How to survive your first year as a freelancer

You’ve finally taken the plunge and launched your own creative business. Congratulations! Welcome to a new way of working. Now you just have to worry about getting through the first 12 months, so you never have to take a full-time job again.

Mark my words, it will be tough. The income will be inconsistent, and you’ll struggle to find new clients and get your name out there. That’s why you have to hit the ground running, immediately proving how good you are and why you’re better than the competition. You have to establish how you position yourself, decide which clients you want to pursue and set routines in place to get going in the right direction.

As someone who has gone freelance, grown a small agency and survived nearly nine years of running a business (and I’ve got some battle scars to prove it) – I thought I’d take the time to share some of my own tips and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way. And because I’m by no means an expert, I’ll also attempt to share the advice of people I admire – so you get a really good dose of inspiration.

If you’re a little anxious about your first year of freelancing, don’t be. Aside from the obvious advice of ensuring you have plenty of savings before you take the plunge, follow my tips and you should be well on your way to establishing yourself as a successful business owner…

1. Note the things you’ll have to do

To build a thriving independent business, there are many things you will have to do. Some will come naturally, while others will take you well and truly out of your comfort zone. Speaking of my own experience, I’m quite the shy introvert but most people who meet me would never guess it. I’ve learnt how to be confident (although I do still struggle sometimes) and cope with anything my business throws at me. Before you kick off your own company, understand that you’ll have to do the following key things if you want to survive:

Become a businessperson

Yes, you’re amazing at graphic design – but how do you fare as an entrepreneur? Because when you run your own business, you’ll soon discover that you need to wear many different hats to survive. You’ll become a bookkeeper, an account manager, a marketer, a receptionist and a cleaner – all in one hit. Because it’s you, and only you running the show.

Look and act the part

You might be working from home, but that doesn’t mean you can adopt the scruffy look or forget your manners over the phone. You’re the owner of a small business and you’ll be meeting and speaking to people from all walks of life. So dress and act accordingly.

Be confident and assertive

If you’re usually shy and reserved, freelancing is going to be challenging for you. Running a business requires you to believe in yourself and not be afraid to speak up or sell your skills and ideas. If someone hires a freelancer, they expect that person to be highly experienced and able to carry out the job at hand. There’s no room for hesitation or insecurity when clients are looking at you for all the answers.

”If you don’t drive your business, you will be driven out of business.” – B.C.Forbes

Market yourself

Now is not the time to be quiet or humble. If you want to generate business and build your profile locally, you’re going to have to learn how to market yourself. Marketing, as you’ll soon discover, is going to play an incredibly important role in making your business a success. More on that later.

2. Be warned of the challenges ahead

Freelancing isn’t a walk in the park. Certainly not during those early days. If you go into this new way of working fully aware of what to expect and prepared for the worse case scenario, you’ll have more chance of surviving and thriving. The following aspects are things you’re going to have to accept:

It’s going to take time to get up and running

Your biggest challenge in those first 12 months is getting established and having regular work come in. In fact, I’ll be honest (and you won’t want to hear this), it’ll probably take two years before you’re well and truly stable.

You’ll work long hours, like… really long

Yes, you’ve gone freelance to enjoy more freedom. Yes, you’ve quit your job to embrace more downtime. But unfortunately, it’s not going to be so easy in those early months. If you want to make it work, you’re going to have to put in the graft. You’ll have to work through lunch breaks, evenings, weekends, etc. But be assured of this – the more work you put in now, the more things will pay off in future.

There will be tough times

You’re going to come up against many problems. And you’ll get stuck, trying to figure out how to tackle them. You’ll also make plenty of mistakes. Just be open to learning from these challenges, so you don’t repeat anything in future.

”Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” – Dale Carnegie

You’re going to have to learn a hell of a lot

Never looked at SEO before? Don’t really know what PR is? Haven’t ever dealt with bookkeeping? Prepare to roll up your sleeves and dive head first into daily learning. It will be tiring, it will be all-consuming… but you’ll enjoy every minute as you see yourself improve and progress.

3. Establish your brand

Choose your business name, sort a logo and consider your value proposition. Figure out what makes you unique compared to your competition and be confident about how you sell that. This is an exciting opportunity to establish your own brand before you go out there and attract new business:

Pick a name

When choosing a name, think of something memorable and relevant. I chose Boomerang because it seemed friendly and gave a perception of ‘giving back’ – as in, I’ll throw your business out there with PR and marketing, and you’ll get back results. A Boomerang is also a weapon of communication.

Just make sure whatever you choose is available on Companies House. And if things look good, check to see available domains via something like 123Reg.co.uk.

