How to Freelance and Survive: Real Wisdom from Successful Freelancers

Freelancing is a beautiful and fickle beast. At times, freelancing can feel like a vacation from the rat race… an escape from the cubicle.

Doing what you love on your own time and your own terms allows you the freedom to live life the way you want to.

…as long as you can find work.

When you hit a freelancing dry spell (and there’s a good chance you will), it starts feeling less like a vacation and more like being dropped alone in the wilderness with nothing but your brain and your backpack.

You’ve got to hope you’re prepared enough to make it through, and you’ve got to be able to use what you have.

This is a topic that isn’t often touched by all those “how to freelance” articles, but it’s an incredibly important one, which is why we want to provide some information and inspiration for those times when you just don’t know how to find freelance work.

Get out there.

Hindsight is 20/20, right? Obviously you’d be a little less overwhelmed had you been more prepared when you started freelancing. Being told to “be prepared” when you’re already drowning in that murky swamp of dwindling income is both unhelpful, and infuriating. We totally get that, so let’s just assume that you’re already hurting for work, and talk about the “being prepared” in a little bit.

You’ve heard of the phrase “sitting duck,” right?

When you’re stranded in an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous environment, sitting in one spot and hoping someone will save you doesn’t improve your survival rate… in fact, it lowers it significantly.

Freelancing isn’t much different. You’re stranded, too: wondering how to get freelance work that will get you through this dry spell while competitors (who are equally as concerned about survival as you) lurk in the background.

What do you do?

You have to get up, dust off those social skills and your portfolio, and throw yourself out there… in any way possible.

There are a lot of ways to contact potential clients for new work. You can send out cold emails and make phone calls to businesses you think need your help. You can ramp up your social media presence with the intention of naturally coming into a potential client’s view. You can put on your favorite sweater (the nice one, not the one with the hole shaped like the Millennium Falcon) and walk into local businesses with a handshake, a business card, and a good elevator pitch.

Emily Belden, author of the best-selling memoir Eightysixed, and freelancer extraordinaire, suggests exploring your local publications in order to cultivate quality clients that are close to home:

“My advice for finding new clients is to pick local publications like The Reader or whatever your town offers. Page through it and find out the who’s who and what’s what. Reach out and ask these people for coffee, a cupcake, whatever. Try not to ‘want’ anything (it’s that easy). You’ll be surprised how you can kick up new biz just like that!” – Alex Vasquez

Reach Out to Other Freelancers

We’re going to be optimistic in this survival scenario and say that you’ve got a walkie-talkie in your backpack. Use it. Unless this is a reality TV show, there’s no shame at all in calling for help… even if it’s just for information.

If you’re fairly new to freelancing, look at the people in your life… think about what they do and who they know.

Do you know someone who could benefit from your services? Do you know someone who knows people who could benefit from your services? Ask around, give out some business cards, get out those networking skills and let people know that you’re ready for work.

If you’re an established freelancer simply going through a slow period, there’s a good chance that you’ve built up a network of like-minded business acquaintances. These people are fantastic resources for industry information, local insight, and word-of-mouth advertisement. Let them know you’re looking for a few more clients right now, and would appreciate any they might send in your direction. The great thing about the freelance community is that, while competition is fierce, the sense of entrepreneurial solidarity is, too.

Generally, freelancers want to be helpful to other freelancers, so that the market stays healthy and viable. And once you’re out of the wilderness? Be sure to remember the help you received and pay it forward. That’s just good freelancer karma.

This is a sentiment echoed by DigiSavvy (an agency specializing in inbound marketing and custom WordPress Development) co-founder, Alex Vasquez. As an annual organizer of WordCamp Los Angeles, he feels strongly about the power of community (and putting yourself out there):

“You do need to hustle more. I am fortunate to have a lot of friends that can help with this. It’s hard to ask for help though. But sometimes you have to suck it up and tell people that you’re struggling. There’s a culture we have that you “gotta be killin’ it.” And that’s typically not how it is. People get stressed and burn out. Sometimes people feel alone and unable to cope and don’t say anything. That’s not good.”

You knew it was coming… have a plan.

In both freelancing and wilderness survival, chances are you’ll fare better if you start with a plan. Even if you’re in the process of digging yourself out of that dry-spell-swamp, it’s a good idea to have some direction once you’re on solid ground.

Budget.

It’s not a fun word. Depending on your personality type, it’s probably not a fun thing, either… but it’s necessary. You need to make sure you can cover your personal and business expenses during times of success and times of hardship. Just like calculating your hourly rate (if you choose to charge hourly), you’ve got to figure out how much money you spend on things like food, shelter, and internet (which is almost as important as food when you’re a freelancer). If you can gather up at least three months-worth of expenses in your savings account, it’ll be much easier to focus on getting new clients… instead of worrying constantly about survival.

Apps like Mint and Every Dollar work incredibly well to provide a visual representation of your spending habits, monthly income, and financial goals. With hundreds of budgeting software options, spreadsheet programs like Excel and Google Sheets, and plain old composition notebooks and pens, there’s simply no excuse to not plan out your spending and financial needs.

Set yourself up for long-term success.

Approach your client-onboarding with careful thought and deliberate communication. When you’re hurting for income, it can be easy to hop onto a quick job so you can pay your electric bill… but you’ve still got to cover your bases.

As you propose a project to a potential client, it’s important to set up an agreement that points in the direction of a long-term relationship, and explicitly outlines scope and termination details. You don’t want to be left high-and-dry if a client suddenly decides to jump ship. Set yourself up for success; save yourself a spot on the lifeboat so you’re not desperately scrambling for a piece of wreckage to float on.

Karissa Skirmont, a web designer and small business specialist with over 10 years of entrepreneurial experience under her belt, says you’ve got to get specific when you discuss agreements and contracts with a potential client.

“When I first started, I was just like ‘I’ll do any and everything.’ I had different plans, but I didn’t have any rules on how many emails they [clients] could send me. I had people who would send me so many things to do… ‘Add this, add that, change this, change that.’ It wasn’t sustainable. I was just thoroughly burnt out.

Things that you think are common sense… courtesy, professionalism. You’ve got to spell this $#!% out in the onboarding process, spell things out and figure out how to say ‘In the event that our relationship ends…’ That’s a negative thing, but it’s something that needs to be said at the beginning.”

1. Add a little hustle to your frame of mind.

2. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

3. Come up with a plan.

There’s no “how to freelance” manual out there that’s specific to you… unless you pay someone to write it. It’s up to you to evaluate your business and find out what you need to crawl up from the muck… even if it means asking for help.

but you’ve got to work on your survival skills.

Alex left me with some resonating wisdom that I’d like to leave with you, in the hopes that it’ll be spread across the ever-competitive entrepreneurial landscape:

“Running a business is hard and only your colleagues understand it. It can feel very isolating, which is why it’s important to get out and to participate and not be afraid to share what’s going on. I think it’s a good idea to reach out to our colleagues and friends and ask “how are you feeling?” Get a real answer; listen.”

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