Leaving your day job and launching your own freelance business is a dream that many of us creative professionals share.
If you’ve spent time thinking about going down this road, you’ll have an idea of just how much effort goes into becoming a successful freelancer. There are certain things you need to do, in order to prepare yourself for that jump to self-employment. Create an irresistible online portfolio, fully define your service offerings, set your prices, and figure out how you’re going to bring on your first clients.
While you can (and should) certainly start a freelance business while keeping your day job, you need to be focusing right away on delivering the most impactful results that are going to get you to living a life of self-employment, quickest.
To help you do exactly that, this week I interviewed 12 freelancers who make over $100,000 per year. I asked them to share with me how they got started, where (and how) they find their best freelance clients, how they’ve built a personal brand, and more. From designers, to writers, marketers, business coaches, developers, SEO consultants, and PR pros, we’ve got them all.
Here’s the most common advice that continued to emerge in my conversations around how these entrepreneurs created successful freelance businesses.
• Focus on catering your services to niche markets, it’ll lend you more credibility in building your authority in a particular space.
• Never stop building your personal brand, there’s a compounding effect that’ll continue to send prospective new clients your way.
• Put time into learning how to effectively sell yourself, it does you no good if you’re the best in your space, but nobody knows it. This one starts with learning how to discover your strengths and fine tune how you leverage them.
• Don’t take on clients that you’re not sure you can truly help, because falling flat on your face can (will) damage your reputation in your industry. This is something that the world’s top entrepreneurs and freelancers agree upon unanimously when it comes to starting a business and serving your customers.
• The most effective client acquisition path is often referrals, they have a layer of trust built-in that goes a long way in establishing your reputation.
• Don’t quit your day job until you’re bringing in enough steady income to sustain your lifestyle, it can be a long path to reaching $100k/yr.
Here we go!
Ilise, one of my favorite CreativeLive instructors, focuses on teaching creative professionals how to get better clients with bigger budgets. She mentors, coaches, and sells marketing tools for entrepreneurs through her website.
When Ilise seeks to bring on new clients for her business, she goes to her email newsletter, speaks at local events, writes and contributes to books in her space, and publishes content in destinations (like CreativeLive) where her audience spends time online.
The hardest lesson Ilise has learned on the long path to becoming a successful freelancer? “You can’t be everything to everyone. Focus is essential to success and builds your competence & self confidence.”
Some parting advice: “Never rely on word of mouth, even if it keeps you busy. It is completely unreliable and puts you in a vulnerable position. Get into the habit of identifying and pursuing the work you want, by choosing 2-3 marketing tools that work for you and repeating them consistently. Leave the rest alone.”
It’s been a couple of years since Preston transitioned from actively freelancing, over to managing Millo.co, the premier online destination for freelancers to get tips, strategies, and advice on how to grow their businesses. Before Millo took off, he was a freelance graphic and web designer.
I asked Preston to share with me, how he used to find his best freelance clients. “My best clients always came from word-of-mouth marketing. It always required much less convincing up-front and had a level of trust built-in.”
Something Preston really struggled with while freelancing was assigning more value to his work. “Learning to value your work properly leads to huge amounts of success as a freelancer because it allows you to charge more, turn down jobs you’ll end up hating, and ultimately be more satisfied with the work you do.”
In order to launch yourself into the 6-figure freelancer club, Preston says, “Know your numbers. Know exactly how much you need to make each month, week, day and hour. You won’t magically reach six figures. You need a calculated plan to get there and you need to diversify your income – it’ll save you in times of economic hardship.”
Paul is another successful freelancer who’s recently branched out into other opportunities, mostly online products (like CreativeClass) and consulting for freelancers, both of which came about because he quickly recognized the importance of building a powerful personal brand for himself.
Interestingly enough, he got started as a freelancer by accident. The day he quit his agency job, he started looking for other opportunities, but he received 3 or 4 calls from agency clients wanting to work with him wherever he landed next. From that moment on, he’s been over-delivering for his clients and hasn’t looked back.
In his over 17 years of experience as a freelance designer, Paul’s learned a lot about how to find the best clients for his business.
Paul shares, “I’ve never cold-called, put my services on job boards or marketplaces. It’s been 100% word of mouth and referrals since I started. My focus has always been making my clients so happy and successful that they become my sales force.”
He also feels very strongly about turning down projects that aren’t a perfect fit for him. “If I don’t pay attention to the warning signs before money is involved in a project, the work ends up being stressful and turns into something I’m not stoked on doing,” he adds.
During his time as a freelancer before launching DesignCuts, Tom was a jack of many trades. He primarily offered website design and conversions services, but dabbled in brand work, photo manipulation, and print design if it provided value to clients.
The most valuable piece of advice Tom has to offer is, “Focus on referrals. They’re easier to attract than new clients, and they’re meeting you with context about who you are. They often come with a glowing recommendation from somebody they trust, so it makes it a lot easier to land the job, price yourself better, and focus more on the actual work.”
So, how do you go about setting yourself up to get more referrals from existing clients, friends, and professional colleagues?
“The trick to getting referrals? Over-deliver. And be nice! Another piece of advice: don’t try to target everyone. I got a lot of traction from becoming well known within certain niche circles. If you try to take on an entire market you’ll drown. Make a name for yourself in smaller communities and build your reputation in a niche first.”
A graphic designer by trade, Bianca quickly transitioned into offering website design because of frequent requests from existing clients.
