April 22nd 2020
Wanted: freelance developers, designers, writers, artists, marketers, and creatives - all of you who aim to live and work in the mysterious yet wonderful, and sometimes anxiety-ridden world of creative freelancing. It doesn't matter how you got here and why, just that you're ready to learn and use the internet to build an independent and fulfilling career.
Today, we kick off our three-part guide to modern freelancing, informed and inspired by our lovely community full of those wanting to break into freelancing for the first time and those already living it every day. As with everything at SuperHi, we're taking the practical and real-life approach, but we're sprinkling it with a dose of optimism, that freelancing could be, at its worst, all of the cons and none of the pros, but for the self-starters, go-getters and independence-seekers among us, and with a bit of time and effort, it could also be a beautiful, challenging but fulfilling, and inherently creative way to do the best work of your life. Let's do this.
We humans are a creative bunch. We’ve created everything we are, including the whole concept of jobs. For thousands of years, we were mostly “freelancers” without the title. But somewhere along the way, jobs became the norm, with freelancing taking a backseat but still very alive in quiet and unspoken spaces. It wasn’t until the 1970s when physicist and NASA engineer Jack Nilles introduced the concept of working from home as a solution to the cost of transportation in relation to the growth of suburbs and the energy crisis that came with it. Telecommuting and freelancing became intertwined as new ways to work.
Fast forward (oh, hello and welcome to the world wide web!) and freelancing has now become both a fantasy and a stark reality, a strange combination of all the things many of us want but just the same, many of us fear. And right now, it shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, all signs point to freelancing becoming the new norm.
There are many different questions wrapped up into the big, grand one of how to make a living as a modern freelancer, whatever work you do. It’s a world of unknowns, on the one hand a burning craving for independence, flexibility, and variety but on the other, a sometimes paralyzing feeling of self-sufficiency and anxiety. The gig economy is rising but it’s also volatile, unpredictable and as we’ve witnessed in recent circumstances, sometimes downright scary.
Through all the uncertainty, for many people, freelancing is still the only way to work and live. As there are no one-size-fits-all dreams or jobs, there isn’t a universal choice or path to freelancing either. In a study conducted by Upwork, 60% of freelancers surveyed were doing it by choice, with half of this group describing that choice as a temporary one with another half seeing as long term. But whether you’re doing it by choice or by necessity, and whether it’s a just for now thing or a forever goal, you can make it work.
If managed with intent (even if the path to freelancing was more of a stumble than a graceful entrance), some grit and a dose of luck (aka the serendipity that comes to those who do), it can be the path to a fulfilling and even, dare-I-say-it, stable career. It’s the difference between having the freedom and flexibility to pursue and juggle multiple sources of revenue vs putting all your eggs in one very risky basket. You just have to learn and constantly exercise the very important skills of proactivity and adaptability.
We’re going to try to tackle starting and growing a successful freelance business in the first of our SuperHi on freelancing series, a three level beginners to advanced guide on breaking into and making it in the world of freelance-dom. It’s a big topic and we’re diving deep. As with freelancing, there are always more questions and new unknowns, but we want to give this its due shot. It’s all the perks and all the pains - deciding how and where to work, who you work with, what to work on - but it’s also, very plainly, just another way to make a living.
In parts two and three coming in the next few weeks, we’re going to cover money, contracts and proposals and how to run a successful business, and finally where to go from there in scaling your independence.
But, first and what should always be step one: a primer on getting clients. A business is just a creative hobby without paying customers. We’re going to focus on using the internet to promote your work, and then, with clients in hand, how to assess when it’s the right time to make the leap to full-time independent freelancer.
This is what makes a freelance business: it’s the lifeblood of your work, and we’re going to use the internet to make it happen. Ready? ✨
This guide covers:How to Get Clients
The most important question to ask
A step-by-step guide to getting clients using the internet
Step 1. Buy your domain
Step 2. Claim/audit your social media accounts
Step 3. Get clear on your services
Step 4. Document your work
Step 5. Join online communities and listen
Step 6. Learn basic marketing and sales
Step 7. Go for it!
Bonus: Check companies’ job pages and agencies
If you don’t have clients, you don’t have a business.
When to make the full-time freelance leap
Do you have runway?
Do you have your business finances, contracts, and legal things set up?
