The prospect of becoming your own boss and ‘doing what you love’ is extremely attractive. As a freelancer, you’re able to get real close to that, but it does come with its share of drawbacks. No longer will you have someone else telling you what to do, every decision can determine whether you’ll see a good month for your business or lead it into a consistent struggle to survive.
Back when I first started out as a 19-year old freelancer it was a nerve-wracking experience. The freedom to do whatever I wanted was great, but it also left me with a little too much time on my hands without a clear direction ahead. Fast-forward half a decade ahead, I now have a much better idea of a road map for those of you that are still starting out with your own creative business.
Here are 14 proven steps to becoming a successful freelancer:
1. Decide what to do
Sounds easy enough yes? In my previous article on how you can start freelancing in Singapore, I mentioned some ways to identify possible areas to dive into as a freelancer:
a) Spot what’s needed on the market right now
b) identify what you’re markedly better at than most people
c) what is a rare skill of yours that people would pay for?
There are a variety of services you can provide. It could be graphic design, marketing, SEO, copywriting and numerous other possibilities.
2. Know who your customers are
This might sound simple enough, but I can assure you that it’s the #1 mistake that freelancers just starting out get wrong. They open themselves up to each and every client. It’s not necessarily a bad thing initially, but nobody is going to know you for something special.
You’ll just be another designer, compared to other providers charging peanuts on platforms like Upwork and 99Designs, thereafter depressing your rates. That’s not what you want, right?
3. Be clear on your positioning
You’re not ‘just another designer’ from Upwork or Fiverr, are you? Stop acting like one and selling yourself the same way. If you’re mentally parked in the same category as other providers, you’re only going to end up in a pointless price war where nobody wins but the customer.
Isolate your difference:
a) What is your unique approach or way of thinking?
b) How is your service unique?
c) Do you only help a select group of people really well?
d) Why are you doing this? Is your purpose different?
e) Do you have unique personal credentials nobody else has?
Being clear on your positioning sets the stage for you to have more leverage in negotiations and makes it more difficult for you to get pushed around.
4. Promote yourself consistently (Marketing)
There will be instances where you’re flooded with work and ones where you’ll wonder if all your prospective clients are on holiday. This is widely referred to as the ‘feast-and-famine’ cycle and it’s one of the main issues that cripples freelancers.
The only way to avoid this situation is to conduct marketing efforts regularly. It’s all about being seen by hungry audiences that need your service. Some ways to do this are:
a) Building an email list to promote offers to
b) Physical networking for new opportunities
c) Building partnerships and referral networks with complementary providers (e.g. providers with skills that are different from your own but serve similar clients)
d) Creating your own portfolio website for ease of reference
e) Never do speculative work – unless you want to be stuck doing that all the time
5. Price for value, not time
If you’re still selling your work by the hour, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. Think about the logic for a bit, your client is incentivizing you to take a longer time to deliver.
Why wouldn’t they want it sooner, in the same epic quality? There is no reason.
Determine what your work is worth to their business – How much money can it bring them? How much risk are they avoiding by using a competent creative like yourself? Quick and reliable providers are worth something, rationalise this with your clients and find a win-win arrangement.
6. Deliver exceptional work and collect case studies
Believe it or not, the quality of the work you do is not going to impact your business as much as what you do with it after. You need to collect these case studies, measure the results and have your client’s good words plastered all over your collateral.
Things to collect:
a) Glowing recommendations of your services from satisfied clients
b) Before and After (Visuals)
c) Results from service
d) Industry-specific challenges
That way, when you get any new leads that fit a similar profile, you’ll have a much higher chance of getting the deal by showing them a relevant case study.
7. Shoot for retainer contracts
The quickest way to attaining sustainability with your freelance business is to secure retainer contracts with your best clients. A retainer means that your clients get priority access to you regularly at a fixed price. The client saves money on-the-whole and you get predictable income working with someone you’re comfortable with as a payoff.
With web-related work, for example, there are numerous opportunities to sell ongoing work with a client. If you’re a freelance web designer designing a website, consider selling maintenance services to maintain the website hosting and create new pages as-and-when the client needs extra work on them.
That way you won’t need to keep hunting for leads as hard and have peace-of-mind that your next pay-check is almost guaranteed.
