Hi, it’s Ariel, Michelle’s editor. Over the past couple of years you’ve seen me here on Making Sense of Cents talking about real life frugality, staying in a small house, and editing and writing strategies. Last year, I turned my freelance side business into my full-time job.
It’s been nearly a year since I went full-time with my freelance editing and writing business (you can read more about that here).
The learning curve has been steep at times – I had (okay, sometimes have) absolutely no clue how to run a business. More often than not, I turn to Google for advice, searching for things like “how to file estimated quarterly taxes” and “how to set your freelance writing rates.”
There are best practices, but if there’s an official rulebook for freelancing, I haven’t been able to find it.
Freelancers make up a growing portion of the workforce – there are currently over 56 million freelancers in the U.S. That’s 56 million people who are running businesses, and most of us don’t have actual business school training. We’re making things up as we go, learning from others, and just trying to do what’s right for our businesses and clients.
One of my greatest sources of wisdom has come from working with some pretty amazing clients. From a weird vantage point that’s both in and outside of their businesses, I have the unique opportunity to observe my clients as they navigate running businesses that are much larger than mine, but still having started with equally humble beginnings. They’ve talked candidly about their mistakes, what they wish they knew going in, and have helped me become a better business owner.
I will forever be grateful for what they’ve shared with me.
So in the spirit of sharing, I’d like to pass on a few of the lessons I’ve learned in the past year working with a handful of incredibly successful bloggers and online business owners.
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Here are 10 freelancing lessons I’ve learned from my biggest clients:
1. Create a code of ethics for how you’ll run your business.
Whether this is something you write out or just hold in the back of your mind, a code of ethics will help inform the way you accept new clients, interact with them, and manage your overall business.
You’ve probably already encountered situations when having a code of ethics would apply, but if you haven’t, it’s coming. Further down in my post, you’ll see at least one point in which this kind of thing is valuable.
Here are some examples of the types of statements and standards you might include in your code of ethics:
- Always prioritizing your client’s or customer’s needs
- Avoiding conflicts of interest
- Protecting intellectual property
- Understanding the types of clients or customers that might not be a good fit for your business (an example for me would be if a client asked me to edit a blog post that promoted hate speech)
- A willingness to work with clients or customers regardless of gender, race, religion, etc.
- A promise of high-quality products and/or services
- Responding to questions, comments, concerns, and returning work in a timely manner
- Being transparent with your ability to meet deadlines and expectations
Your code isn’t something that you need to hand out to clients or customers; it’s there to lean on and inform the work you do.
Your code of ethics will likely be a fluid document, and that’s completely okay. As your experience grows and your business changes (see the next point), you will learn more about yourself and your needs as a business owner.
2. Learn to adapt.
To stay relevant and endure, you must continually adjust your business based on the needs of the industry that you’re working in. What services or products are your clients asking for? What type of content do they want to read about? If you want your business to survive, you must be willing to make those changes.
I’d say that nearly half of the services I now offer are in direct response to my client’s needs. That’s adaptation, and it’s growing my business.
3. When you want/need to work, say “yes” to as much as possible.
You already know this, but it still needs to be said: if you need cash, then you need to work. What that means is that you’re going to find yourself working on a lot of projects that you don’t really love.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree to every job. Like, I could never find myself working for someone who promotes hate speech, even if I really needed the work – why it can help to have a code of standards even early on. Fortunately, there are lots of menial jobs out there that can sustain you and your business, and there’s nothing wrong with doing them.
You’ll get those high-paying, soul-fulfilling jobs eventually, but that’s after you grow your base and have some cash flowing in. Then you can be a little pickier about the type of work you take on.
Related: The Truth About Making Money Online
4. Find a way to organize your workflow.
Workflow is a little bit of a buzzword, but it just means the process in which you start and finish work. It can relate to one specific project or task, or you can talk about workflow in how you structure your working day.
Why is workflow important? Well, it helps you stay on task and increases your productivity and efficiency.
Finding the right workflow is incredibly hard when you’re working from home, like many freelancers and online business owners do. You see laundry that needs to be folded, and you say to yourself, “let me just take care of that.” Having some structure to your workflow and scheduling time for breaks will allow you to know whether or not you can fold that laundry now or later.
Between my freelance clients and the one part-time job I still work, I’m pulling around 40+ hours per week. It’s really easy to push some of that work off until the weekend, but I’ve organized my workflow so that I keep the weekends to myself as much as possible – you’ve gotta get that work/life balance right.
If you need some help with workflow, Asana is a free team and project management tool that’s amazing. I found it through one of my clients, and I am 100% happy with what it’s done for me and my business.
5. Freelancers no longer live in the wild west.
I recently went to this freelancer’s happy hour and met a few folks who have been freelancing for decades. I was telling them about my experience as a newer freelance business owner and someone said something like, “you’re lucky to start it now, it used to be hell out there for us.”
