Freelancing: 7 Rules to Live By

Freelancing is on the rise. Studies suggest that Freelancers account for over 30% of the United States workforce, and that number is rapidly growing as younger, more technology-oriented generations are entering the workforce. There are obvious benefits like time-flexibility, being your own boss, and my personal favorite come tax season - writing off expenses that both benefit your business and your personal life (especially travel). After countless conversations with friends about pursuing passions and how to turn a hobby into a profession, I came up with these 7 rules to live by as a freelancer.

Rule #1: Love what you do.

Or better said, don’t try to create a business out of something you don’t love. Freelancing is hard work and unless you have incredible discipline, working on a business that you don’t instinctively want to work on all the time, you’ll either burn out or it won’t be a successful venture. There are too many people out there to compete with who wake up every day fully devoted to their freelance business. Not possessing that same insatiable appetite for what you do will make life very difficult. There is nothing wrong with doing a job that you’re not obsessed with but there are easier ways to earn a paycheck than self-employment.

Rule #2: Do what you love.

This is important for people in the beginning stages of freelancing and I can’t stress this enough. Do, do, do. I talk to loads of people who love the idea of turning an interest into a career but what I see is a huge gap between people with dreams and those who are actually taking actionable steps to achieve them. Easier said than done, I know… You’re hosting game night this week. Your kids have basketball practice. Your friends and family will think you’re weird. Netflix is crack. There will always be excuses to not practice your craft, but making your hobby a profession won’t happen unless you make time for it. Allow yourself to be obsessed. If you don’t scratch the itch that is the thing you think about when you wake up, when you daydream, when you go to bed, your dream will remain just that, a dream. For those who always make excuses to not scratch this itch, I worry about the regret you will have later on in life. Make time.

Rule #3: Say yes… at first.

This should come in the same breath as Rule #2. Say yes to any and all opportunities that give you a reason to practice your craft. I don’t care if you’re not being paid enough, if it’s pro-bono or even if you’re losing money at first. This will unquestionably lead to bigger and better gigs. You may look back on these initial projects and laugh at how bad you performed or how little you knew. That doesn’t matter. Make a fool of yourself and reap the benefits of where it takes you.

Rule #4: Then say no.

Once you’ve committed to enough yes’s, you need to start saying no. I’ve listened to enough Tim Ferris podcasts to know how dangerous the busy trap is. It’s inevitable that if you say yes enough, those yes’s will dominate your life and keep you from progressing. Don’t let fear of not landing your next project keep you from waiting for projects that improve your business. The hard part is exercising the discipline to wait for a better opportunity. If you feel like your freelance business has plateaued, talk to friends about where you are and where you want to be. Ask for advice. Better yet, find a mentor and ask about critical junctions in their history that brought them success. 

Rule #5: Don’t be afraid to self-promote.

This one is probably the hardest for me in practice. In a world of unrestrained narcissism and self-promotion, I often question why the world needs another person tooting their own horn. To be brutally honest, it doesn’t. The world doesn’t need another photographer, hat designer, lifestyle brand, or swimsuit model. But you know what the world also doesn’t need? Another 9 to 5 financial analyst working for a large corporation. Don’t assume that you have to be Banksy to be successful as a self-employed hustler. Let your passion drive you and don’t over-concern yourself with how to differentiate yourself. If you’re good at what you do, there are plenty of clients to go around. Social media platforms own the attention of just about everyone. Utilize them, show your work and enjoy interacting with your community, no matter how big or small. If you think your business wouldn’t benefit from promotion on these platforms, you are in denial. Relentlessly follow your passion and ignore the haters. There’s plenty to go around.

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Rule #6: Be a leader of people.

As your business grows, you’ll inevitably need help. Run your freelance business like a leader of a bigger company with multiple employees. As you hire contractors, treat them like your employees. Ensure that they are benefiting from the project just as much as you. Consider paying them a little more than they ask for. Create a nice atmosphere for them to work in. Don’t make them feel like you are using them for a means to an end. After all, they are representing you and your brand. If you treat them right, they’ll treat your clients right. They’ll also be more eager to work with you the next time you ask for help. This also allows you to be more confident when you go after bigger clients, knowing you have a trustworthy team to rely on.

Rule #7: Exceed client expectations.

This should be a given for any business but it’s especially important for freelancers. Whether you’re doing a project for Nike or your aunt’s Essential Oils business, always deliver a better product/service than what they expect. Not only is this the right thing to do, it will create returning customers and valuable referrals. Repeat business and referred customers will reduce your need to spend time on sales, marketing, business development and self-promotion. Don’t get me wrong, all those things are important. But having satisfied clients vouch for you and essentially play these roles for you will undoubtedly save you from constantly worrying about where your next project comes from. Short of creating a business model with recurring revenue, exceeding client expectations is the best way to ensure consistent success. 

No matter what industry you work in, freelancing is tough. You have to put in the hours, wear many hats and be able to stomach some serious risk. But with a little perseverance and patience, it gets easier to find success and ultimately live a very fulfilled life. Hopefully these rules to live by help a little bit too. 

Written by Michael Coen, Edited by Tabitha Yeasley.

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