The New Freelancer's Guide to Starting Strong

Two freelancers workign quietly from home

Freelancing can be unnerving. You’re paid to put your work - your soul - out into the world for all to see. That said, freelancing can help you grow personally and professionally. Whether you’re looking for a full-time career or a side income, the freelance life can provide.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: beginning a freelance career is hard. It can take time to build a network, find clients, and create your brand. But believe me, it’s worth it! You get to work with people from around the world and every day is different. If you're thinking about jumping head first into the freelance life, then here are 10 areas you’ll want to think through…

Finding a workspace for your new freelance business

One of the best parts about freelancing is the ability to work anywhere. For example, I’m writing this article on my friends couch after a fairly spur of the moment road trip. Not possible if I had an office job! Yet, this freedom can also be one of the biggest obstacles to productivity.

Early on it can be easy to work anywhere, but you’ll want a long-term plan in place.

  • If possible, carve out a work-only space in your home. This will help you make the switch from "Home" to "Work" mode when sitting down to start the day.
  • Coffee shops can a great place to work. Working in a new environment can help jolt you into work mode, and after a while you'll appreciate the chance to get out of the house and socialize.
  • Renting office space can be a valuable investment, although it may not be an option initially. Not only is an office a dedicated workspace, but you can be around other people and be outside your home. This option not be available in all areas, but if it interests you be sure to check what your area has to offer (just search for "coworking").

Ultimately, finding a workspace means finding a space where you can focus… and this can be a big hurdle to overcome. Wherever it may be, try to create a little world that you can enter, create amazing work, and feel fulfilled in your career!

If possible, carve out a work-only space in your home. This will help you make the switch from "Home" to "Work"

Creating a schedule that works for you

Some people thrive on a schedule, and some feel suffocated by one. The thought of a schedule may make you twitch, but bear with me. Maintaining a calendar of due dates, meetings, and work times is important as your business grows, which it will.

A schedule doesn’t need to be set in stone. But, find when you’re most productive and use that time to work and grow your business. Whether paper or binary, a planner will help your life and work stay organized.

A work-life balance is also important to remember when creating your schedule. Starting a business takes time and finances, and some parts of your life may suffer as a consequence. That being said, remember to take the time to refuel mentally and physically. Spending time with family and friends, getting outside, or doing something relaxing can help you decompress.

Marketing yourself as a new freelancer

While you will reach a point where work comes through referrals, marketing yourself and building a brand is crucial.

The first steps:

  • Get those business cards in order. (I love for the customization options, although Vistaprint is also a good option)
  • Create a website/portfolio; if you're short on time or don't have the coding chops there are plenty of hosted portfolio options available.
  • Network! Twitter, LinkedIn, friends of friends, and local Meetup groups are all great options.

A portfolio and blog are crucial. A portfolio displays your work, and your blog displays your knowledge and point of view. A portfolio is especially important if you’re a freelance designer. But, the beauty of a portfolio is that it can be whatever you want and need it to be. Explain your processes and get results orientated testimonials from clients whenever possible. You don’t need to display every project, in-fact your shouldn't. Take your very best work and turn it into case studies. And make sure to curate your site as your skills, projects, and client base grows.

But, Hannah, I’m not a writer! You expect me to blog? Your writing will grow and develop. Believe me. There’s a reason my first attempt at a blog is no longer in existence. Just keep writing, and write what you’re passionate about! Passion leads to development.

Don’t be discouraged if it seems like no one is finding your amazing blog and reading your thoughts. Comments, shares, and relationships will come. Focus on creating the best content you can, and people will notice. If you need a little help "trimming out the fat" in your writing, try Hemingway. It's a great app that helps keep your writing focused.

While you will reach a point where work comes through referrals, marketing yourself and building a brand is crucial.

A freelancer's empty work station

Networking, yes you should do it…

Networking is important in any career, but I would argue it’s most important to freelancers. Networking and referrals are often the majority of a freelancer’s work. Veteran freelancers are often willing to help others get started. They can share ways in which to grow your client base, present yourself as a freelancer, and much more.

Do you know of someone who could help you spread the word about your new freelance career? Connect and see if they'd be willing to help. But be sure to reciprocate and help them out if you can!

Now for the hard part. How do you even begin to network? Today, most freelancers have blogs, which means it's easier than ever to connect. Seek out freelancers in your field, start following them on Twitter, and comment on their own posts. Add to their conversation, hopefully they'll join yours.

Even better, is networking with real human beings in your area. Seek out freelancers in your field, but don’t be afraid to go beyond. A writer can give a designer great advice. The skills may differ, but at its core, the business of freelancing is the same for everyone. Offer to buy them coffee, or go to their office, and spend some time getting to know each other and discovering great new methods of working…

One thing to remember though, is to not abuse your new found mentors. Most people are willing to help, but be careful of inadvertently taking advantage. One method I use when networking is to offer a way “out” of my ask. It’s usually something like; “I would appreciate any advice you may have, but I know you’re busy so I understand if you can’t do this! Thank you, Hannah”.