Are you escaping from or running towards something?
Are you just itching to try something new?
If you already clients but want “better”/different/more exciting ones
Raise your rates
Work on a creative project
Do-it-yourself professional development
The big question: How do I get clients?
So, where do we start exactly? How do you get that first client? There are all kinds of tactics but really, it breaks down into two ways: using your people network or using the internet network.
Most people will favour one method over the other, depending on their own experiences - and there are pros and cons to each. For example, referrals will often come with a much higher conversion rate* (and happen much more quickly) than trying to search-engine-optimize your way to clients. If you’ve built up a healthy network and have a strong niche, it’s a bit like the chicken or egg scenario: you may even find yourself accidentally becoming a freelancer before you’ve even made that decision.
But, referrals are also very highly dependent and controlled by previous work, whereas the internet is a wide, open space to define your work and build your story.
Ideally, you’ll get to a point where you are using both to maximize your opportunities, but when you reflect on this question, you should have a bit of a sense of where to start as your highest leverage activity to get that first client - which is why you should be wary when you get one definitive answer (“this is the only way”) or too many (“try abcdef! do it all!”).
You need one to start, and you need to decide which will work best for you.
For some people (let’s say you’ve been in the workforce for a while and have some career capital), getting clients via referrals may almost be instant. For others, like me when I started, and for the many freelancers of all kinds now using social media to build entire careers from scratch, many have managed to shape and build freelance careers in months. (Still no overnight success stories, as far as I can tell - so you can tuck that idea safely into your pocket full of dreams).
Conversion rate = the percentage of potential leads to the number of people that complete a desired goal (in this case, the goal is becoming a client)
So here’s the important question: What’s the lowest amount of effort you can put in, for the highest possible impact?
This is the most important question to ask when you’re at the stage where you need to get clients, either to kickstart your freelance business (and most likely have a full-time job) or if you’re already freelancing, when you need to get out of a dry spell to keep paying the bills or grow your income (we’ll cover scaling a freelance business in part 3).
Not knowing where and when your next client is coming in is pretty much the same as expecting that you could get fired soon. So choosing one of the two paths is the smart way to go so that you’re focused on building momentum and not spreading yourself too thin. Stick with it to start.
Here’s the gist of what you should know about leveraging your people network to get clients:
- Do quality work wherever you go - whether you work at an agency, company or for yourself, build your reputation one project at a time. Do what you say you will do and overdeliver on your promises.
- Make active decisions to surround yourself with people you admire, in spaces you’re interested in
- Be someone people enjoy working with
- Rinse and repeat
- When ready: tell everyone you know when you’re looking for clients - everyone!
- Bonus: figure out some way to stay top of mind. (Ideas: being active on social media, sending tiny gifts, starting a newsletter)
Unless you’re a bit of anomaly with a very rare, super-niche career choice (any freelance insect illustrators out there?), you should be able to get started and get moving with at least one person, one degree of separation away, interested in working with you.
If you’re getting nothing back, then “how do I get clients?” isn’t the right question to ask. It might be, “how do I do better work?”, “how do I meet more people?”, “am I the kind of person people enjoy working with?”, and even “do I have enough experience?”
But let’s say you’ve done that and you’re tapped out, or maybe you’re introverted, have only worked in very small workplaces, and maybe have also made several career changes. Or, maybe freelancing isn’t your dream and you’re just in a very shitty situation, needing something to get you by. Whatever your reasons are, it’s time to pull up your bootstraps and prioritize, leverage, and get out there. How? Using the internet!
This is when we want to hone in on the power of the internet to teach, learn, grow, communicate, and scale effort. It’s changed the game for so many people around the world, providing accessible opportunity and democratizing the playing field in skill development and career building. The internet is how I made my career and how we hope to help many others do the same.
The wonderful thing is: once you have some momentum going, the people and internet sides play into each other in a beautiful kind of synergy. For example, when you start to get referrals (via people), you can then post case studies or testimonials (via the internet network) to increase your lead traffic and conversion in a different space.
A step-by-step guide on getting clients using the internet:
Step 1. Buy your domain
First things first! Claim your name online. It doesn’t have to be your name (maybe it’s your business name), but snatch it up anyway, if you can. For many years, the domain name for my name unhyphenated wasn’t available until one day last March, when I checked again and like clouds parting for the first time, there it was. At $9.99 per year, it’s a no brainer. Even if you don’t know exactly what to do here and what to put on your website, buy it anyway. This is the first step to internet ownership!
