They say that hindsight is always 20/20 — that’s definitely the case when it comes to going freelance.
If you could go back a year, several months, a few weeks, or even a handful of days ago, what would you say to yourself concerning your business?
Don’t sign that client. They’ll end up being a nightmare to work with.
Take the time to research an accountant with small business finance experience. And while you’re at it, do your due diligence about the best accounting software for freelancers.
Make monthly contributions to your savings account, and pay your estimated taxes.
Stop treating yourself like the proverbial cobbler’s son who has no shoes. Build yourself a website that showcases your talents and makes the job of finding enough of the right clients easier.
Speaking of the cobbler, you deserve to buy those shoes you’ve been coveting, even if you technically don’t walk anywhere besides down the hall to your desk. Because work-from-home attire is finally a thing, and also, you’re working hard and deserve to treat yourself here and there.
But I digress.
The bottom line is there are tons of things I wish I could go back and tell myself before I went full-time freelance. Whether you’re just starting out and looking for some freelance advice or are a seasoned solopreneur, it’s always helpful to learn from someone else’s journey.
Let’s start with the basics.
Can Freelancing Be a Full-Time Career?
In a word, YES.
And it’s a growing trend, according to Upwork’s annual study, “Freelance Forward: 2020.” Not only are there 59 million freelancers who have contributed $1.2 trillion to the U.S. economy in yearly earnings, but a whopping 36% of independent professionals earn a living working full-time freelance.
With the rise of remote work, those statistics will only increase over time.
Beyond the benefits of being your own boss, setting your schedule, and focusing on what you like doing best, two-thirds of those surveyed by Upwork said they make the same or more money than when they had a traditional job. Make sure to read our indepth article Upwork vs. Fiverr to learn which freelance platform is the best place to start.
Freelancing offers more economic opportunity for people of all ages, from Gen Z, who graduated into a pandemic, to Millennials seeking flexibility in balancing personal and professional goals to Gen Xers and older who face ageist layoffs, job dissatisfaction, and being replaced by disruptive automation technologies.
Plus, thanks to the de-stigmatization of the gig economy, more and more people are considering full-time freelance work now and in the future. The time is ripe for what Unemployable founder Brian Clark calls the personal enterprise approach.
How Do You Go Freelance?
How you become a freelancer is a personal experience, and no two freelancers’ trajectories will look the same. But there are a few initial steps for how to go freelance that everyone should consider.
Step #1: Make Sure There’s a Market for Your Services
While the adage, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” is hopeful and inspiring, it’s also not necessarily true if you’re facing an overly saturated marketplace.
So while you might be the world’s best cupcake baker, if you live in a town where there are 20 incredible cupcake shops, you might find your hobby doesn’t translate so well as a career move.
That said, you never know — your cupcakes might fit the market sweet spot (sorry, had to) after all. And you’ll know that by making this your side hustle for a while. That points to another useful adage: “Don’t quit your day job.”
At least not yet.
Step #2: Assess Your Financial Situation
While freelancing can be a great way to beef up your income, you’ve got to be sure that when it becomes what puts food on the table, it’ll be enough. So, roll up your sleeves and put together a couple of realistic budgets: one for what you need to live on and one for what it’ll cost to start up your business.
It’s not hard to make a budget, perhaps just a little painful. You’ll make a list of your monthly expenses (rent or mortgage, utilities, phone, insurance, internet, subscriptions, groceries, etc.), multiply that by 12, and you’ll have your annual nut.
Now, calculate what you need to start your business. For those of us in the knowledge/services industry, it might not entail much more than what you already have, like a computer and printer.
The good news is that if you work from home, you’ll be able to write off some of your home expenses on your taxes (i.e., a portion of your rent or mortgage, some of your utilities and cable, etc.) And don’t forget to account for things like software subscriptions, professional services (like a bookkeeper or accountant), and insurance, which can add up.
With both numbers in hand, you can now make informed choices about how and when to go freelance.
If you have the financial backing necessary to get through at least the first few months, which will likely be lean before clients start paying you, great. If it’s tight, look for places you can cut back, like eating out less often. Or, challenge your assumptions about your startup costs — maybe you don’t need to rent an office right away, or perhaps your old computer can suffice for the first year.
And speaking of money…
Step #3: Get Clear on How Much You Can Charge
This can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a sense of what others who do what you do make. So, do your research, and take a look at competitors’ freelance rates to see what others in your niche charge.
One important caveat: be mindful of whether you’re comparing apples to oranges. If you’re just starting out, you won’t be able to command the same rates as a seasoned pro. Or, if you are an experienced provider and have lots of glowing reviews from colleagues that you can use as social proof, you might be fine charging higher rates for your services.
Once you know what you can charge, you can project what you’ll make freelancing. Be sure that the assessment of your financial situation from Step #2 jibes with what you think you’ll make, based on the fees you believe you can charge.
Step #4: Consider All Angles of Running Your Own Business
Finally, going freelance means that you’re in charge of all aspects of your business — not just the service you provide but all of the nuts and bolts of running your solo venture. That includes everything from setting business goals to writing proposals, invoicing, collecting payments, and paying taxes. You need time management and organizational skills galore, too, so keep that in mind.
Whether you’re ready for full-time freelance out the gates or pursue it on the side for now, the good news is you’re making informed decisions. And that’s the cornerstone of any successful business.
The Top 6 Freelance Tips
Now that you’re clear on what going freelance takes — and you’re presumably not scared — here’s some real-life freelance advice to help you rock your business.
