The Ultimate Guide to Building A Successful Freelance Business
It’s been estimated that over 1.88 million of us in the UK are currently working as freelancers. Making the decision to work for yourself is certainly a leap of faith, but as long as you work hard, you can build a successful career for yourself.
To help new freelancers on their way (and to lend a hand to those still struggling to make it work for them), here’s a list of tips and advice points which have helped me over the course of my career.
Set up your base of operations
Keep your space free of distractions. If you work from home (as most freelancers do), ensure you set up a proper office space in a quiet room, away from distractions like the TV. It doesn’t have to be anything too elaborate – just a table and a laptop will do. Working from home without getting distracted is one of the most challenging aspects of building a freelance career, get this right and you’ve got the foundations you need to make your business a success.
Only place the things you need on the table, rather than the things you think you need. Is that hole punch gathering dust? Stick it in a cupboard instead.
Don’t treat it like your home. During work hours, your home is your place of work – so it’s important to treat it as such. Simple things like staying in your pajamas all day or inviting your friends over during your working hours can undermine your productivity, because they reinforce the idea that you’re there to relax, not to get things done.
Stay self-disciplined – get dressed in the morning, eat a decent breakfast, and arrange to see your friends after work (or on your lunch break). It works both ways – make sure you respect your leisure time too. Switch your phone off and chill out.
Don’t be afraid to venture out. Assuming all you need is a laptop, an internet connection and a plug socket, you have a lot of freedom over where you can work – so don’t feel you need to spend every day cooped up indoors.
Every once in a while, set up shop in a public spot, such as a coffee shop or a pub. You need clear focus to make it work, but it’s better than staying in the working-from-home loop, and there’s the chance you might meet new people and find some new leads – so bring your business cards with you!
Use the right tools
Use accounting software to keep on top of your finances. There’s several software options out there offering an all-in-one solution – you can record your income and outgoings, create and send invoices, manage payments to suppliers, and track the profitability of your projects.
Personally I’d recommend Freeagent, which offers cloud-based storage of all your financial documents and works completely in-browser – nothing to install. It’ll also work seamlessly on mobile, so you can manage your accounts while you’re out and about.
Organise your work process with project management software. These services let you keep a to-do list of projects and their respective tasks, receive notifications when a deadline is approaching, track the time you spend on each task, communicate and collaborate with colleagues and clients and much more.
Project management software is almost essential if you’re churning out several huge projects for lots of different clients each month. Basecamp arguably offers the best solution for freelancers, but make sure the one you choose is the one that suits you best – it can be a pain to set everything up again if you switch to a different software service.
Manage your time more effectively with timekeeping apps. As mentioned earlier, project management software allows you to keep track of the amount of time you’re spending on each project, but there’s also dedicated time-tracking apps which are handy for recording how you spend your time – not just work time but also the personal errands you run each day.
Time Doctor’s time tracking software can help you with this. Not only does it track time, it also gives you data on how you spent that time. It does this by giving you additional useful reports like web and app usage. When you have all these data, it becomes easy to evaluate and improve productivity.
You could also check out Toggl, which not only helps you track how much time it’s taking to complete tasks but also which times of day are most busy and least busy for you. By scanning through Toggl’s detailed yet intuitive reports, you can identify helpful and unhelpful habits and make changes in your work schedule to utilise your time more effectively.
Know your value
Charge appropriate prices for your projects. Pricing is one of the trickiest things for freelancers to wrap their heads around. Many pitch themselves too low, either because they lack confidence in their ability or they want to attract more clients – and end up producing sub-par work as a result. Who wants to work for peanuts?
To come up with fair prices for your projects, research typical prices in your industry. Look at what other similar freelancers are quoting for their projects. When you’ve set what you consider to be a fair price, don’t let potential clients haggle you down – just be transparent and make sure the client understands what they’re getting for their money.
Itemizing your quote can be helpful in communicating your value, but it can also give the impression that you’re offering them a menu to pick from, so make sure to stress that each item is important to the overall quality and success of the project.
Make sure you also consider how you’ll charge too. Will you charge a flat price for each project, or charge by the hour? There are various pros and cons for each, but generally speaking, project-based fees are better for smaller projects while by-the-hour fees are best for ongoing project work (such as maintaining a website).
Don’t work with people who don’t value you. Don’t think of your value as the highest quote your clients are willing to pay – think of it as the benefit you bring to your clients. You’re using the expertise you’ve built up over years of experience, as well as your time and effort, to help their businesses succeed.
