Still, freelancing can be harder and provide a less reliable cash flow than the (admittedly steady) 9 to 5. If you’re considering a move into the world of freelancing, read the tips below to make sure you know what you’re getting into and how to come out on top!
1. Build a portfolio
Before you can offer your services, you will need to collect some samples to show to prospective clients. Post your portfolio on your personal website – it’s easier than ever to create a simple landing page for your new business. For a writing portfolio, it’s often useful to start writing about something you know if you haven’t identified your niche yet. Love to watch Netflix? Obsessed with fitness? Write some quick 300-word series or product reviews. Graphic designers and AutoCAD drafters will also benefit from creating a virtual portfolio and website showcasing samples of their best work. For translators, transcriptionists, and virtual assistants, having a website with a “Comments” section is a great place to show off reviews from happy customers. And don’t forget to put your work history up on LinkedIn. For web-based freelancers, having a professional online presence is an indispensable part of business.
Tracking your projects and billing clients can eat up a ton of your time. If you aren’t a naturally gifted accountant, it’s worth calling in some help. There are online services to help you (like contract creator Bonsai and business management service 17Hats), but a well-managed spreadsheet and some Word templates are plenty to get you rolling. Track your time, keep a good record of your expenses, and don’t let too much time pass before you collect on your bills. Anything older than a couple weeks becomes progressively harder to collect!
Depending on your home state, province, and country, you will need to pay taxes on your income. Again, professional help is the easiest way to go. It’s hard to justify the cost of accounting services when you’re just starting out, but there are lots of great free resources online. If you live in the U.S., you need to figure out the difference between W-2 and 1099 employment. Mistakes here are costly, but it’s pretty easy once you do your first tax return. Set aside a portion of each payment you receive for the inevitable taxes you’ll owe later.
4. Track your expenses
One of the common benefits of freelancing is working from home. When you use a home office, you can collect some powerful tax rebates from legitimate business expenses. The relevant laws and applicable tax codes will vary from country to country and state to state. Generally, you can write off a portion of your home utilities (heat, electricity, phone, internet). Don’t get too greedy, though. If you aren’t sure about a particular expense, make sure to do your homework before you risk any audits or fines.
5. Know why you want to freelance
In my darkest hours as a freelancer, I always try to remind myself why I do it. The freedom and flexibility are worth more than stability and security to me. I love having an open schedule (most days). When my aging parents call me for help around the house, I’m always happy when I can drop everything to help out my dear old mom. Sure, some days are long. Sometimes you have to work weekends and evenings. Whatever your reason for doing it, you need to stay strong — and it helps to know why you chose this path.
6. Work will come from the strangest places
Once you become a freelancer, it’s time to promote your services. You never know where work might appear. Get business cards – they are ridiculously cheap and easily expensed. Carry them in your wallet and don’t be shy about handing them out. I can’t tell you how many times I have been hired from a chance encounter with a friend, old colleague, or just by chatting with random strangers. Don’t be the guy always hawking his wares at the dinner-party table, but don’t be shy about what you do. Freelancing means being a self-promoter.
7. Niche or die
If you are just starting out, it’s hard to know where your strengths lie. After a few months of grinding out entry-level contracts, you should start to form an idea about your niche. You can have multiple niches, but you need at least one for a focus point. Use your education, work history, and hobbies to develop expertise in one area. Don’t be afraid to take on new topics or clients at first, but don’t burn yourself out trying to be everything to everyone.
8. Get paid
If you aren’t used to chasing down your paycheck, it can be daunting to get paid at first. Don’t be shy, and remember that you are a freelance professional! You deserve to get paid, so don’t let too much time go between delivering the work and receiving the money. Online platforms like Upwork and Freelancer can help protect you from getting stiffed, but you need to get over your fear and timid feelings when it comes to money. Do the work. Get paid. It’s (usually) that simple.
9. Schedule your time
When you work a 9-to-5 job, you probably have someone pushing you to get work done. Your old boss might have been a pain in the neck, but getting tasks done is easier when someone’s breathing down your neck. As a freelancer, you need to find a way to motivate yourself. Especially working from home, it’s easy to get distracted when you are the boss of a one-man operation. I usually do my best work first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon. I use the middle of the day for admin work, relaxing, and training. Find the schedule that works for you, but recognize that you might not always have 100% control over your time. Deadlines are deadlines, so manage your time carefully.
Starting part-time is a safe and smart way to test the freelance waters. Freelancing can be an extremely rewarding lifestyle, but it really does pay to be informed of the realities and to expect the unexpected. Setting up your own business is the hard part, but putting in the time to do it right will make sure you’re organized, that you meet your deadlines, and that you reap your reward at the end of each project.
Above all, to be successful as a freelancer, always trust yourself and give 100% of your effort in your work. When you don’t have the luxury of a steady job or union to keep you employed, your work ethic and product become your calling cards. Take pride in your work and your earnings will grow in step with your efforts!