They went on further to describe the old idea of what freelancers do, from the perspective of both clients and freelancers. It was ride into town, pick up some work, go unseen for a couple of weeks, and then ride back in to drop off work and pick up a bag of cash. No one wanted to interact with the freelancer and the freelancer couldn’t care less.
Freelancers were just too wild to work a real job.
However, we collectively agreed that attitudes towards freelancers have shifted. Good freelancers are in communication with their clients when it’s needed. We aren’t just doing the extra or crap work that no one wants, or at least that’s not always the general perception.
Most importantly, freelancers are being treated like valuable business assets who are running their own respectable businesses. You can still call yourself a cowboy if you want, but at least now you’re welcome in town.
6. Take care of cracks before they grow.
With that growth and adaption I mentioned in #2, there are naturally going to be a few cracks that appear in your business – your foundation is settling. While that’s normal, take care of that stuff before it gets too big and actually hurts your business.
I learned this lesson just a few months ago when someone I was outsourcing work to was making some little errors here and there. I told myself it was no big deal and that it would fix itself. But it didn’t. The outsourcing I was doing to save me time was now costing me money AND time.
It was uncomfortable, but I talked with my freelancer and we fixed the issue. Things are now really great, and we’ve both promised to always be honest with each other if stuff like this happens again.
7. Learn SEO.
You do not need to be an SEO master to benefit from some basic search engine optimization tips, and that basic level stuff isn’t that hard to learn. So, read some articles, find a course, listen to podcasts, whatever… just inform yourself.
You don’t have to optimize every page of your website or blog post with keywords, and you also shouldn’t expect that SEO alone will take you to the top of page 1 in Google rankings. Sites pay for that, and it’s often indirectly through months or years of building up their sites.
Learning SEO, at the very least, teaches you what you’re up against, the kind of content people are searching for, and the types of services (if you’re a freelance editor and writer like me) that clients are looking for.
Here are a few resources for SEO training and support:
- Stupid Simple SEO
- Ahrefs (a paid tool for analysis, research, rank tracking, etc.)
- Yoast (a WordPress plugin that has both free and paid options)
8. Get to know your audience and/or your client’s audience.
If you’re a blogger, you know that your audience is driving your work. So, if you’re a personal finance blogger and your audience starts asking for more budgeting advice, you do reviews on apps like Personal Capital and Mint. Have a food blog and your audience wants more vegetarian recipes? You put some on your content calendar.
For freelancers, I think that you also have to be aware of these audiences.
There are big, and sometimes very subtle, differences in the types of readers and customers your clients have. This informs the content, tone, and language you’ll encounter and need to be familiar with, and it will help you move between your work. And, I’d say this applies to most, if not all, freelance writers, editors, virtual assistants, etc.
To learn about your client’s audience, you can ask them for some demographics, read through the comments on posts, follow them on social media, and join their online communities.
I know it takes a little extra time, but trust me, it makes you a better freelancer who understands your client’s needs and is sometimes able to identify them before they do.
9. Outsource as needed.
If you’re a freelancer for a blogger or online business owner, it’s because someone has outsourced work to you. Outsourcing doesn’t just save your clients time. It lets them focus on tasks that have a higher ROI (return on investment). So, spending a little money increases their earnings overall.
Freelancers can also outsource, and it’s incredibly helpful when you’re smart about it (see #6 as a reminder).
Even though I am an editor, I outsource editing for some of the writing I do to a few different freelance editors whom I know and trust. While it might take me around an hour to copy edit a blog post that you’ve written, it can take me 3+ hours to edit one that I’ve written. The time I save is then used for other tasks that pay better.
Read more at How I Make Working From Home Work For Me
10. Network, even if it’s awkward at first.
Remember that freelancer’s happy hour I told you about? It was awkward, like really, really awkward. A decent part of that is because I don’t always know how to talk with new people, but I really did learn a lot. It was also just really nice to meet other people who are doing the same thing that I’m doing – this is hard to find when you’re self-employed, working amid piles of laundry on your dining room table, and referring to your dogs as coworkers.
Networking can bring you new clients and introduce you to ways of doing business that you never thought of. And, you can find people to commiserate with and share in the successes that those directly around you just don’t get.
Where you network is going to depend on what you do, but Facebook groups and other online communities are a good starting point.
In the end, everyone is just trying to run their business the best they can.
Working for yourself is sometimes an act of humility. You can get clients who don’t like your work, readers who email you saying that you’ve misrepresented facts, and sometimes you just don’t think things through and majorly eff things up.
I know it’s frustrating, but we’ve all been there. The upside is that you learn something with each of those challenges, even if it takes you a little time to see the silver lining. Trust me, you regain your footing and move forward.
Are you interested in becoming a freelancer?