Recently, I was put in a position (through my own doing) of full-time freelancing with absolutely no preparation or savings to support it.
While jumping into the freelancing market without a financial safety net was difficult, I managed to get through it by tapping into some powerful networks and putting myself into the right mindset.
While I'm not necessarily endorsing jumping into the freelancing deep end without a life jacket, I wanted to share my experience and create a helpful post about what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation.
You might find yourself full-time freelancing if:
- You were laid off from your job
- You were fired from your job (like I was)
- You can’t find a job
- You can't stand one more second at your typical 9–5 and need to find a way to be your own boss
Below are some tips on planning for the uncertain future that sometimes comes with freelancing.
6 steps you should take to start your freelancing career off right
If you’re the entrepreneurial type, suddenly becoming self-employed full-time can be both a major source of excitement and anxiety. The best ways to combat that anxiety is to tackle its three most prominent sources:
- Finding work
- Building a network
I'll address each of these aspects of beginning freelancing below.
1. Determine your lowest estimated income
Immediately figure out the lowest estimated income of your new freelancing gig. Since you have no history of full-time freelancing, this is going to be a stab in the dark at first.
Especially since you're starting from zero, you'll have to adjust your expectations by estimating your income with an uncomfortably small number. You'll be able to adjust this figure over time after you start evaluating real data from each month’s income.
Until then, it's essential that you operate on a realistic expectation of what you can make in a month on a fairly consistent basis.
2. Determine your base expenses
Your base expenses are all your survival mode costs. Don’t skimp here because you'll have to consider all of your necessities. But the goal here is to cut out as much crud as possible.
Got a Netflix subscription? Pause it. Been spending a bit on a side-project? Pause it. Are coffee outings a regular thing for you? Pause them. Are you eating out? Pause that, too.
I use the word “pause” because I know getting rid of luxuries and some of the cushier parts of your life will be hard. By thinking of putting these activities on pause—instead of cutting them out of your life forever—it's easier to see this action as temporary. You’re just stripping your expenses down until you can justify picking them up again based on your newfound income.
Keep stripping these expenses down until you reach a number below your lowest estimated income. If that's impossible, you might have to take on a part-time service job or something similar to cover the difference.
If you find that you’re working 60–80 hours per week at this stage, remember that this, too, is only temporary. Survival mode can be hard, but since you don't have a savings cushion to cover you when you come up short on rent, you need to do what you can to stay afloat.
3. Contribute to your emergency fund first, and pay off your debt second
Once you get your base expenses covered, your next couple months are still going to be very tiring. But that’s okay because it’s for a purpose: building your emergency fund.
If you were paying off debt prior to full-time freelancing, that momentum has to be transferred to savings. Your emergency fund will help your life go back to normal and allow you to manage fluctuations in your income. So start paying the minimum on debt payments until your emergency fund has a comfortable amount of cash in it.
In my opinion, freelancers should have three to six months of base expenses stored in the bank before they start tackling debt again. That's because when you have a low month, you'll be able to pull from those funds to cover the difference. When you have a high month, you can replenish this fund for the future—and start paying off more of your debt again.
This is your new normal.
4. Make some noise
Create a strategy to let people know you’re taking on work. Luckily for me, the thing that got me fired was also the noise I was already making about my side hustle. But you might have to start from scratch.
Regardless, there are a few things you’ll need to set up immediately (or amplify, if you already have them):
- A point-of-contact—I use this term because it’s medium-agnostic. For many people, this will be a personal or professional website you can send prospects to. Sometimes these are the same site. The medium doesn’t matter as much as making sure you've created a place where people can find you.
- A networking presence—Even if you hate social media, it's invaluable for making connections. I've used Twitter for nearly eight years and built some semblance of a network there (enough to get a project from a single tweet). Choose the network your prospects are likely to hang out on and start engaging multiple times a day.
- A cold email strategy—Be annoying. Be persistent. Email every possible client you can think of and offer them whatever they want in order to secure their business. At this point, you’re trying to go from a client roster of zero and build it to about 25 in a single month. That takes a lot of cold emailing, calling, and Slack pinging.
I’m sure there are other ways to make noise, but those three will get you really far and do most of the work for you.
5. Mix projects with contracts
Finally, a lot of people think of freelancing as one-off projects for clients. This can be very lucrative and is, of course, something you should pursue.
But many freelancers just starting out tend to forget about contracting opportunities. If you’re not sure what those are, think of them as jobs from your old employer but without the taxes, restrictions, or long-term commitment.
While you’ll generally work at a lower rate for these contracts, you’ll be able to calculate your income on a much more predictable scale. You can even go a step further and begin emailing agencies and asking for overflow work.
If you can, sprinkle projects throughout your contract term—but be careful not to overcommit, it’s painful. Doing this will help you reach your goal of storing away three to six months of emergency funds much more quickly.
6. Build a network
I’m fortunate to have had an existing network that I built over the course of several years, namely within the WordPress community. Many people don't have a network, but you can start creating one for future events exactly like this one.
Building a network means being involved. For me, the WordPress community is huge, and you can create a network by making open-source software the community can use. I do this on my personal and professional GitHub profiles, but also via Twitter.
There are also many freelancer networks that can connect you with clients. The Toptal Network has worked out well for me, and has a great reputation within the freelancing community. I've been a member for a year and had my availability turned off until the day I was fired. I turned it on and had four client interviews within two days, one of them full-time for three to six months.
You can make this work
Jumping into full-time freelancing without any savings isn't recommended. For example, I don’t enjoy working 80 hours per week. But it’s necessary to restore security and predictability in my income.
However, if you find yourself freelancing unexpectedly, you can—and will—get past the panicked phase you might be in at the beginning if you follow this plan.
Feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have questions. I’d love to chat and hear about your own experiences. Good luck!