We’re focusing this month on freelancing as a way to escape the 9 to 5. Last week, we kicked things off with why freelance? as we looked at the UK statistics on freelancing along with some of its key advantages as a way of working that sits somewhere between full-time employment and entrepreneurship. This week, in case we’ve tempted you with all that freedom and flexibility that freelancing can offer you, we’re looking at how to get started as a freelancer.
How to get started as a freelancer
Before you get started
1. Define what success looks like for you
As with any big undertaking, it’s important that you know what you’re hoping to get out of freelancing before you put in all the hard work to make it happen. What are your reasons for wanting to freelance? What kind of work do you want to be doing? What kind of hours do you want to be working? Do you want to be able to work from home or are you happy to commute and travel to clients’ offices? What kind of income are you looking for? Define your criteria for a successful freelancing career, and decide which of these are ‘non-negotiable’ and which are ‘nice to have’.
2. Consider your finances
When you’re in a full-time job with a steady salary, it’s easy to ignore your personal finances – that income is coming in every month, your taxes are taken at source, and you have all those extra benefits like insurance and pension contributions. Once you’re working for yourself, however, you’ll need to be completely on top of both your business and personal finances. Sit down with your accounts – together with your partner, if you have one – and look at the reality of your situation. What can you afford to do and not do? Do you need time to build a savings buffer? How many clients do you need in order to feel comfortable enough to move into freelancing full time? Get super clear on your finances before you let it all run away with you and you find yourself in a really sticky situation.
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3. Brainstorm different ideas
Maybe you have a very specific idea of what you want to be doing as a freelancer, in which case you can skip ahead to #4! If not, you’ll want to consider the different options that will bring you that version of success and tick off the non-negotiable criteria that you identified in #1. Start with a blank sheet of paper and get creative – you want to explore all options before you start being more critical and ruling things out. What are all the things you can do? What skills and connections do you have? Go beyond the obvious job titles and dig into your softer skills, your hobbies, your volunteering activities. As you consider all your options, you may want to choose one idea for the long term – the ‘dream business’, something that you’d absolutely love to do but that will take more time – and another idea for the short term – something that’s more ‘realistic’ and will bring in more immediate rewards in return for less effort.
4. Decide on your services
Okay, so you have the big picture of what you want to get out of your freelancing, you have a clear view of your finances, and you have an idea of what you actually want to do. Now is the time to get more specific in terms of your business – because, yes, freelancing is a business, even if it’s just you. You’ll want to ask yourself questions around your target market, what problem are you solving, who are the ideal clients who suffer from that problem and who are willing to pay for a solution, and how will you present that solution as different services? Carry out some research to help you do this more effectively, talking to the kind of people or companies who you think would be ideal customers and seeing what solutions are already out there.
5. Define how much you’ll charge
Ah, that thorniest of issues: how to set your freelancer rates. This really warrants a whole other article. What I would say, though, is that you’re most likely setting your rates far too low! Don’t sell yourself short. That’s not to say that you won’t have to compromise, especially at the start, and it can definitely be helpful to set low introductory rates or even do some work for free if you have no experience at all. However, the main appeal of freelancing is that you’re getting that freedom and flexibility and you will never have that with a race to the bottom on your prices.
A few other watch-outs: Don’t put too much emphasis on what your competitors are charging, as who’s to say how they’ve arrived at those figures, or if they are even successful? Although clients will often ask for your rates upfront, you’ll want to first have a conversation with a prospective client to understand their needs and position yourself as a solution to their problem, before you give an indication of a fee that reflects the scope of the project. You’ll also want to get away from hourly rates as soon as possible and move towards project-based rates so that you’re not just trading your time for money.
6. Set yourself up for success
As appealing as the freedom and flexibility of freelancing can be, there’s another side to this: too much freedom, and too much flexibility. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing! Being a successful freelancer requires discipline and structure as you take consistent action not just on your client work (that will always get done) but also on everything else involved in running the business: getting new clients, doing your accounts, and so on. If you’re managing your freelancing work alongside an existing job, then you’ll need the discipline to do all this on top of your current workload. If you’re not working at the moment, then you’ll need discipline and structure to avoid your days passing by with little to show for it. Sticking to a more-or-less regular routine of getting up at a certain time and repeating certain actions every day will really help you make progress and not feel overwhelmed with everything that needs doing. You’ll still have the flexibility, for example, to exercise mid-morning, or run errands in the afternoon. And, by the way, discipline doesn’t just mean doing the work but also managing your health and wellbeing, and taking proper breaks and time off!
Building your business
7. Establish an online presence
Right, now you’re clear on your services, you have your prices and your routine is in place to help you take consistent action – so what action are you going to take? Well, you’ll want to start by creating some kind of online presence: to establish your credibility in what is possibly a new area for you, to showcase your work, and to grow your network. You really do want to set up a website as soon as possible, even if it’s just a simple landing page with some information about who you are and how you can help people. Your LinkedIn profile is also a great place to focus in the professional sphere, although this can be tricky if you’re still in another full-time job and you don’t want to announce to your colleagues that you’re trying to escape! Comment and engage with other people’s content and create your own articles and videos as well. Other options include setting up an Instagram profile, a Facebook group or a Medium blog. You may also want to consider creating a profile on freelancing sites like Upwork, Guru and Freelancer (or a site that’s specific to your niche).
8. Use your existing network
Networking is a dirty word for some people, or at least an uncomfortable one, but really it’s just about having conversations, and seeing where you might be able to help someone. Your existing network is the absolute best place to get work because these are people who ‘know, like and trust’ you already. That’s not to say that you should go straight in with a spammy ‘hire me!’ message to everyone you know! But it’s important to be able to swallow your pride and have those conversations; it will get easier with time. It’ll also be less uncomfortable if you realise that you’re ultimately trying to help that other person, or their connections. Be super specific about what you’re asking: do you want advice? A testimonial about your past work together? Do you want them to make an introduction with someone in their network? One or more of these conversations is very likely to lead to your first project.
9. Choose your projects and clients carefully
Finally, how do you know what kind of work to take on and which clients to work with? You may be tempted to say ‘yes’ to every single piece of work that’s offered to you, but I’d urge you to be more strategic. Go back to your definition of success and criteria back in #1 and use these to decide when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Now, there is absolutely an experimental, exploratory phase when you’re first starting out and you don’t yet know which kinds of projects and clients you’ll most enjoy, or which will be the most rewarding or lucrative. However, you still want to be intentional about the projects you take on: are you doing it for the experience? The contacts? The testimonials? The money? These are all valid reasons, as long as you go into the relationship with your eyes open to what you’re hoping to get out of it.
We haven’t got into the technicalities of accounting and taxes here so do look into this properly. You don’t have to set up a company to work as a freelancer but you will eventually need to register as a sole trader and do an annual self-assessment (read more on HMRC’s website). I’d recommend that you at least set up a second bank account and ideally a second debit card to keep your business purchases separate. You’ll also need some way of getting paid – easiest is to send an invoice with your bank details, but you can agree this with your clients.
Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the challenges of freelancing and then, in the final week of our focus on freelancing, we’ll be sharing some more advanced strategies for making freelancing work for you.
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