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Getting Started: The First Steps to Freelance Freedom


For some of us, the progression from a full time career to a freelance state of mind can be as easy as handing in the notice and running for the exit. However, for others the transition can be full of worry, stress and anxiety.

I’ve been pretty lucky in my freelancing career. My progression from hobby to job was sudden and straightforward (to the extent that I’ve never actually worked for anyone other than myself!), but there are many people who are currently sitting at their office desk, looking for a way to follow suit.

For some people, the event that triggers anxiety is being the only (or primary) source of income for a household (putting added pressure on a consistent pay check), for others the business side of things seems like a dark art full of mystery and complicated rituals. While both of these are valid concerns, I believe that anyone (no matter their background) can succeed as a freelancer, even with these variables at work. It’s all just a matter of learning to dodge a few easy to spot bullets!

Start from Scratch and Plan Ahead

When people think of first becoming a freelancer, it usually stems from one (or more) incidents that happen in the moment. In this mindset it's easy to underestimate the task of going freelance, and enter the process on the false belief that you’ll make it happen overnight. Sorry to burst bubbles, but life is rarely that easy!

If you have a full time job and want to become a freelancer, don’t walk into work tomorrow morning and give the boss the one fingered salute (even if they make your life hell). The decision to turn to freelancing is a serious one (of course, if you have a family to provide for you’re probably already in a panic over the idea). While this may seem like a campaign to not be a freelancer at all, the opposite is true: the key point here is to think before you act (just don't be impulsive).

It’s worth reinforcing at this point that freelancing doesn’t mean you need to give up that full time job (at least not at first).

At the center of any successful business (or freelancer) is someone who has planned their objectives ahead of time. You don’t need to be neurotic and have 1,000 to-do lists lined up in a row, but you need to actually research a unique angle for your freelance career, be proactive in your approach, build a portfolio, notify the government (for things like taxes) and brand yourself. For those in a full time job, these small but important tasks can be achieved in your own time, before you quit.

It’s worth reinforcing at this point that freelancing doesn’t mean you need to give up that full time job (at least not at first). Many actually freelance on the side of another career (or while taking care of the kids). This key point underpins an important principle of the transition, you do not have to give up everything and hope that freelancing works out, the opposite is true. If money is a central concern, you should only quit your job when the amount of work you’re getting as a freelancer exceeds your minimum income needs.

Prepare with Part-time Projects

As a freelancer, it can be quite tough getting started and finding those first few clients (especially if you have limited time with work commitments). But again, this doesn’t mean the end to your dream of becoming a freelancer!

One route into freelancing I particularly recommend is the idea of “part time, trickling income” projects.

One route into freelancing I particularly recommend is the idea of “part time, trickling income” projects. These (unlike client commitments which have set deadlines) can be things you have always wanted to build, and could potentially charge money and license multiple users.

One critique of this kind of project is that you spend hours (or longer) building something in the hope that a lot of people will sign up or make that purchase (success is not a guarantee). But it does give you experience, something strong for your portfolio, and it can begin your freelance income from those who do buy that app or access to your service. A major benefit of this is that you can build it in your own time and grab many new clients with a single point of entry.

Another useful tactic to get you started (if you feel that dealing with clients may be problematic due to your main work commitments) is doing work through a third party as an outsource worker (at a fair rate – spec work is a no-no). Many people do this by networking with other professionals (joining skills with work) and as most freelancers are friendly people (they are!), joining a forum is a fun way to start finding other like-minded individuals.

Plenty of sites are open to this kind of methodology, and I’m not talking about the seedy ones which do things on the cheap (as per bidding sites). FreelanceSwitch for example pays guest authors to write helpful articles for others – and they aren't alone as others also employ user involvement (if you know what you’re talking about!). If you do want to break away from that full time job: set yourself a plan of action, map yourself out some good (achievable) goals and consider how you can make those first dollars of income.

Future Investments to Break Away

As you begin getting those first few pieces of work (between continuing your full time job), be sure to keep your freelance income separate from your work income. While this isn't an issue if you’re simply trying to “top up” your income. It is an issue if your goal is to make a complete move to a freelance lifestyle. If you are in the latter group, you should put that money aside to support you as your freelance career grows.

It's difficult to move away from the steady pay of full-time work, you'll especially feel the sudden loss of disposable income. As we’ve already established, it’s important not to dive right into freelancing full-time without a sensible, considered approach. You want to ensure that as you become a freelancer you can afford to meet your needs and stay financially solvent.

With freelancing, nothing should be taken for granted, if a “freelancers motto” existed, it would be: "plan for the worst and hope for the best"!

By putting any money you make during the part time days to one side (and building up a nice little nest egg), you will find yourself in a more comfortable position (3-6 months of living expenses is a good amount to save, but I wouldn’t go less than three). You'll be prepared as more work comes in and feel financially stable. The money you saved will provide you with that extra buffer required in case things dry up for awhile (this can happen unfortunately). With freelancing, nothing should be taken for granted, if a “freelancers motto” existed, it would be: "plan for the worst and hope for the best"!

If your full time job has flexible working hours, to ease the transition even further you could perhaps ask for a reduction in the amount you work (as your freelancing career takes off) or shift the full time job to a part time one instead (if your boss will let you). Breaking away from a business lifestyle to the role of a freelancer does not have to be immediate and finite, even if you’ve built yourself up a good foundation when part time freelancing, it’s all about taking baby steps and covering yourself as much as you can.

It's Not a Race

Once you get to the stage that you can finally break away from that full time career, it’s worth it (if you can handle the crazy hours, different type of client relationship and other factors we regularly talk about on sites like FreelanceSwitch). But as with any major decision in life, you want to ensure that you do what’s in your own best interests. Don’t just dive into the freelance pool and hope things will work out (unless you're unemployed and anything looks better!), even if you “hate” your job it’s important to be careful.

The transition from a full time job to freelance freedom can be time intensive, demanding on your hours, and quite a challenge to cope with. But if you reduce the risk involved, stay motivated and ensure that you have safety nets in place, the transition can become a series of painless procedures that result with you landing the dream job you always wanted as a freelancer (free of the shackles of a 9-5 office)!

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Patrick Gaudin.

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