6 Things I Learned My First Year As A Freelancer

I hit a milestone this year. I become a full time freelancer and matched my previous 9 to 5 salary. I'm not bragging, but I will say - it was a shining moment for me. As I reflect back at this journey I've pulled a few take-aways that I hope will help those new to freelance life as well as those considering hiring one. 

Freelancing vs. Free Time

When people hear that I'm a freelancer they usually smile and say something like, "lucky you." As if freelancing is the same as being independently wealthy. But don't be fooled - freelancers work hard for the money. A lot of my clients are most active during normal business hours and I have to make myself available to them. I have to set work hours and manage my time wisely. I can take a 4 hour lunch - but I'll likely be up a few hours later than usual working on whatever I put aside earlier. As a new freelancer, my most important lesson was to treat my freelance gigs the same way I would treat a 9-5. Create a flow, stick to a routine and deliver on deadline. It's just sometimes I do all that in my pajamas.

Build Your Toolbox

A huge benefit to being a freelancer is the famously low overhead. No office (unless you rent a co-working space or hire an assistant), no employees, no commute to and from somewhere ridiculous. But, keeping your expenses low isn't always the best aim. As my client load got bigger and my time window got smaller, I began to embrace the upgrades. Shifting from the FREE version to the $250 per year version may feel like a pinch in the beginning, but it's worth it completely.

Using pro versions of social media tools, project management tools, editing tools - they can sting the pockets a bit but save you time (read: money) in the long-run. You can't make money without spending money - this is true in every aspect of business and it's especially true in the freelance world.

(yawn) Networking 

The word alone sends extremely boring shivers down the spine of every millennial across the nation. The idea of being "business card ready", and nodding mindlessly as someone explains what they do for a living makes our eyes gloss over. But, networking - or whatever you want to call it - doesn't always come with stuffy business suits and a convention center setting. Attend a panel on a topic you want to learn more about, join a book club, attend an art opening, go to a community event - any chance to be around like-minded people will increase your chances of making a meaningful business connection. 

It's also a vital part of the freelance world, if we want to continue growing. You can network anywhere as long as you stay open and ready. Be excited about what you do and genuinely interested in what other people need. Don't think of it as networking. Think of it as building your village. And, yes...stay business card ready.

Know Your Worth

This is a big one guys. Starting out, it's extremely common for new freelancers to under-sell their time. We offer a lower fee to attract client attention and cover-up insecurities about abilities that haven't been proven on paper enough to compete (yet). But, no matter what - you should value your time. You should demand that others value your time as well. Make sure that whatever price you put on your services includes all of your overhead (all those pesky subscription fees mentioned above), taxes, cups of coffee, hotspots and trips to see the Apple geniuses.

If you're insecure about your skills - offer to work under a retainer. Create short term contracts so that you don't get locked into low fees as your skills and abilities get stronger. In the end - clients pay for quality. Period.

Skill Build

Being a jack of all trades might be a distraction in the corporate world, but as a freelancer it can be a huge asset. You don't have to know it all, but you should know a little bit about pretty much everything. And that's not much to ask these days. Between skill sharing workshops, video tutorials and websites that offer a full and complete line of educational series' you can learn everything from PR strategy to basic HTML coding. Don't be afraid to challenge yourself. There's nothing wrong with sticking to what you know - but knowing a little more could help keep your freelancing pockets padded.

The caveat? Build away at those skills, but don't travel too far from your niche. The point of skill building is to make your main function easier and keep you as independent as possible - NOT to introduce you to a new hustle. Stick to what you know best, but keep improving the way you do it.

Your Client Is Not Your Manager

When I first transitioned from the corporate world to being a freelancer, there was an old habit I had to shake. I had to stop thinking in terms of being managed by the person who was signing my check. True - a client should the main focus, their needs should be met, their preferences should be considered and you should always implement customer service best practices. But, your client is not your manager. They are not the regulators of workflow, how things should be done or how quickly things should take.

A freelancer I know once stayed up until 4 AM talking a new client through an issue. The next day when he was sending over his hours, he reduced them by about 75% so as not to scare the client away. What happened? The client balked at even the reduced version of his timesheet, questioning why so much time went into so little progress. To the client - talking on the phone was a free perk. To this freelancer, it was hours and hours away from other things he could have been doing. The problem was that workflow expectations hadn't yet been set in stone and this client was taking full advantage.

Freelancer clients are usually just people like you and me who have enough room in their budget to employ contractors. That doesn't mean they've gone through HR training. It doesn't mean they understand payroll and team management.

You are in the driver's seat, set the tone and follow your own lead.

 

What's been your biggest challenge as a freelancer?