Insider Secrets: Freelancing Shortcuts That Really Work

Let’s be honest: freelancing isn’t easy. It’s not that it’s actually hard to be a freelancer or do the work… it’s the getting started, getting set up, getting clients, and getting a solid business foundation for sustainable growth that complicates everything.

There’s a lot more to freelancing than just… well, freelancing.

So I’ve put together an insider guide to my favorite freelancing shortcuts that really work. Whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been freelancing for a while, I guarantee each of them will change your business––for the better.

Oh, and make life a helluvalot less complicated.

Shortcut 1: Don’t Be a Do-It-Yourselfer

I know that when you’re starting out, money’s tight, and it’s easy to think that bootstrapping is the way to go. The problem with doing everything yourself is that it wastes an incredible amount of time: You have to learn new skills, guess at actions you need to take, make a lot of false starts and clean up mistakes as you go along. It’s the school of hard knocks––not fun, that.

Be smart. You’re good at what you do––let others who are good at what they do help you out. Set aside a small amount of money every week for a month or two, and then hire someone to do what you need done. They’ll do a much better job, free up your time and save you a lot of headaches.

Shortcut 2: Partner Up

Most freelancers work alone. That’s changing, but it’s still not the norm, and it should be. When you’re alone, you have to do everything. You lose out on jobs that pay well because you can’t provide all the services. And you limit your freelance business from growing because you’re stuck saying no to clients who want various services––but, you can only provide half. You’re also dealing with a whole bunch of stuff on your plate, and if you fall sick or need time off, your whole business grinds to a halt.

When Mason and I wrote The Unlimited Freelancer together, a major part of our focus was teaching freelancers how to get together with other freelancers. United we stand, divided we fall and all that good stuff. Get to know other freelancers and find people willing to team up to provide a wider range of services. It creates a mutually beneficial situation––you both get more work, better pay, great referrals and extra free time.

Shortcut 3: Hang Out In the Right Places

A common mistake I see many freelancers make today is sticking to a small crowd of people within their niche. Designers hang with designers. Writers hang with writers. Marketers hang with marketers. That’s nice if you want friends or support, but it’s not so good for bringing in cash and clients.

Explore other groups of contacts, different blogs where you could hang out or forums unrelated to your line of work where you could pick up clients. As a writer, I used to guest post on blogs for designers, for example. I hung out in marketing forums. I commented on blogs completely unrelated to writing. All these actions brought me clients.

Shortcut 4: Be Everywhere

Getting known is a problem, because there are a lot of people out there trying to get known as well. You’re all clamoring for the same attention––or worse, you’re hanging back and not attracting much attention at all. For many people, it’s tough to be in the spotlight and push your way to the head of the line. So, they don’t comment often, they don’t hang on Twitter much and they don’t send guest posts out.

Do it. Be everywhere. When Hollywood launches a brand-new unknown actress, their publicity makes sure that pictures of this person show up everywhere, all over the place. Tabloids, newspapers, television, blogs… And suddenly everyone’s wondering, “Who IS this person? She’s all over the place!” That’s what you want, because soon everyone knows your name, who you are and what you do.

Shortcut 5: Spend Money Wisely

Too many people buy a whole bunch of stuff they don’t need, and that often adds up to some serious expenses. They think they need this new product or that course might help or maybe they should do this, that or the other––all of which cost a pretty penny.

Know where you want to be. Set a goal. Have a clear vision of your future. Each time you feel the urge to spend or buy, ask yourself, “Does investing in this bring me one step closer to that future? And if yes… how quickly?” Chances are that the answer is going to be no. If you’re not sure, ask someone objective.

Shortcut 6: Ask for Help

A lot of freelancers play the guessing game and hope they’re investing their time or money wisely. So they spend time on a project that flops. Those “great ideas” sure are tempting, after all. Personally, I prefer to be sure my idea is great before I invest even five minutes into it, and I don’t rely on myself alone to make that decision.

