12 Tricks for Optimizing Your Freelance Career

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The day and life of a freelancer can get pretty hectic. It seems all too often we forget that we hold more than the title “boss”. We forget how best to manage our expenses and disposable income. We remember to tweet what we should be doing and forget to ever do it. We forget how to deal with clients and how to make new ones. And, sadly, we forget why we choose to do it our way rather than someone else’s.

These 12 tricks may not seem to have much to do with each other, but they all lead to the fruition of one goal: optimizing your workflow so you can focus on why you became a freelancer, instead of letting freelancing take over you.

1. Get Ready For the Day

Quit waking up at noon. No more leaving your laptop right next to your bed so you can lazily stay in bed until 2pm, only getting up to use the restroom.

Try doing this for a week: wake up at 8am (latest), take a shower, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, put on a polo shirt and for God’s sakes put on some pants. The more serious something is, the more appropriately we should dress for it. Never forget that you’re a boss – start acting like one.

2. Have Business Cards, a Letterhead, & Invoice Template

Acting and being professional is especially important when it comes time to getting paid. Buyers want that sense of professionalism, even in the freelancing world. They’re about to pay you a wad of cash; don’t ask them for it by sending an email stating, “You owe me this much.” Like all things in life, it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

Have a simple but overly explained contract. Make what was agreed upon clear. Make it attractive. Make them almost happy to pay you. And most importantly, add up each service they purchased.

Give your client alternative methods of contact in your email signature, whether it is Skype or a cell phone. Chances are they will never use it, but it will make you more real and give your client the peace of mind knowing that you won’t disappear into cyberspace.

Oh, and of course, spell check and grammar check everything. Did you get that?

3. What’s Your Homepage?

Even though Google is set as the default homepage for many of us, chances are we don’t conduct a web search the first time we open our web browser. We may check our email, look at a few web development sites, download something, close, and repeat.

Who ever said you couldn’t have more than one homepage? No more excuses. I personally have five homepages. They are the five websites I view most often because they have what I’m passionate about. Web development applications and articles about new design techniques that either cut or make my time more enjoyable are things I am interested in.

4. Find What Works For You

No need to reinvent the wheel. If you’re more comfortable with a PC than a Mac, stick with it. However, don’t be afraid to give new things a try. Below is a list of programs (paid and open source) that I have used through the years. I found that I strayed from your typical web development and design tools and found a more comfortable way to get my job done.

Before I used this:  

  1. phpMyAdmin
  2. Notepad++
  3. Internet Explorer
  4. Art Museums
  5. AdSense and AdWords
  6. Joomla!
    Paint Shop Pro

Now I use this:

  1. SQL Buddy
  2. Panic Coda
  3. Firefox 3.5
  4. Smashing Magazine Monday Inspiration
  5. Direct Advertising
  6. WordPress
  7. Photoshop CS4

5. Finish Your Own Website First

When you learn to take care of your own web needs first, then you can start to tackle your clients’. The irony of a web developer/designer not having his or her own website is as ironic and unprofessional as the plumber without running water in his home. And since I consider the web as online real-estate (some live in big houses on Hollywood Boulevard, others in shacks on Noname Street), it would make sense to build your own home before you build one for someone else.

6. You’ll Be Your Own Boss – & a Lot of Other Things

You may have a passion for web design or developing web applications. Heck, maybe both. The more you want something the more you’re willing to lose to get it. For a lot of freelancers this means job security and long nights.

Most freelancers learn this the hard way. Freelancers quickly forget that they hold a lot of titles. Yes, you may be the boss, but you’re also the janitor, the receptionist, the customer support, the technical support, the accountant, the research and development, and project manager. You’re a business all in one.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the numerous responsibilities you’ve undertaken. The return for all that is the freedom to work where, when, and most importantly, how you want.

7. Advertise On Websites & Blogs You Visit

I took the plunge and cast out into the deep. I spent $50 for a month’s worth of advertising on a blog that I greatly admire and respect. The return each day was roughly an additional 70-90 hits and roughly 2-3 RSS feed subscribers.

I chose to advertise on this blog for a few reasons.

First, it was affordable. $50 is about the same amount as me going out to a restaurant or buying a new pair of jeans that I could easily live without. You’re going to have to sacrifice a little here to get a little more there.

Second, this blog I advertised with never advertised for itself. It was spread completely word of mouth. The only people viewing this blog were visitors who a friend told them to visit, or from other websites that linked back to it. Any website that gets popular by word of mouth alone is a website worth investing in.

Thirdly, I want this blog to succeed. His blog is equivalent to the surrounding property of a billboard ad I just purchased. I want the area around my billboard to be attractive. I want the bushes trimmed and the paint fresh; I want the colors bright and the spotlight working. My $50 perhaps allowed the blog author more time to write another great tutorial or give his website a new look and thus drive more traffic to his website, and in return more to my own.

