Freelancing is a dream job for some, a necessity for others and a way of living their life for a small group. But what exactly does it take to make it as a successful freelancer, and what does that even mean? What is “making it” in this context?
Some professions lend themselves to early freelancing, such as writing (or any content creation, to be honest), software development, photography and many others. But just because you can get in there and start making some money out of your trade doesn’t mean you have the correct mindset to succeed in this world.
A successful freelancer is (very much like entrepreneurs) a special kind of human being. Not everyone is born with the set of skills required to be one, but you can learn them once you become aware of them.
Being Hard Worker and a Smart Worker
Freelancers are nothing if not hard workers. It takes a special kind of “working hard” to always keep going, even when there is no one consuming your content or looking for your service.
Even when sales are up and income is flowing, the only thing that is keeping that monthly income is their work. There is no time for resting, taking some time off or even waiting to have the right mindset.
Especially more so when they’re starting, it’s an “eat or get eaten” kind of scenario. You have to work if you want to live.
But smart work is also a big part in turning into a successful freelancer, and hopefully, entrepreneur. That is the end-goal after all, isn’t it? Freelancers usually start as a one-person band; they do it all because there is no one else to help. And it can be overwhelming at times. This is when working smart comes into play, such as automating your daily and meager tasks to save some minutes — or even hours — each day. Daily, repetitive tasks, such as:
- Promoting your work on social media.
- Finding new clients.
- Even reaching out and sending follow-up emails.
You’d be surprised how much of your day can be automated for free (or almost free in some cases). Here is a nice list of tools you can use to automate your day as a freelancer.
It is true that once their business starts growing into a company, turning into something more than jumping from client to client, there will be time to enjoy the benefits of the hard work. But even then, that can only be achieved by working hard and working smart.
Communications Skills Are Essential
As a freelancer, you’re a salesperson. If you come from the sales world, you have half the battle won. Convincing someone who has no idea who you are to buy your service (or product) is one of the (if not “the”) most difficult tasks you’ll face as a freelancer, and necessary to master to be successful.
As Bianca Bass writes, “As a freelancer, you’re your own product. You need to market yourself like one.”
But soft skills are not only useful for the sales pitch. You’ll be interacting with all kinds of people throughout your career, and every one of them will be a networking opportunity. Speaking from a purely business-driven perspective, leaving others wanting to know more about you should be your goal when meeting someone new.
Careful though, this is not about vomiting your sales pitch to everyone you meet. I’m talking about developing (if you don’t already have it) the ability to:
- Make small talk to anyone.
- Knowing how to introduce yourself to someone new.
- Not being afraid of meeting someone face-to-face, even if it is for a 5 minutes coffee chat. Human contact is essential, especially for someone looking to spend money on what you’re selling.
- Working well with other freelancers. Teaming up for a project or for the simple reason of getting to know them might be just as effective as a meeting with a potential client. Sometimes other freelancers will complement your skills. Sometimes they will send new work your way because they can’t (or won’t) handle it themselves.
The key takeaway from this point is that freelancing might seem like the ideal job because it looks like there is no need for human contact. But that’s not only a misconception about the profession. It’s also the opposite of what you need to focus on if you want to succeed. Remember, you’re a one-person (or one-woman) band; you need to do everything, including human interaction, to get more work.
Having Organization Skills
You can’t hope to become a successful freelancer if you can’t organize how you spend your time. There is too much to do on a day, between marketing tasks, outreach to find new clients, existing client management, daily task management, some form of social life and the occasional hour of sleep. If you don’t know how to organize yourself, chances are, you’ll go crazy.
Don’t worry though, understanding that there is a need for this is half the battle, start tackling what you can and leave a mental — or actually, better a physical — note to work on the rest later. It’s a step-by-step process, but knowing how to organize your day is a must.
It might sound like a waste of time, working on organizing tasks and priorities instead of producing something for your clients. But trust me, if you’re not doing it now, you’re not aware of the amount of time you’re wasting by not knowing how to start your day and where to go once you’ve finished your current task.
There are different things you have to organize as a freelancer, for instance:
- Answering your pending emails.
- Marketing on social media and other avenues.
- Working on your product/service.
- Scheduling meetings and calls.
