Many people dream of quitting their jobs and going freelance or starting their own businesses. Are you one of them? Maybe you want to control your own schedule, escape a bad boss, or get out of the cubicle and work from home.
In 2012, I did just that, becoming a freelance web developer. So far, it’s been successful. I have more business than I can handle. Here is my advice for freelancers just starting out.
Your Work and Customers
1. Go Above and Beyond Customer Expectations
Doing good work is important in any business. But when you’re starting out and don’t have a lot of customers, it’s critical! You need to do ridiculously amazing work… work so good that your customers can’t help but tell everyone about how awesome you are.
This is super important because I found the number one source of new work is referrals. Many other freelancers (and folks who work for themselves, like real estate agents) have confirmed this as well.
So, even if it means you don’t make much profit at first, make sure your first customers are not only satisfied, but so thrilled that they can’t contain themselves when they talk about your services. Go the extra mile and put in the extra hours to achieve this.
2. Be Super Responsive
I can’t tell you how much work I’ve gotten because a client’s previous web developer would go MIA and not respond for days at a time. The simple act of answering email or the phone seems like common sense, but apparently many people fail at it.
I try to answer each email as soon as I get it, even if it’s just an “I’ll work on this tomorrow” type of answer. If the job is quick, I do it on the spot and email the back that it’s done. People are amazed at this!
3. Have Integrity
My business philosophy is to always look out for my clients’ interests. That may mean directing them to lower-cost services if that is what is best for them. Don’t pressure them into spending money on services they don’t need. Don’t over-bill. Your customers will appreciate this and reward your integrity in the long run (and be more likely to refer you to others).
4. Don’t Waste Time on Toxic Customers
On the other hand, some customers are toxic and will drain your time and passion. These should be dumped. Customers are important but don’t waste your time on those who don’t treat you with basic civility, or who expect slave-wage prices, or who drain your time with unreasonable requests. Go ahead and “fire” these customers so you can spend your time on quality customers who deserve your efforts.
4. Take Lower-Paying Jobs Initially to Build Your Portfolio If Necessary
Figuring out how much to charge is one of the most difficult tasks in freelancing.
When you first start out, it’s okay to take a few low-paying “charity” cases to build your portfolio or referral network. Sometimes it’s worth taking a low-paying job when you’re starting out if you can get a great recommendation from it, or use them as a reference. That has value.
5. Put in the Hours
When I first started out, my equivalent hourly wage on some projects was less than what people make working at McDonald’s. That’s because I was still learning and it took me a long time to do things that I can do really quickly now. You can’t charge your customers for the time it takes to learn your job (unless it’s something specific to that customer). So, when you start out, your equivalent hourly wage might be low. Don’t be discouraged. As you become more efficient, your profit margin will go up.
6. But Don’t Be a Bottom-Dweller Forever
After you build your portfolio as mentioned above, you shouldn’t accept slave-wage prices. Avoid posting on freelancing websites like Fiverr. You don’t want customers who are looking for work for the lowest cost possible. You want customers who are looking for a quality product at reasonable prices. Spending too much time working on low-value projects (unless it will result in a referral) may prevent you from finding better projects.
7. Don’t Waste Money on Frivolous Business Expenses!
A common mistake I see people make when starting out is that they spend too much money on unnecessary stuff because they think they need to act like a real business right off the bat. Do you really need to hire a designer for a fancy logo for your plumbing business when you’re first starting out? Do you really need to form an LLC (which costs $800 per year in California), when you are first starting out? Do you really need a $5000 website right now? Spend $20 on Squarespace or Wix and figure it out yourself!
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re doing real work when you’re spending money on things that are not absolutely necessary!
Another example is co-working space. Some people swear by it, but I’ve never understood it, other than if you need space for meetings. If you need a quiet place to work alone, go to the library. It’s free!
8. Do Invest in the Necessities
Of course, if you really need something for your job, it should be part of your business plan. If you’re a photographer, for example, you SHOULD get a kickass camera. If you’re a video editor, you SHOULD have a kickass computer. Invest in things that save you time or improve the quality of the services you offer.
9. Cut Personal Costs
Cut unnecessary costs in your personal life like cable TV, gym memberships that you don’t use anymore, streaming TV and music memberships, and so forth. Make your meals at home instead of eating out. Here are some more ideas to save money.
10. Set Up Other Sources of Income If You Have Spare Time
When I was starting to go freelance, it was really great to have some other sources of passive income to get me through the slow times. In my case, I have blogs that actually provide some monthly income. I had time to do this because I had some free bandwidth when I was starting out.
One way to earn money is to get a roommate, which I did when I started out. It was a great source of passive income. Don’t have a room to rent out? How about selling stuff you don’t use anymore on eBay? Or, give music lessons, walk dogs, or whatever is up your alley during your spare time.
Getting the Word Out
After referrals, my second-biggest source of new clients has been networking. If you have spare bandwidth, attend meetup events, seminars, and trade organization meetings in your field. You might also meet colleagues in the same field who can help you in some way, perhaps by referring overflow work that they have.
And, network at other places you hang out like at your church, school, social gatherings, etc.
12. Create a Business Card!
Professionally-printed business cards are not a frivolous business expense. They’re cheap. Get them. There are online services like Vistaprint.
Nothing is a bigger turnoff than when someone is interested in your services, asks for your business card, and you don’t have one. That just screams “I’m an amateur”.
13. Be Careful About Spending Money on Advertising
The biggest sources of business for me have been referrals and networking. These also give me better quality clients, whereas customers that contact you after seeing an ad are more likely to be bottom-feeders. I tried Google ads once and got zero business from it. Most freelancers I talk to say the same thing.
Of course, this depends on what industry you’re in and should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. But for me, and many other freelancers I’ve talked to in multiple fields, referrals give much more business than ads do.
Adapting to Your Market
14. Stay Flexible
When I first started my web development business, I noticed that a lot of clients who needed a new website also needed images. Photography has been a hobby of mine, so I started offering those services as well, to become more of a “one-stop-shop”, which paid off well.
See what your clients need and expand or change your services accordingly. You might start out doing one job and change to something different after getting some market feedback. Be open to change, especially if you are not seeing the amount of business you expected.
15. Keep Learning
Learning is really important when you’re starting out and inexperienced. You should learn the industry vocabulary, stay on top of the current industry trends, learn the latest techniques, and so forth. Block out time to do this! Even though you’re not directly earning income when you’re learning, it will pay for itself eventually.
16. But Stay Focused
At the same time, there is also a danger of spreading yourself too thin and being a “jack of all trades and an expert at none”. You might have to make some hard choices and decide to turn down certain jobs because they are not within your expertise.
In my case, I was interested in developing iPhone apps but decided not to so that I could concentrate on web development, and later hone in even more on WordPress development.
Specialization can also be a way to distinguish yourself from competitors. I heard a talk from a technical writer who specializes in the medical field. That allows her to charge a premium over other writers.
One Final Tip – How to Track Your Time and Invoice
If you’re in a job that involves tracking your hours and invoicing, I highly suggest using a service to do that. When I first started, I used a spreadsheet to track my hours and create invoices but it took forever and was inaccurate. I now use an online service called Harvest – it saves me hours per week and I can track my time on various jobs down to the minute.
I hope this helps! These tips don’t apply to all freelance jobs, but I think they apply to many, from web developer to professional photographer to plumber. Let me know what you think. – Brian
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