I have been working as a freelancer for the past three years. Both part-time and full-time. There are things I’ve learned, and things I wish I knew starting out. I work as a web developer, but the advice is pretty universal.
1. Clear Separation
You are a constant representation of your work, but your work life is not your entire life. For communication, you and and your business and two separate entities. You don’t want clients to contact you the same way friends would. Have a level of professionalism with how you communicate.
There should be some ground rules. You may be working from home, but that doesn’t mean you are always working. I only answer my work communications during business hours (usually 10:00am – 7:00pm), but I also make sure I am always available during these hours. You can’t expect yourself to be on call 24/7. Work and personal life needs some division.
Use a separate email for work. Use your own domain. Make it simple and professional, email@example.com. If you have a hard name to spell maybe just your first name. No strange number sequence, usernames, or other companies in it. Example of a bad email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Separate phone number. Clients don’t need your personal phone number. I use Google Voice for this. It gives you a free phone number to use, and is easy to manage. Calls are forwarded to my phone during business hours. During off hours, they are sent to an answering machine. On a Sunday morning, you are not working. I have yet to see a work emergency that warrants this call.
I have some colleagues that set up social media accounts for work (twitter, Facebook, etc…). This is more personal preference. If you are using these services often with clients, then by all means have them separate. Just remember, social media is public, so if you publish to your personal twitter, a client may still be reading it. Anything public with your name, is associated with your work.
Figure out your work space. I spend a day or two a week at the library to really get work done. The benefit of freelancing is you can work from anywhere, but see how much work you actually get done sitting in bed on your laptop. You may not want a traditional office but the environment still matters. Have a dedicated workspace. Don’t try work in the same spot you hang out or relax.
2. Assume Clients Don’t Know
Explain what you are doing for the client. Over simplify or put in relatable terms, if you can. Something physical that anyone can picture in their head. I use real estate as a basis for explaining websites I build.
Picture building the website as building a house. We need three things to start. A domain name. This is the address of your house. It’s registered with a third party so other people can find you. Hosting/Server, this is the plot of land you are going to build on. It’s space to put everything you want. A Website is the actual house. It’s what everyone looks at and uses.
Oversimplified, but clear and easy to understand. It gets the ball rolling for everything else.
Be very clear on what you do and don’t do. Don’t let the client have un-realistic expectations of your work, or what you do beyond your work. When I am building a website for a client, that doesn’t mean I am also fixing their computer problems. Make it clear in your agreement what you are doing, and there are no responsibilities beyond that. Never assume everyone has the same idea of what a job entails.
Contacts don’t need to be a mess of legal jargon. Make it simple, make it contain everything needed to be stated. It can be made in simple, plain English. Never work on a hand-shake agreement.
3. Stay on top of Billing and Expenses
I started off using a simple spreadsheet in Google Docs to track everything. For some people this may be good enough. You need someway to document your expenses and money coming in.
I currently use Freshbooks for both billing and expenses. It has a great invoicing tool, and allows me to generate reports. You need to make sure people are paying you.
Have terms of payment directly on your invoice. These terms vary by industry, but usually if the client doesn’t pay the full amount of the invoice in 30 days of receiving it, there is interest applied to the bill.
In your contracts/agreements with clients, have a payment schedule clearly defined. The client should know when they are being billed and you know when you’re getting paid.
4. Organize, Organize, Organize
You are doing the work of an entire company on your own. You are accounting, creative, hr, marketing, and sales all rolled into one.
There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of apps, software, etc. to stay organized. It really come to personal preference, just make sure you actually use it. Stay up to date with projects. Use your to-do list on a regular basis. Check things off as you go. It provides some motivation to see what you’ve already accomplished. Make sure you aren’t spreading yourself thin. Don’t schedule to much for one day.
Over the years I have tried several different ways to organize myself. I’ve come to a nice equilibrium using a combination of Things and Podio. Things for day to day to-do lists, and Podio for larger project management.
Use whatever programs works best for you, but make sure you stay on top of everything. Managing multiple clients and projects can get pretty hectic. Far to much to manage by relying on your memory alone. Let technology help.
5. You Can Say No
You are allowed to not work with a client. Many people just starting out forget this, or just assume they need to take any job that comes their way. If you see things aren’t going to work and not be beneficial, say something.
You’re going to have some clients you don’t like working with. You’ll have some clients that will constantly ask for you to do a little extra (usually at no charge). You need to find a comfort level. How much are you willing to handle from clients. As you go, you get much better at spotting clients and projects you want to work on and ones that will cause headaches.
My best work experience with clients comes when the rules are laid down from the start and agreed on by both parties.