5 Tips for Jump-Starting Your Freelance Career

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In our current economy, freelance jobs carry more appeal than ever before. With so many traditional jobs paying unlivable wages and a growing number of employers offering positions to remote workers, swaths of Americans have started looking for ways to take charge and call their own shots.

However, increased accessibility doesn’t make this career choice easy. Freelancers constantly struggle to find work, get fair pay, and retain clients for long-term contracts. When you decide to become an independent contractor, you don’t have the luxury of applying for a variety of high-paying gigs. You have to fight tooth and nail to secure paying clients, and you don’t get a lot of respite from that fight.

Knowing that it’s a mixed bag of struggles and opportunities, do you still want to chase the freelance dream? Do you want to set your own schedule in exchange for inconsistent paychecks? Turn a hobby into a profession and work 70-hour weeks in order to make it happen? As long as you know what you’re getting into, a freelance career offers tremendous upside, and I fully support anyone who tries in earnest to make this lifestyle happen.

Freelance is a broad term, covering everyone from plumbers to web designers. Depending on your interest and industry, you’ll need to come up with a specific approach for launching your career. In the early going, the following tips should prove useful for just about everyone.

1. Discover Your Profit Power

As I said, anyone can do anything and call it freelance work. Some people stumble into this type of career; you could make snacks for a kid’s soccer game, realize you’re great at baking, and start making goods that you sell to local markets and out of your garage. That’s a fun voyage, but not a predictable or easy one.

If you’re looking to launch your own independent business, identifying your skills and the available markets is an important first step. Again, the freelance options are pretty much endless:

● Web development and design

● Writing

● Cooking

● Repair and maintenance work

● Cleaning

● Tutoring

● Landscaping

And the list goes on and on. With the right approach, anything can become a profitable skill, but not everything can bring in the money you need to live off. This is why you need to get specific when deciding how to move forward with a self-starter profession.

Let’s look at writing. The majority of writers work freelance, making this a fairly open career choice. You can write articles for magazines, blogs and newspapers; you can do copywriting for websites and other promotional materials; you can publish your own work on Amazon and see if people are willing to pay for your stuff.

With each of these options, your success will depend on the means you have to create it. If it takes you months and months to write a short story, self-publishing probably won’t work well for generating consistent profits. If you can churn out a novel a month and have a great idea for an epic fantasy series, that might actually bring you some legitimate wealth.

I have a friend who started doing freelance copywriting to the tune of $100 or so a week, writing cheap articles and making very little money while he figured out how it all worked. He was in a position where it was more about gaining experience than making money, and he eventually found better clients, honed his craft and now writes full time. If you’re in a similar position, starting small is certainly an option.

Limited experience notwithstanding, you should try to find an industry in which you’ll get paid decently for your efforts. You’ll be asked to work for next to nothing, but you don’t have to accept bad rates. People always try to underpay freelance workers, partly as a defense mechanism if they aren’t familiar with your work, but also as a means of holding the bottom line. You need to look out for yourself to make sure you’re bringing in enough money to stay afloat.  

Since people will look to undercut you at every step, you need to find a niche where you can drive your marketing and appeal. The more you try to blend in with other freelance workers, the more likely it is you’ll find yourself feeding off the scraps. If you know the type of work you want to do and can concisely spell out why you deserve decent pay, employers will take you seriously. You still need to deliver quality work, but that’s kind of a given.

Figuring out what you want to do only makes up part of the freelancer’s journey. Learning how to get paid is just as important and needs to be a top priority.

2. Learn Personal Marketing

If you want to do web design and you put all your savings into buying a billboard with your contact info, you might get one client. You might even get two clients. You’ll almost certainly get a few prank calls and regret the billboard decision.

Like it or not, marketing is an essential component of any successful business. Whether you’re a freelance painter or freelance electrician, you need to make the market aware of your services. While random advertising for an untested service won’t lead to booming business, targeted efforts focusing on people you know can have a big impact.

When your freelance career is nothing more than an vague concept, the idea of having a paying client seems pretty implausible. When you extrapolate further - realizing you don’t need just one client, but you actually need dozens - it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and give up before you even start. This is why personal connections are so crucial.

While still working your office job and dreaming about freelance hours, you can start planting seeds and doing work for the people you know. Provide some free and discounted services as a favor in exchange for a little word-of-mouth marketing and see what comes of it. You’ll chase some empty leads, but offering your service is by far the best way to show people you have something to offer.

As you run through your contact list and look for potential clients to target, think of who would benefit from working with you. If you’re a personal trainer, drop flyers and see about running a workshop at a local gym. If you do landscaping work, hit up the local farmers market and nurseries. Your personal marketing can include strangers, you just have to make sure you talk to people who might actually show some interest.

You can post info and submit through job boards all day long, and maybe you’ll find a few opportunities that way. If you want to sustain a freelance career and work on your terms, start marketing through personal connections and concrete outlets. Even if the work you do lives entirely online, the most trusting and loyal clients, especially when you’re just getting started, will likely turn up in and around your immediate circle.

