Getting Your Freelancing Business Started: Make Sure You’re Not Doomed Before You Launch

Newbie: Wordslinger’s Freelancing Odyssey

This isn’t a how-to article that extolls all the things that I did as the “right” way to go about starting up a freelancing business. Because I screwed up plenty — I think most people do. It’s figuring out a way to keep the mistakes from happening again in the future that’s key.

But that’s hardly news. There are plenty of articles out there that cover the many, many things you need to research and do to get started freelancing seriously; they certainly do a much more thorough job than me. I’m just going to focus briefly on what I did to I set up my full-time freelancing business.

Writing a Business Plan

I was an English major. I’m a writer; I can write almost anything and I love a nicely bulleted list like no one’s business. So I figured a business plan was going to be cake…as soon as I figured out exactly was a business plan entailed. I mean, I can spin out a 25-page research article, but creating a business plan was part of none of my classes. The closest I got was Tech Writing, in which I learned to write a very fine memorandum indeed.

Having been a teacher actually made writing a business plan pretty easy once I did a little research (on the Internet and from books on freelancing and small business ownership at the library — support your libraries, people!) Since I wasn’t applying for any loans, I didn’t need to present a formal business plan to anyone for approval, so my business plan was fairly informal. Mostly, it was written on legal pads and kept in a file to be referred to as I went through all the steps. It was very much like writing a curriculum and lesson plans for a class.

For all that my business plan was fairly informal, it was extremely useful. I brainstormed and plotted:

  • Goals
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Challenges
  • Equipment owned and needed
  • Legal necessities
  • Marketing & advertising
  • Budgetary aspects
  • Services and rates
  • Professional contacts I possessed and contacts I needed

You know, all of that great stuff that suddenly you have to know about when starting your own business, no matter how small.  You find out it’s not enough to have a strong skill set in your field of specialty; it was never my editing or writing skills I was concerned about when I was dealing with the requisite nerves about going full-time freelance. It was my business skills. This is par for the course for many people going freelance; they’re good at what they do, but running a business is the part that trips up the majority of freelancers. (I wish I’d known about Freelancers University when I was doing this; it would have cut through a LOT of the clutter.)

The first thing I did (and I started months before I went officially full-time freelance) was to research business skills and freelancing in general, and its viability as related to my field. I researched the HELL out of it. (People always laugh at English teachers and librarians, but we can find out anything. People should have more of a healthy fear of that, I think. But maybe it’s more fun that they don’t? I don’t know — weigh in on this in the comments.)

Work It

I was also, in that ideas-are-bubbling, looking into the waters of career divination stage (and boy, are those waters sometimes murky), taking little jobs here and there. I was still teaching full-time but was testing the waters. I took a research project here and there; a few writing gigs. Résumés, I’d always done a few each year for many years, but I looked at what other people were creating and what they were charging to assess at what level my skills were. I did the same with writing and editing, using industry associations and documents to assess what was the norm.

Network and Ask Questions

As a result of brainstorming for my business plan, I knew I wanted to get further into the editing arena of publishing. I’m lucky to know several authors and editors well enough to bug them with all kinds of questions. Thankfully, they answered, and several gave me great feedback, contacts and some opportunities. I was, and remain, extremely grateful.

I followed lots of entrepreneurial blogs and Tweet streams. I got some fantastic ideas from quite a few of them; for me, I’ve found Copyblogger, Freelance Switch, Tara GentileThe Middle Finger Project, Create As Folk and Laura Roeder very useful.  (Those sites are what work for me; people will be able to find what suits their interests, industries and personality types.) There’s so much information out there it was a little overwhelming to sift through it all until I found streams that aligned with my needs and interests.

Info Overload & Process Experimentation

My biggest caution is that it’s very easy to just go straight into info overload when examining all the information you need to know to get started, so give yourself time to process. Really think about an idea, a technique or program before you go about trying to implement everything that Sounds Like A Good Idea; I went through a stage of that and luckily reined myself back in, because (another thing being a teacher taught me) just throwing random solutions at an issue every other week doesn’t work. You have to really know what the issue is, research it and decide what seems to be the best solution; implement that solution and STICK WITH IT FOR WHILE.

Track the processes or methods you use for your business; actively stop and think, “Is this doing what needs to be done?” And if the answer is “No,” the first solution is not to switch to another product or plan, but to examine what’s going wrong with the current plan.

Tweak it, track the results and think about the pros and cons. Rinse and repeat. (But not too many times. Sometimes a horse is just plain old dead, and you gotta find another one to ride.)  Sometimes, you will have to transition to a new way of performing a task, but it should be an informed decision.