Read my especially helpful guide on how to choose a business name.

Be careful about how you position yourself

Seems ridiculous to offer this next piece of advice, but don’t call yourself a ‘freelancer’. The word has negative undertones and to many suggests your unemployed or unreliable. That is changing, but – to play it safe – just avoid the word altogether. Especially if you’re thinking of adding ‘freelancing’ to your chosen business name. ‘Katy Cowan Photography’ sounds far better than ‘Katy Cowan Freelance Photography’, after all.

Instead, position yourself as an established company providing services. You’re not lying. People don’t need to know that it’s just you. Allow them to pick up the phone or make contact first, before you divulge that information. Because once they’ve made the enquiry, you can win them over with your telephone manner or really sell yourself in that initial meeting.

By positioning yourself as a larger sized firm, you’ll give the impression of stability. So bear that in mind.

Perfect your value proposition

Put simply, a value proposition is the main reason why someone should hire you. It’s a positioning statement that:

  • explains how you solve customers’ problems or improves their situation (relevancy)
  • deliver specific benefits (quantified value),
  • tells the ideal customer why they should hire you and not the competition (unique differentiation).

Figure out your own value proposition as this will be used across everything you say and do – from the first thing people read on your website’s home page to the way you explain who you are and what you do at networking events.

For further tips on this specific matter, read my five easy steps to increase your website’s conversion rate and win more business.

Know thy customer

Ok, so you’ve established who you are and what you do, and you’re pretty sure you know how to sell yourself. Now it’s time to consider the customer you’re targeting. Who are they? Where are they active and what are they reading?

Once you fully understand the type of clients you’re chasing, you’ll be able to better build a marketing plan around reaching them. Just need to be found online? Get your local SEO nailed. Are they more likely to read Creative Review? Send the magazine some of your latest work. Are you simply targeting agency owners? Get out to any local networking events where they might be present.

It might seem like an obvious tip – but if I told you that some of the world’s biggest brands still don’t know their own customers, would that reassure?

Once you’ve figured out who you’re targeting, craft a ‘customer persona’ so you always have that person in mind whenever you’re writing a blog post, crafting fresh copy for your website’s home page or even just meeting people in person.

”If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

One final key tip – consider your customer’s problems. What things do they want resolved? How can you address those issues? Make it clear on your website how you can add value as a freelancer. Talk directly to your customer in everything you write.

4. Get online and activate your content

Now that you’ve established your business name, figured out how you’re going to sell yourself and started to build your brand – it’s time to launch an online portfolio or website.

You don’t need to spend thousands to get online. There are plenty of solutions to get you started quickly and cost-effectively. Squarespace is marvellous, and incredibly easy to use. Wordpress is still going strong, and there are plenty of themes to choose from over on ThemeForest. Just make sure you choose a platform that’s SEO-friendly, so you can work towards smashing your ‘local’ keywords, such as ‘graphic designer Manchester’. The Moz Local Learning Center is a must-read.

Check out my six easy steps to create a successful online portfolio and 60 ways to create a successful website for some further reading.

Once the website is up and running, don’t just let it sit there. You have to make it work hard for you, and attract traffic. Keep adding fresh work to your portfolio; blog regularly for SEO and to have something to share via your social media channels (remember to consider your customer and their wants and needs); market your website via directories and listing sites, such as Behance. Be bold, be active and make a name for yourself every single day.

5. Spend every day marketing yourself

Once you’ve got your brand, value proposition, target customer and online presence established – it’s time to start throwing yourself out there to show potential clients the quality of your work and your availability. How you do that varies greatly – from basic SEO and ensuring you’re found by people searching for your services in the search engines, to clever techniques that will get your name in front of the right people.

"Your brand is a story unfolding across all customer touch points." – Jonah Sachs

One key point is that you need to be present across many channels these days. It’s not just a case of relying on one type of marketing – you have to hit your potential customers at different times of the day and via different means. So be active on social media, get your work published on one of the many great art and design blogs, go to all your local networking events, work on your SEO, get into your local newspaper or business magazine, exhibit your work locally – do anything and everything to build your profile.

Read 100 inspiring ideas to market your business for a few ideas to get you started.

”Today it’s important to be present, be relevant and add value.” – Nick Besbeas

6. Create some personal work or launch a side project

No work coming in despite your marketing efforts? Phone not ringing? Not got enough to showcase in your online portfolio? Don’t just sit there, twiddling your thumbs. Be pro-active and carry out some of your own personal projects.

