Building a Contract Career: For Freelancers, By Freelancers
While the traditional 9-to-5 may still be the norm, freelancers are rapidly taking over the workforce. In fact, a recent survey by The Freelancers Union projects that more than half of the U.S. population will be freelancing by 2027. And while contract work may not come with the shiny bells and whistles of corporate life (namely employer-paid healthcare, paid vacation days, and 401k plans), a new set of perks is winning over workers across the globe...
The ability to work where you want, when you want, for who you want – with higher income potential and more tax deductions than salaried jobs.
Sounds pretty great, right? Well, it is – and there’s no time like the present to get ahead of the game and carve out your spot in the freelance world. But before you get started, consider yourself warned: It isn’t all sunshine, daisies, and working from the beach (mainly because of screen glare). It’s hard work, especially in the beginning. You’ll need dedication, patience, and perseverance to set the foundation and start attracting the right clients.
Lucky for you, a group of seasoned freelancers who have been through the trenches are here to offer their best advice for building a freelance career from scratch.
First thing’s first – get your mindset right.
It may sound woo-woo, but the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to escape those feelings of imposter syndrome, doubt, and questionable self-worth. Not to mention, if you start by severely undervaluing and undercharging your services, it’s that much harder to raise prices and attract your ideal clients down the line.
“Mindset will make or break you as a freelancer. A lot of people get stuck in the short game and can never get out because they’re so busy doing more work for cheap instead of cutting back and charging what they’re worth. Better to have a long term vision and be selective, even if that means saying no more often.”
– Dylan Drake, Music Producer
Next, it’s time to determine your niche.
If you’re multi-talented, you may be tempted to offer ALL THE THINGS to open yourself up for more opportunities… and while that seems to make sense as a numbers game, it’s better to focus on what you do best before scaling your services.
For example, if you’re a writer – what kind of writing are you most comfortable with? Are you more experienced in copywriting (converting sales via landing pages, sales pages, emails, and ad copy) or other forms of content (like blogs, eBooks, and whitepapers)? Are there certain industries that you can offer expertise in, or others that are outside of your wheelhouse? Start with what you know best and grow into where you want to be over time.
“When I first started as a freelancer, I focused on troubleshooting computer issues since that's what came natural to me. I offered to help friends and family, which quickly turned into helping their friends and family, too. Using that base, I was able to offer new services in the web spectrum and help launch another division that I enjoy working in more so than troubleshooting.”
- Joshua Cheney, CEO & Developer
Present yourself like a pro.
With so many affordable and easy-to-use platforms out there, there’s simply no excuse for not having a professional presence online. These days, you don’t have to know how to code to build a beautiful website – and even an extremely basic one-page site will set you apart from freelancers who rely on LinkedIn profiles to attract their clients.
“If you’re not willing to invest in yourself, why should your clients? For the small amount it costs you to buy a domain, throw on a free or cheap template, and set up a professional email address (read: NOT your Gmail), you’re setting the groundwork to build trust. You’re telling potential clients that you take your work seriously, and so should they.”
- JoAnna Carpentier, Founder & Brand Storyteller
Coming across like a professional goes way beyond your consumer-facing site, though. There’s a whole lot of behind-the-scenes action that helps to set the tone – including your client calendar, contracts, invoicing, and payment systems, to name a few.
“One of the best things a freelancer can do to be the pro their clients need is to have impeccable systems and processes. Letting clients know what to expect, when to expect it, and delivering on all promises is absolutely crucial to freelancer success. Find a great system that will help make client management easier, like Dubsado or 17hats.”
- Amber Brooks, Brand Strategist
Put yourself out there.
Once you’ve set up your website and/or systems, it’s time to show ‘em off! As you may suspect, your brand new site probably won’t be immediately climbing the ranks on Google – so it’s on you to find innovative ways to get in front of your best clients and customers.
“Without a doubt, freebies have been the way to go for me. There's a reason Costco pays people to hand out samples at the store. I started offering shortened versions of my copy audits free to interested people within my ideal niche. I do them live on Facebook and it’s already brought in quite a few leads that turned to customers. Don't be afraid to give your best stuff for free – it's how people get a taste and know if you're the right fit.”
- Sarah Zerkel, Copy Strategist
It may come as a surprise if you consider other freelancers to be merely a source of competition, but there are plenty of thriving communities out there that unite freelancers throughout the world. (Spoiler alert: freelancing can get lonely.)
“Networking with other freelancers is a fantastic way to find gigs. You can help them cover their overflow work, offer additional services that their clients also need, or make yourself available for direct referrals. Throw in the fact that you’ll also have someone you can go to for feedback, advice, or a good vent session and it’s easy to see why networking with peers is the #1 piece of advice I give to freelancers looking to fill their pipeline.”
- James Sowers, Customer Experience Consultant
Provide an exceptional experience.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how gorgeous your site is or how many leads you bring in with social media ads if you’re disappointing your paying customers. Whether their experience working with you is a negative or positive one can mean the difference between receiving a refund request or a referral. Happy customers and clients are likely to return to you for more work and tell their friends to hire you.
“Effective communication with your clients is what bridges the gap between their knowledge and yours (and what they hired you for). One way I like to do this is to send a personalized newsletter each month along with the invoice. This goes above and beyond, and lets them know I’m there to help with any questions, doubts, or concerns.”
- James Nylen, Software Engineer
Leverage your experiences.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to build trust with potential clients and customers is through social proof. When you’re first starting out, you may not have reviews or testimonials – and that’s okay! Don’t be afraid to pull from any past experiences that highlight your skills.
“Anyone who can leverage real life and prior career experience has a head start as a freelancer. By speaking the language and talking about similar experiences to your target buyer, a new freelancer often bypasses the need for a huge portfolio. They have instant credibility.”
- Kimberlee Vincent, Founder & Content Strategist
As you begin to work with clients on a contract basis, don’t forget to follow up after the project is complete. It not only shows that you care about the outcome of your work, but it gives you an opportunity to ask for reviews, testimonials, or case studies – all of which help to entice future buyers. Let’s not forget, 84% of consumers trust peer recommendations above any other source of advertising!
“I built my whole reputation on the words of people I'd worked with before. Every testimonial and tweet from the past is worth its weight in gold!”
- Brit McGinnis, CEO & Copywriter
All of this to say… launching a successful career as a freelancer takes time and hustle. But with the right strategic steps in place, you’ll be working with your ideal clients before you know it. Until then, use this as a guide to find areas where you can improve your online presence and get to work, boss!