Whether you’re fresh out of college and diving merrily into the wild blue yonder of full-time freelancing or a seasoned nine-to-fiver trading in your golden handcuffs for a life of boundless freedom and occasional debilitating panic, the same basic advice applies.
Here are six essential tips for launching an exciting and (hopefully) lucrative career as a freelancer.
“Networking” is a catchall term used to describe activities as various as attending professional seminars in your field, building an online community through social media, and throwing back happy-hour shots in the discount venue of your choice accompanied by one or more persons who have also spent the entire day alone in their apartments hunched wild-eyed over seventy open tabs in three different browsers in their underpants. (It is recommended, but not necessary, to don trousers prior to engaging in networking opportunities.)
Networking has other, less obvious benefits in addition to maintaining the basic minimum human contact required for healthy functioning: a Freelancers Union internal survey found that 81% of freelancers refer work to other freelancers and 52% hire or collaborate with other freelancers.
Other freelancers are also likely to understand what you mean when you say things like “I’m doing social for this crowdfunded startup,” which may not be true of your friends who go to offices, have healthcare, and are not regularly awoken by bank-balance-related panic attacks at four in the morning. Networking is great! Yes, you do need to leave your house on occasion to maintain your sanity!
If you can swing the cost, coworking spaces offer social interaction (and free snacks); you can also make nice friends at a Freelance SPARK meetup in your town.
Always, ALWAYS use a contract
One may be tempted to rely upon the word of one’s first clients, but one oughtn’t to! Contracts establish clear expectations from the beginning of a project, help avoid conflicts down the road, and give you recourse in the event your client makes off with your work without paying you.
You don’t need a fancy-pants lawyer to draft client contracts for you; you can use something as simple as a free contract template. If you’re in New York City, the Freelance Isn’t Free law mandates that employers use contracts with clear payment terms for any work over $800.
Making sure you get paid on time will likely be one of the greatest and most tiresome hurdles you’ll face as a freelancer. Invoice promptly and often, and make sure you’re clear about payment terms on your invoice. Some cloud accounting services will send automatic reminders to slow-to-pay clients on your behalf; otherwise, you’ll need to do the joyful work of pestering yourself.
If a client goes MIA, you can issue a collection letter without hiring a lawyer; at this point, the goal is to sound as scary as possible, even if asking for money makes you want to crawl in a hole and never come back out. The Freelancers Union Guide to Getting Paid has further resources and legal options if you do end up taking a deadbeat client to court.
Build your own safety net
Your clients aren’t likely to provide you with any of the benefits a 9-5 job can, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have to sell your organs the next time you need a root canal. Freelancers Union offers budget-friendly health and dental insurance plans for self-employed workers. It’s also a good idea to consider disability insurance, which is inexpensive and will protect you from losing income if you’re too sick to work or hurt yourself. Freelancers supporting families should consider life insurance, which will ensure your dependents are cared for if something happens to you. And it’s never too late to start saving for retirement.
Freelancers are on track to be the majority of the workforce within a decade, which gives us genuine bargaining power if we work together. New York freelancers successfully organized to pass the Freelance Isn’t Free law last year, and Freelancers Union has put together an organizer’s toolkit for freelancers who want to bring similar legislation to their communities. Solidarity, comrades!
Hang in there
Freelancing full-time can be creative, rewarding, and opportunity-filled. It can also be absolutely terrifying, demoralizing, and exhausting. Perhaps you’ll be an immediate Instagram star posting sponsored soft-focus #vanlife shots of yourself lounging on immaculate white sheets in your $90K Airstream trailer; if this does not come to pass within the first three minutes of your freelancing career, fear not! for you are not alone. Find your freelance community, whether that’s online or in person; join the Freelancers Union (it’s free!); take breaks; do not forget to eat meals. You’re doing great and we’ve got your back.