Don’t stick with clients that don’t respect your worth as a professional. You know the ones – they mess with your design choices, refuse to listen to your recommendations, insist on unreasonable deadlines for projects, always miss their own deadlines for payments, and they talk to you like you’re the mud on their shoe.
If clients make you feel worthless, you’ll eventually come to the conclusion that you are worthless; which will seriously harm the quality of the work you do and your chances of bringing in new business. There’s plenty of reliable, honest clients out there that will value your services.
For more on project pricing check out this blog post I wrote on the subject.
Find your unique selling point. What can you offer that your competitors can’t? Perhaps you can offer a speedier turnaround time compared to the agencies in your industry. Maybe your prices are cheaper because you have less overheads to deal with (but beware of selling yourself short – more on this later).
Often for freelancers, their personality is their unique selling point. Agencies can be so slick with their own presentation that they appear to lack soul, which can be a turn off for potential customers (especially small business owners). If you can put a little of your own personality into your marketing, you’ll likely attract the kind of people who want to work with a human rather than a faceless creative firm.
Be an authority in your niche. It seems like being a jack-of-all-trades is more lucrative than limiting yourself to one area – but in fact, narrowing your focus can help you attract clients who are looking for more bespoke projects (and willing to pay more for them).
Find what you enjoy the most and become an expert on it. Specialising in a subject helps you build a reputation for yourself, which can give you the edge over your competition. If you’re seen as the authority in your niche, it stands to reason you’re probably the best person to get the job done.
Never lose sight of the potential client. All your marketing efforts should be primarily built around how your services will provide benefits to them. Some freelancers fall into the trap of simply describing themselves in their marketing copy, which is all well and good – but your potential client is only concerned with solving their problem. How will you help them solve it?
A good way to assess whether your marketing copy is too focused on you rather than your clients is to count the number of first-person pronouns you’ve used (eg ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘we’, ‘us’) versus the number of second-person pronouns (‘you’).
If there’s more of the former compared to the latter, you might want to switch the focus of a couple of sentences around to the customer. (for example, ‘I’m an expert in creating stunning websites’ could be changed to ‘You can rely on me to build you a beautiful website that attracts customers to your business’.)
Always be networking
Go to conferences, meetups and industry lunches. Event planning sites like Eventbrite and Meetup can be a goldmine for networking experiences like these. Don’t just stick to your area, though – see what’s going on further afield, particularly the larger cities.
Also, don’t just seek out the events aimed at your industry – look for places where your potential clients will be. Just be sure to approach each event as a way of learning more about their industry, as well as meeting new and interesting people. Feel free to talk about what you do, but don’t turn up just to give people the hard sell.
There’s also the opportunity to create valuable partnerships by attending events aimed at a different area of expertise in your wider industry spectrum. Let’s say you’re a web designer who builds stunning websites, but lacks the marketing know-how to get them noticed. By going to an SEO conference, for example, you could get chatting to an SEO consultant who can help you improve the rankings of your sites. I can usually be found at the yearly Brighton SEO event.
Work in business hubs. There’s plenty of facilities around the UK offering startups and entrepreneurs a space to get their business ideas off the ground, as well as providing a great breeding ground for collaboration.
They’re not free, but the rent for a desk space is often much cheaper than a dedicated office, and there’s incredible opportunity for networking with a huge variety of business professionals in a plethora of different industries. It’s a great way of reaching new clients, but also learning new skills and socialising with fellow freelancers.
Call up friends (or people you’ve met freelancing) and arrange a get together. Not only is this a great way to catch up with old contacts and bring in new work from them, it also provides an opportunity for social interaction in an otherwise isolated line of work.
Freelancing can be a lonely existence (especially if you become a workaholic) and it’s easy to fall into a rut, so being able to socialise with the people you’ve met in your career can help to raise your spirits and gain a clearer perspective on your value as a professional.
Don’t go there to sell. If the conversation turns to business and you end up with a new lead, all the better; but don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re there to relax and have a good time.
Build positive relationships with your clients
Get to know their industries. The more you know about what they do and the kind of customers they want to attract, the better you’ll be able to communicate with them – so the work you produce will be more tailored to their needs and their customer satisfaction will be through the roof.
Be honest and realistic. Many clients are unfamiliar with your work process and anxious that they’ll be ripped off. Some may have even been ripped off in the past.
