When you have been freelancing for years like I have, it’s easy to give advice to people at your own level: “Here’s what is working for me right now.” Concepts, tactics, and strategies like these have worked for me:
I stand by all that advice. But the irony is that if I were to roll back the tape to April 2009 when I had no clients and no money, I would have had no place to put the advice that I now freely dispense.
Are you where I was seven years ago? Are you ramping up a freelancing business for the first time? Do you feel unequipped to run your own business? Do you have imposter syndrome?
Freelancing is a terrible, protracted exercise in perseverance. You’ve never ridden a horse, yet you’re trying to break a spirited bronco while riding it. Salty cowboys saunter over and drop their pearls of wisdom, “You’re doing it all wrong. Use this saddle instead.” You grin with blood in your teeth, and say, “Oh, thanks. You can set that over there while I try to not get my chest kicked in.”
Most advice has a shelf life. What follows is good advice for new freelancers and bad advice for creatives, bloggers, and content writers with established businesses: The first order of business is to stay on the horse.
By that I mean, say yes to everything.
In the early days, I didn’t have the luxury of turning down low-paying projects. What a veteran copywriter would have called “low-paying” represented a pay raise for me.
- $50 to write a short bio for my friend’s band
- $200 to produce content for a local web hosting company
- $100 to read a book manuscript and give feedback
Chicken-scratch gigs covered my bills. They helped me to survive and to expand my client base.
Don’t strive for a perfect launch for your freelance business. Strive to pay your bills. If $50 worth of words is what gets your foot in the door, so be it.
Bigger projects may follow, and besides, referrals are the lifeblood of your business. The broader your client base, the more potential referrals you can get.
Practice great follow up, and in six months, nine months, a year and a half, you’ll have more business than you can handle. You can raise your rates in five minutes, and then you’ll be off to the races.
A single $50 project may give you access to 50 relationships over time, and those relationships might come to represent $50,000 in lifetime value.
Projects with insultingly small budgets hide pleasant surprises:
- Repeat business
- Retainer relationships.
I’m not suggesting you keep your rates low forever. On the contrary, I recommend that you raise your rates at least once a year while also keeping a low, accessible rung on your pricing ladder to give more people a change to step up.
But you do need money to survive. If someone offers you money to do something, don’t be proud. Take the money. Do the best work you can. Overdeliver. Follow up. Ask for referrals.
Engineer a virtuous cycle.
At times, I knew I was underselling myself and my services. I have attracted my share of smooth-talking negotiators and vampires who sucked me dry while trying to make up their minds.
Going back to the irony: We’re all chock full of sage advice that we would love to give younger, less experienced versions of ourselves. But if we had taken the advice way back when, we wouldn’t be in the position to give said advice now.
Your business wounds become your business smarts. You cannot grow without the negative experiences thrown in with the positive ones. The key isn’t avoiding growing pains but to extract every last drop of learning from them. I wouldn’t be doing my new freelancer friends any favors by depriving them of an education in the business school of hard knocks. At the same time, I aspire to teach sticky lessons without giving anyone bruises.
So yes, say yes to everything. Take the good with the bad. And as the hard-fought months pass, ratchet up your rates to earn what you’re worth from kind, generous people with interesting projects.
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.
Also published on Medium.