10 Things All Successful Freelancers Do

I've now spent over two years as a freelancer. When I started my freelance writing and content development business, Chasing Down the Muse, I knew I would learn a lot along the way about business, my skills, and what it takes to make a go of a freelance life. (See also: Freelancing: A Beginner's Guide to Doing It Right)

In preparation for this article, I also spoke to a number of freelancing friends and colleagues about the actions that drive their success. Here are the top 10 commonalities I found.

1. Hang Up Your Shingle Online and Off

Tell everyone, and I mean everyone, what you're doing! Create a website, business cards, LinkedIn profile, email address with signature, and networking plan. You can build it, but no one is going to come if they can't find you. When people ask you what you do, tell them. Announce your freelance life and its progress on social media. I've been amazed over the last two years how many leads have come from my existing personal and professional networks even though this new business was a complete departure from my degrees and previous jobs. (See also: Get Your LinkedIn Profile Noticed)

2. Pitch, Pitch, Pitch

Understand that you are now salesperson-in-chief of your new business. You need to turn over every rock that looks interesting to you, whether they're actively looking for a freelancer like you or not. Pitches are seeds. Some of them will sprout quickly, some will take cultivation, and others won't sprout at all. However, one thing's for sure: If you don't pitch, you won't get the work.

3. Think Creatively About Your Value

What are all of the ways someone could utilize your skills? I write web and marketing copy, fundraising proposals, social media posts, blog pieces, traditional journalism, fiction, and nonfiction across a wide variety of topics from tech to food and almost everything in-between. When I started out, I thought about all of the uses for content where I could look for opportunities in addition to creating my own personal work. This was an incredibly valuable exercise because it helped me to identify clients that I previously didn't consider viable.

4. Know Your Worth

As you pitch, network, and think creatively about all of the ways you could earn a living from your skills, you will undoubtedly come across a myriad of opportunities. Before you sort through the options, use how you value your time and work as a lens to filter them. I have a minimum dollar amount for all of the writing I do. If an opportunity pays significantly less than that minimum, and I can't find another reason to take the gig (great connections, opportunity to learn about a new topic that interests me, significant exposure, etc.), then I turn it down. As a freelancer, turning down paid work is difficult to do. However, if you take every gig that comes your way, no matter what it pays, you'll find your schedule cluttered and you'll be making a living that's not sustainable. Know your worth and state it with confidence.

5. Leave Space in Your Calendar

Following on the idea of knowing your worth, you will find that periodically there will be space in your schedule, particularly as you get started. Don't be afraid of that empty space. You need it — to recharge, evaluate how you're doing, and go after new, exciting prospects.

This is an especially difficult one for me because I like to be busy and productive. I took every single job that came my way my first year and by the end of it, I was completely exhausted. I made my desired nut (barely), however I paid a huge price for it health-wise. If I had been less afraid of the empty space, I believe I would have been more successful and happier that first year in business because I would have only done work I truly wanted to do and not work I felt that I had to do. After all, that's why I decided to leave my corporate job and take this freelance path — to do work I love.

6. What Gets Measured Gets Done

I've always been very goal driven and I find that I am most motivated to achieve a goal when I track my progress toward it. I set monthly and annual personal, professional, and financial goals and regularly review how I'm doing against those goals. If I miss them, I sit back and consider how and why that happened. If I hit them, I think about whether or not they unfolded as planned. If I surpass them, I spend some time evaluating if I underestimated myself. No matter what, I celebrate because I learn something new every single time.

7. Schedule It

The hardest thing for a lot of freelancers is managing a schedule. But you have to create a structure that works for you. Every week day, I get up early, walk my dog, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and get to work. When I had a corporate job, most of that timing was established for me. Now that I work out of my home, I need to be vigilant about my own schedule to stay productive and on-task. While some friends think I can get together or chat on the phone at any time since I'm working at home, I make sure to set clear boundaries. I rarely take personal calls during my working hours, and I try hard to honor an end to my working day so I can enjoy my personal life, too. It doesn't always go exactly according to plan, but then again neither does a corporate job schedule. Things come up and we have to be flexible from time-to-time. Life happens.

8. Speak With Confidence

When someone asks what you do, look them in the eye, smile, and say it with confidence. This is especially important (and sometimes difficult) as you first start your freelance life. A friend, family member, or complete stranger you meet in the grocery store could have a line to your next great work opportunity. If you explain what you do clearly, succinctly, and confidently, it helps everyone to make a strong connection to ways they may be able to help you.

9. Keep Your Skills Sharp

A freelance life is busy. You've got a lot of balls in the air and it's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day. However, it's crucial to keep your existing skills up-to-date and to acquire new skills that are interesting to you and helpful to your work. Now that online learning is so plentiful, conferences of all shapes and sizes are popping up everywhere, and information is so democratically distributed online, you have a myriad of ways to stay current. Save some time in your schedule for learning; the future of your success depends on it in this fast-paced world.

10. Keep 3 Buckets of Work

The one trick that has been the single best practice in my business is my use of what I call the three buckets. I divide my work into thirds:

  • One-third for keeping my current projects on track;
  • One-third for pitching new projects; and
  • One-third for researching longer-term potential projects.

I keep track of all of my work in these three buckets and it's helped me to find success in the short-term while also helping me seed the ground for future success.

Above all, remember why you started this freelance journey and make sure to revisit that original motivation often. Is it living up to your expectations and is it fulfilling? Are you happier now than you were before you started freelancing? These are important questions to continually ask yourself as you chart your own path to professional and personal success.

Are you a freelancer? What actions have you taken that helped create your success? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture

I've just started freelancing, and I'm already learning some of these the hard way, so it's nice to just go ahead and read about the others ;-) one thing I haven't had to learn the hard way is knowing the value of my time. I already have a rate I'm not going below. I know it will cost me some opportunities (and yes, I might bend the rules for exposure), but I've got a family who needs me. If the opportunity isn't going to pay well, it's not worth it for several reasons - there are other opportunities that will pay well, my family needs me to, and I don't want to devalue my work.

Damian Davila's picture

I completely understand what you mean Kirsten. You're right in not going below your minimum rate. The whole point of being a freelancer is being able to get the jobs that you really want.

Damian Davila's picture

One skill I would add is to learn how to file your taxes better. It is crazy how so many fellow freelancers miss tax breaks!

Guest's picture
Sarah Parnell

Yes, I could use a lot of help in that department, Damian.

Guest's picture

I like how you say to parcel your time into 3 buckets. Too often, people don't leave enough time to market and find new potential clients. That should be an essential job as it helps your business thrive.

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