Freelance Tips: 7 Lessons I Learned During My First Year as a Freelancer

An editor turned freelancer shares ideas and insights from her first year in business.

Last summer, I left my job of 16 years as an editor of HOW magazine and took the freelance plunge. It was the scariest and bravest thing I've done in my adult life as it was flush with uncertainty. I went freelance with one solid, long-term client that didn't pay enough to cover the bills but gave me a reliable financial foundation upon which to build the rest of my business. Making up the balance required a healthy dose of faith and optimism.

As my first year of full-time freelancing wraps up, business is strong and I've taken some time to reflect on what I've learned. Whether you're moonlighting or making the shift to full-time solopreneuer, I hope my freelance tips will help you run a profitable and rewarding business, too.

1. Keep Your Setup Simple

Don't overinvest in your office setup right off the bat. Start with the basics and add essentials as you get a clearer picture of your earning potential and what you truly need to be productive. I started out working in my dining room using the desk and iMac shared by my husband and kids. A month later, I purchased a more comfortable office chair. After tax season, I felt confident enough about the future of my freelance business to buy a MacBook and set up a dedicated office space of my own in the house.

2. Track Everything as You Go

Immediately after going freelance, I created Excel files to track my projects/invoices and expenses. From the get-go, these files helped me project my future earnings and predict when I would receive paychecks. And as my business grew from two to 12 clients over the course of the year, they became a necessity.

On my projects/invoices spreadsheet, I track the following for each project, arranged by month due: Client, Agreed Upon Rate, Due Date, Date Invoice Was Submitted, Payment Terms, Invoice Number, Date I Was Paid, Check Number, Type of Work and Project Description. On my expenses spreadsheet, I track: Date, Type of Expense, Client, Amount, Mileage, Type of Payment, Receipt (yes or no) and Purpose.

And while a sticky note list of my work in progress was sufficient at first, as my workload grew and diversified, I added a calendar-style whiteboard that gives me a visual snapshot of upcoming deadlines. This helps me map out my to-do list each week and keeps me from overcommitting.

3. Be Easy to Work With

After managing outside contributors for many years, I know what editors and art directors love and loathe about freelancers. I'm careful to keep those things in mind now that I'm on the other side of the fence. I let my clients know well in advance if I need to adjust a deadline or feel that the direction of an assignment is changing. I also try to anticipate any additional information my clients may need and provide it upfront. When I was in charge, I had a low tolerance for poor communication and sloppy, incomplete work. So I strive to be proactive, thorough and organized. 

4. Work Your Network

Every one of my clients is a former colleague or a referral from a friend or old coworker. I haven't actively marketed or created my own website, although I'm considering launching one as my business grows, and I do keep a list of individuals and companies I can reach out to if I hit a slump. For now, LinkedIn, Facebook and my online portfolio remain my most valuable tools for attracting clients. Also, fellow freelancer friends who are generous enough to pass along projects they can't take on – and peers who are willing to talk openly about rates – have been a major factor in my success. It's amazing how far your network and reputation can carry you.

5. Let Go When It's Good Enough

When I was in my role as a magazine editor, I agonized over every word and reread everything multiple times. But I've had to learn that when I'm in the writer's seat, I need to keep my bottom line and hourly rate in mind. That means turning in pieces when I feel that they're clean, clear and tight – and letting my editors add that final polish or make the call to leave something in or take it out. I'd urge art directors turned freelance designers to do the same.

6. Use Paychecks to Beat Procrastination

At my former job, I found it hard to get started on creative projects. Part of the problem was all the management-related stuff that got in the way; the other issue was that the only thing in place to motivate me was a deadline. Since going freelance, I've found it much easier to tackle creative challenges, mostly because they're tied directly to a paycheck. Yes, I was paid a salary at my full-time job. But that didn't motivate me the way wrapping up a project, sending an invoice and getting a check in the mail does. Plus, now I have an incentive to complete projects as soon as possible so I can take on others and make more money.

7. Recognize the Beauty of Having Choices

All of this really boils down to one thing: Going freelance means having choices. It's the biggest difference between working for someone else versus being your own boss. Sure, you get to call some of the shots when you're working in-house or for an agency, but most of the parameters are set; with freelance, they're more malleable. It's scary but empowering.

When it comes to deciding what clients and projects to take on, weigh the pros and cons using data and logic. If there's not a clear answer, you have the luxury of following your heart or going with your gut. Do you really want to work with a difficult client even if the pay is good? Will taking on extra work line your coffers at the expense of something else you want to do with your time? How much vacation do you want ­– and need – to take?

There are still many things I'm figuring out since going freelance, and I've made mistakes along the way. And although everyone's freelance business is different, my best source of advice, inspiration, support and project leads has been fellow freelancers. So please share your best freelance tips with me, too!

Related post: 4 Ways Stay-at-Home Moms and Dads Can Enjoy a Fruitful Freelancing Career (Without Going Crazy)