Becoming A Freelancer: 7 Things To Do When (Or Before) You Take The Plunge (And One Reason Why Famous Advice Is Wrong)

Becoming A FreelancerI’m a relatively new freelancer. The mortgage industry imploded, changing the way that I had to earn my income.

That gave me release from a job that only sort of fit anyway. I love the industry, but in December of 2007, I scaled back my origination efforts, and now I’m working on a bunch of new and exciting projects – some of them are for others (clients), and some of them are products that I’m selling and developing myself.

I’ve always wanted to be a freelancer, attracted to the romance of being a writer.

1. Get Control and Understanding of Your Budget.

This is the first thing that you gotta do! You have to know what your expenses are and what they’re going to be in the future. You need to leave room for paying taxes, and you have to set goals on how much you will earn on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

For example: right now, I have to earn $109 per day to afford basic expenses and food (God bless the Midwest). At $191 a day, I hit my financial goals in regard to college and retirement savings. I average over that, but I get anxious when I don’t complete $191 worth of deliverables.

This is based on 21 work days a month. My former ‘burn rate‘, needed me to earn $339 per day based on a 21 day month. I moved, I quit the Starbucks, and lots of the driving. Simple things like changing hosting providers, and replacing Vonage with Skype have helped me tremendously. Also, have a really simple client invoicing rules: take retainers or don’t take the client. (See #4)

2. Wage a Ruthless War on Clutter.

I’m no natural neat freak, ask my wife. But the deal is this: your mind has to have a tiny bit of processing power on every item in your life.

Extra items wear you out. It’s easy to work in a neat environment, so to make that more likely, I continue to pitch stuff. It makes a huge difference, especially in your office. Clean surfaces make working easier. Ditch mental clutter as well – you’ll need to streamline your bills and decisions in some way

3. Internalize Your Task Management System.

Whether it’s GTD, ZTD, or Marc Andersen’s variant, you need to be the master of ‘the collection habit,’ and prioritizing tasks.

Basically, a Molkeskine, Google Notebook, and maybe Jott is fine for collection. You have to focus on getting things to completion, whether it’s a blog post, or an entire project.

While we have freedom as freelancers, we must work more efficiently when we’re working than we would otherwise. We have to use a system to make sure we stay ahead of the stuff that comes our way.

4. Stick To Your Guns With Customer Service and Client Standards.

Hitting deadlines is the most important part of your new job. Turning in ‘ok‘ work on time is always better than being totally late but pixel perfect. You must hit deadlines early every time.

Deadlines also get you paid. Make sure you negotiate deadlines upfront, and make sure it’s clear what role a client plays. If getting information from a client impacts your deadline, make sure that the agreement is stated that you’ll deliver the goods X days after you receive necessary information.

Make sure you collect at least a token amount upfront, and make sure you have a clear expectation as to when payment is to be received.

5. Schedule Non Negotiable Lead Generation Time Every Day.

Even when you’re slammed. Especially when you’re ‘slammed.’ Do this because you can avoid the typical income highs and lows that supposedly go with the territory.

I’m in the church of lead generation now after a scary time in March. Lead generation – in good times and bad – should be around 20%-30% of your day, especially in the beginning.

You also need multiple lead sources, blogging only isn’t gonna get it. More leads equals more options. Lead generation keeps your income escalating. You get a constant stream of more options. When you have options, you become more professional, polished and powerful.

On my schedule is what I have to do each day and it’s less than 2 focused hours a day, but it gets people to join my programs and hire me to help them.

6. Network With People Outside Your Specialty.

I’m a writer, and a project manager, and I’ve got basic familiarity with PHP/HTML/CSS. But I couldn’t bill for working in PHP. A PHP guy may not have the angles I can develop and stories I can tell to get customers. Trading clients makes sense for both of us. Know your strengths and weaknesses! (very important!)

Having some people that you can trust to exchange clients with is key. Add value to one another, think in terms of ‘abundance‘, and remember: top professionals, regardless of specialty, have equal business stature.

7. Think Early About a Way To Reuse Your Work.

When you get up to speed as a freelancer, you are in charge of your own raises. To get raises, work efficiently. Have a process, which can be as simple as a google doc with bullet points. I often set up WordPress blogs for Real Estate Agents. I don’t do it ad hoc anymore, I know which host, which plugins and categories to set up.

I add more value and charge more money while doing it in less time. I have a marketing copy checklist that I loosely stare at.

Why Famous Advice Is Wrong?

The bad advice people give freelancers is this: Have X months expenses saved before you start. Not necessarily the best piece of advice. The corporate structure simply doesn’t make it easy. Being broke is caused by the corporate structure, and the way to break the cycle is to burn the bridge.

Taking the plunge is worth borrowing money from friends, family, or a home-equity line of credit. Your life is more important than to be a corporate lackey, and when you’re pressed, you’ll find a way. There is always a way!

Caesar crossed the Rubicon and got rid options. I didn’t have much cash before I started, and I had a family of 4 to support as a sole income earner. I didn’t want a slow death, so I made it so I had to succeed.

What do you think?

Chris Johnson is a freelance writer, and is actively seeking new contributors for his soon-to-be-launched blog NewMarketSurvivalGuide.Com. He can be reached here.

image in this post: hufse


  1. says

    I’m just about to start freelancing beginning next month,so any good advice like your’s is welcome.