If you decide to use a business or studio name later on, you can always redirect your domain there. Don’t overthink it.
Congratulations, you now officially own your own tiny piece of the internet.
Step 2. Claim/audit your social media accounts
Now, for your “branches”. Your website is your home but social media is, in all likelihood nowadays, the most likely entryway to you and your work. No one is ever going to accidentally come across your website without it being somewhere else.
You don’t have to have your strategy all figured out and you also don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) be everywhere. (Remember when social media first became a thing? Every business had the entire 8+ social media iconset somewhere in the footer of their websites.)
Just be wherever you like and wherever your clients may be hanging out. For most creative professions, Twitter and Instagram are the big two but depending on various other factors, you may also find success on Facebook, Pinterest, Are.na, even Youtube.
Then, very simply: audit your accounts. We’re not going to go too deep into social media strategy (keeping it MVP*). But, as a bare minimum, get rid of anything that feels unprofessional (definition and lines blurry, but think to the kinds of clients you want to work with - put yourself in their shoes). From now on, you’re putting your best food forward. Frequency and content may require a more thought out strategy, but we’re doing the minimum effort version here to start.
That means, crafting your social bios so that it’s clear what you do. It doesn’t have to be fancy, funny or “special” - at the start, clear and targeted is just right: what do you do and who do you do it for? Do you have any existing social proof? This is your condensed resume, subject to change later but the best way to start saying “Hello, this is who I am and what I do”.
Just remember: clear and simple gets clients. No one can hire you if they don’t know what you do.
MVP = Minimum Valuable Product (originally Minimum Viable Product and coined by Eric Ries in his book, The Lean Startup), a common term used in the tech world to describe an early stage product with minimal features, enough to get user feedback and iterate from.
Step 3. Get clear on your services
When you don’t have any clients to start with, one of the most tempting things to do is to broaden and widen your services and to tell everyone you can do anything and everything. But, niching down can be really effective in helping you to stand out in the endless noise of the internet.
How many web developers are there? How many Shopify developers are there, specializing in beauty startups? Figure out what you’re going to do and make it clear what your services are. You can always pivot and broaden later on, as many companies eventually do once they get a foothold.
A very general guideline on how to think about your services: typically, larger companies will require more flexibility on the freelancer’s side when it comes to scope of work, whereas pre-packaged services can be an easier sell to clients who are individuals or small businesses with less predefined processes and needs. Oftentimes, they may just need someone to do whatever it takes to make more sales, get a website up, build a brand. Your industry and line of work may also impact the kind of flexibility you may need to have with your services. This is important to consider when deciding how granular and specific you want to get with your services.
Clarity doesn’t mean you’re locking yourself down to anything. If something isn’t working (give it a bit of time), swap it out and try something new. Listen to what people are telling you. Beta-test* your services. A long time ago, I started my copywriting business doing just designer bios for people launching fashion brands, and then moved on to writing and designing press kits when my clients started requesting them after seeing an example I had made for fun.
Beta-test = Experiment and try things before committing to them in the long term.
Step 4. Document your work
Do you need a website? Unpopular opinion time: No, no one needs a website. The truth is, and perhaps you’ve noticed: there are a lot of successful, working freelancers whose websites actually lead to 404s or whose websites haven’t been updated in years. People can get pretty picky with their websites and sometimes it takes years to finish one. Ask Nathan Taylor, a designer and developer who re-launched his most recent website in January 2020 but has been working on it since 2018.
Are websites extremely effective at establishing who you are and getting you work? 100%! But they shouldn’t come at the cost at getting clients, and there are many easier ways to do that.
It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t need to take months and months and a whole team to do. You can and should start small, with a one-pager site that does three things: tells people who you are, shows people your work, and allows people to get in touch with you. You can code your own (we have a free course that takes you through how to plan, design and code your first website, no experience required!) or get started easily with services and platforms like Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix and more (But take our course, I think you’ll have some fun).
More important than a fancy website is the idea that you document and share your work somewhere, and that can come in many forms: a blog, Instagram, Twitter, even a newsletter.
