Are dreams of freelancing dancing through your head? If you're nodding yes, now's a great time to give it a whirl. As companies scale back on their expensive, benefit-heavy workforce, they're increasingly turning to outside--freelance--help. If you've got expertise in the right areas, there's a good chance you can parlay it into a freelance career by sharing your knowledge and skills with a variety of clients.

Let Freedom Ring

There's no question about it; freelance doesn't start with the word "free" for nothing. Freedom is a major perk of freelancing. As a full-time freelancer, you'll work when you want. You can take vacations when you want, for as long as you want. Weekend getaways won't have to be confined to weekends, and business suits are mostly a thing of the past. There's no boss breathing down your neck, nagging you. And there are no irritating co-workers slacking off at the water cooler, driving you nuts.

But in exchange for all those freedoms comes risk and insecurity. As a freelancer, your next paycheck is never guaranteed. Anxiety about where the next job is coming from plagues many freelancers, no matter how seasoned. But insecurity comes with the turf, and dedicated freelancers learn to make peace with it.

The best way to ensure your freelancing future is to offer a service you know people want. Just because you'd like to do something doesn't mean that there's a readymade market for it.

"'Follow your heart and do what you love' is just a slogan. You need to get real," says Kelly James-Enger, author of Six Figure Freelancing. "If you're not offering a service people are willing to spend money on, you're not going to be in business [for long]."

Search your local paper and the Internet to see who's doing what you want to do, what they charge and who their clients are. Talk to everyone you know until you turn up freelancers doing what you hope to do. Then call them up and pick their brains about which segments of the market are growing and where most of their work comes from. This information is critical to helping you carve out a niche and fill a current opening in the market.

Think about this: Ten years ago, web designers made a pretty penny freelancing their services to corporations, but today the demand has lessened as all those laid-off dotcomers have created a glut in the market. On the other hand, small-business owners are more keen then ever to learn web design themselves, as are retiring baby boomers, so teaching web design may prove more lucrative than doing the actual design work right now.

Don't Quit Your Day Job--Yet

Once you've decided what aspect of your field to freelance, take the time to establish yourself. "The biggest misconception people have is that they're going to jump right into it and start making money," cautions Laurie Rozakis. "Not true. Just because you build it doesn't mean they'll come."

Rosakis, who is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Making Money in Freelancing, says it can take months--even years--to develop a reputation and client base. For that reason, many freelancers start by moonlighting while still holding on to their day jobs.

"Everyone thinks it's going to happen overnight, but I don't know a single freelancer who immediately started making a six-figure income," maintains James-Enger.

A good rule of thumb is not to give up your day job until you have between six months and one year's worth of savings, more if you're the sole support for your household. "Don't leave your job until you're confident you can pay your mortgage and healthcare and put money into a retirement account," James-Enger advises.

Of course, moonlighting while working for your current employer can be tricky-especially if you're freelancing in the same field. Let's say you're an advertising copywriter who wants to start freelancing on the side. You'll probably need to tell your employer, who may require you to sign a noncompete agreement in which you promise not to steal, or "borrow," clients. If, on the other hand, you're an advertising copywriter who wants to do freelance Japanese translations, your employer probably doesn't even need to know what you're doing after hours.

Generating Business

As in any business, your freelancing career is only as strong as the sales you make. Finding clients is the number-one challenge for any freelancer just starting out. It's almost a catch-22: How do you attract clients when you've never had any? Here are some practical steps that will propel you out of the conundrum and into business:

1. Develop a portfolio to demonstrate the scope of your skills. If that means working for no pay or low pay initially, do it. Samples of your work will be your best calling card.

2. Tell everyone you know--colleagues, friends, family, neighbors--about your new freelance gig. Referrals will make up the bulk of your business initially.

3. Join professional organizations--online or in the community--that serve your field. In addition to all the other benefits you'll gain, you'll also pick up insider tips of where to find work.

4. Join local organizations, like the chamber of commerce or Rotary club. "Creative people often overlook organizations like these, thinking they'll be filled with stiff bankers and businesspeople," notes James-Enger. "And they may be--but that's who'll be hiring you to do your creative work."

5. Volunteer in the community doing something you love, and you'll broaden your network of potential clients.

6. Cold call. Yes, everyone hates cold calling, but the reason freelancers need to do this is because it works.

Another important point to remember is that freelancing doesn't solely mean doing the thing you love. It also means knowing how to sell and market your services. When starting out, about 90 percent of your time will be spent on sales and marketing tasks. "Work won't just stumble upon you," says James-Enger. "You can be as talented as anything, but it won't mean a thing if you can't sell yourself."

