I was the Head of Marketing for a hot Bay Area startup, making well over six figures, when one day I woke up and, coldly, unceremoniously quit. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say I was miserable. Fast-forward and I spent 3.5 glorious years as a full-time freelance marketer. Sure, it’s not all unicorns or rainbows: there is no fixed salary or benefits, there are distractions everywhere, and it gets lonely being a one-person show. But, for me, the benefits far outweigh the cons:
- A flexible schedule. I worked when it was best suited for my schedule. I no longer felt the pressure to put in long hours to be noticed.
- Good money. Even though I was working about 12 hours less a week, I still pulled in the same salary.
- Work with cool companies. Knowing my niche and target market helped me land projectest with several high-growth SaaS companies.
- The power to say no. If a prospect or a project didn’t sit well with me, I confidently turned down the work.
- Learn new things. Running a business is an entirely new learning curve. I learned about business operations and learned about sales and selling, not to mention I learned a great deal about myself.
If you’re looking for a career change and are considering freelance marketing, I’ve compiled 21 things I’ve learned throughout my freelancing journey to help others navigate the peaks and valleys.
1. Understand your target audience
Identifying and reaching your target audience is the most critical step to creating a successful freelance business. Your target audience’s needs and wants should sync with your niche offering (see #2 below). Fine-tune your target client by asking yourself questions such as:
- Who will be my clients? (type of company, industry, vertical, etc.)
- What are their challenges, and how can I help solve them
- What factors influence their purchasing behaviors?
- What’s the total available market?
These answers will guide your marketing and sales messaging to attract high-quality clients, so be specific when answering.
2. Have a niche
As a marketer, it’s easy to fall into a jack of all trades but a master at none. Promising potential clients you can do a bit of everything is not as strong as having a precise skill set and niche offering. Instead, differentiate your brand by solving a unique challenge for a specific business sector. The more you can hone your core competencies, the easier it will be to sell your services and earn repeat clients.
3. Know your worth
Before identifying your fee structure, determine your desired salary and how many hours a week you want to work. Don’t forget to consider factors such as holidays, vacations, sick days, and taxes. Be confident in your pricing model. If people don’t flinch at your price, you can charge more. I recommend using Credo’s hourly rate calculator. After answering a few questions, Credo automatically calculates how much you should charge per hour to meet your annual goal income.
4. Determine your business entity
Different freelancers set up their businesses in different ways. The most common business types for freelancers are sole proprietorships, LLCs, and S corporations, and each option has advantages and disadvantages. Send time and research what will be best for you. You can also ask other marketing freelancers how they started. If you feel overwhelmed by how to structure your business, there are services such as Wingspan that make it easy for you to know what forms, paperwork, and permits are needed to submit before launching your freelancing business. The good news is that whatever you choose, it’s not a permanent decision — you can change as you grow.
5. Get on top of your taxes
With a traditional 9-5 job, you receive a W-2 form from your employer to include when preparing your tax return. However, as a freelancer, there are very different tax implications. For instance, many US-based freelancers need to pay taxes quarterly. To set yourself up for succession, you will want to set aside 25% to 35% of every project. As you can imagine, it takes time and experience to understand what you owe and when you owe it, and paying taxes is not something you want to neglect or do incorrectly. Save yourself the headache and hire a tax professional sooner rather than later — they will know all the things you can write off for items you use and need for your business.
6. Set up a business account & credit card
As a freelancer, the best way to keep tabs on your funds is to keep your business costs and transactions completely separate from your personal finances. First, start by setting up a business bank account and credit card for all your business costs and transactions. Each time you receive payment from a client, it should automatically transfer to this account, and every time you pay for a business expense, it could come from this account. Additionally, as a standard best practice, get in the habit of using a different credit card for all business-related expenses. Did you buy a coffee for your client? Pay for it with your business card. Did you upgrade your LinkedIn account to LinkedIn Premium? Pay for the subscription with your business card. In the same notion, never use your business card for personal expenses. Following this process saves you the time and effort of combing through credit card statements to separate your business and personal transactions.
