Seven Things You Should Know About Freelancing Before You Start

A man draws on an iPad while working from home.
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If the idea of being your own boss is alluring to you, becoming a freelancer may have crossed your mind. You wouldn’t be alone, as the number of people becoming freelancers has grown at a rate of over 2 million year after year. But here’s what to know about freelancing before you start.

What to Know About Freelancing

Working as a freelancer would mean making your own hours, working from home and likely doing something you love. It sounds perfect, especially for people who have a passion for creative fields such as digital art, writing, film making, etc.

What freelancing is not, however, is easy. Becoming a freelancer will introduce you to unique challenges and changes in your day-to-day life. Faelan Helton, a freelancer who has worked as a digital artist and concept artist with five years experience, and Quinn Ort, a digital illustrator specializing in character design, can attest to this.

“Expect nothing,” warns Helton, of Orlando. “No day will ever go according to plan.”

If you’re considering freelance work as a major career change, here are seven pieces of advice on what to know about freelancing.

1.Know Your Product

If you want to start working for yourself, you need to know what you’re selling. This sounds obvious, but this goes further than choosing between becoming a freelance writer or digital artist. Start by looking at what you can offer a prospective client. Then, evaluate how you differ from other freelancers offering a similar service.

Take an honest look at what you produce, and identify your strengths and weaknesses. Also, know what you are and are not willing to do for a job before you start taking clients. If a client wants an original landscape painting, but you specialize in character design, why take them on?

You will also want to consider your rates.

“You have to know what you’re worth compared to what people are willing to spend,” advised Ort, also of Orlando.

To start, consider a low price to attract clients. Then establish more professional prices by calculating what you’ll need to make to meet your annual budget. Or, do some market research on similar freelancers by using the value pricing method.

2. How to Find Your Audience

When it comes to what to know about freelancing, building an audience and client base will be one hurdle. Before you start snagging more lucrative contracts with established companies, you may start with individuals and small, personal projects. There are a variety of ways to build a client base familiar with your work and willing to give you repeat business.

Many specialized websites exist for different freelance fields. There are established websites for specific freelancers such as writers, photographers and digital artists. But be wary, as some of these websites ask for one-time sign-up fees. Other job listing sites such as Indeed and LinkedIn also support freelancing jobs, but you will be competing with a large crowd.

But how can you learn about what people want and how to stand out? Ort recommends sharing your work on social media and engaging with fandoms, online communities and hobbies you’re familiar with.

“It can feel like throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks,” he said, “but people will tell you what you want.”

Using your personal work to develop your portfolio, sharing it in online spaces and seeing how people react can help you develop as a freelancer. Whether it be through a fan community related to a popular franchise or more specialized groups, networking with individuals to take on commission work of fan art or other forms of expression can help you develop a unique identity and solidify your reputation.

One possible route to help freelance writers get started is fan fiction.

3. How To Be Your Own Boss

Being your own boss sounds appealing, but it will introduce you to a whole new level of responsibility.

“When you’re your own boss, it’s easy to give yourself plenty of breaks and slack off. Self-discipline, taking control of yourself, is the top priority,” Helton said.

When you’re freelancing, everything a boss or manager would cover, from dealing with difficult customers to managing your work schedule, now falls on you. A certain degree of social skills is essential, as you will be responsible for representing yourself to clients and curating your portfolio and body of work.

The most important aspect will be consistency. Keep a daily routine and keep careful track of all assignments and commissions. Developing a reputation for reliability will make any freelancer more appealing to potential customers.

4. Keep Work And Your Personal Life Separate

When you start out as a freelancer, you will most likely start working from home. That takes away the barrier between work life and home life. You will rely on your own resources and living space to make your way. Furthermore, you can’t leave the frustrations of the work day at the office, and frustrations of home life will be brought to work.

Even if you grab a rare gig from a company that has you work on site, your home will most likely be your main base. Hubspot says some key elements to keeping work and home life separate include: Establishing a clear start and end time for the work day, keeping a designated work area in the home, and making plans to get out of the house for mental health.

Another mix of work and personal life that may come up is working with friends or family. If you start out as a freelancer, well-meaning friends or family members may want to hire you for a job. The advice is the same from both Ort and Helton; you may love your friends and family, but you have to treat them like any other client, especially when negotiating a price for the job.

Finally, another aspect of what to know about freelancing in today’s world is the importance of an online presence. If you rely on social media to network and advertise yourself, beware.

“Social media websites are designed to grab your attention and take up time,” Helton said. Limit your time on social media, and focus on maintaining a professional persona online.

5. How to Manage Your Schedule

Leading from the challenges of working from home and being your own boss, maintaining a healthy work schedule is key to staying productive. Set a daily, consistent time for work. If you need help with organization, consider using any number of free scheduling apps, such as ClickUp or Todoist. Use the built in calendar features common on most phones or PCs.

How you structure your work day can also have a big impact on your mental and emotional health, as well as your overall productivity. One recommended technique to build your work day is the Pomodoro Technique. You divide your work day into 25 minute intervals with short breaks in between, relying on timers to keep you on task.

Another commonly known technique is the 80/20 rule, which states that in most fields, 80% of a person’s profit will come from 20% of your projects. Identifying what those high-earning projects are and prioritizing them will help keep you organized and focused on your most important tasks.

6. About the Difference in Taxes

Once you start freelancing work, you no longer automatically have income tax deducted from your pay. It can feel very satisfying to actually keep the full payment you earned, but that doesn’t mean the government isn’t going to collect.

As a freelancer, you will be charged a self-employed tax, which will cover your obligations to social security and medicare that already get taken out of a more traditional salary or paycheck. If your tax returns reach over $1000, you will also be expected to make estimated tax payments based on weekly, monthly or quarterly installments.

Taking steps to ensure you budget your income to factor in these new taxes will be essential in reaching success.

7. How to Prepare Your Budget

There are many guides to managing your budget, especially for those who are dealing with the responsibility for the first time. With the increased tax burden and extra responsibility of managing all your income directly, maintaining a well-balanced budget will be the longest lasting challenge for any freelancer.

It leads back to every other challenge of working as a freelancer. You will have to be your own boss and keep yourself from unnecessary spending, while also managing the extra costs associated with your chosen field.

While some, like freelance writers, need little more than a working laptop, digital artists will have to shop for a decent tablet. Depending on the program you choose to use, like Photoshop or CSP, you may have to pay monthly subscription fees. Others that work with physical goods will also need to factor in the cost of materials.

Ort warns against going for flashy digital art programs with lots of bells and whistles. “It’s important to remember, the pyramids were built before we even had iron tools,” advocating simpler, free programs such as GIMP or Ibis that can still deliver quality work.

When it comes to what to know about freelancing, just know there are both pros and cons. If you can handle the responsibilities that comes with it, the possibilities are nearly endless.

William Fewox has worked as a freelance writer since 2017, and his work is featured in literary magazines such as The Aquarian, The Navigator and The Historian. He has also self-published a handful of novels. He has worked as a Social Studies teacher and research assistant in local Florida museums and more recently has worked as an editor for a start-up publishing company. William holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Jacksonville University.