Rozakis agrees. "A lot of people go into freelancing thinking, 'I've got the talent.' What they need to realize is a lot of people have talent. What makes a successful freelance business is how strong your client list is."

And building a client base requires that you plug away tirelessly without getting discouraged. Expect rejection. It comes with the territory--and often. But don't let that stop you from trying again.

"Think of a salesperson at The Gap who gives you a pair of pants to try that don't fit," says James-Enger. "A good salesperson doesn't sulk away, dejected. She hands you another pair and another pair until you buy something."

Get Serious

When you see that you're starting to make enough money that your freelancing is becoming a viable career, it's time to start putting the business building blocks in place that will ensure that you--and your clients--take your business seriously. That means going beyond ordering hot-looking business cards.

No matter what your field, contracts are important. Many freelancers overlook developing their own, instead letting clients design contracts or foregoing them altogether. That's a mistake--and it can be a costly one.

"Protect yourself," stresses Rusty Fischer, who wrote Freedom To Freelance. He recommends checking out contracts used by other freelancers you know, so you can borrow the best of what they've got and incorporate those ideas into your own contract. Then run your contract by a lawyer to make sure your rights are protected. "It's well worth a few hundred bucks to get it right," he notes.

Establishing an accounting system is also imperative. Not only will it help you keep track of what you're due, but it will simplify your life. Freelancers are on the IRS radar anyway, so good record keeping will give you peace of mind and make any possible future audit less painful.

"Get a great accountant or [take a] community college course and learn software programs like Quicken to keep your books," Rozakis recommends. "You skip this aspect of the business, and you'll be very sorry."

Depending on your industry, having a website may be helpful in marketing your services. If you have visual examples of what you do, say landscape design or theatrical costuming, a website will act as a portfolio and introduce your work to prospective clients. (Websites are obviously less useful to freelancers without visual examples, say, home inspectors or medical billing administrators.)

Know Thy Self

One of the most important decision you'll have to make before fully committing to running a freelance business is to determine if this type of lifestyle matches your personality. "Know thyself," says Rozakis. "Really think this through before you make a commitment to a lifestyle and work style you just may not be suited for."

And while you no longer have a boss, you do have to answer to someone--yourself. That's why self-discipline is key to taking your freelancing gig from an interesting hobby to a viable business. "It really helps to be a Type A personality because you have to be able to motivate yourself and manage your time," says James-Enger. "You can't be a slacker and have a successful freelance career."

Tempting as it may be to cut out mid-afternoon for a movie or a walk with the dog, most days those kinds of things just aren't going to happen. "Not only will you normally work way more hours per week as a freelancer, but your schedule probably won't wind up being as flexible as you think," warns Fischer. "Most of your clients are working regular hours, from 9 to 5. Being available to them means that most of time, you'll be working very regular hours."

The freelance life is a solitary life. If you're someone who feeds off the energy of other people, freelancing may prove too lonely a road to travel. Fortunately, for those who seek them out, there are solutions to the lack of daily social contact. Many freelancers fill their need to interact with other people by taking on-site freelance gigs, where they work--at least temporarily--among other people. Others turn to freelancer support groups where they meet once a month over a cup of coffee to swap tales of glory and woe. And others work on collaborative projects with other freelancers.

It takes time to grow a freelance business; it takes time to establish yourself; and it takes time to make money. All of this can be nerve-wracking and cause countless sleepless nights. But with talent, patience, tenacity and a touch of luck, freelancing can be among the most rewarding--and lucrative--ways to make money.

"Would I ever go back to working for the 'man'?" laughs James-Enger. "No way. For all the struggles and unknowns, I wouldn't give up freelancing and be somebody's employee for anything."

Freelancing Options

Think the freelance life might be for you? The good part is, if you do it, there's a good chance you can freelance it. Here are some of the most frequently freelanced gigs around:

  • Accountant/bookkeeper
  • Appraiser
  • Cartographer
  • Chef
  • Computer programmer
  • Corporate event planner
  • Data entry/processor
  • Editor/copyeditor
  • Engineer
  • Esthetician
  • Film animator
  • Financial planner
  • Floral arranger
  • Fundraiser
  • Furniture restorer/repairer
  • Grant writer
  • Graphic designer
  • Home inspector
  • Interior designer
  • Landscape architect
  • Massage therapist
  • Medical administration (billing)
  • Package design
  • Party planner
  • Photographer
  • Political consultant
  • Private investigator
  • Professional organizer
  • Sales/marketing consultant
  • Seamstress
  • Set designer
  • Telemarketer
  • Translator/interpreter
  • Tutoring
  • Upholsterer
  • Web designer
  • Writer

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer in Easton, Maryland, who specializes in business issues.