How do I start freelancing?

The economy is opening up; businesses, like the rest of us, are coming out of their burrows and blinking in the sunlight.

How do I start freelancing?

It is a time, in other words, of new and exciting opportunities.

It’s when many people will be looking at their career and wondering: is now the time? Is now when I should make the leap into self-employment?

If you’re one of those people, writes Andy Chamberlain, director of policy at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, let’s answer that age-old but more pertinent than ever question  -- how do I start freelancing?

Start with your idea -- and a business plan

First things first, you need a clear idea for your freelance career – and a business plan.

Are you thinking of building your freelancer career on something you’ve been doing in-house for a while?

Or are you trying to branch out into a new area? If it’s the latter, you might want to consider trying it as a ‘side-hustle’ for a while. Either way, test out your idea on family and friends. And if it passes muster there, try it on other freelancers. Consider joining some of the free freelancer networks out there to pitch it to people who’ve been working for themselves for a while. Try it, too, on business contacts: would they legitimately hire someone like you to contract for them? Or, see if you can do a pro bono project, or side collaboration in your own time for some experience.

Once you’re clear on your path, you need a business plan. This doesn’t need to be a hugely detailed 5-year plan, but it does need to be clear and thought-through. Ideally it should be a 1-to-2 pager that outlines the basics and some professional and personal goals in the short and medium term. In it, bear in mind that as a freelancer, it’s not just the core work you’ll need to handle -- you’ll also have to be your own HR, IT, finance, marketing and PR departments!

Prioritise questions, goals and flexibility

You’ll need your business plan to be malleable: you’ll need to keep coming back to it and updating it – first after six months and your first few contracts, then after a year when you’re properly settling into your freelance career.

From the start, though, think about your professional goals. From personal development and events you want to speak at, to your earnings goals and the types of clients you want to nurture relationships with.

Helpfully, if your short on inspiration, stuck or simply needing to gauge the effectiveness of your idea or plan, we have actually just launched an Incubator programme that can help you with business plans, testing your idea and much more.

Then, attract that all-important first client

So, you’ve got a field for your career down, and you’ve got your outline business plan; but is there really a market for your work?

The best way to find out is networking. Get yourself out there and try to connect with a prospective client!

Obviously, the practicalities of networking have changed because of the coronavirus pandemic -- and it’s not yet clear how things will settle again afterwards. But the principles are the same.

If you’re going freelance from an existing career, the best place to start is likely to be your existing business contacts. Are they looking for freelancers already? Do they have connections who are looking for a service like yours, on a self-employed basis?

Next, network in the new normal – where to go, who to speak to, what to say

There are also many groups out there who facilitate networking. There are free groups and groups you pay a fee to join, which have regular events, mainly over breakfast (such as BNI).

There are also business groups out there like the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), as well as trade and profession-specific groups that you can find for your own specialism. There are also more informal groups you can find on LinkedIn and Facebook, too. Dedicated to the self-employed, we are also running a major event featuring plenty of networking opportunities as part of this year’s National Freelancers Day on June 17 2021.

Whatever your field, do your research and get yourself out there. And at the events, whether virtual or in-person, look for open groups and join the conversation. Having ‘icebreaker’ conversation topics (e.g. the weather, where the person has travelled to the event from, why they joined the networking event) can help avoid awkward or initial silences! And small talk can help build rapport before discussing business and possible opportunities. If there’s a business opportunity, suggest meeting for a coffee within a few weeks.

Now, set your rate as a freelancer

When you’re on your way with client connections, the next difficult question to answer is -- what rate you should charge for your work?

When you’re starting out, the immediate temptation is to price too low -- to take a cautious approach because you haven’t been freelancing long. This can actually be harmful in ways you might not expect. Low prices? Clients may think that’s it low quality, poor work.

Working out a realistic but fair price as a self-employed freelancer can feel awkward, but it’s crucial.

Try these tips on how to determine how much is too much, and too little

You need to base your price on what you can realistically ask for, what your potential earnings could be, and the minimum profit you need in your first few months. Here are a few things to try to get your charges and fees just right:

  • If you’re coming from an employee job in your field, try breaking down your salary as a day rate: is this a fair price? Does it cover your early costs? Does it meet your profit targets?
  • Try and get costs from an agency offering similar services to you for an idea of the ‘going rate.’ These will likely include overheads and a certain level of work, but they will give you a good idea of the competition.
  • Consult your contact book for anyone who can give you an idea of the going rate your target level of client is paying for freelance/contract work.
  • Consider different factors in the work -- you’ll find there are some clients offering more prestigious work that could help put you on the map, and others with more challenging projects. Factor all this into your pricing.
  • Consider how you want to structure your pricing based on the kind of work. For example, if it’s regular work over three months, the best way to go is likely to be a day rate. If it’s a short-term specific project, however, it might be best to look at a price linked to overall delivery.

In the future: settle on your set-up

By now, you’ve come up with both an idea and a business plan; a client connection or two and a price tag for your services. How to set up as a freelancer in terms of the structure you will use and what way you’ll operate is a whole different ball game – and one we’ll consider exclusively for FreelanceUK next time.