So, you think you’re ready for your first freelance client—but are you really? You may think all you need to start freelancing from home are a computer and a can-do attitude, but you’d only be half right. If you’re truly committed to working at home as an independent contractor, you need to have a few more tools and processes in place before you start taking on clients. Check out my guide below so you can start working as soon as possible.
Streamline Your Capture Process
First things first: in order to do the job, you’ve got to land the job. It’s imperative that you have your systems for capturing work in place before you really dive into your freelancing career. All too often, freelancers get stuck in a feast-or-famine cycle where they’re either drowning in work or can’t find a drop of it. If you want to make your freelancing a career, you must set up a strong capture process.
Pitch Every Day
Create a list of potential clients you’d like to pitch to and keep it updated. If you’re a writer, this could be a list of magazines or websites. If you’re an artist—and depending on what kind of artist you are—this could be a list of publications, companies, production companies, and more. Programmers might have a list of companies they’d love to code for. Whatever your niche, you should put some research up front into who you’d like to work for—then regularly check to see if they’re looking for help.
You can do this easily by checking their Careers page or maybe their Submissions Guidelines page, depending on who you’re targeting. You could also do this by connecting with someone in the relevant department and networking with them, or establishing some kind of social media relationship with the individual you’d like to work with directly (for example, on LinkedIn).
Perseverance is one of the best paths forward to success: by staying in touch and keeping your name in front of people, you’re more likely to be remembered and to eventually hit on a freelance gig that’s perfect for you.
Once you know who you’d like to pitch to, make sure you have a streamlined process to get those pitches out the door. Write a few different form letters that let you plug in each pitches’ custom details so that you can send pitches off quickly and confidently. Make sure you don’t send the same text multiple times to the same potential client, of course—you don’t want to look like spam and get blacklisted from their Inboxes.
Keep Regular Hours
Make pitching and correspondence a regular part of your day – you should have designated “office hours” each day when you check and reply to email, put together new pitches, and have conference calls as necessary with clients or potential clients. Not only will this practice help you be more productive and focused, it’ll give your clients (and potential clients!) more confidence in your work and respect for your abilities. I’ve found that one of the main client complaints against freelancers is that they’re not communicative enough—don’t give your clients cause to complain; give them regular access to you through office hours.
Know Your Watering Holes
As I mentioned above, you should create and maintain a list of clients you’d like to work with, whether companies or individuals, and regularly reach out to them for work as appropriate. You should also go beyond your list and have a few places online you can go to find work, such as job posting sites.
Consider having a profile on Upwork and specifying that you’re available to hire on LinkedIn. Writers might regularly check the ProBlogger Job Board or MediaBistro. IT or tech professionals can keep their eyes on remote.co. Artists could have offers up on Fiverr. Virtual assistants might be registered with sites like Worldwide101 or Time Etc. Do your research and you’ll find places to monitor for work.
Getting to Work
Once you’ve landed your client, make sure you’re prepared to start off on the right foot. You should have pre-determined processes in place to establish your freelancer-client relationship, ensure you get paid, and ensure you can accept the money sent to you.
Define the Project
The first step in any new freelance assignment is to define the project. Both you and the client should have a clear understanding of what exactly you’re going to do so that expectations are set on both sides. You want to ensure you deliver exactly what they want and that the client understands the limits of what you can deliver. Don’t leave room for scope creep, which is when the client keeps asking for more without necessarily paying you for additional work.
This is also the time to establish deadlines. Make sure you understand how long it takes you to complete projects—realistically—and how many you have the mental bandwidth to juggle at once. Then suggest a deadline that allows you enough time to do the project properly (if they want it sooner, tack on a rush fee so you can prioritize it). If the project is large enough, you might also want to schedule milestones – smaller deadlines at which you complete a certain phase of the project so that both you and the client can see you’re on task for the final deadline.
Have A Contract
Now that you’ve detailed the project and your deadlines, prepare your contract—ideally with a service like Bonsai, which makes it incredibly easy. If you’re just writing a blog for someone’s website, you may think this isn’t necessary—but it’s always better to be safe than sorry—especially when sorry may mean not getting paid.
Generally, your contract should:
- lay out the scope of the work and your terms and conditions;
- define what you’re delivering upon completion;
- enumerate how many revisions are covered by the base fee;
- state the payment required and establish a payment schedule;
- cover additional costs that can be incurred by additional work requested;
- a little legalese including disclaimers;
- and anything else you deem necessary.
Ryan Robinson provides some excellent freelance contract templates and a breakdown on what each section is for and why it’s necessary. His post is definitely worth the read.
