How to Turn Freelancing Into a Career

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One of the best things about freelancing is that you can make it work on your terms. If you just need some extra money or want to develop skills in a new area, you can do it part-time, in addition to your regular, full-time job—or you can make it your full-time job, with a bit of careful planning and a lot of hard work, and never have to return to the cubicle farm again.

Here's how to get started when you want to turn freelancing into your career.

7 Steps to Becoming a Successful Full-Time Freelancer

1. Get Your Feet Wet

Most people will tell you to make a plan before you get started. If you have a job, currently, I'd suggest just the opposite: before you start thinking about what you want your freelance career to look like, get your feet wet by taking a few gigs while you're still employed.

There are two benefits to doing this. First of all, it enables you to put aside a little cash before you make the jump to full-time freelancing. You need three to six months of living expenses, plus start-up costs, in order to start off your freelance career from a secure position.

Second of all, it lets you try out different types of clients and jobs, and work out the kinks before you commit the bulk of your working hours to something you might not enjoy a month from now.

2. Make a Plan

Once you've experimented with a few different kinds of gigs and clients and have a rough idea of what you'd like to work on, it's time to make a plan. Even if you're not trying to impress investors, writing a business plan can help clarify your goals and map out a rough blueprint of what success looks like to you. A few questions to keep in mind: 

  • What kind of work do you love and hate?
  • What does success look like to you?
  • How much money do you need in order to break even, to save money, to feel like you've "made it"?
  • Who is your competition, and what do they offer?
  • What do you offer that your competition doesn't?
  • What do you want your business to look like a few months from now, next year, and in five years?
  • Do you want employees at some point, or do you want to work on your own?
  • What do you want your workday to look like?

Don't forget to plan for estimated quarterly taxes; review these guides to estimating these and paying them. Eventually, you'll also need to decide whether you want to incorporate, but you don't need to make that decision before you get started.

3. Set Your Rates

Another reason to try freelancing while you're still working for an employer is to have a chance to set your rates—and revise them. If you're like most budding freelancers, you'll probably undercharge for your services at first.

If you do some test gigs before you commit to freelancing full-time, you'll have an opportunity to make these mistakes while you still have a steady income.

The best way to set your rates is to figure out what you're making for similar work at your full-time job, and devise an hourly rate. Don't forget to include things like benefits, sick time, and office supplies when you make your calculations.

Then you can either charge your clients hourly or by the project, after estimating how many hours each project will take.

4. Focus on Your Ideal Client

Pretty quickly, you'll start to get a picture of the companies and individuals you work with the best. Your ideal client will be the best mixture of type of work, working style, schedule, and pay.

You might, for example, discover that you like working with startups best, because you value working on cutting edge projects and don't want a 9-to-5 workday—or you might find that more established companies are more financially reliable, and veer toward those when filling up your client roster.

Then there's the cultural piece. Everyone has different values and expectations of co-workers and clients. Maybe you want to work with people who are friendly and warm, or punctual and precise, or respectful of your boundaries in terms of time, or any combination of these. Know that, and look for companies and points of contact that agree.

5. Promote Yourself

Gone are the days when you needed to buy space in a newspaper to promote your new business. Now, you might be able to start your freelance career without spending a single solitary dime, just by touting your services on Facebook, Linkedin, Tumblr, and Twitter.

The important thing is to be willing to reach out. When you do make the leap, tell your connections that you're doing so.

You'd be surprised how much business you can generate simply by posting on your various social networks and letting folks know that you're looking for a specific type of work.

6. Network

Freelancers need connections in order to keep getting new work, but they also need them in order to create the sense of community that office workers have, and contractors sometimes lack.

The good news is that you don't need to become a cocktail party person or learn to love small talk in order to become an expert networker.

All you have to do is to be reliable, pleasant to work with, and open to making new acquaintances.

Again, social media has taken a lot of the hard work out of forging connections. It's also a good idea to look into joining professional associations in your industry, if you haven't already, in order to keep on top of news and trends and have access to educational opportunities that can help you hone your skills.

7. Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Finally, the most important thing to do in order to make a success of freelancing is to reevaluate your goals from time to time. You won't always hit it out of the park on the first swing, but you don't need to. All you need to do is keep swinging.