The Ultimate Guide to Freelancing as a Creative

6 steps to finding success as a freelancer in a creative industry.

Portrait for EnvatoBy Envato  |  Updated September 29, 2023

In 2016, a study found that freelance workers make up 35% of the workforce in the USA. A similar study found that number was 32% for Australia in 2015. With these kinds of statistics, 1 in 3 workers in each of these countries is a freelancer, and many of those are creatives, just like you.

Whether you’re working as a writer, artist, graphic designer, computer programmer, social media manager, or other creative profession, there are plenty of ways to break into and find success as a remote employee or freelancer. After watching your friends, family, and/or coworkers take the plunge, it’s not the craziest idea to consider breaking out into the world of freelancing. We’re here to tell you what you need to know.

Freelancing entails being your own boss; yet, this can be both the best and the worst. While the freedom and flexibility of the freelance lifestyle are enticing, take a moment to reflect whether your work ethic and habits are conducive to striking it out on your own:

  • Are you self-motivated and disciplined to keep a schedule, without a boss or a team to push you?
  • Are you able to manage, balance, and prioritize competing responsibilities?
  • Are you ambitious to seek out and jump on new opportunities?
  • Are you internally motivated to continually improve and seek professional development that will give you a competitive edge?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, freelancing as a creative might just be the path for you. Read on for more information about every step of the process to become and succeed as a freelancer!

1. Create a Personal Brand

Becoming a successful freelancer also involves a little bit of mastery of the art of creative marketing. However in this case, the product is you and your talent; the key to creating a personal brand is going back to the practice of self-reflection to determine what your goals, strengths, and the unique qualities are. Start with your resume/CV to look at what you have done in the past and how these experiences can support your freelance career trajectory. Then, as you realign your LinkedIn profile and resume, highlight these projects that align with your new identity as a freelancer.

Once you have sorted out your personal brand, it’s time to verbalize it with a catchy elevator pitch. Again, networking is a key way to find new clients and you’ll have plenty of old coworkers, friends, and family members who will be asking what exactly you do.This elevator pitch should guide you as you incorporate your personal brand into other promotion methods, such as social media. Now that your personal and professional lives have begun to merge, there’s no need to spam all your personal pages with work promotion. Instead, choose one or two channels where your personal brand for your freelance life can shine through.

Ultimately, the most important reflection of your personal brand will be the clients you choose to take on as a freelancer. While your freelance journey will expand your skills and extend your scope of work beyond what you might have thought was possible, your personal brand should keep you grounded in what brought you into the freelance world to begin with. With each exciting opportunity, maintaining your integrity will attract clients that both value your work and you as a worker, and will develop the relationships that keep you in the freelance business for a long time.

2. Find Work

Developing the connections to build a steady stream of freelance work definitely does not happen overnight. Even while at your current job, you can start by building connections both within and outside of the office. Check out different industry events in your city, engage in virtual networking sessions, or attend conferences and classes to both learn and connect in your desired field. In addition, start to realign (or create) your LinkedIn profile and/or your personal website that acts as a portfolio of your work to showcase your expertise.

While these platforms will attract potential clients, there are also several websites where you can seek out your own opportunities. For example, sites like Envato Studio, Upwork, and Freelancer allow you to create a profile and connect with clients via their postings. Use your personal brand to differentiate yourself from the competition and attract projects that fit both your interests and skillset.

Ultimately, once you have worked on your first few projects, the references and referrals that clients give you will be your most important sources of new projects. Although you may start slow, the quality of the deliverables that you provide for clients is what will continue to generate new work. By building your portfolio of experiences, you’ll be able to take on new projects confidently and with your past experience to support you with each new step.

3. Stay Organized

Once you’ve built up your client base, it’s important to stay organized as you balance different systems, work styles, communication platforms (such as a client portal), and projects. Clients will be continuously impressed if you meet deadlines, come to meetings prepared, and maintain proactive and appropriate communication. At the heart of all of this is being organized, with the resources to respond to a client’s request at a moment’s notice.

There are many ways of staying organized, whether with physical planners or online tools. What’s important is to find what works for you. In addition, maintaining a calendar of all your important deadlines and events is a key way to make sure you do not overload yourself to the point of having to push back a previously agreed upon due date. Within whatever platform you choose, creative freelancers also require creative analog systems to keep track of the variety of tasks in both your personal and professional life.