Her decision to accept challenging projects outside of her comfort zone and be forced to learn how to deliver on these results, meant years of moving along a steep learning curve in a new industry. However, Bianca was retaining more business and increasing her average client value, a win-win for most freelancers.
Bianca regularly acquires new customers through her content marketing efforts. “I have to say my best clients come from a mix of my free content and weekly emails.” Over the past five years, she’s generated several hundred thousands of dollars in revenue from email alone.
Here’s some parting advice from Bianca, “if you’re not afraid enough, you’re playing small and need to get outside of your comfort zone. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning or growing.”
As a freelance writer for the past 15 years, Joe has written for over 500 publications, collaborated with several Fortune 500 companies, and has received more than 3 dozen writing awards.
How has become such a successful freelance writer? By focusing on niches. “You will make more money, and find it easier to market yourself, by focusing on niches,” Joe shares. “I write about many different topics, but I only stress one specialty to new clients.”
“At the beginning, you can confuse people with too much variety and cause them to go to a lesser writer who presents himself more narrowly..” Joe explains. He also recommends getting focused early on in your freelance career, on exactly which types of customers you want to go after – whether that’s small business owners, technology startups, or enterprise clients.
Michelle is a blogger and freelancer that runs a very successful personal finance and lifestyle blog. Since 2011, she’s been using her MBA in finance to write compelling content for finance-related websites, and growing her personal blog and brand simultaneously.
“Now that I’ve built a sizable audience on Making Sense of Cents, I earn a majority of my income through affiliate marketing, advertising space, and managing content for a few other websites..” Michelle shares.
But how did she build that audience in the first place?
By creating content that provides genuine value to her readers, having an incredible amount of transparency, and working hard to distribute her content on other relevant blogs & publications, she’s created quite a name for herself. That authority Michelle has built, consistently brings her new opportunities for paid writing, content strategy consulting for other business owners, and more. She’s a textbook example of someone reaping the benefits of investing in personal branding.
For the past couple of years, Brandon has been offering SEO, online reputation management, content marketing, and conversion rate optimization services to clients from his home base in South Florida. Crucial to his success and authority in the industry, has been getting featured on sites like Moz, Search Engine Journal, and others.
On how he’s brought on his best clients, Brandon shares, “I’ve had the most luck through blogging for popular sites and getting featured in print publications. One article in particular led to connections that brought in about $40,000 in revenue over the course of one year.”
Brandon also found that the stability of retaining his day job while he grew his freelance business over the course of three years, helped to keep him hyper-focused on his goals and getting to a sustainable, comfortable freelance income level before quitting his full-time gig.
With his freelance business, Tsahi has been offering a wide range of services around WebRTC technology for the past 10 years. He’s built a powerful name for himself in this space online by creating frequent, value-driven blog content that genuinely helps potential customers solve their problems. Then, when they’re ready to hire someone to help – he’s the first person they come to.
I asked Tsahi to share with me, the hardest lesson he’s learned along the path to starting a successful freelance business.
“Being good at what you do isn’t enough. I hate selling, but I had to learn to sell myself. If you can’t do that, then find something else to do other than freelancing…” Tsahi says.
Another great piece of advice from Tsahi? Keep your day job or work part-time while you start your freelancing business. It gave him the confidence and foundation he needed, in order to take the plunge. Tsahi continued working part-time for over a year before leaving the office behind to become a full-time consultant.
Having started her PR consultancy less than two years ago, Helen has been making waves for herself in her community. She offers media relations services, social media strategy, management of events, launches, and media training for executives in specific industries.
“Since starting my business in the spring of 2014, all of my clients have come from referrals,” says Helen. A former client of hers, that she went above and beyond the call of duty for, ended up referring multiple new clients her way, and the word kept spreading from there.
Helen also advises freelancers to only take on clients who understand the value of your services – not just people who are going to pay your bills. She says, “you can’t be all things to all people. It’s hard to walk away, but sometimes it’s necessary and better in the long run.”
Jason helps businesses from all over the world set up and run their online marketing campaigns, and primarily Google AdWords campaigns – something that can be difficult to navigate (and optimize) if you’re just getting starting with paid acquisition in your business.
The biggest lesson Jason has learned in his years of freelancing?
“Learning how to spot and avoid dealing with idiots has been my hardest lesson. ‘Idiots’ are people who don’t pay their bills on time, tie you up on phone calls about nothing, lie to you, and expect work for sub-par pay. You have to avoid these people at all costs.”
When Jason first got started with freelancing, he also kept his day job and spent time during his mornings and evenings working to get his first clients and grow his business. “Use your employer and paycheck to act as the capital you use to build your business,” he advises.
For the past 10 years, Miranda has been a freelance writer for various online publications. Her works have been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, AllBusiness, and more. She focuses on creating personal finance content for brands like Lending Tree, Fidelity, and Discover. Now she writes extensively about her successes, failures, and lessons learned from freelancing on her blog.
I asked Miranda to share with me, how she was able to establish client relationships with such major brands.
“Big brands, often some of my best clients, are the result of building my reputation over time and being active within my niche. I focus mainly on content about finance, and over time my associations with other influencers and the work I’ve done, have created a body of work that has gotten me noticed.”
Unlike many of our other freelancers here, Miranda got her start as a freelancer immediately after completing her M.A. in Journalism. She knew that the desk job lifestyle wasn’t for her, and was dedicated enough to work hard and make her freelance business successful very quickly. The rest is history.
Whether you want to start generating freelance income while you keep looking for that perfect side business idea, or you’re ready to get serious about growing your existing client base, download our free eBook, The Freelancer’s Roadmap.