Working Freelance (pt 3 of 3)

Good morning and welcome to Storm Watch 2013! Nick and I always loved when it was fall and winter back in Seattle. Every gust of wind and threat of a snowflake became a “STORM WATCH” and the news channels would go completely overboard reporting how to survive the coming apocalypse. This morning I woke up to a fresh layer of snow, maybe four or five inches. I pulled on my Sorels and ventured out, no big thing. Look at me all acclimated to life in Utah!

Sorel BootsI got these boots for Christmas last year and they have been a real life saver. They stay warm and dry even in the sloppiest of snow. And, cute to boot!

It was pretty slick out there but luckily I have only a few blocks commute to “the office” down here at the coffee shop where I am now working. Of course no snow storm or storm watch in any community would be complete without the “all-knowing snow expert from out of town” to dispel anyone’s comment about “it being bad out there” or how it “really dumped on us last night.”

Snow 25th Street

The all-knowing out of town-er has to pipe up to any and all comments of this variety by saying things like “Oh this? This is nothing. If you think this is a big deal, you’d never make it in [insert town other than the one you’re in].” At the moment, one of the coffee shop’s resident college bums has taken up post as the all knowing out of towner :)

Okay, let’s get back to our discussion of freelance work. As promised, today we’re talking about starting your own freelance biz, writing contracts and proper accounting/taxes.

Starting Your Own Freelance Business

There are two ways to start a freelance business: “cold turkey” and “ease-in”

While most people that quit the office world cold turkey have a significant push to actively seek out work and commit to working the jobs they get, they also have a significant risk financially. If you don’t get work right away, or you don’t get consistent work right away, this can be a really stressful way to go and might even push you back into the cubicle world which may or may not lead to frustration and a sense of a failed venture. This approach works for some people but it was not something I was even go to attempt.

I took the “ease-in” approach. The pros of this method are of course that you can build your business and portfolio of work while you are still earning a steady paycheck but a major downside is that you are working two jobs ( in actuality you’re working a fulltime job and many other small projects which often exceeds the time of fulltime office work). This is what I did though.

I took work that I had done in my office jobs, going back to the beginning, and made a portfolio of things I had personally been responsible for writing, producing and transmitting. I went back to my resume and found three major accomplishments at each job – these three things went into my portfolio.

I should make a HUGE side note here: NO MATTER WHAT YOU ARE DOING, no matter how crappy your office job or whatever it is you’re doing to pay the bills during this process – ALL of it is an experience, all of it is building your experience of work. It should go without saying that in all that you do, you should do it in a way that you’d be proud of no matter who saw it. If you close a bar and we saw pictures posted on Facebook of the cleaning job you did – would you be embarrassed at your shoddy work? Do everything as if someone is watching and as if it matters, regardless of how menial it may seem at the time. You never know when those random moments in life will matter again.

connecting the dots

(read the full speech here)

Armed with a rather small, but decent enough, portfolio of work I started pursuing work outside of my office job. Because I was fairly good at my job, people had already taken notice and asked if I knew others like me that could work for them. When I was ready to pursue outside work, I started contacting those people and instead of recommending someone else, I simply stated that I was available to help them get a program started and could train whoever they’d like to work in that position going forward. In this way, I was able to really expand my portfolio without any upfront expenses – I had no business cards, no marketing materials, just myself and a reputation for a job well done.

In fact, I didn’t have business cards, a media kit, or printed portfolio until I fully left the office world and committed to full-time freelance but I was able to land plenty of work without any of these things.

I took a column position with the Standard Examiner last year to help promote my work and to establish myself as an “expert” in business process management. Seth Godin, in his book Linchpin, talks about sharing knowledge. The more you give away for free, the more people assume the depth of what is “for sale.” Similarly, Michelle Goodman, in The Anti 9-to-5 Guide recommends “establishing yourself as an expert” – host free classes at your local library, volunteer, write an e-book – for me, that was the business column in the Standard.

At the same time, you need to let people know what you’re up to. You can’t be a freelance anything and keep it a secret. Tell your friends, join professional associations, introduce yourself as a “freelance ______.” Make sure people know what you do, that you’re excited about your work and that you are available.

Writing Contracts

A freelancer is only as good as their contract. That is a rule I stand by.

Make your scope of work, time frame for completion and fee completely transparent. If working with other groups or freelancers to complete a job, make it entirely clear who is responsible for which work, what you need from both the client and the other team members to complete your work and the timeframe you need their pieces in order to fulfill your portion of the work.

My contracts request either 50% down, with the remainder upon completion OR I request monthly payments on a specified date. Clear, concise, no confusion = no misunderstandings. A misunderstood contract is the most detrimental thing to a client/freelancer relationship. It’s much easier to spend some extra time nailing down a contract than to cool a heated client who misunderstood your timeframe or your included services.

Proper Accounting and Taxes

No matter how few jobs you have at the start, keep track of your finances. This will be especially important come tax time but also plays a huge part if you end up dealing with a bank to finance an office space or other business loans down the road. If you are just depositing checks and sending invoices when your bank account gets low, you’re cheating yourself. Set up a billing schedule, use QuickBooks or even just Excel to manage your finances, and my number one tip: meet with an accountant for a quick “intro to business finances.”

Most freelancers are not business/finance geniuses. Typically, us freelancers fall into the category of “creatives” but your fancy graphic designs and well-written articles aren’t going to cut it when it’s time to file your taxes :)

I take a photo of all my business receipts, using my phone, and save them in a folder on my computer. I also have a running spreadsheet of work in progress and work coming up – should I ever need to show potential income to a bank but also so that I can budget myself and know where I’m at (not just looking at the current balance in my bank account – don’t laugh, you know you do that!)

No matter how you choose to track your finances, the important thing is being organized. And I recommend a class like this.


Recommended Reading


You might also be interested in:

Part 1: What to Do, When to Work and How to Get Paid

Part 2: Finding Work, Sticking to Deadlines and Staying Organized


  1. Brenda says:

    Love yourboots!
    You MUST create a Christmas card using one of your beautiful snow pictures!

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