8 Things every freelancer should learn about building a business from the ground up

Work-life balance is among the top reasons why people shift to freelancing. But if you keep saying yes to all projects, even those that don’t bring you joy, if you keep worrying ‘what if I don’t get a client after this,’ chances are you’re not really living the work-life balance every freelancer dreams of. You’re still stuck in the rat race. The freelancer version of it.

That’s okay. There’s time to shift.

If you ask me what things I wish I’d known when I started freelancing, we’d be chatting for hours. I made so many mistakes, learned so many lessons, and got stuck in so many burdensome situations. Thing is, there are so many things you need to know when it comes to building a freelance business from the ground up. We asked a few successful freelancers for tips and advice.

Network, network, network

“If you’re a freelancer, the best way to build a solid foundation for your business is to network,” says Elna Cain. “Sure, a website is key. But it’s the people you connect with in the long-term that will help your business be sustainable for many years to come.” Cain is a B2B SaaS writer who has been in the business since 2014 and for her, networking matters a lot when starting out as a freelancer.

She shares that she started networking right off the bat. “I contacted other freelance writers and followed them and once I landed client work, I made sure to ask if they knew of anyone needing writing work,” she says, adding “since I was doing this ‘alone’ I wanted work buddies. That meant seeking out others like myself and over the years I’ve grown to connect with wonderful writers and business owners!”

But Cain doesn’t network regularly. She only does it when it “fits with what I’m doing.” “For example, I like to follow other freelancers and read their blogs as well as sign up to their email list. Over time I may comment on a post of theirs and if something comes up like a blogger asks for a graphic designer recommendations, I will mention someone I recently am following. Or, if I’m doing a round-up I may reach out to my followers and ask for their contribution.” Bottom line is, it’s about building and fostering valuable relationships with fellow freelancers and creatives.

Knock it out of the park

I’ve always been a fan of Caitlin Kelly so I made sure to ask her for advice about building a freelance business from the ground up. Her first words: knock it out of the park every time. And I couldn’t agree more.

Kelly is a coach and a writer whose words have appeared in the New York Times, Marie Claire, and Wall Street Journal, to name a few. She says, “You’re crafting a reputation every time. Do it right!” And knocking it out of the park is not an exclusive effort for big gigs. Kelly says to do it, “no matter how small or low-level your initial jobs or assignments may be.”

I get it…when you’re just starting out and all your projects and rates are on the low end, it’s easier to do crappy work just to get it over with. Just so you can move on to the next project. But ask yourself, if you cannot deliver high-quality work at a low rate, what makes you think you’re worthy of a higher number? So whether you’re still starting out or you’re already working your way up the freelance business ladder (let’s say that’s a thing), always produce quality work.

Start with projects you’re passionate about

Another thing every freelancer should learn about building a business from the ground up is to focus on projects you’re passionate about. Because when you do, even if this means you need to do a ton of research, especially at the start, you won’t really hate it. You’d be tired and exhausted, maybe. But you won’t hate it.

That’s exactly what I did—I decided to tear everything down and start from scratch. This time, with clients I like. With businesses I’m interested in. This was when my freelance business actually felt like my business. And when I started to see growth.

Be part of a community

Networking is more about building and fostering relationships. Being part of a community is having your people. Or like, being part of a clique. It’s more connected and intimate, in some sense. Not only is freelancing a lonely world, there’s also no roadmap. Michelle Garrett is a PR consultant and co-hosts the weekly #FreelanceChat on Twitter. “When I started, they were a little harder to find,” Garrett says about freelance communities. “But I did talk with a few. One was kind enough to help me set up my systems and give me an idea of what I’d need to get started.”

Garrett underscores the impact of being part of a community saying, “that’s one reason I started #FreelanceChat – it’s a safe space where freelancers

can turn to ask Qs and not be judged – because things come up ALL the time – for ALL of us, no matter if we’re just starting out or have been at this a while.”