Don’t make exaggerated claims about your services, and don’t promise things that you can’t provide. Your clients will be much more appreciative if you decline a job instead of attempting it and screwing it up due to a lack of expertise or time.
Treat them as you would want to be treated. This may be common sense, but it’s surprising how many larger companies seem to forget it (which is where you can capitalise on their mistake).
Always be polite, courteous and friendly. Even if a difficult client is bothering you, be sure to respond in a respectful way. As mentioned earlier, you should drop any clients which don’t treat you with respect – but even when it comes to writing that break-up email, being rude will burn that bridge forever and can earn you a bad reputation if word gets out to others in your industry.
Take advantage of the resources available to you
Check out tutorials, guides and training resources. Developing your abilities allows you to offer a greater range of different services – and the good news is, the internet can be your mentor.
As well as in-depth training providers such as lynda.com, there’s a wealth of companies offering free informative content for freelancers – news articles, blogs, ebooks, videos, communities, the works.
I’d personally suggest checking out Upwork – it’s a site designed to connect businesses with freelancers (so it’s worth checking out the whole site) but the blog section has some great articles on everything from marketing yourself to productivity advice.
Spy on your competitors. You probably haven’t thought of your competitors’ sites as a resource, but they’re incredibly valuable for building your marketing strategy. There are a number of strategies for competitor research, but here’s one you can do right now.
Go incognito, search Google for a keyword or phrase you’re ranking highly for (or aiming to rank highly for) and examine the top three sites on the first page of organic results. What are they doing that you aren’t doing?
Go through everything with a fine toothed comb – page layout, site structure, content and design style, products/services offered, company information, marketing campaigns, social media activity etc – and take note of what features jump out at you.
Banish creative block
Stay positive. Don’t feel bad – every creative professional has moments where they draw a blank. You’re less open to new ideas when you’re feeling blue, so take a short break to do something you enjoy.
Going for a walk is a good strategy for combating creative block – the exercise releases endorphins which raise your mood, and the change of scenery can provide some much-needed inspiration – at least more than you’ll get by staying in your office chair.
Try out a new tool. Perhaps the reason you’ve hit a brick wall is because you’re trying the same things over and over. Choosing a different tack may help you overcome that pesky creative block.
Your go-to work software probably has dozens of options that you’ve never tried out. Choose one of them and run with it. Use a new font. Try a different adjustment layer. Swap flat-design pastel colours out for garish green and blue hues. Stick drop shadows on everything. Anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone will help.
Phone a friend. Having strong relationships with fellow freelancers can be very handy when you’re in a creative rut. Reach out to your network for advice on where to go next – they can approach your project with a fresh set of eyes and might be able to suggest ideas that you haven’t considered yet.
Just make sure you’re there to help them when they ask you for help. Nobody likes a one-sided relationship.
Don’t be scared to throw ideas away. Nintendo’s legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto has been known to metaphorically ‘upend the tea table’ when a game’s development starts becoming stale.
Feel free to remove elements if they aren’t working (but store them in a ‘rejected ideas’ folder in case you need them again later).
Keep an eye on the numbers
Monitor your costs. Do you know how much money you’ll need to earn next month to offset next month’s costs? If not, why not?
Keep a detailed plan of your outgoings for each upcoming month. These should not only include the day-to-day expenses of running a business, but also the costs of living such as food and heating bills.
Beware of annual bills sneaking up on you. An MOT test, for example, can really throw a spanner in the works. If you do get blindsided by an unexpected bill, make sure you add the new cost into your plan – even if it’s already been paid, having a reference to the payment can help you avoid confusion at the end of the month.
Track the profits of your work.
Does the income you’re getting from each product justify the money you’re shelling out to complete them? Sometimes even a big project won’t actually make any profit – the costs of researching, training, acquiring resources, requests from clients and even the electricity you use to run your computer can all gang up against you, preventing you from earning the money you deserve for your efforts.
If a client isn’t making you money, drop them once their current project is complete. Find another client that will bring in the profits you need. Bear in mind that several smaller, less labour-intensive tasks can potentially bring in more money than one big project.
Want More Freelance Advice?
Need further advice for boosting your freelance career? My blog at Boshanka features regular guides and tips for aspiring freelancers. Just visit boshanka.co.uk/freelance-advice or follow me on social media to stay updated on all the latest posts.
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