Guide Freelancing is the dream for a lot of people. Setting your own hours, working from the beach in the dead of winter—what’s not to love? But in order to truly enjoy these benefits, you have to first reach a certain level of success with your freelancing. Otherwise, the reality looks a lot more like working around the clock and chasing down unpaid invoices.
We built this guide to be the ultimate playbook for freelancers, covering all the key topics that keep self-employed writers, creatives, and consultants up at night.
Chapter 1: Finding clients
According to a recent study from freelancer platform Upwork, nearly half of all millennials are already freelancing and that number is forecasted to grow exponentially. Within the next decade, freelancers are expected to make up the majority of the workforce in the U.S. Not to mention freelancers already contribute $1.47 trillion to the economy each year.
One of the biggest obstacles for new freelancers is finding enough client work to sustain you—after all, you have bills to pay. First-year freelancers in particular may feel like they spend more time prowling for new work than they do actually working.
Tap your existing networks
One of the best ways to find new clients is to mine your existing networks. Tell your friends, family, colleagues, graduating cohort, and any small business owners you know that you’re looking for new clients.
You can reach out via:
- Social media networks: Spread the word to your contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
- Word of mouth: Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues in person about the kind of work you’re looking for.
- Email professional contacts: Have an old boss or coworker who might have a lead on a project? Shoot them a quick email. Let them know what products/services you’re offering and outline the kinds of projects you want to tackle. Ask them to spread the word to their contacts as well.
Exchange work for testimonials/referrals
Consider setting up a different kind of transaction for your first (or first few) clients. Instead of clients compensating you with cash, ask for testimonials and referrals. Your first customer can write a thorough review of your product or service, which you can then use as a testimonial on LinkedIn, as a review on sites like Facebook and Yelp, and as a call-out on your website.
Chapter 2: Building client proposals
Proposals boast a variety of benefits. At this point in your relationship, you know a bit about the prospective client and their project. Proposals are a high-impact way to put all your knowledge down on paper. It’s a document both you and your client can refer back to as your working relationship progresses, and it clarifies questions and potential issues before they arise.
But what exactly makes proposals such an effective way of winning over new clients? How can they help freelancers not only get clients to sign on the dotted line, but also get higher-value clients?
In your proposal, you’ll outline the goals of the project. This is where you get the chance to shine—demonstrate your knowledge of the potential client and their needs. What is this project meant to achieve? What are the success metrics? And what are the business goals tied to completing this project?
Demonstrating that you understand the “why” behind a project is also an effective way to set yourself apart from competitors. With an estimated 57.3 million freelancers in the U.S. alone, differentiation is key to being competitive and landing those high-value projects.
Five tips to help you write your first freelance proposal
If you’ve never written a freelance proposal before, the task may feel a little daunting. But following these steps can help you get through your first proposal and set you up for success when creating future proposals.
1. Do your research
Before dumping your thoughts into a doc, do your due diligence to organize those thoughts. Do some research on the project, your client, and the industry. Read through the client’s website and marketing materials to understand their value proposition to their customers. Peruse trade publications to get a sense of the industry your client is in. And communicate with your client to get a deeper understanding of their needs.
2. Start out strong
The average adult’s attention span is dwindling. Research shows that our attention shifts every eight seconds—and your potential clients are no exception. That means you need to make a strong first impression early on in your proposal to capture and maintain your client’s attention.
3. Keep it brief
While you should tailor your proposal and include all the relevant info, don’t go overboard. Clients don’t have time to thumb through a 40-page document explaining why you’re a good fit for a particular project.
4. Use a digestible format
Just as you should aim to keep your proposal brief, you also need to make it easily digestible. The structure is just as important as the content—especially when it comes to keeping clients engaged with what they’re reading. Even a two-page proposal can make a client’s eyes glaze over if they’re staring at a wall of text.
5. Go digital
That’s right — nix that paper proposal, if at all possible. Paper proposals not only kill too many trees, but they can also lengthen the approval process. If you’ve ever waited for a signature on a printed document, you’ll understand how much this slows down administrative tasks.
Chapter 3: Creating contracts
Almost half of us are now freelancers in some capacity. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, about 68 million people in the U.S. are engaged in independent work. That’s impressive, particularly considering the working-age population is 251 million people.
What is a contract?
Generally, a contract is a legally binding agreement that outlines the terms of a purchase or exchange. Whether that’s the price and purchase details of a car you’re buying or project specifics for a client, contracts ensure all parties are on the same page (quite literally) and agree to the same terms. For example, everyone has to agree on the purchase price of a car, the condition it’s in when you purchase it, and payment timelines. A contract compiles all these integral details into a single document and both you and the seller can refer back to it if you have any questions about the transaction details in the future.
Why freelancers need a contract
Yes, contracts tend to be dull documents full of hard-to-understand legalese. But contracts can save freelancers and small business owners time and a lot of money.
“A contract is a two-way street,” said Ethan Clarke, Vice President of the Canadian Freelance Union, in an interview with Format magazine. “It’s a balance of protecting your own rights, while giving the client the flexibility to get what they need… Far too many freelancers who are starting out err on the side of giving the client everything. But if you want to survive, you have to protect your rights.”
Some of the benefits of having a freelance contract include:
- Curbs confusion: When you write a tailored contract for a client or a vendor, you put all the deliverables and timelines down on paper. Everyone is clear on their expectations, which can prevent confusion down the line as you begin work on the project.
- Professionalism: Having a contract ready to go for clients and vendors lets them know you’re a serious business owner. Ready-made business documents, like contracts, help establish your competency and professionalism in the early stages of these relationships. Or as Djanka Gajdel, a Toronto-based artist representative and member of the board at the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators, told Format magazine: “A contract is a great way to establish yourself as a professional and educate the client, so they feel they’re getting value and you feel you’re being properly remunerated.”
- Payment details are set in stone: A contract establishes all the details around payment for your work. You’ll generally have a section outlining payment timelines, deposit amounts, and even acceptable payment methods. When your clients have to sign on the dotted line saying they know when and how much to pay you, they’re much more likely to follow through.
- Prevents future legal issues: If you get stiffed by a deadbeat client or make an error in your work, a comprehensive contract can help protect you from liability or prove your case if you need to take a non-paying client to court.
Typically, an attorney will write up many of the aforementioned details in a contract. But we get it—lawyers are pricey and many freelancers can’t afford a hefty bill for a simple work contract.