8. Start a blog
Relying solely on your portfolio alone to convert your customers might be wishful thinking. Consider starting a blog to pen content that showcases your expertise, this not only helps to add value to prospects that turn up to your website, it also helps boost your search presence.
Find keywords that people typically search for related to your industry on Google Keyword Planner and Kwfinder.com, write quality long-form articles focused on those as titles and see your traffic boost as you write more!
9. Have a personal website
Let’s be honest? If you’re not discoverable online in today’s age, you simply don’t exist at all in the eyes of your customers.
Starting a personal portfolio website to act as your digital ‘HQ‘ can do wonders for your freelance business because of it:
a) makes it easy for people to find you
b) makes it easy for others to refer you
c) helps to convert more clients if executed well.
You can either create your own DIY website with WordPress or use paid subscription tools like SquareSpace and Wix. All come with some pros and cons so be sure to select your platform wisely so you don’t have to make a tedious switch after.
10. Collect leads with squeeze pages and opt-ins
If you aren’t collecting leads or information of your visitors, you’re leaving money and repeat traffic on the table.
MailChimp offers a free plan for you to collect up to 2,500 contacts which is extremely generous. Now imagine if each of these opt-ins eventually bout a $100 product or service from you – that would be $250,000 in your pocket.
Naturally, it might not be that simple, but collecting information is the first step to begin nurturing these leads into paying customers.
11. Guest-post on other platforms
That said, relying on your own website is not enough. You’ll need to expand your reach with other digital platforms. Reaching out to publications or blogs with an audience that you’re after is a proven method to skyrocketing traffic, add authority and bring in qualified leads.
Search terms like: “write for us” and “contribute blog” along with your industry of choice. Example: “write for us freelance blog”. You’ll find many blogs with guest writer opportunities you can jump on.
Once you find one, send a compelling pitch with some article titles to kickstart your new gig as a guest writer. Try pitching to a few blogs at once and once you’ve gotten in as a contributor, you can expect to start writing for a larger audience!
The benefit of doing this is that you get to tap on someone else’s platform early on when you don’t really have a following. Just ensure that you’re adding value to their readers whilst getting proper credit and backlinks back to your website.
Using this method, I’ve managed to get publication opportunities on plenty of high-traffic niche blogs like SmartBlogger, DuctTapeMarketing, CreativeMarket and also more notable outlets like e27 and Techinasia.
12. Keep in touch with your best customers
Now that you have recurring traffic to your digital platforms, it pays dividends to consistently reach out to readers or some of your favorite clients consistently. To avoid coming off as a sleazy salesperson with your outreach, be sure to send valuable articles(preferably written by yourself), resources or information that you feel can be useful to solve their unique problems.
If you’ve collected their contact information via MailChimp, a simple email campaign of 2-3 emails to revive the dormant relationship can do wonders for getting your new business. Otherwise, dropping them a text or email to follow-up some time after the project can possibly reap you some work from being at the top of their minds.
13. Outsource tedious tasks
Using marketplaces like Fiverr, you can find some pretty great, reliable talent at attractive rates.
You’ll be able to find anything from site migration services and web development services to creative services like marketing.
As a fresh business owner, you’ll need to start thinking about how to eventually optimize your business like a well-oiled machine to keep things moving even without your presence.
Afterall, you didn’t leave your job to join another one that you created. You need to start working on your business.
Identify tasks within your business that are repetitive and process-driven in nature. It’s likely you’ll be able to find a virtual assistant from sites like upwork.com or onlinejobs.ph to help you.
14. Maintain a high-quality output
When you start to get a steady flow of clients, it’s not uncommon to feel uncomfortably comfortable. In our experience, automating certain processes in your business can end up becoming more of a boon than a bane because the quality of work can suffer if you’re not careful.
The clients that trust you with their hard-earned money are paying for a high-quality product and if you deliver anything less, you’d be doing them and your business reputation a disservice. Especially when you’re using outsourced talent, be sure to take one last look at quality check anything that will get sent to your client.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of steps, but it should get you up-to-speed as a newbie freelancer in the industry. One more word of advice, the first few steps are more crucial to get right than the ones that follow – if you commoditize yourself as a service provider, you’ll most definitely have trouble raising your prices down the line. This can mean the difference between having to take on more work and pulling all-nighters versus working with high-value clients at a comfortable pace.
Have any questions? Leave them in the comments below.