Start your freelance business faster with these 15 steps that walk you through the first (and most difficult) parts of going out on your own.
1. Commit to the Decision to Start
If you are anything like me, you have probably “decided to start” your business five or six times (or more). It’s easy to say you want to do something. But it’s hard to actually follow through because your day-to-day responsibilities and mind will always get in the way.
In order to really get started, you need to prepare for those humps, embrace uncomfortable feelings, and completely change your mindset.
Committing to you decision to start means accepting fear, discomfort, and nervousness. It means working extra hours, pushing through projects when you want to quit, and not taking long “breaks” in progress.
For me, I push though by comparing myself to others in my field that inspire me. Instead of looking at them and saying “not me,” I look at them and say, “why not me?”
Before you start your freelance business, find your own mantra that will recenter you, bring you back to your goals, and keep you on your path.
You’ll need that positive mantra and regularly come back to it as you go through the inevitable tough times.
2. Write Down Your Vision
Now that you have mentally committed, physically commit by writing your freelance business ideas down on paper.
Start the process by establishing a business name and creating a vision for your company brand. In The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki suggests asking, “Why am I starting this organization? Why should customers patronize it?”
This will help you create a mental picture of your business and give yourself a clear, real path to follow.
Write out the following:
- Your “why” — the real reason you want to start a freelance business
- Your service list — what you will sell as products, services, and packages
- Your contact list — relationships you can cultivate for support and to grow your client base
- Your financial goals — how much money you need to make to continue your current lifestyle
- Your processes — how you will manage your workflow
- Your sales copy and pitch — how you will position your services and products in a unique and approachable way
- Your ideal customer profile — who you will sell to and why
Don’t worry if you don’t have answers to all of these questions right now. I will elaborate on some of these points as we go.
3. Google Your Name and Your Business Name
Before you settle on a business name, do some research on Google — and make sure you are searching correctly.
Now, you may think there is no wrong way to type in a term and hit the search button. But there is a strategy for getting a clear idea about your impression on Google.
That’s because Google personalizes your search results by factoring in your past search history, webpage visits, Google+ information, location, and other smart, intuitive stuff. So Google may show you different results for a search on “Raubi Marie Perilli” than it would for me.
If you want a clear picture of how your name or business’ name appears in search, use a clean browser to perform your search.
The easiest way to do that is open a Chrome Incognito Window and search while not logged into a Google account.
Now that you are looking with a clear search, scan the results and take action if needed.
- Look at yourself from the shoes of prospective customers. Remember, as a freelancer your name is just as important as your business name. Are there unprofessional pictures or low quality posts that show up when you search your name? Are there posts that are unrelated to your profession that are ranking over related posts?
- Take down anything that does not fit the image you want for your personal brand. If you control the content, remove it. If you don’t control it, request it to be removed. If you can’t control it, create better content to replace it in the rankings.
- Don’t forget to check the image results. I failed to do this at first and later realized that image results were pulling photos of me from roughly ten years ago.
- Deactivate old social accounts. Sometimes you set up an account and forget about it or stop using it. The site may still have high search juice and show your profile high in search rankings, taking up space where more vital information could be displayed. Ditch the accounts you aren’t regularly updating or using anymore.
- Look at the competition for your business name. Before you fully commit to a business name, search for it to see what other businesses may exist with that name. Remember that clients are going to search for your business name. What will they find? And will they be able to find you? Not if there is another business that has a huge web presence with the same or similar name. Is there another business, group, or product with a similar name that has a connotation you don’t want associated with your brand? Make sure that your business will be able to compete and connect in the search space associated with your name.
Start your reputation management early and continue to perform these searches as your business grows.
4. Decide on a Business Structure
As some point, you have to deal with the “business” part of your freelance business. It’s not the most glamorous part of the path, but it is a necessary one.
As far as business structures go, you can operate your freelance business as a sole proprietorship or as an unincorporated business run entirely by one individual. Or you can set up a legal entity for your business, such as a limited liability company or corporation.
I recommend establishing a legal entity for your business for a few reasons:
- It makes you look more professional to clients.
- It makes you feel more committed to your business.
- It enables you to set up a bank account for your business.
