Before I took the plunge and went freelance full time in March of 2007, I was a little nervous. How would I survive without a cushy agency job? Could I sell myself to potential clients as easily as I could sell an entire agency of talent? How would I find work? What about stability?

I've learned a few things about being prepared, finding work, managing projects, and the tools every freelancer needs to have.

Preparing to Find Work

Have a Contract Ready

For projects spanning more than a month and occupying a budget over $1500 (give or take) it's important to use and customize a well written "custom software development" contract for a couple of reasons:

  • it shows clients that you think things through and are prepared, and
  • it helps you clearly plan and identify potential problems before starting a project

I usually only use a contract for projects over $1500 because I find small business customers to be intimidated by a massive contract and because I can turn those around in such a short time it's hardly worth outlining everything in detail. I don't mind putting in a few undocumented hours here and there on a small budget project. I usually break smaller projects up into 2 or three payments. One at the beginning, one at the end of the creative (visual) work, and one upon launch. For larger projects that require a contract, I set up more milestones and payments.

Here is the contract I use (13kb, RTF format), feel free to download it and customize it as you see fit.

Prepare a Nicely Formatted Quote & Invoice

Better yet, go all the way and create a quote, invoice, contract, and a proposal with a timeline, budget, and about me page. Having a well branded template for your quotes and proposals will go a long way to affirm who you are and how organized you are in a potential customers mind. I create mine in Illustrator and I constantly receive praise from clients on my "professional presentation". Have your templates on hand so you can rock one out at any time.

Here is a copy of my proposal (1mb, AI format, multiple pages), feel free to modify and use it as you see fit.

Prepare a Professional Proposal Template

Generally, I only send a proposal for jobs over $5000, as it takes me a couple of hours to come up with one. For jobs under that budget, a one page quote and contract outlining the details in point form will usually suffice.

Have a Network of Co-Workers Available

One of the hurdles to get over as a freelancer in prospective customers minds is that you're working alone, at home, so you may get stuck, be overwhelmed with their project, or just get lazy with nobody to keep you in line. I've discovered that as a freelancer, I can still tout the merits of my teammates, even though they too tend to work from home, or have agency jobs and work with me in their spare time. It usually goes something like this...

Client: "So, are you going to do this whole project yourself?" (doubtful worried tone, looking at the budget)

Me: "Absolutely not, I work closely with a few reliable friends who are also freelancers, who've helped me on many jobs over the years. These guys are incredible, and there's no way I could do this all on my own. We use [insert project management software here] to keep organized." (confident, friendly)

Clients don't need you to be a one man superhero, they want to you get their job done on time and budget. Often when you get their job done on time they'll believe you're a hero anyway.

Finding Work

What's your target market?

When I set out to re-design nerdburn.com with the intention of being full time freelance, I thought a while about what sort of clients I would have, and what kind of jobs I would take on. I discovered that they tend to fall into two brackets:

  • Agency Work (big business)
  • Direct Business Owner Work (mostly small to medium business)

If you visit nerdburn.com, you'll see a couple of pink tabs inviting clients of each kind to get more information. It's important to think about how you intend to sell yourself to both markets, unless you want to focus on one specifically.

Creating & Maintaining Agency Relationships

Agency relationships can be created in a few ways and are very helpful for keeping a regular supply of freelance work.

  • Send an email introducing yourself to as many as possible, just letting them know you're available for freelance work, link to your portfolio
  • Bid on jobs on sites like iFreelance & eLance (often jobs are posted by agencies and not clients directly)
  • Let agencies know that you can be discreet, and not necessarily use the work they send you in your portfolio

If you have a positive relationship with a creative agency, you're likely to receive work on projects you may not have been able to land on your own. Additionally, since you'll likely be working under a creative director or art director, rather than directly under a customer, you'll find the jobs to be better organized and less work.

If you're having difficulty maintaining a regular income, talk to some agencies about sending you 16 hours a week or something similar, at a reduced hourly rate. You'd be surprised how many clients are interested in this kind of arrangement, and it will provide you with some peace of mind and stability while still giving you your coveted freelance freedom.

Maintaining Relationships With Other Designers

Recently a designer friend of mine from high school who I hadn't talked to in years, asked me to put in a bid on a $30,000 job I wouldn't have known about otherwise. My instant messaging contact lists are full of other web professionals, who I've organized according to their specific lines of work, and I make sure to say "hello" regularly to keep those relationships open. I don't mean to constantly pester your friends about sending you work, I just mean to keep in touch and let them know what you're working on, and ask them about their professional lives.

In any given month, the work I receive from people through instant messaging makes up for 15% to 40% of my work.

Bidding on Jobs Through iFreelance & eLance

Sites like iFreelance and eLance that allow you to create a profile and bid on jobs are a terrific resource, especially when starting out as a freelancer. When I was beginning, I bid on a new job almost every day, to make sure potential customers knew about me.

Keep your profile short and sweet. Focus on selling your strengths and bid on jobs that look easy to you. The faster and more accurately you complete a job, the better your customer feedback will be, and the easier it will be for you to land jobs in the future. Additionally, don't focus on landing the "big" jobs. Bidding on a number of small, easy jobs, can make up your income for a month, or provide a much needed payment in between larger checks. As a freelancer, regular payments are valuable as there's no company giving you a check every two weeks for being in their office.

Useful Tools For the Job

Here are some useful tools that I use religiously to manage my freelance business.

  • Blinksale - In my opinion, Blinksale is the easiest way to get an invoice out to a client quickly. I use it for all my invoicing.
  • Basecamp - Basecamp is great, even if you only use the 15 active projects per month account, you will find it helps you to be more organized, and impresses your clients when they can track your progress.
  • Google Docs - I don't know about you, but I think that one of the benefits of being a freelancer is pitching up in your local coffee shop, sipping a latte and working (it helps not to feel part of the world and not just your home office). Google docs is great because you create spreadsheets and write stuff (like this blog article) without needing to worry about transferring the files anywhere.
  • Google Analytics - Use Google Analytics to track visitors to your site and traffic sources.

In Summary

In short, the keys to being a well and regularly paid freelancer are being prepared, finding work, and having the right tools for the job. You can do this by creating agency relationships, maintaining relationships with your professional friends, bidding on jobs, and keeping things nice and organized.

I hope this article has been helpful to you, if so, please Digg This, and if not, please comment and let me know what I could have done better. Thanks for reading it!