So you’re interested in becoming a freelancer? First, welcome to the club! While it’s far from exclusive (as it turns out, the barrier to entry is pretty low), it’s a fun society of risk-takers, free-thinkers, and non-settlers.
From what I can gather, there are two types of people who read articles on becoming a freelancer: The first are young people who are newly-graduated, under-employed, or in the infancy of their careers; the second are people looking to make a big life change. Either way, to go at it alone is daunting, so you’ll need to get your shit together.
It’s a bad idea to start with nothing, declare yourself a freelancer, and figure it out along the way. Sure we all have to start somewhere, but this isn’t improv; it’s Shakespeare. Even if it’s your first time on stage, you should be well-prepared. Here are some important things to consider before opening night.
1. Make sure it’s what you want to do.
While this piece of advice is good for both the newbies and the ship-jumpers, if you’re in the latter category I assume you’ve done some homework and know the payoffs verses the perils. However, if freelancing is one of your first ever job options, then you’ve got a lot to consider.
You are now you’re own boss; you make your own hours; you’re location independent; you’re even pants independent (if you work from home like I do). That’s all great!
You are also your own accountant, project manager, marketing manager, office manager, art director, receptionist, customer service representative, digital director, janitor, and maybe even lawyer. Oh, and you also won’t have employer-provided health insurance; there’s no such thing at PTO; and you’ll have to get your own taxes in order. (Not that you’ll necessarily have to do them, but they will need to be organized. See below.) Sure, some of that stuff is able to be outsourced, but generally you’re on your own.
That said, millions of people do it. Just make sure you’re ready.
2. Always have some form of income.
Don’t quit your day job.
It’s a good idea to keep a steady gig while you build your freelancing business. Don’t think becoming CEO of You, Inc. and having a side hustle (or even a main hustle) need to be mutually exclusive. While everyone’s situation is different, it’s always good to have some kind of cash flow — if not to keep yourself fed then at least to have some peace of mind. Once you’re comfortable making your sole-proprietorship the only thing, then do it!
Another option is to save like a maniac until it’s time to pull the trigger. While this doesn’t technically qualify as income, it is cushion. Frankly I’d advise both earning and saving, but that’s not always feasible. The rainy day fund may be the right option if you’re planning to move, or if your company is downsizing and you smell blood in the water.
(No, not like that.) Some people leave a big company but take a main client – or several – with them. (Obvious-but-necessary side note: Know whether or not you have a Non-Compete and, if so, what it says… Or get a good lawyer. Up to you.) Even then, if the “liberated” client should be able to sustain you, diversification is still key, and savings are a good way to defer risk just in case they jump ship.
3. Get organized.
This may go without saying, but organization is the single most important aspect of freelancing.
Create a business plan.
Unless you’re planning on bringing on investors, this doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should be thorough. Establishing what you want your company to be will help keep you driven and focused. Create a mission statement. Define goals and objectives. Define who you want your clientele to be, and do the appropriate research to find the best way to market to them. Then define a marketing strategy. Analyze yourself — your strength and weaknesses. Analyze your competition. What do they do better than you? What do you do better? Figure out your price points and do research on the market you’re in. It will inevitably change, but getting this in place will help with the following as well. (I realize this is an entire post unto itself, but these are all things to think about before you begin.)
There will always be ebbs and flows in the world of sole proprietorship. When times are tight, it may be easy to fly by the seat of your pants; but, when you’re busier than a cross-eyed air traffic controller, you better have some processes in place. At the risk of sounding too business school-y, an established, systematic work flow will save time (=money), prevent mistakes, and prevent you from developing ulcers.
From the moment someone reaches out to you about a potential job, you should have a seamless system in place that will take you all the way through until you cash the paycheck. This includes: Welcome email(s), a project brief, a proposal template, a contract, a way of logging your time, an invoicing system, an accounting system, and literally anything else that helps you streamline the process and keep all your files, names, numbers, etc. in order.
