10 Hidden Skills of Successful Freelancers

10-hidden-skills-of-the-successful-freelancerAnyone who’s spent any time freelancing knows far too well that there is much more to it than simply doing that thing you love whenever you want in your pajamas.

The truth is that a freelancer must become the equivalent of a business owner in many ways, and there are a number of other requirements that extend beyond that job title as well. In this post, I will point out some of the hidden skills that a freelancer must possess or learn in order to fully succeed in their endeavors.

1. Business Owner

Right off the bat, a freelancer in essence becomes the owner of their own business. Whether making it official and incorporating or simply working as a sole proprietor, the responsibility of EVERYTHING that has to do with your business falls squarely on your own shoulders.

On one hand, this is a fantastic amount of freedom and opportunity to build and grow your business as you desire, rather than answering to someone else. On the other hand, this is an immense amount of responsibility that can quickly overwhelm the unprepared. This duty becomes the umbrella that all the other skills in this list fall under, but instead of reporting to the owner as a subordinate, the freelancer is the owner AND the employee.

Just make sure you don’t start having arguments with yourself about best ways to run the business. (At least not out loud when anyone else is around.)

2. Accountant

This is one of my least favorite and therefore agonizingly acquired hidden skills. I do not like dealing with money, other than spending or saving it, so the realization that I now had to keep track of every expense, every receipt, every invoice, and every payment was not a welcome one.

A successful freelancer must find the best possible way–whether doing it yourself or hiring someone else–to manage the finances. Your taxes and consequently your livelihood depend on it.

3. Collections Agent

Another less popular role the freelancer must take on is the collector of unpaid bills.

Yes, at some point in your freelancing life you will have to become that annoying person who calls and emails and sends letters requesting unpaid balances. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to be annoying–you can do your best to be firm and demanding while still maintaining a solid relationship and good communication with your client–but I don’t know anyone who likes to make or receive those phone calls.

Still, there comes a time when it must be done. Please just avoid making those calls around dinner time.

4. Human Resources Manager

A successful business must take care of its employees, and in the freelancing business that’s you. One of the most difficult things the freelancer must learn to do is find the healthy balance between work and time off, but you as the HR department must make sure you are taken care of.

You must also take care of your medical coverage and maintain good health with regular checkups. If you ever get sick, there is no sick pay for the freelancer. In fact, your down time not only doesn’t pay, it costs you money. So taking on the management of your human resources (AKA you) is a top priority.

5. Operations/Project Manager

Whether you come by it naturally or you have to study and learn it, this hidden skill is invaluable to the successful freelancer. Planning out your project timelines, managing what happens when and keeping the workload balanced is critical no matter what field you work in.

There are a number of software tools that you can utilize to assist in this task, but you must take on the role of Operations Manager to not only survive, but to succeed–or else lose your sanity.

6. Customer Service Representative

Client management is key to the success of a freelancer, and a hidden skill that many must learn. Communicating with clients from start to finish in a project is critical, and therefore mastering it must become a priority. Learning the best ways and tools that fit your communication style as well as your clients’ will greatly benefit you, usually on a daily basis. If you don’t have the time or the patience
to be your own best customer service rep, there are plenty of businesses out
there (Specialty Answering Service to name one) that will do the customer service dirty work for you.

Any freelancer that excels in the hidden skill of Customer Service Rep is almost guaranteed to have happy clients, and happy client make lasting business relationships that can often spawn referrals.

7. Salesperson

Another of my least favorites, but at some point the time will come to put on your polyester plaid leisure suit and pound the pavement trying to drum up business. The best freelancers know how to do this in ways that attract (not drive away) potential customers, and how to “reel them in” and gain their business. Without this skill you will be relying almost solely on word of mouth and others doing the sales for you, so it is an important weapon in your arsenal of hidden skills.

8. Social Media Marketer

This can almost fall under the same category as the Salesperson, but it is quickly becoming a specific field all its own and a necessity for the freelancer’s success. Most successful freelancers will utilize at least one, if not more, social networks to market, brand and publicize their business, so this is a new skill to master. Facebook Fan Page, Twitter profile, LinkedIn–whatever your flavor (or flavors) of choice, you must use social media to raise awareness and attract potential clients.

