How to Go Freelance—And Not Burn Out Trying
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How to Go Freelance—And Not Burn Out Trying

Maybe you love your colleagues, maybe you enjoy the structure of an office, maybe you love knowing exactly when you’ll get paid. And yet, the pull to go freelance is strong. Maybe you want to be your own boss, maybe you want to set your own hours and maybe you want to make more money. This week on Girlboss, we’re taking the leap with helpful freelancing tips for beginners, inspiration and stories of real women who did the thing. Freelance, baby!

 I had dreams of a glossy fashion career from a very young age. I never planned on being a freelancer or even working for myself. So, back in 2008, I studied fashion and textile design, then realized that I didn’t want to pursue design, and went back for a masters in trend forecasting and an MFA in visual arts (attending at night). I also landed my first job in the editorial world as an editorial assistant at that time. And while my editorial career was taking off, I was moonlighting at a trend-forecasting agency and at a PR firm.

So what was the fatal combo that pushed me into the freelance world? 

Yes, you guessed it: Burnout.

On paper, this was the kind of job I wanted: fashion weeks, cool events, and constantly meeting interesting people. The other side of the coin included sleepless nights, weekends working, feeling not valued by my bosses, and too many back-to-back airplane trips to remember them all. My body was stressed, I would get sick once a month, and there were loud and clear signs that this wasn’t going to work out well for me.

That was the breaking point when I decided it was time for a change and decided to do my own thing.

As the gig economy keeps booming and the future of work offers more unconventional ways of making a living, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have ‘going freelance’ within your 2022 New Year’s resolutions. You might think that choosing your own clients, managing your schedule, and working from wherever you want is the ultimate work paradise. Still, it can also be terrifying —I say this from personal experience when facing months of anxiety and lack of work. When going freelance, you’ll need to figure out how you’ll stay afloat financially, which goes beyond just paying your bills on time. It’s a delicate equilibrium that requires planning, creativity, perseverance, and flexibility.

I started freelancing in 2017, and as demand for my freelance work grew I turned it into a small consulting firm called Mate House. I’ve hired six people and last year we helped 25 companies. So, even though I’m no longer a full-time freelancer (I still freelance-write part-time), I was able to create the kind of company and work culture I wish I had as an employee. 

If you are considering embarking on this journey, don’t worry, you are not alone! I’d like to share some freelancing tips for beginners, the things wish I knew before starting my freelance adventure.

Freelancing Tips for Beginners: Your network is your net worth: building your network and finding your first client

Where did I find my first client? Within the network I built during my years in the fashion industry. I offered freelance creative and strategic consulting for fashion brands when an emerging sustainable brand decided to bet on me. This gig resulted from the close relationships and a reputation I developed during my 9-to-5 years. So my first tip here is to be meticulous about building your credentials and contacts as a freelancer (even before you take that leap!). 

When planning your move, create a list of all the people you know in your industry and any relevant adjacent sectors. Keep an open mind, including anyone who would be willing to put you in contact with potential clients. Once you have created the list, send those contacts a note, letting them know you’re on the lookout for new work (Important: make those notes personal, never blast your contact list!).

Remember, you can also find potential clients on Linkedin, Instagram, Twitter, and beyond! Be active on the channels your prospects are engaged in and make an effort to regularly have meaningful interactions with them.

Meaningful connections are a big one. You have to build and nourish those connections throughout your whole career. Don’t go into every professional interaction with the intention to extract something, but also to add value to someone’s career, collaborate, help each other, and be kind. Having a solid nexus of colleagues and collaborators, especially when you are on your own, can be as crucial as finding a client. Also, let’s not forget about showing gratitude to the people who helped you along the way. 

Freelancing Tips for Beginners: Define your services as a freelancer and identify your secret sauce

Our ability to define gives us the power to create, so let’s get some clarity! What are you good at that could benefit others? Why would a client choose you over all the other people offering a similar service to yours? What makes you stand out from the crowd? What do you do every day to serve your clients better than the competition? 

Answering these questions is what I like to refer to as identifying your secret sauce. Defining the services you want to deliver—those skills you have that would benefit others who are willing to pay for them—have to go together with the unique characteristics that separate you from your key competitors. Those characteristics are the ones that will give you a perceived advantage in the eyes of your target audience and will make finding new work easier.

In my case, I defined my secret ingredient to be my trend-driven approach to brand consulting, which included a vast toolbox of things I learned during my years trying different jobs. I remixed these tools, added trends to the mix, and boom: I created a method that resonated with my clients, was unique to me, and delivered results. That was my secret sauce!

Your differentiator could be your approach, your services, the products you offer, quality, delivery time—anything you want it to be! When you take something you do that is slightly “different” and adjust it, even just a tiny bit, that simple adjustment might be precisely what the client ordered, and you can win the project over a competitor.

Another important note: Be open to exploring, experimenting with, and understanding your unique skills. It is a process that can take time, so have patience with yourself. Requesting constructive feedback from people you have worked with and trust is essential. We can often overlook the skills that come most naturally to us, not realizing they may be valuable to others. 

Freelancing Tips for Beginners: Define who your target clients are

The more clarity you have about your ideal customer, the more focused and effective your efforts to reach them and win them over will be. And, oh boy, do I wish I had known this when I started freelancing. Over and over again, you hear about “defining your ideal customer” in marketing classes, podcasts, articles, and social media. But we often fail to understand what this means in-depth, and we don’t sit down, put pen to paper, and do this exercise. Or at least I didn’t, and that was a big mistake. 