The last reason is simple: I look at this blog every day. The same people who were reading this blog were people just like me. For my new project, I was looking for people who were interested in the same development and design resources as me.

In the end, it paid off. Not because I got about 60 more subscribers, but because of the relationship I built with the blog’s author and the contacts I made with the visitors coming from it.

8. Word of Mouth is Still the Best Form of Advertising

A lot of us are not moved by advertisements anymore. We could see a starving child begging for a quarter a day (and we do see this) and we’ll start flipping through the channels. Why is this? Is it because we know all marketers are liars? With this preconditioned response all of us have to a stranger offering something unfamiliar to us, a few problems arise: How do we get people to care about what we’re doing? How do we get popular without holding up a sign? Here’s what I posted on the “Advertise” page of a recent project I completed:

“Sometimes an idea works. Sometimes little things can push your product over the edge of mediocrity and flourish in a stream of superiority. Sometimes it takes a little work, other times it barely takes any work at all.

We’ll do whatever we can to get your product, service or idea to spread. We want you to talk. Good deals and great ideas get people to talk.”

I answered the two questions above more or less in the previous quote. In case you missed it, here is the answer: Certainly you can talk to other people, but not solely through an advertisement. Talk to them via forums, comments, blogs, you name it; anything that is one-on-one. You are more likely to get a response when you focus on one person than dividing your energy on a group of 5,000. Let me give you a personal example: I was a member of the a group of volunteers that did community service… at 9am each Saturday. I would send out a generic email to about 50 friends the Thursday before. How many of those people showed up? None.

This is a little example of what I’ll call “guilt” economics. I sent out that email to 50 people. For each individual to not show up is to reap 2% of the guilt of not coming (since I sent it to a group of 50 people), and enjoy 100% of the benefits of sleeping in. Advertising works just like this: everyone is trying to talk to everyone. Focus your energy on one potential client.

9. Build a Reputation By Doing a Favor for a Reputable Person

Once you’re sure you can back up what you’re offering, whether it is web development, web design, or consulting services, offer it out for free. That’s right – free. (Quit shaking your head and continue reading, I’m not done yet.) This does not mean offering it out to Joe Shmoe. This means offering it to someone who has a reputation – a great one. Many of us make our friends through another friend. Do a favor for someone who has a lot of friends (that could be in real life or we could be talking RSS subscribers) and they’ll be sure to talk about you.

10. Nothing in Life is Free, But Some Things are Priceless

Meeting someone is priceless. Making someone’s day is priceless. Money may have helped make it happen, but even money is directed by the good will of someone else. Being remembered is also priceless. Do something memorable for your client, whether it’s sending them a simple “Thank You” letter in the mail for doing business with you, or throwing in business cards that they weren’t expecting. You are bound to get that client talking about you and surely get yourself more business.

11. Follow Up & Follow Through

We’re used to having people tell us one thing and then do another. When someone does what they’re supposed to do we’re actually quite surprised. I would rather hire someone who I can depend on to do just a little, than someone who I could only depend on sometimes to do what I ask. “Under promise and over deliver” and you’ll be sure to make a lasting impression.

Unless your client tells you to stop emailing them, keep asking if there’s anything they need. I’d rather have someone who was overly helpful than someone who didn’t care at all. If you sent them a form to fill out and it’s been three days, give them a call and ask them if there is anything you can do. People generally hate doing things and love when someone else can either do it for them or lend a helping hand.

12. Keep Your Spirits & Job Alive With Personal Projects

A personal project should be something enjoyable, inventive, and inspire you to continue pursuing your freelancing career. If all you do is jobs for clients then being a freelancer will undoubtedly start to get old very quickly. Don’t let your side projects die. Upon completion of a template or web application, find an online marketplace like ThemeForest.net. If you sell a template for $30 and you make two sales each weekday for a year, that’s over $3,000. Make five templates that sell, and things really start to add up. Best of all, there is little to no maintenance cost of selling your product.

At the same time, do not let your own projects get in the way of your clients’. Remember, you have to sacrifice a little time in one aspect so you can make a bigger investment of time in something else you want to work at.

In The End, What Does “Free” Really Mean?

The “free” in freelancing should be defined as “freedom to do the job a better way.” Not necessarily how you want, but the freedom to make changes, analyze project requirements, and design accordingly in a way you think will have the best result.

The reason we can’t stand our boss is not because we’re jealous, but because we’re frustrated. We see a problem and we know we can handle it better. This is why we freelance. We know we can do better on our own with nothing but ourselves holding us back.


  1. Thanks for the great article Tommy. Really liked your point about helping out well connected associates for free. Offering some portion of your efforts for free is a great way to build a positive vibe around your business..

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