Your 10 first steps to a successful freelance career

Considering leaving the security of full time work for self-employment? Read the first 10 steps you need to take to launch a successful freelance career.

Becoming a freelancer is an increasingly attractive career choice for mothers (not surprising when women are possibly better at it)!

But how have they successfully made the leap? And exactly how can you go from paid employment with one boss, to a contacts book full of regular freelance clients?

Your first 10 steps to a successful freelance career

If you dream of launching a new freelance career but don’t know how or where to begin, we’ve put together 10 steps to help get you off to the best possible start.

1) Make a plan

Unless you’re incredibly lucky (or just exceedingly well-prepared) it’s unlikely you’ll leave permanent employment one day, and begin a busy freelance career the next. The reality for most freelancers is that work builds slowly over time.

So if you have unavoidable financial commitments, it’s wise to plan your freelance career before you make the leap. This means thinking carefully about what you can offer and to whom, and tentatively sounding out future clients before you’re ready to go.

It’s also a very good idea to start saving up before you give up the security of a regular income, so you have a comfortable financial buffer should you need it in the first few months (and there’s a very good chance you will). If you can save up enough to cover six months of basic expenses – fantastic! But even a couple of months of fall back funds will make your new career less heart-in-throat at times.

It’s also a good idea to think carefully about your freelance identity – your business name and logo – and research some cost-effective ways to market yourself (or if you know anyone who may agree to a skills trade with you to get them for free).

2) Find clients

We’re already touched on this, but one thing EVERY freelancer needs is clients. And you won’t get very far in your new career if you don’t know where to find them. So start thinking seriously about who is going to hire your services, and where they are.

The first and easiest pool of potential customers is people you already know – from your current and previous bosses, old colleagues and even past clients who liked your work. Don’t be afraid of getting in touch with them to let them know you’re planning to go freelance, and asking if they may have any projects you can help out on.

Once you’ve got in touch with direct contacts, think about who you may know indirectly. Do any of your friends or family have useful contacts? What about connections on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter? (You can read seven simple rules to create a perfect LinkedIn profile here.)

Speaking of social media, remember to update your profiles with the relevant information to let everyone know you’re going freelance, and exactly what you do. Don’t miss any chance of attracting the attention of a potential client.

3) Get good at networking

If you want to be a successful freelancer, learning how to network may be unavoidable. Unless you’re lucky enough to inherit a full set of loyal, regular clients from the start, you’ll need to branch out beyond old work contacts and friends of friends at some point. And that means networking.

These days, networking has many guises. You can choose to make new connections at face to face events – from local networking groups to larger national events – or virtually through social media platforms like Twitter. (Just make sure you have your elevator pitch ready!)

If there aren’t many appropriate networking meetings near you, or it’s not feasible to attend, you may find that social media is your best source of clients. With the right skills, it’s easy to quickly build an engaged following on Twitter, and showcase your expertise or talents. Learn how to schedule well-written tweets with links to your blog or website and you’ll soon find that some of your followers can be converted into new clients.

If you prefer the idea of meeting new clients personally, look for local or national networking clubs to join, and start going to meetings. Or search Eventbrite for relevant events you can attend.

4) Work out how much you’re worth

One of the trickiest aspects of going freelance is deciding what a decent rate of pay is. Obviously you’d like to earn as much as possible, while still being competitive and offering good value.

A good place to start is to take your last full time salary, work out your day rate and add around a third (to take into account the lack of holiday and sick pay, and the time you’ll now spend on admin and finances etc). Generally freelancers earn more than permanent staff, but don’t necessarily work as often (or get paid holidays and bank holidays) – levelling out the pay playing field somewhat.

If it’s not appropriate to base a figure on your past salary, try researching what other freelancers in your field charge. If you know someone you can ask, great (most freelancers are usually quite friendly to each other and happy to help out). If not, try asking Google.

At the end of the day though, you need to find a figure that you’re happy with. If you have a sum that you feel your time is worth, and are happy to work for that amount, then base your quotes on that number. And remember that you may be quicker or slower than another freelancer, so basing your work on someone else’s hourly rate isn’t necessarily the best idea.

Read more freelance money tips in these articles:

5) Start building your portfolio 

One of the first questions a new client will ask you is, “Can I see examples of your work?” Or they may ask for references or case studies. So before you start touting for work in earnest, put together a portfolio.

