So, you want to quit your job and leap into full-time freelancing. Congratulations on deciding to become your own boss! But don’t write that letter of resignation just yet.
Over the past two decades, I’ve left many a steady job — including part-time, full-time and contract roles — to work as a full-time freelancer. But I’ve never done it at a moment’s notice. Instead, I’ve taken weeks or months to prepare.
The more you get your professional and financial ducks lined up before leaving, the smoother your transition to full-time solo work will be. With that in mind, here are my top recommendations for steps to take before you give notice.
1. Make sure the timing is right
Some years of your life are better than others for striking out on your own. So take time to think about what’s happening in your world beyond work. If you’re overly stressed by an ailing parent or by a child struggling at school, for example, waiting out the storm might be a better bet than trying to make an immediate professional change.
There’s something to be said for the familiar yet bland job you can do with your eyes closed, even if you’re itching to strike out on your own. And a full-time freelance workload can takes weeks, months or longer to build up. Likewise, the uncertainty of self-employment may require more time and energy than you can spare at the moment.
2. Start lining up freelance work now
Like Rome, your freelance empire won’t be built in a day. The ideal strategy is to start looking for freelance work and completing a handful projects on the side before leaving your staff position. That’s the surefire way to keep the money flowing as you transition to full-time self-employment.
You don’t want to feel forced into taking a crummy freelance job just because you’re panicked about running out of money. When considering which projects to accept (and which clients to court in the first place), be sure to consult these best practices for running a successful freelance business.
3. Reconnect with valued contacts
Networking and relationship building are integral to creating a thriving freelance business. Often the best freelance projects and referrals come from colleagues who’ve worked with you in the past.
With this in mind, make a point to grab lunch or get coffee with favorite colleagues you haven’t spoken to in a while. This includes vendors, suppliers and your counterparts at other companies. Make sure you gather the contact information of everyone you think you’ll want to stay in touch with. Remember that you won't have access to your company's internal address book once you leave your position.
4. Collect proof of a job well-done
If you haven’t already done so, update your resume and online profiles while recent on-the-job accomplishments are still fresh in mind. Gather up all your work samples to add to your website or portfolio, too. If you don’t have a portfolio, sites like Contently, Behance and Carbonmade offer an easy way to get started.
Save emails received from colleagues and clients praising your hard work. If you can do so without it being obvious that you’re planning to leave your post soon, ask trusted managers and peers to write a LinkedIn recommendation for you. All this is infinitely easier to do while you’re still on-site and employed by the company.
5. Get your financial house in order
Save every dime you can. Financial experts will advise you to save enough to cover at least six months’ living expenses if you plan to go freelance. If you don’t have many notable financial responsibilities (like a house payment to make, family to support, school to pay for) and your freelance prospects are good, you could probably cut that number to three. You could also track your monthly spending, find ways to lower your expenses (buh-bye sushi dinners and HBO!) and put that extra cash in a high-interest savings account so it accumulates faster.
Pay off your credit cards ASAP, too. Yes, all of them. And make any essential big purchases. Hint: A laptop you’ll use to run your freelance business is an essential purchase. A 70-inch flat-screen TV is not. If you need a new car or are planning to buy or refinance a house, do it before you leave your job. Banks are infinitely happier to lend money to people who can prove they’re gainfully employed. Also worth noting is that self-employed people have a harder time securing loans than staff workers do.
6. Take advantage of all employer perks
Does your employer offer education benefits? How about paying for industry, technology or leadership training or sending select staff to leading industry conferences? If you want to beef up your skill set or do some power networking, the moment you decide you want to leave your job is the time to put in your requests.
Likewise, if you need to buy new glasses, get your teeth cleaned or have that weird mole on your back checked, do it while you’re still on the company health plan. Max out your 401(k) contributions and take advantage of employer matching if you’re not already doing so. Look into what happens to any unused vacation time when you leave the company. If your employer won’t pay you for unused vacation days, make sure you take them off before quitting.
7. Collect your bonus
Does your employer typically hand out holiday or performance-based bonuses each year? And does your bonus check typically boast four or five digits to the left of the decimal point? Then it may be worth your while stay to put until you can collect it. Having several thousand extra dollars in the bank could mean the difference between holding out for the freelance gigs that excite you most and accepting less ideal projects out of financial desperation.
8. Line up health insurance
Determine how you’ll replace the health care package you’ll lose if you leave your job to freelance full time. Are you eligible for health insurance through a partner or parent’s plan, a professional association or HealthCare.gov? Give yourself ample time — at least several days — to research insurance options and select the best insurance package you can afford. Trust me when I say that doing this may take longer than you think.
9. Continue saving for retirement
If you’re leaving the 8-to-5 nest to work for yourself, prepare to kiss retirement matching goodbye. You won’t be able to continue contributing to your employer-sponsored 401(k) after you leave the job either. This doesn’t mean you should stop saving for your golden years, though. A number of retirement plan options exist for the self-employed. For details on which option is best for you, how much you should contribute each month and what to do with your employer-sponsored 401(k), consult with your tax preparer, financial advisor or financial websites like NerdWallet.
10. Keep up the good work
Last but not least, avoid the temptation to phone in your job just because you’re on the way out. If you think no one will notice the documentation you didn’t finish or the client requests you neglected to fulfill, you’re wrong. Not only will your colleagues and supervisors be wise to your corner cutting, they’ll likely resent it.
Don’t squander the good will you’ve spent months or years building. Keep your reputation intact so you can call on colleagues and clients later if you need a favor or reference. Go out on a high note and you’ll be more likely to float to the top of their list should they ever need a freelancer with your particular skill set.
As you prepare to leave, remember all this takes time. Expecting to zip through the items above in the course of two or three weeks is unrealistic. Instead, work your way down this checklist over several months, ideally six to 12. The more time you give yourself to jump ship, the softer your freelance landing will be.