People freelance for all sorts of reasons. It’s how some make their living, while others are hoping to fill in a financial gap or to gain experience in a field. Whatever your reason, freelance work can be a fun and lucrative experience—that is, if you go about it correctly. Here’s a quick and dirty guide for those who are new to the freelance game, and even those who have been playing for a while but have yet to find success.
Building Your Professional Persona
Potential employers will screen your Facebook, your Twitter, and even your food blog as thoroughly as they peruse your LinkedIn profile. This is why your public persona needs to be professional. Practicing such caution is like applying deodorant before heading out to a party. You will be scrutinized, whether you like it or not, so you might as well make sure you smell good.
Social Media. Mention your profession and/or link to your official website. Try to make only relevant posts that have been spell-checked and use correct punctuation.
Personal website or blog. Here’s a chance to showcase who you are and what you do. For the website, keep the content concise, but don’t skimp on important details like contact information, special skills, portfolio samples, and (if applicable) client accolades.
Professionally speaking, the purpose of a blog is to increase your Internet presence. It need not relate directly to your profession. It needs, however, to be intelligently written, socially relevant, and well organized. Good grammar is key, whether or not you are in the writing business. Be sure to include a biography confirming who you are and what you do, and to add links on your blog that connect to your other pages.
Professional communication. A potential employer should receive a smart cover letter and a well-organized resume, regardless of how little you may want the job. All communications should be congenial, courteous, and concise. Hiring managers and employers are sensitive to sloppy work. Remember that this is the 21st century: word travels quickly.
Almost any skill can earn you dollars. But the most common gigs are found in the media and technology sectors: IT work, writing, translation, and graphic-design projects, for example. There are many ways to search for freelance work, some more reliable than others. I’ve broken them down below:
Job Boards. The best and worst part of this resource is the sheer abundance of them. Some are far more useful than others.
Your best bets are reputable, established, and niche-specific job sites.
• MediaBistro. — A great resource for freelance skill sets across the board, such as creative media, finance, law, IT, marketing, and teaching.
• LinkedIn — The Facebook of the professional world, used by an average 97% of corporate recruiters. In addition to providing hundreds of job postings, the site helps users to connect with people who share their interests and to build strong professional reputations. It’s an invaluable resource for freelancers and professionals in general.
• BloggingPro and ProBlogger — Geared towards professional bloggers, these sites provide job postings, networking opportunities, and a wealth of helpful tips.
Proceed with caution on big job sites like oDesk , Guru, and Monster. While it is possible to find excellent gigs through these channels, their postings are not well screened because they cover larger job pools. This makes it likelier to find jobs that don’t pay what you deserve—or worse, don’t pay at all. A good rule of thumb when using these sites is to screen potential employers. Review comments on their profiles that have been left by other freelancers (and use your best judgment when determining whether these reviews are real), and most importantly, find out what they have paid freelancers in the past. If someone’s previous hires received rates such as “$3.33/hr” or “$50 for ten articles,” don’t go there.
Avoid generic classified listings such as Craigslist and ebay Classifieds. There’s a reason why these sites have sketchy reputations. If you must find work on Craigslist, be prepared to research potential employers. Run a search on Google to see if they have posted ads on legitimate job forums—in which case, they may have been desperate and posted on Craigslist as a last-ditch effort. These cases, however, are rare. You’re much more likely to spend hours or days completing a project for a vanishing client.
Newsletters. Stick to reputable employment newsletters to save yourself time spent sifting through junk. The newsletters you want will, of course, depend upon your field. Check out blogs about freelancing that touch upon your market, and speak with industry colleagues about the best resources. For example, good writing newsletters include Morning Coffee Newsletter, The Ultimate List of Better-Paid Blogging Gigs (a wonderful free resource drawn up by professional blogger/Internet mogul Sophie Lizard), and Writer’s Gazette.
Industry guides. A reputable industry guide—imagine 50 newsletters rolled into one—will save you time and spare you unnecessary trouble. You may have to pay for a guide, but if you can afford to spend $3 on coffee, you can afford to spend $7 on your freelance career. Unfortunately, many of these guides have a 1-year shelf life, so you would need to update your guide when a new one is published. To start, check out Writer’s Market and 50 Markets That Pay Freelance Writers 10 Cents Per Word.
