Whether you freelance full time or on the side, chances are January 1 came and went, sweeping along with it all lofty intentions of getting your freelance house in order for the new year. I’ve been working as a self-employed writer for two decades, and I go through this each January.
But I can promise you this: It’s never too late in the year to give your freelance goals and processes a spit-polish.
Herewith, my top 10 tips for giving your solo venture a spring cleaning.
Make a dream client list
It’s far too easy to fall into a freelance rut, accepting whatever project lands in your lap regardless of whether it excites or inspires you. If you can’t remember the last time you pursued a client that felt slightly out of reach or made you squeal with glee, it’s time to make a change. As a freelancer, it’s up to you to give yourself a promotion. Aiming ever higher each year is one of the best ways to do it.
Not sure who to include on your dream client list? Poke around the web for ideas. Do biotech startups get your juices flowing? Have you always wanted to work for the Gates Foundation? How about the arts, sustainable food or socially conscious companies?
Read all you can on the industries, organizations and business leaders on your list and follow their social media feeds. Use LinkedIn, Facebook and your other networks (online and off) to find friends, colleagues and acquaintances to offer intel on whether and how these dream clients work with freelancers. Ask for introductions to the people at these organizations tasked with hiring freelancers.
Evaluate your current client list
Look at every person and organization you invoiced during the past year. Which are you thrilled with? Frustrated with? What would make the less-than-stellar clients on your list better? More pay? Less drama? Longer turnaround times? Fewer rounds of revisions?
Discuss the big issues with your frustrating clients the next time they offer you a project. That may mean setting firmer boundaries around scope creep, or it may mean raising your rates. (More on this shortly.)
Frame the conversation around how you can better serve them — for example, by getting more than a day’s notice and 48 hours turnaround time per project you can devote the time needed to deliver a more polished product. If you’ve repeatedly tried and failed to improve a relationship with a troublesome client, it’s probably time to stop accepting projects from them.
Assess where most of your income comes from
Examine the type, size and price of each project and how much work each client has thrown your way during the past 12 months. From a financial perspective, which projects do you want more of? Less of? Consider your answers to questions 1 and 2 as you weigh this question.
Also consider this: If you're making more than 40 percent of your income from one freelance client, you're setting yourself up for a big income loss if the work dries up. Unless they give you a contract for several months of work, you’re better off limiting how much you rely on any one client.
Get real with your rates
Speaking of money, when was the last time you gave yourself a cost-of-living raise? Consider increasing your freelance fees by 10 to 20 percent if you haven't done so in the past couple years. (Hint: If every potential client you meet can afford you, you’re not charging enough.)
No need to send current clients a blanket notice telling them of your rate increase. Instead, the next time a client offers you a project, tell them you now charge a new project or hourly rate. If you’d like to give long-standing clients a bit more warning, tell them you’re raising your rates come next month or quarter.
Think about project minimums
Taking small, one-off jobs from 20, 30 or more clients throughout the year isn’t the best use of your time. Think of how much unpaid time it takes to market yourself, hash out contracts and invoice each client. Better to maintain a handful of steady, solid-paying clients than cobble together a couple dozen piecemeal ones.
Consider implementing a project minimum you won't drop below, whether your desired minimum is $500, $750 or $1,500. If anything smaller comes your way, just say no. This leaves your calendar open for better-paying projects and steady clients while thinning down your weekly to-do list.
Establish new systems
You’ve been meaning to set up QuickBooks for bookkeeping, FreshBooks for invoicing, YouCanBookMe for scheduling appointments — or some other business management app to help you streamline your business. But you haven’t gotten around to it. Rather than putting it off another six months, set aside the hour, morning or day you need to install and get up to speed on the tool in question. The time and headaches you save once you have the app up and running will be worth it.
Get your tech in order
Have you been living with a broken keyboard, a laptop on its last legs or a busted scanner for as long as you can remember? Wouldn’t it be nice to head into spring with office tools that actually work? If your budget won’t allow for any big purchases this quarter, at least start researching replacement equipment and keep an eye out for sales. Remember to consult with your tax preparer on which of these items may be a write-off for you.
Check your expenses
While we’re on the subject of spending money, let’s talk about your overall business expenditures. Comb through your monthly, quarterly and annual subscription, membership, telecom, digital app and web-hosting expenses. If you're barely using that P.O. Box or land line you set up years ago, save yourself a few bucks and cancel them.
Spiff up your online presence
If you can’t remember the last time you updated your website, LinkedIn profile and other social media bios and the information on them is woefully outdated, time to remedy that. Yes, you’ll need to set aside an hour or several to tend to these items. But the results will be well worth the effort.
Besides giving potential clients a more accurate representation of the work you do, you’ll have an excuse to remind all your friends, colleagues and customers that you’re very much available for new projects. A quick email and social media post directing them to your new and improved online presence should do the trick.
Learn a new skill
It's not unusual to want to mix things up after doing the same type of work for several years. It’s also attractive to clients — not to mention better for your bank account — if you have a couple secondary skills to offer, especially if work in your primary skill area has a lull.
It doesn’t matter if you want to add producing podcasts, creating infographics, building mobile apps or managing projects to your arsenal of skills. The web is rife with resources that show you how. Sites like Mediabistro, Lynda and Udemy specialize in affordable courses and tutorials on a variety of freelance and business topics. Likewise, UW Professional & Continuing Education features evening, weekend and online programs and courses in dozens of interest areas.
No need to wait for another new year to revisit this list. Keep this page handy, and when fall rolls around, power through these 10 items again. Come holiday season, you’ll be the envy of all your freelance friends for being so well organized and on top of your goals for the coming year.