Be Ready to Accept Payment
There’s no reason to start freelancing if you haven’t made it easy for your clients to pay you! PayPal, of course, is one of the most widely accepted methods of getting paid in the freelance world. However, there are some other methods you might want to consider:
- Google Pay
- Freshbooks (via Swipe or WePay)
- QuickBooks Self-Employed
You can always ask to get paid by check as well, which you may want to consider if you don’t like the idea of paying fees to receive payments. However, it’s not always ideal: checks introduce delays in receiving payment, and unscrupulous clients could just claim the check is in the mail or say their financial department lost your invoice. Plus, if the check bounces, you could face fees from your banking institution and have to play the part of collections agent with your clients. That’s not fun for anyone, and wastes a lot of time.
And Get Paid Up Front
If you’ve spent even five minutes on the Internet, you know there are many, many scams out there. You know not everyone can be trusted. So, when you’re trying to get paid for your freelance work, it’s always best to get paid up front.
That won’t always be possible—your clients will be cautious and on guard against scams as well. An acceptable compromise is to ask for a deposit before you start work. This protects your time and guarantees you’ll get paid something even if your client disappears. Make sure you put the required deposit in your contract, then define when the rest of the payment is due: for example, upon delivery, when you hit a certain milestone, upon publication, within 30 days of receipt, and so on.
You must be prepared to handle the money you bring in from your clients, as well—and the best way to do this is by working with a good bookkeeping program. You’ll also want to be set up to get the most out of your tax return.
Become a Bookkeeper
Get yourself set up with a solid bookkeeping program from the beginning—believe me, you’ll thank yourself for it later. I’ve tried out more than a few programs and my preferences come down to Freshbooks or QuickBooks Self-Employed.
FreshBooks has all the tools a self-employed pro needs, and will even let you set up recurring invoices to be sent out automatically. You can track your time through their platform, run reports on your activity, send out invoices, accept online payments (including credit cards and ACH bank transfers), and have a much easier time finding all your information at tax time. You can check it out with a 30-day free trial, and then it's $15 per month for up to 5 billable clients or $25 per month for up to 50. (They have larger plans if you need them.)
QuickBooks Self-Employed lets you issue invoices, separate your business and personal expenses, can automatically track mileage if travel is involved in your work, and can even file your taxes for you thanks to their connection with TurboTax. It also helps you track your estimated quarterly taxes: remember, as a freelancer, you’re responsible for setting aside a portion of each payment to cover your federal and state taxes. You’re also responsible for making quarterly estimated tax payments. QuickBooks Self-Employed’s plans start at $10 per month.
When you’re running your own business, you may be eligible to claim some deductions on your taxes due to business expenses. For example, maintaining a home office, purchasing equipment for the business, traveling for business, and more can be identified in your bookkeeping program and used later to minimize your tax liability.
Set your habits up now so you regularly enter business expenses into your bookkeeping program. This organization will pay off.
Carefully setting up your bookkeeping system at the start can make it easier both for you to send invoices and to follow up on any late accounts. For example, Freshbooks can be set to send automatic reminders on outstanding invoices, meaning you can spend less time tracking down payments manually. When these bookkeeping platforms accept payments as well, it’s even better, and gives your clients less excuses not to go ahead and pay you ASAP.
You’ve noticed by now that most of these steps come down to taking the time to set your systems up beforehand and then having the self-discipline to maintain them. Self-discipline is what will take you from sporadic freelance work to a successful freelance career.
Know Your Limits
Throughout your freelancing career, it’s radically important you understand just how much work you can take on in a given period, and how quickly you can do the work you have. Having too much work is just as bad as having too little, and maybe even worse—disappointing clients or doing subpar work can result in lost clients and hurt your reputation. Balance your commitments, don’t bite off more than you can chew, and don’t burn yourself out.
Keep yourself organized and aware of all your commitments by investing in a good planner.
The planners from Erin Condren have saved my life, more than once, and I highly recommend the Erin Condren LifePlanner Binder she’s just introduced to the world. It's fully customizable, letting you add the pages that suit your organization style—which means as many dot grid pages as you want for bullet journaling. Or coloring pages (we all need stress relief). And, of course, the usual monthly calendar pages, weekly spreads, and monthly notes.
If you prefer an online planner system, take advantage of Google Calendar—it lets you schedule recurring appointments (or blocks of work time), can send reminders to your email, and close off parts of your schedule if you’re working with automated scheduling platforms like Calendly. Evernote is also an excellent choice, especially as the paid version can help you manage your projects and centralize all your notes and correspondence on your clients.
Now you know what you need to do – get out there and get ready to take on your first freelance client!