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Skills you need to harness to build a sustainable freelance business

We often talk about building a successful and sustainable freelance business, but how exactly do you do that? It’s not enough that you’re good at what you do, or that you’re passionate and persistent and confident. As the freelance industry continues to grow, so does the competition. And if you don’t have these necessary skills, it might be more difficult to achieve the business growth every freelancer aspires to.

Confidence

This is probably a no-brainer but without confidence, you literally won’t have any clients. It’s important to know how to put yourself out there. When we say confidence, we’re not saying you should be fearless. Fear will always be part of us. When we say confidence, we mean you need to be proud of where you are. Be sure of your abilities. Because before a client would believe in you, you must first believe in yourself.

People skills

People skills is just another term for being social. This skill may not sound important but it will help build your personal brand, which will help your business in the long run. Start by spending 30 minutes or an hour on social media, interacting with only a few, selected people. From there, increase your hours per week and interact with potential clients you want to work with. Cheer on other freelancers, express how you admire a potential client’s business, showcase your knowledge through your posts. Be human and relatable, but also, be professional.

Negotiating

I was once told,negotiation is always on the table,” and my face lit up. I had no idea I could negotiate rates, the workload, and other stuff found in a freelancer contract. Today, this is one thing I always tell fellow freelancers, especially those still starting out. Just because you’re only starting out doesn’t mean you cannot negotiate. So go give it a try. And when you negotiate, rule of thumb is to always be prepared for a counter. Develop that entrepreneurial mindset.

Marketing

I hate marketing. I suck at it. But these past few years, I’ve seen exactly why it matters. In a nutshell, marketing is knowing how to present your skills and your business online in such a way that will help you attract potential clients. This way, you won’t have to worry about the feast and famine most freelancers fret about. When your personal branding is on-point, you’ll always, (or almost always) have projects and clients in the pipeline.

Create a portfolio and be sure it’s all over your social media. Hang out in places where your target clients are. Talk about your business with passion. Talk about why you’re good at what you do and what you’re hungry to learn about. Those marketing skills won’t build themselves. Work on it.

Communication skills

Thing is, no matter how awesome of a freelancer you are, if your communication skills are bad, your clients will find someone else. No long-term relationship will be built if it takes you forever to reply to an email or if you don’t convey what needs to be conveyed in a professional manner.

To get started improving your communication skills, check the next email you’ll send. Make sure it’s a balance of casual and professional. Make sure you’re saying exactly what you want to say and that you’re doing it concisely. Schedule email response times. You don’t have to reply immediately but don’t make your clients wait for too long. We’re all busy so make it a point that your clients know you value yours and their time through solid communication.

Organization & time management

A lot happens when building a freelance business. There’s the job itself, like writing or managing someone’s social media or building a website. Then there is the admin stuff like responding to emails, sending invoices,

tracking those invoices to make sure they’re paid on time. To achieve business growth, which is what we all want, you need to build your brand and be present on social media. In other words, A LOT.

Make it a daily habit to stay organized and manage your time well. If you’re not good at working straight for long hours, set up a broken time schedule like 9-11 AM,  2-4 PM, and 8-9 PM. Use different colored Sticky Notes for different types of tasks like pink for admin and blue for work stuff. Delete the files you don’t already use to lessen the digital clutter or move them all into one folder. If there’s too much clutter (IRL and digital) you’ll struggle to manage your time. If you know exactly what you need to work on and when, time management would come easier.

Research skills

This may sound boring but research is pretty important to stay updated with the latest trends in your industry. I used to think research is only for when I’m writing for a client. Today, I spend a few hours broken throughout each month reading other freelance writer’s blogs and checking their social media in case I missed a valuable post or two. I read news and journalistic content about the niches I’m interested in and see if some information, case study, or published survey can be shaped into a content idea for one of my clients. It may sound boring, but research encourages me to get creative with my business.

Initiative & self-management

If the goal is to have financial stability, you also have to have solid self-management skills. You don’t have a boss who will check up on you or remind you to do something… you have to do that yourself. So, what do we need here? Initiative. Solve those problems and do those tasks at your own command because really, nobody’s going to tell you things except you. Remember, this is your business you’re building. You’re not an employee at some company.

Good work ethics

I cannot stress the importance of good work ethic, probably because I didn’t have one before. When I was just starting out and I’d get annoyed at a client (for one too many reasons), I’d just disappear. That’s not professional.

No matter how much you hate the situation, aim to burn less bridges. Communicate and tell your client or a fellow freelancer you’re collaborating with that you have concerns, and do it professionally. Because nobody wants a disrespectful, unethical freelancer. No matter the situation, maintain your professionalism.

Curiosity

I’m big on staying curious and as a freelancer, this skill plays a big part in my business growth. It encourages me to explore projects, collaboration opportunities and new approaches. Allow yourself to wonder and try new things. Some you may be happy with the results, others, not so much. But if you always stick to the familiar things, you’ll always end up with the same results. And where is the growth in that?

Self-discipline

All these skills are nothing if you don’t have self-discipline. A lot of freelancers think this is all about having clients and sitting in front of a laptop and doing the work. Reality is, if you don’t have the self-discipline to do the work at a schedule you set, you’ll likely cram at the last minute. If you don’t have the self-discipline to pause on weekends or take enough breaks each month, you’ll likely experience burnout. Self-discipline is all about following what you said you’d do. It’s about knowing what’s important not just for work but also for your personal growth. And it’s all about prioritizing those that you deem important.

Empathy

Freelancing is tough. If you don’t harness empathy towards yourself and your clients, you’ll struggle. This skill will help you be kind to yourself, especially on the bad days. Because not every day is a good day. You will experience burnout, loneliness, and stress, among others. You will feel like you have no clue what you’re doing, or that your efforts are not paying off. You’ll feel tired maybe from having too much work, or not enough.

Keep in mind, you are building something from scratch, that is no easy feat. So remind yourself it’s okay to fail. It’s okay if something is taking longer than you wanted. You’re figuring things out every day. Go easy on yourself.


Every day is a chance to learn. It’s also a chance to grow. When you’ve decided to shift from 9-to-5 to building a freelance business, understand that it takes a lot of work. Start with these skills. Learn them by heart and give yourself the chance to improve. Instead of having the fact that nothing seems to be working, shift your mindset and understand that all of this takes time. Trust the process and trust yourself.

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.