Here is a question I get all the time:
“What is your best advice for becoming a full time professional freelancer?”
In other words, a lot of people ask me to provide them with a recipe for freelancing success.
At the risk of disappointing you, I’ll preface this by saying there is no “one size fits all” approach to building a successful freelance business.
However, there are certain field-tested principles that should serve as exemplars for how to do freelance work.
Regardless of whether you do graphic design, web development, or freelance writing.
I’m here today to share some of them with you.
I hope that they serve as timely reminders or welcome improvements to your current business processes.
So, without further ado, here are some of my best freelancing tips.
1. Use a contract on every project
If you’re just beginning to learn how to freelance, let me help you avoid making one of the most common mistakes I see.
Use a contract for EVERY client project.
But, don’t get bogged down in finding the perfect contract.
Starting off with a template is okay, as long as you remember to keep making improvements along the way.
Too many freelancers get caught up in the details of contracts, and it’s ultimately wasting a lot of time that should be spent making money.
All you need for the time being is a general agreement that covers some basic, yet important terms that both you and the client need to agree upon.
In its simplest form, your contract terms should cover:
- The work that you produce is original and not plagiarized.
- The client’s proprietary information stays confidential.
- Your payments terms. (How much you’ll get paid and when during the process.)
- That once the client accepts the completed work, they accept full responsibility for any further processes in which the work is used (e.g. printing, putting the logo to use, etc.)
- You and the client have the right to terminate the services, and what that entails for you both.
Having some basic terms in place for every project will help protect you, but more importantly, will help inform the client of how you work.
I’ve put together a general freelance contract for you to work off of. It’s not intended to cover every type of situation, but it can help get you started.
Once you have your contract, your client can then physically print, sign, and return, or digitally sign.
I’m not a legal professional nor does the sample above cover every situation.
If things are starting to take off and you’re making large amounts of money from a single project:
Then you might want to get a legal professional involved to craft a specific contract for the job.
2. Always get a down payment
One of the biggest issues you hear about freelancing is not getting paid on time or getting stiffed by the client.
I’ve luckily never experienced this, but that’s because I follow a simple process when starting a project.
To guarantee payment 100% of the time, you must require a down payment.
For all projects I take on, I require 50% upfront before I start any official design work, and I make this clear to the client in our preliminary discussions and in my contracts.
If the client has an issue with this, then that should raise a red flag.
There is a chance that they have never contracted for freelance services before, but it should still raise your guard.
Explain that this arrangement is a protection for both parties and that the project can’t move forward without it.
If they refuse again:
They probably aren’t someone you should be working with anyways.
Once I’ve received the contract signed and down payment, I’m good to go on starting the work.
Then before I deliver any workable files, I require the final 50% payment.
I do this so the client doesn’t take what I’ve created, cancel the project, and run.
So before you’ve fully been paid, don’t send any master files or designs in full resolution.
By putting these simple practices into your process, you can guarantee that you’ll never be ripped off.
3. Don’t be afraid to say “no”
Saying no is hard, especially if you’re like me:
Generous and want people to feel happy working with you.
You don’t want to disappoint anyone, so you offer to help any way you can, not really considering the strenuous load it’ll put on you.
No matter what you do, you’ll disappoint someone.
Whether it be the client because you’re unable to deliver halfway through the project, your family because you’re working long hours, or yourself because you’re so stressed with the work you’ve chosen to take on.
So you must get comfortable with turning down work if it’s ultimately not for you or your availability.
To help determine if you should take on a project, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I specialize in the work that’s needed by this client?
- Why am I taking this project on? Is it a commitment I should be making?
- Why am I adding that project to my plate?
The worst thing about taking on everything that comes your way is that your plate may end up full, but with all of the wrong commitments.
You’re stressed, anxious, and the worst part:
Now you’re left with no room to take on that golden opportunity.
You can’t say yes to your ideal client if you never say no to the wrong ones.
Next time you get a project, don’t just reply with a yes:
Really consider the opportunity, ask yourself those questions above, and proceed with a conscious decision for your future and wellbeing.
4. Focus your freelance business
If you’ve followed my writing for a while now, you’ll know I share quite frequently about focusing your freelance business and the importance of it.
I continue to share this tip because I regularly get message after message from freelancers who seem to be stuck.
They can’t find enough work and they struggle to get their name out there.
By focusing your brand identity and the type of projects you take on, it’ll make everything much easier for you:
From marketing to charging higher rates to actually delivering the work.
Pick one or two services to specialize in, and only take on work that falls into those categories. Then turn down the rest.
Once you’ve decided on the services you now specialize in, be sure to translate that into your personal brand.
Reword everything on your website for those keywords and phrases, only showcase that type of work in your freelance portfolio, and start producing content around those services to prove your expertise.
All of this is a byproduct of marketing, which in turn will drive traffic and new freelance projects your way.
