10 things I wish I'd known before going freelance

I don’t know if it’s the time of year, or the fact that I recently came back from my travels, but I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting of late. I've been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned in my life so far, how to find a way of living that keeps me truly happy and healthy, and my goals and wishes for the next few years – particularly for this little space of mine. So over the next few weeks I’m going to share some of these insights and musings in the form of blog posts, as well as sharing a bit more about myself and my goals for 2015.

Seeing as this blog is all about championing creative freelancers, I thought I’d kick things off with 10 things I wish I'd known before going freelance – AKA my top tips for the newly self-employed. Hope it's helpful!

1. Think about ways to package up your services

Even if you run a service-based business, it’s worth thinking about how you could bundle up your services and offerings. For example, if you’re a freelance writer and editor you could offer content strategy packages, where for a set price you will spend a day on site with a client, meeting key staff and getting a good feel for their brand and goals, then go away and create an editorial style guide, a content calendar, three blog posts, 20 social media posts... you get the idea.

The benefit of offering packages in this way is that it makes the buying decision and process super easy. Sometimes potential clients don't know exactly what they need, or how to begin the conversation. It also gives you a different revenue stream to supplement straightforward commissions, and scope to create different types of bundles to suit different budgets and needs.

2. Have different revenue streams

There are all sorts of ways freelancers can use their skills to make money these days, and while you don't want to burn yourself out or spread yourself too thin, it's helpful to have more than one revenue stream if you want to build a sustainable business. For example, if you’re a designer, as well as taking client commissions you could also look at designing and selling prints through your own Etsy shop or creating and launching an e-course in design.

In particular, think about setting up a few ‘passive’ income streams, (where the sales process is automated – for example, selling digital products). While you will need to put in a lot of work upfront to create something people want to buy and then to promote it, the great thing about passive income streams is they can continue to earn you money even while you’re doing other things. Examples include:

  • Writing and selling e-books through your own blog or a platform such as Gumroad.
  • Affiliate advertising on your blog, so long as you’re open about what you’re doing and never compromise your editorial integrity.
  • Selling your design/artwork through a site such as Society6 or Zazzle, as prints, iPhone cases and t-shirts etc, where you license your designs and then the site takes care of the manufacturing and shipping.

3. Get proper agreements in place, especially when working with friends

I’ve met so many people with horror stories of doing a freelance job for a friend. It usually goes something like this: you agree to do a job as a favour to a friend at a lower rate than you'd usually charge. Because it's a friend, you don't get any formal agreements in place.

Then, what you thought would be a straightforward job starts to drag on and take up way too much of your time. You don’t want to damage your friendship or appear unprofessional, but you also have a business to run - and without a formal agreement you're backed into a corner.

For the sake of your friendship and your business, always stick to your usual process and get everything agreed upfront. Before taking on any job, get a written agreement outlining at the very least what the key deliverables are, all deadlines, and when and how you'll be paid.

4. Have a system in place for revisions, and agree this upfront

No matter how good you are, you will get people who want to change things for the sake of it, or clients who realise half way through a job that they should actually probably run this past a director, who then wants to change everything.

For this reason, I've learned it's also a good idea to try and agree upfront how many sets of revisions will be included in your fee. Not only will this prompt the client to deliver feedback more strategically (rather than firing off hundreds of emails as they think of things), it also helps to protect your time. This way, if the scope of the project changes half way through or more amends are needed, through no fault of your own, the client will know that this is going to cost more.

5. Sometimes you need to educate your clients...

Throughout my career I've met several people who always wanted to go along with whatever the client wanted, because they were worried about upsetting them or losing the job. Trouble is, if you know a better way then staying quiet isn’t actually helping your client in the long run.

It all comes down to how you approach these types of conversations. If you are polite, respectful and have evidence to support why you believe another direction would get a better result for them and their customers, most people will be open to hearing what you have to say. If handled well, these conversations can actually strengthen relationships, as well as delivering a much better end result.

6. ...BUT don't be precious

There's a difference between educating a client to help prevent them from making a big strategic error (perhaps not making their website mobile friendly or running an ill-advised social media campaign) and trying to enforce your own personal style or preferences. The minute you start thinking a project is all about you rather than making the client happy, you're heading for trouble.

Equally, if a client doesn't love something you've created, try not to take it too personally. It's not usually a reflection of your abilities, and often comes down to not spending enough time really getting to understand their aims, values or brand - which is crucial if you're going to develop new creative materials that will help them achieve their goals. Take it as an opportunity to reassess your processes and think about how you can improve next time.

7. Create a process

Freelance designer and blogger Breanna Rose has written some great posts on this for her Be Free, Lance series (which is well worth a read), and it’s so important. In a nutshell, you need to find a system for working with clients that will help you do a great job every time, stay on top of things and work as efficiently as possible. Where possible, develop templates for documents and materials (such as Q&As, contracts, invoices etc) which you can adapt and send to each new client.

It will take a while to learn what processes work best for you, and will invariably involve some trial and error, and that’s OK.

8. Beware of the phrase: ‘We don’t really have a budget for this, but…’

In my experience, a client who's reluctant to pay you from the get go is far more likely to create stress and problems later down the line. I've found this particular phrase to be a red flag for difficult projects, and a sign that it's usually best to say 'no, thank you'.

9. Keep your overheads as low as possible

This is a good idea for anyone starting a business. Simply put, the leaner you keep things and the less you splash out on extravagances you don't need, the greater your chances of building a sustainable business. Also, the more freedom you'll have: you'll be less likely to need outside investment and will have more scope to be selective about the clients and jobs you take on.

Working from home and using flexible co-working spaces when you need to, rather than taking on office space, and using free/low-cost but great-looking DIY options to build your first website (such as WordPress or Squarespace) are both great examples of how you can keep your startup costs down without cutting corners.

10. Save, save, save

I’ve left a full-time job to go freelance twice in the last eight years. The first time I had no savings, and if I’m honest I didn’t do much preparation before going it alone. Second time around, I did things very differently, saving up around five months’ worth of living expenses before leaving my job at the end of last year.

The difference between my mindset and stress levels second time around has been immeasurable, and having that buffer has really taken the pressure off.

I know it's hard to save when you're on a low salary, but if you keep a close track of your outgoings for a week or two, you'll often find there's scope to re-prioritise. For example: making a packed lunch each day instead of buying it can save you a small fortune; or, rather than going out to bars and restaurants, start making awesome home-cooked meals and inviting people over, or have picnics with friends (often more fun anyway!).

Think of it this way: rather than spending money on things you don't really need, save it for building the life you truly want to lead.


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