Back in May 2019 I went into the Registry Agency and filed the documents for my incorporation. 20 months, 161 invoices, and one global pandemic later, I get the question “How did you start and what’s your advice?” more and more often.
There’s no one single path to freelance success any more than there’s one true Carbonara recipe. But some things are true in general – like, for the love of God, don’t put cream in! In this post< I’ll try to give you more of the latter.
Don’t start freelancing straight away
More and more often I see people who want to jump straight into freelancing at the start of their career journey. If you want my advice, you need at least 3 years of work experience before you can become a successful freelancer. And here’s why.
Freelancing is so much more than doing the work. It’s talking to people. Communicating and negotiating. Understanding other people’s problems and navigating company politics. Knowing what the business needs and how they probably measure success.
You can’t learn these things as a freelancer because no one will tell you any of it. The client’s prerogative is to get the winning deal, not help you build a better business. So the only way to learn these skills is to be part of the internal team in a marketing department or learn the ropes from someone who already knows their stuff at an agency.
I know you expect freelancing to be exciting and being “just an employee” to be boring. But believe me, you can’t be successful at the former without the latter.
The right time comes at a different time for everyone
When I announced I was starting solo work, a bunch of friends and acquaintances said “Finally, I expected you to do this a long time ago!” And they may very well have been right. But this isn’t a decision you should push yourself into.
So don’t make it about “all my other friends are starting agencies or freelancing” or some other form of peer comparison. Move to freelance if you feel you’re ready and it’s a viable next step that builds on top of your career so far.
Focus on one thing
Over the years, I’ve done almost every odd job in marketing safe for technical SEO. I’ve managed substantial ad budgets, I’ve built up affiliate programs, I’ve worked with influencers and media and B2B partners… So I didn’t put a ton of focus when I moved to freelance. I’d talk to a client, see what they needed and be like “Yeah, I know how this works, I can do it for you.”
This might happen because, like me, you don’t pay attention to your positioning in the early days. Or it might happen because you think you’ll lose potential clients if you niche down.
In any case, it’s better to focus on one or two things. It’s easier for you to develop in a specific direction because you’ll be getting more in-depth knowledge if you work on similar projects. You’ll also have more energy if you work on projects you’re genuinely curious about.
Finally, you gain a top-of-mind position for a specific thing and win the first referral. What does that mean? Imagine someone asks a friend of yours for a recommendation. To be the one they mention, you have to be the first person they think of. That’s unlikely to happen if you’re just a generalist marketer – Jack of all trades, master of none. So it’s way better to be remembered as “The email marketing person” – that will bring you more referrals and more clients. You’ll never starve although you’re niched down.
Find the right clients
There is a time at the start of your freelance career where you will be tempted to take on any new client that asked for services. You’re still in “Oh God, I might starve tomorrow!” mode and this fear is the reason why you take on anyone who comes your way.
But that’s not the right approach. First off, if a client is not the right fit, you won’t be able to serve them well. Second, you’ll have way less energy and motivation to work on an account you’re not interested in. And finally, there are just bad clients. You don’t want to work with someone who will be trying to squeeze every possible last ounce of effort. Or someone who’s always late on payments. Or someone that you always need to follow up with and remind to keep their end of the task.
And although it might seem scary, taking the right clients is the best way to grow. Those are the clients, you learn the most from. The ones who are fun to work with. And the ones who don’t haggle over rates or are late with payments.
Working as a freelancer is a game of respect, and if you don’t feel respected, then that’s not the right type of gig for you.
Plan for rainy days
The ideal way to start freelancing is for you to have a financial cushion of about six months. This means that whatever happens, even if you don’t have any work at hand for a while, you’ll be able to keep up with your rent, pay your bills and continue working on your freelancer career.
Of course, this isn’t always an option. When I myself started freelancing, I didn’t have that financial cushion. So what I did instead was working hard over the first couple of months, and being very frugal with expenses to build it up.
The benefit of having such a runway available is twofold. First of all, it gives you an option to continue your path, even when unforeseen setbacks come into play. And second – and more importantly – it allows you to choose the right clients. By not acting from fear, but from a place of power. Then you’re much more likely to start making the right decisions and moving your business forward in substantial ways.
Invest time and money in yourself
Most successful businesses grow through investments. A start-up needs money to develop their product, then they would need additional money to advertise and start growing their user base quicker. You should treat your freelancer business as such a startup and start investing in it early on. It means setting aside the time and money needed for you to learn, grow, and improve.
