You’re Not the Boss of Me! 10 Ways to Help Start a Freelance Career

4 Feb

College seniors, the unemployed, and even some employed workersare job hunting, with resumes in hand, shoes shined, and answers prepared for the HR generalist’s favorite question, “tell me why I should hire you.” Some seekers, however, may not have—or want—the option of getting a staff position, and instead, will pursue a freelance career. Over 30 percent of the American workforce is independent, and today’s workers need to be prepared for the possibility of being their own boss. So, how can you prepare for this new world? Here are some tips to help you get your freelance on.

1. Understand that you won’t get a steady paycheck. Money in the bank—yes, you can put it in, too, not just take it out—will give you a lot of peace of mind. The magic number is to have at least 3-6 months of expenses in cash. Especially for students, who have loan payments looming, that may be a tall order, but be honest with yourself as to what you can really afford. If you’re already in the workforce, try to put money in the bank every paycheck: set up automatic transfers through your bank, and you won’t have to worry about it. To find that extra cash, consider roommates, learn to cook for yourself, and go easy on the lattes and credit cards.

2. Realize that there’s a lot of opportunity in freelancing. An employer has to invest time and money into hiring a full-time staffer, but by bringing in a temporary freelancer with good references and skills, each side can try out the other, with fewer risks involved. Part company on good terms, and you’ll go to the top of the list to be invited back if another project comes up. If one doesn’t, you’ve still got new contacts for your network.

3. Which brings me to the biggie: network, network, network! If in school, your professors are the first opportunity for doing this. Impress them, talk to them, and ask them if they can give you contacts for informational interviews while you’re still a student. Working pros should start with managers and colleagues that they collaborate well with, not to mention alumni, friends, and family. A last-minute project will likely go to a known quantity, so get to know potential clients before you ask them for work, and take the initiative to stay in touch. LinkedIn is a great tool for this.

4. Join Freelancers Union. It’s free, you’ll get discounts, find support resources, and be part of a national advocacy group for indy workers. (Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Directors.) Members in NY who qualify can get Health & Dental insurance. (We love the other 49 States, but only NY Law permits this, right now.) The good news is that under the Affordable Care Act, you can remain on your parents’ plan until you’re 26.

5. Don’t wait until you need work to look for it. Keep in touch with your network, let them know what you’re up to, and when you’ll be available to take on new projects. Social media is perfect for this. Update your Facebook status with the results of a project you’re happy with, use Twitter to follow and tweet about your latest great client, and blog about the process you went through to land a gig. Just be careful: don’t share anything negative, or confidential. As tempting as it may be, I guarantee it’ll come back to bite you on the behind.

6. Think like a business owner: what you earn is income, not salary. Look at the big picture, and review your finances quarterly, when you’ll owe estimated income tax. This part is not for the faint of heart, so get a good accountant who’s familiar with the needs of a freelancer.  A financial advisor who can help you meet investment goals and plan for retirement (yes, freelancers need to save for that, too) is also a good idea. Fees for these services will be well worth the money, and are likely to be tax-deductible.

7. Speaking of tax deductions, don’t leave money on the table. Keep your receipts for everything: if you buy supplies, attend work-related events, and especially if you meet for a bite to talk shop (see tips #3 & #8). Note that for business meals, you’ll need to have careful documentation: the person’s name and title, and the meeting’s time and location and purpose. (John Doe, President, XYZ Corp: 12:00 pm, Max’s Café to discuss Fall Catalog). For more info, see IRS Publication 334: Tax Guide for Small Business.

8. Give, don’t just take. Sure, it’s fine to ask your network for advice and help, but make sure to return the favor, or at the very least, thank them. Everyone loves a free lunch, so scheduling one & picking up the tab is sure to go over well. Definitely send a note saying how much you appreciate their time and advice (see tip #9). You’ll get much more out of your network by making sure it’s on a two-way street.

9. Communicate well, and respond quickly. Follow up on meetings and respond to e-mails within a day, and no typos, please. As my colleague Angela Riechers always says, “use spell check, it’s free.” If you really want to impress, send hand-written notes, whenever you can. I never fully appreciated their power until I received them, myself. It’s a good idea to write them electronically in a word processor, which you can use to check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and then copy them by hand on nice stationery.

10. You’ve got a gig! Show up, act like a grown-up, and do the work. Believe it or not, this will set you apart from the pack. Just because you’re not a staffer, you can’t slack off. Be professional, easy to work with, and skilled: they’ll love you, and re-hire you.

Use these pointers and your freelance career will be off to a strong start. Working independently is an important option for job seekers to consider. Doing it right is all about making a good impression, seeing the big picture, and staying connected. Welcome to the new work world, and good luck!

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