Getting your freelancing career off the ground while you’re still at a traditional job is a smart strategy. Most people take a sharp hit in income when they first begin working for themselves—however, waiting to leave your current position until you’ve gotten your solo career semi-established will help you avoid this pay cut.
In addition, you can figure out the ins and outs of freelancing while you still have a safety net. Mistakes become a lot more serious when you’ve only got one source of income (and it’s irregular, to boot).
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But as wise as this approach may be, beginning freelancers often struggle to get started. If you don’t know what to do, use this roadmap.
1. Review Your Job Contract
If you’re in a writing-related role, it’s possible your employer has prohibited you from creating similar content. You don’t want to violate a non-compete clause — even if your employer doesn’t fire you or take legal action, your professional reputation will undoubtedly suffer.
Cover your bases by double-checking your contract and reviewing all the fine print.
2. Talk to Your Manager
Although telling your boss about your freelancing aspirations isn’t necessary, there are several possible outcomes. First, she will be able to tell you definitively whether your work is above board. There may be certain caveats; for example, if your day job involves writing about the medical device industry, your supervisor might say you can freelance about any topic but this industry.
Second, you’re far better off letting your manager know you’re freelancing than having her stumble across your work online.
When you give her the heads up, make sure you communicate this role is still your priority. You might be planning on leaving eventually (or soon!), but that’s a conversation for a different time. Plus, plans change. It could be dangerous for your boss to doubt your commitment if you decide to stay longer than you’d anticipated.
3. Make a Schedule
At the end of a full day at the office, the idea of sitting down to work more may sound completely unappealing. But you can’t launch a freelance career without regularly producing. Setting a schedule is essential.
When you begin, start with a fairly undemanding quota — maybe 25 to 30 minutes per weekday and two hours over the weekend. As time goes on, consider ramping up to 45 minutes to an hour on weekdays and four hours on Saturday and Sunday.
4. Set Aside a Dedicated Time to Pitch
Many freelancers are surprised to discover pitching is just as—if not more—important as doing to getting your freelance career off the ground. However, while working regularly will help you hone your skills, you won’t be able to score any bylines or clients without pitching.
After you’ve become established, you’ll receive queries from repeat customers, referrals and clients who have seen your work elsewhere. For now, you’ll need to proactively reach out to clients. Dedicate at least four hours per week to finding, researching and sending pitches to your targets.
5. Look for Freelance Gigs
Along with proactively pitching publications, you should also browse job boards like Mediabistro to find freelance gigs. Searching “freelance writer” “contract writer,” “writer for hire,” “freelance blogger,” “short-term writer,” “remote blogger,” and other variations on those terms will help you hone in on the relevant jobs. Just sub in “designer”,”producer”,”photographer”,etc.—whatever your speciality is—to find the opportunities that are right for you.
You should consider a couple of things when deciding which gigs to apply for.
First, does it require deep subject matter expertise or extensive experience? It’s pretty unlikely someone looking for an expert will hire a new writer.
Second, will you get a byline or credit? There’s nothing wrong with ghostwriting, but those new to freelancing should prioritize credited pieces. When you pitch new editors or clients, apply to other gigs, or add clips to your portfolio, you need content with your name on it.
Third, how much time will the gig take? It’s easy to get excited and overcommit yourself. Because you’re still working a full-time job, smaller freelancing projects are optimal. If you tackle something you don’t end up finishing on time, you’ll damage your reputation in the freelancing community.
6. Tell Your Network
Your friends, family and professional contacts can be a fantastic source of clients as well. Use social media to distribute the news that you’re freelancing at scale. For instance, you could write a LinkedIn status along the lines of:
“Excited to say I’m now freelancing on the side. If you’re interested in X types of projects (or know someone who is), please email me at email@example.com.”
Meanwhile, you might post on Twitter:
“Now accepting clients for X types of projects, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.”
Facebook and Instagram are good sites to update as well if you’re hoping to score referrals or jobs from your personal network.
7. Create a Portfolio
The majority of editors and clients will want to see samples of your work, if not your entire portfolio. Rather than waiting until you’ve got a sizable body of published pieces, shortcut the process by creating a portfolio site and uploading samples for hypothetical publications or brands.
For instance, if you’re hoping to cover music, you could write a long-form piece on a local band for an imaginary magazine. Or if you want to go into recipe writing, you might develop four or five recipes for a cooking publication.
If you’re serious about going down this path, sign up for our course on Developing a Successful Freelance Career, to learn everything you need to know about navigating contracts, pitching clients and marketing yourself.