- It helps you plan for accounting and taxes.
- It lays the groundwork for growing.
- It provides you with additional legal protection.
Many freelancers choose to set up a limited liability company as it bestows the benefits of a legal entity without the complexities of a corporation. But always consider your unique business goals and educate yourself on the types of benefits that come with each business type.
I recommend investing in a legal consultation or using LegalZoom to make sure you are set up correctly from the start.
5. Set Up Financial Processes
Yawn… okay another boring, but essential business bullet here.
Before the work starts rolling in, make sure you’re prepared for discussing and managing the money that will come with it.
- Set prices
- Create invoice templates
- Set an invoicing schedule
- Establish an accounting method (most freelancers will find that a cash method accounting system will work better than an accrual method)
- Consider how much to set aside for taxes (to be safe, set aside about 30% of your income)
- Start saving expense receipts
- Open a business checking account
- Open a business savings account (and set aside money from income to pay taxes)
It’s easier to keep up with your accounting along the way than to deal with it all later. So start keeping organized financial records early on.
6. Make a Super Simple Logo
I hated this fact. But that doesn’t make it any less true…
Your brand does NOT need to be perfect when you just get started.
There are much more important things to focus on (like making money) than tweaking and reworking your logo.
Now, that doesn’t mean stick your business name in Comic Sans next to a cheesy piece of Clipart and call it day. I’m not saying don’t put time and effort into creating a classy logo. I’m saying don’t put too much time and effort into creating the perfect logo.
When you are starting off, keep it super simple. When creating your logo:
- Choose two colors and one accent color
- Select two fonts (one serif and one sans serif)
Then create a simple logo by either:
Come back to it later when you are making enough money and time to get creative or pay someone else to do it.
7. Make a Super Simple (But Professional) Website
This next step includes a lot of things I didn’t know when I was starting out.
In fact, I have been so busy I haven’t been able to implement this important advice into my own website even though I’ve done it for dozens of my clients.
So here is the deal… you don’t need to make an elaborate website with a bunch of hype.
All your website needs to get started is:
- Attention Grabbing Headline (that tells the visitor what you do)
- Call to Action (that tells the visitor what they should do)
- Colorful Button (that makes it easy for the visitor to know how to take the next step)
- Lead Generation Opt-ins (so you can start building an email list)
- A Call-to-Action Per Page (so your visitors always know what to do next)
- A Personal, Yet Sales-Oriented Page (that tells people why you are different)
- List of Services (of course)
- Analytic Integration (so you can see what is working and what isn’t on your website)
- A Page for Customer Reviews (more on that later)
At the beginning keep it simple! Just add the things you need and move on.
When you start a freelance business, you need to have a professional digital presence to go with it. Start yours now.
8. Tell Everyone You Know about Your Freelance Business
Now that you have a website and a logo, get business cards and start spreading the word!
You might be nervous about telling people about your new venture. But sooner or later, you are going to need to tell people what you do.
So start sooner! Establish buzz before officially launching by telling family, friends, and contacts about your new venture in the weeks or months before the launch.
- Send an email to your entire contact list telling them exactly what services you will offer and where to send potential clients.
- Spread the word through all of your social media networks.
- Use every in-person interaction as a chance to practice your pitch and potentially find new clients.
You may be surprised by the referrals that family and friends can generate when they fully understand your freelance business and know where to send potential clients. I got three of my first clients this way.
- I reached out to a colleague I hadn’t seen in five years. A few weeks later, I received an email from one of his referrals.
- I posted about my new venture on Facebook and a contact emailed me about a project they needed help with.
- During an eye exam, I pitched my business to my eye doctor. Two months later, he called me to do work for his business.
Your network is the best way to find your first clients. Which brings me to my next point…
9. Network Like Crazy
People like to work with other people they know. So always work on expanding and cultivating your network.
And don’t just look for clients. All types of relationships have the potential to help you grow your freelance business — even relationships with competitors or individuals who will never be a client.
So, build your network by:
- Looking for Meetups in your area
- Going to professional networking events
- Attending a conference (look for free ones!)
