How to survive your first year as a freelancer

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How to survive your first year as a freelancer

Becoming a freelancer may be borne out of necessity, by choice, or a little bit of both.

You might already have a growing freelance gig that’s getting in the way of your full-time job, but it’s still not enough to live on. You might be considering making the choice to quit your dead-end job to travel the open roads of self-employment. Or, if you’re like me, freelance writing might find its way to you after a layoff compels you to refocus your career efforts.

Whatever the reason or rhyme, one of my first lessons learned in the big, wide world of freelancing was that massive success and household name-level notoriety wasn’t going to happen overnight. In fact, times were so lean the first year, and the income so inconsistent, that I wondered how on earth anyone manages to survive – logistically and financially – to year two.

No matter if you’re a writer, graphic designer, photographer, yoga instructor, private eye, sous chef or some combination thereof, follow these seven tips to make your first 12 months transitioning into a freelance career a smooth one.

1. Set a deadline

It’s never a good idea to just up and quit one job without having another lined up, and freelancing is no different. You should decide to resign from your staff job only when you’re earning enough side income to prevent you from living off your savings. Set a tentative date for when you’d like to launch your freelance endeavor, and make that your goal. If you’re confident that you can build a sizable clientele within six months while holding down your staff role, make that your target time to shift to freelance, and give a customary two weeks’ notice to your employer.

2. Manage your money

It’s never wise to be without an emergency fund of sorts, about three to six months saved up to cover your current cost of living. Before segueing from staff work to freelance, aim to set aside a special fund for your first six months of freelancing. Until you assemble a solid stable of well-paying clients, work may be scarce or below your desired pay level, so a special backup fund acts as a financial safety net without the need to mine your savings account to pay bills and revolving expenses. Work towards building a budget and refining it for your budding freelance career. For instance, if you won’t be commuting to a job anymore, how much money will that save you on gas, and can that savings be put somewhere useful, like your freelancer fund?

3. Say yes to everything

First-year freelancers are often like beggars who can’t be choosers. When starting out, say yes to every offer that comes along, even if the work, subject matter, or compensation doesn’t align with your end goals. The pay may be the absolute doldrums ($15 for a full-length feature article, anyone?), but don’t discount the opportunity if one comes along – you never know if it can be a chance to expand your professional contacts that leads to better gigs. Taking on assignments you’d normally think of rejecting can also help you identify your strengths and find your niche. What are the subject/specialty areas or industries you’d like to freelance in? For example, a seasoned political journalist may find a surprising flair for writing about gardening. Make your first dive at freelancing a process of discovery.

4. Build your brand

Freelancing isn’t the time to sit back and rest on your laurels. Only until you’ve become established will the work begin to find you; until then, you’ve got to hustle and find it yourself. Now’s the time to begin marketing yourself aggressively to new and prospective clients. Leverage the web and social media as much as you can. Build a presence online through LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or other professional networking sites germane to your profession and skills. Pitch ideas, apply for gigs, join local organizations in your field, and ask colleagues if they know of anyone looking for talent.

It’s highly advisable to have your own website, too, to boost your visibility in year one. If you’re not a designer or don’t have one at your disposal, sites like Weebly, Squarespace, Wix or Wordpress are good DIY choices to display your skills, services and growing portfolio of work. Just remember that you’ll need to buy your domain name and give your business/brand a recognizable name.

While you shouldn’t be ashamed by the word "freelance," some experts recommend omitting it from your business title since it can conjure images of someone unemployed. "Joe Smith Marketing Services" may resonate better than "Joe Smith Freelance Marketing." Your website should make it clear in the design and value statement about who you are and why someone should hire you. Unlike those days as an employee for someone else, with freelancing, you are your own brand, so you have the freedom to position yourself in the way you want.

5. Embrace the erratic

Ditching the 9 to 5 can be a blessing and a curse when you’re a freelancer. While it may be liberating to shed the trappings of an office environment, don’t assume that freelance means more free time. Just when you think you’ve got the evening off, a client needs you to create something ASAP. You may have those weeks where you’re slammed with more work than you ever had at your previous staff job, making you wonder if the stress was worth the trouble of trying freelancing out. Make it a good exercise in time management, since those busier moments will often be offset by periods of downtime where you’re wondering where your next gig is coming from. Freelancing is anything but predictable, but then, that’s the beauty of it, so anticipate – expect, even – an unconventional work schedule.

6. Don't sell yourself short

As a freelancer, you don’t technically have one job, but several. Not only will you need to stay on top of multiple clients (some of whom can be difficult, capricious, and picky), their needs and their deadlines, but the freelance rates they offer can vary wildly. Take your first year in as a chance to start establishing your own rates – it’s up to you to dictate what you’ll charge them, not simply accepting what they’ll give. Consult with other peers, professional organizations or do your research on what a newbie freelancer in your industry charges on average. I found the Writer’s Market manual helpful when I began setting the amounts I started charging clients when I went freelance. (And it’s always gratifying when a new client offers to pay you more than what you’d normally request.)

You should generally charge more per hour/per project than you earned on staff, since you’ll need to pay for your own health insurance, deduct your own taxes, and cover other necessary expenses without an employer covering your back. Of course, you may decide to accept a lower rate because of the opportunity – see tip #3.

7. Be patient

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your freelance business won’t be, either. Accept that the first year will be filled with learning lessons, insights, and lots of mistakes. It takes time to build a clientele base, which can be frustrating if you’re ambitious with years of expertise to back you up. "Why can’t I just hit the ground running?" you may ask. Remember that patience is needed when you’re building a solo business from scratch. Put things in perspective. A colleague of mine told me that it took her several years – not just one – before she had the total freedom to build a rate ceiling for herself and turn down new work if clients couldn’t afford her prices.

Use every chance you can get in this first year to hone your skills – learn some tricks on how to better market and monetize your work. Network, pitch ideas, and always stay in entrepreneurial mode.

Most of all, freelancing is about hoping for the best and expecting the worst. Getting a pitch or idea rejected doesn’t mean you’re a failure – it just means you may have to refine your approach or seek out other clients who’ll value and appreciate the talents you bring. It’s tough to gauge that in the first year, but once you do, freelancing can become one of the best professional choices one can make.