113. How to Start Freelancing
Not knowing how to start freelancing is what holds most people back. What are the first and most important things you need to do? Starting is simpler than you think.
I began freelancing full time when I got laid off.
I spent a few really good years on staff at a prestigious design college. I was enjoying the work and the people. I enjoyed what I did and was good at it, but I knew it wasn’t really my thing. I’d be thinking of doing other things while I was at work, and wishing I had the creative energy to pursue those things on the side. But the complex days and long commute to and from the school sucked out all my creative energy, and I had nothing leftover to give to my own work outside of that 40 hours I gave to my employer.
Then they laid me off. Suddenly. I walked in on a friday morning, was called over to see the college president, who explained how they were revamping my department and were going to run with a maintenance staff for awhile, which didn’t include me. They had no place to put me. I walked out with recommendation letters, referrals from the president, and a de3cent severance package.
It was on the drive home that I decided it was a good time to start freelancing full time. One rationale was that I would never again be laid off.
And so I did start freelancing full time. And now it’s 25 years later and here I am, still independent, teaching and training people how to build their businesses and establish their brands, helping clients through developing brand strategy and design, and planning for what’s next.
That’s just part of my story and the reason why I created Freelance Road Trip.
Many of you are freelancing on the side while working full time jobs, and many others of you are working full time jobs but want to freelance full time. Either way, developing your creative work into a sustained, successful business is the same. And to do it, you have to start somewhere. Not knowing how to start freelancing is what holds most people back.
The Bible says that people perish for lack of knowledge. Ideas, desires, plans all die when you don’t know what to do.
The first thing to embrace is the fact that you’re building a business, not creating art for a living. Mindset is everything. You must stop thinking like a creative and start thinking like the owner of a creative business.
Rather than taking on a project because you believe it’ll boost your creativity, you take on a project because it will provide income AND lead to other projects.
If you’re going to run your business as a creative you’ll not only encounter myriad problems, you’ll also create them. Trust me in this.
Only by building a sustainable business will you become successful as a creative.
The next step is a marketing, or outreach, step. Get to know people who do what you do. If they’re doing what you want to do successfully, they’re your models and mentors. How do you find them? Through business networking.
Business networking opportunities are offered by your local chamber of commerce.
You can join BNI or LeTip or TEAM.
Look on event platforms like Meetup.com and Eventbrite for networking options in your area.
Look for professional associations and attend events in person or online. SCBWI, NAWBO, SI, AIGA, APA, and the like are excellent discovery opportunities.
The idea isn’t to find clients or to make a sale, but to make connections and expand your resources. Learn who is successful, who their clients are, and how they acquire them. Build relationships.
If you’re not yet freelancing full time, networking is an excellent means of prepping to do so. It actually replaces cold calling, which most of us are uncomfortable doing. People work with and refer work to people they know, like, and trust. Network is relationship marketing.
The next thing is to let your current circle of people know what you’re doing. I’ve talked a lot about how most — and I mean more than 90% — of my clients have come through referrals. Those referrals weren’t all from my clients. They came from people I know at church, friends, and family members. Again, people who know, like, and trust me are happy to help me out by referring people they know who need what I do.
So, ask your friends and family to refer and recommend.
You don’t have a business until you have a client who’s paying you to create for them. I have a collection of stories and advice from creativepreneurs who insist that the first thing you need to do is get a business license and set up an LLC or corporation. That’s backwards.
You need a client — at least one — who’s p[aying for your services. That way you have some capital to work with.
So seek the client first, then set up your business legally.
When you legally form your business you can be a sole proprietor. I was a sole proprietor until a couple years ago when I formed my LLC. To be a sole proprietor all you need is a business license, which you obtain from your city or county, and file a DBA. The cost of doing both is minimal compared to forming an LLC or corporation. I teach on business licenses and legal business entities in the Freelance Road Trip program.
Whether you’re freelancing part time or full time, you should do so as a sole proprietor. Get your license and file your DBA when you get your second or third client.
You’ll need a marketing plan and a money plan. I also cover these in the Freelance Road Trip program, and in my Creativepreneur course which I teach through ArtCenter Extension.
A marketing plan is essentially a road map for connecting with prospective clients. That includes networking, by the way. It answers the question, “How will clients find me?” Put it in writing and act on it.
A money plan is a budget. How much will it cost to run your business? When you’re able to control how you use the money you earn, you’re well on your way to having a successful freelance business. So take an hour or two and map out what you foresee spending money on in your business. Equipment, software subscriptions, books, art supplies, office supplies, insurance, utilities, education, dues, advertising… everything you can think of. Again, budgeting is covered in the Freelance Road Trip program.
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