Get creative: the goal here is to start thinking less like “I need a website” and more like “How can I showcase my work best and with the lowest effort?” and that goes back to your ideal client and what would catch their attention. Sometimes that’s a website - for good reason: they can look like and be anything you want - but it’s not always. Oftentimes, a standalone website is actually the longest path to that considering all the other tools that exist and come with existing audiences, which can act as a shortcut to getting clients: Medium, Dev.to, Dribbble, etc.
Storytime: when I was fresh out of school, I had a job working for a photographer. My world revolved around photography at the time and I remember, through that, one of my first lessons in using the internet. A 25-year-old law school dropout, within 3 years, was named one of the world’s top wedding photographers, and before that, had never even owned a digital camera. She did it by starting a blog and writing about her journey. Among her first readers were a group of twelve bridesmaids from one of the very first weddings she shot. Whenever someone asked for a referral of a great wedding photographer, these twelve bridesmaids remembered her because of the tiny blog she had where she was not just documenting her work but also her life - something that makes sense in the context of a wedding photographer who should be someone you trust and like enough to allow them capture an intimate and special moment in your life. I think it took her years before she had a website. She started with a blog that probably took a minute to set up.
The wedding photographer who blogged is just one example of using the internet to document work. There are many other examples: how about the newly graduated graphic designer who kickstarted his career by designed a poster a day and posted it on Instagram, the data visualization engineers at Pudding who work on interactive essays that indirectly bring clients in for their studio, the journalist whose 45k+ subscriber strong newsletter is a portal into her work, the designer who talks about design process and tools on Youtube, the researcher who writes articles on productivity to bring in consulting clients? These are all real people I’ve come across, all with very different and very valid ways to build a portfolio of work. And did you notice? They’re all just making content that people want to read, look at, watch, be inspired by, find value in. They’re casting a wide net, and in that wide net are people, most of whom will never be clients. But that’s the beauty of the internet: you do something to maybe reach a lot of people and somehow, sometime, it comes back to you. Just that handful is all you need.
If you’ve never put your work out there and are holding onto the safety of comfort, you need to get over it. The internet is a scary place but good things come to those who put themselves out there. Don’t worry about it if your work isn’t polished or 100% - you’re not important enough for most people to care (sounds blunt but this is actually a very good thing). The internet is noisy and you can hide behind that.
The goal is that one day, you’ll meet a tipping point where instead of adding to the noise, you’re fighting it and making the internet better, with an audience there to witness it (and perhaps some of that audience will become a paying client). But you can’t get there if you don’t start, so start putting your work out, one thing at a time.
Step 5. Join online communities and listen
Online communities are the hotbed of the internet, and where all the juiciest action happens. That makes them the best watering hole for not only finding prospective clients and growing your network but also and even more importantly, doing customer research.
Take advantage of this amazing internet-ordained opportunity to understand your target customer’s needs, wants and challenges. Listen closely - this is probably the most important lesson here, hidden in between all the other flashier steps. If you can do the work to find, observe and understand your ideal customer by leveraging online communities (and not be icky and weird about it), you’re in a prime position to build a successful business. That’s because most people don’t listen enough. Most people want to build businesses to be free of their bosses, until they realize that building businesses is really about solving problems. It doesn’t matter if you started out because you wanted a bit more flexibility - but if you want more clients willing to pay you more money, the single best thing you can do is aligning yourself to your clients’ specific challenges.
How are you going to be the best person to solve your customer’s problems if you don’t really know them?
I’m in a few free communities, and I’m also in a few communities that come with paid products (such as SuperHi’s Slack). I’ve realized how different and lonely my experience of the internet would be if I didn’t have this, and that’s just one of the many portals for online communities. I also like to peruse Reddit and the comments sections of my favorite blogs. Why the internet? Well, hidden behind screens, people get chatty, honest, and frank - and that’s exactly what you want, thousands of pieces of data points.
That’s not quite the same as in-person and IRL customer research, but it’s pretty darn great.