1. You Call All The Shots
I’ve already said this in a few different ways, but truly, when you go freelance, you are your own boss. Exciting, right?
Of course, when I went out on my own, I knew that I would be making every single decision that impacted my business—from client work to what freelancing project management software I decided to use.
But one thing that took me a while to feel comfortable with was the fact that I worked for myself and no one else.
During the first few months of freelancing, I found myself feeling like I needed to be online at all hours or that if I wasn’t responding to every email within an hour, I was somehow failing as a freelancer. I felt guilty for not being online when my clients were, and I struggled to enjoy the freedoms that come with this type of career path.
If you’re like me and struggling with that mindset, I’m here to tell you that it’s completely normal. Think about it: unless you didn’t report directly to someone at your old job, it’s a bit of an adjustment to go from having a boss to being one yourself.
Figure out when you’re most productive and create working hours around that time. If your clients are emailing you outside of that time frame (and I know this may be easier said than done for some), don’t feel guilty about not responding right away.
You decide when you work — not your clients.
2. Your First Year Isn’t Indicative of the Rest of Your Freelance Career
As I said above, freelancing is a wild ride. There were many points throughout my first year of freelancing when I felt like I wasn’t improving or that I wasn’t where I needed to be with my business. The first year is when many freelancers get caught up in the compare and despair game — and believe me, I did and still do sometimes.
But the thing is, just because you don’t feel like you’re where you want to be with your business or that you still have much to learn doesn’t mean you’re failing. The path from where you are now to where you want to be is not necessarily linear. There will be twists and turns and pivots and decisions.
Focus on sharpening your skills, improving your processes, and learning as much as you can. Don’t concentrate on where you are compared to other freelancers in your industry. All that does is prevent you from propelling forward.
3. Mistakes Happen — Learn From Them
Like with anything in life, you’ll make mistakes. That’s the reality.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career that have kept me up at night. But that’s not a productive nor healthy way to live, is it?
And it’s not all bad. The big mistakes I’ve made have helped shape how I run my business, handle professional relationships, and set boundaries. As cheesy as it sounds, mistakes are how you learn and get better.
Some of the best freelance advice is:
- Take a step back.
- Pinpoint what went wrong and why.
- Figure out a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Processes help prevent repeat mistakes, especially the ones that can be easily avoided.
4. Invest in Your Education and Do the Work
When you’re starting, shelling out money for courses, masterminds, and events can feel like you’re setting yourself back financially. But investing in quality resources, in people who genuinely want to help you grow your business, and in yourself is what will ultimately propel you forward.
If you’ve listened to my first Unemployable podcast episode, I talked about how my first significant investment as a freelancer was in Kaleigh Moore’s Copywriting Coaching program. It completely changed everything for my business.
As amazing as Kaleigh and her program are, I didn’t merely enter my credit card information and expect all my business woes to evaporate. My success with the course stemmed from completing the homework assignments, reaching out to those she connected me with, working on my positioning, and, well, listening to her expert advice.
Now, I’m in no way suggesting you purchase every course or attend every conference because that would be irresponsible.
Realistic freelance advice will remind you that you can buy all of the courses you want, but you aren’t going to see any results unless you put in the work.
Do your research and select a few educational resources that you feel will help you advance. Read course reviews, check out the past speaker lists of conferences you’re interested in attending, and don’t be afraid to ask your peers what they recommend.
5. Let Your Uniqueness Shine Through Your Brand
When I started freelancing, I had no idea what I wanted my brand to be or look like. I thought I did, but looking back on it now, I was striving to be like other writers, not myself. I didn’t know what I wanted, and as a result, I turned to other successful writers for freelance advice and wanted to be just like them.
The problem with that? Those other writers aren’t me, and I’m not them. They are unique in their own way with their services, processes, and communication styles. I eventually found my own way, while still following best practices like the ones in this article, and have created a brand that reflects my services and me. And you will, too.
How was I going to show potential clients my value — and what makes me different — if I tried to blend in?
Make a list of why clients should or would want to work with you. Let that list guide you in creating your brand, your website, and even your client processes. The idea is to communicate that clients should want to work with you because you’re you, not because you’re like another freelancer.
6. There’s Tons of Opportunity Out There — You Just Have to Find It
When I set out on my own, one of my biggest fears was that there wasn’t enough opportunity to go around. Like I had somehow missed the S.S. Client Work, and there I was, standing at the end of the dock waving goodbye.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is tons of opportunity out there, and the demand for freelancers is sky-high.
In the last couple of years, the U.S. has seen freelancer earnings up 78% year-on-year, according to Payoneer’s Global Gig-Economy Index. Plus, we have the power of technology on our side. Mastering how to get clients is easier than ever before.
But because of the breadth of opportunity, it’s equally as important to recognize a good fit when you see it.
With each new client you sign, you learn something new about yourself, whether it be your workstyle, holes in your process, or what type of work you genuinely enjoy doing. As you gain more experience, you will fine-tune that client/project radar and can focus on the opportunities you know you’ll love.
Be strategic with your client search. Explore every opportunity that comes your way, but don’t ignore red flags. Even the newest freelancer has a red flag sense (and it only gets better with experience), so pay attention.
After all, the whole point of going freelance is to build a business you love that provides you with an income to lead a life that feels fulfilling and meaningful.
That’s the one thing I knew for sure I wanted when I first went freelance, and it holds true to this day.
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