It’s a huge step going from working for the man to being in control of your own time and work, so here is some advice on how to become a freelancer.
If you can, become a freelancer while you have at least a part time job. You can take your time, do good work and pick your clients this way instead of taking on every crap project that comes your way for low rates because you’re desperate to pay your rent.
If you’re going to go freelance full time, try and get a few months living expenses in the bank first as a buffer. This will give you some time to get things up and running properly, but you still need to be making enough money to get by quickly if you want this freelance business to be sustainable. Believe me, being critically stressed while trying to be creative is not a good place to be.
Choose your services
It’s tempting to offer everything to everyone at first, but you’re better off focusing on what you’re good at AND what you can make good money doing. If you’re starting off slowly, you can have some confidence in yourself and your abilities and take on great projects that will help you build your freelance career.
This is a business too, so focus on the profitable services and projects to make sure you can keep this going. It’s tempting to just do the fun stuff now you don’t have a boss breathing down your neck. If you want to set aside time to work on fun things or do pro bono work for people that’s fine, but do it in a measured way after you’ve hit your targets to pay your bills and save some money each month.
The Business Model Canvas can help you work out what to offer, who to offer it to and how to reach them.
Build a portfolio
A good way to get your portfolio started is to do a couple of free projects for people you like, who you think will appreciate your work and who will give you a testimonial. Having some projects to show prospective clients makes it so much easier to sell them your time as they can see what you’re capable of.
Charities and other non-profit organisations often appreciate your volunteering your time to do things that could go on your portfolio. Be careful you don’t end up working with highly disorganised people or time vampires on projects that will never see the light of day however.
If you can’t find any people to do work for to build your portfolio, make some things for imaginary companies or brands to demonstrate your skills.
Even if you do a few gigs for free, you’ll be taking money from people soon so you may as well set up a business bank account and work out how you’re going to invoice people. I set up a TSB business account in my lunch break from work one day, and as I wasn’t asking for any credit it was easy and painless. It costs me £5 a month after the free startup period. Other banks may offer business banking for free too.
I started off sending invoices made in MS Word, with the filename the client name and invoice number: “0001 – John Smith”. I now use an automated billing system but this lo-fi approach got me up and running.
There are other systems like Harvest, Invoicely etc if you want to go the cloud route from the start. A system that chases overdue invoices automatically will save you a lot of time emailing people.
If you’re doing complicated stuff, a project management system can help. You can probably handle things by email to start with though.
Have at least a simple contract and terms in place when you take on a project and take some money up front to weed out the time wasters. The freelancer subs on Reddit are full of people moaning about being ripped off because they didn’t do this. Do this.
Getting freelance clients
This can be the trickiest part of how to become a freelancer. You first need to find people who need what you can offer, and then you need to sell yourself to them.
Finding clients can tie in to what services you decide to offer. I went for web design as it’s a huge market and people often need upgrades etc over time. Pretty much everyone with a small business is a potential client for me.
If you’re still working a day job and freelancing on the side, when people ask you what you do, try telling them your freelance job first. Many jobs come via word of mouth referrals and this can be a good way of kickstarting things.
Networking can be a good way to meet potential new clients, as well as asking your contacts if they know anyone who needs your services they could introduce you to. Offering referral fees has consistently brought me enough work that I haven’t ever paid to advertise anywhere.
Often overlooked is contacting people you want to work with directly or via your network. Being able to work with businesses or people you have chosen is powerful as you may find your motivation and enjoyment levels higher than working with randoms.
There are paid advertising methods like Facebook ads and Google Adwords but I found they brought low quality enquiries that rarely turned into profitable projects.
Agencies can be a good way of building freelance skills and contacts. You will be working for bosses again, but day rates can be attractive and meeting people in your industry can be very useful.
At the bottom of the pile are freelance marketplaces like freelancer.co.uk, upwork etc. If you’re freelancing in a developed country, you’ll be up against other freelancers in India, the Phillipines etc who can massively undercut you. There are good projects on these sites but the time investment might not be worth it.
Selling yourself might seem a foreign concept if you’ve been working a day job. If you are good at what you do and clear about what you can offer, with a portfolio of similar work, your services should sell themselves.
Stating your prices can be hard at first, but stick with it and don’t negotiate against yourself by offering discounts. I strongly believe that doing that and being unclear about your offering is what hampers many freelancers. Act confidently (even if you don’t feel it) and don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad deal or if you get a weird feeling about a client.
Deliver the work
To be successful, you need to finish the projects you take on and deliver what’s been agreed. This is very important to build your reputation. If you flake out and deliver late or not at all, that person is very unlikely to recommend you. Be reliable.
In this articles on how to become a freelancer, we’ve covered starting off slowly while working a day job, choosing your services, building a portfolio, getting organised, finding clients and delivering the work. Hopefully by following this guide you can start off your freelance career with as little stress as possible!