Remember when you used to daydream about freelancing? About working for yourself full-time, being your own boss, setting your own rules, being the master of your own destiny?
That’s how many of us freelancers start out—daydreaming at a desk job and wishing we could just break free.
After years of working with thousands of freelancers via my blog and community, I’ve learned one very sad reality, however: for some freelancers, being their own boss doesn’t prove nearly as magical as they first imagined.
Many freelancers fizzle out, get frustrated, or completely give up because they can’t seem to get their freelance business off the ground, much less actually make it sustainable long-term.
The good news is, I’ve also seen just how possible it is to really thrive at freelancing.
I’ve met freelancers achieving multiple-six-figure years all on their own. I’ve seen freelancers hire subcontractors and take that revenue even higher. I’ve met freelancers who don’t worry where the next paycheck is coming from, don’t suffer through the feast or famine scenario, and have truly built a business — instead of just taking on one then another project.
These freelancers act differently than their flailing counterparts.
They don’t work magic or some kind of weird voodoo. No, they’ve figured out five critical components of growing and maintaining a freelance business that thrives month after month.
I’d like to share just a few pieces of advice if you’re ready to join the ranks of freelancers who sleep well at night, take long vacations, and love the work they do day in and day out.
Lucky for you, I’ve been paying attention.
What Successful Freelancers Do Differently
My goal is to liberally share some of the top differentiators I’ve seen in freelancers who rake in big clients and build sustainable businesses.
If you follow along and are serious about growing your freelance business, you can achieve the same thing in your own way. These ideas are meant to be a great springboard and motivator for you to take your business to new heights.
Let’s dive right in!
If you want to take your freelance business to the next level, there are things you’ll have to do right.
1. Successful freelancers are picky
When you’re first starting out as a freelancer, it can be tempting to take any project that comes your way.
In fact, that may not be the worst idea in the world when you’re getting started — just to get you on your feet and get some money in the bank. Quickly, however, you’ll want to transition to being a bit more picky about who you work with and what kinds of projects you’re willing to work on.
For starters, not all freelancing websites are created equal. Some provide really high quality freelance work while others tend to skew toward clients with low budgets and little respect for freelancers.
Stick with higher quality freelance sites if you want to build a long-term business that doesn’t burn you out.
Not all clients are created equal either. The key to being happy, avoiding burn-out and doing work you love is getting pickier and pickier as you progress in your career. At times, that means passing on a project that might bring in a little extra money this month (and that’s incredibly scary).
What successful freelancers understand is there are always more clients around the corner.
In fact, the most successful freelancers I’ve ever encountered know there are plenty of clients out there just ripe for the picking.
Which brings me to my next point: you have to go out there and work for quality clients.
2. Successful freelancers are go-getters
Unfortunately, within the freelancing ecosystem, seasoned freelancers have somehow gotten into a bad habit of telling up-and-coming freelancers that “word of mouth” is the best way to grow their freelance business.
What a joke.
Most new freelancers don’t know where to find their first client, let alone deliver a quality project for that client, successfully ask for a referral, get enough referrals that one of them turns into a client, and — to top it all off — are able to do this repeatedly month after month until their docket is so jammed full with “word of mouth” clients that they don’t have to do any marketing at all.
It’s a dream.
Can it be achieved? Yes, of course. But it takes years (decades sometimes) to get there.
Smart freelancers recognize they’ll need to get out there and hustle in order to find high quality clients.
Sure, searching freelance sites is a good place to start. But it’s not the only way.
- Try going to networking events where you can meet and get to know potential clients.
- Connect with agencies to help them handle run-off work.
- Partner with other freelancers who need to offer their client complimentary services.
- Send cold emails to decision-makers at companies you want to freelance for.
There are boundless ways to hustle, get your name out there, and find the kinds of clients you want to work with. The “secret” is to actually hustle. Set weekly or monthly goals on how many potential clients you’ll contact.
Business development (the art of bringing in new work for your business) is usually just a numbers game. After a while, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how many emails you have to send, events you have to attend, or doors you have to knock on before someone says “yes” to working with you.
Keep at it. It gets easier. And it always pays off.
3. Successful freelancers know how to sell
The odds of success as you get out there and work hard to land new clients will go up dramatically if you understand the basics of good salesmanship.
I know many freelancers recoil at the idea of “selling themselves” but let me reassure you: I’m not talking about the slimy, sleazy, gross salesmanship we sometimes imagine when we hear the word “sales.”