Creating passive income as a supplement

Passive income means you’re making money without actively working. eBooks, printables, and tutorials are all examples that can help supplement your freelance income. Don’t worry if you can’t think of any ideas at first. Keep passive income at the back of your mind, and try working on potential products a little each week.

If I have an idea but I’m not sure if it would be helpful for others, I reach out to friends in the same field for feedback. You may not agree with all feedback, but always take the time to listen. They may see something you haven’t that could take it to the next level.

Take the time to make your product or service valuable, then put it out there and market it everywhere! Remember the networking section above? See if your contacts can help you spread the word, maybe they'll even buy it.

It’s easy to fear the unknown, but you've already taken the first step by choosing to become a fearless freelancer! Take the plunge and post your eBook. Not everyone will want to buy it, and that’s okay. Keep working, editing and trying! Success may not come overnight, but it doesn’t mean it will never come.

Success may not come overnight, but it doesn’t mean it will never come.

How to set your rate as a freelancer

Ah, yes. The nearly impossible task of setting your freelance rate. As a new freelancer finding the middle ground between overcharging and not getting work, and not charging enough and undervaluing yourself can be a tricky task.

You’ll want to begin by finding your minimum accepted rate. This will vary if you’re a full or part time freelancer. This rate is personal expenses + business expenses + tax. These numbers will be for the entire year. You’ll divide this by the number of hours you’re planning on working (hours/week x weeks worked) to get your minimum hourly rate. Tom Ewer has an very helpful guide, complete with examples.

Essentially, pricing comes down to how much you value your time and how much your client values their service or product. As Ewer states, charge clients a rate that will make you create exemplary work. This is a valuable tip for part-timers, because it will not be your whole income.

You will also want to research market rate and competition, because it can impact your initial rates.

There are two basic ways to charge your first clients: per hour and per project. Later on when you become more experienced you can start to look at Value Based Pricing.

Charging per hour

Charging clients per hour has been a common method for years. You have the assurance that if your client keeps changing aspects of a project, then you'll continue to be paid for the extra work. Yet, you could be undervaluing yourself for technically skilled projects that you can finish quickly. It may also keep you from producing your best work, which could ultimately damage your reputation.

Even once you set your hourly rate, at first it can be hard to estimate how long a project will take. This may take some time to get settled. Try tracking a current project or two, or try to analyze old projects. This isn’t an exact science, but tracking your time will ultimately help you to value your time more accurately.

Charging per project

Charging per project is a way to charge your clients with a fixed price. Also, if you will need to learn new software or take a refresher course, the client won’t be paying for that time. A logo design could have a per project fee, as most (definitely not all!) have a fairly standard work flow. It's also a layer of trust, because you want to finish the project as efficiently as possible, and your client wants to pay the best price knowing you will be working efficiently.

However, it may not be the right option for all freelancers. If you’re a writer and have a research heavy subject (ie., an article on a new medical technique), you could be undercharging your client. Ultimately, you'll make a decision based on your specific skills and anticipated projects.

Should freelancers work for (or with) friends?

This can be a touchy subject. Some friends (often those who are also freelancers) are willing to pay your rate and pay on time. This is because they understand how things works and that your rate is set for a reason. Others, however, may assume you’ll work for free or for a discounted rate. In some instances, like photographing their budget-conscious wedding or a charity gala, you may be willing to offer a lowered rate. Remember though, that once you set a rate it can be hard to negotiate up.

This is a personal decision you’ll need to make for yourself. Personally, I take this on a case by case basis, depending on the context of the request. A freelance photographer friend gives a discounted rate on her services, but not products. There are many ways to do this.

There is also the hard “no”, if you want to keep business and personal separate. You could recommend another freelancer, saying, “I don’t think I can do this because of our relationship. But I can give you a list of other freelancers who would be more than willing to help you!” Ultimately, this is your business and your friendships on the line. Whatever choice you make, remember that your work, skills, and experience have value!

Remember that your work, skills, and experience have value!

Finding your first freelance clients

Okay. You have your workspace, proposed schedule, rate, and marketing plan figured out. Now it’s time for your first client. There are many great resources to help you find work, and outside of your personal network, all you need is internet! As a rule we wouldn't recommend bidding sites as a way to build a freelance career, but when starting out work is work.

  • Freelance Writing Jobs offers a daily newsletter with job leads. They also have a job board with a variety of positions. This doesn’t come with the same protection and guarantees as Elance and oDesk, but it’s a convenient, curated list of leads every day.

Be wary of lowball offers; they are not worth your time. Be sure to keep looking as opportunities appear. Soon enough the way you find clients will change. You'll start to see more referrals and inbound work opportunities.

Above all, remember that you and your work have value. Your unique set of skills are valuable!

Your turn!

  • What piece of advice would you give to a new freelancer?
  • If you’re a new freelancer, is there anything else I can answer for you?

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