The shiny social media image of a successful freelancer shows her earning six figures as she travels the world and works from a beach. A second stereotype is the struggling freelancer, barely able to earn enough to pay the bills as she falls victim to the ‘feast-or-famine’ cycle at the mercy of clients and their deadlines. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between.
Freelancing can be an attractive alternative to the corporate 9 to 5, giving you more freedom to choose the type of work you want to do and more flexibility in terms of where and when you work. You can work from home in your PJs, you can decide how much work you want to take on and what to charge and there’s no boss telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s also an ‘easy’ step out of the 9 to 5 as you can use your existing skills, knowledge and network.
On the other hand, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies: working for yourself brings its own challenges. There are no regular hours or clear distinctions between the office and your home; there’s no steady paycheck coming in; and there’s no health insurance or pension contribution. The lack of structure and the isolation as you work by yourself can also be difficult to get used to. The decision to leave your full-time job and the comfort zone it represents is a massive one with implications for more than just your bank statement.
Here are 9 steps to help you leave your job and become a full-time freelancer while managing both the fears and money concerns on the one hand and the practical side of running your own business on the other.
You can also read our annual freelance report – Design without borders that surveys our freelance community regularly, for a fresh perspective on how freelancers around the world think, feel and operate.
1. Define your version of success
There’s no getting around it, transitioning from being someone’s employee to running your own successful freelancing business is going to be tough. Make sure you know what you’re hoping to get out of freelancing before you put in all the hard work to make it happen. Ask yourself questions like:
- What are your reasons for wanting to freelance?
- What kind of work do you want to be doing?
- What kind of hours do you want to be working?
- Do you want to be able to work from home or are you happy to commute and travel to clients’ offices?
- What kind of income are you looking for? (It won’t be enough to match your current income as you need to take into consideration the added costs of your business expenses as well as things like taxes and health insurance.)
Based on your answers, define your personal criteria for a successful freelancing career and decide which of these are ‘non-negotiable’ and which are ‘nice to have’. This will help you make the right decisions when it comes to choosing clients and projects and will make sure that what you create is really going to bring you those things that you’re after.
2. Put your finances upfront
When you’re in a full-time job with a steady salary flowing into your bank account, it’s easy to ignore your personal finances. You have a guaranteed monthly income; your taxes are taken at source, so you don’t even have to think about that; and you have all those extra benefits like insurance and pension contributions.
As you start working for yourself, you’ll need to wake up and get on top of both your business and personal finances. Before you start, you’ll want to first make sure that it’s going to work for your personal situation—whether you have student loans, large mortgage payments or young kids to take care of.
Sit down with your accounts—together with your partner or whoever else needs to be part of the decision—and look at the reality of your situation:
- What can you afford to do and not do?
- Do you need time to build a buffer of savings as a safety net? How much? (You’ll want at least six months’ worth to give you a cushion against unpredictable income at the start.)
- What can you do to cut down on your spending?
- What can you do to bring in extra income to help out?
- How many clients or projects do you need to feel comfortable enough to move into freelancing full time?
Get super clear on your finances before you let it all run away with you and you find yourself in a really sticky situation.
3. Specify your services
Once you have the big picture of what you want to get out of your freelancing and you have a clear view of your finances, you can start to get more specific on what your business model is going to be. (Yes, freelancing is a business, even if it’s just you!)
Make sure you have answers to these questions:
- What is your target market?
- What problem are you solving?
- Who are the ideal clients who suffer from that problem or have that need and are willing to pay for a solution?
- How will you package up your solution in the form of different services?
- Who are your competitors and how will you distinguish yourself from them?
You may have been working on all kinds of different projects in your current job but as a freelancer it helps to be focused and become the go-to person for something specific. Where do your skills and passions really lie?
Carry out some research to help you do this more effectively, talking to the kinds of people or companies who you think would be ideal customers and seeing what solutions are already out there.
4. Get real about your rates
How to set your freelancer rates is a much-debated question and it really warrants a whole other article. Most likely, you’re setting your rates far too low when you’re starting out so if in doubt, raise your prices!
That’s not to say that you won’t have to compromise, especially at the start when it can be helpful to set low introductory rates or even do some work for free if you have limited experience. However, a large part of the appeal of freelancing is that you’re getting all that freedom and flexibility and you will never have that with a race to the bottom on your prices. Don’t put too much emphasis on what your competitors are charging, either, as who’s to say how they’ve arrived at those figures, or if they are even successful?
When it comes to pricing your services, clients will often ask for your rates upfront. It’s much better, however, to first have a conversation to understand their needs and position yourself as a solution to their problem, before you give a fee that reflects the scope of the project. You’ll also want to get away from hourly rates as soon as possible and move towards project-based rates so that you’re not just trading your time for money.
