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You’ve watched thousands of tutorials. You’ve put in countless hours and spent many late nights working on personal projects. You’ve finally come to the conclusion that this may just be something you would like to do for a career. It can seem a little intimidating at first, because how are you going to convince someone to pay you to do this? Up until now you’ve been your only client. How do you get more? I’m going to share my insight and experiences on how to successfully launch your freelance career this year!
First I want to give a little background information on myself. My name is Remington McElhaney and I am a 19 year old freelance motion graphic designer. Hopefully my age doesn’t scare you away just yet from continuing to read this article, because I believe I have some good information to share.
I live in Northern Idaho, so jobs working with After Effects are fairly hard to come by. I began working in restaurants when I was 14 and quickly worked my way up from dish washing to full time dinner cook. I would work in the summer at a fine dining restaurant on the lake and in the winter at a local ski resort cooking.
Now one year later I work full time doing what I love, and I have clients all over the world.
However my passion was always working with After Effects. I would come home after working 10 hour shifts and then play around in After Effects until 2 am in the morning. Then last December I stumbled upon a site called Elance which is an online job marketplace where clients can post jobs for freelancers/companies to bid on. I thought it was interesting and I might be ready to start getting paid for what I do so I sent out a few proposals. Long story short, within the first month I had 10 projects. I realized I either needed to quit my job freelancing, or quit cooking.
Now one year later I work full time doing what I love, I have clients all over the world, and I am currently ranked #34 out of 91,766 providers in the Design/Multimedia category on Elance. So I’m going to share a few tips and strategies to help get you to the top during 2012!
1. Be Prepared
Deciding to take the leap into freelancing can be terrifying. You can ease your way into it but eventually you are going to have to take the plunge and jump on it. Quitting your job and not knowing where your next pay check is coming can be very scary. It’s especially scary if you have a lot of bills or a family to support (luckily I didn’t).
One of the most important things to do is to make sure you are prepared. I made sure I could go three months without getting a single job and still be okay. Not because I thought I would have that hard of a time getting work, but I didn’t know. I was awarded 10 jobs in December. For all I knew though, December could be the biggest month of the year for freelancers. Maybe January was the worst…
I didn’t want to be pressured into taking jobs I wouldn’t normally take.
Another important reason for this was I didn’t want to be pressured into taking jobs I wouldn’t normally take. If you are getting desperate for work and your bills are stacking up you’ll take anything. I didn’t want to be put into that position. A few (or one) negative feedback on a site such as Elance can sink your freelancing dreams very quickly in the early stages.
There will always be clients you should steer clear off and unfortunately that’s one of those things you will to figure out and develop a sense over time. Being prepared will help take some (not all) of the stress out of freelancing.
2. Write Long Proposals
When I originally started out freelancing I didn’t have a lot of work I was comfortable sending clients. I felt I had a strong knowledge of After Effects and was perfectly capable of doing the work, but I simply hadn’t had any real world applications to use it. I had some pretty good looking images from my personal work but nothing too crazy that was actually moving. So what did I do too still find work, even though I didn’t have much of a portfolio? I wrote extremely long and in depth proposals. I didn’t include useless information to fill the screen, but I used my words to show what my portfolio couldn’t. I didn’t hold anything back and would lay out my best ideas in my proposal. I would then describe the process so well I’m not even sure if people noticed I didn’t have a strong portfolio. Clients appreciated the amount of time I would spend on a proposal and the level of detail I would include.
3. Be Flexible
When you are a new freelancer without much of a portfolio you are going to have to be flexible. This means taking on jobs that you might not find to be the most fun or exactly what you want to be doing, but it adds to your experience online for other clients to see. One of the largest clients I landed last year actually came by accident. I did some HDR Photoshop work for them and one thing turned into another and now they send me all of their motion graphics work. So you never know what doors a job may open. Not only does being flexible on your choice of jobs help you get jobs, but it also gives you a good idea of what you like to do.
4. Seize the Opportunity
As a new freelancer you need to be able to seize the opportunity a job may present. You need to be willing to jump on a job with only hours’ notice and deliver quickly. Finding jobs where people need to hire immediately is a great way to get some jobs and experience for postings you normally wouldn’t win. I once found a job for a great rate at 10 pm at night, submitted a proposal, and worked until 10 am the next morning. Obviously that wasn’t by original plan but I seized the opportunity, made some money and added to my experience on Elance once again. I actually did this countless times until I had finally built up a strong enough portfolio to be able to work “normal hours”.
