Leaving a full-time job to become a freelancer can be very scary. It can also be extremely exciting and rewarding.
It’s not always the most obvious transition. There’s a lot to learn and do when setting yourself up as a freelancer.
The biggest challenge for a freelancer is first “setting up shop”. You decide it’s time to strike out on your own, and you put the proverbial sign on the door — “I’m open for business.” But now what?
There are a number of things you should do before you launch your freelance career, and shortly thereafter. Here’s a collection of 14 tips to help you:
- Get work from your past employer. This happens more than you might realize; someone leaves their day job but brings contract work with them from the employer. It’s a great way to get started quickly in your freelancing career. Your employer might be upset that you’re leaving, but they’ll also appreciate your willingness to stay on as a freelancer. It saves them the hassle of replacing you immediately (or ever), and can be cost beneficial to them as well.
- Get endorsements from your past employer and co-workers. If you’re leaving your job on good terms, there’s no reason you can’t ask for endorsements. It’s the kind of thing employees rarely do for themselves (although the functionality exists for you to do so very easily through sites like LinkedIn), but as a freelancer you will rely heavily on word-of-mouth and other people’s recommendations.
- Pick the right time to make the switch. You should think strategically about the perfect time to start your freelance life. Do you know when your target market of clients spends money? Don’t make the jump to freelance work five minutes after all your prospects’ budgets are set for the year…
Are there big projects at work you should finish first to get good endorsements and future work from your soon-to-be ex-employer? Do you have money saved, to handle potential downturns?
You can jump into the freelance fire with both feet without paying attention to the environment around you, but it will be much more effective and profitable if you time the move carefully.
- Don’t incorporate, but learn about business structures. There’s no reason to incorporate a company immediately (and you might never have to), but you owe it to yourself to understand the various business structures and how they differ. Christine Kane suggests that you incorporate as a business, which can make a lot of sense once you’ve settled in.
- Find a good accountant. Regardless of your business structure, find a good accountant. You’re now entering the realm of tax deductions, business expenses and other “fun” stuff. You want to maximize your tax deductions, and I can guarantee you that at the beginning you’ll be missing opportunities. Beyond tax deductions, a good accountant can help you setup a financial tracking system; what you need to track, how it needs to be tracked, etc. They can also make sure you don’t run afoul of any tax laws.
- Research market prices. You may already have a sense of what to charge customers, be it on a per project or hourly basis, but it’s always worthwhile to find out what everyone else is charging as well. If you have enough colleagues in your industry it shouldn’t be hard to find out. Of course, what you do with that information is the big question – do you charge the same, lower or higher?
- Register your name as a domain name. Part of being a freelancer is developing your personal brand and raising your profile. You want people to know your name and associate your name with the work you do. So if possible, register your name as a domain: benyoskovitz.com or bobsmith.com. Even if you don’t put anything up there, at least redirect it to wherever your Internet presence lives.
- Start a blog. If you’re not already blogging, you should. It’s the single best way to raise your profile and attract opportunities. You need to demonstrate your authority and expertise in your field. You need to be connecting with others in your industry, potential partners and clients. You need to be “out there.” So get blogging. If you’re already blogging, I would re-examine your efforts, and see where you can improve your blog’s value to your freelance business.
- Setup a good home office. Your work environment will be essential to your success. Setup a comfortable, well-organized space that you’ll want to work in on a daily basis. You’ll be spending a lot of time in your office (more than the amount of time you spent at your day job’s office), so take the time and spend the money to do it right. Comfort is key, but so is the efficiency of the space; Is there enough filing? Do you have the right supplies? Is everything easily accessible? Etc.
- Get out of your office! You just setup the perfect working environment, so now it’s time to get out of there. And fast. And often. One of the biggest pitfalls for new freelancers is spending too much time on their own. This gets worse when clients are remote; there’s almost no reason to leave the office. But the isolation can be difficult to handle, especially if you’re used to an active work environment from past jobs. Make the effort to meet people in-person, whether they’re clients, prospects, vendors, others in your industry, or other freelancers.
- Learn about sales and marketing. One of the biggest challenges for freelancers is sales and marketing. For most of us it’s not something we did in our previous careers, but now we’re thrust headfirst into bringing deals through the door. Hopefully you get plenty of business through referrals and word-of-mouth, which reduces the sales and marketing burden. But if you abhor sales and marketing, then freelancing is much more difficult.
- Find helpful tools, but don’t go overboard. There’s no shortage of helpful software and productivity tools out there for freelancers. But you don’t want to spend too much time on the tools to make your business click; you haven’t really got a business yet! Better yet, focus on being productive and getting yourself into a routine. And find resources out there that can bring in business versus help you stay organized on business you don’t have yet.
- Tell everyone about the switch. When you make the move from day job to “all the time job” (which is exactly what being a freelancer means: You’re almost always “on”), tell the world. If you can stand on a tall building with a megaphone, do it. Of course, don’t blame me if you’re arrested…The goal of course, is to let people within your network know that you’ve made the change. You never know who might be able to bring you work once you’ve told your immediate friends and family, shared the news on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, etc.
- Get inspired. It’s all up to you now. No co-workers. No boss (excluding your clients — the phrase “working for myself” is rather inaccurate and shortsighted.) No one to blame. It’s just you, yourself and you. That means a lot more responsibility. It means a lot more discipline and many more challenges on the horizon. So get inspired. And stay inspired. If you hit a slump at your day job, you can probably skirt by without too many repercussions. But lose motivation and interest as a freelance and you can find yourself in serious trouble.
At the end of the day, the move from full-time to freelance is a challenging one. Until you’ve done both (separately and at the same time) you can’t fully appreciate the pros and cons, issues and anxieties that come with freelancing. Don’t panic. Be prepared, and think long term, because you won’t find the answers in a day or two. Freelancing is a skill and art that takes time to master.