Every year, I will put down a dedicated learning budget that I would use for courses and conferences. Every year that learning budget grows, because the type of skills I need grow as well.
But investing that money and the time it takes to go through a course also means something else. It shows my clients that I’m constantly improving. It shows new prospects that I already have the skills they need for us to form a winning partnership. And it also shows the outside world that I am a perfectionist and that I hone my craft. Through these few things, this investment actually pays off quicker than you would expect.
You are at work, so act like it
The first few months of being a freelancer might be tough. You’ll probably start working from your kitchen table or at the desk in your living room. But you still need to develop an “I’m at work” mindset, though.
Different people do this in different ways. Some dress up. Others would “commute” to their workspace every morning. Whatever your reminder is make sure you know when you’re at work, and when you aren’t.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to keep a strict 9-to-5. You can add some personal errands in your day, provided that you plan for them and keep them to a set block of hours, then work hard the rest of the time.
Your family members might not intuitively understand what it means to be a freelancer or work from home. So make sure that you keep firm when they ask you to do the groceries or load the dishwasher while you’re “at home”. Remind them you’re actually at work. They will quickly learn what that means and keep their distance in the future.
And finally, being at work also means knowing when you’re not at work. It means keeping your weekends free to enjoy with your close ones and your friends. It means being able to switch off in the evening and explain to your clients what working hours you’re keeping.
Be visible and be helpful
Looking for new clients is hard. It requires a lot of work and it requires you to create a brand for yourself. There are a lot of different ways you can do that, depending on what you find interesting.
If you enjoy sales, then feel free to outreach to companies you admire. But if you do not enjoy sales, then the way for you to go is to create helpful content and share it with the world.
I run this blog, as sort of a lead generation tool. But I never actually cold sell. People come, they read the articles, and this creates a sense of trust in my abilities as a professional. It shows what I know and what I can do. Although most of the content I write is a step by step overview of my process, most people would actually choose to hire me, than to do the work for themselves. So I’m not “giving it all away” – I’m building my brand by being helpful.
I believe the strategy is much stronger than direct sales but it requires you to reach out to people and connect with new audiences all the time. This can happen in online communities, or virtual events, or in-person events whenever those are back around. It makes you visible to other marketers and potential clients.
The combination between the two – being helpful and being visible – will give you the highest return on investment. And it’s the way I’ve built my freelancing career.
Make your clients successful
Depending on the type of work you do, you’ll be hired to complete a specific project or a series of tasks on a retainer fee. That’s not actually why your clients hire you. They hire you for you to make them successful. This can mean turning in a profit, building up a brand, or any number of different things. But whatever it is, make sure you know it, and make sure you build on top of it.
Completing the work you are hired to do to the highest professional standards is nowadays just an entrance fee. It is your way to join the show and to be recommended for a future gig.
But to become great, you need to do more. You need to jump in and give additional ideas, you need to provide feedback for things outside your job description. And you need to show your clients that you’ll go farther than others to make them successful.
When I work on a retainer project, I would spend some time every few weeks to look at the business as a whole and find new ways in which I can bring value. I would urge you to do the same. Treat your client’s business as your own. It’s a surefire way for long-term engagements and more referrals from the happy customers you’ve cultivated so far.
Don’t start freelancing at all if you believe in one of the top 5 freelance myths…
No matter how many stories about the hustle and late-night work or terrible clients we hear, people still have a very romantic notion about freelancing. It’s actually quite similar to the ironic header image of this blog post. So whenever some new freelancer comes along and asks for advice, I will generally ask in return “Why do you want to start freelancing at all?”
I can definitely say that you won’t like freelancing if you think that it’s all about:
- making more money quicker – it almost never happens, at least straight away;
- sweating less – on top of your standard marketer tasks you will need to work on client acquisition, sales, all the admin stuff. And on top of that, no matter if you’re working on a team or using third parties, the success of the activity falls on you;
- working three hours a day from a beach or a mountain or a spa – unless you’re amazing at estimating projects you will almost always work more than you expected. And that beach/mountain hut can be fun at first but you’ll still spend most of your time in one city in your home office, a coworking space, or a coffee place;
- making completely autonomous decisions – to get there you need to gain the trust of customers over a very long period of time;
- being your own boss – well, it’s true, but it’s not a good thing. You’re for sure your own worst critic and you’ll probably end up prioritizing the needs of your clients to the needs of “your team” every time.
I won’t get into a ton of detail here, but if you want my opinion on why one of these isn’t true or isn’t a good thing, ping me in the comments and we can discuss further. I hope this has been helpful and I would love to hear your freelancer lessons as well!