tipping point

As of this week, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for two years.  And although most days still find me scrambling to keep up with this total lifestyle change, I’ve achieved some measures of success: I pay all my bills, only occasionally carry on entire conversations with my cat, and receive requests from other aspiring freelancers to share tips for how they can do the same.

This last one surprises me; what suggestion could I make that isn’t totally obvious (“work hard”) or somewhat unique to my situation (“have a dad who’s the editor of a magazine, and then get a job writing for that magazine based on other people’s recommendations, but go through life with most people thinking you’re just a beneficiary of nepotism”)?

But after a conversation with my friend Tabitha this week, I realized there are pointers to pass along, and many apply to fields other than writing. So here’s my top ten. And if you need a good graphic designer, Tabitha’s your lady. Leave me a note and I’ll get you two in touch. (See #3.)

1. Learn to self-promote.

You are now your own marketing department, and no one will know how talented you are unless you tell them. Interestingly, more entrepreneurs than you’d think are also somewhat shy, and this can be difficult. But it doesn’t have to be obnoxious (and shouldn’t be). Work on your elevator speech—get comfortable sharing the scope of your work and skills in 15-30 seconds, and have a couple recent projects in mind to share anytime someone asks what you’re working on.

2. Talk to people.

This is related but different, because it could just as easily say “listen to people.” In other words, be friendly and build relationships with no expectation of a payday. Some of my most interesting jobs—doing voiceover work for a children’s musical, drafting the bio for a potential nominee to Obama’s Cabinet, ghostwriting portions of a textbook—have come from friendships that began outside work.

3. Pay it forward.

Or network. Or be nice. However you want to say it, you will get some of your jobs because your friends and colleagues recommend you. Keep the karma flowing by identifying the talented folks in your own circle who you’d work with yourself, and let others know about them too.

4. Get organized.

If you have any work at all, it’s likely going to mean multiple clients and multiple deadlines. Whether you’re a BlackBerry addict or you want everything written down on paper, find a method that works for you and use it. And don’t forget a filing system for receipts, check stubs, and mileage logs, because…..

5. Turbo Tax is your best friend.

Whether you’re full-time or part-time, self-employment = additional taxes. If you’re earning anything substantial you’ll want to pay those taxes in four quarterly payments throughout the year; the IRS aptly calls these “estimated” taxes because correctly guessing the right amount is truly a marketable skill in itself. TurboTax makes it easier, plus it finds every possible (legal) deduction associated with your home office, vehicle, and business expenses. Yes, it costs a little money—it’s worth every penny (and deductible next year, anyway).

6. Get a logo and a website.

Blogging platforms make this easier than ever, and your site doesn’t have to cost a mint (although it wouldn’t hurt if it looked like it did). Ask around—someone in your network knows a reasonably-priced web designer, and the conversations will give you more practice with non-annoying self-promotion.

7. Get business cards and don’t leave home without them.

Just trust me on this one.

8. Work on spec.

Give your work away occasionally if it seems like a wise investment. When trying to land a new job, offer to do a small portion at no charge. This also means no risk, because if the client is unsatisfied they’re out nothing but a few days or weeks. If they do like it, your combination of talent, self-confidence and concern for their business means you’ll likely get the job.

9. But don’t apologize for your fee.

Assuming you’ve done your homework in setting that fee, most professionals won’t blink. But if they do, remember three things: 1. Many of them have never figured out their own hourly rate. Even if they have, they’re coming to you because they can’t do this work themselves.  2. They often forget you have overhead (office rental, health insurance, those higher taxes) which must be covered. They don’t have to pay you benefits, but they have to pay you enough so that you can. 3. If they really can’t stomach it, they’re probably not a client you want, anyway. If you’re convinced I’m wrong, see #8.

10. Remember the Sabbath.

That may be a day, an afternoon, or a 24-hour time span, and it may vary from week to week. Whatever timeframe works for you, plan it and do it.  I worked too many hours last year and I’ll probably work too many this year, but Sundays have become non-negotiable days of worship, friends, naps, movies, reading, and take-out. There will always be something urgent—learn to work hard, then walk away. Push yourself too hard and you’ll do worse than talk to a cat.

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