9. Blogger

Most successful freelancers have some type of blog. There are various reasons you should be blogging, which I won’t go into here but this is a hidden skill that many freelancers don’t realize they need.

Add the responsibility of running, writing for and maintaining your own blog to all the other skills listed above, and it’s beginning to become hard to imagine when there will ever be time to actually do the freelance work you set out to do in the first place. Still, the value of a blog for a freelancer is priceless, so plan on honing this skill to your advantage.

10. Janitor

I have toyed with putting the title “President and Janitor” on my business cards, mostly for the laugh of it but also for the simple truth. At the end of the day, I am the one responsible for keeping my workspace clean and organized. Understanding the importance of this–especially for the sloppiest of freelancers–will improve your workflow and encourage your creativity in the work area. Letting it slide will do the opposite. So throw on the coveralls, pick up a broom and take out the garbage every now and then.

What Other Skills Do You Depend On?

If you are thinking about starting or new to freelancing and did not consider these hidden skills you would need in order to succeed, you may be overwhelmed at the prospect. Rest assured that it is not necessary to be highly skilled in all of them from the onset. Still, you will need to work toward becoming a master of all of them throughout your freelancing career, and the sooner you improve the better the rewards will be.

If you are already succeeding at freelancing, what are some other “hidden skills” you depend on for your success? Please share them in the comments below so we all can learn ways to improve.

Image by Shutterstock


  1. says

    I never looked at myself as all these things but now I do. Some of them I am glad to say I have the experience of doing, but others, like a collections agent, I wish I didn’t have to do.

    Great post.

  2. says

    When you start out freelancing, you never even think of being half of these things, you just think, “sweet, I can do what I love and get some money for it”. But more of my day is taken up with these businessy things than coding some days and its been a real eye opener.

    Some of these roles slip on easily, for example, being able to manage a project without having bosses and superiors who know nothing about web getting in the way has been a godsend and has really boosted my confidence in other areas like selling my services and customer relations. But one role I never want to get used to is the collection agent, I HATE IT!

  3. says

    Can you imagine your name title :)
    Homer: Fine. It’s not important. What really matters is my title. I think I’ll make myself… vice president. No, wait. Junior vice president.

  4. says

    I think freelancer or a better name- entrepreneur indeed have to take on many roles even includes as a father, husband, son etc.

  5. says

    Oh yes, I have to agree with all of these. As a freelancer, you are the top and bottom dog of your “company”. Unless you outsource some functions, you are the one man show.

    One thing I would add internally would be: tech support. I can’t count how many times I have fixed things on my site or even my internal setup. From backups to following best practices, if you don’t have a plan for the “unexpected”, you could lose all of that important data that all the other parts of you rely on.

  6. says

    Excellent post — I graduated college in ’96, and you either took business classes or career-specific classes, but it was never required to learn both. As a result we have generations of people wanting to follow their passions and start their own companies, but they lack any sort of business skills and doom themselves to failure.

  7. says

    Skill number 11: Delivering the goods! As a freelance voice-over professional, I spend about 60% of my time finding work, 30% on doing the work and 10% on the rest. Being an independent contractor means trading job security for the freedom the be a freelancer. The risks are greater, but so are the rewards!

  8. says

    Great article. I don’t want to be a killjoy (never do), but the one thing I have to disagree with is the use of legitimate job titles in the headers. Yeah, I get that the article aims to say, “You’re basically someone who embodies traits like these people if you freelance.” But it’s still safe to say that it’s also trying to say, in a way, that freelancers really are all these things rolled into one. Not partially, but fully. An admirable claim, but a lofty one as well.

    A lot of freelancers, even ones living comfortably, aren’t doing the things mentioned on the level of the professionals with those job titles. Using Quickbooks or iPhone’s BIllings, sending email invoices, and paying taxes every quarter to HR Block certainly doesn’t make one an accountant, and actually doesn’t even take squat for accounting knowledge. And a lot of successful freelancers I know are just pleasant and assertive, and they just get nonstop referral clients through a snowball effect. If you actually put them into a corporate HR Manager job or Marketing Ad-Strategist Executive position they’d probably jump from a 10-story window their first week.