One of the fastest shortcuts you could give yourself is the gift of consulting. Many successful freelancers now offer consulting services––they’ve reached their goals, and they want to help others. Benefit from that. Don’t rely on yourself to know what you need to do––ask someone else for help and get those ideas of yours cleared up on a great path to more of what you want.

Shortcut 7: Don’t Do It All

Have a site. Have a blog. Have a newsletter. Have an ebook. Have a course. Have 10 services. Have 20 products. Have this, have that, have it all… You’ve got to be kidding me. Last time I checked, human beings had two hands and one head, and there was only enough time and space in life for SOME stuff––not all.

You don’t have to have a blog if you don’t want to. You don’t have to have a newsletter or create a course or host webinars. You can do whatever you’d like that works with the time and life-space you have. Figure out what will bring you the most clients and income, and pursue that one single goal––leave the rest until you’re ready.

Shortcut 8: Ditch What You Hate

So many freelancers get into projects they don’t like, clients they don’t enjoy or work they really wish they didn’t have to do. They feel obligated to say yes––people generally feel uncomfortable saying no. But doing what you hate doing only makes you miserable and unhappy with your work. Why bother?

Nicely, politely, diplomatically start saying no to what you don’t enjoy doing and yes to yourself. Take care of you––make YOU happy first. Ditch the work and clients that hold you back from getting up every day thinking, “I love my job.” Because you should feel exactly that when you’re a freelancer, and nothing but.

Shortcut 9: Take Care of Number One First

When you’re a freelancer, there’s no one to tell you it’s time to go home. Or, that it’s lunch hour. Or, that it’s break time and you should stretch your legs. There are no two-week vacation periods and no “off for the holidays.” So what happens? Well, quite frankly, most cubicle workers have it better than freelancers.

Come on. What’s with that? Treat yourself well––after all, you’re all you’ve got! Don’t push yourself to work long hours. Get the sleep you need. Spend time with your family. They’re with you in this too. Eat meals with them at the table. Get out for a walk or take up singing lessons for some weekly fun. Plan vacation time––and stick to it!

Shortcut 10: Don’t Be a Freelancer

Remember that “I love my job”? That might actually work out best for you in the long run––having a job at someone else’s freelance business instead of having a self-made career. There’s no prize medal for becoming a freelancer/solopreneur, after all––it’s not a badge of honour, and you don’t have to be on your own it if you don’t like it. Sometimes working for someone else is the key to happiness––they deal with the admin and you paid to do what you really enjoy doing.

So if you don’t LIKE running your own freelance business, then don’t. You don’t have to go back to working 9 to 5 at some generic company, but you sure can decide that you want to be part of someone’s team instead of operating your own. We’re all different people, after all, with different needs. Some love forging their own path––some love working with others to create one awesome business. And that’s okay.

Your Turn

What have you struggled with most as a freelancer? What have you learned?
Share your answers in the comments.

Image by hlkljgk


  1. says

    Wow, great post and lots of great tips!

    Partner up & do what you like – When I started out about 10 years ago, I was doing everything. Design, coding, programming, support, etc…everything! Once I got a decent portfolio going, I started looking for a designer to step in and help me out. I’m a developer by nature, so design is very painful to me. Once I got a designer on board I quickly realized that projects were more fun and I could actually start charging more, since the sites looked a lot better.

    Put it out there and evaluate – If a client asks me for a new type of service that I don’t already do, I will research it out a bit. If it makes sense to get into and offering it to clients, I’ll put it on the services list to see if I can get others interested in it. Once in a while you have to “clean house” and take out the things that aren’t working or that you aren’t making money on.

    Network! – Get into a different social group, join the local chamber of commerce, join a networking group with other businesses. A lot of people out there have no idea what you do and what you can do for them. To them, you are the “expert” in your field, and they will be more apt to send you business than go searching it out elsewhere.


  2. says

    Over the last couple of years I’ve gotten much better at #8 — “Ditch What You Hate.”

    Some projects in my freelance writing niche take a lot more brain power than others do, and I find the brain strain quite tiring. Lately I’ve been turning down such projects, even when my schedule is a bit light. I’m happier for it, and I frequently get offered even better projects in the near future, projects I might have had to turn down for lack of time if I’d taken the less desirable project.

