10 Tips to Become a Better, More Successful Freelancer

Freelance Success Tips
As a freelancer you’re your own boss, and that entails a lot of mundane tasks that require good judgement on how you go about doing things.

Some of these tips are going to appear as common sense, but they may be the reminder you need to refine your work process. I hope you’re able to pick some value in these tips, no matter where you’re at with your freelance career.

1. Use a contract on every project

Should you always have a client sign a contract, even if it’s a small job? How do you put together or find the right contract for each job? Too many freelancers get caught up in the details of contracts, and it’s ultimately wasting a lot of time that should be spent making money.

All you need for the time being is a general agreement that covers some basic, yet important terms that both you and the client need to agree upon. In its simplest form, your contract terms should cover:

  • the work that you produce is original and not plagiarized.
  • the client’s proprietary information stays confidential.
  • your payments terms. (How much you’ll get paid and when during the process.)
  • that once the client accepts the completed work, they accept full responsibility for any further processes in which the work is used (e.g. printing, putting logo to use, etc.)
  • you and the client has the right to terminate the services, and what that entails for you both.

Having some basic terms in place for every project will help protect you, but more importantly, will help inform the client of how you work.

I’ve put together a general freelance contract for you to work off of. It’s not intended to cover every type of situation, but it can help get you started.

View my sample freelance contract »

Once you have your contract, your client can then physically print, sign, and return, or digitally sign.

I’m not a legal professional nor does the sample above cover every situation. If things are starting to take off and you’re making large amounts of money from a single project, then you might want to get a legal professional involved to craft a specific contract for the job.

2. Always get a down payment

One of the biggest issues you hear about freelancing is not getting paid on time or getting stiffed by the client. I’ve luckily never experienced this, but that’s because I follow a simple process when starting a project.

To guarantee payment 100% of the time, you must require a down payment. For all projects I take on, I require 50% upfront before I start any official design work, and I make this clear to the client in our preliminary discussions and in my contracts. If the client has an issue with this, then that should raise a red flag. Also, by requiring a down payment, the project doesn’t progress without it, so you’ll never risk a late payment again.

Once I’ve received the contract signed and down payment, I’m good to go on starting the work. Then before I deliver any workable files, I require the final 50% payment. I do this so the client doesn’t take what I’ve created, cancel the project, and run. So before you’ve fully been paid, don’t send any master files or designs in full resolution.

By putting these simple practices into your process, you can guarantee that you’ll never be ripped off.

3. Don’t be afraid to say “no”

Saying no is hard, especially if you’re like me—you’re generous and want people to feel happy working with you. You don’t want to disappoint anyone, so you offer to help any way you can, not really considering the strenuous load it’ll put on you.

No matter what you do, you’ll disappoint someone. Whether it be the client because you’re unable to deliver halfway through the project, your family because you’re working long hours, or yourself because you’re so stressed with the work you’ve chosen to take on. So you must get comfortable with turning down work if it’s ultimately not for you or your availability. To help determine if you should take on a project, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I specialize in the work that’s needed by this client?
  • Why am I taking this project on? Is it a commitment I should be making?
  • Why am I adding that project onto my plate?

The worst thing about taking on everything that comes your way is that your plate may end up full, but with all of the wrong commitments. You’re stressed, anxious, and the worst part, now you’re left with no room to take on that golden opportunity. You can’t say yes to your ideal client if you never say no to the wrong ones.

Next time you get a project, don’t just reply with a yes. Really consider the opportunity, ask yourself those questions above, and proceed with a conscious decision for your future and wellbeing.

4. Focus your freelance business

If you’ve followed my writing for a while now, you’ll know I share quite frequently about focusing your freelance business and the importance of it. I continue to share this tip because I regularly get message after message from freelancers who seem to be stuck. They can’t find enough work and they struggle getting their name out there.

By focusing your brand identity and the type of projects you take on, it’ll make everything much easier for you—from marketing to doing the actual design work.

Pick one or two services to specialize in, and only take on work that falls into those categories. Then turn down the rest.

