How do I become a freelancer?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that since setting up my own business almost three years ago, one of the most common things I end up talking about is the mystery (when you’re working for someone else that is) of ‘working for yourself’.

Whether you’re thinking 2020 might be the year that you ‘break free’ and try freelancing for yourself, or if like me you’re often asked for advice on how to make the decision, this blog aims to be a crib sheet for how that conversation usually goes. 

freelancer in office

What kind of work can I do and for whom?

If you’re thinking of basing your freelance on something you’re doing in-house now, what is it about your job you really enjoy and what would you – in an ideal world – like to be doing more of on a week-to-week basis?

Ask yourself whether this is realistic. Ultimately, not every piece of work can be without some of the ‘stuff’ you’re less keen on. When you’re freelancing there are also new things you have to consider – not least that you are your own HR, IT, finance, marketing and PR departments, plus you’ll often be working with new faces and integrating with different teams.

Essentially, you want to reverse engineer your offer so that you get to deliver the things that you love doing the most and that you’re the best at. But you also have to do this within the reality that there are some aspects that won’t be just the ‘best-bits’. If you absolutely love teaching at primary level but just hate children… you get my point!

Here’s also the part where I want to talk about the ‘outside of the box’ ideas. Doing something totally and completely different to what you do now or even have ever done. The below steps are still key for making this decision, but the level of research and perhaps the stages of testing a market or developing the ‘product/service’ are likely to be longer or done in parallel to life as you know it now, before taking a bigger leap into the unknown.

How much should I charge?

Working out how much you’re going to charge can feel awkward, but it’s a must to set a realistic goal for what you can ask for, what your potential earnings will be and what the minimum you need to earn in that first few months to one year.

You need to be able to ask for the right money, not undersell yourself but also remain competitive, particularly when you’re starting out. A few things to try;

  • A quick benchmark is using your existing salary broken down as a day rate
  • Try and get costs from an agency/consultancy offering similar services to get an idea of different staff day rates. Often these will factor in overheads and level of work but can inform where you want to price yourself.
  • If you have contacts in potential client organisations, ask what their usual day rate is for freelance/contractors
  • What is the work and how much do you want it? There will be clients and projects that are more favourable or of interest than others – there will also be ones that you know are going to be more challenging, so you should factor these into your pricing.

Think about your costs in a number of ways; a one-off day, a presentation, several weeks, delivering a specific project/campaign (i.e. not necessarily a price linked to days but more about overall delivery).

Each of these would have different preparation time; i.e. for a workshop or a staff presentation you may need a day or so to create the content and practice for example. This cost therefore should be considered in a different way to a client that wants to contract you for say 6 months on a regular basis – that regular work is potentially of significant value and you may want to provide a lower day rate based on the overall duration and value of contact.

How do I know if it's a good idea?

Test your idea of being freelance out on your contacts – would they legitimately hire someone like you to contract for them? Or, see if you can do a pro bono project, or side collaboration in your own time for some experience. If there are agencies you’ve used, would they consider using you to white label on similar accounts?

When you ask friends and family, they may often give you a distorted view, positively or negatively, on whether it’s a good idea (depending on their agenda/perspective), so the only true way to test is with real professionals who may have real budget to spend. That said, it can be quite a big step so it is worth talking it through with those around you – but more around whether the income could work, or if they’ll morally give you support when you need it (unless they’re expert in your area of work – then ask away!).

In terms of working out the market – this varies of course, but a good measure is whether you see regular gaps in teams on job sites (LinkedIn or others), or if you have a really clear set of potential clients, are there requests for tenders you think you’d suit, or a regular gap you feel you could fill?

What should I plan for?

Whilst you may not need a heavily detailed 5-year business plan which is ready to be tested in a horrendous Apprentice-style process, you do need a 1-2 pager that outlines the basics and some professional and personal goals in the short and medium term.

This is a document you need to revisit in your first 6-months once you’ve had a few contracts, again after a year and something you then check in on once a year, or once you get to a particular milestone. You may have some professional goals, whether that’s personal development, events you want to attend or speak at, the type of clients you want to nurture over the coming year as well as projected earnings.

Deciding to ‘go freelance’ is also a considerable lifestyle change so there are often personal motivations and ‘work life balance’ or lifestyle factors that are just as important to put down on this plan. It should consider your personal and professional goals because your freelance life should compliment both of these areas.

How do I stay motivated?

Personal drive and mental wellbeing are also key things to think about. There are ups and downs in every job, just as there is in life generally. When you’re employed, you have days when you’re unwell, days you take off and days when you’re just not at your best self and you’re operating at more like 50%. Of course, you have all of these as a freelance – but it’s something you have to cope with differently because your client management is crucial and your output is critical to your reputation.

When you work for yourself you have to put yourself out there, go for contracts, pitch for work, network, develop your pipe-line of work, market yourself – and sometimes, you don’t get the project, you get knocks, you wonder what the next project will be, it can feel relentless. Then at other times you’ll be so busy, elated about making the move, or slightly worried about how you’ll deliver everything, will clients be happy?

Being able to identify some of the triggers for the ups and downs, good working habits when you’re quieter than you’d like or busier than usual and ways to nurture your own motivation and resilience are really an important part of being a freelancer. Creating the right network around you and these softer skills to help you are really important.

Is there anything I shouldn't do?

  • Don’t rip off someone else’s set up. Ok, there are no ‘new’ ideas (so they say), but try and be original. Get inspiration from everywhere but be your own thing, in your own way. Imitations are exhausting to keep up and you’ll find it much easier to be consistent offering what you do best in your own style and way of working.
  • Don’t ask for the decision to be made for you. It’s just too hard and personal! It’s unlikely that your personal situation, family, finance, life choices etc fit with what the person you ask has. Also, if you hate it, you’ll feel like they’re responsible!! You have to decide it for yourself. You’re the boss now (maybe).
  • Don’t have the same conversation over and over. If you hate your job so much, break up with it or at least hatch a plan linked to a timeframe. Figure out a way to get what you can out of your job, or see the good in the short term, look proactively at your options. Do this before you get ‘stuck’ and struggle to even recognise a good work day, lose your motivation or de-skill as you’ll not get yourself in a good place to start up or move jobs.

Meet the author

Rebecca Roberts

Founding Thread & Fable almost three years ago, Rebecca delivers marketing and communications consultancy, campaign development and youth marketing insight to clients across the sport, higher education, charity and public sectors. Her Engaging Youth 2019 report is available free here.

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