Step 6. Learn basic marketing and sales
I spent some time as a marketer and even in retail sales. On the internet and off, many of the principles are universal:
- clarity wins
- sell benefits over features
- why you do something is a great connector
- sense of urgency actually works
- use your customer’s language and speak to them, not to your industry
- social proof builds trust
- always follow-up
- warm is great, but cold can work too*
- bonus internet tip: basic SEO goes a long way for your long game
Pay attention to these things rather than chasing down silly tactics like only using blue in your Instagram posts because you’ve read that blue-hued posts get 24% more likes - Instagram’s since hidden their like count and I’m glad. Imagine how boring Instagram would be if, in light of this “secret” being revealed, our feeds became rivers of blueberries, oceans and Smurf gifs.
It’s time to dial up your marketing skills. Because guess what: as a freelancer, you’re basically running a business. What you’re selling? You and your services.
Just as you probably save inspiration related to your industry, start saving examples of great marketing, emails that caught your attention, sales processes that delighted you. Marketing is no longer one separate department or discipline. Everyone uses marketing and sales. Look to the people and companies you admire (and actually buy from - this is important!) and see if you can learn anything from them. Keep in mind that you’re one human person and your approach is of course going to be different from a brand that’s a product - but look under the hood and many principles are the same.
Keep these ideas and skills in your backpocket as you approach clients, write cold emails, and put together proposals. In a sea of great work (amidst not-quite-theres and what-were-they-thinkings?), marketing and soft skills are the cherry on top secret to actually landing clients and getting most things done. I’ve used the same concepts selling wedding dresses as I have designing Black Friday sale emails as I have writing copy for websites.
Warm vs cold = existing relationships and customers are warmer (as in: more likely to be interested and in general, easier to convert to a client than a stranger) but sometimes you’ll need to go for the cold pitch
Okay, now what? How do I actually get clients? Step 7. Go for it!
Now………you wait? Kind of.
Reality check: getting clients on the internet is mostly a long game, unless, going back to the serendipity thing, you’re so tapped into your client’s desires and needs, you hustle to get out there quickly and you manage to go “viral”. It happens. But that should never be the aim, because virality is halfway between you making something happen and what people, in that moment, just happen to latch onto. And it seems we have the tendency to latch onto some pretty oddball things.
That said, sitting around and waiting isn’t the best way to get clients now. While you’re building your internet long game, you also need to be doing the most uncomfortable thing of all: talking to people, making the cold pitch, asking for work.
Here are some ideas of things you can do to give yourself a nice little kickstart (remember, it’s not about doing everything - it’s about your highest leverage activities, tailored to what you know about your customers, from what you’ve been able to observe about them):
- Tell people you’re accepting clients - both IRL and online. Pin this to the top of your Twitter profile if that’s one of your chosen “branches”. Make it obvious.
- Write a blog post or short series addressing a common client challenge or need. Before you do this, do some research on what other articles come up and try to write something better or give it a unique angle. Then, give it a bit of push by sharing it.
- Hold a “I’m starting my business” giveaway - this is actually how I kickstarted my copywriting business many years ago. I gave away my services to one winner, and pitched myself to the entrants. I landed some of my very first clients from this and never had another giveaway. Now, the question of: should you work for free? It’s a very hesitant maybe, we cover that in part two when we dive into setting rates.
- Get your work on online freelance communities or marketplaces such as Upwork and ilovecreatives - these are great if the thing you really need is any kind of experience and you need to get out there.
- Oh, and coming back around so you don’t forget the most important way to get clients quick: asking people directly for work. If you want to get clients as soon as possible, this is the only secret. It’s the cold pitch, the email from a stranger, even the dreaded phone call (which I can’t personally attest to and please, no one ever call me - but hey, it’s worked for some folks). (We maaaay just be able to help with this soon - stay tuned!)
The idea is you’re doing something that most people won’t because they’re hoping opportunity will come to them.
Bonus: Check companies’ job pages and agencies
As the freelance workforce continues to rise, this growth is reflected by companies too - someone’s hiring all these freelancers. Even the biggest corporations (and definitely smaller businesses and startups) are constantly seeking freelance and contract workers for niche roles, short-term projects and specialized skills. They may not be able to afford or need someone with your skill on staff all the time, and just need a project done. Keep a roster of companies you can see yourself working for, as well as studios and agencies you admire, and reach out - if your work is a match and they happen to need someone, this is a great way to either supplement your income or even act as the foundation of your freelance client base.
