goal to attend one networking event a month. Look for groups or organizations that align with your services and/or niche. Let’s say, for example, you’re a photographer who specializes in residential photography. You might want to find a Realtor meet-up so that you can introduce yourself and let people know how you can help them.

Professional organizations can also be effective networking channels. Try searching this comprehensive list of professional associations. Or consider attending local events like 1 Million Cups or Creative Mornings. One other tip? Search to see if your community has an organization for freelancers. In Kansas City, the Freelance Exchange offers monthly educational sessions, networking happy hours and a directory of freelancers that’s frequently searched by prospective clients.

Depending on your freelance niche, you may also want to pitch ideas or services. Writers, for example, often pitch publications to land story assignments, typically in high-profile magazines or digital outlets. A pitch letter isn’t that different from a cover letter: you introduce your idea, why it’s a fit for that publication and why you’re the best person to write it. A book like the Writer’s Market can help you identify publications to pitch, including approximate pay rates and contact information.

Graphic designers, videographers and photographers may also find themselves in a position to pitch work. A graphic designer, for example, might compile a short list of dream clients, then send a direct mail piece that serves both as a work sample and a way to introduce themselves. Whatever the specifics of the pitch, make sure you thoroughly research the prospective client and create a thoughtful, tailored pitch package. This isn’t the time to copy and paste a form letter. Instead, you want a prospective client to know that you understand what they do and are the best person to help them with the work they need done.

You might also want to keep your eye on freelancing job boards, of which there are many. Just be careful to do your due diligence on a prospective client, if possible, and watch for under-charging, which can be a rampant problem in the freelance world.

5. Take care of (your) business.

Whether you’re going full-on into freelancing or starting your freelance career as the smallest of side hustles, it’s so important to treat your freelance work as a business from day one.

To start with, you’ll want to set your rates. This can be one of the most difficult parts of freelancing! Do a little research or, if you know freelancers, ask around to see if you can get a ballpark figure. You’ll typically charge hourly, per project or as a recurring retainer, so it helps to think of all of those scenarios and be prepared for whatever a client requests.

Some clients will have you sign a contract, and possibly even a non-disclosure agreement. You can also create your own contracts to help protect yourself and your work. If working with an attorney is out of your current budgetary scope, try a tool like Contract Canvas that can help you set up basic contracts designed for creative professionals.

Consider creating some branded templates for documents that you’ll need as a freelancer, including an invoice, project proposal and scope of work.

And speaking of invoicing: prepare for the financial side of freelancing! Tools like FreshBooks can help you manage and track your invoices. You should also set up an introductory session with an accountant. Even if you’re not making much money from your freelance business at first, it’s important to understand how much money you should withhold to cover federal, state and local taxes, as well as know what sort of deductions you should track—including mileage and expenses—to help lessen your tax burden. If you do freelance as a side hustle, it can get complicated to mix w-2 with 1099 income, so let your accountant handle it. Plus, as your freelance business grows, you’ll already have the processes and knowledge in place so that you don’t find yourself with an unexpectedly large tax burden or other financial problem.

6. Set a schedule.

Freelancing brings with it a number of variables. Maybe you’re juggling freelance work with a full-time job. Or perhaps you’re learning to work from home, or setting up a remote office at your favorite neighborhood coffee shop. 

Whatever the specifics of your freelancing, set a schedule, especially if you’re still working full-time. Decide how many hours you’ll commit to freelancing per day and if you’ll do any work on weekends. Projects and deadlines might temporarily derail your schedule, or necessitate more freelancing hours than normal. But if you can start freelancing with a schedule in mind, you’ll be in a better position to set expectations—for yourself and your clients—and make sure you’re giving yourself some downtime, too.

7. What’s your end goal?

Hopefully you gave this some thought while you were compiling your business plan. It’s highly likely your freelance business will evolve—maybe you’ll learn new skills to add to your services, or you’ll develop another niche.

Yet having a general idea of where you’re headed can help add structure and purpose to your work. If you’re freelancing as a side hustle, do you want to eventually freelance full-time? If so, you’ll need to consider how much income you’ll need to bring in to cover both your business and living expenses.

You may opt to freelance on the side for the foreseeable future, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just be sure you’re attuned to your physical and mental health and giving yourself enough downtime. As your workload grows, you may also want to track your maximum output, whether that’s a specific number of projects, clients or another metric. It seems counter-intuitive to say “no” when you’re focused on growing your client base, but if you can’t feasibly produce the work—or if the quality will suffer as a result—it’s better for your business in the long-term to decline the work, or see if there’s something else you can take off your plate to accommodate the new request.

Deep breath. We’ve covered A LOT. And you probably have at least a few things to do as you launch your freelance business. Keep this resource in mind: Kauffman FastTrac. This online, self-paced course is designed to help entrepreneurs launch their businesses. And because freelancers are, in essence, entrepreneurs, there’s a wealth of insight and tips that you can apply to your freelance business: identifying a target market, developing your brand and marketing, understanding your competitors and setting financial goals. Register for FastTrac and you’ll be ready to freelance like a pro in no time!

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