    As a freelancer I’m definitely not trying to step out of line and smack-talk my fellow colleagues. But, in an odd and often endearing way, I’ve often observed freelancers trying to aggrandize their skills and responsibilities to be more “larger than life” than they really are. It certainly isn’t just making stuff and getting money while in your pajamas. But it’s not building a Fortune 500 company that makes lunar landers and cures for cancer either. Being a freelancer is actually pretty lax and easy if the responsibilities aren’t too contradictory to your nature.

    *puts on kevlar vest*

  9. says

    Quark: you are absolutely correct. Hopefully no one believes that a freelancer should be able to step into any of the job titles above and be just as good at them as they are at whatever their freelance skill is. The idea of the post was to show how a freelancer has to take on all these roles that a typical business disperses among various much more skilled people. It’s an overwhelming thought – but one that we must face and realize is a part of the task if we want to succeed at being freelancers. Apologies if that was confusing or misleading. No need for the kevlar vest. ;)

  10. says

    So true. When I first started, I didn’t know think of at least half of the operational processes – and they’re not fun! Especially accounting. My best advice is to hire an accountant/bookkeeper. She will save you so many headaches – the time you save is priceless. I used to spend so many hours with my desktop accounting software.

    For my invoicing, which I do myself because of speed, I use the online invoicing tool Billing Boss (http://www.billingboss.com). It’s free and customers receive my professional-looking invoices through email. I can quickly see who paid me, who hasn’t so I know when to play debt collector. With the add-on payment collection option, it works with my existing merchant account – something that other invoicing tools don’t offer – so I don’t have to pay extra merchant fees. Plus, my accountant has access to all my invoices with her separate login so I won’t need to deal with her.

    Brian also mentioned blogging. Although its time intensive, I also found this quite useful. It increases SEO for my site, which in turns attracts more viewers/potential customers. It IS time intensive, but it’s well worth the time. Do case studies on how you helped increased your recent customer’s business!

    Please note: This author has been compensated by Sage.

  11. says

    Per no. 1: You can talk to yourself, out loud, and even argue with yourself. It’s when you lose the argument with yourself that you have problems. ;-)

    Seriously, this is a great list! Salesperson is difficult for me, but I’m getting better at it. The worst title that should be added to the list is “benefits coordinator” — finding affordable health insurance that actually covers things. Ugh. Filling out an individual application and instantly recalling 10 years worth of medical history is (almost) enough to send you back to a corporate job with a group plan!

  12. says

    Despite the glamorous reputation I’m guessing from this is that freelance design is no walk in the park. I assume It takes an incredible work ethic, significant entrepreneurial prowess, and a little bit of insanity to pull it off effectively?

  13. says

    I definitely feel like the Project Management role is one of the most important when freelancing. Sometimes it feels a little overwhelming and if you’re the kind of person that can schedule and plan well, you’ll do well at freelancing.

    I think salesperson is the most difficult role for me. I have to keep working at that one!

  14. says

    Love the advice. It’s so simple that it is often taken for granted. I remember when I first started freelancing the biggest hurdle for me was developing a routine that would keep me in “work mode”. I actually would wake up in the morning and put on some business casual attire, and even shoes, to make my home feel more like a “home office”. It took around six months or so for me to actually get into the swing of things.

    One last note: I cannot tell you how important it was for me to stay healthy. Not only because I knew how much income it could potentially cost me if I didn’t, but also because I quickly discovered it was the key to keeping my attitude upbeat and positive. I started running daily and eating healthier lunches, and I cannot tell you how much more business I have now because of it. Sure, I take 1.5 to 2 hour run + lunch breaks, but that time spent on improving myself is clearly apparent in the work I do and how I run my business.

