Building a successful freelance career can seem tough at the best of times. It can be a struggle to find the right clients, fill your future with work, feel confident and secure about your finances. When times are tough, it can seem near impossible. I spend a lot of time working with freelancers from every background and profession imaginable, and I have found that there are some simple steps you can take to help improve your career.
As with most things, the more you put in, the more you get out. I highly recommend setting time aside to diligently go through these steps and build a system for success:
1. Use your bottom line to bill effectively
Your bottom line is the minimum you need to earn each month to pay your bills and buy all your daily necessities. This isn’t very difficult to work out. At the beginning of each month set yourself a target based on your bottom line. If you know you need to earn £1,000 to cover all your minimum costs, then that is your target.
Next step, how do you hit that target? Break it down into chunks of work. If you offer £100 illustrations, then you need to sell 10. Maybe think about packaging deals for £250 so you need to sell 4 in a month. The numbers might vary but by taking this approach, you start with what you need and then you can build.
2. Track your expenses
A common misconception is that you need to keep your receipts. The truth is, you only need to keep receipts to track VAT, so if you aren’t VAT registered you don’t have to keep your receipts. There are plenty of apps now that let you track expenses by simply tagging them inside the app on your banking feed, and they also give you the option to attach a receipt if you are VAT registered.
3. Track your progress
Keeping track of money into your bank is important, but it is also important to keep track of where this money is coming from and what it is for. Choose a system that works for you and make sure all your invoices are in one place. This will let you easily flick through old income months later if there’s ever any confusion. It will also help you see what works and what doesn’t.
4. Don’t base your rate on what you think you can get
Someone said to me recently; ‘If you are charging what you think you can get, you’re almost definitely undercharging.’ I was struck by how true and simple this is. When times are tough (or you’re just getting started) there is a real temptation to charge whatever you think you can get. The truth is, if this is your approach, you’ll drive your prices down, undervalue your work by wasting time on ‘free’ or cheap work and leave yourself feeling bitter, all whilst still being under where you need to be for the month.
It can feel daunting setting prices, and even more so to reject low paying but accessible opportunities because something is better than nothing. However, if you’re worried about not making ends meet, then charging what you think you can get will often undermine this. At the very least, you need to charge what YOU need to earn in order to survive.
5. Identify where the money is
Once you know what you need and how to package it, make a hit list of potential clients who could pay for it. You can find them on LinkedIn, Instagram, Google or your own network. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to make a list of people who might be interested in your services and can help you reach your target. Once you have a list, it is a matter of outreach. Don’t be afraid to just reach out to potential clients who aren’t advertising for work, as long as you’re friendly. You may also be surprised how many people in your network already might be relevant.
6. Track and save for tax
The easiest way to stress yourself out as a freelancer is to get to January and rush your tax return only to realise that you’ve got to start doing some serious saving to pay that bill. Rather than waiting until January to cobble together a last minute self-assessment which is missing half your expenses, and therefore leads to a way bigger bill, do it on April 6th. You’ll save money, time and a lot of stress. You’ll also be able to clearly track your bill throughout the year so that you can save way more effectively.
7. Secure your income
Securing your income against all kinds of hazards is about how you communicate payment security and payment requests. The easiest route to problems with payments is not being clear from the get-go. Being professional will also help you charge more. Make sure you:
- Use a contract. Make one digitally to make sure everyone is clear on the terms
- Take a deposit (if relevant to your industry)
- Have a cancellation fee
- If the project scope changes, make a new contract
- Make sure your invoice is clear and outlines late payment fees as per government guidelines
- Have a follow-up plan upon lapse of payment, which can include involving the Small Business Commissioner
- Don’t ever take a bad client personally. Just make your needs to that client clear by having a contract, updating consistently, and then pushing for payment within 30 days.
8. Make sure you check in with yourself regularly
Don’t leave it until the end of the month to realise you don’t have enough money. Check every few days how many conversations you’re having, how many new people you’ve reached out to, and how much progress you’ve made. If it isn’t working, adjust your plan.
Finding success when times are tough is difficult, but the best chances come with the best plans. It is easy to focus on your craft, but the money is made in understanding your financial circumstances and working based on them.
9. Look for support
If nothing is working, have a fall back plan. The most important piece of advice I can give to anyone getting started or struggling is to actively seek support. Spending a few hours researching what is available is a lot more powerful than you might think. From government support, to mentoring groups, to grants and newsletters, there is a plethora of opportunities to access monetary support and taking the time to look could change your career forever. Do not think that you are alone in this struggle.