Ten tips for a successful freelance career

Man drawing up plans for his business
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Lots of people leave their jobs to have a go at self-employment, but building a freelance business is difficult – and not everyone can manage it.

If you’d like to give it a go, or if you’ve already started on the freelance road but want to ensure that your business grows, then you’ve got to pay attention to key areas and not let standards slip.

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That can sound daunting to even an experienced freelancer, which is why we’ve distilled some of the best freelance advice into ten tips to deliver long-term success. Follow these rules as best you can and you won’t go far wrong – and when you’re working for yourself, that’s critical.

Freelancers will find plenty of help elsewhere on the site, too: check out our run-down of the biggest freelance mistakes and how to avoid them, and explore the ten things that people never tell you about freelancing.

Know your skills 

The freelance marketplace is busy – no matter your field, you’ll have to compete with loads of people who think they can do a better job than you at a lower price.

It’s your job to convince potential clients that you’re the right person for the job. You need to figure out what you’re better at than anyone else and ensure that your portfolio has the evidence to support your claims. If you’ve got knowledge or experience in particular industries you can leverage that in your pitches, and consider getting professional qualifications to bolster your credentials.

You can carve out a niche in the busy freelance world if you know your skills, talents and areas of expertise – alongside your weaknesses, too. And if you’ve got a niche and great knowledge, you’ll be able to deliver quality work, benefit from repeat customers, outcompete rivals and raise your prices.

Monitor your pricing 

When you start out as a freelancer you’ll have to charge affordable prices – you might have talent, but if you don’t have experience or a reputation you’ll have to keep prices modest. Don’t go too low, though – potential clients simply won’t trust you if you’re far cheaper than the rest of the market.

As you gain ground, you should revise your pricing structure. Look around the market and see what your rivals are charging – and consider if your output and experience mean you can demand similar amounts or even more from your clients.

When you’re commissioned, figure out how much time you’ll need to devote to a project and charge accordingly – it’s no good charging a high fee if that’s negated by how much time you’ll have to spend on the work. And give people plenty of notice if you’re raising your rates, because no-one likes surprises.

Build a brand 

You won’t have a successful freelance career if you don’t have a good online presence. You need to have a straightforward, modern website that shows off your skills and your portfolio, and it must have clear contact details.

Beyond that, maintain a presence on big freelance sites like Upwork, Guru and Toptal – they’re great for allowing potential clients to get in touch. Keep an active profile on LinkedIn, and stay busy on social media networks like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The more active and visible you are on sites like these the more chance you’ve got of being found by potential clients.

Don’t skimp on contracts 

When you’re an experienced freelancer or even a new freelancer dealing with people you know personally, it can be tempting to skip the legalities – especially if you prefer a fast-paced, informal working environment.

Don’t give in to the temptation, though. You should ensure that all your jobs use a proper contract so there’s on confusion about the pay rates, the work you’ve been asked to do and the processes that everyone needs to follow if there is an issue or a grievance. No-one wants a freelance job to go wrong, but a contract will protect you if the worst should happen.

Rely on referrals 

As a freelancer you might work at home, on your own, but no freelancer operates in a vacuum. If clients are happy with your work, approach them and politely ask if they’ll refer you to anyone else who may require your services.

Beyond asking for referrals and benefiting from the word-of-mouth business they can bring, you should ask clients to leave you a review for your website or your social media pages. It may feel awkward to ask people for these favors, but they’re critical for business growth.

Prepare for rejection 

Even the best freelancers don’t always have things go their own way – no matter how good you are projects don’t pan out, budgets are cut and people don’t come back for repeat business, and none of that’s necessarily your fault.

This sort of thing is inevitable for any freelancer, so it’s worth developing a thick skin to deal with inevitable disappointments and rejections. It’s easy to doubt yourself, but if you’re good at your job, every failed project will be outweighed by many successful scenarios. It’s a relationship cliché, but most of the time it’s not you, it’s them – and any good freelancer will remember that.

Trust your own schedule 

If you’ve got an office job then you’ll probably be familiar with working from nine until five, but if you’re freelancing you don’t necessarily have to work to those hours.

Instead, become familiar with how you work best and mold your working life around that. If you’re most productive in the early morning, tailor your workdays around those periods – and don’t be afraid to work late at night if that’s when you’re at your best.

Don’t get isolated 

For most people, freelance life will involve working alone, but make sure that you maintain social connections with people, too. No matter your industry, you’ll find support groups on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn – and plenty will have dedicated pages for freelance discussion.

It’s also worth attending local business networking events, or paying to use a co-working space if you like human interaction in your day-to-day life. Making these moves won’t necessarily just give you much-needed human contact, either – you could make connections that’ll lead to more work in the future.

Never stop learning 

You may launch your freelance career with a brain full of expertise and you may already posses most of the key competencies that your job needs, but no industry stays still – and you’ll only maintain your success if you keep on top of new developments and fresh ways of working.

No matter the industry, you’ll be able to take online classes to learn more about new areas, or aspects of the job where you’re not as strong. Consider in-person classes, too, and professional certifications.

Ultimately, freelancing is competitive, and if you don’t stay at the sharp end of your industry, you will struggle to compete with people who do. Never stop learning to ensure that you and your bank account both feel the benefit.

Stay pro-active 

If you want to build a successful freelance career, you simply cannot be shy – online or in-person.

On the internet, you’ve got to show off your portfolio and your skills, and you may often have to bid for jobs or take to social media in order to build your brand. In-person, if you’re outgoing enough to make connections at local groups or networking events, those connections could lead to more work.

Being outgoing and pro-active will undoubtedly be awkward for lots of people, especially if you prefer the solitary life of a freelancer. But you’ve got to get out of your box if you want to be successful – and, at the very least, you’ll need to fake it ‘til you make it.

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Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.