Craft a new typeface to raise your profile and see if you can sell it through Hype for Type or MyFonts. Re-brand an existing company that you admire, and make it your best work to date. Write and illustrate your own fictional book. Start a creative blog (that’s what I did with Creative Boom) and share other people’s work whom you admire… with their permission, of course. Curate a local exhibition with other creatives.

Then, when you’ve carried out your idea – tell the world about it! Get in touch with all your favourite art and design blogs: It’s Nice That, Creative Review, Design Week, Computer Arts, Creative Boom… And tell them about what you’re up to.

7. Get out and network

Make a name for yourself even before you register as self-employed. Get involved in local creative events by volunteering to help out or contributing in some way. Hell… do a talk, if you can.

Go to anything and everything, armed with a positive attitude and plenty of business cards. Nothing beats face-to-face communication and in all my years of running my own company, networking still remains to be the best way of making new contacts and finding work.

For further reading, check out my article on how to make the most of networking if you’re a freelancer.

“There are no magic wands, no hidden tricks, and no secret handshakes that can bring you immediate success, but with time, energy, and determination you can get there.” – Darren Rowse, Founder of ProBlogger

8. Blog and write wherever you can

You can’t ‘sell’ to anyone anymore, not in the traditional sense. Instead, you have to tell a story. This is where blogging really helps. Monika Kanokova is someone who has mastered this way of marketing. Her blog is full of her honest and heartfelt thoughts and experiences on communications, and she really makes you want to pick up the phone and hire her.

She’s also written two of her own books, talking about freelancing – and this only adds to her credibility and reputation. Follow her lead and write. Not just for your own blog, but volunteer to write for others. Creative Bloq, for example, is always looking for guest contributors.

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.” - Seth Godin

9. Work smart, work efficiently

Time is money – so ensure you have tools and processes in place and a huge dose of self-discipline to get the work done, on time and on budget. Don’t mess about and waste precious working hours on procrastination or self-doubt. Get to it.

I use loads of tools to make my life easier as a business owner: Teamwork for team management (although I'm thinking of a change – here are some suggestions); FreeAgent for accounting; Mailchimp for e-marketing; SproutSocial for social media management; Buffer for a little more social magic and Squarespace for my agency website – why use anything else? These tools are cheap, reliable and save me loads of time and money.

As for self-discipline, in my early days as a freelancer – before I had my own office and staff – I used to follow a strict work routine. This was especially important, as I worked from home. I turned a spare bedroom into my office, allocated working hours and adopted a professional image, i.e. I got up every day, got showered and dressed, and adopted a ‘work’ mode.

For more tips on working efficiently, read my productivity tips. And if you work from home, read these tips on home-working.

10. Work healthily and don’t overdo it

As a freelancer, you’re the business – you alone. Which is why you must prioritise your health and happiness. You can’t burnout because you need to be on top of your game and earn money to survive. You can’t afford to be ill. With this is mind, make sure you:

  • Work ergonomically: As you’ll be spending a lot of time sat at your desk, get a healthy setup. A decent chair, the right monitor, helpful accessories… And then ensure you’re sat correctly to avoid any physical problems further down the line.
  • Adopt the right posture: Sit up straight, keep your shoulders back, chest out and chin tucked in. Don’t, whatever you do, peer closely at your computer screen as this will be forcing your neck into a strained forward position.
  • Be careful how you hold the telephone: Don’t cradle your phone between ear and shoulder, just so you can still type and do other things while chatting. Believe me, speaking from experience, this will only lead to neck pain.
  • Take regular breaks: Get up, stretch and move your body at regular intervals. Don’t sit in the same spot for 12 hours a day. Shake your arms, shrug your shoulders and walk about your office or home for a few minutes. Go and make a hot drink every hour.

For more tips, read how to stay healthy at work.

11. Take on all offers

Now is not the time to prioritise your integrity. It’s definitely the time to accept each and every offer that comes your way. Know that this is only a temporary measure – until you’re able to pick and choose what work you take on. You don’t necessarily have to add anything to your portfolio or website if you don’t want to.

But bear in mind that even the smallest catch might turn into a bigger fish further down the line – so it's worth giving everyone a chance. Ditch the snob inside of you, and go for anything that comes your way. Treat every potential client as though they will turn into someone who provides regular, well-paid work.

”In the business world, everyone is paid in two coins: cash and experience. Take the experience first; the cash will come later.” – Harold S. Geneen

12. Do a great job every single time

Reputation is your new best friend. So do a great job for each and every client because happy clients not only bring you repeat business; they also provide word-of-mouth recommendations – which will always be your biggest source of new business enquiries.

”Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your project or service, and that bring friends with them.” – W. Edwards Deming

And when you’ve got a few happy clients under your belt, you’ve got a nice roundup of testimonials or case studies to add to your website – showing the world how wonderful you are!

