5 tips every first-time freelancer needs to know

Apr 28, 2015

Need help dealing with a legal issue? Download the Freelancers Union app to connect with a lawyer committed to helping freelancers and who understand the freelance life.

Protect your work: Build a standardized client agreement with our step-by-step freelance contract creator.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

I made the decision to leave my job as a litigation paralegal and become a virtual paralegal and freelance writer about a year ago. Everyone knows the typical advice that small business owners receive before launching: create a business plan, do your market research first, and have your finances covered for a year.

You can do everything by the book, but you will never be fully prepared for the emotional and financial roller coaster that the first year of freelance life will bring! I’d like to share some of my experiences to help you navigate your first year as a freelancer:

1. Research and set your rates carefully.

Many people make the mistake of dividing their in-house salary by two to calculate what their hourly rate should be. You will starve to death using this formula! Your rate should be set according to the value and cost-savings you are providing for your client.

For instance, if your client is an attorney, even if your freelance rate is $100.00 per hour, you are still offering value and savings because you are able to do a project that the lawyer would otherwise spend a minimum of $250.00 per hour to complete. Your freelance rate gets billed out to the client for a higher amount than what the lawyer is paying you, but the client is still getting superior services at a reduced cost from the $250.00 per hour lawyer rate.

I am not saying never negotiate, but my experience over the past year is that people who ask you to back off your rates don’t respect you as a professional and as a business owner. After all, do they back off their rates? I just haven’t found that to be the start of any good relationship that I have now.

You want to attract clients who can afford your market rate services, not clients who want to engage contractors in a race-to-the bottom bidding war with each other.

2. You can never stop marketing.

I cannot tell you how many times I stopped marketing campaigns in the first few months of my business because of a nice conversation I had with a potential client. In the beginning, I thought I had “made it” at least five or six times based on great conversations, warm fuzzy feelings, and the empty promises of more work in the future.

Without a signed contract and a retainer for a certain amount of hours or a clearly defined project, you actually have nothing but an empty promise. You absolutely, under no circumstances, can ever stop marketing and networking

3. Listen to your gut when finding clients.

Your instincts will develop over time, and you will come to know how to separate the real deal clients from the tire kickers. Someone who cancels phone calls three different times before finally talking with you on their cell while sitting in traffic is not going to be a good client. I promise you.

Over the course of the last year, I have taken about fifteen meetings from prospective clients and only two of those led to very small amounts of business. Every single ongoing client relationship I have now has come from someone who didn’t feel the need to meet me first. These clients looked at my website, my references, had a phone call with me, and spent their money on my virtual paralegal services or freelance writing business based on those things.

They did not make me travel to their office for a conversation first. Sorry, but my numbers show that 13 out of 15 times, people who like to have meetings before working with you are tire kickers.

4. Make sure your freelance business aligns with your goals

When you are first starting out, you will learn how important it is to offer services that people want to buy, and not focusing too heavily on services you want to sell. However, the other side to that is that there will always be someone who wants you to do something you don’t necessarily delight in doing.

For me, that’s handling initial client calls and following up on medical records requests. I just don’t offer those services anymore because they don’t add to my joy.

You have to be careful in resisting the trap of accepting every offer that comes along. There will always be someone else who wants to buy a service that brings you joy to deliver.

You really don’t have to do everything that is proposed to you, even if it feels that way in the beginning. Pick tasks that make you happy. Otherwise, you may as well go back to sitting in an office.

5. Set the tone for your relationships and manage expectations.

If you are not under a retainer with clearly defined work hours, your client cannot reasonably expect you to be available on demand. Yet, they will if you set that tone. Becoming a full-time freelance virtual paralegal, or writer, or freelance professional anything, is a lifestyle choice.

If you are going to chain yourself to a desk and answer emails within five minutes of receiving them seven days a week, between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 11:00 p.m., I would suggest you go back to corporate life. You are missing the point of freelancing.

There will be some clients that will want an employee/employer relationship with you without compensating you appropriately. That sort of thing is a bad deal for you every single time!

Jamie Davis is a top-selling author, freelance writer, and virtual paralegal. You can keep up with her at: http://ijdparalegalservices.com and http://jamiedaviswrites.com.