Here’s the thing about freelancing: If you’re considering it, you already know that you’re pretty darn good at something that a lot of people want. But being good at something is only part of being in business for yourself. How do you make money? How much should you expect to make? How do find clients—and what happens when they don’t pay you?
All these questions came up in a recent e-mail exchange in which I was recently involved. But these questions are helpful for anyone, so let’s talk about them.
#1: If I wanted to freelance about X hours a week, how much do you think I’d make?
I’m still pretty surprised that pounding away at a computer by myself all day somehow leads to money.
Simply put, I just can’t say how it will work out for you. I like how much money I make, but I know I could be making more if I were more ambitious. For now, I make enough so that I can draw on golf balls with my friends in some sort of convoluted, Calvinball-style challenge as often as I can.
But thinking of how much you could make is also kind of an abstract. It’s better to have a concrete goal in mind. Here’s what I recommend:
- Determine how much you need to make to justify the time investment of X hours spent working. Be sure to include all business costs (i.e., internet, home office) and time spent hustling work (the time you spend actually doing the work is only part of your business).
- Determine how much you can comfortably charge. Never be afraid to ask for what you’re worth, but also make sure you’re not promising things you can’t deliver.
Ideally, these two numbers should be really close. And if they are, then you’re probably going to do just fine out the gate. But if you find that you need way more money than you think you can reasonably make, I’d probably recommend reevaluating your goals.
Since I started setting monthly, quarterly, and annual earnings goals, I’ve made more each year. Any business knows this. Don’t forget to think like a business, not just some person Skyping without any pants on.
And here’s the other bonus: When you meet your goal, you can slack for the next few days. Freelancing can blur the working/not working boundary, and I’ve found that giving myself permission not to work is essential to being good at what I do.
#2: I’m thinking my best bet for starting out is to get in touch with people for whom I’ve worked and ask them if they need anything or know anyone who does. Yes or no?
Yes. Referrals and word-of-mouth have led to most of my favorite gigs.
Especially in writing and editing, people outside of your profession are often unsure of where to find good freelancers. Recommendations take a lot of that pressure off.
The good news is that clients who like working with you usually want you to succeed and are happy to sing your praises to others. Additionally, they’re not going to recommend you to just anyone; they’re going to recommend you to people they trust, which is really helpful in avoiding the pitfalls of question four, which I’ll get to in a bit.
But you’ve got to get the idea in their head. So ask. Ask if they foresee themselves needing more work, ask if they know anyone who does, or ask for a testimonial that you can use on your website (man, I really need to start asking for testimonials for my website).
#3: Where do or did you advertise, and how? What do you need to be able to say you’ve done before strangers/quality individual clients or publications start taking you seriously?
I could be better at this, and in fact a goal for this year is improving that part of my game. Part of it is joining more groups, guilds, and such where I can put up a profile. Part of it is reconsidering how I brand myself. Part of it is upping my resume and cover letter game (I may be a pretty okay writer, but this is not an area where I seem capable of bringing my A game). I would also be smarter to pay more attention to this here website—and to include a better professional portfolio. These are all things that help people take you seriously.
Business cards, no joke, can help—especially if a few friends or family members have some. I can’t tell you how many chances I’ve lost because I didn’t have a card. Just happened Tuesday. (Also, know right away what you would charge for certain kinds of work. You will be asked.) Another thing I’ve done: I’ve talked with the self-publishing wing of my local book store, and they give me referrals from time to time. I’m kinda patchwork in how I do it, but I also prefer long-term clients so that I don’t have to worry about it too often.
Another aspect of being taken seriously is the rates you charge. Strange as it may sound, people generally value your work the more you charge. If you’re cheap, they’ll assume you’re not any good. So on the same token, don’t respond to job offers or postings that underpay unless you really, really want the experience to serve some other need (i.e., a portfolio piece in a certain area). But even then, there are a thousand reasons not to sell yourself short on money.
#4: I’ve heard horror stories about people writing things for websites and having to either eat the cost or ask and ask and ask and sometimes go to court to get paid. How often does that happen to you (or does it at all)? Is there any particular person, type of work/client, or place you’d avoid?
This has never happened to me—and that’s kinda crazy. I’ve seen it happen, and I know it happens. But if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I’d really recommend checking out the Freelancers Union and all the blogging they do about it. Thanks to them, I feel very prepared to handle such a scenario if it ever arises.
So while my client radar has apparently been pretty good, if you see red flags, walk away or ask for protection (i.e., a contract or an up-front payment). For any larger time- or money-intensive project, I either ask for half the payment up front or otherwise develop a written payment plan that both sides agree to. Sites like Upwork have escrow services so that you can assure getting paid even if the client ends up being dodgy too. At least I think they do, haven’t used them in a while.
But I’d just say use your judgment. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. I think it’s generally pretty obvious.
Have any more questions for me? Ask away!