Maggie Stamets is a writer for BUILT BY GIRLS, which prepares the next generation of female and non-binary leaders to step into their power and break into their careers. WAVE is the backbone of BUILT BY GIRLS: it’s a 1:1 matching program that connects high school and college students with top tech professionals across the country. For more information and to sign up check out builtbygirls.com.
With the nearly-universal shift to work from home and the tough job market, many people are striking out on their own and going freelance.
Whether your ultimate goal is to travel as a digital nomad, simply make some money until your next salaried position, or grow a side hustle, you’re going to have to master how to market yourself, manage client expectations and relationships, stay productive and on schedule, and tackle your professional and personal finances.
It may seem daunting but here are a few pieces of advice to ensure you’re setting yourself up for success.
Getting and keeping clients
Have a consistent brand: Appearing well-organized and professional is crucial to attracting new clients. Regardless of your area of expertise, it’s a good idea to have a digital home on a website to showcase your work, share a bit about yourself, and have a contact form. This also gives you a chance to visually brand yourself by using colors and fonts that fit you and what you do.
Be on top of your emails: Communication is key. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to gain a client or an update on a project. Being communicative with your clients will pay off and make them feel in the loop and comfortable while working with you.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew: It’s tempting to take on everything that comes your way and promise your clients the moon and the stars. But when discussing what you can deliver, keep in mind your scope and ability to deliver on those promises. It’s always better to underpromise and over-deliver than the other way around.
Always have a contract: When you start working with a new client, even if you know them personally, always get a contract. It should outline what work you are expected to complete, the timeline, and the fee. The freelancer’s union has an excellent contract creator.
It’s also a good idea to get a deposit upfront. One of the biggest struggles you’ll face is getting payment on time. A deposit helps to mitigate this a bit.
Deliver: To the best of your ability and barring any crises — deliver on everything you said you would. This will increase the chances that your clients refer you or return for more work. You always want to be professional and dependable.
Staying productive and on schedule
Set daily hours (and boundaries): Creating a schedule that works for you will be very important. Know when you’re most productive and creative. Maybe you work well in the morning, then take a two-hour break, and come back for a few more hours. Maybe the 9-5 works for you. Figure out which working hours fit well into your life and stick with them.
Creating deadlines and goals: Whether your work is hourly or project-based, set micro-deadlines or weekly goals. Having periodic benchmarks will help you stay on track and hold yourself accountable. It will also help you avoid the crunch and rush right before a deadline. A major adjustment full-time freelancers have to make is learning how to manage themselves.
Have an accountability buddy when there is no client-work: Find another freelancer friend or just a person in your life who you can count to check in with you. They can help you stay on track — especially when you have to do the business management and finance work that comes with being your own boss.
Manage your finances
Set your rate: This can be extremely difficult for a new freelancer. You have to know your value, while balancing the need to attract clients and build your portfolio. A basic rule of thumb is:
Your basic hourly rate = (annual salary + annual expenses + annual profit) / annual billable work hours
However, hourly may not make sense for the type of work you do. It’s a good idea to spend time researching the pros and cons of charging and hourly rate versus charging by project or package deals.
Prepare for taxes: Typically, an average of one-third of your income will go to taxes, so do yourself a huge favor and set aside one-third of everything you make.
To avoid penalties, you should also be prepared to pay quarterly estimated tax payments four times a year. If you are able to, getting an accountant will help you do everything by the book and save money come April.
Save for emergencies: There will be stretches when equipment breaks, you’re between clients, or some other unforeseen costs gets thrown your way. To the best of your ability, have an emergency fund saved before you go full-time freelance.
If that’s not possible, be sure to save as much as you can. Generally the advice is to save 25% of your earnings. But if you can’t afford to put away that much, remember any savings are better than none. Think of it as paying your future self.
Read more information and tips in our Advice section