5-star Freelancers

Freelance Manifesto: 5 habits of a 5-star freelancer

Freelancing will either be a lonely island or a thriving metropolis.

Starting out, I’d never had experience finding my own work. I had no network, no leads, and no fallback plan. I’d had years of the sought-after “agency experience”, but ZERO confidence when it came to finding my own work and my own clients. The only thing I knew for certain was that my current full time job wasn’t inspiring and was suffocating my creativity. Freelancing was a terrifying undertaking, but I knew it would be rewarding.

After diving in, I waffled back and forth between periods of feeling ultra-motivated and profoundly discouraged. It wasn’t until I shifted my mindset that I began to see rapid growth and success. In just 6 months, I’d doubled my rates, my portfolio had matured, and I had learned faster than I had in my entire career.

I learned that freelancing is the result of cultivating good habits and practicing them relenetlessly. The first thing you need to know that freelancing is a lifestyle, and with it comes a mentality that you HAVE TO ADOPT or else you’ll just run yourself into the ground trying to keep your head above the surface. I learned this through trial and error, and it’s only in retrospect that I’m able to look back and pinpoint what I was doing wrong.

Which brings me to why I’m here!

I want to share with you the 5 common habits that the most successful freelancers share, and why mastering them will put you heads and tails above the rest of the competition, no matter what stage of your career you’re in. This can be a fruitful and liberating career path, and It’s my goal to help guide you to ultimate creative freedom.

#1 Master clarity, confidence, and consistency.

Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.

This is a quote my Dad says, and I think it applies to so many things. It’s important to know exactly what type of work you want to be doing, otherwise it will be too easy to succumb to the first project that gets pushed across your desk. If you work on projects you’re not really interested in, that’s what you’ll start to attract.

But how do you find a steady stream of clients with a high enough budget AND with enough creative potential to give you a solid portfolio piece? The truth is, It’s quite easy if you know what you’re doing… and you really only need ONE good client to get started. You can leverage that relationship into a lifetime of other clients, and I’ll teach you how to do that later on.

First, here are some questions you should consider asking yourself before making the transition.

What motivates you? When do you feel most inspired?

Knowing this will help you find the right channels to go through when you’re out looking for your next project. If you’re like me, this can be the hardest part. But it can’t be overlooked. If you don’t know exactly what you want to be doing with your creativity, freelancing probably isn’t for you. You’ll just end up burning yourself out trying to figure it out. Clarity is the most important thing to master before starting any freelance venture. What projects have you been most excited about in the past? What have you done successfully? What are your strongpoints? It’s great to challenge yourself, but only if you KNOW it’s something you want to be doing. If you don’t know and that’s WHY you’ve decided to freelance in the first place, you’ll figure it out pretty fast.

What’s the least you can afford to make?

Let’s be realistic. If you’re starting from scratch, chances are you won’t be able to supplement your full time income immediately. It’ll take time to find your stride. It’s important to know what you need to sustain your current lifestyle. Only you know how much you need to live comfortably. Figure out what that number is and make that your short-term goal. It’s far less daunting to set up measurable success factors and build on those than it is to blindly plug away.

What is your timeline for success?

Use that number and factor it into a timeline. If you can afford to not make anything for the next 6 weeks, use that as your experiment window. Tell yourself that you have 6 weeks to make this work, or else you’ll need to go back to working full time. This creates a sense of urgency and trains you to not take advantage of your newfound freedom of time. Once you’ve made X amount in that 6 week window, maybe you can add another 2 weeks. Then another month. 3 months. Fast forward 6 months out and you’ve got several clients under your belt… and the ball is in your court!

#2 Practice effective networking strategies

You can leverage ONE good client into a lifetime of work.

There are several things that you need to do to ensure that the leads you are generating are targeted and relevant to you. 

Be remarkable.

When you’re out networking, make sure you’re describing yourself in a way that makes it easy for people to talk about you. Using generic buzzwords around your profession will turn into a huge game of whisper down the lane and will ultimately be a huge waste of time. For example, there’s a difference between being a “graphic designer” and a “web designer for tech startups”. One is going to generate the wrong type of leads and one is going to generate very specific leads (the leads you are interested in pursuing).

When I was marketing myself as simply a “freelance designer”, I would get people asking me to do everything from draw a picture of our company slogan, to “developing the IA wireframe of this data-driven platform for a global company. But when I began talking about myself as a web designer for tech startups, I suddenly found myself being connected to people in that specific industry. I was pointed to events and organizations catered to exactly that type of work and soon found myself surrounded by an entire community of those people.

