Taking the leap into freelance work isn’t easy. It takes courage and confidence to get started, and it can sometimes feel like an eternity before you find your feet.
But making it work as a freelancer has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me, so I wanted to share some tips about what worked for me when I started out.
Here are my top 7 tips!
1. Start with a side hustle before quitting your 9-5
If you can, keep your steady 9-5 job while you build up a freelance client base. Why? Because no-one enjoys the intense stress that comes with not knowing if you’re able to pay your bills this month. Sometimes life doesn’t allow you the time and space to preplan these things - and COVID-19 definitely didn’t help this year - but having a steady income to pay your overheads with while you’re getting yourself set up is worth the extra work you’re putting in at the start.
This isn’t always possible; some jobs simply don’t work as side hustles. Interior designers, for example, really need to be available during business hours. But if your freelance work can be done on evenings, weekends, or in the cracks of time you can find during business hours, then I highly recommend you take advantage and nurture a side hustle before taking the leap into full-time freelancing.
Once you get to the point where your freelance work has increased, but it’s not quite enough to go solo, your next step is to ask your current employer if you can drop your hours. It’s important that you’re honest and forthcoming about your freelance work to your main employer and discuss it with them before you start. As long as there’s no conflict of interest and the work doesn’t interfere with your 9-5 job, most employers are pretty understanding about their employees’ side hustles.
If they’re not keen, then try to find another part-time job out there that could cover your essentials until your freelance work is steady enough to make the jump. This graded approach to transitioning to freelance work is practical, especially if you don’t have a substantial rainy day fund saved up. If you’re fortunate enough to have a healthy savings account, then you’ll feel more comfortable with the risk you’re taking going on your own. Even having a just couple months worth of bills saved up will help tremendously.
2. Find a niche to work in
Whatever industry you work in, having a defined niche will help future clients find you and current clients refer you. Perhaps you’re a photographer specialising in weddings. Or you’re a builder of children’s playhouses. Referrals become a lot easier when you’re a specialist who mainly works in one area. I work as a content writer for mostly B2B SaaS companies around the world, but I also write on other topics - such as freelancing - if they appeal to me. It’s easier for me to pitch new clients in the same niche because I have related work in my portfolio I can show them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do work outside of your niche, it just means most or all of your personal marketing will be aimed at one particular niche and audience.
3. Do a brief market analysis & understand your audience
Once you’ve found your niche, it’s time to have a look at the type of customers or clients you’d be most likely to work for. You’re running a business when you’re freelancing or contracting, so you need to analyse your audience and target market in a similar way to a company. In my case as a writer, it’s very helpful to know what sort of issues my clients often face with their content. Perhaps they find it difficult to find a writer who can turn complex technical information into clear and concise information. Knowing that helps me to position myself better and solve the problem for them.
4. Get compliant and get your tax sorted
Government tax and compliance departments aren’t known for their leniency - so get your basics sorted first before you start. If you need to get compliant for the type of freelance work you do, get that organised before you take on your first job, even if it’s for friends or family.
Hnry is a tax service designed specifically for self-employed contractors and freelancers. They sort your taxes automatically and always pay exactly the right amount of tax for you so you can focus on what you do best, which - unless you’re a freelance accountant - probably isn’t taxes. Services like Hnry make it easier and less stressful to take the leap into self-employed freelancing.
5. Create a website and marketing materials
You can either do a hard launch or a soft launch when you’re starting your freelance journey. If you’re growing your freelance client base while working your 9-5, you may not want to plaster your freelance services all over the place. I started small, working for a couple of clients and slowly but surely, through hard work and a lot of cold pitching, my client base has grown exponentially in the last year.
Setting up a simple, uncomplicated website is a great way of pulling off a soft launch. For my first website I used Squarespace - they have amazing templates that are easy to use. All you need to do on your website is list your services, showcase some recent work on it, and provide a way to get in touch. As long as it looks tidy and professional then you can start driving traffic to it and expect good outcomes.
6. Network, network, and network some more
Word of mouth is everything, so focus your efforts on finding clients you love to work for, and build a long-term relationship with them. Networking is a great way to achieve that.
Networking is an important part of growing a business, not just for potential new clients and work, but also for a sense of community. Freelancing can be lonely. Find a few people you can ask questions and share freelance experiences with. The world may seem big, but through the internet and social media, it’s actually pretty darn small.
If you’re wondering exactly how small, here’s an example. A new client reached out to me a few months ago through my website as they were looking for a freelance content writer. I was fairly certain they didn’t come across my services via Google (it’s bloody difficult to rank high on Google!), so I did a bit of digging and found out the company’s CEO and I both had one person in our Twitter network in common. The biggest surprise? Our mutual connection recently had put a request for writers for her own project on her feed, to which I had responded. I’m fairly certain the company’s CEO had seen my comment on her thread in his feed and got in touch. Networking successes are like lightning strikes - they sometimes happen in the most unexpected ways, which is why it’s so important to always be professional, empathetic, and genuine in all your professional encounters.
7. Set a work schedule
I’m a shocker when it comes to working in my leisure time, so I’m writing this as a reminder for the both of us. Set a work schedule - and stick to it! You may think you’re getting ahead faster by working all the time, but it’s equally important to disconnect from your work, enjoy life and recharge your batteries. In the beginning when you’re working on expanding your client base while working a 9-5, you’ll most likely have to work evenings and weekends to make it work. But even then, you can plan in some time for you. Book it into your calendar if you have to.
Wrapping it up
Building something worthwhile takes time, so have patience. If you’ve found something you love doing that doesn’t feel like work, then it’s worth the effort and long hours at the start. Be diligent, keep a growth mindset, and take steps to grow your business and freelance clientele a few times a week.
We’ve got more guides, tips and tricks on freelancing (and tax) on our blog and great interviews and articles on The Leap.