The 3 steps for starting a freelance business

It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was sitting in a Mac lab inside Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication, on the third floor of Seigfred Hall — first learning my way around Adobe InDesign during the spring quarter of my freshman year. Not only had I never even been in the program before (I had only been trained in old-school Adobe Pagemaker on an ancient PC from my days as editor of my high school newspaper) but I hadn’t sat down at a Mac since my Oregon Trail playing days in elementary school. I felt lost. Hopeful, but lost.

While my plan during the next four years was studying design and ultimately becoming an art director at either a magazine or PR firm (which ended up happening right on time, little would I know, seven years later) — I still had a slightly “lost” feeling. Only this time, it was due to the confusion and wonder of where I would actually end up after graduation. I always felt a tug towards owning a design business and being an entrepreneur, but I also knew that I needed to pay my dues, make money and learn how to work for someone else, with others, first. I wanted to really be in the field, on deadlines, challenged creatively, learning the tools of the trade. (In case you missed it, I wrote a blog post about this exact subject that was published on the Huffington Post last summer.) And, while the first few years of my career worked out perfectly in giving me great experiences and teaching me what I needed, I always knew in my heart what direction I would eventually go. So, I took steps early on (I mean, literally after I graduated) to help me get there. You simply can’t wake up one day and decide to start a business, without some kind of goal or plan in mind. For me, I always freelanced on the side of any full-time design job or internship that I had. Nine years later and I still have clients who I’ve been doing work for off and on since I started. So below, I’m sharing with you some simple and specific things that I did and hopefully they will help you — regardless of what kind of side gig that you want to start, in addition to your day job. And, these steps will also help to lay a solid foundation if you think that you want to go at it full-time one day. 

1) Setup some marketing platforms, so that people can find you.
When just starting out, you might have a small budget to work with — or really nothing at all. And, time is limited when you’re working for someone else full-time. I totally get it — been there, done that. However, the beauty of being in this digital age means that there are countless free marketing resources at our fingertips. Setup a website using Squarespace, Wix, or another similar platform that allow you to customize sleek and professional templates. You don’t need to know how to code or hire someone to do it (for now.) You should also setup social media profiles wherever your potential clients might be hanging out. Create a Facebook page, or Twitter and Instagram profiles — and post and share your information often. It’s important to setup a LinkedIn profile as well. I got a full-time job once (and a few freelance projects) thanks to this online community. This is because people are specifically looking to hire for jobs and projects — so, you stand a greater chance of getting connected to work if you’re at least out there. Get some business cards designed and printed — and be sure to always carry a few, because you never knew who you might meet or network with one day.    

2) Find clients in a variety of ways.
The most popular question that I get asked is, “how do you find clients?” And, while I’m still experimenting with this and haven’t perfected it, I know a few good ways to grab your first ones. These might be people you do one job for and some might end up sticking with you for years (these are my favorites.) First of all, marketing yourself via social media, as mentioned above, will be a great way for people to at least find out about you and what you do. In time, you will start getting referrals, many of whom will be friends of friends or Facebook “friends of friends” and connections. And, eventually, you will become more and more connected to people who own businesses and others who work within departments of companies, who might need to outsource work. You can also look into things going on in your community that you might be able to lend some services to. If you’re in the creative field, check area art/design organization job board websites (they often list freelance opportunities, in addition to full-time jobs.) Also, definitely setup some profiles on websites like Upwork and Elance — they connect clients in need to service providers and vice versa, if you’re looking for work.  

Something else that I want to touch on quickly is that it’s OK to work for free (at first) to establish a client base and gain invaluable experience. Often times, people who don’t have big budgets to afford professionals will look to college students or post grads to complete work, in exchange for non-monetary items. If you’re already bringing in money at your day job, this might be worth doing throughout the first year, from time to time. I did work in exchange for getting credit on designs that were seen throughout the community and even gift cards. But, those initial small connections eventually led to either those people hiring me again down the road (and paying me) or meeting other people who also wanted to pay me. It really is about “who you know” and not always “what you know.” You never know with who you might be dealing, who they know or who might see what you’re doing — and need the services that you provide.  

3) Learn how to price your services or products.
As I just said, it’s OK to work for free to start. But, otherwise, you also have to establish yourself as a professional and get used to pricing yourself and billing clients, if you’re going to be successful with your side business — especially one that you eventually transition into a full-time business. The longer that you work, the more experience that you gain, the more education that you have and the more that you invest in yourself and your business = all the more that you get to charge. In the first 1-3 years, it’s so difficult figuring out “how much to charge” — whether you’re providing a service (like me) or making and selling physical (or digital) products. And, because everyone is different and doing different things, I don’t have a great solution to this. My advice is to either price hourly, or come up with a one-time, flat fee, depending on what it is that you’re doing. Figure out how much time that you spend on something, any expenses that you might incur, the resources that you own and need to use and the timeframe involved to get it all done in. It’s not super fair to charge hourly if you’re going to spend a ton of something (because you work slow or you’re not sure what you’re doing) — but it’s also not ideal to charge hourly if you work really quickly. When you’re a professional, know what you’re doing and can work fast, you deserve to make a good amount of money because of your speedy and awesome skills. In this situation, you might want to charge a flat fee. Connect with other professionals who do something similar to you and see how they price themselves. I can honestly say that in time, you will just know what feels right and what is fair to both you and your client. And years from now, you will look back on what you’re charging now and simply laugh — because it will look like pennies. Running a business, whether on the side or full-time, is not easy and it’s not for everyone. It takes a lot of trial and error, making mistakes over and over again — and a lot of hard work and tears. But, the longer that you keep at it, the better that you will get at landing clients and charging not only what you deserve, but what will also help you be profitable.

What other issues do you struggle with within your side gig? Do you plan to keep it on the side or eventually take it full-time? I would love to hear your dreams and goals. Leave a comment below or contact me to shoot me an email!     

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