Your goal is not to bother all your closest family and friends. It’s not to knock on a business’ door and when they decline your services, to stay put on their doorstep as if your stubbornness will make them like you more. It’s not to send spammy emails or make heartless phone calls.
The kind of salesmanship I’m referring to becomes more of a way of life. As a business-owner, you have to be selling yourself at all times.
Whether you’re going in for a hard-sell (like a potential client pitch meeting) or a softer one (like meeting someone at a mixer after a local networking event), one thing is certain:
You’ll sell better if you understand the value you bring to clients’ businesses.
How do you help your clients succeed? What kind of work can you do for your clients better or cheaper than they could do it for themselves? What makes your work matter — to your client?
These are all the kinds of questions potential clients are asking themselves when they meet you. Having answers to these questions ready will evoke confidence in your potential client and increase the likelihood of eventually closing the deal.
Last of all, if you’re reaching out via phone, email, or door-to-door contact you must respect the power of the follow-up.
Most of the best deals I’ve ever done didn’t close on the first contact. Most successful freelancers I talk to express the same experience: most client deals are done after you follow up with them.
4. Successful freelancers know the power of recurring revenue
One of the most desired things I hear from freelancers is their wish of moving from one-time projects to long-term, predictable, recurring client relationships.
That’s because there is real power in recurring revenue.
Here are two big reasons why:
Recurring revenue is predictable
When you know where next month’s revenue is coming from, it makes an enormous difference in your freelance business.
You sleep better at night. You enjoy work more during the day. And you’re less likely to take low-quality projects you’re ashamed of all because you need some extra money in the bank this month.
Recurring revenue is scalable
Once you have predictable, recurring revenue coming into your business each month, scaling becomes infinitely easier.
Maybe you’ve been thinking about upgrading from Google Sheets to a real invoicing app. Perhaps you’ve considered hiring a virtual assistant to help with some of your more tedious tasks. Or maybe you’d like to build out a new piece of your business that will increase revenue, but you just haven’t made the time.
All of these (and many more) become infinitely easier if you have recurring cash flow in your business.
The freelancers I’ve met who are growing and loving their business are the ones that have harnessed the power of repeat clients and recurring revenue.
For more reading, start with Bidsketch’s 5 Simple Techniques for Producing Repeat Clients.
5. Successful freelancers aren’t afraid to raise their rates (and then raise them again)
For many freelancers, setting the perfect freelance rate can be difficult. That’s why I recommend to all new freelancers:
Just decide. And move ahead.
You can be crippled by asking yourself exactly what to charge for each service you provide. As you’re getting started, just charge something.
Quickly, however, you’ll want to get far more strategic about what to charge your clients.
If you hear them saying things like “oh, wow. That’s a great deal.” then you know your prices are a bit on the low end. On the other hand, if they’re hesitant to pay you the price you quote them, it’s possible your rates are too high.
Most often, though, freelancers charge too little.
Remember, you’re working primarily with businesses. In big companies, the people you work directly with at these businesses have very little personal interest in the money they spend — except that they usually have a budget they’ve been assigned by their boss. If you work with smaller businesses, budget may be a bigger issue. Still, they are already saving a lot by hiring a freelancer instead of an employee.
Here’s a bit of a paradigm shift for you: $500 to an employee to get a job done for business growth feels absolutely nothing like $500 of that person’s own spending money.
For me, everything changed when I realized that. For many freelancers I know, they’ve had the same realization.
In business, the cost of something is often weighed relative to the value you get out of what you invest. Businesses are more than happy to invest millions of dollars in initiatives they are confident will bring them a positive ROI.
So we come back to your ability to sell yourself. As you contemplate raising your rates, just ask yourself this one critical question:
Are you confident you bring value back to your client that exceeds the price tag?
If the answer is yes, keep raising your rates until the answer is “no” or until clients start laughing in your face. I’ve personally known freelancers who doubled their initial rate. Then doubled it again. Then doubled it again. All before anyone started pushing back on their prices. Another thriving freelancer I know recently told me he practiced this exercise and ended up charging $4,000 for one blog post for one client.
You’ve got this.
Before I sign off, there’s one thing I really want to drive home with you.
You can do this.
You can be one of those freelancers that have huge revenue months they can depend on over and over again. You can free yourself from daily client headaches and low-quality projects you don’t actually get excited about. You can work with big companies you admire and enjoy working with. You can scale your business up to whatever height you want to.
It takes work. It takes determination. It takes sacrifice. And it may require additional training, coaching, or help.
But you CAN do it.
Now get out there and make it happen.