Contemplating the plunge into freelancing? So were several of the attendees at a Strategies for Creative Freelancers session I attended in January. Many of the questions they asked were familiar because I had asked them myself — or should have — when I was starting my career in 2002.
As I surfed the discussion boards, many lessons from those early years came flooding back. A few were things I did right the first time, but many more had to be learned from repeated trial and error.
Here then, in no particular order, are the things I wish someone had told me before I took the freelancer’s leap of faith.
1. Save your pennies
I highly recommend starting your freelance career with a savings cushion. If you can launch your business with enough saved up to cover six months of expenses or more, you’ll have a lot more peace of mind going in. (I had four when I launched my business.)
2. Know thy customer
Know who your target market is going to be and get to know them well before you start. Learn what they need and what challenges you are best suited to solve for them. Beware the temptation to market yourself as someone who can do any type of work for anyone. Even if that’s a business reality for you at first, your self-promotion will be far more effective if you nail down some specifics about what it is you do.
3. Crank up the marketing machine
Freelance work can be sporadic, especially when you’re getting started. Regular self-promotion will be critical to your survival. Many new freelancers fear and loathe this task, but here’s a message from the other side: there is no better way to protect yourself from the dreaded “feast or famine” cycle. Conquer your fear by mastering the skill.
Some of the best resources out there are the marketing plans from Marketing Mentor. They’re among the few resources that will tell you exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to make sure that it doesn’t take a lot of time. Your “marketing machine” will take some time to get up to speed, but you’ll be very glad to have it once it’s humming along.
Two final points about self-promotion:
- The most important time to do self-promotion is when you have plenty of business coming in. Think of your marketing machine as the tool that generates the work you’ll do six months to a year from now.
- You don’t have to do it alone. One of the best deals I’ve ever made was a trade with a graphic designer — I ended up with an awesome redesign of my website in exchange for helping him launch an awesome newsletter campaign. Which leads us to…
4. Build a partner network
Make connections with other freelancers whose skills complement your own. Freelancer networks offer multiple benefits: you can team up on jobs, refer one another to clients, hold each another accountable for business tasks, trade ideas, and more. One of the best places I forge connections is the annual HOW Design Live conference. Closer to home I’m also a fan of Creative Mornings events, which feel like local gatherings of my tribe. Look for similar events where you can find people who match your own needs or fill gaps in your skill set.
5. Consider a specialization
Specialization is great because it makes it easier for buyers to understand what you do. It also enables you to justify higher rates in your specialty field.
You can define a specialization “vertically” (i.e. by industry, such as healthcare, finance, nonprofits, etc.) or “horizontally” (categories of work every business needs, like annual reports, websites, packaging, and so on).
You can start with a type of work you have deep experience with, choose a field that gives you a lot of satisfaction, or pursue a niche where you’re already well-connected with potential clients. I became a specialist in financial copy practically by accident. I just happened to land a lot of that type of work early in my career.
Specializations don’t have to limit the type of work you accept, especially if you need cash flow to pay the rent early on. And remember that specialization doesn’t mean forever. You can add additional specializations or let them lapse as your business grows and changes.
6. Pay yourself a living wage…or better
When setting your rates, remember you’re paying for all of your business expenses, from equipment to taxes to insurance, etc. In his book Secrets of a Freelance Copywriter, Bob Bly offers the rough calculation that freelancers should charge about 2.5 times what they would make working as someone else’s employee to make a comparable wage as a freelancer.
If you think you’ll lose business if you don’t charge rock-bottom prices, you’re right. You won’t get business from cheapskates who want to take advantage of the lowest bidder. The clients you want to work for understand they get what they pay for. There are plenty of them out there. Do yourself and the rest of the freelance community a big favor by charging what you’re worth.
Above all, do your best-quality work for everyone, and remember that what you do has a value many businesses and organizations are desperately looking for. You’ll need that for the days you feel like a fraud for having one of the best jobs in the world.