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How to Establish Your Freelancing Business

5 minute read
Dennis Shiao avatar
Advice from an accidental freelancer.

I became a freelancer by accident.

Aside from a short period during the dot-com bust, I’ve spent my entire career in full-time roles. Last year, I was laid off from my job. As I interviewed for a new full-time role, I took on a few freelance projects to bridge the gap.

I was having more success finding additional freelance projects than in landing my next full-time position. If I could fill a full week’s worth of freelance work and be able to do that consistently, I told myself that I’d make the switch.

In the second half of last year, I made it official.

I declared myself a freelancer and stopped looking for full-time positions. It’s been joyful! While I miss out on paid holidays and healthcare coverage, I have more freedom, the ability to work from anywhere and an invigorating variety of clients, industries and projects.

Freelancing Is on the Rise

After making the move, it seemed like I kept meeting other freelancers. I wondered: was that due to my newfound status, or were more people becoming freelancers?

A 2017 study by Edelman Intelligence, commissioned by Upwork and Freelancers Union, titled “Freelancing in America: 2017,” found that “At its current growth rate, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers by 2027."


Here’s a direct link to the slide (from the report) that lists this data point.

Chances are, some of you reading this article are considering a move similar to mine. To help you on your journey, I reached out to other freelancers and asked for their advice.

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Setting Rates

When you start out as a freelancer, you’re faced with a chicken-and-egg problem: a potential client asks you for rates. You haven’t done a freelance project before, so you don’t have rates. What to do?

Danalynne Menegus, a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant, said, “Do some research: ask friends, look online and calculate what you feel a fair price is for your services, your market and possibly your region.”

Dawn Mentzer, founder of Dawn Mentzer Freelance Writing, LLC, advises freelancers to check market rates, but to use extreme caution with finding the right site. According to Mentzer, checking a site like Upwork will display bargain basement rates that are lower than what many freelance writers expect to be paid.

On the other hand, “Writer’s Market offers a more realistic view of hourly and per-project rates that professional writers are charging.”

According to Michelle Garrett, PR Consultant/Writer at Garrett Public Relations, “My advice would be to ask around or look at what the going rate for that type of work is.” Garrett, Menegus and Mentzer all urged freelancers not to undervalue themselves. They said if you think you’re undercharging, you probably are — it’s easier to lower rates later on than it is to raise them.

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Getting New Clients via Referrals

For freelancers, the easiest way to land new clients is referrals from existing clients. Garrett includes the following line in her email signature:

Learning Opportunities

"The best compliment you can give is a referral."

Another tactic Garrett uses is to simply ask for them. “While a client may love your work, it may not always be top of mind for them to recommend you or to refer clients to you,” said Garrett.

Menegus takes a similar approach. “I've found that simply asking former colleagues, business associates and friends if they need any help or know anyone who does has worked well enough to keep me in business,” said Menegus.

Mentzer strives to do these two things, since they consistently lead to referrals:

  1. Strive for excellence in everything you produce.
  2. Be that person with whom your clients love to work.

My best tactic is to inform my network that I’m now a freelancer. Having worked for over 20 years, I have a large number of former colleagues. If only half of them knew that I’m available as a freelancer or consultant, I’d probably have lots of new business coming in the door.

As a start, I listed myself as “marketing consultant for hire” on places like Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m active on both platforms, which leads to views of my profile. The “right” person is someone who’s familiar with my work and has an active need for a freelancer or consultant. When those planets align, a new project might land in my lap.

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Tools for Freelance Work

Depending on your line of work, freelancers have access to many useful tools. Some are paid, but many are free.

Garrett likes Pablo by Buffer: “Pablo is Buffer's tool to design images. It's so easy and free. It incorporates images from Pixabay and Unsplash, my two favorite sources.”

Menegus likes Sunsama, a task management tool. “I use it for task tracking, which helps me keep track of my to-do list and what I've actually gotten done and when,” said Menegus.

Mentzer bills some of her client hourly, because the scope of work frequently varies. To help with time tracking, she uses a tool called Toggl. According to Mentzer, “Toggl allows me to track my time and produce detailed reports, which I provide to clients when I send them my invoices. Toggl offers a free version, but I've found the $9 per month Starter Plan an ideal choice for my freelance business.”

One of my favorite tools is Screencastify, a screen recorder for Chrome. I use it to record screencasts and talking head videos (of myself), which I post to LinkedIn and Twitter. When sharing an article, I often record a short video to provide context about why I’m sharing it.

Share Your Status

Are you a freelancer or considering a move to become one? Let me know in the comments — and, feel free to share your own advice about rates, getting referrals and tools. Thank you!

About the author

Dennis Shiao

Dennis is founder of B2B marketing agency Attention Retention, where he works with clients on content marketing, product marketing and social media marketing. Formerly, Dennis led the content marketing function at DNN Software.