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How to be a successful freelancer

Yes, this is another ‘How To’ article. However, if you want to be a successful working freelancer, this is the only article you need. Too many freelancers become frustrated about why things aren’t working, when actually they don’t even have the basic principles in place. This is your career! You need to be on top of all aspects of it to be successful, because you don’t have a boss to make you accountable for your work. If you’re not currently working, it can really only be due to one of three things:

1. Lack of work going around

Always seek out new projects and jobs. Somewhere, somebody needs you to do something. You just need to find them and be humble enough to know this is part of the process. If work is dry, every little thing you do to expand your skill-set, is an opportunity to learn more (including things you don’t want to do in the future) and expand your network. Spend this time on marketing yourself in new and creative ways until the work does come.

2. You’re not in the game

If people don’t know you exist, then they don’t know what you can do for them. If you're not living your profession then people won't believe in you. If your current network isn't bringing you work, you need to expand it or get a new network. Find people, tell them what you do and do it in clear and repeatable ways. Do it in person and do it online. Pay attention to your actions and the results and then change things to make it better.

3. You’re bad at your job

Sloppy service, poor attention to detail, not respecting deadlines, overcharging and under delivering. These are all on the list of things freelancers are guilty of. If you’re good, people will spread the word. If you’re not, they'll spread that word too. So do a good job and be talked about for the right reasons. We're all just a few connections away from our next job, so be the best version of yourself in every job and your work will stand on its own.

There are so many things you can do to improve your situation but actually, if you have a strong grasp of the basic principles, the rest will fall naturally into place.

So, now that you have some ideas about why things aren’t working, let’s look at some solutions to overhaul your approach and turn you into a successful working freelancer:

Pick a Thing You Love

I’m a freelance writer, editor and strategist and guess what? I’m not the only one. Apparently there are others. Everywhere. Who knew! I used to have a huge list of things on my website that I could do – from product descriptions to wedding vows, real estate listings to resumés – but I wasn't specific and clear enough about the things I did the best, so people got put off.

Over time I realised this was a mistake. Clients know what they're looking for and they want to find the person who can do that thing. Once they find you, then you can dazzle them with all your other tricks.

Taking this approach helps you as well because you can refine your message, strengthen your personal brand and attract the work you WANT to do. Why promote the fact that you can clear tables if you want to be a chef? Don’t tell people you're great at cleaning toilets if you want to manage a hotel. Find the thing you love to do the most, the thing you're really damn good at and PICK THAT THING!

Read, Learn, Follow

Things change in an instant in the online world, but fundamentally, if you pay attention long enough, you'll see that the basic principles remain the same. Of course it’s important to keep track of trends and new developments in your industry, but don’t feel like you have to jump on every new thing that pops up. Keep up by reading and absorbing what’s going on, but use that knowledge just to build an overview in your mind rather than to respond in panic and add even more tasks to your enormous To Do list. Allocating time to read and develop a discerning mind is a key skill for a freelancer.

Over time you'll learn what’s important and be able to recognise when a lot of people are saying the same thing. For example, almost every article written by a famous writer includes the advice ‘write everyday’. So take this. It’s simple. The most successful people in the field from across history have said it and the greatest successes of today are reinforcing it and sharing it.

Also, 'following' is not just a social media term. Many people have travelled this path before you and done the hard yards. Learn from their mistakes to reduce your own. Find people who are successfully doing what you do and yes follow them on social media, but also, follow their lead. Emulate what they have done, but put your own spin on it.

Be a Good Business Person

One of the greatest mistakes freelancers make is forgetting to factor business into their schedule. Brace yourself, but realistically a freelancer probably only has 25 billable hours available per week. I mean the theory is that the work you're billing, covers costs for things like time spent on admin and accounting. But the emails really do never end and one quick call almost always turns into 20 minutes of stuff and before you know it you've lost a whole billable hour to tasks you could be paying a virtual assistant to do in half the time, while you enjoy a distraction free work day.

Know what your business responsibilities are and outsource to people who know what they're doing when you can. The DIY mentality has brought many a freelancer undone. Understanding taxes, registrations and legal requirements, and knowing how to properly invoice clients, manage overdue accounts and more are all unfortunately dull necessities. Ignore them and eventually you will regret it.

“Find the thing you love to do the most, the thing you are good at…”

Tell your story

Some freelancers think they're the only person who can do what they do and should be nominated for freelancer of the year. Taglines like ‘Incredible design for exclusive clients’ or ‘writing amazing stories since 2010’, really don’t do you any favours. The truth is, much like finding the love of your life, freelancing means clients have to date a few duds to find out what they want and who can best provide it for them.

If you’re a developer - say so, if you’re a translator - say so. If someone wants to hire you for a big project, they need to get a sense of who you are – are you reliable, are you trustworthy, do you have a good work ethic, have you done this kind of work before? What are the key parts of your personality that you'll bring to the job to make it unique? The kind of freelancer you are comes out in the story you tell through your personal branding, marketing activities and the experience they have from the moment they first discover you.

Pick your thing

This is why you should ‘pick your thing’ - fefine who you are and what you offer and tell people about it. Find ways of telling them how you offer your thing, who you worked with in the past and what it was like, what they needed, how you responded to that and what the results were. Do this through blog content, or social media, or testimonials – whatever works for you. But be smart about it and make sure that cumulatively these things together tell a good story about who you are and why they should choose you over someone else to do the job.

Do Your Job Well

This is the most important basic principle of all of a freelancer's existence. No matter what it is or what you do. Someone is giving you their money to do something they need done and they can choose any number of people to do that for them. But they picked you. Do not miss the deadline, do not ignore the client’s calls, do not send in work that hasn't been proofed, do not bug the client for things that they're paying YOU to do. Tell them 80% of what you will do for them and then deliver 120%. Another freelancer is sobbing and rocking in the corner because you got the job and they didn’t. So respect your good fortune and do your job well.

It’s easy to get swept up in the hype, but the basic principles of business have never changed. Decide on your product, promote your unique selling point, offer fair prices and do your job well. Being a successful working freelancer is a great challenge and an enormous achievement all wrapped up in one complicated package, but the rewards are well worth the effort involved

This post was previously published as The Ultimate Guide to Being a Successful Freelancer on



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