7 . Understand your cash flow
Lack of cash flow is a primary reason why new businesses fail. For newcomers, it seems like an easy-to-do. It’s just basic accounting and bookkeeping, right? Yes and no. When just starting as a freelancer, it’s hard to say no to new opportunities—you might even find yourself cutting your rates because you’re eager to bring money in. This can quickly lead to not earning enough income. Instead, forecast your costs to charge your clients strategically and have a backup plan to manage when money is tight. Fancy forecasting tools or costly subscriptions are not needed. You can create your forecasting model using a spreadsheet and a few basic formulas.
8. Use your network
Whether you’re thinking of becoming a full-time freelancer or you’re treating freelancing as a side gig, word of mouth will take you a very long way. When just beginning your journey, it can be hard to know where to start finding clients. Start building a base of customers by reaching out to your network. Ask friends, family, and peers, and old colleagues to refer your services. It’s important to grow awareness for your new brand and services — lean on your existing network whenever possible to help kickstart it.
9. Work on selling
Most freelancers feel odd singing their own praises. However, selling yourself and your services is an essential part of starting a new business. Being a good salesperson is a critical component in building, nurturing, and closing quality leads. Sure, referrals are more than helpful in finding new clients, but no one knows your quality of work better than you. Learn to build self-confidence and speak to your strengths. Regardless of what projects you are currently working on, you should regularly save time for business development.
10. Nurture your pipeline
Prospects don’t always instantly convert to customers. In most instances, it takes several purposeful engagements to impact a customer’s decision. I once had what I thought was a “dead lead” resurface after nine radio silence months. She equated this to my thoughtful monthly messages and interactions on Twitter. I stayed top-of-mind, so she knew who to contact when the time was right.
11. Hone in on a process
The beginning stages of freelancing can be brutal. Everything is brand new, which can be equally exciting and terrifying. The earlier you start working on your systems and processes, the quicker you can make your work more productive and profitable, and it will also build client confidence. When new clients see you have a well-defined process, they’ll trust you’ll do a better job — even if you don’t have the well-established or testimonials to back you up. Here are a few things that you’ll need a process:
- Capturing and qualifying new leads
- Creating statements of work (SOW)
- Sending signed agreements
- Sending and receiving invoices
- Paying bills
- Marketing outreach and sales follow up
12. Get contracts signed
Never, I repeat, never provide your services without a signed contract. Regardless of how much you know or trust the person, it’s best to have that added protection. A contract clearly outlines the work you and your client agreed upon, and a great example of this is Kat Boogaard’s freelancer agreement. If any unforeseeable circumstances arise, a contract will cover you for things like when a client doesn’t pay you or expects you to make extensive changes without paying you for your time. Lastly, consult a legal professional to review a contract that a client has overly edited. They will review the contract to make sure the terms are fair and beneficial to both parties.
13. Outline clear deliverables
For every project, aim to document the deliverables before you begin work through either a proposal or statement of work. Here are a few examples of what to include:
- Define what you are delivering (social media calendar, email templates, digital ad concepts, newsletter copy, etc.)
- Outline the delivery dates and any essential milestones (first drafts, edit reviews, final materials, etc.)
- Highlight how the materials will get delivered (email, in-person, file format, Google Drive, etc.)
Doing so establishes clear expectations up-front, so your clients know exactly what to expect and when to expect it. Additionally, creating a project work plan helps you stay focused and on track. Doing so establishes clear expectations up-front, so your clients know exactly what to expect and when to expect it. Additionally, creating a project work plan helps you stay focused and on track.