    “I didn’t want a slow death, so I made it so I had to succeed.”

    Sounds pretty much like me. Sometimes you have to burn bridges to make sure there’s only one direction to go – forward! It seems at least some of us need these kind of special self-handling.

    It’s a bit like going to the gym. When I started some half year ago I told each and everyone including myself that “I’m gonna go to the gym three times a week”. I did not say “I’ll try to get there three times a week.” because it would leave this tiny little hole…

    Of course there are times where I cannot make it, but because I promised everyon and myself it leaves me with a bad feeling that won’t go away until I do a really good workout.

    So it comes down to set youself goals and stick with them – seriously.

  2. says

    I’ve read a ton of similar articles in the last year or two… but this, good sir, is *by far* one of the best: simple, comprehensive, realistic, encouraging and useful. Well done and thank you, Chris!

  3. says

    All great advice! I’m about a month and a half in after taking the plunge, so this is of particular interest to me! I was pretty good on the budget item, and am a stickler on the customer service and client rules etc (ALWAYS get a deposit up front, and full payment before transfer of files to client!).

    I’m working my network connections – it’s truly amazing how this all works. Often times simple acquaintances or friendships can bring about unexpected leads. I’ve been working on the lead generation time – I know I need to improve in this area, so thank you for the reminder!

    My current big goal is to work on the Clutter and Task Management. Funny, but as I got closer to taking the plunge, I started getting such a need to deal with the clutter. Almost as if I were nesting (you know, that neat-freak-obsession you get when you’re pregnant and baby’s arrival is getting close, LOL). I haven’t spent time on this, but now that I’m full on in my freelancing career, it’s my #1 priority. I’m reading GTD and hope to have a good handle on my clutter and tasks, etc. by the end of the month. I know it will give me tremendous motivation to have a clean and functional workspace and process, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for the great article. I’ve read so much on the topic (taking the plunge), but this was a unique spin on some of the “must-do’s”!

  4. says

    As I am just getting started on my way to being a full-time freelancer, this was a timely article, to say the least. My big problem now is learning the art of lead generation. Perhaps a piece on that art is something that can be written about here? At the very least, if someone can suggest a resource that I can utilize, that would be helpful.

  5. Tracy says

    PERFECT TIMING on this article! Another blog recently suggesting putting away several months of income before trying a freelance career and noted that it can take up to SIX YEARS to earn even close to a full time income. Talk about taking the wind out of a person’s sails!

    I’m being laid off of my “corporate” job this week and armed with several clips, resources and motivation, I’m *determined* to make it as a freelance writer.

    I live in a rural area. Pay is low for everyone but the cost of living isn’t! I went on a job interview today and “assumed” they would at least offer me over $9.00. I was stunned when they offered $7.45. WHAT??? I managed to “beg” them up to $8.00 but it’s still not enough money to cover all of my bills.

    Okay, so the “good” news there is that finding freelance work to generate that amount of income shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s not like I’m trying to earn thousands a month.

    There are no guarantees in ANYTHING, but you put the wind back into my sails. THANK YOU!

  6. says

    Great post, Chris!

    The one thing that I disagreed with was your negative assessment of saving before going freelance. Personally, I think that if someone is unable to muster the discipline to save while they have a traditional job, the chances of them being able to do so while going freelance is pretty slim. But that is just my opinion.

  7. says

    Agree with some, if you can. My blog motto is “jump and the net will appear”. I agree totally about turning in work on time.

    I had just started to build a freelance problogging biz for about 3 weeks when my day job was cut. I had to go go go from that point forward and started off (use these in an EMERGENCY only for clients) using elance and getafreelancer. If I’d had to stay with them I would have starved. Tim Ferris has driven prices for freelancers and virtual pros way down.

    Luckily one of my first clients loved me and has referred me to many people. Just passed out 500 postcards (she paid) at National Speaker’s Association.

    So, to make long story shorter, I didn’t have the advantage of saving, planning or anything and it is all ok! Never been happier…

  8. says

    Really cool article. I thought it was all pretty interesting and valuable. I like the “wage a ruthless war on clutter” paragraph.

    Also, the section on finding ways to reuse work. I think this is critical for freelancers to ever get out of the trade time for money loop.

  9. says

    Truer words were never written. Just keep in mind one caveat with all these “rules”: Flexibility. You can negotiate payment schedules, commit to conquer clutter, set aside time for new biz dev. But my home office desk is never more awry than when a Killer Deadline approaches. Down the Totem Pole of Priorities all else slips – networking, collections, cleanliness, etc – when I have that proverbial Bird in Hand that someone else (namely, my client) is expecting in his/her nest.

    So be flexible.

    And enjoy the ride…

  10. says

    I’ve been spending some time trying to figure out what to do with my MA in English–besides teach. Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching! But I really want extra options. This post is excellent, and I’m definitely going to keep it in my mind for future reference.

  11. says

    his is the excellent weblog for any person who desires to learn about this theme. You know so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I really would want…HaHa). You undoubtedly put a brand new spin on the matter thats been created about for a long time. Excellent stuff, just wonderful!


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