No matter in what way you do it, a pro trip of freelancing is to write everything down! When working with several different clients, it can get confusing to remember what you talked about with who, when. Also, after discussing a new development with a client, a competing deadline might require that you work on a different project first. In order to maintain organization and prevent the faux-pas of having to contact clients for clarification or to repeat something, having a notebook, Google doc, or note in your phone where you can summarize and track information is invaluable as your advance in your successful career.

4. Manage Your Time

Freelancing can be dangerous when it comes to having the whole day to do one thing or having too many things to do in one day. Even though you no longer are confined to an office and could literally spend the whole day in your pajamas, it’s important to resist the traps of Netflix, meeting friends for 3-hour lunches or on the flip side, taking on too much to the point of burning yourself out. When starting to freelance, be conscious of how long it takes you to complete different projects so that you can set appropriate timelines in your proposals and manage your own time effectively throughout the day.

From this self-observation, a freelancer can then develop a routine that promotes success. For some, this might involve going to a set workspace, whether the local coffee shop, or paying for a co-working space membership. For others, this might involve working for a large chunk of time in the morning, taking an extended break in the afternoon, and then resuming smaller tasks in the evening.

However, try to stick to a schedule that allows sufficient time to complete what is necessary. Even small breaks to wait in line at Starbucks, check personal emails, do a quick home workout, or pick-up that phone call from mom all add up when you’re billing clients on an hourly rate. Keep up your productivity and the legitimacy of your freelance efforts with a work schedule that fits both the needs of your work style and the demands of your clients. If necessary, use apps to keep track of your work hours to give accurate billable work hours to clients. As a freelancer, switching to an automated time-tracking system will be more efficient for your work than traditional manual timekeeping.

5. Maintain Client Communication

Communication is a super important skill when freelancing in any industry or when simply working remotely in any context. When your client cannot physically supervise, it’s important to make up for this distance with smart methods of keeping in touch. Take note, this does not necessarily mean daily check-ins or constant emails. Rather, it means establishing a system that works best for both you and your client to focus on the heart of the project and get the job done. When starting out decide on one or two channels through which you and your client will communicate and collaborate- whether it’s Skype, Gmail, Google Docs, Slack, Whatsapp etc. Then, stick to those as you fulfill all their dreams!

Once you’ve finished celebrating a new freelance job that you’ve secured and determined the appropriate channels of communication, it’s important to set the expectations of the client. It’s always best to be completely honest and transparent. Never lie about a deadline you know you cannot meet or a skill you do not have. With freelancing and remote work, it’s all about establishing trust and maintaining accountability. For example, if you realize a project is taking much more time than you proposed, check-in with the client about it. In the end, your work ethic and the relationship you establish through effective communication will be invaluable when it comes to your reputation as a freelancer.

6. Get Paid

At the start, it’s normal to take freelancing jobs that are unpaid in order to build your client base and gain experience in your field. Ultimately though, everyone wants to get paid for their hard work! As soon as possible, start phasing out your unpaid jobs so that all of your efforts will be compensated. From there, it’s time to get down to the important questions:

  • What exactly should you charge? Unfortunately, there is no set answer, and it will depend on how you charge for your services. To start, it’s always a good practice to ask your client what their budget is and then to exercise all your best negotiating skills from there. Your consideration should also take into account question #2.
  • How should your rate be calculated? Depending on your field, it may make more sense to charge by the project, by the hour, or some other combination. Time clock calculator might be a helpful tool to deal with that!
  • How often should you invoice? Establish with your client how often you will be paid whether it’s weekly, bi-monthly, monthly, at the end of a project, with a deposit etc.
  • How will you receive payment? Check the transaction fees associated with domestic and international money transfers with your bank, PayPal, Venmo or other accounts. Then choose the best option with the most favorable rate.

You may have also heard (or expected) what we’re about to say next, but the truth is: freelancing as a creative can be financially unstable and of course, requires a bit of creative thinking. As a result, it’s so important to start saving now and budgeting, so that months with less work won’t come as a shock to your bank account. Also, start keeping records and preparing ahead so when it comes time to file taxes, you won’t be caught off guard.

Becoming a freelancer is a beautiful, scary leap from the ordinary life of a 9-5 desk job. Yet with high risk, comes high reward and the highest of all is the ability to make a living being the creative person that you are. While there is a lot to consider and plan before starting out as a full-time freelancer, the more effort and planning you put into the transition, the smoother the jump to your new career will be. Start today and in no time you’ll be ordering your business cards with “Freelance Creative” as your new and empowered job title.

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