3. Get a Presence

Say you paint like Michelangelo. You can make any interior or exterior wall gorgeous, you work fast, and everyone loves your work and recommends you. This puts you in a great position to have a successful freelance career, and it can all come crashing down if you don’t make it easy for people to find and see your work.

A website should probably be the first step when you get the freelancing itch. Even if you have no samples of your work and can’t name a reference, you can hand out your site information in passing and people will know where to find you. If someone has a reason to look for you online, you definitely want them to find something.

In addition to a phone number and an email address, a good site plays host to your portfolio, showing future clients exactly what you can do. I know I just said you should build a site even without samples of your work, and I meant it; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take immediate action in trying to create a strong portfolio.

Your website doesn’t act as a replacement for any sort of marketing efforts. On the contrary, a good landing page is the cherry on top of a strong campaign. After you put in the time to build an email list and get people interested in what you have to offer, you deliver a website they can peruse, giving inquirers a bit of proof that your services are real.

While a website is particularly clutch, you should take other steps to build your presence as well. Get involved in social media and create content that can be shared online. Depending on what you do and where you do it, business cards or flyers could help drive people your way. I’m not going to recommend buying radio or TV time, but if you have a friend at the local station who can hook you up, go for it!

The point is, you need to have an established presence to help potential clients make up their minds. After hearing about you once, most people will forget. If they hear your name a second time, there’s a better chance of retention, but no guarantee. When you have word of mouth, a killer website and some savvy media working for you in concert, that’s when people start to really take notice.

Get cracking on that website so you have a home base, When you talk with someone or tweet about your services, you can point to your site and get the ball rolling. In this day and age, basic contact information alone doesn’t cut it.

4. Become a Salesperson

Some people thrive with sales. No matter what the product, they can convince people there’s a reason to buy it. If you’re anything like me, you have a hard time selling a product you can’t stand behind. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about that with your freelance career, because you are the very thing you’re trying to sell.

This means you have no choice but to believe in yourself. Even if you don’t have tons of natural talent, you have to be fully confident you can develop the skills necessary to provide a valuable service. If you want to have any success, this is really your only option. And since you must accept this as true, you should have no trouble selling people on your abilities and potential.

Still, talking about money puts some people in an uncomfortable spot. Even if you’re a strong writer, it can be hard to ask someone to give you $200 in exchange for a half page of words. Do you deserve that much money? What are other people charging? What if you get paid and then the employer doesn’t like your content?

While these thoughts swirl around in your head, you have to fight them off by remembering that your services were requested. Your help is needed and an individual or company will gladly exchange money for completed work. You’re taking ownership of a task and you deserve to profit from that effort.

When it comes time to sell your services, take pride in it. Don’t get greedy or aggressive, but state your fees with confidence. If someone can’t afford you, so be it. More often than not, as long as you’re being reasonable, hiring companies will take no issue with your pricing. If it seems too high, they’ll try to haggle. Depending on the work and what’s in your bank account, you can decide if you’re willing to accept less on a job-by-job basis.

Freelance careers don’t come with sales reps. You handle your marketing and you take care of collections, or you don’t put money in the bank. If talking about financial matters makes you uncomfortable, you either have to fix that problem or watch a lot of freelance work pass you by.  

5. Develop Amazing Prioritization Skills

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans, work jobs they don’t enjoy. A huge number of those people have bigger aspirations that they never get around to. Why is that?

You can point to a bunch of different factors, but I think the main culprit is mismanaged time. If you don’t block off hours for the work you want to do, that time will never materialize. If you don’t get proactive and schedule a portion of each day to find work, those jobs aren’t going to find you.

I will be the first to acknowledge how hard this prioritization can be. We all have to earn money and make sure we’re paying all of our bills, and putting time into unpaid work can feel like a misuse of time. I have a stack of projects I want to get done, all of which I firmly believe will lead to increased wealth, and yet it’s still a chore to find time to work on everything. For those of you who feel like there’s not enough time in the day, I completely empathize.

But that’s life! You aren’t choosing to become a freelance worker because it’s easy, you’re doing it because you want to care about the work you do. If your goal is to keep doing the bare minimum, find an employer with low expectations of their workers. Independent contractors can’t get by on the bare minimum, because there’s no one else there to pick up the slack.

You’ll never feel like there are enough hours to get everything done, because there simply aren’t. You have to divide your time and figure out which tasks deserve your attention in which order. When working a full-time job and starting a freelance career, this divide is tricky. You might end up taking hours your body wants for sleep and donating them to your professional ambitions. You might skip lunch breaks or work through dinner. It’s not easy, but the time can be found.

If you want something bad enough, you have to make it a priority. You don’t get to complain about a stagnant career if you aren’t putting those aspirations above a day job you detest. Train yourself to make freelancing as important as the rest of your daily routines and you’ll start to see more doors opening.

Got friends working freelance and you’re starting to feel a little jealous? Good! That means there’s a career you’ll feel passionate about and it’s time to start chasing that dream. You might not have the right training or any of the necessary tools, but those things can be rectified. Take the right actions and get yourself in the right headspace, and that freelance life will be yours soon enough.

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