Six a.m. — wake up, squeeze in an hour of work on client number one’s website.
Eight a.m. — commute to full-time job (it pays the bills and the people are nice).
Lunch — squeeze in 20-minute phone conversation in order to convince client number two that “no, the type does not need to be bigger.”
Five p.m. — drive home and make dinner for self/significant other/child/cat-child.
Seven p.m. — squeeze in as many hours as possible on client number three’s project.
11p.m. – bedtime...if you’re lucky.
Wake up. Repeat.
It’s a lifestyle familiar to most freelancers still working some form of nine-to-five job – a carefully crafted patchwork that seamlessly weaves together life, work, and freelancing.
Whether you’ve been dreaming of making design your full-time job, or you work for a big agency and want to try your hand at your own personal brand, starting a freelance business can be daunting.
Knowing where to start, how to manage your time, and when to use some business savvy can save you from common pitfalls many first-time freelancers encounter. To help you get started, here are a few tips to transform you into your best freelancing-self (I call that becoming a freelancing ninja), even while still working a full-time job.
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1. Keep yourself organized
It sounds easy, but staying organized can be an insanely difficult task. This is especially true when you’re already working a nine-to-five job that takes your focus away from the freelance projects you’re just itching to work on.
A great way to stay organized is to plan the days you want to work on your side project in advance . Tools like Evernote and Google Keep can help you schedule your days by organizing your notes, tracking to do lists, and filing reminders for various projects.
If you’re particularly prone to procrastination, pre-determine how much time you’ll allot to each task. Designers often groan about the difficulty of accurately estimating how much time a project will take them. If that sounds familiar, check out this detailed list of strategies that can help you gauge how much time you’ll need for design projects.
2. Find mentors
Not sure what to charge as an hourly rate? Need help with polishing your sales pitch? Want to develop your personal brand? There’s no better way to figure out how to actually become a successful freelancer than seeking out some mentorship from someone who’s been there. Find someone with years of experience who can impart some wisdom to help not only with day-to-day operations, but to encourage you to see the big picture.
But finding the right mentor can be a bit of a challenge. Try reaching out to former professors, colleagues, or even a boss with whom you’ve maintained a positive relationship. If no one comes to mind right off the bat, seek out your local professional association. Some provide mentoring services and can hook you up with monthly meetings or casual gatherings where freelancers get together, brainstorm, and discuss challenges they’ve come up against.
If you’re still stuck, check out some of the amazing literature that already exists online; professional organizations like the UK Web Design Association or America’s association for design offers freelancers all kinds of professional development resources. Or, download Shopify’s Grow book, aimed at helping designers and developers advance their business.
3. Learn when to say no
There are many designers who will tell you to take as many jobs as possible when you’re first starting out, and there is a serious element of truth to this idea. In the beginning, no job is below you. But, if you’re suddenly swamped by job requests, you need to think critically about what you take on.
Similar to the way your clients hire you, you need to consider what kind of clients you want to work for. Clients who are searching for your special, niche talents are valuable because their projects serve some of your needs, too. If you’re mutually excited about the project, the process and end product will turn out way better than you could have imagined.
4. Maintain relationships
Word of mouth is a great way to continue that steady stream of freelancing gigs. Maintaining positive relationships with past and present clients is key to making sure your reputation continues to be stellar. Simple tricks like sending thank you notes at the end of a job, regularly checking in with larger clients who might need more work in the future, or creating room for open dialogue and positive communication during a job can make all the difference.
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5. Know your limits
Balancing freelancing gigs with a full-time job means burnout is always around the corner. Don’t make the rookie mistake of completely running yourself into the ground. Realize you also need to make time for yourself and that trying to balance too many things can actually lower your productivity. That amazing client you’ve been dying to work with could be just around the corner, and you never want to be too tired, sick, or busy to take them on.
Sticking to an exercise routine, eating healthy, or even practicing mindfulness will not only help you manage burnout, but build towards success.
When balancing work and freelance, communication is key.
Some clients might believe that because you’re a freelancer, they can have access to you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nip that in the bud right away by explaining your work situation and setting some ground rules in advance of starting a new project.
Explain to potential clients when they can expect to hear from you, when you’re able to read and reply to emails, and when you’ll be offline. During projects, make sure you communicate clearly about expectations and when you believe something will be done, and offer plenty of updates. The more you leave the door open for communication, the better overall experience your client will have.
7. Taxes, taxes, taxes
Just because you’ve got that cushy nine-to-five doesn’t mean you can’t get nailed for improperly filing taxes for your side gig. This can get tricky depending on where you live, but the overarching idea is that you need to be well-organized. Keep any receipts or invoices, track how much you’re being paid per project, and know any business expenses you can deduct.
Also, it’s helpful if you put aside a chunk of change from each paycheque for tax purposes so that you’re not steamrolled come tax season. Full-time freelancers, or those heading in that direction, should further contribute to an RRSP or 401(k) (saving for your future, even if it’s a virtual one, is important).
TurboTax has lots of advice for freelancing Canucks, while Crunch focuses specifically on helping freelancing Brits with their accounting and finances. Americans shouldn’t wait until spring to realize how taxing figuring out deductions can be.
These are just a few ideas to help you get started on your road to becoming a freelancing ninja. Good luck!
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