How I launched my freelance business in 2 months (and how you can, too)
I'd like to preface all of this by saying I have been a full-time freelancer for 9 weeks. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying I have this all figured out.
I still have so much to learn, but I’d like to retrace my steps in the hopes of inspiring someone out there to blaze their own trail into freelancer-hood with a flame from my torch.
I started moonlighting while I was still at my full-time job back in early November 2017. One month later, I took the leap and quit to go freelance full-time.
And you can do it, too. Follow my lead:
I built a business-focused website.
Any credible business needs a website. It's 2018; this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. I did actually already have a website, but I was using it as a portfolio. Portfolios are great, but I'm a full-on business now, not just a poor sap looking for a job.
Great business websites have 4 key features.
- Clear explanation of what they’re selling
- Credible proof they’re legit
- Strong CTA to buy what they’re selling
- Compelling reason to come back
You need a portfolio when you have to convince a hiring manager you’re not incompetent. You need a business website when you have to convince another business to buy your services.
Here's what I've landed on (albeit, after 4 redesigns… pfft, creatives).
- I have clearly explained what I’m selling and how
- I have a testimonials page that backs up what I say is true
- I have a clear CTA in my header on every page to get a quote
- I have a blog with useful information to keep visitors coming back
I set up accounting software.
Invoices are the lifeblood of freelancers. Without them, we would literally die. Because money. There are oodles of choices for accounting software, but I chose And.co and it has been amazing.
Not only does it do invoicing, but it also does time tracking, expense tracking, contracts, proposals, and other nifty features.
I can enter a new client, whip up a contract, have my project and invoicing cycle automatically set up when the contract is signed, and just get to work. It reminds me when invoices are due, when I’m approaching a designated hourly limit, and more.
Pro tip: No matter which accounting software you choose, never take on work without a contract. Your time and money aren't protected without one!
With one click clients can pay me online directly from my invoices after linking WePay, Stripe, or PayPal.
Best of all? And.co was recently acquired by Fiverr and now it’s totally free. You just can’t beat it.
I organized the shit out of my life.
Having money is awesome, but where you put it all is actually pretty important, too. My next step was to set up a business checking and savings account.
It keeps all my business transactions separated from my personal ones so it's a piece of cake to run reports and get organized come tax time. I use the savings account to hold on to my taxes for each gig, and the checking account for everything else.
Pro tip: Freelancers owe quarterly tax payments, not just one annual payment. Consult a tax professional to help you get sorted for your personal circumstance. You can deduct their fees as a business expense!
While And.co is super awesome and does a lot, it's not the only tool I use to manage my business. Here are a few others I cannot operate without:
- Acuity - A meeting scheduling app that integrates with my Google Calendar for clients to book meetings with me. It came free with my Squarespace account, and has the ability to set different meeting types, collect payments, host intake forms, and tons more.
- Timely - A time tracking app that uses AI and your computer's memory to help build your timesheet. It also can track projects, budgets, plan time, categorize time by tags, and spit out reports.
It helps keep me accountable even when I'm not on the clock and I can quickly see how much time I'm putting into my business. It's not free, but it does have a really generous trial period.
- Cushion - A project and workload projection tool that helps me plan my availability for new clients. I can track project lengths, know when I'm overbooked or have extra time, project my income against my financial goals, and more.
- Airtable - A spreadsheet/database hybrid software similar to Excel but with way more flexibility. They tout the ability to "organize anything" which I've found to be pretty true.
I use it for all kinds of things for my clients, but for my business I use it to track my finances, manage my sales pipeline, calculate quotes, and more.
I told everyone I have ever met, ever.
“But Kaila, how did you actually get your clients?”
Ah, the golden question. Let me start by saying I asked this same question to everyone I could and scoured the web for the answer. I’ll also say you won’t be any happier with my answer because it’s exactly the same as everyone else’s:
Network. Network. Network.
Seriously. It’s the most frustrating, cliche, buzzkill answer, but it’s true. There’s a reason everyone says the same thing.
My 2 anchor clients were referrals. Most freelancers build their entire business solely from referrals. It’s tedious. Time-consuming. And a little mind-numbing. But, the ROI could be a massive gig that pads your wallet for months.