  15. Pamela Fehl says

    Thanks very much for summarizing these core elements to freelancing. All 10 are true and completely relatable. Like a lot of people are saying, it’s a multi-hat job. I freelance write and edit, and figuring out how to prioritize the tasks is always challenging. My least favorite also are the money-management and money-chasing tasks. And maintaining health and factoring in time off to destress are crucial. I’m so glad to see this on the list. Without a steady salary and someone else footing the bill for health insurance, it’s doubly challenging to make healthcare a priority. But sick days are not an option for freelancers. We can’t afford ‘em in the middle of projects. I think the only thing I could add to the list is #11 Barista. When you work from home, you make your own coffee… lots of it!

  16. says

    Thanks for the great article, it’s always comforting to know I’m not the only one being pulled in several directions!
    Although it can stress me out, the multiple aspects to being a freelancer was exactly what I was after when I first decided to sign up. The one-dimensional 9-5 I had previously just wasn’t enough for me. The managing / marketing / selling / organising / accounting keeps life interesting and I find I am able to challenge myself daily. It’s what life is all about!

  17. says

    I’ve read many posts that freelancing is a one-man band business. The good thing is you don’t have a manager bossing around. The hardest duty is trippling your effort (having all these skills) but the best part is yeah, the reward!

  18. says

    Great Post! So true about Janitor. You can call yourself President of your own company, but at the end of the day you are responsible in keeping your stuff clean.

    And I so agree with Johnny – Self Motivator.

  19. says

    Great article, thanks. Why hire an accountant to manage your finances? As a freelancer you have little money to spend on a dedicated bookkeeper. Use a cloud service like http://www.snapbill.com to do your billing, reconcilliations and reporting. Then if need be export all your billing data and give it to an accountant to double check.

  20. says

    I’ve been a self employed web designer for 10 years. I enjoy my job and consider myself good at what I do, but initially lacked many of the skills. Being organised is a very important factor and setting routines for similar tasks like invoicing on a fixed evening each week will enable you to focus on the work that pays. Approx 35% of your time will be running the business and the remaining 65% will be on actual work so take this into consideration when working out your hourly/daily rates. I’m not a sales person but fortunate to have a good network of friends within my industry and get most of my work through recommendations, which are the best form of job leads you can get.

  21. says

    Despite the glamorous reputation I’m guessing from this is that freelance design is no walk in the park. I assume It takes an incredible work ethic, significant entrepreneurial prowess, and a little bit of insanity to pull it off effectively?

  22. says

    I’d like to add self motivation. Having managed several people that have never even considered the idea of working “off their own back” – their self motivation can be non existant! This means of course that managing them takes more of my time, leaving less of it to be spread around in other areas.

    Frankly, if I could, I’d have everyone employed as full-time contractors – I.e. if you don’t do it, when I want it, how I want it…you’re out. And if you don’t find that in itself motivating, then don’t even try. Yes I know, I can be a little tough in the office!

  23. says

    Forgot to mention – If you’re in the UK and want to employ staff, ask them in the interview whether they’ve ever tried being enterprising – it opens doors in their head and you’ll get a better idea of how they spend their time.

  24. says

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of 10 Hidden Skills of Successful Freelancers | FreelanceFolder . Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely comeback.

  25. says

    Hi all! I am freelancing since 2004, I am software developer since 1993. I admit things are totally different when you start and you are young than when you get nearly 10 years being your own boss and you are nearly 37. When you start it’s all about the feeling of getting things done by your own, setting rules by your own, going to sleep at 5am coding and the feeling of omnipotence of being your own boss, running your own thing without bowing the head to nobody. Time passes and you need to develop that necessary CEO vision for that one-man company you created; at the end it’s the CEO and his right or wrong vision that makes the company whether survive or not, not the programmer. I totally agree with the article, you need to be all those 10 items and more, freelancing is not for the weak of spirit. And I’d point out something that a blogger said earlier, that you spend about 65% time doing your favorite freelancing skill and 35% is spent on running business. It’s totally the opposite, to the point you end up being 90% the CEO and 10% that one who implements what the CEO indicates to do. At a point, you need experts besides you in your staff you can assign things to, even if they are in other countries. Every freelancer becomes a project manager at a certain time. You can’t keep your ass squared 20 years in the same chair doing the same type of work. You are not evolving that way. Life is that wonderful thing that happens outside the monitor. Cheers, Diego Sendra


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