I mentioned an invoicing system and accounting system. I also have a personal accounting system and a spreadsheet where I write down all of my business expenses. If you have an LLC, a corporation, or anything else that’s official with Uncle Sam, there are other considerations too. There are multiple apps that help do this, including Expensify and BizXpenseTracker, and places like H&R Block also have resources. It’s all about what works best for you. Just be prepared, because often taxes won’t be taken out of your paychecks — meaning the IRS is going to expect a hefty check in April.
4. Tell people.
As I said, jumping in without a game plan isn’t a great strategy, but spreading the word is. If you’re planning on leaving a company or your employer isn’t comfortable with you having a side gig, then maybe hold off on spilling the beans; however, if you’re not at risk of losing a current job… start letting people know. This serves two purposes.
Obviously. This is Freelance Marketing 101 — Word of Mouth. When I’m out and about, even when I’m not trying to network, it never ceases to amaze me how many people say, “I know someone who is looking for some graphic design work,” or, “You know, my company always has little projects come up where we need a graphic designer.” Don’t promise anything until you’re up and running, but get business cards, meet for drinks, and always have a rolodex of people for when you do start. Then you won’t be starting from nothing.
When I decided to turn vegetarian, I posted it on social media. Part of this was to get all the shit talking out of the way early (comment section is below), but it was also so I would stick with it. There’s nothing like peer pressure to keep you motivated. If people know you’re starting a business and you don’t… well, you’ll feel crumby and look like a dummy. It will also help push things along if you keep running into people who ask, “Did you start your own thing yet?”
5. Set a routine.
After I left an office setting for a home setting, this is what helped me adapt. When you’re beholden to a building, you have a routine that involves getting showered, eating breakfast, putting on pants (hopefully), commuting, etc. When you have the option of simply pulling out a laptop while still in bed, your productivity is going to go straight to hell if you don’t have a system. (A doctor friend of mine still puts on a tie when he works from his home office.)
This is where you just have to find what works for you. When are you most productive? When are your clients expecting you to be available? When does your family need you to be available? It’s fantastic not being beholden to an 8 to 5 schedule; however, consistency is key. (And did I mention organization?)
Get an office.
An office doesn’t have to be a building, a WeWork space, or even a separate room in your house. An office is your place. The place where your work gets done. Think of an office as part of your routine. I’m lucky enough that my fiancé let me turn one of our bedrooms into my space, but I know people who work from their kitchen tables. This is important, especially if you’re going to be working from home, because your home has distractions. All the distractions. (I don’t even let our dog in my office.)
Change it up if you need to. This is one of the great perks of being independent — you can work from wherever you want! A lot of people choose this life simply for that fact. I have friends who pick a new place every single day. As long as it’s your time and your space for you to be productive.
Set a workout routine.
While I don’t feel the need to go into a whole thing about mind, body, and spirit, this is easy to slack on when you don’t need to leave the house. However, it’s also easiest to establish, because you can do it at whatever time is best for you. (I personally love getting to the gym between 8:30 and 9 a.m… when everyone else is leaving to go to their cubicles! *evil laugh*)
In his books, Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work, Austin Kleon talks about borrowing from and sharing your inspirations and influences. (See? I did it just now!) You don’t have to sell your soul to the social media gods or write a daily blog like you want a book deal, but consistently sharing helps in two ways:
It gets you noticed.
The more places you are, the easier it is for people to find you. Simple. And the more you post and share, the more often they can find you. Not only that, if you do it correctly Google can find you, so when someone types in “freelance writer in Buttzville, NJ” you’re the first person to come up.
It keeps you inspired.
While getting noticed might be more important to your business longevity, this one is really important to your craft. Hopefully by going freelance you are following some sort of passion, or at least something you enjoy doing. But when we turn something that feeds our souls into something that literally has to feed us, our souls take a hit. (I may have stolen that saying; I’m not sure.) That’s why staying inspired is so important. Look for things that feed your creative spirit and then share them! It certainly can’t hurt.
You don’t have to. This one’s pretty niche and formal. But if you have any questions, comments, or anything to add, I’d love to hear from you. Good luck out there!