14. Deliver the goods
Clear communication is the best way to deliver the goods and meet expectations. Strive to underpromise and overdeliver on every project. Provide clients with precisely what was agreed upon and do it on time. It is also helpful to communicate constantly and openly throughout the project. If questions arise, do not wait until the end of the project to ask them. While we can anticipate certain things, freelancers should never assume what a client wants.
15. Be nice, but be firm
The best managers, colleagues, and clients I’ve ever worked with have been firm but fair. Do not be afraid to take this stance with clients. More specifically, don’t be shy about following up on payment. In my experience, I find it’s best to require a percentage of the total invoice to be paid upon a signed proposal. For example, make it a requirement that clients pay 50% of the invoice before you begin working. Or ask that your monthly retainer be paid upfront. This firmness is a safety net that protects you from having to spend more time chasing down payments instead of delivering valuable work.
16. Go with your gut
Working as a marketing freelancer, you end up making every big and small decision on your own. This is a lot of pressure, especially when it pertains to the success of your business. Freelancers are met with hard choices such as taking on new clients, increasing costs, contract negotiating and working on projects that don’t excite them. When this happens, it’s often best to trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel like the right fit, it’s okay to say no, even if it’s a lucrative opportunity.
17. Set working hours
Work-life balance is HARD! Really hard when you work where you live. For this reason, it is helpful to create dedicated office hours. Here’s the kicker — do not work outside of those office hours. Write your working hours in your contract and make sure your client knows how and when to get in touch. Just because you worked 8+ hour days in an office job doesn’t mean you have to now. As a freelancer, you have the freedom to work during the hours that are best suited to you. Set your schedule and stick to it.
18. Burn NO bridges
You will have moments of frustration with clients — more than you’d probably expect. There will be a time when you might have to fire your client or wish you could just start all over. Remember, it’s a small world. Because we rely so much on our clients for referrals, the last thing we want to do is burn bridges we worked hard to create. As challenging as it may get, always finish the project or do everything possible to complete it timely, accurately, and with a good attitude.
19. Outsource when needed
As a marketer, you know your craft extremely well. This is what you’re best at. Even though you want to be involved in everything, you cannot single-handedly execute each component needed to be a successful freelancer. Instead, consider outsourcing the aspects that are too time-consuming to oversee. Hire a virtual assistant to manage emails, send invoices, qualify leads, perform competitor research, and help with social media. Not only will a lighter workload help prevent burnout, but it also saves you time to focus on revenue-generating tasks.
20. Show off your work
Yes, it’s okay to toot your own horn. Especially if you’re new to freelancing, marketing materials such as testimonials, case studies, and online portfolios will be powerful sales and marketing collateral. These assets help position your services as a serious contender in the industry and can make all the difference in a prospect hiring you or not. Though, don’t expect rave reviews to come naturally. To acquire these resources, ask clients for a short testimonial shortly after wrapping up a new project.
I like to send an email to the client shortly after closing the project, within 5-7 days. In the email, I include 3-4 pre-written testimonials for them to choose and I let them know they can make changes and write something unique if they prefer. This email follow-up process is effortless for the client and, in most cases, results in a quick response.
21. Find your squad
Last but not least, freelance work can get lonely. There is no small talk at the water cooler or cubicles like a traditional work environment. Make an effort to find real friends in your industry. Whether it be other freelancers or marketing agency professionals, it is nice to have a support system. Find your squad of fellow freelance friends to share ideas, successes, and laughs about the self-employed life. Freelance friends are also often your best source of referrals. Twitter is a great place to start.
The first several months of freelancing were chaos for me. I didn’t fully understand how to turn a few one-off projects into a full-fledged business. But, at the same time, working as a freelancer was enormously rewarding from the beginning. If I had known how rewarding the job was going to be before quitting my job after 5-months, I would have felt way more confident in my decision to leave.
If you find yourself in the same position, consider freelance marketing as your next career path. Gain the power to say no and the enthusiasm to say yes.
To learn more about my journey and other freelancing tips, reach out to me on Twitter, @MichelleUrban.