7 Steps to Build a Successful Freelance Career
Several years ago, when I first considered working for myself, I really didn't know what to expect. You hear those people talking about all the glittering benefits that come with going on your own: sleeping in late, taking vacations whenever you want, working from the beach, making tons of money and the list goes on...
Let me be the first to say, don't listen to those people. Sure, you'll get to enjoy parts of those benefits from time to time, but don't let the idea of freedom blind you to the work it takes to get there.
You need a plan. Regardless of the type of freelance work you want to do – consulting, PR, marketing, website/graphic design, etc. – without a plan you'll end up giving up your dream and running back to something more stable and predictable. And, I'd expect if you're reading this, that's not where you want to be.
Here are the 7 steps you need to make your dream into a thriving, sustainable freelance business.
1. Make the decision and stand by it
Perhaps one of the most common reasons people never take that step to start working for themselves, is that they never set a date to take the plunge. Odds are, you're not going to randomly walk into your boss' office and quit unless you planned to do so (hopefully!).
The great thing is, it honestly doesn't matter when. It doesn't have to be next week or next month. Even if it’s a year from now, just set a realistic date to make the switch. Once that is set, tell someone about your decision. If your spouse, best friend or roommates knows you're working towards a date, you're much more likely to stay on track.
Personally, I set a rough date to take the plunge about a year and a half out. At that point, it's easy to make a big decision like that and it gives you plenty of time to get the rest of your plan in place.
2. Decide to be the best at something
This one may sound obvious, but so many freelancers fall into the trap of offering to do everything. "You want to pay me for a service remotely in my field? Sure, I'll figure it out!" But, this will set you up to be a generalist, and people don't shop for generalists. It's just not how the world works.
When my wife and I decided we wanted to have a fence built at our house, we didn't look for just anyone that had the tools and ability to do it. We looked for companies that specialized in building fences, and we hired the one that convinced us they were expert fence builders.
So, before you throw all caution to the wind, take some time to identify your strengths. If you want to build a name for yourself, you have to be known for something. When I started out, I realized pretty quickly that I loved working with small businesses to develop their logos, and I've been able to grow that and now I get consistent referrals for logo designs.
3. Start building a client base
Another mistake a lot of people make when becoming a full time freelancer is they wait until their normal job is over to get their freelance business off the ground.
I recently met a web design freelancer at a networking event who told me he spent the first 6 months of his freelance career with NO clients. Many people just feel that's part of the game, but it doesn't have to be. If you like burning through your savings and eating ramen for every meal, this could be a good route for you. But, if not, spend some time building a client base before your take the leap.
About 6 months before I made the switch, I joined my local Chamber of Commerce and went to several Meetup groups to start getting my name out there and begin building a solid client base. This let me comfortably make the switch with a somewhat proven business model and significantly less fear that I would become a permanent moocher (which my wife appreciated).
The goal is to have so much work with your freelance clients that the transition is as natural as possible. So, get out there! It may mean long hours for a little while, but take some steps to test your idea and find some early clients.
4. Enhance your online presence
Even if your main sales tactic is face-to-face, your online presence will be where anyone goes to make sure you're legit. If you want to take your work beyond friends and family, you'll need a website that represents your professionalism and quality of work.
So, pull together a portfolio of your best work, ask for a few sparkling testimonials and make it clear what it is you do. If you're new to web design and don't quite have the budget to hire a designer, Squarespace is a beautiful and approachable platform to use to get you started.
Related: 3 Things Your Website Needs to Produce Sales
5. Take the plunge!
Alright, it's finally that time. Now that you have a narrow focus, a few steady clients and a professional website, you're ready to take the step and begin working for yourself.
That's all I have for this step. So, pull a Nike and "Just Do It!"
6. Build your network
The most effective type of marketing for any small business is a word of mouth referral. In fact, people are 4 times more likely to buy when they're referred by a friend or trusted colleague. Building a referral network will take some time to develop, so, this is a good one to wait until after you begin working for yourself.
The local Chamber is a great place to start, then find the more intimate groups that work for you. A lot of people join BNI groups or free Meetup groups. I know many of these groups can feel intimidating to approach, but the right one for you is out there!
I'm part of a BNI group that has about 25 members and, after just my first few months, I'd done work for most of the members in the group and have gotten dozens of referrals.
So, look around and I'm sure you'll find a group that fits your business.
7. Find retainer clients
Hopefully, by the time you've gotten to this point, you would already call your freelancing career successful. This final step is about making your successful freelancing business sustainable.
This is the ultimate goal of freelancing. Regardless of the service you provide, clients can take a lot of time and resources to acquire. But, if you offer additional benefits or discounts to your retainer clients, you'll find some clients that can be a perfect fit.
Going after contract clients will provide the security of consistent income and it allows you to spend more time on the actual work instead of constantly looking for more clients.