Once you’ve decided on the services you now specialize in, be sure to translate that in your brand. Reword everything on your website to those keywords and phrases, only showcase that type of work in your freelance portfolio, and start producing content around those services to prove your expertise. All of this is a byproduct of marketing, which in turn will drive traffic and new freelance projects your way.

5. Showcase the work you want to take on

This tip goes hand in hand with the previous tip of focusing your freelance business, but I think is a topic worth elaborating on.

Many freelancers make the mistake of filling their portfolio with work just to show that they have some sort of skill in design. But most often, the work just comes off as all over the place, and will only do your portfolio a disservice.

There’s a difference between a freelance business portfolio and a school portfolio. Your freelance portfolio should only contain the work you specialize in and want to continue accepting via client work. The work can consist of past client work or even personal work.

Let’s say you specialize in logo design—if that’s what you want to be known for then you should only showcase logo projects in your freelance portfolio. That’ll be what attracts and helps future clients decide to go with you over another freelance designer whose portfolio might be all over the place.

6. Be transparent with your clients

As a freelancer, your business is just you running it inside out. That’s something you must be proud of, so don’t hide behind a facade. Be the name and face of your business, because your business is you.

From a client’s perspective, if I were to hire you to provide a service, I would want to know who I’m giving my money to. So be sure to inject who you are into your brand. You can shape that however you’d like, but the key is to be personable.

Also, when a client is interested in working with you, be transparent in conversing with them. If they’re going to hire you, explain to them how your process works. Show your interest in them and their business, then break down what they can expect by working with you step-by-step. This helps build trust and confidence, and can be what seals the deal in a proposed project.

7. Write, write, write

This is the most important tip I can give you to take your freelancing to the next level – and that’s to write. I don’t care if you don’t think you’re a good writer. Writing is the doorway to getting your name out there, having clients find you, and to truly grow yourself as an individual and freelancer.

I personally don’t think I’m a great writer, and you can only imagine how I felt about my writing a year ago. It comes with practice. I owe everything I’ve accomplished this past year to my writing. Everything I do—whether it’s a blog post, a newsletter, a book, a video, or an email to a client—it all starts with writing.

If you want a complete rundown on why writing is imperative to your freelancing, then I highly recommend you watch this video by Sean McCabe: seanwes tv 039: It All Starts With Writing

Hopefully after reading this post you’ll check out Sean’s video and be convinced that you need to start writing immediately.

8. Focus on the now

Watch your feet so you don’t trip while looking at the end goal. You know where you want to be one day, so focus on what you can do now to end up there. Too many freelancers get hung up on envying those they aspire to be.

If you wish to have a reliable client base, a product that can help supplement your income, or if you don’t want to have to rely on a single client to make a living, then what are you doing today to make that happen?

Make a daily to-do list with small tasks that you can easily complete by the end of the day. Progress is progress, and if you start taking it one step at a time towards your long term goals, the sooner you’ll get there.

9. Know your numbers

Your freelancing efforts must be treated like a business, and as a business, you need to know your numbers. Such as:

  • Business revenue (How much do you need to make per month to live?)
  • Site traffic (Where is it coming from? What’s your most popular content?)
  • Link conversion rates and content interactivity (What calls-to-action are working? What pages aren’t getting views and need removed altogether?)

Knowing these numbers will shed light on the areas that are working for you and what areas need improvement. For example, take a look at your monthly revenue. Find out where your business income is coming from (what clients, type of projects, passive income), and focus more on those areas that are producing the most results. If you’re steadily earning $100+ a month selling products on your Creative Market shop, then consider producing more items to sell.

See where most of your traffic is coming from or what type of content is most popular, then do more of that. For example, if you’re getting a lot of traffic from a guest post you wrote, reach out and write another guest post.

