When I first started working as a freelancer, I had little idea as to what I was doing or what the freelance world had in store for me. I imagined—as I'm sure many of us do—a life of freedom and flexibility, where I could work on whatever projects I wanted whenever I wanted to. (Not to mention, from wherever I wanted to be working.)
But the transition away from your typical salary and hourly positions to becoming a freelancer isn't always the easiest. It took a lot of work for me to get to the point of being comfortable as a freelancer. My original goals were to have more flexibility and to be my own boss, but I had to get some experience first and go through a learning process before I could achieve my objectives.
Although I no longer freelance full-time, I spent four years offering my writing and photography services as a freelancer—and I learned a lot. No matter how much time or experience you have working on your own, these tips will help you close out 2020 strong and start your business on the right foot in the new year.
As a one-person show, you need to streamline your work as much as possible. For some inspiration, take a look at how this freelancer automated her client onboarding process.
1. Home in on your specialties
There are plenty of freelancers out there who probably have similar or more experience as you. The best way for you to stand out from the crowd is to get specialized in your field of work.
Think back on the year, and consider what projects you've enjoyed working on the most. Where did you excel or perform the best? If you can pinpoint where you do your best work—and actually enjoy it—that's a good indicator of where you should specialize.
For example, a writer has many different paths to choose from. I've written about technology, health care, real estate, and automotive news. I've even created online dating profiles for people. Although most of this work has been interesting, my real passion aligns more with travel, and this is where I've found the most satisfaction in my work. With that in mind, I decided to seek specific opportunities where I could do more travel writing.
When you're first starting out as a freelancer, you may need to take all the opportunities that come your way—whether or not you're interested in them. Once you've gained enough experience, you'll qualify for more opportunities and can start to specialize in the things you enjoy the most.
If you don't know what to specialize in quite yet, just keep finding opportunities for work, so you can figure out what you enjoy and what you're good at. If you enjoy something, but you're not as good as you'd like to be, keep doing it with the intention to improve. Analyze your performance, set clear goals for yourself, and you'll inevitably become more skilled.
2. Review your client list
As a freelancer, work doesn't always come to you. You need to go out and find projects and clients on your own. Over time, your client list may shrink and grow, so it's essential to go over your list periodically and see whether there are any changes you want to make.
Unfortunately, not every client will be a dream client that's easy to work with. If a client isn't the right fit, review why that might be the case and see whether there's anything you can do to improve the situation. If there isn't, and you can afford the financial loss, consider dropping the client.
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You may want to drop a client because the type of work you're doing for them doesn't align with your vision of the work you want to be doing. Or maybe you aren't being paid enough and negotiations for a pay increase haven't been fruitful. If you drop a client in either of these circumstances, you can improve the overall health of your client list, and it will probably benefit your mental health too. Every situation is different, but you need to look out for yourself and what's going to help you and your business progress toward your goals in the next year.
It's also a good idea to make a list of clients you'd love to work with. This can give you concrete targets to go after as your portfolio and talents continue to build. By dropping your less desirable clients, you'll leave space for new clients that pay more, as well as the possibility of landing a dream client you'd love to work for.
3. Proactively network
You won't always have clients coming to you throughout your freelancing journey, so it's essential to be proactive and search for clients yourself. Networking is a tried-and-true strategy for finding more work opportunities as a freelancer.
Years ago, I attended an event for photographers and writers that led to an introduction with the head of a public relations agency for a major hotel brand. This resulted in some work experience with them that summer and then a few more opportunities to work together a couple years later. Had I not attended that event, I never would have made that connection and had those experiences.
It's also easier than ever to network online with individuals and companies in your industry. I've sent hundreds of thoroughly-researched cold emails to companies I wanted to work with, and this has led to dozens of opportunities to work on projects.
You'll never know what opportunities are out there if you don't put in the effort to find them. Once you've found some good opportunities, keep in touch with the clients in case ongoing work is available.
If you find networking exhausting, there are some ways to automate the process to make it easier. Check out these 4 ways to automate your connections.
4. Update your website and share social proof
If you want to get more work, be sure to showcase your best work online using social media and a website.
Put yourself in the shoes of a client who just received a pitch from a freelancer. What would be the first thing you'd do after looking over the pitch? Well, you'd likely want to see some examples of the freelancer's work.
For my freelance photography, I want potential clients to have an easy way to access my work, so I created a website and an Instagram account that I link to in my email pitches and messages. But it's not enough to just have these portfolio mediums—you have to update them on a regular basis. Be consistent in updating your portfolio with your most recent work, share your industry knowledge by starting a blog on your website, and give your digital presence the attention it requires. You'll be far more likely to win job opportunities when you display your work professionally.
