7 tips for freelancers

It’s hard to believe Bright Spot Studio has been in full swing for nearly six months now (time flies when you’re having fun)! It’s been incredibly exhilarating, stressful and fulfilling all at the same time, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Working with clients who are also independent creatives just starting out, I find I’m often sharing advice and inspiration. At the suggestion of one of my clients, photographer and filmmaker Laura Elizabeth Pohl, I’m turning a recent email I sent her into a full-fledged blog post. So, for my fellow creatives out there who are about to take the plunge (or who have recently gone out on their own), here’s my friendly advice.

1) Take yourself seriously

Think of yourself (and introduce yourself) as a small business owner with professional services as opposed to a “freelancer.” Freelancing has the connotation of being a hobby rather than a profession, like you’re just making money on the side as opposed to this being your actual profession and livelihood. Take yourself and your business seriously and others will, too. Rehearse that elevator pitch so you can tell anyone you meet who you are and what you do in less than 30 seconds. (If you can’t do this with enthusiasm and confidence, it doesn’t count.) You don’t want to find yourself telling an interested stranger at a party that you’re recently unemployed and looking for work. Instead, you’re a self-employed professional who’s available for new projects. Then smile and hand them that eye-catching business card ;)

2) Get legal advice early on

You’ll need to come up with a variety of contracts for the different sorts of jobs you do, plus you might want to trademark your business name. You’ll also need to determine if it’s worth becoming an LLC for your particular situation. And, if you’re a photographer or illustrator, you’ll want advice on how to copyright your work. A lawyer who specializes in working with independent creatives will be able to offer lots of valuable advice, saving you time, money and trouble in the long run.

3) Figure out an accounting system

It’s critical to know where your time is going and where your money is coming from so you can make smart choices. When you first start out, it’s helpful to track your time so you can determine if you’re undercharging for your services. It will also make providing estimates on future jobs a lot easier. As for money, figure out your monthly expenses so you’ll know how many jobs/assignments you need each month to make ends meet. (Don’t forget you’ll need to set aside about 25% for taxes and 10% for retirement from every paycheck). If you can open a separate bank account just for business income/expenses, it makes things even easier, especially at tax time. I use FreshBooks for time tracking, invoicing and expense reporting. The monthly fee (which is a tax deductible business expense) is well worth it when I consider the increased hours I’m billing for, the time I save sending out invoices and how much faster I get paid.

4) Cultivate a few good clients

If you’re a writer, it might be a handful of magazines and newspapers that you regularly contribute to. If you’re a photographer, it might be a few news organizations or non-profits that send work your way. Check out my presentation “How to win (and keep) awesome clients.” Rather than spend energy constantly looking for new clients, treat the ones you have really well so you get more work from them. That way, you’re spending your time writing and taking pictures rather than constantly trying to land new clients. You’ll be happier, and your existing clients will thank you.

5) Be selective

I know this may sound counter-intuitive when you’re just starting out, but be choosy about which clients and assignments you accept. Working with good clients makes all the difference in the world. They’ll let you do the kind of work you’ll be proud to show off, thereby attracting more great clients and assignments. Bad clients drain your time, energy and spirit, which in turn takes away from the good clients who support you. Resist the urge to take every job that comes your way. Make sure you and the prospective client are a good fit. Trust your gut. And, if you see red flags, run.

6) Have some personal projects in the works

Freelance, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is feast or famine. When things slow down, it’s nice to have a personal project to turn to. Rather than stressing out that you don’t have any jobs for a couple weeks, be grateful for the time you have to do your own thing. After all, isn’t that why you wanted to work for yourself in the first place? To have more time to do what you love? Savor it! It’s also your opportunity to do something you’re passionate about with complete creative freedom and control. And who knows? That personal project might just lead to future work opportunities. What better way to do more of what you love than by showing prospective clients exactly what that looks like. If nothing else, it’s great content for your website, blog, etc. (My personal side project is Tiny Trash Can, where I share tips for living a low waste lifestyle).

7) Market yourself

If you’ve hired me or another designer to create your brand and build your website, you’re already a step ahead of most by having a strong visual identity established. Be consistent in your message (visual and otherwise). And constantly share your work with your social networks and with email marketing so you’re always in people’s minds. You never know where your next job is going to come from, but I can almost guarantee you it will come from someone you know. Every one of my clients right now is a friend or past colleague of mine (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)! (For more on this topic, read my blog post “Connecting the dots.”)

If I think of more advice, I’ll be sure to pass it along. In the meantime, if you have additional tips, please share them in the comments below. Thanks for reading and good luck!

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