Read these 10 tips before your get started! So, you want to start working in the wonderful realm of creative freelancing. We welcome you and are excited to have you on board. Before you get started and run to your new potential clients to tell them why they should hire you, let’s get some systems in place, ideas on paper, and set you up for a successful and sustainable freelance career. Freelancing can be a lot of fun. Freelancing has given us the opportunity to develop our craft in our own way, set our own working methods and hours, work only with clients we love, and shape our own futures In short, freelancing is amazing. But how do you get started?
November 28, 2021
In contrast to traditional contract work, working freelance gives you a lot more freedom. But don’t be fooled; this freedom comes with a lot of responsibility as well. With no boss to set your hours, and no set salary every month, you must create systems and structure for yourself. Everything you do will be on you. If the business goes well and you are thriving, great! You did an amazing job! But if business is slow and clients are not coming back, that also is down to you.
While responsibility for working for yourself comes with great perks, you should be aware that freelancing isn’t often days at cute coffee shops, or trips to museums to get inspired. Freelancing, especially in the beginning, can be long days developing your craft, learning basic business skills and administration. Freelancing isn’t for the faint-hearted. You must have discipline. You must make yourself follow your own schedule and rules, and you must respect the goals you have set. You should be realistic enough to not burn out, but ambitious enough to stay inspired.
Checking all the boxes and still excited to get started? Great! We are so proud of you already! Getting your mind in the right space and having realistic expectations is half the work. Although no freelance path is the same, there are certain things we wish somebody has told us earlier when we started out as young freelancers. So, let’s get started with these 10 tips to get you set up for your freelance journey.
What is your craft? Are you an amazing dancer, skillful writer, driven photographer, top cook, or mind-blowing illustrator? Whatever it is, it is important to understand what you’re good at, or what you deeply enjoy and are willing to put enough hours in to become exceptional.
The freelance world can often feel a bit daunting. With so many talented creators showcasing their work it might feel like there is no space left for a newbie. But don’t be fooled. There is enough work out there for any freelancer who is willing to put in the work and time.
It is important to figure out whether there is a gap in the market. This does not necessarily mean that nobody else is filling the need, although that would be an amazing situation to be in. It’s more to see if potential clients show any interest in your services or products. You might want to develop a career out of taking photographs of people and their hamsters and completely focus just on that. And as wonderful as that sounds, (and we cannot wait to see those cute pictures), you might have to consider the size of that market.
This does not mean that you should simply let go of your ideal freelance career and simply fill a gap in the market. The fun part about creative freelancing is that you are the one who decides what do to and what to decline. Besides, there may be a large enough market for at-home-hamster-photography for you to make a living. But if not, it’s wise to think about other income streams that connect with your craft, and skills.
Maybe you will focus on pet photography at home, so you still will capture those cute little furry animals, but by enlarging the market you have more clients, more work to develop your craft and more money to invest in your career.
Always keep in mind that your choices aren’t set in stone. You can absolutely decide that pets are not your thing anymore, and you would rather photograph houses. Exploring your creativity is a journey, and so is your way into freelancing. If it sparks joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, let go (thanks for that Marie Kondo).
A small sidenote on this topic. Doing only what you love is a utopia no one will find. Every job has its ups and downs. Be realistic about this. Not everything can be fun, and that is ok. If the overall journey sparks joy and makes you feel fulfilled, you know you’re on the right track.
Ask yourself ‘why’ you want to start freelancing. Maybe you have been working in a corporate environment but now you want to set your own hours. Maybe you want to downsize your work commitments and work less. Maybe you want to choose your own clients or work from home. There are thousands of reasons one might choose to freelance, and it’s important to understand ‘why’ you want to start freelancing before you start.
Your ‘why’ will become the beacon that guides you. If you ‘why’ was to work fewer hours, (but make the same money) it will be important to track your hours to make sure you’re not working 60 hours weeks. If your ‘why’ was that you wanted more creative freedom to explore your ideas, make sure your clients match (don’t just take any work) and that you put in hours to develop your craft. Whatever your ‘why’ is, make sure to write it down and develop a plan accordingly.
Talking about a plan; we love a good business plan. This plan is your roadmap to becoming a thriving freelancer. Whether you are part-time or full-time, you will need a clear plan to hold yourself accountable.
Start by writing down what you want to do, and ‘why’. Then look at your skills. What do you need to improve? And what steps will you take to improve them? Read more books? Take an online course? Do some free work (more on that later)? Break down that large step that says something like “become a better…” into smaller, more manageable actions you can do on a daily basis.
Secondly, look at your expenses. What is your minimum income required? What is the smallest amount you absolutely need in order to pay your bills, your rent, food, saving, investing, and other requirements? Then… how much would you like to make (income) to live the life you aspire to have? Be realistic, but at the same time be ambitious. Write down your number and sit on it.
