We all remember our first time … reaching a big financial goal. The planning! The stress! The self-doubt! And then, finally, that massive sense of accomplishment (and relief). In our “My First Time … ” series, LearnVest asks people who’ve reached huge money milestones how they did it — and for lessons they learned along the way.
Here, one woman shares the biggest lessons that are helping her build a freelance career.
A few months ago, I left my 9-to-5 salaried job as a staff writer to pursue freelance-writing full-time. The perks, for me, are worth it: I have time to work on my long-term projects without having to commute into an office, slog through emails or sit through meetings.
Fortunately, I have savings stashed from that job, and I bring in income from my other side hustle drawing and selling comics and merchandise. The combination helps me stay afloat while I look forward to bigger and more sustainable projects (I’ve got a book in the works!).
I’ve learned a lot. Here’s what’s helped me most.
Let Everyone Know You’re Looking for Opportunities
I freelance for a few different outlets, most of which have come about through “networking,” which is to say I’ve asked everyone and their mother if they needed a writer.
It’s important to reframe the word “networking” (which to me always sounds like miserable schmoozing) into something more transparent: Ask your professional and personal connections to keep their eyes open for opportunities that match your skill set.
Be Open to New Projects
As a newbie, I can’t be choosy about who I work for. But that’s actually been a blessing in disguise. Being open to various kinds of work can show you how different companies function and how much to charge for different styles. When you’re first starting out, it’s helpful to keep your options open and learn as much as you can.
Do Your Research to Figure Out Fees
How much to charge is still something I’m learning. I started by asking friends in similar fields how they invoice companies (by project, by hour or by word). I also looked at freelancing websites like UpWork to get an idea of how much people charge for different types of content.
In my experience, most places already have standard fees for written work, so it’s often a matter of whether I feel the price is fair for the amount of time and effort it takes.
Setting rates for illustrated work is different. I don’t have the same sort of network, so I’ve researched salaries in similar fields and worked backwards to get a sense of what people make hourly. When in doubt, I aim high — the worst they can do is say no! And then you can either negotiate or move on.
Read Everything You Sign
When you’re working for a few different outlets, you have to keep track of just as many contracts. I have a desktop folder on my computer with downloads of every piece of paperwork I’ve signed, as well as detailed payment information. It can sometimes feel tedious, but it’s worth it — need I mention tax season?
If you’re selling creative work, understand exactly how you’re licensing the work to your client. For instance, I recently sold a few comics to Comedy Central, and though I wanted to just immediately sign the contract (because it was Comedy Central!), I sent it to a lawyer first. We ended up making a few adjustments to the language that clarified they owned the specific illustrations and not, inadvertently, my entire brand.
It’s tempting to say “yes” without hesitation when you’re first starting out (and maybe don’t feel you have the leverage to negotiate), but you are always entitled to clarity around what exactly is happening, legally, to the work you’re creating.
Keep Careful Track of Your Invoices
You have to be your own advocate because — surprise! — some outlets aren’t great about paying their freelancers on time. I use an Excel spreadsheet to track where I’ve written or sold drawings and the status of payment. This helps me know what money is coming in. In the event of delayed or missing payment, I also have a timeline to be specific with clients about how long it’s taken them to get me paid.
Set Personal Deadlines in Addition to Project Deadlines
This is a common theme among my friends who also freelance. It’s helpful to set your own deadlines for things you want to get done — whether that’s sending outreach emails or asking someone in the field for a coffee date — in addition to actual project deadlines for client work.
The biggest perk of freelancing is also its downfall. With flexibility comes the daunting pressure to be your own motivator. Establishing my own deadlines keeps me thinking about long-term goals and makes it easier to get the day-to-day tasks met.
Pursue Activities That Fulfill You Outside of Work
One tip I think is super helpful for creative freelancers — or anyone in any job, really — is to make time for opportunities outside of work that fulfill you. As a freelancer, the boundary between work and life is especially hard to distinguish. So I experiment with different styles of writing and drawing — essentially, to keep growing my own portfolio — while I pitch my professional work. I show more work to potential clients, it boosts my self-esteem, and it keeps me excited for future projects.