Freelancing: Surviving A Cold First Month

If you’ve been daydreaming about full-time freelancing, chances are that you’ve already scoured resources like Freelance Switch and devoured their great getting-started posts: A Comprehensive Guide to Starting Your Freelance Career and Freelancing 101 – The Basics.  But what if you break golden rules? What if you leave your day job before you have at least a few regular, paying clients and a well-stocked emergency fund? Popping Up. Image courtesy of stock.xchng®

When I moved from Seattle to Denver, it also meant leaving my full-time job. To me, that was the perfect opportunity to try freelancing – even though I did not yet have regular clients or a fat savings account. I also jumped into full-time freelance writing during a holiday season. Ouch.

And here I am, still freelancing with a growing group of clients I enjoy and a schedule that’s pretty full. Sure, I would have done a few things differently, but I don’t have any regrets.

Here’s how I survived those cold early days.

  • Differentiate yourself from the vague “independent professional.” With millions of people now on LinkedIn, many members read a profile update to “independent professional” as code for “newly laid off.” You should update your profile – and populate it with details about your skills, specialties and the services you offer. Make sure you differentiate yourself.
  • Focus on referrals. Tell everyone you know (and meet) that you are taking the freelance leap. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll get referrals. About 90 percent of my current clients are referrals from friends, colleagues, vendors and friends of friends. Once someone coughs up a name, contact the person immediately. I got quick, friendly responses to these “warm emails,” which was encouraging when I needed it the most. It still took a few months to establish work even with these referrals, but it never would have happened without someone else helping to open that door.
  • Establish your schedule. While one of the great things about being your own boss is working when you want to, I found it motivating to establish a start and end time to my workday for the first month. The transition from overworked full-time employee to master of my own day was abrupt – and a little intimidating because I didn’t have signed contracts for assignments.
  • Explore structure. Getting my letters of interest (LOIs) out the door quickly started my day on a productive note. I also used a spreadsheet to track who I was contacting so that I could mark follow-up dates and note details. It came in handy, too, when I got responses to my LOIs (yes, it happens!). Creating structure early on has been key to keeping up with paperwork, billing and juggling clients as I got busier.
  • Reshuffle your skills. Without a fluffy savings account, I had to find someway to pay bills (fast) and still have time to market myself. Since I have experience as recruiter and editor, I started marketing resume services. Through referrals and postings on Facebook, I generated some good work for myself and even got a contract gig with an executive recruiter. While resume revisions aren’t how I imagined using my skills, it kept the bills paid while I continued to build relationships with companies offering the work of my freelance copywriting dreams. Now those companies are my work. (I do the occasional resume revamp for referrals.) Check out Freelancedom’s 10 Side Jobs for Freelancers for additional ideas.

In an ideal world, you’ll have regular, paying clients and a stash of cash before bidding your day job adiós. If not, try these survival skills to get on the right track. Fast.

Your turn. Do you have tips that got you through? Did you follow the “rules” for moving from employee to full-time freelancer?

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8 thoughts on “Freelancing: Surviving A Cold First Month

  1. Great post, Jesaka! One of my early mistakes was being so eager for work that I ignored my gut. Two projects in particular had red flags that I chose to ignore and it came back to bite me later. I eventually got paid for one of the projects after sending *two* registered letters (the first check bounced, so I had to send a second letter because they didn’t answer their phones). I *never* got paid for the other project, but the amount was not enough to justify going to small claim’s court (plus, I would have had to go to Florida small claim’s court anyway). Now I really try to pay attention to red flags like a client dragging feet on signing a contract or just a general feeling of sleaziness.

  2. After having worked in a newsroom environment, I…uh…am ashamed to admit I didn’t know I had to bill when I first started out. So…um…yeah.

    Now I know.

  3. Oh lord, I made a few big mistakes, most notably:

    – not saving up for emergencies beforehand
    – putting all my eggs in one…or rather two…big baskets; when the economy crumbled, the bulk of my income crumbled with it.

    It’s good to know that, even when you make mistakes as big as these, you can still succeed if you bust your booty.

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