How to Become a Successful Freelancer: 5 Experts Dish
Considering making the jump from full-time to freelance? Eschewing the restrictions of the 9-to-5 grind may be an exciting proposition, but it also requires resourcefulness, organization, and a whole lot of dedication. Whether your passion is writing, styling or any other creative pursuit, it’s essential to know the facts of the freelancing life before making the leap. To help prepare you, we consulted five experts from various fields and got their insights into this uncertain world.
Keep scrolling to find out what they had to say.
The primary advantage of the freelance lifestyle is the ability to work on your passions with freedom. All five individuals we spoke with echoed that benefit, but lighting director Koby Poulton warned, “You have to start off knowing that you’ll be working on very low-budget stuff and won’t be making much.” Lifestyle writer and author Kat George agrees: “Have savings in the bank—you'll probably need to use them.” If you’re in it to make money, “you're doing it for the wrong reasons,” she says. Freelancers may also need to take on additional odd jobs to make ends meet in the beginning.
Natalie DeVita, a public relations consultant and co-founder of event company The Revelry Collective, says she wishes she’d had a better understanding of typical freelance rates when starting out. “Do your homework and ask as many people as you can so you have a solid reference when it comes time to negotiate.”
Hesitating about taking the plunge? Everyone we spoke to said you simply have to go for it. After all, it’s never easy to leave a paycheck.
“Freelance work is fickle by nature—you can’t go into it expecting to have a steady paycheck every month,” DeVita says. To ease your anxieties, photographer Kimberly Genevieve recommends “having a good list of clients that can keep you afloat while you're getting started.”
All five of our experts agreed it’s extremely important to do some self-promotion as you get started: Reach out to your contacts to let them know of your availability and eagerness to work with them. Then, make some changes to your social media and Internet presence. “Go ahead and forfeit your personal social media accounts once and for all,” says prop and interiors stylist Peter Dolkas. “You want to make sure that all signs point to your new professional life.”
George, a former lawyer who used her personal blog to launch her freelance career, encourages establishing an online presence—and staying active. She sends weekly pitches to various new publications, ensuring her workflow remains steady and her projects fresh.
Genevieve, a favorite among successful L.A. bloggers and growing brands, touts the benefits of social media, especially Instagram. For work that is not social-media-friendly, DeVita recommends reaching out to recruiters and HR contacts directly via email.
“Freelance is all about time management,” says Genevieve. After all, though working from home sounds lovely, it can be extremely challenging to stick to deadlines you’re setting for yourself and avoid procrastinating. Genevieve’s best tactic for staying on track is to make lists before bed. “When I wake up the following day, I know exactly what I need to work on.”
George points out that sticking to deadlines allows her the flexibility to accept great, spur-of-the-moment opportunities. According to DeVita, who works across time zones, “A love-hate relationship with flexibility comes with the territory.” She lives by open communication and advises, “Keep clients updated on the number of hours you can give them each week.”
Knowing when to say no is also crucial to being a good freelancer. Although the impulse might be to accept everything, turning projects down messages self-awareness and a commitment to quality that most contractors will recognize and respect.
Organization is essential for freelancers because, as George notes, several different employers owing you separate checks means things can easily become lost or overlooked. “When you’re freelancing, half your time is spent chasing invoices,” she jokes. Keep meticulous watch on invoices and payment, maintain your personal budget (and evaluate it monthly). Another good idea is to keep what DeVita terms her “rainy day fund,” an account that is completely off-limits and serves as a safety net should work slow down.
Freelance work often involves individual projects with their own unique sets of variables and timelines. Dolkas underscores the importance of communication, warning that the moment you don’t reply to an email for a week, the project may already be lost and gone forever. Stay on top of your projects, follow-up after meetings, check in, foster strong working relationships, and never leave anything hanging.
The big takeaways here are passion, drive, tenacity, and self-awareness. As Poulton put it, “Plain and simple: Be good at what you do.”
Another insightful takeaway is to stop measuring success in the traditional sense—as George says, “There are no promotions! Success simply means something different as a freelancer.”
What do you think of the world of freelance? Share your thoughts (or experiences and wisdom!) in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.