5. Practice the art of discipline
As appealing as the freedom and flexibility of freelancing can be, there’s another side to this: too much freedom and too much flexibility! Yes, you can have too much of a good thing. Being a successful freelancer requires discipline and structure as you take consistent action not just on your client work (that will always get done) but also on everything else involved in running the business: getting new clients, doing your accounts, and all that not-so-sexy admin stuff.
Since you’re managing your freelancing work alongside an existing job, you’ll need the discipline to do all this on top of your current workload. Sticking to a more-or-less regular routine of working on your priorities every day will help you make progress and not feel overwhelmed with everything that needs doing. This practice will also help you once you leave your job and start freelancing full time, as then you’ll really need that structure and discipline if you’re to get anything done at all.
By the way, discipline doesn’t just mean doing the work but also managing your health and wellbeing and taking proper breaks and time off!
6. Establish your online presence
Now that you’re clear on your services, you have your prices and you’ve set yourself up with a bit of routine and structure, your job is to reach your ideal clients with your message. This means you’ll need some kind of online presence so that you can establish your credibility, showcase your work and grow your network.
You’ll want to set up a website as soon as possible, even if it’s just a simple landing page with some information about who you are and how you can help people. Your LinkedIn profile is also a great place to focus in the professional space (although this can be tricky if you’re still in another full-time job and you don’t want to announce to your colleagues that you’re trying to escape!) Other options include setting up an Instagram profile, a Facebook group or a Medium blog, depending on your specific skills and services. Comment and engage with other people’s content and start creating and sharing your own content as well.
You may also want to consider creating a profile on freelancing sites like 99designs, Upwork and Freelancer (or another site that’s specific to your niche). Platforms like these will help you showcase your portfolio and attract new clients.
7. Tap your existing network
Networking is a dirty word for some people, or at least an uncomfortable one. Really, though, it’s just about having conversations—and seeing where you might be able to help each other out.
Your existing network is the best place for getting started as these are people who ‘know, like and trust’ you already. That’s not to say that you should go straight in with a spammy “Hire me!” message to everyone you know—but it’s important to be able to swallow your pride and have those conversations. The good news is that it does get easier as you get used to this.
Be super specific about what you’re asking so it’s easy for them to say “yes” (and so you get what you want from the relationship!):
- Do you want some advice from them?
- Would you like them to share a testimonial about your past work together?
- Do you want them to make an introduction to someone in their network?
One or more of these conversations with your existing network is very likely to lead to your first projects as a freelancer.
8. Learn when to say “no”
It’s incredibly difficult to say “no” when you’re just starting out and you may be tempted to say “yes” to every single piece of work that’s offered to you. If you’re going to build a successful business, especially one that you’ll enjoy, you’re going to need to be a bit more strategic (and ballsy).
Go back to your definition of success and your criteria in #1 and use these to decide when to say “yes” or “no” to a project. It’s true that there is an experimental, exploratory phase when you’re first starting out and you don’t yet know which kinds of projects and clients you’ll most enjoy, or which will be the most rewarding or lucrative. However, you still want to be intentional about the projects you take on:
- Are you doing it for the experience?
- Do you want the contacts in this particular company?
- Are you looking for testimonials to put on your website?
- Is it a long-term project that promises a bit of stability and regular income?
- Is it a lot of money that will give you a bigger safety net?
These are all valid reasons, as long as you go into the relationship with your eyes open to what you’re hoping to get out of it.
9. Think like a boss
A lot of freelancers won’t self-identify as ‘entrepreneurs’. That label brings to mind the Richard Bransons and Gary Vaynerchuks of the world and start-ups like Uber and Airbnb. Thinking of yourself as a business owner, however, will help you with the right amount of rigor and ambition when it comes to being a successful freelancer.
You should definitely keep your business and personal finances separate—opening up a new account for business expenses and income is a simple way of doing this. Unless you’re an accounting wizard, it’s best to consult an accountant who will make sure you get the right things in place and take advantage of being able to write off your business expenses, for example. You also want to be tracking your income and spending so you know exactly how your business is doing, allowing you to chase invoices where payment is late and giving you visibility on when you’ve reached a level that lets you transition into full-time freelancing.
More generally, now that you’re the boss, you should act like one: invest in training and skills development, make sure your work plan is reasonable and you’re using all your proper vacation days and give yourself a raise from time to time!
Time to take the leap?
It is absolutely possible to be a successful full-time freelancer and following these steps will help you get there faster. Building up your business, and your savings, alongside a full-time job first is also a safer way to manage a smooth transition rather than taking the leap straight away and hoping for the best. More and more people are choosing to become full-time freelancers and not looking back—is it time for you to join them?