Preparing for a Freelance Career

I’ve been planning to become a freelancer since college. During my second year of school I picked up a copy of Media Bistro’s Get A Freelance Life (by Margit Feury Ragland) and decided to do an independent study around learning to become a freelancer.

I studied it the same way you might study math or a Victorian novel. I picked apart the pieces of what it meant to become a freelancer; the ways all the great freelance writers shared in their books. I bought a copy of Writer’s Market, practiced writing queries and pitch letters and even wrote a few articles that were reviewed by my advisor.

Yet after college I took a job at a trade magazine company as an editor. I need some experience, I told myself. After three years at that magazine, I’ve begun to think about freelancing again. I’ve been taking assignments part time for the last year and have begun to build a solid client base. I’ve begun to plan and put together the things I need to make the leap.


Research

While I’ve been reading everything I could get my hands on about freelancing for years now, nothing is as helpful as finding a few freelancers who you can bounce ideas off of and chat with about the problems you encounter.

Knowing you have someone to turn to with questions, for feedback or who you can brainstorm with, can help you overcome many of the doubts and insecurities that every freelancer deals with from time to time.

Twitter is a great forum for finding other freelancers. Talk to them about the challenges they faced and what it was like for the first few months. Their personalized experiences can help you know what to expect. After you’ve chatted a few times, ask them if it’s okay to contact them with any questions you may have once you’ve gotten started.

I currently have three wonderful ladies who are all full time freelancers. I’ve learned an incredible amount just by being friends with them. All three are more than willing to chat occasionally about ideas and are helping me prepare for when I join their ranks.

Create a Budget

Once I was fairly confident that I understood the how-to of freelancing and had been successfully making money doing it part time, it was time to think about whether the switch was financially feasible.

Sit down and carefully examine your expenses. Figure out the minimum that you need to make each month to keep a roof over your head, the lights on and food in your mouth. Scale back your spending habits, so you begin to adjust to making less than your current income. According to just about every book out there on freelancing, it’s likely that for at least your first few months as a freelancer your income won’t quite equal your previous salary. This way, you won’t feel the crunch all at once.

You should also set aside some savings to help make ends meet. Most freelance advice books and blogs recommend having at least six months of expenses set aside in savings. I’m planning on having just a little more than six months of expenses set aside before leaving my day job.

Build Your Business Beforehand

Money isn’t the only thing you’ll need once you’ve gone freelance fulltime. You’ll need a website, business cards, a brochure, a client base, a list of prospects… I created most of those things when I began freelancing part time. But, before I hand in my resignation, I’ll also create a list of prospects to pitch during that first week of working from home.

In the near future, I also plan to partner with a few other businesses to help drive income during my first few months. For example, local print shops might be willing to keep a few of my cards on hand, since I offer proofreading services.

You can also gather recommendations from past clients and send out letters of introduction to potential clients that tell them who you are and what you do–especially if you’re a writer looking to pitch magazine articles. That way, when you pitch those editors a few months down the road, they’ll recognize your name.

Many freelancers keep a business account for their freelance earnings and then pay themselves a regular paycheck from this fund. Any money they make over their “paycheck” stays in the account for months when they make less than they need. Since I’m setting aside money for the first six months, I already have a savings account that I’ll use this way. Using this method helps compensate for the up-and-down reality of freelancing.

While I’m sure there are things I haven’t anticipated and that there are problems I can’t possibly foresee, I’m fairly confident that once I make the leap, I’ll have the tools I need.

Your Turn

Whether you’ve recently started freelancing or you’re a seasoned pro, I’d love to hear your tips for getting started. Please share them in the comments.

Image by roanish

Comments

  1. says

    Don’t settle for less. You get the tasks done and deliver what’s expected from you. Not so many freelancers know how much to charge. If you’re charging by the hour, there’s a nifty calculator available at FreelanceSwitch.

  2. says

    @Gab – Thanks. I agree, one of the most common questions new freelancers ask is what to charge. And it’s tricky – because when it comes down to it, the answer changes depending on the niche your targeting. But the key, as you say, is making sure you’re worth your rates by delivering good work, on time.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. says

    Nice article Melissa. I’ve gone through this process twice myself; once when I quit my regular job and started a custom woodworking shop (and did some writing on the side) and once when the economy tanked, the custom furniture was not selling and I promoted the writing from B string to A string.

    I have only one thing to add to your advice: if you are married, especially if you have kids, discuss your plans with the family and enlist their help in making the transition. Early on, the money will be lean, everyone will sacrifice to make ends meet. And taking a hobby and turning it into a business means making some changes that will involve everyone. Particularly along the lines of time management and accessibility.

  4. says

    @Allan – Thank you — and I couldn’t agree more! My long term boyfriend was a big part of the reason I began to freelance part time. I was considering taking on a part time job to supplement my income and he couldn’t believe I was going to continue putting off my dream and take on a job as a waitress instead. So instead we talked about what it would require and he encouraged me to go for it.

    And he’ll play a bit role again as I make the move from part time to full time.

  5. Bob says

    Great article, Melissa.

    Since writing is now a digital art, be sure to backup your files both locally in your office and at a cloud location. I’d also recommend that you have a secondary laptop or the ability to get a new one set up in less than 24 hours. Later, you might consider an air-card or portable WiFi hot spot so that you’re able to work from anywhere, anytime.

    Good luck on your writing career.
    Bob

  6. says

    @Bob – Thanks; you’re 100% right. I think a big part of the difference between hiring a professional freelancer and just hiring your cousin’s nephew’s best friend who happens to be an English major, is their ability to turn things in to spec and on time even when things go wrong–like a computer crashing. You can’t foresee problems, but you can prepare for them.

    The tips you provided are perfect for doing just that. Thanks again!

  7. says

    Don’t forget getting an excellent server- Media Temple offers great ones (they’re who I choose). I completely agree with everything you’re saying here- definitely will help other starting freelancers! :)

  8. says

    @Matthew – I agree! I use Site5 and they’re awesome – anytime anything goes wrong on my site (generally because I was messing with things I shouldn’t be) they walk me through how to fix it via their 24/7 online chat.

    The relationships that you develop as a business owner with other businesses is key in growing and becoming better.

  9. says

    This post was truly inspiring. I’ve discussed with my fiance about becoming a full time freelancer when we decide to have children. I definitely need to calculate my minimum monthly income and save for at least six months prior to quitting my day job.

  10. says

    @Nicole – Simultaneously working and having kids can be its own challenge entirely. Feel free to shoot me an email (mbreau.719@gmail.com) and I’ll make some introductions; I know a few people who’ve done it who would likely be more than willing to share some advice and tips.

  11. says

    Hello Melissa,

    Thanks a lot for such valuable advice. Free lancing is something very much creative. Nowadays it achieves some great high. Again thanks a lot for such marvelous teachings.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>