I’ve only been freelancing full-time a little over a year, but I’m already making a decent living. If current trends continue, in 2021 I should match or even overtake my salary from my last full-time job.
So I’m successful, even if it doesn’t always feel like it while I’m continually marketing myself, juggling existing clients and projects with new ones, and trying to identify the right digital tools. I get asked for advice regularly, so here are my top tips.
- Have a financial plan for the first year. I got a severance package from my job when I was laid off and had my own savings, which mean I could pay my bills and didn’t have to freak out about money for a while. I realize this is a privileged position to be in. If you don’t have a cushion, start socking money away. Some people freelance part-time for a while both to save up and to get a head-start on building a client base. If you have a partner or someone else you can lean on, that helps.
- Put up a website and a LinkedIn profile. Your website, especially when you’re just starting out, doesn’t have to be anything special — something basic you throw up on WordPress or Squarespace with information about you and some clips is enough at the start. LinkedIn is great because it offers both a format for presenting your information and a way to promote yourself by connecting with others. Your LinkedIn profile, especially at first, will have way more visibility than your website, unless you are an SEO wizard.
- Create a portfolio of your work. I have been a writer for some 20+ years, so I had samples ready to go from my former job as well as the occasional freelance gig in the past. If you’re a newbie writer, you might mock up some samples in your niche. Speaking of your niche . . .
- Identify your niche and the type of writing you want to do. Do you like to write short, snappy copy for ads and social media? Are you good at sales copy that converts? Maybe you’re like me, a former journalist using your skills to write blog posts, articles, white papers, and case studies for businesses. In addition to the form you like to write in, think about the industries you want to write for. I had experience in writing about higher education services and healthcare, so those were obvious choices for me. Then through one of my first clients I started writing about B2B technology, and now that’s one of my niches. I have also written for a law firm and a plastics company. So don’t worry that a niche will limit you — it’s just a way to focus your efforts.
- Identify and reach out to potential clients. Now that you know your niche, find clients in the space who have need of your services. I looked up companies offering online education services, found the names of marketing managers on LinkedIn, then figured out their email addresses (hunter.io is good for this) to send a pitch. I will say I have not had great success with this method, although I recently heard from a company that I emailed a year ago. So you never know. I also ended up getting enough work through my network that I didn’t need to rely on cold emails. So you should also . . .
- Work your network. Friends, family, former coworkers, people you chatted with at an event, LinkedIn contacts — let them know what you’re doing and ask them to pass your name and information along to anyone they know that may need your services. I got my first two clients via my aunt and the boss from my very first job out of college, and I’m still working from them regularly.
- Be open to learning and adapting. Early on I realized that I had a preconceived notion of what freelancing would look like, the cadence, who my clients would be, and so on. The truth is that while you have some control over your work, and as you get more experience you can make it align more with your interests and preferences, at first you have to be willing to explore and see what works. Sometimes your career can surprise you — as I mentioned before, I never expected to write about technology, but it turns out I’m good at explaining complex concept in an engaging way. This is actually part of the fun.
That’s the quick version of how to get started. I’ve found freelancing anxiety-provoking, exhilarating, frustrating, exciting, fulfilling, frightening, and freeing. I’ve worked harder than I ever did at almost any job, but I don’t mind because it’s on my own behalf. If you’re ready to face your fears and create a plan to survive the first year, I encourage you to go for it.