I remember when I accidentally became a freelancer. It wasn't planned. Something happened at the website design company I worked at and, suddenly, it meant that I and 20 of my colleagues were inadvertently no longer employed.
My strategy was to try it all – get freelance work, do contracting, get another job.
Strangely the freelancer approach seemed to be the most secure – I was in charge of my own destiny. I could go out there and meet people, tell them what I could do and hope to be hired. The first six months were certainly hit and miss – I didn't know how I would match my previous salary and make my mortgage payments!
But slowly I learned all about networking, new business development and concisely explaining what I do. Imagine if I had had the foresight to learn this and set this up before I lost the security of a paycheck?
If I knew then what I know now.
So, you've got a certain skill – whether it's consulting on the topic you're an expert on, writing copy, graphic design or cake making – and you want to go out on your own and earn a living from doing what you love (hopefully). You'll need to convince customers you're a safe bet and get them buying these services or products.
It takes time to build up a customer base and lead them to a close. It takes longer when you don't have a portfolio or track record. Before you take the big leap into the freelance world, there are several things you can do to prepare – and it's safer to do so when you are still getting your normal salary for your job!
Note: I don't recommend that you use your working hours to do this prep; it's got to be done on your own time. And in a way, the double shifts you need to do to get everything in order gives you some semblance of what life is like as a freelancer and business owner.
Here are eight steps to help you prepare for your freelance career.
1. Hone your personal bio and brand. It seems obvious but it's still important to consider. In your freelance business, what will you name yourself? Will it be your own name or a brand name? What will your tagline be and how can you make that clear? How do you define your personal brand? What's your "I do what for who" sentence? Getting this right means when you introduce yourself in the future, you can tell people clearly these basic things. When people are given this clear basic information in a simple sentence, they are more likely to ask questions and start to consider if they or someone else needs your services.
2. Build up your LinkedIn skills. Even though LinkedIn is widely respected as the professional social network, so few people even do the basics, which includes a proper summary written in the first person and a good professional photo. Some people are cautious about updating their profile in a very obvious way – they don't want to raise suspicion from their employer. But there are still things you can and should do – explaining in full sentences what you achieved and learned at each of your previous roles (if done well, this tells the story of your career and helps people understand how you got to where you are), and connecting with the people who you've met or corresponded with so you can reach 500 or more connections. Even recommending others on LinkedIn will serve you well in future when you need to reach out to your contacts and tell them about your new freelance business.
3. Determine your social media strategy. You may or may not already be active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. But when you are running your own business, there are different behaviors to adopt. You could possibly harness your usernames and set up professional channels. You can preselect images and prewrite captions (ensuring the images are high quality and well designed) with clear typography. You'll need to plan your content and create a good rhythm, decide whom to follow and devise strategies on how to connect with them, and create effective articles/tips/images and share these. Before you quit your job, read up on this beginner's guide to social media, download e-books, watch YouTube videos, start doing setup and content creation.
4. Devise a system for money in, money out. Unless you're planning to be a freelance bookkeeper/accountant, chances are the financial part of running a freelance business will be new to you. You'll need to work out a system for recording outgoing expenses, raising invoices and tracking your income growth. You'll also need to work out what your initial overhead will be and how you will make sure you cover it. And you can interview three or four different accountants to see who would be the best fit for you – the accountant for your freelance business should ideally be a trusted adviser, and many accountants enjoy working with startups and freelancers.
5. Network. Yes, it's a skill, and I am lucky it's something I enjoy. But I did have to learn all the different nuances – how to introduce myself, what to listen for, how to follow up. There are many options in the business networking world – I like to mix it up. Breakfast events where you get to do an intro speech for 60 seconds about your business mean everyone in the room can hear what you do and vice versa – meaning you can really focus on who you want to meet. Open networking events are similar to parties but for business, while learning events usually have a speaker or a workshop – and you can mingle after and/or before. In the freelance world, the No. 1 way you gain new clients will be because you met someone who liked and trusted you enough, or you were referred by someone. So getting some networking events under your belt even when you're still employed means you have a head start and some new contacts to connect and follow up with on LinkedIn.
6. Develop your "productizing" and pricing strategy. Whatever you do in your business, sooner or later you'll need to learn the art and science of pricing and how to package your services into products. This is something I probably took far too long to learn, and I still continue to tweak and adjust how I present the products my business sells (even though they're services, it's helpful to consider them as products so you can list exactly what's included and how to communicate their value). The first iteration is never the final one, but working on this while still employed will help clarify things in your mind. Further, you can get feedback from your wider network to refine these products so when you do launch, you are more ready to confidently market to your audience.
7. Balance realism with optimism. I have seen talented and likable people start freelance businesses and then get cold feet and go back into the safe (but unfulfilling) world of the corporate job when they could have made it work if they had only given themselves more time to prep. The reality is that it usually takes longer than you think to make the money you need, and to match or exceed your previous salary, plus you need to be consistently motivated to put the work in. You'll need to form good discipline and working habits – how will you do all you need to develop the business, find your clients, write articles, product sheets, and proposals even if at first you're working from home? Considering these and even following these habits on a weekend/days off from work will allow you to test out your working habits and stress test the risk of lack of self-believe/lack of motivation. If you can clear those cobwebs out of the way before you quit your job, you'll have an advantage.
8. Conceptualize your ideal client. While this is something that will evolve as you gain experience in your freelance business, it's worth writing up all the characteristics of your ideal client. Make sure you include the demographic information (for example, with B2B businesses, it would be industry, location, growth stage and business size), but also the attitude and personality you want your customers to have. Writing up this wish list will make it easier to spot those potential clients when you meet them and if you share your wishes with friends and contacts, they can look out for those people for you.
Some of these things (No. 1 and 8 in particular) require sitting down for a couple of hours and brainstorming, then talking about this to friends and contacts in your normal interactions (those who are able to keep a secret, of course) to gauge how easy it is for people to understand what you'll be doing, and, from there, refining your message.
Other steps are simple to incorporate into your normal working week, and some require more study time. Regardless, getting your head fully wrapped around these new habits will certainly set you up for a successful start in your new business. Good luck, and see you on the other side!