When I started freelancing more than a decade ago, I was determined not to become one of “those” freelancers. I woke up early, showered and dressed, and sat dutifully at my desk. When I wasn’t working on an assignment, I forced myself to pitch new ideas and contact new editors.
Today, I’m reaping the benefits of that early diligence and, thankfully, letting myself enjoy the perks of being a free agent. I get some of my best work done in the early hours, in pajamas. I carve out time for long runs in the middle of the day, even if it means working later at night or on the weekend. When I have a lull, I relish the down time.
Delve into the “business models” of successful freelancers and they seem to have the best of both worlds—autonomy, flexibility and a steady paycheck. The secret: They run their freelance careers like a business, even if that business happens to be headquartered at the kitchen table. Here are seven habits I’ve adopted or picked up from my growing network of freelancer friends.
1) Perfect your elevator pitch: Entrepreneurs know how to succinctly describe what they do and where they add value. As a freelancer, you need to take a similar approach, if only for your own sanity. Years ago, I realized that simply saying I was a freelancer connoted that I spent my days passing time in coffee shops or dabbled in writing between spin classes. “Well, some of us have to go to work” was a common response. Now when people ask what I do, I say I’m a financial writer. Specificity adds credibility—and makes it easier for would-be clients to identify you on LinkedIn.
2) Have a pricing strategy: For early freelancers this can be tricky. On the one hand, you want to build your book of business, and that may require working for less than fair market value. Consider it your start-up costs. Once you have enough work in your pipeline, however, you need to set parameters, both on an hourly and project basis.
3) Make calculated exceptions: That said, there are times when you should be willing to negotiate, whether it’s under the banner of employee morale (your own) or business development. If a project opens doors, takes you in a new direction that interests you, or benefits a cause you care about—think of it as your personal social giving campaign—there is additional value, beyond the fee.
4) Write a mission statement: OK, so maybe you left your j-o-b precisely because of mission statements and TPS reports. Still, there is something to be said for understanding why you go to work, so to speak, and do what you do. In a corporate setting, your managers help you think about career development. In the freelance world, it’s up to you to set goals and chart your path.
5) Pay yourself a salary: Managing cash flow is probably the biggest challenge for freelancers. For me, the solution came when a freelance friend, a video producer, mentioned her maternity leave. “How did you swing that as a freelancer?” I asked. Her strategy is to treat herself as an employee of her sole proprietorship. She pays herself the same salary every two weeks, rain or shine. In good months, she builds up reserves so she can still earn a steady salary when things are slow. A regular paycheck not only makes it easier to pay bills and plan, it makes it harder to treat big checks as a license to splurge.
6) Create a virtual water cooler: Unless your work regularly takes you outside the home office, isolation is a risk. Even the most self-sufficient members of the gig economy need confidantes to brainstorm ideas or talk through dilemmas. What about your spouse or partner? Unless he or she knows your industry and can offer truly unbiased advice—easier said than done—it’s no substitute for a network of peers. My network includes colleagues in my field, many of whom are in full-time jobs, as well as an eclectic mix of freelancers.
7) Don’t try to do it all: Founders of start-up companies often talk about how, in the early days, they do everything from develop the product to take out the trash. In time, though, they staff up and focus on the areas where they add the most value. Freelancers can also benefit from this evolution. “Focus on what you’re good at,” says my friend Martin, a freelance photographer who has assembled a small team of experts to help him with everything from bookkeeping to production. He’s also learned to pass on jobs that aren’t a good fit. “Have a network of other freelancers close at hand for the things that seem to be your road blocks or time sucks,” he says. “It makes it a lot easier to say no.”