You may think you need a marketing budget to look professional online, but there's not really much of a cost here. Social media accounts are free, and websites don't cost much to build and maintain. And as you continuously share your work across these channels, you'll always have an updated portfolio to easily share with clients. Plus, this gives you branding and social media skills that clients may want to hire you for in the future.
Be sure to follow companies and brands on social media that are within your industry as well. This can give you inspiration for your own work, and then you can form ideas for pitching these companies. Seeing the content they're putting out lets you know what their style is and whether you could be a good fit for them. And you never know: one of those companies might check out your work and follow you back.
Also, ask for testimonials from your clients that you can showcase on your website. You can use these to create case studies for prospective clients to see, which will only reinforce why someone should work with you.
5. Set goals (not resolutions) for the new year
With the end of the year comes loads of New Year's resolutions. It's not necessarily a bad thing to make resolutions, but if you're anything like me, a resolution alone isn't going to change anything.
Instead of making resolutions, set goals for yourself and your business. When you think about it, a New Year's resolution can be intangible and difficult to wrap your head around. A year becomes a very long time to hold yourself accountable. But if you only have to think about specific goals for the next three months, it's a lot easier to focus on your objectives.
Consider starting with quarterly goals for the new year that are within reach to achieve. Keep in mind, your goals should still push you to make an effort so you can progress and grow. Once you've set goals and worked toward them, you have the perfect opportunity to track your progress and see whether you need to readjust anything to keep realistic targets.
6. Review your rates
It's always a good idea to periodically review the rates you charge to clients. You should be paid what you're worth—even though you're a freelancer and not a salaried employee. As you gain experience and improve your skills to offer more value to your clients, you should be paid more in return.
Think of it this way: many companies offer promotions and raises to their employees as they gain more experience or take on more responsibilities. There may even be inflation raises that occur to account for the cost-of-living expenses in a certain area.
As your own boss, it's up to you to adjust your rates according to your expertise and what you think is fair. Especially since we're in the midst of a recession, freelancers and gig workers need to be prepared to survive an economic downturn, and it's more important now than ever to make sure your rates are stable and appropriate.
After you've put in the research on what you should be getting paid, communicate your adjusted rates to existing clients. This may drive some clients away, but it will benefit you in the long run because a good client should be happy to pay well for good freelancers.
7. Set aside money for retirement and short-term savings
Many full-time workers qualify for 401(k) accounts through their employers, and sometimes their employers will match up to a certain percentage of their contributions. But what about freelancers? Are we left out in the cold when it comes to retirement and other forms of savings?
Definitely not. Freelancers still have opportunities to save for retirement with an account like a 401(k) or IRA. In addition, freelancers can also put money away into a health savings account as long as you're on an eligible high-deductible healthcare plan.
For short-term savings, it's best to always put money aside in an emergency fund. Because you're handling all your own finances as a freelancer and your income is subject to fluctuation, decide how much money you want to put away for unforeseen circumstances, and make it a habit to never touch those funds unless you have to.
Because long-term and short-term savings aren't as streamlined for freelancers, it can take a little more effort for you to get your finances in order and also know how much to save. But it'll be well worth it when you need the money later on.
8. Prepare for tax time
Although your wages won't be taxed as a freelancer, you still have to pay taxes. This can be especially confusing if you've only ever experienced W-2 wages through an employer and your taxes were already taken out directly from your paychecks.
Freelancers typically have to pay quarterly taxes throughout the year. The next due date is January 15, 2021, so use this time now to get your financial information in order before it's too late. Using accounting software can help you streamline your freelancer taxes.
One simple thing you can start doing is to keep your personal and business expenses separate. If you do this, you'll have a much easier time tracking everything you need for taxes. By using a business credit card for your business expenses and personal credit cards for everything else, the separation will be a lot easier.
And don't forget: if you make contributions to your retirement accounts each year, you'll reap the rewards down the road and potential tax benefits right now as well. Earning a tax deduction by contributing to an eligible retirement plan can really help your finances when it's time for tax returns.
We're nearing the end of the year, which means now is the perfect time to make changes with your freelancing business. Don't wait until the start of 2021 to set your goals. Start implementing these tips now and see how much you'll benefit from them next year. And check out Finance Buzz for more tips.
This was a guest post from Ben Walker, a credit cards and travel writer at FinanceBuzz who loves helping others achieve their travel goals through financially-sound decisions. For nearly a decade, he has been using credit card points and miles for the sole purpose of traveling the world. Ben has been featured in The Washington Post, MSN, Debt.com, and Finder.com. In addition to travel, Ben also enjoys photography and spending time in the outdoors. As often as he can, he'll try to combine the three for maximum enjoyment. He sometimes invites his wife, Lauren, along as well. Want to see your work on the Zapier blog? Check out our guidelines and get in touch.