Before I took the big entrepreneurial leap in 2010, I had always worked for a single employer. But you know how the story goes— suddenly the cubicle walls start to feel claustrophobic, the beck and call of the chain of bosses starts to grate, and you yearn for something, well, more inspired. You feel confident enough in your own skills and personal networks to leave the ‘system’ and start your own freelance business.
The highs are higher— exhilarating and thrilling; and the lows are steep drops, where you battle self-doubt and worry about scoring the next project.
When we first started, we worked out of my partner’s San Francisco apartment to save on overhead costs. My co-founder worked alongside with me. He had his corner. I had mine. Our breaks during the workday were lunch and pots of tea, and our meetings took place over walks to Golden Gate Park, just four blocks away.
While no one was there to observe our work patterns (like most internet-based businesses, our client interaction takes place over e-mail and Skype), we managed to stay fairly disciplined. One of the great perks of working for yourself is the freedom to set your own schedule. No one dictates that you have to clock in at a certain hour. No one’s looking over your shoulder.
Ah, the sweet freedom of being an un-tethered freelancer. But there are downsides, too. At a job you don’t worry about the next paycheck if you slouch a little one week. But on your own, if you don’t produce, you don’t get paid. Every moment for a freelancer is precious.
So once you make the leap, what’s the best way to structure your new work life as a freelancer? Know that by “going indie” you’ll need to prepare yourself for the emotional roller coaster of running your own shop. The highs are higher— exhilarating and thrilling; and the lows are steep drops, where you battle self-doubt and worry about scoring the next project.
While there are numerous and inventive ways to maximize your precious time and work more productively as a freelancer, you’ve got to first master the basics.
Here’s a starter kit of essential productivity tips to get you grounded and organized as you make the transition to the exciting and unpredictable life of a freelancer.
1. Make sure you are freelancing in an industry that interests you and where you have experience.
Make sure you’re in an industry where you have some experience and can leverage your personal networks for job leads, recommendations, and advice.
According to Small Business Trends, “working in an industry for several years before starting a business enhances the survival prospects of a start-up, but a sizable fraction of entrepreneurs start businesses in industries in which they have no work experience.” For example, you’re better positioned to be a freelance writer, if you’ve worked in corporate communications, in publishing, or at a media outlet.
It also helps if you’ve got a burning passion for the work you do. Disinterest or boredom can also make your freelancing dreams fizzle.
2. Master the cash flow game.
Plan for contingencies and delays in payments from your clients. Even the smallest disruption that staunches the flow of money into your coffers can cripple your freelance business. When negotiating projects, always ask for some portion of your fee upfront or use a third party service, like Elance, that asks clients to put money into escrow for safekeeping.
Realize that projects will also come in spurts. One month it may be a deluge; the next month, it could be a drought.
Realize that projects will also come in spurts. One month it may be a deluge; the next month, it could be a drought. In the beginning, a lot of the leads you go after may lead to dead-ends.
You spend the time writing up proposals, answering questions, and just when you think you’ve secured a project, the clients turn coy. Try to hedge your bets by going after multiple leads at one time. After hooking a client, you can juggle deadlines and delegate work if needed.
3. Make sure your space inspires you to be productive and creative.
There’s a reason why we all hate the office cubicle: people worked in isolation, boxed in their individual silos with little interaction with others. This formulaic layout is the bane of workers around the world, so why replicate it at home or wherever you work? Create a workspace that inspires at home and elsewhere.
When we work from our apartment, I favor the dining table wedged next to a bright window where I can see and hear the distant drone of cars and pedestrians on the street below. Next to my computer and books I keep a mini garden of colorful plants that enjoy the sunshine with me.
In contrast, my partner prefers his dark, cluttered corner that looks disturbingly man-cave-like in its ambiance. We have drastically different workspaces, but we don’t put up any barriers or isolate ourselves in different rooms.
When we head out to a coffee shop or coworking space to work, we make sure the environments also inspires in some way.
4. Hire the help you need.
Outsourcing gets a bad rap. Many people juggle everything on their own, only to end up feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.
With our startup, we knew what our core strengths were, and where we would need the most help. If you’re not skilled at something, don’t waste time struggling over it and enlist the help of other fellow freelancers.
If you work from home, consider joining a coworking space, which provides you an instant support network and source for fellow freelancers to hire or collaborate with when you need it. Coworking has been a growing movement popular among freelancers, startups, and other mobile workers. Freelancers rent a desk or office in a shared space for an hour, a day or a year, working alongside others in different fields.
Even if you’re not the social type, dropping by a coworking space a few times a week recharges your batteries.
5. Charge what you’re worth.
In the beginning, we took on any project that came our way to build our reputation and test our mettle. That turned out to be the wrong strategy. A little more seasoned and with more leverage now, we are determined not to sell ourselves short.
We found out what industry standard rates are for writing and editing, and now adjust our numbers against that baseline. If you prefer to charge a lump sum, make sure your client is clear on the deliverables and what follow-up services you can provide.
Pushy and flaky clients may demand more work and add-ons that eventually shrink your gains. If you prefer to charge an hourly rate, make sure you do your math: If your billable hours will be roughly 2,000 hours per year (at 40 hours per week for 50 weeks) divide that into your desired salary. Don’t forget to factor in your expenses from insurance to equipment to your internet and phone bills.
6. Schedule your social media time.
One of the biggest drains to your time when you’re a solopreneur is the care and feeding of your social media presence.
Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, your blog— they all squawk like hungry beasts needing to be fed on a daily if not hourly basis. It’s very easy to get distracted and to let your work languish because you’re too busy scouring and posting content.
One way to manage this is to allot a couple hours every week to come up with a list of useful articles, ideas, and references to post on your accounts. Services like Hootsuite and Tweet Deck allow you to schedule posts weeks in advance. WordPress also lets you schedule upcoming blogs. Figure out the peak times to get the best social media exposure and automate the process.