When I started working as a freelance writer in September 2014, I had no idea what I was doing. I just stumbled into it and learned as I went. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would’ve had a much easier time of it.
Starting and running a successful freelance business is an adventure.
While there’s no cut-and-dry path to freelancing success, putting effort and thought into your business from the very beginning is critical to running a professional, profitable business.
Determine your target client
Before you start looking for clients, you need to know who your target client is, so spend some time defining who you want to work with. Really go into depth here and draw a portrait of your target client. Don’t just define your clients as small business owners. That’s way too broad. Instead, try for a narrower definition. If you’re a freelance blogger, your target client definition might look something like this: owners of independent flower shops who want to create valuable content and connect with their audience.
However, you don’t have to stop there. To get a complete picture of your target client, think about their demographics, education level, and business experience. Also consider your areas of expertise or experience. If you worked in a nursery or a flower shop for several years before freelancing, independent florists would be a great fit for you.
Defining your target client takes time, but the results are well worth it in the long run. Having a target client allows you to specialize. You become familiar with your clients’ problems and needs. Independent florists will have different problems and needs compared to a small computer repair shop.
Determine your services
It’s best to build your services around your target client. You don’t want to offer something that your clients aren’t asking for. To ensure that your services really fit with what your clients expect, make a list of the problems or pain points that they have. Figure out how you can solve their problems, then take those answers and use them to develop your services or products.
If you really want to stand out, look at the services or products that other freelancers in your same industry are offering. Is there a service or product that’s not being offered that would benefit your clients? If you see a gap in what’s offered, don’t hesitate to fill it.
Need help planning your freelance career? Grab your free copy of The Freelancer’s Workbook (including a freelance contract template).
Onboard your clients
Clients and freelancers approach a project with preconceived ideas. It’s important to get those ideas out in the open and discuss them before work begins. If you don’t, you run the risk of having to put out fires as they come up, and there will likely be a lot of fires.
Before you start working, you need to know:
What your client expects from you.
What your client’s goal for the project is. (More exposure online, more sales, etc.)
How they envision the process working.
When they ideally want the project wrapped up.
Having your clients lay out their expectations before you get started allows you to address them early on. In the case of knowing your client’s ultimate goal for the project, it allows you to frame your work so as to accomplish that. If you’re designing a website and your client’s goal is to keep readers on the site longer, you’ll work differently than if their goal was to have a minimalist site. Grab your copy of The Freelancer’s Workbook now to get the client onboarding worksheet. Pro tip: Use the worksheet for your consultations!
Determine your rates
This is one of the most important things you can do for your freelance business, so take your time when you set up your rates and payment policies. One of the biggest mistakes new freelancers often make is undervaluing their services. If you don’t have much experience in your industry, that’s ok. Everyone started at the bottom. However, a lack of experience doesn’t mean that you should take jobs that pay $10 for 1,000 words or $20 for a complete, professional website design.
To get a feel for how much other freelancers are charging, do some research. Look for freelancers in your area (both geographically and industry-wise). Check out how long they’ve been freelancing. After you’ve seen a few different freelancers’ rates, it’s time to decide what you should charge. This is the hardest part, but it’s important to know your rates before you begin.
When determining your rates, think about value rather than price. What value will your clients be receiving when they hire you? If they want you to design a new website, they’ll be getting a professionally-designed one. However, the value you provide doesn’t stop there. That website will help them make sales, interest customers, and showcase their professional brand. That’s a huge amount of value. You should be charging more than $40 for that.
Once you’ve figured out your rates, you need to write them down. Actually put pen to paper and list them. After you’ve made your list, post it where you’ll see it often. If you have your rates written down and posted in a prominent place (like next to your computer), you’ll be less likely to give in to lowballing clients. You’re a professional, and your services are valuable. Charge what you’re worth.
