Career Advice for Newbie Freelancers

If you have just made the leap from employee to freelancer, you are now joining the ranks of 53 million other Americans, or 34% of the total U.S. workforce, who have decided to work outside of the 9 to 5 cubicle career.

It is exciting and full of opportunity as the last two decades have seen the emergency of technology that has changed the mindsets of companies and opened their eyes to the benefits of accessing talent in new ways. A 2012 State of Freelancing Report noted many of the benefits of freelancing: “Having more flexibility in their schedule was the top (25%) freelancing benefit listed by respondents. Other top benefits cited were variety in work (15%), being your own boss (14%), the ability to work from anywhere (14%) and the ability to make your own decisions (9%).”

At the same time, making this change can be scary because there are many unknowns. As the same report noted, there are many challenges: “Their two biggest challenges this year are finding clients (21%) and breaking out of the feast-or-famine cycle of work (16%). This means that for 37% of freelancers, landing work is a major challenge.”

This freelancer guide that I put together provides a way to get some career advice for newbie freelancers, that you can put to work so you don’t reinvent the wheel or get bogged down by unexpected hurdles.

Transition Slowly

Since one of the biggest concerns with freelancing is finding clients, it may be a good idea to transition slowly, working as a moonlighter on projects until you can establish enough of a base that covers the bills. Not many have the ability to sock enough a way to cut ties with the employee role and go straight into freelancing.

Even though there are countless freelance job sites now available with hundreds of jobs, it can take some time to even get your foot in the door with these types of opportunities. Some newbies think they will get a great rate right out of the gate, but the fact is that you may have to take less money for a while, including your hourly rate and benefits. As a freelancer, you are essentially doing without many of the perks a regular job offers, including vacation and sick time as well as health insurance, so factor that into the equation.

There may be some weeks and months where you are working more than ever, including nights and weekends, to build up your freelance accounts, but this will alleviate some of the financial stress. When you become established and have a solid client list, then you can think about raising rates and transitioning to full-time freelance status.

Create a Portfolio

To attract freelance clients, you need to show them that you know what you are doing. That’s why it is important to put together a portfolio of work, including anything that you have published or produced that is already online. You can add this portfolio to a website that you use to market yourself as well as include a link to it on all your social media presence that you are developing in relation to your freelance business.

Make sure that you ask your other clients or employer for permission to share this work. Although it came from your creative mind, it may actually become the property of the person you produced it for, so you will want to check. You don’t want to burn bridges with future opportunities for work or create a legal nightmare for yourself. If you cannot use some of the work, consider also adding a client list to your portfolio that notes your designs, content, or other projects have been developed in partnership with these companies.

Carve Out a Professional Space with Office Hours

Many people find it difficult to work from home with no timecard to punch or boss looking over their shoulders. You are now that boss and watchman of productivity. To help you not get distracted by the sofa and remote control, make a room into your home into an “official” office with desk, workspace, and supplies.

Establish a set routine for yourself that includes general office hours that you will try to adhere to, including plenty of breaks. Freelancers will never work those set hours of 9 to 5 because you never know when creativity will strike or you will need to work a weekend or evening to meet a deadline. If you have family or roommates, this professional set-up also sends the message that you are working so they will be more likely to take your freelance career seriously than if you were floating in your pool with your laptop.

The beauty of this arrangement is the flexibility to do other things when necessary. However, if you create a schedule (and force yourself to stick to it), you will get more done but you will also find it easier to close the office door and walk away from your office. Many long-time freelancers will tell you that they often find it hard to “turn off” from work like those that work regular Monday to Friday jobs can do.

Never Stop Marketing

Even if the work starts rolling in and you find yourself really busy, including clients that are telling you they want to work with you for years to come or as much as you are available, do not stop prospecting for additional clients. Things happen and clients in the freelance world do not necessarily give you any notice that suddenly they have no more work for you or that their budget has dried up. You cannot put all your eggs in one basket as a freelancer, so the saying goes.

Make sure you have multiple clients that you can service well while you continue to look for more. Not only is this a good idea to keep a steady cash flow and ensure you meet your monthly revenue goals, but you can also stay on top of trends in the industry related to rates, types of projects, and client expectations. The ongoing marketing and networking efforts also keep your brand circulating and at the top of mind of prospects that start to see you on every marketing platform.

Put Your Clients First, But Allow Yourself a Life

By putting your clients first, you are letting them know they are your priority. Part of the perceived benefit of hiring freelancers for companies is that they are often more “available” to do mission-critical, “due yesterday” projects. The flexibility allows you to adjust your workflow to suit their crises, so make that happen and you can boost your client relationships.

However, you should not do it to the point of compromising your own work/life balance or because you are afraid of losing that very necessary client. Instead, establish specific guidelines from the start that remind clients that you are “only human” and require that time to recharge those creative juices and top up that machine-like productivity level.

Plus, if you have a family, they might like spending some time with you. The lack of face-to-face interaction all day also requires that you get in your social quota with other people or it can become a solitary existence even if your dog, cat, or menagerie loves that you are always around.

Although you may want to catch up on work on a weekend because you know you have a personal appointment or even during the week, but ensure that your clients don’t think that every weekend and evening is the time to schedule a conference call or drop work in your lap. Give clients good notice if you plan on taking a vacation or are skipping town for the weekend. They will appreciate your conscientiousness and concern about maintaining workflow.

Keep Good Records and Invoicing Systems

Working as a freelancer is completely different from receiving a company paycheck because suddenly there are no taxes taken out and no automatic payments. Instead, you have to consider putting money aside for income tax (and self-employment tax if you have not incorporated your freelance business).

Get advice from an accountant about how much you should set aside based on your projected earnings. While you may not be turning a profit immediately as a newbie freelancer, get accustomed to saving a considerable sum because one day soon you will learn about something called “estimated tax payments” that come due four times a year.

Plus, there may be those times where you will find yourself chasing down a payment from a client who has misplaced your paper invoice. Since you previously were never in a position where you have to ask about being paid, this can be a little intimidating. To keep things on the right track, establish a system immediately with every new client about the number of times you will be paid each month, the payment days, and the preferred way to be paid.

Using an online invoicing system provides a way to make it easy for your clients to get reminders, recurring invoices, and reminders to pay. In return, you can get paid more quickly, especially if they opt to use the online payment portal linked to your invoice, which can put the funds directly in your bank account or PayPal account.

Be Aware of the Downsides but Don’t Give Up

Stay realistic about the fact that freelancing has both good and bad aspects. However, with careful planning and determination, those downsides can be minimized by following the aforementioned advice. You also have to realize that anything really worthwhile takes time – and sometimes more than you think. Just keep working toward that goal and you will find that you were able to create that freelance career that you have been visualizing.