Understand the value of the informal interview.

This needs to start being your lifestyle instead or your job. Constantly line up “interviews” for yourself. Suggesting getting coffee with a company or person you’d like to work for. Making this a habit will ensure that you are constantly on the short-list and when a need does arise, your name will be the first one they think of. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me and turned into 3, 6, 12 month contracts and steady, seamless workflow.

If you spend all of your time trying to talk to people who have posted a job or expressed that they are in need of help, you’ll be one of hundreds reaching out to them on a daily basis. It’ll be damn near impossible for you to stand out. Your goal is to have them reach out to YOU.

Utilize social networks online and offline.

There are a thousand and one online channels for you to plug into to market your freelance services. However, the most effective one I’ve come across has been LinkedIn. Let the LinkedIn world know you are available for work and your inbox will blow up with emails from headhunters. Join LinkedIn discussion groups.

Another effective way to network is through meetup groups. Think of the type of people who are at these things.. these are people who have gone out of their way to physically attend an event focused on a specific area of interest that you share. The level of focus and energy each person brings to the room is so incredibly inspiring. Each individual is so eager to connect and network and help you get where you need to be. The amount of connections you’ll make when you KNOW that everyone under that roof all shares the same interest is unbelievable.

If you’re more of a “behind the screens” person, there’s great value in utilizing social networks liked LinkedIn. Join a LinkedIn group. They’re not nearly as over-saturated as other social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and

#3 Price your services fairly, but firmly

Finances are always a sensitive subject. But, the have a great impact on the type of clients you will attract. We tend to think that if we charge too much we’ll lose the business. However, if we charge too litle, people tend to not take us seriously.

You want to be realistic, but you also want it to be sustainable for you to live off of.

If you charge more, you’ll attract the right type of clients. If you charge too little, you’ll attract the wrong kinds of clients.

A low budget = low expectations

You can’t order a cheeseburger of the dollar menu at McDonalds and expect it to taste like filet mignon.

Similarly, a client can’t expect to pay a cheap price for a quality product. Chances are, if your client says they can only afford to pay you [insert small figure here], then this project was an afterthought for them. From the start, you know they don’t value the service you’d be giving them. Do you really want to work for a client who doesn’t value what you do for a living? If you consistently price your services too low, then these are the types of projects you’re going to attract. 

Charging higher price point filters out those who don’t value your creative services. You’ll attract quality clients who are serious about the work you do and value your expertise. These are the clients you want asking you for quotes. When they do, you should prepared to demonstrate a high level of expertise and experience.

Create a structured service package

If a client is willing to hire you at the rate you’ve quoted, then they’re expecting a high quality service. They already believe that you’ll do great work, and you will. But you need to really impress them with HOW you deliver the work to them and how the creative process unfolds.

Don’t just design the product. Design the process.

Be candid with your client. Create opportunities for them to weigh in frequently. The more you make them feel involved, the more they’ll feel that they paid for a valuable service. This also eliminates having to course-correct at the end of the project.

Barter for other services 

If a client thinks a price point is too high, find a way to take advantages of other non-monetary services. The barter system is a great way to attract quality clients who value your work and can offer you a services in return. It can be a very productive way to operate as a freelancer.

#4 Be organized to a fault

Organization is a biproduct of clarity the backbone of productivity

A structured business is a successful business. Some of the most successful freelancers happen to be the most organized, and it’s not by coincidence. Organization is a bi-product of clarity the backbone of productivity.

By “be organized”, I don’t mean have a clean and tidy desk. Be organized in your process, your craft, and your communication. If you practice being organized in those three areas, maintaining a freelance business model that is optimized for success will become second-nature.

#5 Practice Accountability

With great freedom comes great responsibility

The best part about being your own boss is that nobody is ordering you around. The worst part about being your own boss is that… nobody is ordering you around. Time management is the key to running a successful freelance business, so do not abuse the privilege of creating your own schedule. 

When it comes to project management, create strict deadlines for yourself. Dictate these deadlines to your clients so that they expect them, too. It makes for a more structured work experience for them while ensuring that you are diligently working on your projects. Once this becomes habit, you’ll be surprised how fluidly your work will pass through your hands.

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About the Author

Drew Palmer is a freelance designer & entrepreneur based in Philadelphia, PA.

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