- Doing the numbers — understanding your financial status and pay taxes.
- Looking for new clients.
- Solving any potential problems your clients might be having.
- Having some form of social life.
And that’s just off the top of my head, you can probably think of a few more examples. The point being, if you’re not organized, you’ll be spending a lot of time mentally pivoting between these tasks.
Sit down and spend 30 to 60 minutes before the next week starts and plan it. Plan the week, put in there as much detail as possible; this will keep you from doubting yourself when you have to do these tasks.
Once the week is planned, plan the month. Just not with the same amount of detail, since you’ll have more room for error if you do. Just make sure you’re setting some goals for your next month, try to estimate when you’d hit them and think of what you’d need to get to them. With the next month planned, once you start that month, you’ll be using these milestones to plan each week.
Then, plan the year. Big ballpark-based estimations here. This is meant to help you plan the following months. If you know where you want to go within the year, you’ll start getting an idea of how to prioritize different tasks for the month.
Feel free to plan the next 5 years as well. Just make sure you update these estimations based on real-world feedback. Because we all know life gets in the way, and if you don’t update and re-estimate, your plan becomes a dream that’ll never happen.
Freelancing is not about waiting for work to fall on your lap. You have to get out there and get it. That’s what a successful freelancer does. They do a lot of outreach, a lot of pitching, and they find their customers instead of waiting for their customers to find them.
This is painfully true at the start of your freelancing path. Once you make a name for yourself, you’ll start finding ways to drive people in without you having to contact them manually.
That being said, having initiative is not just about finding clients before they find you, it’s about moving forward without having someone pushing you in the back.
You don’t have a boss telling you what to do, you don’t have a team asking you for tasks. It’s all you, so you need to take the initiative. Declan Wilson summarises this perfectly. “There are days I want to pull my hair out, stuff said hair into every orifice of my laptop, throw said laptop out the window, and repeat said process seventeen times over.”
Here is where the previous point comes in handy. If you know where you want to go, you can take the steps required to get there (or at least figure them out first). Initiative without a purpose is just like running around in circles.
The successful freelancer will figure out where they want to go and when they want to get there before they start moving forward.
Seeing successful freelancers boast about how they live the life they want and work only a few hours a day — if they want to — is causing a lot of folks getting into this world to be quickly turned off by the harsh reality: freelancing can be like that, but only after years of hard work.
Clearly, that can be said about any profession; the more work and effort you spend on it, the better the benefits should be. Adding the corollary: as long as you’re smart about how you do it.
However, successful freelancers have a skill that people tend to ignore: they’re highly goal-oriented. They understand motivation is not about waiting for the muse to hit, but rather about building it themselves through repetition.
It’s not about having a job for them, it’s about getting the life they want. And they know very well that it doesn’t come quickly and that it does have a cost. So they keep working. They work hard to get clients and to grow their business. Then, they re-invent themselves when their industry changes. They learn new things that affect their trade. They do anything they can to reach their end-goal because that is all they see.
Someone very smart once said:
Every no gets me one step closer to a yes
And that is how a successful freelancer sees their life. It’s not about today, it’s about the “yes,” which is their end-goal, their wanted life.
Do you know what your end-goal is? Or why you’re freelancing or even thinking about going freelance?
Figure that one out, then decide a — realistic — timeframe to get there. You can’t just say, “I want to have my own deserted island and live there forever in 2 years”. Go back to the organization section and plan your future following that same advice.
Put your end-goal first, and then work backward until the place you are right now, reading this story, that’s your path to success.
You have your blueprint; it’s time to act. But don’t forget: you’ll have to crawl through a lot of mud before you get there.
I like to think of a successful freelancer as an entrepreneur because there is no difference. Someone who manages to build a business from zero to a place where they can live the life they want is someone to look up to. And because of that, many people start freelancing thinking they have what it takes, without realizing what it really takes to get there.
These skills or personality traits are not superpowers; they’re just things you can learn and develop if you don’t have them already. We tend to think it’s a lot easier to learn how to juggle or ride a bike than to learn how to talk to a stranger or pitch your product.
The truth is, that is because the latter are outside our comfort zone. However, growth only happens when we step out of that zone.