Start with an Emergency Fund

The best thing that any budding freelancer can do for herself is to set up an emergency fund. Whether it's 3 months or 3 years, you should have enough money in a relatively fluid (ie. not your retirement account or your house) source to tide you over through lean patches. Every beginning freelancer will experience lean patches. Whether you choose to save that money by working at another job while you freelance part-time or you wait until that money is saved before starting out is up to you. The important thing is that you have that cushion. Other benefits to an emergency fund include:

  • You can relax because you don't have to take that job and you won't seem desperate to clients.
  • If you're more relaxed, you'll be more creative.
  • If you're more creative, more clients will want to work with you.
  • The more potential clients you have, the more work you'll have.
  • The more work you have, the less you'll need the emergency fund, so you'll remain relaxed.

Create a Business Plan

A business plan often seems very rigid and boring to most creative freelancers. But creating a business plan leaves your creativity a place to grow without being side-tracked. If you treat your freelancing business seriously, your clients will take you more seriously. And a business plan is a great start. It doesn't have to be extremely technical, but it should outline what you want to achieve from your business and what types of jobs you plan to accept.

Decide on Your Pricing Structure

Rather than worrying about how much to charge, first you should decide how you're going to charge. In other words, are you going to charge by the project? by the hours? set pricing? sliding scale? If you're starting freelancing with a stable of clients who want to work with you, firstly congratulations, but secondly, you probably already know how you're going to charge them. For the rest of us, it's probably easier to come up with a flat rate for a specific project type - say a 5-page website. But you can also charge an hourly rate. Make your decision between flat-rate vs. hourly billing and then you can determine how to set a price for Web design work.

Come Up with a Standard Contract

If you have a standard contract ready you can get your first client to sign on the dotted line much more quickly than if you have to build it from scratch every time. Some things I include in all my contracts include:

  • Dates - dates when approvals, access details, and content are due to me, when plans, wireframes, designs, and final documents are due from me and any other dates I can think of
  • Job details - how many pages I'll build, or hours I'll work, or what project I'm building
  • Forfeit details - is there a penalty? How long until I stop working on the project?
  • Pricing - how much up front, how much on delivery of plans, wireframes, designs and final delivery?

These are not all that can or should be in a contract. But if you create a general outline ahead of time, you'll be able to fill in the details more quickly.

A Professional Site

Your business website is where a lot of your clients are going to come to find out about you. Make sure that your website is as professional as you are. You don't have to keep your pricing or portfolio on the site, but it should be well designed and act as a premier marketing tool for your business.

Business Documents

Web designers often forget to create professional documents to surround their business. I'm not talking about just business cards and logos, but also billing and invoicing documents, contracts (see above), letterhead, and so on. Just because you're a Web business that doesn't mean you won't need printed documentation. You might not need a lot, but if you have at least the template ready to print for when you need it, you won't be scrambling at crunch time.

Find a Place to Work

It can be tempting to think that as a freelancer you can pick up your laptop and work at the local coffee house, but that's not a realistic business location. Guaranteed the first business phone call you take will be right when the group of students come in to boisterously applaud their school's latest victory.

A quiet location with access to power and a phone or cellphone reception is best. There are options like coworking in larger cities or perhaps you can find a freelancing friend to share an office with. Many freelancers work quite successfully right out of their homes. I've worked with freelancers who worked out of their bedrooms or living rooms. The one thing they had in common was that their families understood that when Daddy was at the computer, he needed quiet time.

Always Be on the Lookout for New Clients

You never know when you'll find someone who needs your services. I've gotten a job while waiting for an Americano at Starbucks. The key is to be friendly, have business cards ready, and be willing to brainstorm at a moment's notice. Just because someone works for a corporation doesn't mean they can't hire a freelancer. And if you have some good suggestions for a new area on their site or a great change to improve their existing site, you might get a job right on the spot. Even if networking doesn't pan out immediately, you have gotten your business card out there, and you haven't lost anything.