5. Showcase the work you want to take on
This tip goes hand in hand with the previous tip of focusing your freelance business, but I think is a topic worth elaborating on.
Many freelancers make the mistake of filling their portfolio with work just to show that they have some sort of skill in design.
But most often, the work just comes off as all over the place, and will only do your portfolio a disservice.
There’s a difference between a freelance business portfolio and a school portfolio:
Your freelance portfolio should only contain the work you specialize in and want to continue accepting via client work.
The work can consist of past client work or even personal work.
Have you ever heard someone say, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have?”
Well, when it comes to your portfolio, you want to present work that aligns with the freelance jobs you want, not necessarily the projects you currently have.
Let’s say you specialize in logo design:
If that’s what you want to be known for then you should only showcase logo projects in your freelance portfolio.
That’ll be what attracts and helps potential clients decide to go with you over another freelance designer whose portfolio might be all over the place.
6. Be transparent with your clients
As a freelancer, your business is just you running it inside out.
That’s something you must be proud of, so don’t hide behind a facade:
Be the name and face of your business, because your business is you.
From a client’s perspective, if I were to hire you to provide a service, I would want to know who I’m giving my money to.
So be sure to inject who you are into your brand. You can shape that however you’d like, but the key is to be personable.
Also, when a client is interested in working with you, be transparent in conversing with them.
If you only take on freelance opportunities part time, let them know.
Otherwise, you could run into a situation where expectations are misaligned and conflicts pop up as a result.
If they’re going to hire you, explain to them how your process works.
Show your interest in them and their business, then break down what they can expect by working with you step-by-step.
Being transparent isn’t a weakness, it helps build trust and confidence, and can be what seals the deal in a proposed project.
7. Write, write, write
This is the most important tip I can give you to take your freelancing to the next level:
And that’s to write.
I don’t care if you don’t think you’re a good writer.
Writing is the doorway to getting your name out there, having clients find you, and to truly grow yourself as an individual and freelancer.
I personally don’t think I’m a great writer, and you can only imagine how I felt about my writing a year ago.
It comes with practice.
I owe everything I’ve accomplished this past year to my writing.
Everything I do—whether it’s a blog post, a newsletter, a book, a video, or an email to a client—it all starts with writing.
If you want a complete rundown of why writing is imperative to your freelancing, then I highly recommend you watch this video by Sean McCabe: It All Starts With Writing.
Hopefully, after reading this post you’ll check out Sean’s video and be convinced that you need to start writing immediately.
8. Focus on the now
Watch your feet so you don’t trip while looking at the end goal.
You know where you want to be one day, so focus on what you can do now to end up there.
Too many freelancers get hung up on envying those they aspire to be.
If you wish to have a reliable client base, a product that can help supplement your income, or if you don’t want to have to rely on a single client to make a living, then what are you doing today to make that happen?
Make a daily to-do list with small tasks that you can easily complete by the end of the day.
Progress is progress.
And if you start taking it one step at a time towards your long term goals:
The sooner you’ll get there.
9. Know your numbers
A lot of freelancers handle themselves like contractors when they should really be viewing themselves as small businesses.
Just because you work from home doesn’t mean you’re not a business owner, and every good business owner needs to know their numbers.
- Business revenue (How much do you need to make per month to live?)
- Site traffic (Where is it coming from? What’s your most popular content?)
- Link conversion rates and content interactivity (What calls-to-action are working? What pages aren’t getting views and need to be removed altogether?)
- The amount of time you spend on certain types of business activities (and how much you’re estimating and/or charging for)
Knowing these numbers will shed light on the areas that are working for you and what areas need improvement.
Take a look at your monthly revenue.
Find out where your business income is coming from (what clients, type of projects, passive income), and focus more on those areas that are producing the most results.
If you’re steadily earning $100+ a month selling products on your Creative Market shop, then consider producing more items to sell.
See where most of your traffic is coming from or what type of content is most popular, then do more of that.
If you’re getting a lot of traffic from a guest post you wrote, reach out and write another guest post.
10. Split your income for taxes and savings
If you’re serious about freelancing, then start separating your income and savings.
For every dollar I make that’s business related, I split it up like this:
- 12% to Business (for business-related expenses)
- 16% to Business Taxes (this will save my butt when it comes tax time)
- 12% to Personal Savings
- What’s left over goes into my personal checking for living expenses
I’m not saying this is the way to handle and split your finances, but it’s what works for me.
What’s important here is putting a minimum of 16% of every dollar earned towards taxes.
It’s the same concept of an employer taking taxes out of your paycheck.
Once it comes tax time, you’ll then use this savings to pay what’s due.
So, there you have it:
My ten best tips for freelancers who want to lay the foundation for a thriving, sustainable freelance business.
You don’t have to take these as gospel, but if you bumped into me in a coffee shop and asked me to give you my best freelancing advice, this collection captures everything I would tell you.
Since I’ve put these tips into my work process, I’ve seen some major growth, and I hope you were able to extract some value from them.