Freelance Tips for Beginners
"I’m not an idiot, I just haven’t learned yet." – Me, shortly after graduating college
In May 2014, I graduated college with a degree in marketing and wanted to use and grow my skills in creative and digital marketing to the best of my ability. Entry-level positions, whether in-house marketing departments or firms, weren’t going to do it for me. I know it sounds so typical, but I wanted to do it all; I wanted control, I wanted to manage client accounts, and I wanted to be the primary creative and strategist.
I didn’t want to be hyper-focused on one area of a campaign; I wanted to dip my toes in every part of the project, from beginning to end. That’s why I always knew I wanted to work for a small company where you wear a lot of hats…or just work for myself.
Only after college did I find enough time to feel entrepreneurial, listening to my mom’s advice to think about things I find difficult and invent something to make it easier. I tried that a few times, but I’m no engineer. I can’t create a product; I’m much more of a service-provider.
While working multiple part-time jobs for the past few months, I’ve witness the ins-and-outs of retail, sales, product marketing floor sets, corporate blogs and other new efforts to interact with the consumers, and more than all of that, I’ve seen a lot of struggle. I see a lot of hard work and grueling hours go to waste, and I just want people to be successful, in whatever way they measure success, while feeling fulfilled myself.
My strength has been that I am open to criticism—being fresh out of school, I recognized that I had a lot to learn. My clients are not investing in someone based strictly on their portfolio, experience, or former work and signing on for exactly what that person offers, where what you see is what you get. My clients were betting on me. They took referrals from my friends, colleagues, former clients, and signed on for help. Whatever help they could get. I started charging a pretty low hourly rate, bartered some services, and used the work and results to build my portfolio. I was referred to others and ended up having to turn down projects. I have never been so in-demand and confident in my abilities.
Even before graduating, I had a sizable amount of consulting experience. I consulted for a women’s lifestyle retailer and philanthropy company, a luxury German auto performance and enhancement shop, a craft-brewery, a wood-fired pizza joint, and more. Most were great learning experiences, but I did get screwed over financially.
After having a few conversations with other alumni and staff members from my alma mater, Champlain College, I learned how lucky I am that I'm organized, on top of things, adaptive, self-motivated, and—most of all in this case—have a great wealth of people I can go to for business counsel and advice. They also told me not to short-change myself and some of the following tips:
Where to start: Get yourself out there! Local networking events, speaking to people in your current network, posting your services on LinkedIn, or even making a Craigslist job ad could get you jobs.
Snowball effect: Once you make one client happy, they will naturally talk about you to a friend, or offer you a formal referral.
Importance of your portfolio: Keep your work updated for when people want to know about you. Any contact information offered on your business card, LinkedIn, social media pages or personal website, should be kept up in a professional manner.
Keep track of your income! Keep track of your income! Keep track of your income! Yes, it’s THAT important. Back it up in not one, not two, but THREE places. External hard drives, the Cloud, on pen and paper in a file folder. You’ll need to track these numbers for income taxes. You can also choose to open a separate business checking account (if you have a registered trade name with the state) to separate your funds.
The above tip goes for your work, too. Back it up. Remember that time you lost your final paper when your computer crashed the night before it was due? Imagine that happening when you have a paying client who is relying on you and tight deadlines.
Never take just “prestige” or “experience” as forms of payment. There is a place for volunteer work, but make sure you know your own value.
Bartering: You can suggest things other than monetary payment. Anything tangible and of real value, perhaps relevant to the client’s business, can be a great alternative for cash.
Walk the walk: In an article written by Ella Riley-Adams on Contently.com, freelancer Charlie Cole said,
"Everything I’ve learned was based on the fact that I was able to pretend like I knew what I was doing, until I actually knew what I was doing.” Faking it until you make it is not a sham – it’s the best way to learn.
Manage your time wisely: There is no such thing as being “on freelance time.” Some clients are lenient with their deadlines, while others monitor progress closely. You need to keep track of your priorities and deadlines, and use this when offering a realistic deadline to the client, or even taking on more jobs. You know better than anyone your work ethic, and how many other things are on your plate.
You need more than skills, you need to be a people person: In freelance, you are the customer service representative in addition to whatever service you’re providing. Keep that in mind to keep clients happy. And be up-front with them about the best way to contact you, and stick to that.
"Freelancing in an independent endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.” More wise words from Riley-Adams. Find like-minded folks with common interests to be your support group. Whether you need someone to tag along to an event and carry your equipment or keep you sane; collaborate with someone with skills beyond yours to fulfill all the client’s needs and complete a job; hand-off a job to someone when you get too busy; need referrals for your work or need a critique on your work: they’re there. They also just understand your crazy schedule and deadlines better than friends with a 9-to-5 job.
Registered/Legal Business as vs. D.B.A: You don’t need a trade name or to register as an LLC if you don’t want to. As long as you’re not paying others, you can just say D.B.A. (Doing Business As…) your name/company name and be a sole proprietor. Registering as an LLC will protect yourself and personal assets, but in select trades, there’s very little reason why you’d get sued.
Contracts vs. no contracts: Doesn’t have to be a legal contract, but make sure agreement is in writing. This can be as simple as meeting minutes or a text or email to confirm a verbal agreement. It is especially important for scope of work, so you don't end up doing more than you intended for low wage, and the client doesn't get charged too much for something they didn't ask for.
Competitive wages: Talk to a business advisor or peers about how much you should charge. It all depends on your experience, referrals and portfolio, your geographic region, and the size of the companies you work for. A good place to start is taking what you'd make at a job hourly and multiplying it by three.
Any more tips to add? Leave them in the comments.