Career Advice

5 Smart Freelancer Moves to Begin 2015

By Michael J. Solender January 5th, 2015

Post-holiday season is a tempting time for overworked freelancers to enjoy a break in routine and generally be okay with a slow week or two. However, even if you don’t have many articles to write, the end of December and early January is prime time to take stock of your career and plan for more success in the following 12 months.

Here are five moves freelancers should use to start off 2015 with focus and direction:

1. Evaluate your 2014 performance

Most employers provide annual performance feedback to their associates, usually at year’s end. Just because you’re your own boss doesn’t mean you should skip the opportunity to review your annual output.

Start by listing your accomplishments. I review all my work, noting the number of new publications/clients, total revenue per publication/client, and percentage of total revenue each client represents.

This data lets me see where my revenue is coming from and helps me determine if it is too concentrated, making me vulnerable if assignments dry up. In 2013, for example, I realized one of my publications accounted for more than 60 percent of my income. While I was thrilled with the steady business, this fact led me to focus on bringing in new clients.

I also evaluate the strength of my relationship with each editor/client and take note of how I can potentially add services and support the people who pay me.

2. Set realistic stretch goals

Setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals provides necessary direction for all freelancers.

Using this model, I set this goal last year: Establish four new clients, each with recurring business, one per quarter.

Embedded here was developing new corporate and publication targets (The Freelancer was one), reworking my marketing strategy (which helped me land two new corporate clients), and expanding my travel writing, which led to a Travel Connect blogging gig.

Push yourself to set at least one stretch goal for 2015. Mine is getting published in The New York Times. While I haven’t achieved it yet, having the goal out there has pushed me to write a Modern Love draft I will submit later this year.

3. Conduct a financial check-up

The big three factors for financial review at year end are income, expenses, and taxes. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Income: Review your accounts receivable for outstanding payments. Contact those who owe you money with a year-end invoice indicating any outstanding balances. And as Doug Kinsey, a certified financial planner and partner with Artifex Financial Group, noted, if you had a very lucrative year, you may want to ask for deferred payment to 2015.

Expenses: Avoid late fees by paying any outstanding bills. Review any credit card debt and make a schedule to pay higher interest cards off first. “It’s always a good idea to review your credit rating and score,” Kinsey added. The three main reporting agencies (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian) offer a free report each year.

Taxes: From a tax standpoint, a year-end financial review should ideally begin prior to December 31. If you have investment account losses, consider counting them toward the federal $3,000 offset against income. Make charitable contributions before year’s end for a tax advantage. And perhaps the most important consideration is making sure your estimated taxes are in order for all of 2014. Here’s a link to the IRS overview on estimated taxes to get you started.

4. Develop a marketing plan

Last year, freelance food writer Keia Mastrianni hatched a specific marketing strategy that cemented her personal brand, positioning her to capitalize on new business. I use the holiday down time to reflect on the year and think about my market presence,” she said. “As I became more committed to writing exclusively about food, I wanted a consistent image and identity in the market with my website, social media, and in print.”

Mastrianni used the time to develop her own site, Keia Is Hungry. She believes capitalizing on her specialization and memorable name has helped her with pitching and securing new work.

Approaching January with fresh eyes on your web presence is a small yet critical step when establishing a personal brand. Make certain your portfolio hyperlinks work and your best and most recent work is featured. Dust off any pitch templates and see if they need to be adapted for specific clients on your target list. Then execute.

5. Plan for personal development

As freelancers, we can get so busy chasing work during the year that we don’t set aside time for professional development. Take time this year to participate in professional events, conferences, and classes, since they are a smart way to learn new skills and motivate yourself.

Yael Grauer’s recent Freelancer piece on non-graduate writing programs highlighted several great sources for writers to develop new skills and increase their knowledge.

Even consider reading a new professional journal. Last year I picked up a subscription to the Columbia Journalism Review, which examines issues important to editors, provides contact information, and publishes some impressive longform articles like this one  on content marketing. Oftentimes, reading something new sparks story ideas you may not have thought of otherwise.

Finally, look into joining your local chapter of SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) to meet people who are willing to share ideas, contacts, and advice. My local Charlotte chapter holds a monthly social evening that features a prominent journalist as a guest speaker. I’ve found these evenings invaluable.

Now that the first week of January is already here, and editors and clients are just getting back from vacation, think about how you can continue to get better at what you do in 2015. You can keep refreshing your inbox until someone responds to your pitch, or you can step back and look at the big freelancing picture.

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