Sitting in an office and taking orders from someone else has its role in our culture. Most businesses need employees to run effectively and a salary with benefits is nice to have.
But… what if you know it just doesn’t feel right for you? You’ve decided that you don’t want that to be what your career looks like for the rest of your life. So you’ve been considering a shift to freelancing full time.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Over 15 million people work as freelancers in the United States and that number is only expected to grow.
[bctt tweet=”Over 15 million people work as freelancers in the US. Are you one of them?” username=”hostgator”]
The appeal is obvious – freelancing offers a lot of perks. You can make your own schedule, cut commutes out of your life, and be your own boss. But the fantasy of having plenty of free time and working in your pajamas isn’t the whole story. Transitioning to being a full-time freelancer takes a lot of work and succeeding as one in the long term takes even more.
If you’re currently pondering the move to a full-time freelance career, here are some of the most important steps you should take to get started.
1. Have savings to start, and make saving money an ongoing priority.
You should expect the first year or so to be the hardest. It takes time to build a freelance brand, find your first clients, and establish a reputation. During this period, it helps to have either some kind of part-time work to tide you over, or enough savings to live off of for a few months in case your progress is slow.
In addition to potentially not bringing much money in during your first few months, you’ll also have a few expenses you should take on, such as the cost of building a website, buying business cards, and potentially investing in relevant courses and books or memberships in local professional organizations.
Even once you do start to bring money in, you need to get into the habit of saving. For taxes alone, a standard rule of thumb is to set aside around 30% of everything you make so you’re set come tax time. On top of that though, you want a steady emergency fund – both for actual emergencies and to cover you during dry periods (which even the most successful freelancers have now and then) – and a retirement account.
[bctt tweet=”Transitioning to #freelance full-time? Set aside 30% of your income for tax time.” username=”hostgator”]
That sounds like a lot, and it is. But remember that you’re saving clients a lot of money by taking on these costs yourself as a freelancer, and you should price accordingly.
2. Make sure you understand the legal definition of independent contractor.
Businesses have been known to abuse the independent contractor classification as a way of saving money on taxes. If a client tries to classify you as an independent contractor but expects you to do a full-time job onsite with set hours that makes it impossible for you to find other work, then you’ll be hit with all the downsides of freelancing without the perks. (Note: In some cases, this practice is legally legitimate if it’s for a temporary or contract-to-hire position, but it’s not a great way to launch a freelance career.)
To be properly working as an independent contractor, you should:
- Have the freedom to make your own schedule.
- Be in control of deciding where and how you do your work (as long as it gets done).
- Have no taxes withheld from your payments.
Most of the time, independent contractors should also have a contract that lays out the details of the work and clarifies that you’re working as an independent contractor.
3. Figure out reasonable pricing.
This is one of the trickiest parts of freelancing. First things first, you have to consider all the new expenses you’ll be taking on as a freelancer:
- Health insurance premiums. Unless you have a spouse with good coverage, you’ll be paying health insurance premiums entirely out of pocket.
- Supplies. For a lot of freelancers this includes items like your computer, the right types of software, and a printer and scanner.
- Any days off. When you get sick or need a vacation, no one will be paying you for that time off. Ditto for those days when you just don’t have paying work.
- Marketing and administrative time. You have to spend a certain amount of time building and running your business; no one will be paying you for those hours.
- Professional development. If you take courses, join professional organizations, or attend conferences and other events, all of those costs will be out of your own pocket.
You can find freelance rate calculators online like this one to help you figure out a good starting point. You should also seek to make connections with other freelancers doing similar work in your area to see what they typically charge. That will give you a pretty clear idea of what the market will bear and help you avoid underselling yourself and undercutting other local professionals.
4. Create a devoted workspace and routine.
One of the biggest benefits of freelancing can also be one of the toughest parts for some people. You finally have the ability to work on your terms in the way that you work best, but now you have to figure out what that is.
For anyone who works from home, having a space set aside just for work can be useful to helping you create a clear separation between your work time and your free time. Some freelancers prefer to head to a coffee shop or coworking space. You might try out both working from home and another space to see where you get better results.
You should also start paying close attention to how and when you work best. What are your most productive hours of the day? What tasks tend to take the most time and energy? Your productivity is directly tied to how much you make as a freelancer, so if you can analyze your habits to figure out how to get more done, it will pay off in tangible benefits.
On the other end of the spectrum, freelancers that can’t figure out a routine that allows for consistent productivity likely won’t last long as freelancers.
[bctt tweet=”#Freelancers who can’t figure out a routine that allows for consistent productivity won’t last long.” username=”hostgator”]
5. Create a business plan.
A lot of people start freelancing with a job-by-job mentality, simply trying to take whatever they can get as it comes. Those that fare the best over the long term treat it like starting a business.
Sit down and figure out both a long-term plan and the steps you should take short term to achieve your long-term goals. You may well find yourself changing your plan as you go, but having one at all will put you ahead of a lot of people who dabble in freelancing.
As with any other business, a successful freelance business doesn’t just fall into place on its own. Consider who your ideal clients are, what services you’re best suited to offer, how to market and position yourself in your industry, and the specific actions you should take to start building your business. Get it all on paper in writing so you have something to hold yourself to each day.
6. Make marketing and networking priorities.
When you start, you’re probably going to be in the position of chasing work – scouring freelance job boards or cold calling companies that look like a good fit for your services. The sweet spot every freelancer should aim for is the day that clients start coming to you.
That only happens if you put in time marketing your business and networking to make professional contacts. Build a website and determine what marketing activities are the best fit for your skills and business.
Then get out there and start meeting people. Check on Meetup.com to see if there are professional groups that meet in your town in your industry or an in industry likely to need people that do what you do. Look into what relevant local professional organizations are available and start attending their events.
For each client you work with, ask them for a testimonial you can put on your website and tell them you’d love it if they could recommend you to colleagues who need similar work. Your job is no longer just doing the type of work you do, it’s also doing the work of finding people who want to hire you and building your brand.
7. Learn to say no.
In the beginning, it’s easy to want to take on every project you’re offered, but there are number of good reasons to say no to work. A project that’s not a good fit for your skills and knowledge won’t make you look good to the client. A client that’s not a good fit for your working style will make your life harder and possibly hurt your reputation in the long run if things don’t go well between you.
Taking on too much work will make you overwhelmed and incapable of doing the work well. And allowing clients to overstep your agreed upon terms (it will happen, there’s even a name for it: scope creep) will ultimately hurt your bottom line.
Learning how to say no diplomatically is an extremely important part of freelancing, so start practicing before you take the plunge and be prepared.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that transitioning to being a full-time freelancer will be easy right away. It won’t. But do know that if freelancing is a good fit for you, it will get easier. Talk to other freelancers to learn what works for them and figure out as you go what works for you. It’s one long learning process, but one that will give you more control over your life and work if you can make it work.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.