How to Start Freelancing – 7 Tips

by | Nov 12, 2018 | Freelancing, Service Business, Small Business

November, 2018



Follow these seven steps and your freelance life will be less stressful, more fulfilling, and more secure.
Becoming a freelancer sounds great. You have the freedom to set your own hours, you can work from wherever you like, and and you can dedicate yourself to work that inspires you.

But all that upside comes with downside. You are now your own boss. You alone need to make sure that work is coming in the door, and you alone make certain that you are prepared for your future.

Working with a cactus is great. Working with a purpose is better.
Photograph via Unsplash

1. Divide your working time

There are basically 5 activities that you will be involved in when you are freelancing:

  • Client work
  • Finding new clients/gigs (sales)
  • Maintaining relationships and networking
  • Improving on skills
  • Business upkeep (accounting, taxes, paying bills)

Automate as much of this as you can (there are some useful tools here) with the goal that you are billable as much as possible. The rest should be divided up.

That balance is challenging because in the beginning you will not be as well known, and may not have the experience and skills to charge what you would like. That means that you spend more time looking for work and improving your skills than someone who is more experienced and probably charging a higher rate.

The ideal time to look at freelancing is often when you’ve spent significant time working in your field. Art Directors from agencies, developers from big tech companies, and veteran animators can often go out on their own more successfully because they’ve built relationships, reputation and have a portfolio of work that can attract clients. Maintaining a solid ratio of billable hours is easier because they aren’t spending so much time on skills development.

“Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’ ” – Paul Tsongas

2. Set a good rate

 Online marketplaces have done some damage to rates and, while the situation is improving and rates in many countries are rising, achieving income and lifestyle goals can depend a lot on where you live.

The first thing you need to do is establish an annual earnings goal. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but it should be comfortable, allow you to put away savings and pay for expenses.

You can then use that annual rate to determine your hourly rate. One rule of thumb is that your hourly rate should be 1/1000th your target annual earnings. So if you want to make $50K/year, your hourly should be $50/hr. This makes sense, because you have about 2000–2500 working hours per year, but a lot of that time is consumed with sales, networking, skills development, and other non-billable time. This is especially true when you’re starting out.

Rate calculator.
Photograph by Lorem Ipsum via Unsplash

3. Specialize

A lot of freelancing is incredibly competitive. After all, the benefits are alluring. On top of that many large companies have cottoned to the idea that moving some of their workforce from full-time to contract reduces their costs, and that adds a lot of experienced people to the independent workforce.

In this kind of environment being a generalist probably isn’t helpful. You need to stand out, and that means being focused on a discipline. Whether it’s DevOps, Hard Surface Modeling, Fashion Photography, or Travel Writing, the more focused your niche the better chance you have of standing out and getting noticed.

Specialization gives you four advantages:

  • You can focus on becoming the best within your niche, building a very targeted skill set.
  • You can figure out the exact type of person that would hire you, where those people spend time, and how you can reach them.
  • You’re more relevant to the needs of your potential clients. For example, if I’m looking for a Python developer I’m going to avoid hiring someone who’s mostly worked in Ruby with some Python on the side. I want someone who eats and sleeps Python and has the Pycon shirts to prove it.
  • You know your work better, so you’ll be better at estimating and more efficient at executing.

4. Build a network

Work on creating a network that can help you get and deliver work. Not coincidently, Zig is built exactly for this purpose. You want a network that consists of three types of people:

  1. Freelancers Like You:
    People who, on paper, are your competition can also be great for your wellbeing business-wise and personally. You can throw each other work when you’re too busy, team up on larger jobs, and support each other when things aren’t so great.
  2. Freelancers Not Like You:
    People who compliment your skillset are also great to know. A designer that knows some good developers can get a team together for larger jobs. You can start to build a referral network, so when clients ask for something you can’t deliver you can provide them a good option.
  3. Clients:
    Obviously you want to build a network of clients, and you want to have great relationships with all of them if possible. If you are being targeted in your approach your potential clients will likely know one another. The better they think of you, the more likely they are to recommend you.

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