The funny thing is, most people don’t do this because they think it’s a waste of time. And it will be for most of the companies and people you get in touch with. Everyone’s busy and there’s a lot of talent out there. But you don’t need everyone to say yes to you; you just need one. You have very little to lose and a lot to gain. Jessica Hische, letterer and author, sent out 250ish promo pieces and Louise Fili was the only one who responded. But that one response was enough to kickstart her career when Louise offered her a job, where she worked for years before going freelance.
If you don’t have clients, you don’t have a business.
Okay, let’s take a pause here. For those of you who dream of going freelance, have never had a client, and spend months and months on your website/branding/strategy, it’s time to take a step back and refocus.
A logo never makes a business; customers and sales do.
We look and we see the polished, accomplished and successful versions of these brands and people. They didn’t start there. (Just ask Wayback Machine, an archive of every website on the internet.)
This is the MVP version of starting a business, and in this scenario, fancy branding doesn’t matter as much as internal clarity and then finding a way to communicate that outwardly, which is basically just cut-to-the-chase “branding”. In the context of freelance work, that means knowing who you are, what your values are, what your style and tastes are, and who your ideal clients are and how those things intersect. It means not spending thousands of dollars on your website or brand until you have a proven business - you’re probably better off saving that as runway*.
Brands, just like businesses, are iterative. It’s a tradeoff: for the time and money you’re spending now, what’s the likelihood that your website and brand could change in the future? Is the return on your investment the right choice? Maybe, but probably not.
If your dream is to build a successful business freelancing (and not just the illusion of one), your #1 focus should be getting clients, getting feedback from your clients, cultivating referrals and iterating along the way. This is why, I suspect, many freelance designers, developers and even full-fledged creative studios have a bare minimum approach to their own websites - they’re too busy running successful businesses to do anything more.
So go back to the top and start from square one if you don’t have any clients. Rinse and repeat before you move on.
Runway = The number of months you can survive on minimal expenses without making any additional income.
Okay, I have clients. When should I make the full-time freelance leap?
There are many ways to be a freelancer: from full-time all the time to full-time some of the time (this one perhaps the ideal scenario for many creative types, who no longer have to choose one or the other forevermore), to picking up the odd freelance client here and there as a side hustle.
As much as we hear stories about people who’ve made the leap to freelancing, there are just as many (and possibly more) of people who’ve done it for a time, then left for full-time work. It’s tough work grinding it out for 5, 10, 20+ years.
I was one of those people when, after a few seasons as a full-time freelance copywriter, I felt like I wasn’t growing. I had starry eyes for the fast-changing world of tech and set my sights on a job again after years thinking that I’d only ever want to work for myself. After I got a job, I still felt the trickle effect of the momentum I had started to build, and I continued to do freelance work on the side for four years after. I’d go on to pursue work at companies I believed in, mostly in the context of jobs - and right now, I feel a lot more creative balancing full-time work with part-time projects. Some day I may go back, when that season of my life comes around again, but I’m happy not having to think about all the other things freelancers inevitably need to worry about.
Freelancing, as much as it’s on the rise, isn’t for everyone. No matter what your “work” is, you have to have strong project management skills to make it, unless you’re always paired with someone else who does. The world of work is changing and has already changed for many. Freelancing is just a different way to work. At the end of the day, it’s still work.
We wrote our job hunt series for this reason: there’s growing space in the world of employment to define your values, to make an impact and to find a role that fits your needs. Jobs can work really well for creatives, and in some cases, even better! When your job provides an enriching environment for you learn and grow, and if you’re the type of person who thrives from work/life separation, which can be a challenge (though not impossible) for freelancers to achieve, a job can broaden your creative horizons, contrary to popular narrative.
There are many different guidelines you can use to determine when the right time is: when you’re at risk of burnout because you’re juggling too many clients along with full-time work, when the amount you’re making with freelance work matches what you’re making at your full-time job, when you’ve JUST HAD ENOUGH!!! and work is making you physically sick. Take your pick!
But if you’d like a chance at controlling with exacting standards, how and with whom you work with, and you have the privilege and space to make the choice rather than be thrown into it, here are some things to consider before making the freelance leap:
1. Do you have runway?
It’s a rare group that thrives in high risk, high stress, chaotic situations. Most of us need at least a small sense of security.
