Earlier this year, I wrote you to ask whether I should quit my job and start freelancing for my employer. Well, I did it! I quit my job and my company is happy to keep working with me as a freelancer!
Now that my freelance career is underway, I’d like to know: What guidance can you offer to a freelancer who wants to be successful this week, this month, and this year?
—Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Career
Hi! I’m glad to hear that your freelance career is off and running.
I also really like the way you framed your question. A lot of freelancers get stuck in one of two mindsets:
- They try to build their entire career in a week, which leaves them burned out and disappointed when they don’t end the week with 10 new gigs.
- They work steadily but don’t ask themselves where they want their career to be next year, which makes it easy to get complacent.
So let’s take a look at action items and break up your responsibilities into a few important calendar benchmarks.
The first thing I want you to do tomorrow is identify a new client to pitch. To be clear: Don’t pitch right away, just identify who you want to pitch. Unless you already have a full slate of clients—and are earning enough money from these clients to support your lifestyle and save for the future—you need to take time to think about expanding.
How can you identify which client to pitch? If you are interested in journalism, start with the publications you read regularly. Visit personal websites of your favorite writers and check out their portfolios for new outlets to pitch. Search The Freelancer’s rates database to see what these publications pay.
If you’re more interested in doing copywriting or corporate writing, it’s time to check out the job boards. I’ve gotten copywriting gigs off the Ed 2010 job boards, and you can always search Indeed for solid listings.
Here’s one more task for you to take care of tomorrow: join a writers’ group or forum. I recommend Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers Den as a great place to chat with other writers and learn about who’s hiring, who’s paying what, and how you can improve your skills.
By the end of this week, I want you to pitch that new client. Before you pitch, take some time to study the client’s style, voice, and favorite topics to learn as much as you can. Even look at the comments section, if one exists, to see how the audience responds to different story ideas and angles.
Then craft a thoughtful pitch that reflects the submission guidelines (or the job listing) and shows an understanding of the client’s needs. Keep your pitch short, include a few links to previous work, and send it off.
The next step in your freelance journey is to figure out how much money you want to earn and map out what you’ll need to do to get there. So by the end of this month, you should know:
- How much money you need every month to pay for basic living expenses and taxes.
- How much money you’d like to earn every month, including discretionary expenses and savings.
- How much work you need to complete, and at what rates, to achieve your goal.
This sounds like an equation for beginners, but I bet a lot of the people reading this haven’t taken the time to figure it out or have slacked off over the years. For my career, I know that I want to earn $5,000 every month. That’s enough for me to live comfortably, pay taxes, and save for the future. It also means that my weeks often include 12-hour workdays, and I know I won’t be able to cut those hours down by “working faster.” The only way to make my workday shorter is to get better-paying clients.
Which brings us to:
Pitch three better-paying clients. That’s the best (and really only) way to push your career forward long term.
Use the same method from above: identify the client, study the client, pitch the client. But this time, make sure you do your research about rates before identifying the client. If you can’t find any public data, ask around. I’m sure you can get an accurate estimate if you ask enough people.
Also, start thinking about where you want your freelance career to be next year. What type of work do you enjoy doing? Do you want to create passive income products like webinars or e-books? Do you want to start any legacy projects such as that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing?
Pick one of the items on your dream list and create a plan to get there. If you want to write for Wired, study Shane Snow’s Freelance Ladder video and start building your own ladder. If you want to lead a webinar, start working on your social media brand and develop expertise so people will know why they need to take your course. If you want to write your novel, complete three pages every day.
Get a CPA. Preferably before the next estimated tax deadline.
Continue to pitch a few better-paying clients every month until you have as much work as you can handle.
Think about asking your current clients for referrals. You’ll know that you’ve started to “make it” as a freelancer when your clients refer you without you needing to ask. There’s nothing as sweet as waking up to an email that reads: “Your editor recommended you as a great candidate for our new job.”
At the end of the year, renegotiate rates with each of your current clients. It will be scary. Some of them may turn you down, but from my own experience, more of them will agree.
Approach your renegotiation one of two ways: either quantify how your workload has increased or how you’ve become more valuable to the client (if you’ve transitioned from an occasional writer to a regular contributor, for example), or simply say, “As we approach the next calendar year, I’m having conversations with all of my clients about my rates.”
Good clients will expect this. Bad clients will act as if you should be grateful for anything you get. But that’s okay, because:
Drop a client. Seriously. Pick either your lowest-paying client or your most annoying client and say goodbye.
Once you have established yourself as a freelancer, you will be astonished at how quickly you can replace a bad client with a better client. It’s like clearing out bad energy; new energy just rushes in, and it’s usually offering a better rate.
And keep pitching. You might be able to get it down to one new pitch a month, but don’t ever stop pitching. That’s how you ensure that you’ll keep finding better gigs, be it today, tomorrow, next month, or next year.
Nicole Dieker is going to use this guide to set her own freelancing goals for the remainder of 2015. If you have other questions for Ask A Freelancer, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.