5. Communication is Key
The #1 thing that helped me land more jobs than anything else was my communication skills. Clients (and potential clients) love it when you respond quickly to their emails. That doesn’t mean just sit at your computer all day waiting for an email, or fire off some super quick reply the second you get an email. It does mean that you need to find a way to make yourself accessible and make communication a priority. If you have the attitude “Oh I’ll just respond to that later” you may find you quickly have less and less emails to respond too. I made the upgrade to a smart phone at the beginning of this year and it was one of the most helpful things I could do. The extra $30 a month data plan more than paid for itself by enabling me to keep in contact with my clients. It’s okay to have boundaries with your time and to not be constantly plugged into work, but make sure that communication remains a priority.
6. Be Confident
One of the greatest pieces of advice I could give you is to be confident in your work. If you’re unable to convince yourself that you can do a job; then don’t expect a client to feel that confident in you either. There’s nothing wrong with being humble but there also comes a time when you need to be able to tell a client exactly why you are the best person for a job. By exuding confidence in my proposals I was able to win jobs over clients that had way bigger and better portfolios than my own. That may mean acting like you’ve done something more then you really have. (Note: Please do not lie to your clients and promise things you can not deliver) It just means “Yeah, I’ve done this once before” isn’t exactly going to win you jobs. Make sure you can do it and if you can, then make sure your client realizes that. Remember your selling yourself as much as your work, so make sure you sound confident!
7. Know Your Limits
As a new freelancer it is extremely important to know your limits. This one sort of ties in with the last tip about being confident. Confidence is important but make sure you can actually do what you’re promising. Eventually you’ll stumble upon this job which just sounds amazing but you’re going to realize that there’s no way you’ll be able to complete it on time without killing yourself. This is a skill I’m extremely grateful I was able to learn early without any major incidents. I may have had some late and stressful nights but I have yet to miss a deadline or not be able to deliver something I promised. That’s all because I’ve been aware of what I’m capable of doing. Messing up on a feedback based site such as Elance can really hurt you early on, so it’s very important not to give a client any reason at all to give you negative feedback.
8. Push Yourself
Even though I just got finished telling you to know your limits, now I’m going to tell you to push yourself. Getting confused yet? There’s a delicate balance between trying too hard and failing and not trying hard enough and failing as well. It will vary for each individual but you’re going to need to find that point where you are pushing yourself and continuing to grow, but without tanking your business because you bit off more than you can chew. Constantly push yourself to produce better work and to take on larger projects if you feel you’re ready, because chances are that you are ready. I would be embarrassed now to show you work I did a year ago, not because it is such bad work but because I was so focused on improving my work that I was able to jump leaps and bounds throughout the year in my abilities. So make sure you’re not just hanging out on that plateau for too long. Get up and climb that next hill!
9. Pay Your Taxes
This is a piece of advice I wish I had paid attention too from the beginning. When I started freelancing I didn’t know what to do about taxes and I also wasn’t planning on it becoming my full time job. Then once it did become my full time job I still didn’t know what to do about taxes so I just didn’t worry about it. It becomes a snowball effect and I just wrote a rather large check to cover my entire year of taxes at once. I would have definitely preferred to pay a little with each job. Many people have said this but a good CPA will really pay for himself (or herself). They can help you figure out what you’re supposed to be taking out and help find those helpful deductions that you are unaware of. Just one quick meeting with a CPA helped save me hundreds of dollars (or even thousands) and gave me the percentage of taxes that I needed to be taking out of each job. I can’t give any specific tax advice because for one I’m no CPA and for two it varies so much depending on where you are located. So please take the time and the expense to sit down and discuss your individual situation with a professional.
10. Raise Your Rates
The final tip I have to give you is to constantly keep trying to bump your rates up. That’s especially true for the first year. When you first start out, you’re not sure what your time is worth and you’re more than likely not going to be able to charge what your competitors are charging. My competitive advantage was absolutely price when I first started freelancing. I was more concerned about finding jobs that I thought would be good portfolio pieces then what my hourly rate was going to be. That doesn’t mean give yourself away for nothing or clients will value your work as such. It simply means to be competitive early on and then once you build more experience keep on raising your rates. The last video I worked on I was charging 10x what I was just one year prior. What to know the funny part? The client was happy to pay it! Because I had not only grown in my skills in the last year but I now had a solid portfolio to back up my proposal. You’ll eventually stumble upon a sort of equilibrium price that you are happy charging and clients are happy to pay. Until you feel you’ve reached that point though make sure you don’t get too comfortable charging less and always push for more.
Alright guys! That’s my 10 tips to help you start a freelancing career this year. This is obviously not a “How to” but merely one person’s opinion on what helped them be successful. As I’m sure you noticed reading through there was a lot of back and forth and it may have seemed a bit confusing. It’s obviously a balance of everything and it’s going to be different for each person. I can’t decide for you whether you’re being confident in yourself or BS’ing your way into a job that you’re not prepared for yet. Those sorts of things are going to be up to you to decide. I wish you all the best and I hope this encouraged a few of you that you really can take the plunge into the freelance world. If you have any questions or comments let’s keep this discussion going in the comments!