10. Split your income for taxes and savings

If you’re serious about freelancing, then start separating your income and save. For every dollar I make that’s business related, I split it up like this:

  • 12% to Business (for business related expenses)
  • 16% to Business Taxes (this will save my butt when it comes tax time)
  • 12% to Personal Savings
  • What’s left over goes into my personal checking for living expenses

I’m not saying this is the way to handle and split your finances, but it’s what works for me. What’s important here is putting a minimum of 16% of every dollar earned towards taxes. It’s the same concept of an employer taking taxes out of your paycheck. Once it comes tax time, you’ll then use this savings to pay what’s due. (I recommend paying quarterly, so you’re not dealt one large payment in April.)

Conclusion

My tips aren’t the end-all and be-all for freelancing, but honestly, I wish I knew these when I was getting started. Since I’ve put these tips into my work process, I’ve seen some major growth, and I hope you were able to pick some value from them.

Did you find any of these tips useful? Do you have your own variation of one of these tips? Continue this post and share your freelance insight in the comments below!

  • Brennan Scott

    Thank you for the post! I haven’t implemented a contract yet but the sample you provided will help me going.

  • Great article and good info. Another thing I’ve noticed is that some clients demand some spec work. Avoid that. If you’re working in the field of graphic design, always watermark your products and update your portfolio as often as you can.

    • I couldn’t agree more about avoiding spec work and updating your portfolio often. However, watermarking your work can come off unprofessional and hinder the viewing of it for the client—Another tactic would be to require a downpayment before doing any work. Then don’t deliver any useable files along the way before you receive the final payment. (For example, don’t send previews of your work in full resolution.) By doing this the client can’t get free work out of you then run. If the client has an issue with paying a downpayment, then that should raise a red flag.

      • I completely agree with what you said here. What I meant by watermarking is simply protecting your files when you put them out there in your online portfolio. I’ve seen so many examples of stolen artwork, and keeping it low resolution isn’t really helpful either. Thanks for replying and sharing your opinion!

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  • Brent Chaney

    Great information in this post. Thanks for sharing!

    I’ve been working on creating a contract, and your sample helped a lot.

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  • Presentation Guy

    Thank you and truly great tips.

    I am a business grad and I am just starting my Freelance career as a Presentations maker and Academic writer. Any further heads up?

    Thanking you in anticipation and eagerly waiting for your reply.

    • Hi! My first tip would be to work on building your brand if you want to be found and better known. Right now, I have no idea who you are other than you probably do presentations. A photo and link to your website can go a long way. Maybe you haven’t gotten that far yet, so I digress. :)

      Second, my immediate thoughts were, why would someone hire a “presentation maker”, and why does that matter? These are the initial questions you should answer on your website. And you can turn these answers into blog posts, which will work towards a great marketing strategy. Not to mention it’ll help make you look like the expert in presentations.

      With a solid, transparent brand that can connect with your audience, and some compelling content can go a long way for a new freelancer.

      Start here:
      – Develop your brand. Make it transparent and professional. If anything, keep it simple.
      – Collect any and all questions your ideal audience might have, then answer them in the form of content for your site.
      – Continue developing your brand and creating content around what you’re doing.

      Hope this helps! If you can’t find an answer to any of your questions here on the blog, please feel free to email me personally. All the best! :)

      • Presentation Guy

        Thank you so much Brent
        Now to answer your questions. I don’t have a website yet because I have not put in any capital in my business. The why questions come from my own experience, when I was starting my business grad I wished someone could help me with presentations.

      • Presentation Guy

        Dead link. My apologies Sir! http://www.slideshare.net/ThePredentationsGuy/my-sales-pitch I hope this one works!

  • Great discussion and amazing place over here. Thank you Brent for your insights.
    I’ve been freelancing couple years, then worked as a Product Designer at a startup for the last 12 months and then, actually, back out again working as freelancer.
    I’m just realising that I have completely forgot about taking care of Accounting stuff, and that was clear to me a couple days ago when my business consultant sent me over TAX paper to pay. I never split savings and expenses, and never split again personal living expenses.
    I failed. And today I felt to give up. A big company is about to offer me a well rewarded position, and I’m struggling with the decision if going there or keep freelancing.
    Should I put much more effort in the “business” side of my business and will I see things go better?
    Thanks for any precious advice from your side. All my best
    Andrea

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