Build an online presence but stick to one social media platform

This may sound like a no-brainer but an online presence is a must. However, new freelancers have the tendency to drown themselves in all the different social media platforms. Folks, you don’t have to be on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, and Pinterest altogether. As Garrett suggests, “don’t try to do ALL the social media outlets or you may feel overwhelmed.”

Focus on one and build your online presence there. Build engagement, post regularly, follow potential clients and comment on their posts. At the early stages of a freelance business, you may be swamped with client work and all the admin stuff like invoicing and keeping track of deadlines. Slow down and include social media presence in your priorities. Make yourself known so you won’t have to keep chasing clients. Soon, they’ll reach out to you because your online presence showcases your knowledge and skills.

Do a performance review

“Companies like Netflix, Google, Spotify, and Facebook have all recently overhauled their feedback programs to check in with employees more regularly. And this contributes significantly to individual employee development cycles,” says Rebecca Noori. “But as freelancers, we miss out on valuable insights from our peers unless we design our own appraisals.”

Noori has been freelancing for about 7 years now. Being in the HR and careers niche, she quickly learned how performance reviews helped companies like Netflix and Google, and decided to do a freelancer version of it. “My business really took off when I held my own freelance performance review. It includes categories like writing quality, social visibility, client management, finances, productivity, side projects, and work-life balance,” she shares. “I’d recommend all freelancers give this a go, at least annually, if not more regularly.”

Noori shares that her performance reviews helped increase her income. “My income had been pretty stagnant at around £1,000-1200 a month for several years. Eight months on, I’m on target to bring in £6,500 for September.” But while she considers her performance reviews as game-changers, Noori says money isn’t everything. “By sharpening my client management, dropping low-paying clients and streamlining my processes, I’m working fewer hours each week—roughly 15-20 rather than 25+.”

Keep things clear so clients can easily trust you

Trust is almost like the breath of freelancing. If your client doesn’t trust you, chances are you’re more likely to be micromanaged.. If you don’t trust the client, chances are you’ll always have one foot out the door.

Marijana Kay says even before you start getting clients, you need to understand that, “you can win new clients through email outreach, by marketing yourself on social media, etc. But the key ingredient that makes that effort successful is how easy it is for the person on the other side to feel like they can trust you.” Kay is the founder of Freelance Bold and she says that while there are so many elements that go into making it easy for a potential client to trust you, she emphasizes, “clarity in communication, as in, about expectations, project scope/deliverables, deadlines, your process, etc., and your portfolio.”

The portfolio part might be a challenge for new freelancers but one thing to keep in mind as you’re building your portfolio is that “potential clients will often spend no more than a few moments or minutes to decide whether they trust you,” as Kay says, adding, “it’s worth investing time and energy in these elements.”

Make it a habit to make your client’s life easier

This may sound like going above and beyond all the time, and it kind of is. When we’re starting out, it’s likely you just want to have one client after another after another. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s also smart to make an effort so your clients would want to keep you.

Kay says after you win a client, this is now your time to “delight them.” This comes in different ways, depending on the kind of freelancer that you are. But for writers, this can look like, “following client’s editorial guidelines, going an extra mile to find relevant data and examples, interviewing expert sources, delivering a draft that requires minimal edits…” Kay shares that all these will make your client’s life easier. And as a domino effect, they’d want to keep you. That long-term relationship with clients will contribute to a strong business foundation.

There is no template for building a successful, sustainable freelance business. What worked for someone might not work for you. But there are tons of resources right now from pricing to developing a project scope—all these are available for free. Also for free are these tips and advice from successful freelancers. Learn these by heart and you’ll never go wrong.

Tammy Danan
Tammy Danan

Tammy Danan is a storyteller who reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers productivity, creative pursuits, and the future of work. Her words have appeared in VICE, Audubon.org, ZEKE Magazine, Shutterstock, Toggl, among others. You may find her on Instagram @SlowFreelancing.