Going Freelance: The Top 10 Tips

By Ed O'Reilly on 27 July 2007 (Updated 26 April 2010) 8 comments
Photo: iStockphoto

So you made your move: you’re finally out on your own, earning a living on your terms.

No more commuting, no more answering to middle-management and say goodbye to bad office coffee. You’re the boss… and the salesperson, bookkeeper, janitor and receptionist; you’ll have to do your work and, in most cases, handle the other aspects of your budding business that – up until now – were handled by a co-worker at your last salaried position.

Congratulations, you’re now a freelancer, contractor, consultant, etc.

As a small business owner there will be various tasks for which you’ll be responsible and can seem overwhelming, at times. But, there are a few simple guidelines you can follow to make your time worth more. And that value can be measured by a combination of money and self-satisfaction:

Stay Organized

You’ll need tools for communication, tracking your money, writing invoices and managing your projects. One of the most comprehensive lists I’ve found that’s chock full of useful software is The Freelancer’s Toolset. Peruse the list but don’t feel you need every item; simplicity is best, so choose only what you need or you’ll just make more work for yourself playing with all the cool stuff;

Kill The Distractions

There will always be something you’ll think of to avoid starting a project, calling a client or doing paperwork. Even if you have a home-office, temptation lurks in every open newspaper, unkempt garden or messy garage.

And besides seemingly productive tasks like rearranging your sock drawer or alphabetizing your canned goods, the Internet will –if you let it – pull you in and drag you down. Your friends over at iMyTubeBlogFace will have to wait… you’re on the clock;

Set Aside Time For Specific Tasks

In a way, this is part of staying organized and killing distractions: you restrict your time for certain tasks.

Throughout the course of the day it’ll be tempting to send or reply to every email every few minutes, or chat with either friends or clients on the phone. But you are at a real job, even if you’re still wearing pj’s (yes, I’m talkin’ to you).

Unless it’s really important, most phone calls and email exchanges can wait until you have time to devote to them when you’ve completed your task. Constant interruption, spread out over small intervals over a workday, can add up to a lot of lost productivity and late evenings working to catch up;

Networking

I think everyone understands the indisputable value of this: no one knows you’re there unless you tell them you are. Join your business’s professional organization and attend some functions; also, sites like Ning and LinkedIn are just a couple of many online resources for making contacts.

Hopefully, you haven’t burned any bridges so keep in touch with ex- coworkers and, if appropriate, vendors. Contacting clients of your last employer, though, probably isn’t a great idea; your relationship with your ex-employer may prove to be more valuable in the long run;

Define Your Terms

You are a business, and, among other parameters that you’ve established, you have fees, you keep reasonable business hours and you have payment terms that keep you self-employed. Prices are (and should be) negotiable, time is flexible; but getting paid is neither of these.

Be fair with your clients, both with your prices for your service and with the time you spend working with them; but you need to get paid, and on terms you decide. Your clients should respect this or you won’t be in business for very long;

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Outsource

There may be times that, to successfully complete a project, you might need to enlist the help of someone with an expertise that you don’t possess. In fact, sometimes the growth of a successful business is not measured by the hours you put in doing the labor, but by how you delegate work and manage various aspects of your project that can be handled by someone else;

Work With Your Client, Not For Your Client

Think of your relationship with your client as a partnership: you are an extension of their business, applying your particular skill to help them achieve their goal. You might be designing their web site, writing the copy for their annual report or handling their public relations; your goals should be their goals, because your success depends on their success;

Fire Your Client

A controversial statement? Maybe. But consider this: if you devote a lot of your time and effort to a client that has high demands but is never satisfied, what have you accomplished? I had a client that called me almost daily and, it seemed, gave me a lot of work. But at the end of the year, after having devoted myself to try and meet their expectations, I did a breakout of how much I earned per job from this client: it was far less than what I thought, and the reality was that it was only a few small- to medium-sized jobs I worked on, although it felt like much more when I considered the time I put in.

If you are spending a lot of unproductive (and unprofitable) time trying to please a client, it’s probably best for you both if you part company;

Do Your Work, Then Step Back…

… the only path to serenity. Wise words from Lao-tzu . If you’re passionate about your work, sometimes it can eclipse the reason you work and why you went out on your own: to have a different lifestyle. I’ve worked weekends, nights and even some holidays because sometimes there are unexpected circumstances that require you to make a sacrifice now and then to get the job done, and get it done right.

But no one says you have to work 14-hour days, 6-7 days a week; it defeats the purpose of quitting a salaried job to become an entrepreneur. Don’t feel guilty if you take some time off;

And The Last Guideline Is…

…up to you.

You decide what’s important, how you want to work and how you plan on meeting expectations – both your own and your client’s.

You started on your own for a reason; keep that reason in mind when you fill in this last guideline you plan to follow – it might be the most valuable one of all.

Other Resources:

SBA Small Business Planner
Determine Your Rate
Startup Journal (from the Wall Street Journal)
CentralDesktop

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Lynn Truong's picture

"And besides seemingly productive tasks like rearranging your sock drawer or alphabetizing your canned goods"

These are the things that get me when I'm at my most vulnerable -- in denial about feeling overwhelmed with work -- so all of a sudden I'm looking at the fridge or my sock drawer and exclaim "I can't find anything! I MUST reorganize and clean NOW!"

Julie Rains's picture

I've been self-employed for over 10 years now and I've struggled with all the items you've mentioned: being organized (not my strength), dealing with the difficult and unprofitable client, and avoiding distractions have been my biggest problems. I've gotten much, much better over the years but it is definitely harder than it seems. I have learned (finally) that managing a business AND providing a service/product (combined) can be overwhelming. You've mentioned all the things that are essential to doing both well.

Ed O'Reilly's picture

I've been self-employed for over 10 years, too, and I found the toughest one (for a while) to be taking time off. Sounds strange because you're working for yourself, but I felt I had to be busy all the time.

Guest's picture
Guest

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Guest's picture
Joe

Self-employment topic is so very familiar to me. And God, it can be hard to organize yourself! You need discipline and perhaps a little help ;) I try to practice GTD method by Dave Allen. He worked out a very effective way to make up your day. But it will be useless for me without Wrike http://www.wrike.com that lets me to keep all my stuff in one place and reminds of upcoming things.

Ed O'Reilly's picture

Thanks, that looks like a good site. Coincidentally, I've recently been looking for a service like that.

Guest's picture
Louis

Hey Ed... I may be re-joining the freelance world yet again. After six years working for a non-profit trying to make a difference in the world, it has gotten me no where and office politics and all the BS that is attached to it has tipped me back over in wanting to do it on my own again.

-- Louis (or as Ed knows me, "Loooooooou")

Guest's picture
Guest

very good decision...God give u all luck..i m also a freelancer..hope to work togther someday..take care