Freelance Your Expertise

Tired of being on the employee treadmill? Now may be the time to consider freelancing your hard-earned skills.

By Andrea C. Poe • Aug 26, 2005

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

Let Freedom Ring

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

But in exchange for all those freedoms comes risk andinsecurity. As a freelancer, your next paycheck is neverguaranteed. Anxiety about where the next job is coming from plaguesmany freelancers, no matter how seasoned. But insecurity comes withthe turf, and dedicated freelancers learn to make peace withit.

The best way to ensure your freelancing future is to offer aservice you know people want. Just because you'd like to dosomething doesn't mean that there's a readymade market forit.

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

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

Think about this: Ten years ago, web designers made a prettypenny freelancing their services to corporations, but today thedemand has lessened as all those laid-off dotcomers have created aglut in the market. On the other hand, small-business owners aremore keen then ever to learn web design themselves, as are retiringbaby boomers, so teaching web design may prove more lucrative thandoing 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 biggestmisconception people have is that they're going to jump rightinto it and start making money," cautions Laurie Rozakis."Not true. Just because you build it doesn't meanthey'll come."

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

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

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

Of course, moonlighting while working for your current employercan be tricky-especially if you're freelancing in the samefield. Let's say you're an advertising copywriter who wantsto start freelancing on the side. You'll probably need to tellyour employer, who may require you to sign a noncompete agreementin which you promise not to steal, or "borrow," clients.If, on the other hand, you're an advertising copywriter whowants to do freelance Japanese translations, your employer probablydoesn't even need to know what you're doing afterhours.

Generating Business

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

1. Develop a portfolio to demonstrate the scope of yourskills. 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 upthe bulk of your business initially.

3. Join professional organizations--online or in thecommunity--that serve your field. In addition to all the otherbenefits you'll gain, you'll also pick up insider tips ofwhere to find work.

4. Join local organizations, like the chamber of commerce orRotary club. "Creative people often overlook organizationslike these, thinking they'll be filled with stiff bankers andbusinesspeople," notes James-Enger. "And they may be--butthat's who'll be hiring you to do your creativework."

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 thereason freelancers need to do this is because it works.

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

Rozakis agrees. "A lot of people go into freelancingthinking, 'I've got the talent.' What they need torealize is a lot of people have talent. What makes a successfulfreelance business is how strong your client list is."

And building a client base requires that you plug awaytirelessly without getting discouraged. Expect rejection. It comeswith the territory--and often. But don't let that stop you fromtrying again.

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

Get Serious

When you see that you're starting to make enough money thatyour freelancing is becoming a viable career, it's time tostart putting the business building blocks in place that willensure 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. Manyfreelancers overlook developing their own, instead letting clientsdesign contracts or foregoing them altogether. That's amistake--and it can be a costly one.

"Protect yourself," stresses Rusty Fischer, who wroteFreedom To Freelance. He recommends checking out contractsused by other freelancers you know, so you can borrow the best ofwhat they've got and incorporate those ideas into your owncontract. Then run your contract by a lawyer to make sure yourrights are protected. "It's well worth a few hundred bucksto get it right," he notes.

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

"Get a great accountant or [take a] community collegecourse and learn software programs like Quicken to keep yourbooks," Rozakis recommends. "You skip this aspect of thebusiness, and you'll be very sorry."

Depending on your industry, having a website may be helpful inmarketing your services. If you have visual examples of what youdo, say landscape design or theatrical costuming, a website willact as a portfolio and introduce your work to prospective clients.(Websites are obviously less useful to freelancers without visualexamples, say, home inspectors or medical billingadministrators.)

Know Thy Self

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

And while you no longer have a boss, you do have to answer tosomeone--yourself. That's why self-discipline is key to takingyour freelancing gig from an interesting hobby to a viablebusiness. "It really helps to be a Type A personality becauseyou have to be able to motivate yourself and manage yourtime," says James-Enger. "You can't be a slackerand have a successful freelance career."

Tempting as it may be to cut out mid-afternoon for a movie or awalk with the dog, most days those kinds of things just aren'tgoing to happen. "Not only will you normally work way morehours per week as a freelancer, but your schedule probablywon't wind up being as flexible as you think," warnsFischer. "Most of your clients are working regular hours, from9 to 5. Being available to them means that most of time, you'llbe working very regular hours."

The freelance life is a solitary life. If you're someone whofeeds off the energy of other people, freelancing may prove toolonely a road to travel. Fortunately, for those who seek them out,there are solutions to the lack of daily social contact. Manyfreelancers fill their need to interact with other people by takingon-site freelance gigs, where they work--at leasttemporarily--among other people. Others turn to freelancer supportgroups where they meet once a month over a cup of coffee to swaptales of glory and woe. And others work on collaborative projectswith other freelancers.

It takes time to grow a freelance business; it takes time toestablish yourself; and it takes time to make money. All of thiscan be nerve-wracking and cause countless sleepless nights. Butwith talent, patience, tenacity and a touch of luck, freelancingcan be among the most rewarding--and lucrative--ways to makemoney.

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

Freelancing Options

Think the freelance life might be for you? The good part is, ifyou do it, there's a good chance you can freelance it. Here aresome 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, whospecializes in business issues.

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