Determine your payment policy
Every freelancer needs a payment policy. It’s crucial to reducing the risk of non-payment, and it makes you look professional. While your payment policy is completely up to you, it should ideally include
Acceptable methods of payment
Your payment schedule
Consequences for late payments
When you consider a late payment a non-payment
Consequences for non-payments
When you set up your payment schedule requirements, I would highly recommend requiring a deposit (and waiting for the funds to clear) before starting any work. The deposit can be anywhere from 25% to 50% of your fee, but you really need to secure a deposit from clients. A deposit does two things: It assures you that the client is invested in the project, and it ensures that you receive at least some payment. Asking for money before the project is even started also helps to weed out the sketchy people who want you to work for free.
Another area to really think about is what you’ll do if your client is late paying you. While you may be tempted to just work while the client tries to get money together, you’re probably better off not working until you receive payment. You also need to spell out if there will be a fee for late payments and when you consider a late payment a non-payment. In regards to non-payment, spell out exactly what steps you’ll take to rectify the issue.
As a new freelancer, issues of late payment and non-payment may not seem important right now. However, they happen all too frequently in the freelancing world. According to Freelancers Union, half of the 5,000+ freelancers they surveyed had problems collecting payment from clients. Of those who had trouble getting paid, 34% weren’t paid at all. In 2014, freelancers lost an average of $5,968 to nonpayment. It’s vital that you protect yourself financially, and having a clear payment schedule that includes a deposit can help you do that.
Create a standard contract template
A contract is an invaluable part of any project you take on. It’s what you’ll reference if a dispute arises, and it can give you the clout you need to get your payment if you’re fighting your client. Every project you work on needs a contract that both parties agree on. You don’t necessarily have to have your clients sign the contract, but you do need to have a record of them agreeing to the contract. If you email the contract to them, save their confirmation email and keep it with your contract. That way, if a dispute arises, you have a record of their initial agreement.
Creating a contract for every project can be time consuming, so the trick is to keep a contract template and just fill in the blanks when you get ready to sign a new client. (Psst. I’ve already done the hard work for you and created a sample contract template that you can download here.)
When creating your contract template, be sure to include:
The project timeline - start dates, deadlines for deliverables, and final end date.
Deliverables - Exactly what you will give the client
Client responsibilities - what the client is responsible for getting to you (logos, background information, etc.)
The agreed upon rates
Your payment schedule
Information about late payments and non-payments
Communication - How will you and the client communicate? When?
Create your website
This one is non-negotiable. You absolutely must have a website. Even if you’re networking locally and mainly rely on real-world connections and word-of-mouth, don’t freelance without a website. It’s your home on the web. A website does several things for you and your clients. It
Lets prospective clients decide if you’re the right fit for them
Gives them a chance to see your work
Gives you a place to showcase your work
Increases your online visibility
Boosts your credibility
Makes you look professional
While you don’t have to be a coding and design guru to create your website, you do need to build it strategically. To make it effective, attract new clients, and build your business, you need to include
An engaging homepage that makes people stick around
Rates - this one is optional, but I’d suggest you include it
Links to social media accounts that you use for business
Blog - also optional, but I highly recommend it
Professional picture of you
You want to give your prospective clients enough information for them to make an informed decision about whether or not to hire you. Show your clients you’re a good fit for them by creating a website with plenty of information about you and your services. Pro tip: If you want to see what people think about your website, you can get it evaluated at Peek.
Welcome to freelancing!
The freelance world is a wonderful, sometimes scary, sometimes frustrating place. You really are your own boss, and you have the freedom (and responsibility) to prove it. Much of freelancing is learning what works for you, your business, and your life, so don’t worry if you’re not doing things exactly like everyone else. Remember, there’s more than one road to success, and it’s up to you to find yours.
Ardelia Lee is a freelance writer on a mission to help bloggers and business owners conquer the written word and create engaging, authentic, and unique blogs. You can find her at ArdeliaLee.com, where she lavishes her readers with practical writing tips and empire-building blogging strategies. She’s also on Twitter, probably talking about #coffee.