Career Advice

5 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Freelancing

By Carrie Cousins April 4th, 2018

Not too long ago, I had to fire a client. The relationship had grown untenable over time. Invariably, the scope of their projects would grow, but the budget never did. So when the bill came, there was conflict and frustration on both sides. It was a relief to let them go, to draw a line in the sand on my value as a freelancer. The only thing I regret is how long it took me to get there.

I’ve learned a lot about business in the last 10 years. In the early days, I had no clue, but along the way, I’ve developed a set of rules to live by. And my mistakes, such as holding on to bad clients, have shaped the way I run my business as much as my successes. If I were to start over today, there are more than a few things I’d do differently. Here are a few.

Build a network first

Isolation may be what originally attracted you to the freelancer lifestyle, but it won’t help sustain your business. Your best work will come from your network—the people who know your strengths and skill sets, who can introduce you to vetted clients.Find these people early. Attend networking events, writers groups, whatever you can. Most importantly, be a referrer more often than a referral. Help your prospects find the talent they need and vice versa. You’ll build a reputation that will pay dividends later on.

It can be tough on friends and family

The freelance lifestyle will impact the people around you in a way most jobs typically don’t. Deadlines will interfere with dinner plans and weekend trips. Work will crop up last minute, and your calendar will have to stay relatively open months out to accommodate.Since the people around you may struggle to understand this schedule, you have to set some boundaries so you can actually get things done without disappointing loved ones over and over. It will take an adjustment on both sides. Be patient with their frustration, and ask that they be patient with your schedule.

Yes, you can fire clients

Once in a while, you’ll run into a client that wastes your time, frustrates you, or doesn’t treat you well. Sometimes you’ll know right away; sometimes it’ll take a few projects to figure it out. When that realization hits, you’ll need to decide how much their business is worth to you. Can you raise your rate and endure them, or is this situation unsustainable? If it’s the latter, fire them (with courtesy and professionalism) and don’t look back.

Similarly, just because a project comes your way doesn’t mean that you have to take it. This rule applies to new projects from old clients as well. If you receive an offer that you don’t feel good about, can’t quote properly, or don’t have time to do, decline it. Learn to say no politely, and refer work you can’t take to members of your network.

Stick to a Schedule

If you’re trying to make a living as a freelancer, either full-time or part-time, you have to treat it like a business, not a side hustle. Cramming in work between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. is a no-go. So is working in bed all day. You won’t do your best work if you don’t dedicate time to it. Set office hours, find a quiet coffee shop, and use your time wisely.

It’s not personal

Some projects won’t run smoothly. The client won’t like your draft. They’ll ask for a revision you don’t agree with. This is a turning point—will you do what the client wants or what you think is best?The answer is, of course, to do what the client wants, within the bounds of legality and ethics. Even then, the project may not be a rousing success. If the client offers criticism, remember, nine times out of ten, it’s not about who you are as a professional—the fit just wasn’t right. Don’t let it damage your confidence. Move on and do great work elsewhere.As freelancers, we all have war stories and battle scars. What’s important is that we learn from our experiences, adjust as necessary, and pass on what we’ve learned to others in our ranks.

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