Being a freelancer can be a fulfilling and profitable career path.
In digital industries, where job mobility is high and five years with a single employer is ‘a long time’, many professionals view freelancing as a viable and attractive career path.
But make no mistake about it: freelancing is a business and as with any business, starting up, surviving and thriving can be difficult to do.
Here are 12 success-promoting things every freelancer, new and experienced, should have in place.
1. Project management software
There’s more to client satisfaction than solid work product. How you manage your clients can, in many cases, make or break the relationship regardless of how good you are at what you do. Unfortunately, many freelancers are less successful than they could be because they fail to manage projects well.
The good news: with a little bit of help from project management software, key parts of the project management lifecycle where freelancers often fall short can be handled much more efficiently and professionally.
2. Business cards
In the age of mobile, they may not be sexy, but if you want to be prepared to capitalize on business development opportunities that emerge when you’re out and about, keeping a set of professional-looking business cards on your person at all time is a must.
3. A land line
While many can get away with nothing more than a mobile today, if you’re a freelancer, having a land line is a good idea. Professionalism counts and having a reliable way to speak to clients without the risk of reception issues and dropped calls can help establish that your office isn’t the nearest coffee shop.
4. Collaboration tools
Most client relationships are in some way or another collaborative in nature and client collaboration can be a wonderful, enjoyable part of the freelance experience. But collaboration can also become a source of friction.
Fortunately, there are an incredible number of tools designed to make collaboration more efficient. From file sharing services like Box.net to SaaS services such as Basecamp, it’s easy to build up a suite of tools that you can use to ensure smooth collaboration with clients.
5. A way to take credit card payments
Drumming up business is just one half of the freelance business. The other half? Getting paid for your work.
While there are good reasons to prefer that clients pay you by cheque or bank transfer (read: credit card processing costs), setting up a way to accept credit card payments if you need to could mean the difference between getting paid today or getting paid a month from now.
6. A website/portfolio
While it’s increasingly rare to see designers without portfolio-style websites, if you’re seeking clients in a digital industry, you have little excuse not to have a website on which you demonstrate your capabilities to prospective clients too.
The good news: thanks to open source software like WordPress, setting up a website doesn’t have to be a six-month undertaking.
7. Your own domain name
Chances are you know not to use your firstname.lastname@example.org email address for client communication, but email@example.com might not be that much better. Consider the $10 or so it costs to register a domain name a branding investment and create a better impression with clients with every email you send.
8. At least one anchor client
One of the best things about freelancing is the ability it gives you to work on different projects with different people. Every new contract is an opportunity to face a new challenge, and not doing the same thing day in and day out can be very rewarding.
But far too many freelancers fail to establish long-term client relationships, which themselves can be rewarding both personally and financially.
Because there are few guarantees when freelancing, and business may be cyclical, it’s always a good idea to try to acquire at least one anchor client early on.
While your freelance business shouldn’t depend on this anchor client, never underestimate the importance of, and comfort provided by, knowing that there’s a steady stream of work available for you on a regular basis.
9. Accounting software
If your freelance business takes off, you’ll eventually want to hire an accountant, but no matter how big or small you are, you should set up and using accounting software. It will not only save you money in the long run, but being more organized will free you up to do more work, which can help you make more money too.
10. A job history
It is impossible to become a freelancer fresh out of university or a training program? Of course not.
But the experience gained through full-time employment is often hard to acquire elsewhere and being able to position yourself as an experienced member of an industry who has held related roles with one or more companies can be a powerful business development tool.
11. An attorney
Attorneys aren’t the most popular bunch, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be incredibly useful. From making sure that your client agreements are fair and adequately protect your interests to helping you get paid when a client disappears, a relationship with an experienced attorney can literally save your business.
Undercapitalization is a top reason many new businesses fail and although many freelancers mistakenly fail to think of themselves as businesses, lack of capital can be a big problem when you’re running Me Inc.
Clients often pay on Net 30 terms (or worse), so without capital, cash flow can quickly become an issue. When that happens, freelancers are far more likely to take on less desirable jobs, reduce their rates or, even worse, let their personal financial anxiety harm client relationships.