Networking and hearsay. Like it or not, the hiring racket is a political one. Some of the best gigs are nabbed not by having the most experience or the best resume, but by knowing the right people. Here are a few tips for successful networking:
• Put yourself out there. This can be a challenge for introverts (I’m looking at you, writers!), but it has to be done. Join online groups related to your profession and keep in touch with people in your line of work. Keep an eye out for industry events, go to them, and talk to the people there! You’ll be surprised at how many people mention gigs or friends who are looking for freelancers. And even if they don’t during this particular meeting, perhaps they will in the future.
• Relax. Nothing turns off a potential client more than the oversell. Don’t act like a used car dealer on tiny commission. The more pressured people feel, the more desperate (and therefore unqualified) you seem. The whole point of networking is to slowly and surely build a professional network. Rather than scoring a bunch of job proposals right away, focus on establishing genuine, cordial relationships with useful individuals. You won’t come across as a vulture that way—and you may develop a few lifelines in times of need.
• Keep an open mind. The fact that you are a graphic designer shouldn’t limit your search to jobs labeled “Graphic Design.” If you work mainly in game animation but know how to use WordPress, that’s a marketable skill. If you’re a business writer who happens to be fluent in French, take advantage of that. Consider all of your assets and network with everyone—not just the people in your field.
Setting Your Rate
This is perhaps the most daunting part of a new freelancer’s career. How do you decide what to charge? First of all, calculate the lowest hourly rate you can afford. If you’re freelancing for extra cash, you can afford to be flexible, but if you’re trying to make a living, you’ll need to factor in food, rent, gas, insurance, and other expenses.
It’s a good rule of thumb to pitch fixed prices rather than hourly rates, as most clients respond better to single amounts. (An exception is if the client explicitly proposes hourly pay.) The best way to gauge a fixed price is to estimate how long the job will likely take and to bill for that many hours. Some fair charges will lose potential clients, but you probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.
Most job-board profiles include a space for your hourly rate. During private negotiations, declaring your rate is a more delicate matter. The trick is to name your price clearly and firmly, and not to haggle too much. Going much lower may win you the job, but it may also mean losing your client’s respect and damaging your reputation. You can prevent such a scenario by setting “haggling limits” for yourself. Check job forums frequently to see what comparable freelancers (i.e., individuals similar to you in background and level of experience) charge for their work, and keep your own rates within that range.
What To Do During Tax Time
Let’s talk about everybody’s favorite time of the year: tax season. As a freelancer, you don’t get taxes automatically shaved off of your wages. As a result, you are responsible for calculating all of your income tax. It’s not as daunting as it sounds, provided you have a good head for math, reputable tax software, or the spare money to hire a tax professional. The first thing you should know is that your forms are different from an employee’s. They include:
Form(s) 1040. Form 1040 is the only form you really need to worry about. It comes in three flavors: 1040EZ, 1040A, and the standard 1040. (1040EZ and 1040A are only usable by certain taxpayers. Check the IRS website to see if you qualify.) While the form itself is short and simple, it has a litany of appendices known as “Schedules.” What Schedule(s) you fill out depends on many factors, which the IRS explains here in its usual long-winded way. Many freelancers need concern themselves with only Schedule C (in which you calculate the year’s profits and losses) and Schedule SE (in which you calculate your Self-Employment Tax).
Form 1099-MISC. Each of your clients is responsible for filling out a 1099-MISC and returning it to you before the new tax year. This form itemizes and totals all payments made to you by your clients. It functions in the same way that a W-2 functions for an employee. Be sure to collect this form from all of your clients—be persistent if you must.
Many living-wage freelancers get a shock when they glimpse their first tax statement. So much money! You can avoid nasty surprises by planning ahead. Estimate how much you expect to owe, and pay in segments. This will put less of a strain on your bank account when April rolls around. Don’t worry: if there’s one thing that the IRS tends to be good about, it’s refunding.
You can lessen your tax fees by claiming deductions, but look out. The IRS has a thing for auditing freelancers. Be sure that every deduction is (1) a legitimate work expense and (2) proof positive by receipt. Save all of your receipts. The effort is worth the hassle. You can’t make deductions without solid proof. If you try to, you may get audited—and you don’t want to go there.