  3. says

    I’ve been a freelance designer for about 5 years. Only in the past 6 months have I worked to create key partnerships with other freelancers who have complementary expertise to mine. Not only can I focus on elements of a project that I’m really good at and enjoy but it’s also allowed me to offer more comprehensive services to my clients.

    A bonus that I didn’t really anticipate was that I am able to nurture another strength: project management. I was shocked to learn that some of my partners hate that piece of the puzzle. I just assumed all freelancers had project management mastered. Not so. Now I am focusing my days on building my business through these collaborations while refining my skills in design AND project management.

    Things I still struggle with: delegation of other administrative tasks and time management. I’ve been reading the book “The Wealthy Freelancer,” though, and my hope is to improve on other weaknesses in the coming year.

  4. says

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been freelancing for around 4 months so I am still finding my feet and getting to grips with this new career choice!

    The tips are brilliant and I’m definitely going to be taking them onboard.

    Thanks! x

  5. Elizabeth Macfie says

    I’ve been a freelancer for 14 years (editor, indexer and business networking consultant), and I appreciate your sharing this wisdom, James.

    Number 3 describes the valuable “loose connections” Malcolm Gladwell describes in _The Tipping Point_. As well as giving us access into milieus different from our own, they’re a source of new ideas and new connections. And out there, we may be the only [insert service here] visible.

    Note: I also get a lot of work through connections in my own industries.

  6. says

    In regards to #6, setting up a Mint account and using the budget feature has helped me spend wisely, especially when it comes to discretionary items. I still purchase the things I like most (e.g. ebooks, music, software) but I do so by trying to stay within budget.

  7. says

    “The problem with doing everything yourself is that it wastes an incredible amount of time” < can relate to that; i spent about 3 months setting up my first website, from installing WordPress to customizing it (I dont know a word of HTML or design). in short spent 3 months doing something a web designer could've done in 3 days or less. sure there was the thrill of learning and all that, but in hindsight could've used my skills more effectively!

  8. says

    Thanks for the article. I’m just starting out in my freelance career and #5 Spend Money Wisely is a very important point. From now on before buying new tools I’ll ask myself “Will this purchase bring me closer to my goal?”

  9. says

    This is a really interesting article! So far I’ve struggled with doing everything on my own, learning the ropes of my field of work by myself, and finding people to partner with. Yes precious time and effort have already gone by, but I don’t regret it because I valued everything that I learned throughout the process of doing so.

  10. says

    really excellent post…especially point no 7 touched me…most of the site says do hell lot of stuff and this one says do what you are comfortable with…good post

  11. says

    Whoever says that freelancing is easy should go out there and try it even for a day. I think that many freelancers are missing out on opportunities because they make the mistake of becoming a Jack ( or Jill ) of all trades when they should be promoting what they are good at. One big challenge for me as a freelancer is how to trust another freelancer when doing a collaborative work. Yes, no one can do it alone but trust is another issue and I think, I have a big one to boot. Nice tips though, I’ll keep these in mind. Thanks.

  12. says

    Shortcut 1: Don’t Be a Do-It-Yourselfer
    I generally agree, but I think it’s good to learn and practice at least the basics of what you’re going to hire someone else to do. When you have no idea what needs to be done, it’s hard to tell whether a candidate is competent at it in the first place. A little headache in the beginning is worth the relief in the end.

    Shortcut 7: Don’t Do It All
    I have to call you out on this. It’s at odds with Shortcut 4 (Be Everywhere)! I know what you mean, though. I want to do many of those things, even though I’m already so busy with client work. I guess I’m still trying to find a good balance.

    Shortcut 10: Don’t Be a Freelancer
    Yes. Running a freelance business isn’t for everyone. That’s why it bothers me how some books, blogs, and philosophies are all “Start your own business and achieve your dreams!” as if you can’t have one without the other. Some people thrive working at other people’s companies, and that’s okay.

  13. says

    James, you practice what you preach. You really are everywhere.