These are some of the things I had to research and tweak when I was getting started:

  • A business name
  • The “right” way to write a business plan (for me)
  • Deciding on my business’ focus with regards to the  services I wanted to render
  • My state’s policies on running a business: sole proprietorship versus a LLC?
  • Website hosting and design (I did it myself, with help from friends, and I am still learning and making changes.)
  • Purchasing a domain name
  • Logo design
  • Branding
  • Creating legally sound contracts for client projects
  • Social media platform choices and automation
  • Using and setting up auto responders and templates for replies to client queries for various types of projects
  • Where, to whom and how to market myself and advertise
  • Where and how to set up a business account
  • What invoicing system to use
  • What accounting system to use
  • Tracking mileage and business deductions
  • Exploring local and national professional associations to which I wished to belong
  • What an elevator pitch is, and how to construct mine
  • Setting up a home office that suited my needs and  working style
  • Setting rates for different types of projects
  • Writing interesting, succinct blog content with value — for myself. (It’s much easier to do it for someone else.)
  • Figuring out how to make a video blog post, edit it and embed it

…And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things. But you see the point. I wasn’t trained in business practices. I had years of professional experience, but I hadn’t taken courses in business, so many aspects of starting and running a business were fairly abstract to me.

And remember — this list was just the beginning. Since I work in the publishing industry as well as writing, I have to keep current with industry practices; with the shift from classic print publication to the advent of eBooks and the burgeoning of self-publishing, I have a lot to follow.

I also educate myself constantly on best business practices—I take classes at Freelancers University in Kansas City and joined bizperc, a co-working space, where I get a lot of ideas and contacts, not to mention getting work done— and read quite a lot to get information on how to be a better business owner. I read everything from business magazines, books and blogs to style guide updates; publishing blogs to information on co-working; social media innovations to productivity and time management techniques.

The best advice I have for someone starting their own business:

  • Prepare to work your butt off, especially in the beginning. Unless you’re lucky enough to have the money to outsource some of the tasks I wrote of, you will be everything to your business: from the janitor to the CEO.
  • Educate yourself. This is very important in the beginning stages, because if you make too many mistakes, your business won’t make it past the first few months. It’s also vital as you get more established, because, with the rate at which technology and business practices change today, you have to stay current.
  • Be patient. You will have to hustle to sell your skills when you first start out, and for the large majority of freelancers and small business owners, it will take time for momentum to build, word to spread and your client list to expand.
  • Be consistent. Don’t let your website languish unchanged when your business has changed; don’t let your receipts pile up; if you decide Twitter is a good social media platform for your business, don’t send out a Tweet every week or so, one time only. Set up a schedule for tasks and stick with it.
  • You are a professional and you are running a business; act like it. Set parameters with family and friends if you have a home office. Respond to emails promptly, with courtesy and, for the love of dictionaries everywhere, with proper spelling and grammar, and in a businesslike tone. Meet deadlines. Communicate regularly with client on project statuses. And be confident in yourself and your business: don’t denigrate your efforts — “Oh, I do a little editing and writing here and there.” That sells nothing, but your lack of faith in yourself. Not conducive to landing clients.

It’s not easy to get a business started, no matter what the business is. But preparation, persistence and professionalism are vital in getting it successfully off the ground.

Weigh in — are you a newbie starting to freelance, or just thinking about it? Or are you an established freelancer with some words of wisdom to add to the ideas I set forth? Talk about frustrations, concerns, solutions and other issues in the comments.

–Erin

Erin Griggs owns and runs Erin Griggs: Wordslinger. She is a multifaceted writer (articles, resumes, copywriting and much more) and provides editorial services for authors, businesses and individuals. In addition to this, she is a proud geek, organizational genius and take-charge kinda woman. You can check out her LinkedIn profile or contact her at wordslinger@eringriggs.com or at @Wordslingeuse on Twitter.

5 Responses to “Getting Your Freelancing Business Started: Make Sure You’re Not Doomed Before You Launch”

  1. Crystal Wiebe
    May 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Excellent piece. It’s so important to remind people that freelancing and being your own boss in general requires discipline, structure and confidence. Remembering to market yourself is good, too!

  2. Warren Rutherford
    May 26, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Erin – nice review of your process to start up on your own. You did provide many “lessons learned” and that is helpful for the many who will travel your road as I did more than 15 years ago. As a long time executive versed in developing plans with my employees and as a current One Page Business Plan consultant and management coach I find working with business owners to clarify, define, and act as some of the most exhilarating activities in my business.

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