If you create work that can be shared, set up a website or online portfolio that you can email clients. If you haven’t got any freelance work to include yet, add any examples of work – either projects you have completed personally or as part of your job.

Ask clients, colleagues and employers for references, and start writing case studies that demonstrate your skills and the type of results you can deliver. (Read a quick and easy guide to writing case studies.)

When building your portfolio, it’s important to think of the work, and type of client, that you want, and choose examples that will appeal to to those people.

So if, for example, you want to be a logo designer, ensure that your portfolio shows your expertise and flair in that area. If you fill it with examples of art working brochures instead, you’re more likely to get hired for more of the same. It’s far better to have a smaller but niche portfolio of your favourite pieces, than one bulging with a varied selection of jobs (and quality of work).

Want more advice? Read five tips to build a freelance portfolio that will get you work.

6) Keep track of what you’re asked to do

In our experience, most clients are honest and fair. But difficult freelance clients do exist, and it’s wise to take sensible precautions with every job you do, just in case you encounter problems later on.

This includes keeping a paper or electronic trail of any instructions given to you by clients, as well as all quotes they accept. So if, for any reason, a client queries an invoice, you can prove that you are owed the money.

To this end, ensure that you keep any emails with instructions or quotes in them, and if they were given or accepted verbally, follow up with a quick email confirming the agreement and asking the client to acknowledge you understand everything.

7) Get to grips with admin

Much as you may HATE paperwork and accounts, unless you can afford a PA or VA from day one, they’re a necessary freelance evil. The trick is to stay on top of your admin and not let it pile up. So try to set aside an hour or so a week, and half a day a month just to keep everything up to date.

Make sure you keep track of jobs as they come in, the amount you’ve quoted and the work or hours you have completed. Then each month, invoice for work to date – again keeping a record of the date and amount of your invoice.

Once you’ve sent out each month’s invoices, check for payments received, and chase any late payers. If you have regular bad payers, it may be a good idea to spend time crafting a standard email you can send out to chase payments (although in our experience, a firm but polite phone call asking for an exact payment date usually works better).

And remember to keep track of any expenses too. Try to dedicate a specific place (even just an A4 envelope) to collect all your expense receipts as you receive them.

Then once a week, make a note of how much you’ve spent and what they’re for. That way you won’t be faced with trying to decipher a heart-sinkingly large pile of mystery receipts at the end of your business or tax year.

(Hate bookkeeping? Try one of these five systems!)

8) Hire an accountant

One the big advantages of being freelance is that you have more options to structure your finances and be clever about money. And an accountant can not only help point you in the right direction, but take away all your tax and national insurance headaches.

A good accountant will make sure your freelance business is structured properly (whether you’re a sole trader or limited company) and that you’re taking advantage of every possible tax break, while staying within the law.

You can opt for a local accountant, or choose cloud accountancy. Both will help you take proper care of your finances, and offer help and advice at the end of the phone when you need it.

9) Invest in good equipment

While a good workman never blames his tools, you don’t want to be crossing your fingers every time you save a document, or waiting ten minutes for a file to download.

To do a good job as a freelancer you need to have the right equipment, and you have to be able to trust it’s in good working order. So service any current equipment you have, and invest in anything new you may need.

Think about both hardware (a good computer, mobile and printer are basics for most freelance businesses) and any software needs (what online tools or apps will help make running your business easier?). The good news is that as a freelancer, you can offset the expenses against tax!

10) Find other freelancers you can trust

There will be times when, with all the will in the world, you can’t take on a freelance project. You may be too busy, planning a holiday for that time, or just unable to manage the client’s needs. However, you still want to keep your client happy (and loyal).

For this reason it’s good to find other freelancers who do similar work to you that you trust. So you can ensure that you have a reliable person to send your client to if you need – helping you to look good with your client, and hopefully protecting their loyalty to you.

Another benefit to having one, two or more freelancers you know and trust, is that they too can pass projects they can’t work on your way too, spreading the benefit of your network to you all.

Need more advice or inspiration?

Follow these 10 steps, and you’ll be well on the way to embarking on an exciting new freelance career. You’ll also find lots more brilliant freelance advice in these articles:

If you’re looking for inspiration, read how real life mums have built successful freelance careers as a cartoonist, copywriter, TV presenter, makeup artist, designer, marketing professional and garden designer.