A call went out on Twitter recently, asking experienced freelancers for the pieces of advice they would give to someone considering making the leap. This got me thinking – what do I wish I’d known before going freelance, and what would have been the most useful pieces of advice to me? So, here’s 11 things to consider before you go freelance.
It’s a long story, but my route into freelancing was unexpected and I had minimum funds. While this forced a sink or swim mentality, I wouldn’t recommend it to other people. Give yourself the best chance of freelance success by putting away at least three months of living expenses and business expenses. There will be many highs, lows and new experiences during those early months, and you don’t want to add lack of money to that heady mix.
The freelancing dream is that you can set up with minimal capital, and although this was the case for me, have some available funds for business costs for the first few months. Critical things include insurance, a robust contract, purchasing a web domain (if you’re having a website), and equipment like a laptop and mobile phone. Of course, once you start turning money over, you’ll be able to pay for business expenses out of your revenue.
Decide on your business structure – do you want to be a sole trader or limited company? There are many articles on this subject. Do some research about the differences, pros and cons, by reading articles, speaking to other freelancers and having a chat with an accountant. Some articles worth reading on this subject include this one by Creative Boom, and this one by Word Service. It’s worth understanding the issues in advance.
I’m a limited company because my clients won’t contract with a sole trader, but it’s different for everyone. Alice Hollis wrote a blog about her personal journey to setting up her limited company.
My processes have evolved with the business, but I wish I had given them more consideration from the off. Things to think about are:
I got started with just a basic laptop, Dropbox account and a mobile phone. You may need more or less than this, depending on what your plans are. Make sure your equipment and your business is insured. This article by IPSE explains the types of insurance you’ll need – see above for my comments on business expenses.
I’ve written about this before, but consider your freelancing business like any other corporate. You will never have done so much admin – finance, invoicing, social media, writing blog posts etc. Organising the administration of the business allows you to focus on delivering what it is you do.
Work out how clients will flow through your business, from initial conversations and sales, to work delivery, completion and invoicing. How you manage this will depend on the work you do, but it will probably follow this general trajectory. How can you make this experience fantastic for clients? My own tip is to develop some sort of briefing process that allows you to capture and agree the work to be done with your clients, that you can both sign-off and keep a copy of.
Contracts – don’t start work without one
Get a contract organised and don’t start any piece of work without one. Koffee Klatch provides guidance and draft contracts for freelancers offering a range of services. The site is run by Annabel Kaye, who is an expert in the gig economy and legislation affecting freelancers.
As a new freelancer, the role I struggled with the most was being the company IT manager. I now outsource all of my IT and for a small monthly fee I obtain Office 365 support, security and a helpline for ad-hoc support from experts (because you never know when things can go wrong) – it’s easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, business-wise. Manchester IT is very local to me but they work across the UK.
You may also want to invest in other programmes to help you complete your work or run your business. There are so many web-based systems available now and I couldn’t survive without Adobe Pro, Harvest, Xero, Canva and Hootsuite.
Develop a niche
What is your niche? I am a bid writer in the construction industry and in many ways, life doesn’t get more niched than this, but being specialised has allowed me to stand out from generalist bid writers by focusing on one industry. I take my hat off to generalist bid writers by the way – I couldn’t learn a whole new industry for every bid I worked on.
So – what is it you do, how do you help clients, and why is this different to everyone else? This niche will be the cornerstone of your marketing for your freelancing career – give it some real thought in the early days and it will pay dividends for you because you will be able to articulate who you are and what you do.
What will your marketing plan be?
Marketing can sound scary but really it’s just your plan for securing paying clients (ie the ones you have already identified when you thought about your niche). Will you bombard social media with push messages (not recommended), or will you take the slow-burn approach by meeting a lot of people at networking events (definitely worth considering). Get a plan together, including a six month outline of what your social media is going to look like.
Working out who your clients are
Once you have worked out your niche, you will be able to work out who your clients will be and where to find them. What kinds of problems will you help them solve? How will you secure work from them? I recommend starting with your own existing network – all of my freelancing work in the first six months or so was from people that I knew, had worked with previously or had some sort of connection to. Even six years on, these relationships still bring work to me.
Developing a brand
Brand doesn’t have to be complicated. Just think about a logo, colour palette and a clear message about who you are and what you do will suffice. You can then apply this branding to your business collateral, such as business cards, letter heads, contracts, social media and website. Have a chat with brand supremos like Nik Jones at Hello I’m Nik or Jon Horne at JH Creative.
Consider putting a website together
A basic website will give you the platform to tell everyone about your services, with regular blogs demonstrating your expertise. I spent too much time and money figuring out how to do this in the early days, so if you’re unsure, outsource it to another freelancer who can provide you with something simple and cost-appropriate. You can always develop it as your business evolves.
Show up on social media
Social media has really come of age in the time I have been a freelancer, making connecting with potential clients, other freelancers and everyone else very natural and a whole lot easier. Think about where your ideal clients will be and get good at this platform. If you need help with your strategy, consider working with another freelancer who is a specialist in social media. This external knowledge and expertise will be worth its weight in gold – I’ve worked with Kat from Stripe Social for 12 months and I’ve learnt so much that I regret not engaging someone a lot earlier.
There are many freelance groups on Facebook that you should get involved with – although freelancers are a diverse bunch in terms of skills and, we all have the same challenges and it’s good to get advice from other people who have had similar experiences. Groups I recommend are Freelance Heroes and Being Freelance. There’s also a fantastic twitter chat every Wednesday evening between 8pm and 9pm. Follow the conversation on #FreelanceHeroes.
Research freelance resources
There are so many freelance resources out there to read and listen to – check out IPSE and Worknotes. Also make listening to the Being Freelance podcast a weekly thing – so many freelancers all doing different things, but so many common experiences and solutions.
Connect and build relationships with other freelancers
One of the best things about being a freelancer is the freelance attitude of collaborate, but never compete. We genuinely don’t compete with each other – we complement each other’s skills to build agile virtual teams. So connect with other freelancers in this spirit – especially those doing similar things to you, or those offering complementary services. For example, bid writers can connect with other bid writers and people who do other roles in bidding, such as management or graphic design.
While this may sound counter-intuitive, this network will provide camaraderie when the chips are down, as well as work opportunities.
Setting your rates
Everyone has different thoughts on this – for bid writing there is a general market rate, with variances within this based on a range of factors. Research the rates within your own skill area and set yours in accordance with this. Don’t feel you need to undercut the market when you start out – value your skills and ask for the rates you are comfortable with. If clients don’t want to pay that, they won’t. It might be worth reading the Work Notes pricing guide for more background information.
Have a think about the pricing model you’ll offer, i.e. day rate or project rate, and how you will articulate the benefits of each of these to clients. How will you invoice work? Also get comfortable with the fact you won’t necessarily get paid when you want to – payment is an ongoing issue in the freelance world, so protect yourself by invoicing on time and having a buffer of cash.
As I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve been chuckling to myself because I realise how much I didn’t know and how much I didn’t even consider. I got through some things relatively unscathed, but there’s been times when I’ve really paid the price for ignorance. Freelancing will be one the best adventures of your life, made even more exciting by being prepared.