For some of us, the appeal of freelancing is irresistible. Being your own boss and choosing your own clients can give you more control over your time, more interesting work projects, and – if you’re good and have some marketing chops — more income than you would earn as someone else’s employee. Starting can be intimidating, though, and a little guidance can make it easier.
After many years of part-time freelance writing and four years as a full-time freelancer, these are the initial steps I recommend when aspiring freelancers ask me for advice. I learned them from following Sarah Horowitz at the Freelancers Union and writing experts Carol Tice at Make a Living Writing and Linda Formichelli at The Renegade Writer. My focus is writing, but the steps apply to just about any type of freelancing.
1. Find mentors and peers
A connected freelancer is more likely to be a successful freelancer. National groups like the Freelancers Union, local meetup groups in your city, and freelancer-focused websites by experienced pros can put you in touch with fellow freelancers to share information about available gigs, successful marketing, contract negotiations, continuing education, and other aspects of your business.
2. Pull together your portfolio
Prospective clients want to see your work. Gather links to projects you’ve done for current and former bosses if you’re not bound by a NDA, create PDFs of your print work, or show off work you’ve done pro bono for nonprofit and community groups. If you don’t have a portfolio, you can easily create one following this guide from HostGator.Want to succeed as a #freelancer? Better get yourself an online portfolio. Click To Tweet
3. Define your specialties
Doing what you love is a good goal, but mining your expertise can pay the bills, and who doesn’t love being solvent? If you’re not sure what your niches are, read over your resume. Maybe you have medical equipment manufacturing experience and can write knowledgeably about the subject for marketing clients, or you’ve designed several e-commerce sites for retail boutiques and can turn them around fast. Niche knowledge can help you establish yourself with good-paying clients, build an impressive portfolio, and subsidize your passion projects, too.
4. Plan your services
Think about what you’re best at and how you prefer to work to decide what services you’ll offer. For example, I like to dig into topics so I focus on long-form copy like special reports, magazine features, and extended blog posts like this one instead of short social-media posts. Some writers like the adrenaline jolts and big paydays that come with handling rush work for clients who are up against deadlines. Offer the services you’re comfortable with and omit those you don’t like.
5. Gather testimonials
Ask employers and colleagues who’ve given you LinkedIn testimonials or other praise if you can use their words in your marketing. The most effective testimonials include a picture and name, so request permission to use those, too. Most people will be happy to say yes. Copyblogger has more tips on using testimonials in your marketing, which we’ll touch on in a few steps.Starting out as a #freelancer? Gather testimonials and recommendations from past employers. Click To Tweet
6. Set your rates
Most new freelancers just accept what their first few clients offer. This is understandable but unsustainable. Research the rates for your type of work and price yourself within that range based on the value you can provide to clients and what you need to sustain your business. Calculate your base hourly rate to learn what you must charge to earn a living. The Freelancer blog at Contently outlines the process. The number you get may seem high, but it has to cover not only your billable time but also marketing, administrative and accounting time and expenses employees don’t have, such as professional insurance and self-employment taxes.#Freelancer rookie mistake: Basing your rates on what your first few clients offer. Click To Tweet
Note: If you quote this hourly rate to prospective clients, they may run away screaming or at least snort before they hang up on you. That’s because self-employment rates sound exorbitant to people used to earning an hourly wage and who don’t have to think about employer costs. Most experienced freelancers bill by the project rather than by the hour to avoid invalid comparisons between employee hourly pay and freelance rates. Per-project rates also give your clients a firm budget item instead of a wait-and-see cost.
7. Define your target clients
Specific clients will vary by niche and the type of work you do. In general, ideal clients are those who can pay your rates, provide a good showcase for your work, refer you to other potential clients, and have more than one project for you over the long term. Ideal clients also pay promptly, communicate clearly, use contracts, respect your time, and don’t expand the scope of projects without also expanding your fees. Not sure how to find your target clients? Talk to your mentors and peers, and do lots of research.
8. Take care of the paperwork
For tax and legal purposes, you’ll need a business permit, IRS EIN number, and a business bank account. For peace of mind, you’ll want professional liability insurance. You also need to understand the typical freelance contract for your type of work—your peer network is a good place to start—and use it with every client.
9. Get a website
Your site is how prospects will find you. The ideal site looks good on mobile devices as well as desktops, includes your portfolio and testimonials, serves as a sample of your work, and gives prospects a way to contact you right away via phone or email. Seed your site copy and meta tags with the search terms you think clients will use to find you, and update your site regularly to maintain a solid search-result position. Get your website today with HostGator’s affordable web hosting plans.
10. Always be marketing
Your site is an important marketing step, but it’s just the first. Find the social media channels your target clients use and jump in. Attend conferences and trade shows to meet prospects. Send direct mail and email letters of introduction. Ask current and former employers and clients for referrals. Trade tips and ask for feedback from your professional peers and mentors.
Establishing yourself as a freelancer is a lot more work than a 9 to 5 job, but if you like to learn new things, enjoy creative work, and want more professional freedom, it’s well worth the effort.
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.