Commutes, office environments, and 9 to 5 work schedules aren’t for everyone. In fact, more Americans are choosing the freelance work style than ever before.
According to a report by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, more than 57 million Americans freelance today—that’s more than a third of the U.S. workforce. A majority of these workers—63 percent—have chosen this route intentionally rather than doing it out of necessity—an all-time high, the report says.
It’s easy to understand why: Freelancers report enjoying more flexibility and freedom than those in traditional jobs, and say they are more likely to feel respected, engaged, empowered, and excited to start each day.
“Freelancers have long been a large part of the American workforce, albeit one that is largely misunderstood, but perceptions are changing,” says Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union. “Freelancers used to be seen as people who were not very serious about their occupations; now they are increasingly empowered entrepreneurs choosing to build their own businesses or careers.”
Freelancers, also known as independent contractors, work across a variety of industries, from graphic and industrial design to information technology and communications. Beginning a freelance career—or freelancing to supplement your full-time job—takes hard work, perseverance, and dedication. Here’s what experts say you can do to succeed as a freelancer.
Freelance Tips for Success
1. Find a Dedicated Workspace
Working in your pajamas from the comfort of your couch might sound like a dream, but dedicating a comfortable space for work is important for your productivity, Upwork says. Whether it’s an unused closet in your apartment or a full-fledged home office, there are a few things you should consider.
Your space should allow you to create an environment that works for you. If you prefer background music, for example, you should feel free to stream it without worrying about bothering others. Or if you require silence to work, make sure your workspace has a door you can shut. While libraries or coffee shops may be good alternatives for a change of scenery, they’re not always a practical long-term solution.
Make sure your space is comfortable and organized, too: Splurge on that ergonomic chair or functional desk that you’ve been eyeing—you’ll be logging a lot of hours with them. Invest in proper lighting to avoid eye strain and add your personal touch to the space, whether it’s photos, knickknacks, or other decorative touches.
2. Know Your Worth
Determining how much to charge for your services depends on several factors, Horowitz says in her book, The Freelancer’s Bible. Do your homework and learn the benchmarks for rates in your industry and take into account how much time tasks or projects will take. It’s also important to determine the scope of the job; your client’s budget, if possible; and the lowest rate you’ll accept regardless of how great the gig is, she says.
“Do you see hours of meetings and revisions in your future? Think of the cost to you of serving that client—the time you won’t have for other projects, plus the aggro factor. If it’s your busy season or you’re cramming this gig onto a full plate, that can be another reason to raise prices,” she says.
Conversely, you might consider a discount if the project will boost your career, give you a new skill, is for a cause that’s important to you, or is necessary to meet your financial goal, Horowitz says.
3. Work Your Network
To succeed as a freelancer you need ongoing opportunities. The majority of these opportunities stem from your network, which should include four groups of people, according to the Freelancers Union Networking Guide.
The first group includes your clients—the people who will refer you to other clients. Second are your strategic alliances, or people who do something different from you but serve the same ideal client. Next are your trusted advisors, which include business advisors, mentors, and vendors. Lastly are your referral sources, aka your unpaid sales force. Tap these resources to find new leads, connections, and for advice.
“Look at your network and see where it’s strong and where you need to fill in some gaps,” the guide recommends. “If you’re growing your design business with the intention of landing bigger, better projects, your focus might be on developing relationships with great creatives such as web developers and strategists so you can build an entire team.”
To build your network—and your client base—they recommend joining professional associations, attending conferences, listening to related podcasts, and following influencers on social media.
4. Diversify Your Portfolio
The saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” rings especially true for freelancers. Don’t rely on one or two well-paying gigs; make sure you’re building a diverse group of clients to ensure stability, experts say.
“When you’re a freelancer, a portfolio of active contracts and work can provide a measure of stability when one or more income streams dries up,” according to financial advice website Money Crashers. “A freelancer needs to prepare for the ups and downs of contract work by buffering against lost or poorly performing gigs with multiple streams of income.”
If you’re a writer, for example, balance your portfolio with work for websites, schools, or businesses rather than work for one, high-paying contract, it advises.
5. Track Your Finances
When you work full-time for a company, the employer withholds taxes for its employees. Freelancers, however, are responsible for making payments themselves, which requires an educated guess of annual earnings and estimated quarterly payments to stay on track, according to money resource Nerd Wallet.
For this reason, it’s important that you track your income, including the projects you complete, their fees, your invoices, and your payments. There are a variety of financial tools to help you do this; alternatively, you might consider hiring an accountant to keep your finances in check.
With the right tools, mindset, and discipline, choosing the freelance work style can be a rewarding alternative to traditional 9 to 5 careers. For more tips to help you take the next step in your career, check out our articles on “7 Must-Haves to Improve Your LinkedIn Profile” and “Tips for Building Your Personal Brand.”
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