    For some reason when I read this, I kept hearing a song. Each of your section titles was a verse and the refrain was something about graduating from the school of hard knocks. Lots of deep base.

    Wondering if there really is a School of Hard Knocks somewhere?

    The information in this post would make a great theme song, poem, or graduation address.

    Where is Johnny Cash when you need him? Or, we have some musicians here.

  14. says

    Don’t do it all — As a fairly new freelancer, it’s tempting to try to create everything and create it right now: blog, newsletter, free report, etc. I finally invested in some consulting (with James Chartrand, no less) and it made all the difference in how I view my business and where I need to focus my efforts. I can spend a load of time creating products, newsletters, etc. and never actually earn a dime because I’m working more on my site than on client work. I know I’ll get to all those things eventually, but for now I’m going to try to stick with the plan. Great post, thanks.

  15. says

    I certainly agree with Don’t Do It All. There are some freelancers who seem to blog, host webinars, launch e-books, courses and all the rest. Where do they find the time to do client work? Twitter and my blog take up enough of my time.

  16. says

    James, this is a great post and shines some light on some of the challenges of freelancing. While there definitely are positives (higher earning potential, more control on projects), not everything is as easy as it might seem from the outsiders perspective (getting work, taking time for yourself, doing all the extraneous business related activities).

    You advice for partnering up is wise. Many times I find myself in situations where I can’t properly offer all of the services my client needs and I need to get someone else involved. I love it when I can do that because it gives me someone to talk about the project with and just collaborate with.

  17. Gina says

    Refreshing post. I have yet to find a forum or blog which talks more than superficially about freelance writers working with web designers. I’d love some suggestions.

    Also, I am wondering where the forums and blogs are that talk about quality writing (beyond SEO) vs. volume writing. Thanks.

  18. says

    Great post.

    I hired a researcher in another country this year (Canada; I live in NY) for $15 an hour to help do the extremely time-consuming, tedious and essential work necessary to join a class-action copyright lawsuit there — which will net me five figures in income. That’s a great investment of about $125…

    Just because you work on your own does not mean you have to do everything on your own. Very few of us are very good at every single aspect of our business, nor can we afford the time and energy to do it all, all the time. I have found excellent research help, as I did for my new book, for $15/hour which freed up my time to read, write and do my own interviews while my two researchers gathered additional data for me.

    The benefit of working with others is not only gaining greater efficiency, but having a bit of company and sometimes a chance to mentor and train others.

  19. says

    thanks for the tips! Very informative article and many of the tips are relatively easy to do. I especially think working in cooperation with other freelancers who can compliment your skills and experience is very useful especially if there are pojects out there where they are too big for one person to take on.

  20. says

    Many people get into design for the reason to do what they love, but so often we all fall into the trap of taking on every project presented to make a quick buck instead of focusing on a long term. So, I completely agree with “Ditch What You Hate”. I almost hate to admit it, but it took me five years of running my own web design firm in Minneapolis to learn this lesson — Focus on long term not the short term and you will be happier and you will be more successful (so will your clients).

  21. says

    I enjoy teaming up with other freelancers because it does give us the opportunity to offer so many more services to our clients than we could on our own.

  22. says

    The fisrt point is the best. It’s a common trap that freelancers like us blindly fall into. Doing everything from the ground up and keeping it that way. Sooner or later most of us should acknowledge the fact that we need room to grow, and we need to learn to delegate certain parts of our work.

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  23. says

    I’ve struggled most with the Hermit Author syndrome. I’ve finally started hooking up with others in various fields and have been astonished by how helpful they have been. What I struggle with most at this point is sticking my resume in peoples hands aand saying “I’d like you to hire me. I can offer you yadda,yadda, yadda.”

    So to speak.

    But waiting for them to discover me – the hermit, means I’ll be eating Beanie-Weenies and Ramen Noodles for ever!

  24. gina says

    Sorry to be confused. But are we also talking about hooking up with other people who help supplement freelance writing–like designers? I just get overwhelmed with all the possibilities of what a freelance writer “should” know. I like web design, but I’m no designer.


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