Making it as a successful full-time freelancer — writer, editor, photojournalist, blogger, etc. — requires equal parts talent, persistence and business savvy. For the sake of this article, let’s assume you are skilled in your primary area of interest and that you are motivated, self-disciplined and persistent enough to acquire and produce a sufficient level of work to make a living.
That leaves us with business savvy. Do you know how to start and run a freelance business? Maybe not, but if you’ve got the other skills down and have the passion to launch and manage your own business, you can learn the rest. Here are some entrepreneurial topics you’ll need to address.
Business nuts and bolts
Planning: Every business needs a business plan and a marketing plan to specify the goals and direction of the business. They should include a description of the business, a competitive analysis, financial data, operation and marketing information, goals and more. A good resource for developing a solid business plan and a flexible marketing plan is www.SBA.gov. Also, many community colleges offer a small business assistance or development center that can assist with writing business and marketing plans, often without a fee.
Business entity: You’ll need to select the appropriate business entity (sole proprietor, C corporation, sub S election, LLC or partnership) for your company. Most freelancers start out as sole proprietors, but you will want to discuss this with your business advisory team to learn the legal and tax ramifications of your selection.
Business license: You will probably need a business license to legally operate. Check with your secretary of state’s office, as well as the city and county clerk’s offices where you live to determine what is required. Some municipalities will require a one-time application, while others renew annually.
Contracts: When working with individual or corporate clients — not including publications and media organizations who usually set their own rates — you negotiate your own pay rate and payment terms. Define these terms in a written business agreement or contract that both parties will sign.
Business insurance: Some freelancers purchase liability insurance to protect themselves against potential lawsuits. This is a personal decision that is best made with the advice of an attorney who works with freelancers. Your freelance friends are a good source for referrals.
Management: A successful freelancer must learn how to manage his or her time, including time for business development, querying and pitching, research, writing, editing, meeting deadlines, continuing education and more.
Once you’ve established your business, you need to keep a steady flow of work in the queue to ensure a consistent income. To start, you’ll need a basic website or blog, business cards and an online presence on the major social media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. If you are an SPJ member, you can also add your profile on the Freelancer Directory. Other ways to find work include:
Referrals and networking: Face-to-face networking is hard to replace in terms of getting work from others. Join relevant industry-related organizations like SPJ, Freelancers Union or your local chamber of commerce to meet with like-minded professionals.
Employment ads: Sites like JournalismJobs.com, FreelanceDaily.net, WritersWeekly.com and local list servs are great sources for freelance work. Search these at least weekly to see what freelance gigs interest you. Some municipalities also list contract jobs online where you can sign up to receive alerts about jobs that match your areas of interest.
Queries/pitches: You must be able to write a good query to pitch your ideas to potential media organizations and clients. To keep work in the pipeline, some freelancers block out time each week to write and follow-up on pitches.
Bookkeeping: You will need to record business expenses and mileage and develop a system for creating invoices and recording client payments. When getting started, a spreadsheet program like Excel is usually sufficient. As your business grows, however, you’ll want to upgrade to a bookkeeping program like QuickBooks, which offers advanced features. This information will be particularly important when determining cash flow and payment of business-related expenses.
Employee benefits: You need to provide for your financial future to include health insurance, life insurance, retirement benefits and planning for time off for illness, vacation and holidays. Individual insurance policies and retirement plans are available for freelancers as sole proprietors, or for small companies with two or more employees. Depending on your location and affiliations, you may also qualify for benefits at group rates under a group policy. SPJ, for example, offers group health insurance through a broker in Illinois. Visit spj.org/whyjoin4.asp for details.
No one ever said freelancing was easy, but if you’ve got the drive and have or can learn the business end of freelancing, you can create a satisfying and rewarding career working for yourself.
Dana Neuts is a Seattle-based full-time freelancer, owner of Virtually Yourz and chairwoman of SPJ’s Freelance Committee. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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