I went into freelancing with the idea of helping fashion brands and, although I was aware of my skills, I didn’t have clarity about who could benefit the most from them. That resulted in my communication and pitching efforts being all over the place and, as a result, a lot less effective. Bottom line: It’s much easier to pitch and win clients when you know who they are, where they are at, and what their needs are at any given time. 

Think of your target clients as the group of companies, brands or individuals who share the same problems, goals, and interests that you and your services can address in the best way possible. Targeting a specific group aims to understand their goals, create the best solutions for their problems, deliver the right message at the right time, and have more meaningful communication.

I recommend starting with a few effective prompts to define your target audience: What does my service do for my ideal client? What are the most pressing needs that my product or service satisfies? Why should my client hire me rather than someone else? What time of year, season, month, or week do they need my services the most?  

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Freelancing Tips for Beginners: Write an action plan

This is a big one. Becoming a successful freelancer will require self-discipline, consistency, and responsibility, and, for the first time, you and only you will determine what your routine looks like. Switching from a structured 9-5 in the corporate world to the complete opposite in the freelance world can be jarring.

I started my freelance work as a side hustle. And it’s what I recommend you do, too—especially if you’re anxious and impatient like I am. Once you have a good flow of incoming work from your additional gig, it will feel safer to take that leap. You probably think this method sounds exhausting, and you would be right. It can be, but putting in initial time at night and on weekends for me was preferable to diving off the freelance deep end without knowing how to swim. 

It was clear to me that I needed to have a financial cushion before I embarked on my freelance adventure. Starting my freelance work as a side-hustle was also very useful as it helped me set money from my 9-5 paycheck aside.  You might be wondering: how much money should you set aside before jumping off the corporate wagon? In my experience, having saved the amount I needed to afford four months of living made me feel safe enough, and it worked out well. When I had slow months (like we all have in the freelance world), I was at peace. I recommend you to set aside at least three months’ pay before you leap, or, if you are a bit more conservative with your finances like me (aka anxious!), then four months is ideal.

This strategy also helped me map out how frequently I accept work, budget the length of the projects I could take on, and become better at discipline and routine. It helped me learn how to get things done on time, how much to charge per project considering the length of time it took to finish it, and how much I needed to survive per month.

When it comes to freelancing, you are only as strong as your plan. It’s always a good idea to define a roadmap of the steps you will take to win over your first clients, make your first paychecks, and grow your freelance business. Remember: our ability to define gives us the power to create. 

Freelancing Tips for Beginners: Own your worth

My ability to define my roadmap also depended on my understanding and owning my worth, a common struggle at the beginning of the freelance journey. The confidence that I could deliver positive results to my clients took time and hard work to develop. It was tough for me to put prices on my services and stick to them. I had to build up the courage to ask for what I thought was fair and to walk away when a client expected more for less or was not the right fit. When the incoming client funnel is dry, money gets tight, saying no becomes one of the hardest things you have to do. But believing in the value of your expertise and not taking less for what your time is worth will help you build confidence in yourself, and people in your industry will respect you more.  

Freelancing Tips for Beginners: Build your personal brand

Defining your brand will help you reach your personal and professional goals, so don’t be afraid to let your true colors shine. In 2022 talking about building a personal brand—a lofty concept—can feel a bit obvious and repetitive, but it’s still as relevant as ever. Think about it in this way: if someone has never met you, what’s the first thing they turn to? Your online presence.  As a result, what they think, feel, and, in turn, say about you is based on what they find online. Your brand turns into your reputation. Keeping up with your brand and what it projects is crucial in order to get new clients.

Thinking about yourself as a brand is not just about creating pretty visuals but about defining your mission and vision, purpose, values, brand promise, tone of voice, and a visual identity that reflects all of the above.

A website is a great place to start, even using an online template. It should show your portfolio or case studies, your services, and shares a bit about yourself and the journey that got you to where you are.  And, if you pair it up with good SEO, including the keywords related to your services, this will help you get new leads without even having to prospect for them! 

And, since you’ve now done the work to know who your target clients are, you should be aware of where they hang out in the virtual world. Focus on those digital channels where you can find them, and most importantly, where they can find you. There is no need to be everywhere. And remember: content is king. 

Final thoughts:

  • Remember your values and always be authentic because people will cut through insincerity like a knife. Also, never compromise on your promises and don’t make any that you can’t deliver in.
  • Collaborating with freelancers and others you admire adds excitement to the mix, introduces your audience to new perspectives, and expands your reach. 
  • You don’t have to be on every platform on earth; frequent the channels where your target clients hang out instead. 
  • Declutter your message: less is more, attention spans are minimal, clarity is appreciated.
  • Identity matters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t evolve. It is important to grow as your brand grows. 
  • Be ok with not being for everyone.

To wrap it up, what I can say from experience, is that if you want to become a freelancer and you feel like you have what it takes: self-discipline, consistency, patience, and a bit of a financial cushion built before taking that leap—do it! 

Honestly, I’ve seen many people do things in their unique ways and succeed. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for successful freelancing; it depends heavily on the industry you work in, your experience, and countless other personal traits. 

Last words: when you do get it all figured out, give back to those who want to go freelance.

Freelancing Can Be Lonely. Here’s How To Find Community—And a Mentor
3 Women on the Highs and Lows of Going Freelance
Your Totally-Not-Intimidating Guide to Finances as a Freelancer