Begging with style
'Begging with style' is my Buzz Lightyear-esque way of saying 'asking for referrals.' Here's what I mean:
I pored over my LinkedIn connections and made a list of who I could contact. I thought of old bosses, colleagues, friends from college (even high school), my favorite professors, neighbors, my family, that cool guy I met on the train that one time and his card is still crammed in my wallet…. anyone that might be willing to help.
I reached out to them one by one with a semi-personalized message. The meat of the message was always the same, but I always opened with some personal connection about our relationship or their life. The "I hope you are well" line doesn't cut it. Don't be a robot.
It usually went something like this:
Congratulations on your grandbaby! I'm so happy for David and Jessica.
If you don't already know, I've recently started my own freelance business. I'm offering copywriting, social media, and email marketing services. More on that at http://otlcm.com
I'm reaching out to see if [your company] has a need for any remote work. If not, I'd love a referral to other businesses that may need help. I can even throw in a finder's fee if I close a deal!
Work or no work, I'd love to catch up soon. Shoot me an email at email@example.com and let's find a time to chat.
2 of my 5 current clients came from referrals, and they are both long-term commitments. That's begging with style.
I also told everyone I've never met, all over the Internet.
Go on the offensive
Of course, I don’t rely on referrals to build my pipeline. I also do a lot of active gig sourcing through a few other channels.
The most obvious is Upwork. I joined Upwork because it (among other freelancing platforms) is a really great way to start freelancing, get your name out there, and build credibility.
While these platforms are great places to get started, they’re insanely saturated with competitive people just like me all vying for the same gigs. So, what’s a broke freelancer to do?
Think outside the job hunting box, man.
I’m using alternative platforms to source work and build the top of my funnel. Places like Twitter, Quora, Reddit, and more all have active conversations about freelancing needs if you know how to look for them.
Pro tip: I’ll dive way deeper into this in another post soon, but I will say I’ve already landed a gig from Twitter just by replying to someone who was asking for help.
Play it cool
Then, there’s the other side of that coin where I just scream into the internet ether and hope someone hears me.
I also started posting on my social networks I was available for work and linked to my website. The trick is to not appear desperate, no matter how much that may be true.
I fudge the truth a little to make it appear like I’m in high demand and the potential client has stumbled upon a lucky opportunity. It sounds something like this:
“I have a last minute opening this month. Interested in [service]? Book a consultation now.”
“I’m now booking for [1+ month in advance]. Message me now and get a spot on my calendar.”
Exclusively creates demand. Make them drink the Kool-aid. #thirsttrap
I tag people in these posts who I know may have referrals or just straight up ask them privately if they can share it. Most everyone is willing to oblige.
I threw myself into my industry.
Borrowing from others
On top of all the explicit lead generation and shameless self-promotion, I’ve also started ramping up proving myself knowledgeable and involved in marketing.
I’ve started posting on Twitter and LinkedIn way more than ever before with the help of Buffer. I have a curated list of my favorite RSS feeds I can pull from, write something quippy, and schedule it in advance.
This way, my feeds stay active and I look like a super smart marketer sharing all this breadth of information from all different sources.
Write it and they shall come
I also started a blog. And no, not this blog. Another blog.
It’s called The /Slash Blog, after the 'Slash Worker' nomenclature for freelancers with multiple specialties. I write about--you guessed it--copywriting, social media, and email marketing.
I only have 3 posts up so far, but 21% of my total website pageviews are from my blog. Everybody can see my giant, orange “Get a Quote” button or navigate through the rest of my site to see what I’m about.
And even if they don’t, it helps build more credibility with potential clients who visit my site first and then find my blog. It’s written proof I know my craft, but also an active demonstration of the services I’m trying to sell.
Marketing is pretty meta like that.
Speaking of knowing my craft, I’ve also jumped on Quora to further toot my own horn. I had very low expectations, but I’ve been blown away by the amount of traffic I’ve received with pretty little effort.
Maybe I just got lucky, but one of my answers was selected for a few of the Quora Digest emails and sent to 192,000 people. I haven’t even answered 30 questions yet and collectively my answers have received 25,000 views.
You better believe I end every answer with an offer to help more and a link to my website.
The bottom line
I still have so much more to learn and this is only the beginning for me. It’s certainly a hell of an effort to get a freelance business off the ground, but the payoff is exponential. I’m so much happier, more fulfilled, and less stressed.
I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I know if I keep plugging along and going 110%, only good things can come.