Next, look at the hours you want to (and realistically can) spend on your business. How much would you have the charge a client to make the money you want to make? And how many clients does it take to achieve your goal? Make sure to think about the other costs of setting up as a freelancer like laptops, gear, desk rent, etc., and include this in your overall price.
Check your countries tax rules to understand what amount of the money should go straight to a ‘we-don’t-touch-this-account’ for your quarterly and yearly taxes. We are no financial advisors, so these are just the basics. Find a good accountant as this person will be one of the best investments you will make in your freelance career. Even if you are making just a couple hundred bucks in the beginning; managing your money from the start sets you up for the right track.
Then go back to your craft. What services do you want to offer? At what cost? How will you market them? Do you need a website or a business Instagram?
Develop a timeline of 1 week, 1 month, 1 quarter, and 1 year and fill out the goals you want to achieve for each period. One week might be developing a business plan and finding an accountant. One month might be working and documenting two personal projects. One quarter might be developing a portfolio website and launching the business on Instagram. And one year might be making X amount a month through X number of clients.
It might sound like a lot of work, but this is your foundation on which you build success. Google ‘business plans’ and you will find amazing examples. Because yes, you are now a business and you need a plan.
Small side note. Don’t overthink it. Just get started, write down ideas, and just do it. We guarantee you they will change, and that is great! Don’t strive for perfection on this one, strive for getting things done. The best businessplans are short and to the point, so don’t make a big fuzz about it.
When transitioning from school to freelance, or going from a payroll job to freelancing, a whole lot changes. You suddenly have to think about paying yourself and managing your hours. Having digital systems in place to help you will make life a whole lot easier and will free up time to put in your business. Because let’s be honest, nobody started freelancing to track hours and do accounting, right? Unless you’re a freelance accountant, in which case we salute you, heroes!
Set up a digital accounting system. We use one called MoneyMonk (a Dutch company) but there are many out there. These systems track your expenses and income. You can create and send invoices through them and they automatically send reminders. Using a system like this will literally save you tens of hours a year and make the life of your accountant a whole lot easier. You will always have a clear overview of what money you own in tax, where your money went, and how much will come in.
Once this is all set up, you must link a bank account to your digital accounting system. We advise any fresh freelancer to open a business bank account. From the get-go, separate your personal and business income and expenses. Going for lunch with a business client? Buying a new laptop? Updating your dancing shoes? Hello, business expense! Make sure to put all your business expenses on your business card so you have a clear separation between personal and business. WE use BUNQ. A green bank that plants a tree every time you spend $100! So, you’re spending and making the world a better place. Yes, we love it!
Automate payment transfer from all your incoming invoices, so you won’t ever forget to put money for tax aside. In The Netherlands this might mean setting an amount, e.g., 21%, to go into a “don’t-touch-this-21% account” and for your yearly taxes about 36-53% going into a tax holding account. Make sure you discuss this with your accountant for the correct numbers. Always remember, better to save too much than too little!
Once your taxes and other bills are sorted, you are left with the money that is yours. So, it is time to pay yourself. You might no longer be on payroll and it will be very tempting to let all those invoices go straight to your personal account, but don’t fall into that trap. Use your business account to receive the money and set a set amount to pay yourself every month (once or twice a month preferably, so you have a set income, and you know what to expect).
Put the rest of the money aside for a “F*ck-off-fund”. In a nutshell, this is a saving account (preferably with at least 3 to 6 months of expenses saved) so you don’t have to say ‘yes to every job and have some wiggle room for the slower months. It is a safety net that you will be thanking your past self for when you need it. Read the whole story about this type of fund over at Billfold.
And lastly, set up a time tracking system like, for example, Timely. It is so important to understand where your hours go. First, because it’s mandatory in many countries to show your hours spent to get a tax deduction. And again, it’s important for you to understand how many hours you spend on your business and understand where those hours go.
We could write a whole blog post just about this, and we might do so later. But to get you started these are our ideas about how to develop your craft; if free work is something you should do; and why saying ‘no’ often is a blessing.
So, your business plan is clear, your budget thought-out, your digital hostname bought, your accountant contacted, your bank account set-up, your hour tracking system ready and your name on Instagram claimed. But what do you post? This is where we finally start talking about your craft!
Having a strong portfolio is the key to a successful business. Potential clients want to make sure before they commit, that their money will be spent wisely. They often want to see proof of your craft. You might be a smooth salesperson, but nothing screams “you want to give ME the work” as much as a professional, unique, and well-crafted portfolio.