Save at a very minimum 3 months of living expenses (6 if you can, 12 is amazing) or figure out how to downsize while you get things going. No one can really predict how things will go for you, much less me as I’m writing this, with zero idea of who you are - but think of it like this: in an ideal scenario, you want to save as much as you can while building a foundation slowly when you don’t need it. If you’re in a lucky enough position now to have extra money that you can put into an emergency fund, do it. And if you don’t, forget about your website, branding, and services.
Get yourself to the safe zone and make that a priority, as much as you can. It’s not going to be easy but this is one of the most impactful things you can ever do for your freelancing dreams and for your life. If freelancing is your long term goal, this could even mean actively taking on a higher paying bridge job in between to build that safety net. This is real talk: there’s the quick path (where it feels like you’re drowning and you’re at higher risk of failure, burnout, debt) but the quick path isn’t usually the best path. The best path takes sacrifice, time, effort and money.
You’re more likely to take on work you’re not excited about and wouldn’t actually put in your portfolio, if you’re feeling stressed about your finances - remember that client payments aren’t necessarily going to be regular or even on time. You’ll be subject to clients who have their own specific standards for payment, for example, four weeks after publishing an article that you wrote four months ago. Expect this and plan for it.
2. Do you have your business finances, contracts, and legal things set up?
More on this in part two of this series but these are the kinds of things that you can do on the side of a full-time job that will prepare you for the transition. Speak with an accountant beforehand, so you can prepare in advance. Otherwise, you may find yourself in the same situation as I did many years ago, when 23-year-old no-savings me was short $6000 because I didn’t know I was supposed to be charging GST (Canadian tax, eh!). Rookie move.
Whatever you can do to build a foundation for your business before you leap is handy to give a think on, so that you’re not quitting and then spending an entire month or more on business setup, leaving little room to actually prospect and get clients, much less do the work.
3. Are you escaping from or running towards something?
The grand escape is often glamourized as a major life achievement (ironic given that for many, the freelancers’ version of a beautiful escape is more like being thrown into the fire after being fired).
Sometimes things are so bad that you really do need an escape, and it’s too much to even consider anything other than getting out.
I used to hear this question all the time in the context of hiring, and it later became a part of my own advice arsenal when I finally realized and saw what it meant: it’s like in relationships, when you break up with someone and then rebound immediately to fill the hole of your former SO. If your motivation to get away from something is stronger than your desire to do something else, you could be making rash, unwise decisions. Nothing is life is forever and your current situation and job surely won’t be either.
As a counterpoint, sometimes stress, risk and challenge, in a healthy dose, is exactly what you need to give yourself a reset. Studies show that in jobs, challenging work is actually a primary factor in fulfillment. Take what you want from this non-advice advice, but consider at least if freelancing is really the right fit or if you just need a different job, role, company, industry. What do you really, actually want? (Check out our series on goal-setting for a refresher.)
4. Are you just itching to try something new?
“I feel like trying it” is a totally valid reason to jump into freelancing too. Maybe you’ve worked in jobs back-to-back for years and you’re looking for a change of pace. Maybe you’re looking to contribute to a wider range of projects and clients. Maybe you’re going through a life change or crisis and all things considered, flexibility and variety are the most important things you need at the moment. Don’t discount the feeling of wanting something different - you’re not beholden to the choice forever, and many people use freelancing effectively as an in-between state. Sometimes that extends, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, you’ll grow from it.
You don’t have to guilt-trip yourself for taking the “easy way out” and wanting to do that whole quit your job thing, if that’s what you want to try. Although it can be seen as a break from traditional forms of employment, it’s not easy. It’s very plainly, just a different way to work - a way that provides value and fills the needs of the companies and people hiring freelancers.
P.S. Check out SuperHi CEO Rik’s guide on how to go freelance for even more tips on making the leap from a former freelance web developer.
I have clients but I want “better”/different/more exciting ones. What should I do?
There comes a time in every freelancer’s journey when they decide they need a new challenge and creatively, they start to feel a bit stagnant. This is sometimes a breaking point when, in the absence of a manager or mentor to help guide and no job support environment, independent freelancers can start to feel the effects of burnout and eventually decide it’s time to go back to employment where someone else can make the hard decisions.
