Freelance work is immensely attractive to many for a multitude of reasons: managing your own workload, flexibility, remote working and diversity in projects are all commonly cited benefits.
Yet the realities of freelance work should also be laid bare to anyone wishing to pursue this career approach.
Work can be sporadic, pay often frustratingly low, and the hours irregular. It is very difficult to plan your life around a freelance job, despite the apparent flexible working hours and absence of an obligatory place of work.
That said, there are ways in which you can take your freelance work into the realms of a handsomely-paid career, and with the added bonus of not having to work all the hours imaginable by keeping to a tighter office-style routine. Here is some sage advice to make this apparent dream a bonafide reality:
Before you start (or if you have started, perhaps it’s time to rearrange some things)
1) Approach freelance work at the right time
As with so many of life’s activities, timing is key. You do not need to wait for the stars to align, but you should make sure that certain conditions are in place.
First of all, before you dive head-first into your new career as a freelancer, try to have some work lined up.
Also, try to have a degree of financial security in place so you are not scrambling around trying to scrape enough together to feed yourself – if you are desperate, you will take on jobs that are unsuitable, poorly paid, and even damaging to your progression.
Next, be confident in the skills you are bringing to the table; prepare properly and try to fill any gaps in knowledge in advance. Then be sure that the market is buoyant and that the sorts of opportunities you are looking for are actually available, and desired. This requires a sensible amount of research before you commence, but that is just common sense.
2) Know where and how you will find work
Do you even know where you will go to win the work?
There are multiple platforms out there, but be sure to pick the right one for your skills and the type of work you are looking for. This may mean using multiple platforms at the beginning in order to better gauge where the most suitable work is coming from.
3) Have all of the logistics in place
Let’s be clear: if you are a freelancer, you are self-employed, and that means you must organize every aspect of your work approach accordingly, from invoicing, to declaring income to the IRS.
It is often advisable to set up as an LLC so that your personal and business finances are separated. Then you need to invest in the necessary hardware, and have a suitable place to work from.
Bank accounts, work scheduling, marketing, proposals, websites…There is a multitude of considerations, so just be sure to have thought them all thought through before you commence, as catching up further down the line can be an arduous task.
4) Think deeply about pricing
Before you price yourself in the marketplace, conduct deep research. What are individuals with similar expertise and levels of experience offering? Can you perform the job more quickly? What is your USP? Do not undersell yourself as then you are churning out work for less than you are worth and must therefore work more to stay afloat.
If you are a specialist, do not be afraid to charge specialist prices, and constantly review your pricing on the market and in light of your increasing experience.
Once you are up and running
1) Respect deadlines and be ever reliable
The quality of your work is important, or course it is! But perhaps what is prized most highly in the world of the freelancer is reliability, and the ability to hit deadlines. Most clients would be willing to accept slight variations in quality to ensure that deadlines are consistently met.
Having said that, quality needs to be consistent too, it’s just that the best freelancer is able to combine consistent quality with an unwavering reliability to deliver on time, every time.
In the case where you believe a deadline to be unrealistic, raise the point immediately – never wait until the day approaches to break the news to the client that you feel the deadline cannot be met. Always be upfront and brutally honest. That will be respected and valued in the long run.
2) Establish a process
You must clearly define in your own mind how you go about the work you win. This covers every conceivable angle, from working times to payment time-frames to the way you set up a project. Consistency in your approach breeds success.
3) Maintain a sensible work/life balance
One of the perennial dangers of freelance work is that you find yourself hammering away at it morning, noon and night. Unlike a staffer, there are no set working hours, and you are never officially ‘off the clock’. But you absolutely must set boundaries: for yourself and for your family.
Do not accept jobs that provide unrealistic deadlines as they will eat into your evenings and weekends, and you still run the risk of failing to hit that deadline, and as we have previously discussed, deadlines are sacrosanct in the freelancing sphere. Maintaining the correct balance keeps you happy, fresh and motivated, and that’s when you perform your best work.
4) Don’t be obsessed with diversification
Although diversity of work may be one of your draws to the freelance profession, also be aware that finding your specialist niche will turn out to be highly marketable and financially rewarding. Once you have built a reputation for a particular skill, you will be in demand.
Many freelance jobs see you as an operator on a production line where different tasks are performed by different freelancers – the diversification you seek may end up coming in the form of different clients and different projects as opposed to different tasks. Being a generalist in the realm of freelancers is simply not as highly-prized as being a specialist, and don’t forget it.
5) Embrace regular, repeat clients
The gravy train in freelance comes from clients who return time after time looking for your particular expertise. Longer projects are especially desirable as they eliminate the need to continuously hunt for work, and provide the stability that smaller projects can be built around. And approach every job as if it could become that golden opportunity.
6) Build a portfolio, relationships and a reputation
Most freelancers who are earning the money at the high-end of the market have established strong, prosperous relationships with a handful of trusted and respected clients. In most cases, these relationships began as a single job which grew into something much more due to your performance and reliability. You have fostered a positive relationship and that is a freelancer’s dream ticket.
Approach every new job as with an eternally open mind, and always look for referrals and testimonials to keep building your reputation in your niche.
Word-of-mouth referrals are incredibly valuable as you do not need to spend the time actively marketing yourself and tendering for work. Once you have established a solid reputation as a freelancer, continue to foster relationships and ensure your portfolio is ever-evolving to include your latest and greatest work.
A freelancer’s reputation is his or her brand. It is hard won and easily lost, so treat it with the respect it deserves, nurture it, and help it grow.