- Joining LinkedIn groups
- Guest posting on other blogs
- Creating conversations on social media
Ted Rubin calls the value in forming relationships “ROR” or return on relationships. You can learn more about this by checking out some of the smart stuff on his blog.
10. Do Exceptional Work… For Free
When you are just getting started, you may have to face a hard fact.
People may not want to hire you.
And you can’t blame them if you are just starting out and have no proof to show what you can do.
Would you want to pay top dollar to a landscaper who is one month into their business with no photos of their work to show? Probably not.
But you would be willing to give them a chance if the landscaper was willing to do the job for an extremely low rate. And you’d certainly say yes if they were willing to do it for free.
Now, I know it seems crazy to think about doing work for free. But you wouldn’t think it’s crazy to pay to place an advertisement for your freelance business.
Think about doing free work as a marketing or advertising cost.
When you are starting out, don’t spend money on placing ads to attract business. Instead offer to do free work.
It is a great way to test out your services and processes and attract future clients.
And don’t half-ass the work because you’re doing it for free. This is your chance to do exceptional work, build a network of referrals and acquire material for our next two very important points.
11. Prepare a Portfolio
As mentioned in the last section, having proof of your abilities is extremely important — especially when you are starting out.
Don’t waste your time fully launching and advertising to find clients before you have a portfolio that shows off what you can do.
Build your portfolio by:
- Doing free work for potential clients — even if they haven’t hired you (i.e. a graphic designer could redesign a restaurant’s menu, then show it to them with a pitch for them to purchase it.)
- Doing pro bono work for a charity
- Creating work for a fictitious client
- Finishing or refining past work to show off your best stuff
Add all of your portfolio items to your website. Then and only then, start sending traffic and potential clients to your site.
12. Get Testimonials
You are getting something out of doing free work. You are getting portfolio items and you are opening up an opportunity to start collecting customer testimonials.
Reviews will be vital to starting and growing your freelance business so start collecting them early on.
At the end of each project, ask clients for a written review or testimonial. Then add the information to your website.
Customers, especially those you do free work for, are usually willing to take the time to give a review if you ask nicely and make it easy on them.
And consider asking for more than a review.
13(a). Ask for Feedback
Create a short customer survey that you send to your clients with your invoices.
Like the testimonials, you want to make it easy for your customer to fill out the survey. Use a site like SurveyMonkey where you can create a unique link to the survey. And keep the questions at a minimum.
Customers won’t mind taking five minutes to provide useful feedback, but they probably won’t want to take twenty minutes to fill out an exhaustive questionnaire.
Then if you are going to ask for feedback, make sure you listen to it.
13(b). Learn to Listen to Feedback… Without Getting Upset
Feedback is there to help you grow, so don’t let it shrink you down.
Accept early on that you will always have room for improvement. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes — and that your clients will call you out on them.
When I first started off I was defensive about my work. I didn’t handle criticism very well, and I would obsess over the things that I did wrong.
And I wasted way too much energy in the process.
Ask for feedback and embrace the feedback. Realize it is not an attack or a judgement. It is simply a tool for making you better.
And accept that no matter how great you are, you will always encounter unhappy customers at one point or another.
Let this elevate you, not bring you down.
14. Don’t Rush It
It’s okay to keep your day job as you grow your freelance business, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t fully committed to freelancing.
It’s actually a good idea to lay the ground work while maintaining your old stream of income. It will take the pressure off and allow you to grow slowly and steadily.
Just make sure you aren’t going so slow you come to a halt.
While working at other jobs, set aside time after work and on weekends to grow through these steps and build up a clientele for the future.
Begin to build an initial client base and start putting some cash in the bank before you quit what is currently financially supporting your life.
15. Never Look Back
We are going to end this lesson back where we started — with commitment.
It is what starts the process and it is what continues the process.
The weeks leading up to my final decision to quit my job, I had many moments of panic. I would find myself questioning my abilities and doubting whether I had what it takes to really work for myself. But instead of letting those thoughts get the best of me, I would go back to what I told myself at the beginning.
“Why not me?”
Everyone has to start somewhere, so acknowledge your doubts, accept them, and overcome them. It takes practice and work.
But it’s the best kind of work.
So get out there and do it!
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