Developing a well thought-out portfolio takes time. But again, just get started and don’t overthink it! You can always change it later. There are a couple of golden rules, according to yours truly (us!). First, it’s better to have 3 amazing projects in your portfolio that represent the work you want to do, rather than a mass of projects, half of which you don’t particularly like. There is no shame in having a ‘personal project’ in your portfolio. If they represent the work you would like to do or show something special, then put them in there! It shows your clients that you enjoy your work and that you put in the hours, client, or no client. And finally; make it personal and unique. Your portfolio is a reflection of you, your personality, your skills, and how you are as a freelancer. Use projects that showcase your unique abilities and style, and show why clients should hire you. Don’t fall into trends and hype, just do you, because clients hire you. People buy people.
And now the big question. Should you do free work? Our answer… Yes and No. Let us explain. We believe doing free work can be a great opportunity to explore your creativity, support companies you truly believe in, and enjoy complete freedom in the process. We often advise people to rather do that job for free and have the ability to set their own deadline and creative boundaries, than to do it for a tiny fee. If you are overbooked and you don’t get sleep, then no, it might not be the time to do free work. If you must pay your rent and your ‘fuck-off-fund’ is running low, no don’t do free work. But if you met all your goals, your rent is paid and a company you genuinely believe in, with a low budget, asks you to join a project then ‘yes’ it might be a creative opportunity to explore new ideas and give back to the community.
Understand that if you say yes to one thing, you say no to something else. We all only have so many hours. Make sure your clients understand the true price of your work and that doing the work for free means they will give you the freedom to explore ideas.
And then we come to the personal project. These “passion” projects often fuel your creativity. They can be combined with doing a project for free, but they could also be part of developing a project for a client you would love to work with. If you place your personal projects in your portfolio, be honest about it. Having worked for many hours on an amazing project only shows the effort you are willing to make for your clients.
We quickly touched upon this before, but to repeat, your portfolio will only get your work if you put it “out there” in the world. Putting your work where the world can see it for the first time might be a bit scary, but it is the only way to get clients!
We love the book ‘Show Your Work!’ by Autin Kleon about how to get over this hurdle and simply show your work.
Find the best platform for your craft and be consistent with posting your work. Engage with your audience and follow potential clients so they might check out your profile. Places like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Behance have made it super easy to develop an online portfolio and build a network.
We, as designers, love websites. So having a website was a no-brainer for us. Even as solo freelancers we all had our very own website. It’s this magical space on the web that is truly yours. You can design it as you want, have the format you like and even if social media networks fade, your website will be there (at least as long as the internet is there, and we think that might be for a while). You don’t have a be a coding guru to build your own website. There are plenty of online services that make the job easy. Try out a couple and see what works best.
So how do you get clients? Like we mentioned before, going through social media can be a great way. But cold emailing and cold calling often gets the job done even better. But the best way? Mouth to mouth. Happy clients and great work mean people will talk about you and new clients will find you.
I don’t believe in hard selling. We believe in providing value. We don’t drown clients in sales talk or go on and on about why we are so great and why you would want to work with us. We focus on the thing we can help our clients with and the value we bring to the table. Provide real value, and potential clients will come to you.
You know that question “So… what do you do?” Often, when people first start freelancing, they are reluctant to add their freelancing job to their answer. But you know what. Say it! If you are a photographer who does graphic design and does tap-dancing for company events, own it! You never know who knows who. Maybe there is a niche, and that friend who asked you that is looking for a tap-dancer and photographer. You might have scored yourself a new potential client!
We are always amazed by people’s “So... what do you do?” answers. How amazing is it that you do all those things! Yes, focusing on your craft and getting going is, in many ways, the road to success. But that doesn’t mean that those other parts of you should be sidelined. Be proud of your freelance work(s) and mention them in every conversation.
One of our favorite books that we advise every freelancer to read is ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday. The book talks about an ancient Stoic philosophy where everything is about your perception. You can’t control what happens, but you can control how it affects you, how you react, and what you do with any situation.
So simply put, when things don’t go as planned, like say a world pandemic hits, your industry falls, a client recuses, and you have a bad month or don’t feel inspired, don’t see it as an obstacle. Re-frame it and see it as a way to explore new ideas, theories, and opportunities. There are enough opportunities in the world for everyone, and as woozy as that might sound, it really is true. As long as you find passion in your freelancing and keep moving, you will find your way.
So, we end with going “all-in”. This sounds drastic but it’s not at all.
Going “all-in” simply means taking yourself and your work seriously. Not sure yet what direction to go, or still figuring out your true craft? Then it might be wise to start doing your freelancing on the side and slowly move out of your payroll job. But those hours you put into your freelancing career, go all in! Give it all your passion, love, time, and attention to meet your goals and explore your potential.
For some ‘going all-in’ might mean literally setting a final date for leaving your payroll job and going full time into your freelance career. If this works for you, great! Do it! Whatever, make sure you hit your short-term weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals and stay accountable to them.
Although there is still much more to say about how to start freelancing, these are the basics and done in under four thousand words! We can’t wait to see your amazing freelance career flourish. But if you have any questions feel free to shoot us an e-mail at email@example.com with your question, and I will do my best to answer all of them.