Freelancing: Starting Down the Freelance Path

I promised I’d talk about freelancing, too, and here we are. These posts will be interspersed throughout upcoming topics, because freelancers may need to handle certain concepts differently from those employed at an established company.

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I freelanced for about five years for three different consistent clients (and little projects for others here and there), but freelancing has never been my sole income or activity. I freelanced through language school and graduate school, which was the perfect part-time job for me. Thus, my advice is not intended to be the end-all resource for building a freelance career. I hope to provide some advice and resources for you to think about if you’re interested in becoming a freelancer, but please read across people’s experiences and advice for a better view. Freelancing is a very individual experience, and with it more than anything, your mileage will vary for any advice you receive. However, I also work with freelancers on a daily basis, so I hope I can provide some insight from the client side as well!

Whew! That’s out of the way. Still interested in pursuing freelance work? Before you get your business cards made and website open for business, consider the following:

Freelancing is a slow-build business
Freelancing requires clients, and clients take time to develop. You may leave a job which will want to keep you on as a freelancer (hey, great!), but often that won’t be enough to pay the bills, and basing your entire paycheck on a single client that doesn’t have regulated supports for you (as they might a full-time employee) is risky—what happens if they go out of business? The real rub is that developing clients is always easier after you’ve already been hired a few times, which makes those first few jobs and clients absolutely excruciating to find.

That being said, be strategic and proactive about your networking and about building clients. You’d be surprised how long it some prospective clients will be radio silent before reaching out to you for work, so just keep networking and checking in (more on this later…there’s more than one right way to check in, but at least one absolutely wrong one), and go out and hustle some more. For now, just keep in mind that it could take a while until you’re totally self-sufficient as a freelancer.

Few freelancers are financially stable all the time
This, of course, ties right back into my first point. Clients can disappear, be put on budgets, or projects can end, leaving you with a vacuum. And even though your June could be totally empty, everyone will want to hire you in July. Freelancers often find themselves in feast or famine conditions, and so you’ll need to adjust your finances and cash flow expectations as you learn the ropes. You’ll also need to plan to buy your own benefits and withhold your own taxes, for which I recommend you save half of each paycheck to pay (and you may need to pay your taxes as estimated taxes to avoid being fined, so be sure to look that up, too!). Keep rigorous track of your income and expenses, especially expenses you can write off at tax time. Only by keeping track will you be able to come up with a structure for becoming a financially-stable freelancer.

Your publicity skills will set you apart
I wish being hired as a freelancer was based strictly on skill and merit, but it, like many other things in this wide world, is not. Though sometimes your clients will recommend you to others based on your skill, or take you with them if your contact person switches jobs (which is awesome), there are very few instances (save for the arts, perhaps) where you’ll be pursued and hired based on the quality of your work. More often, your clients come from your hustle. Find networking and industry events in your area, and concentrate on making personal connections. Bring business cards, but don’t just hand them out to anyone—have real conversations with potential clients about what their needs might be. Have an elevator pitch for yourself and your business. Mention previous clients, if you have any, and if the appropriate moment comes up in the conversation. Keep your LinkedIn and any other online portfolios up to date.

Online spaces are included in this, too. Expertise-sharing gives you credibility. Start a blog or contribute a guest-blog. Become an active member of industry forums. Connect (politely) with others on Twitter. And listen! See what others are talking about—your industry may be moving toward or settling on a certain program or best practice, and by becoming the expert in it, you may be able to score more work. No matter what, your skills selling yourself are going to be more initially critical than your active work.

“Setting your own hours” is rarely as glamorous as it sounds
Freelancers are infamous for working a lot, and that’s often the draw of freelancers—hiring someone who can work outside of a 9-5 workday, or someone who can turn something around overnight or over the weekend. As a freelancer, you may be hired with the expectation that you are always available, and even though you may initially be okay with a totally open schedule, trying to work crazy hours over a long period is how many fledgling (and, who am I kidding, even expert) freelancers find themselves in burnout, unable to work at all. Establish your preferred and possible working hours early on, and keep an eye on them as you develop clients.

Freelancing can be fantastic, with its flexible hours and “be-your-own-boss” mentality, but it comes with many drawbacks and potential pitfalls. Just make sure you’re prepared to do a job where most of the effort will come from you.

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