How you keep clients happy is by meeting their expectations. Of course, this varies for every client and every job. It could be that your style and creativity is more important than any other characteristic they hired you for. Or they might simply want reliability and speed. Getting the job right will always be essential but a client might also want to see enthusiasm and attention to detail.

Whatever the expectation – as a freelancer, it’s your job to determine what they want and ensure you deliver. These can change as the project goes along – which is why it’s also crucial to build chemistry and a strong relationship with your client.

Establishing expectations early on, being honest about what you can achieve and keeping the communication channels open at all times – these will all count to always doing a great job.

13. Learn to deal with difficult clients

I won’t lie – some clients can be a right royal pain in the ass. As much as you’re tempted to give them the finger, don’t. If faced with a difficult client, challenge yourself to handle things professionally and ensure you keep them happy. The following are a few common scenarios and how to handle them…

Your client denies approving anything or agreeing to your initial proposal

You had that initial meeting with your client and you verbally agreed what you would do and for how much. Now – two months down the line – the client is denying all knowledge of your original agreement and is trying to add expensive extras to the project or worse, is trying to say you quoted less than agreed.

The Solution: Get everything in writing. That means everything. From your initial proposal and agreement of services, make sure you receive their written approval via email or another official document. By having their ‘written’ sign off, you can always refer back to things in future.

Your client keeps adding things to your job list and expects them for free

Some clients will keep adding extras to a project, expecting them for free. Or they may not realise how much extra time is involved, not understanding the work. They might keep saying "Can we just add on this?" or "What about this? Perhaps we should do that as well?". The extra work is not only causing you stress, it's jeopardising the entire project.

The Solution: On every project make sure you put together a highly detailed and thorough proposal, outlining exactly what the client will and won't be getting for their money. Make it extremely clear that any additional work – no matter how trivial or small – is of extra cost and charged at your hourly rate. Do not feel bad about this. A quote is based on the work involved. If a client adds further work, then you have to charge for the extra time. You want to manage client expectations, explaining why any extras might add further cost.

Your client makes unrealistic demands

It's Friday afternoon and your client decides to call you, demanding some 'emergency' work for you to complete immediately. They need it for Monday morning. You have just spent the entire week, working 12 hour days and are looking forward to some well deserved R&R. Your client doesn't care and still wants their deadline met, not understanding (or caring) that the work in question will take all weekend to complete.

The Solution: Unrealistic demands are quite simply, unrealistic. Your client has to understand that you can not work to deadlines that force you to work during the weekend or out of normal office hours. Just because you're a freelancer, it doesn't mean they can abuse your time in this way. Do it once in a bid to show loyalty and you can be sure they will expect your 'weekend' support again and again.

Educate your client by explaining that you're unavailable at weekends and need more notice to meet their deadlines. If it helps, explain that the work will take longer than two days, so even if you did work the entire weekend, you'd still not make their Monday morning deadline. Manage expectations and be nice about it. If the client is still unreasonable, perhaps it's time to walk away.

14. It’s all about the money, money, money

In those early days of entrepreneurship, maintaining a healthy cash flow is your absolute key to survival. With this in mind, avoid paying for anything you don’t need; keep chasing invoices and always be looking for the next project.

Don’t be fooled into renting out nice office space; stay working from home. Just get a virtual office address instead – something you can put on your website to give a good impression.

And don’t get lured by a nice new car that you think clients will be impressed by – they don’t care, believe me. I still drive a crap car and there’s only one between myself and my husband. Only buy what you need and act as though you’ve never got any money. That’s how I’ve survived.

You can treat yourself at the end of the tax year, when you know how much your tax bill is going to be and you have enough money saved for your ‘safety net’. I always treat myself to a nice holiday. You can too – just cover your costs and risks, first and foremost.

”Never take your eyes off the cash flow because it’s the life blood of business.” – Sir Richard Branson

15. Don’t be afraid of change

Change is good. Change will get you out of many difficult situations. Change is going to become your saving grace. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to switch things around.

People not picking up the phone and enquiring after finding your website? Change the home page copy and work on your value proposition! Clients who haven’t got back to you after sending them a quote? Pick up the phone and ask for some honest feedback, so you can change your prices or offering – if necessary.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” - Henry Ford

Whatever it is that’s holding you back, change it. Believe me – I’m a lover of change, and it’s never done me any harm in business. It’s only led me down more successful paths. So what have you got to lose?


And those are my own pearls of wisdom in surviving your first year of freelancing. For further reading you should check out my ultimate collection of freelance tips for creative businesses.