But before that point, here are some ways to break past the client stagnation barrier:
Raise your rates
We’ll cover how to properly think about freelance rates: what to charge, when to charge, and how to invoice in part two of this series but for now, one important concept to remember is that cost doesn’t necessarily correlate with effort or even impact. Cost is actually just perceived value, which means that in order to reach the kind of clients and payscale you desire, you may need to completely reconsider your own rates - perhaps not even incrementally like the kinds of raises you may be used to.
Work on a creative project
The kind of clients you get are largely dependent on what you put out there. No one is going to hire you based on trust alone, unless you’ve got an extremely strong referral in place - and that can be a hard sell. In order for clients to be able to imagine what you can do for them, you need to show them. And if your current body of work isn’t reflective of what you want to be doing, take some time, project manage your learning, and produce a new piece of work that pulls your work forward.
On that note: always cull your portfolio and only show work you’re proud of. Not everything has to be your best work ever, but you shouldn’t ever be embarrassed of what you put out there. As your taste evolves, so should your client base. Find ways to bridge the gap publicly and try new things.
There are endless things you could be doing, a myriad of ways you could be spending your time. So how do you find the time? You need to make it. Sometimes in order to bring in new clients, you need to say no to current clients. Digital PM Trainer Rachel Gertz writes about managing client expectations including when to say no and when to say yes, and her advice is just as relevant here.
This is why in an ideal situation, you have that money saved up, because when you get desperate to pay the bills and can’t say no, it becomes a lot more challenging to evolve and grow your client base. If you have the privilege of being able to say no, the discomfort of doing so will still be there, but doing so may be exactly what you need.
Plus, they’ll be able to hire someone else who actually wants and needs the gig - so really, it’s a win-win, especially if you have someone you can refer.
Do-it-yourself professional development
Sometimes the biggest change you can make is actually within yourself. It’s corny, yes - but to pretend otherwise is like pushing a rock uphill: you can try really, really hard and you might get somewhere but is that the best place or the highest you can climb?
This is an important inflection point in any creative’s journey, but it’s critically important for freelancers who are working solo. You’re in charge of everything and you need to be in charge of what you put in just as much as what you put out - it’s a loop that feeds itself.
This is on many levels: creatively, professionally, and personally. It means cultivating your creative practice, building your skills and business acumen, and looking after yourself (yes, that whole self-care thing everyone keeps talking about - read software engineer Carolyn Yoo’s take on creative burnout for some tips).
As a freelancer, you’ll find these segments of life bleed into each other, which means that if you want “better” clients, you need to be able to identify what the gap is and make some personal changes. Reverse engineer your professional development: who are the people that are working with your ideal clients? What are they doing that you’re not? What skills do they have?
(As a sidenote here, there’s other ways to grow your business beyond getting more clients. We’ll talk about automating workflow, getting an agent, creating products, building an agency and more - including how to think through “what next” - in part three of this series.)
For all the people dreaming about working for themselves and who see freelancing as the ultimate dream, there are people who find themselves pushed into it because they’ve lost jobs, becoming one of the many accidental freelancers in our midst, trying hard to stay afloat, navigating unknown waters. Sometimes it’s a way to tide things over until they sort out their next thing.
Wherever you are in your freelance journey, you’re in growing company, and as the freelance workforce continues to rise, the new norm of work could look very different in the years to come. As many of the challenges and downsides of freelancing are well on their way to being addressed (ie coworking spaces, online communities, IRL meetups, easy-to-use software specifically tailored to non-enterprise businesses), new ones are sure to come up.
The internet has become our big beautiful playground for freelancers and businesses, but what makes the difference between hobbyist and successful independent creative are the ones who make the right calls on what’s important, and that’s getting clients. It means putting yourself out there, finding the balance between experimentation and focus, and understanding your strengths and experiences to leverage for the highest impact.
Once you’ve sorted out getting clients and making money, it’s time to focus on building a proper business (these two steps can be interchanged depending on the urgency of your situation): we’ll be diving into how to set rates, how to think about your finances as an independent creative, what needs to go into a contract, and all the legal bits and pieces that go into building a thriving business. And then, we’ll dive into the world beyond: an advanced level-up lesson on automation, growth and scale (going beyond freelance and into entrepreneur) in part three of the series.
Illustration by Adamastor