Getting started as a freelancer isn’t all unicorns and rainbows, but it’s also not all lemons and red tape, either. When I began freelancing, I had a vague notion that “people made a living doing this” and that if other people could do it, I could probably figure it out, too.
Several years later, I’m still learning what it takes to be a successful freelancer, but I’ve also come a long way. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned – things I wish I knew about freelancing before I joined the ranks.
1. Leave some margin
Leaving yourself some margin is critical, in several areas. Think of margin as a buffer for yourself – your sanity and stability. Several aspects of your business need to have margin, including finances, workload, and your daily schedule.
- Set your income goals high enough to give yourself some breathing room, and set aside the excess in a “rainy day fund” so you can weather the ebb and flow of freelance clients without needing to panic.
- When it comes to your workload, don’t make the mistake of taking on too much work. Projects often take more time than you realize, so factor in a time buffer when you set your project milestones and take on new projects. This not only sets you up for less stress in the long run, but the potential to deliver your work early if you over-estimate.
- Same goes for your daily schedule. When you set your work schedule, don’t expect to be performing at maximum productivity on client work from start to finish. You’ll still need breaks and downtime, room for creativity, and the space to handle any surprises that come up. Building in adequate margin in your daily schedule will give you a much better shot at balancing work and life.
2. Have a “desk day” each week
I don’t remember where I first came across the concept of the “desk day,” but it’s become an integral part of my freelance business. The purpose of the desk day is to catch up on all the administrative tasks that crop up and linger through the week. I like having my desk day on Friday, to wrap up the week. Typical desk day tasks include chasing invoices, updating my P&L, making sure all my expenses are tracked and receipts are filed, catching up on things like mail, filing, and shredding, and taking care of any other administrative loose ends.
Having a specific day to take care of these tasks means I don’t get bogged down by them during the week, and making it a part of my weekly routine means I don’t put them off indefinitely, either.
3. Know what the right rates are
When I first got started, I thought making $20 an hour was good money. Compared to the jobs I’d had before, that was an improvement… but it was nowhere near what my bottom line should have been. Not only do you need to have a realistic idea of what kinds of rates you could command, you also need to know what kinds of rates you should command. The basic rule of thumb is that you need to be willing to charge high rates, even as a beginner. You should be uncomfortable with the rates you quote; otherwise, you aren’t charging enough.
4. Finding the right community can be a game-changer
Having a group of peers and colleagues who can support you, answer questions, and learn alongside you is critical, especially when you’re just starting out. Look for places, especially online, where you can connect with other people doing what you do. I’ve had good luck with a couple of Facebook groups and an excellent forum, but it did take me a while to find a place where I really felt comfortable interacting. Look for places where you can jump in and help someone else — that’s the best way to plug in, build your own confidence, and make connections with people who can answer your questions.
5. Don’t be controlled by all the emotions (and there are a lot)
When you’re working for yourself, you’ll feel soaring highs and crushing lows. There’s anxiety, confusion, and discomfort dealing with difficult clients. You have to get used to rejection. You have to learn how to sell and how to negotiate. It’s absolutely necessary that you not let your days be ruled by your emotions. Go in expecting a roller coaster, and be prepared to do what must be done no matter what.
6. Fear doesn’t always look like fear
One of the biggest emotions that can come into play as a freelancer is fear. Fear is sneaky, and it doesn’t always look like fear. Often it just looks like “stuckness,” perfectionism, or distraction. If you’re putting off doing something because you need to “learn more” before getting started, or you need it to be “perfect,” or you “can’t figure out what to do,” take a hard look at what’s really holding you back. For many of us, it’s plain, ordinary fear.
7. Freelancing is a numbers game
Doing well as a freelancer is all about the effort you put in. You’ve got to make pitches to win clients. You’ve got to win clients to make money. You’ve got to work on all kinds of different projects for all kinds of different clients to know what your “sweet spot” is. Only by making money will you find the best, most satisfying, and most effective ways for you to make money.
That’s not all
These are just seven of the critical lessons you’ll need to learn to be a successful freelancer. It’s important to keep evaluating the things you’re doing on a day-to-day basis to see how they pay off in the long run, and make any necessary adjustments. Ultimately your business should be what you want it to be, and you’re the only one who can get it there.