This article originally appeared on “The Freelance Chronicles” blog.
2018 was the year I went professional in my freelance career as a copywriter.
A year and a half ago, my work habits were phenomenally different: I treated my work like a fun thing I had the opportunity do every week—but only when I really felt like it. I cringed at saying the word “client” out loud. I submitted projects on time, but often just under the wire and maybe while half-asleep.
I certainly didn’t call myself a writer or copywriter, and I was actively not looking for more work. I felt that if I didn’t take myself or my so-called career too seriously, I would never have to face the possibility of failure. Plus, if I stuck to my passive, slightly amused-at-myself mindset, I would never lose sight of writing for joy.
Yet, here we are over a year later, and I’ve been a serious professional freelancer for long enough to have made it a thoroughly enjoyable and sustainable full-time gig. How in the world did that happen?
In this article, I’m sharing the eight big changes I made to go from bumbling amateur to proud professional.
1. Plain and simple, I changed my mindset.
This is the Big One. I remember a specific day when it occurred to me that I could stop fleeing from having a career and instead make one for myself that I truly enjoyed.
The thought—excuse the cliché—was like turning on a light switch. I could suddenly see myself as a professional, and then my behavior and attitude shifted drastically in two ways:
I understood that my freelance work could be my fulltime job—if I treated it like one. That meant working at a desk, fully dressed, phone on Do Not Disturb. That meant holding myself accountable for the quality of my work. That meant keeping ordinary hours.
I realized that I must see myself as the owner of a business, instead of an employee with dozens of client-bosses. This was tough to fully embrace, but once I did, my business grew from “supplemental income” to my primary work. I had a strong tendency to just sit around and wait for assignments from ongoing clients or wait for new clients to come knocking at my door. Now, I consider myself the boss, with agency to go out there and get the work I want.
2. I invested in my freelance business.
It actually isn’t super easy to throw a ton of money at a freelance writing career, because you pretty much just a need a functioning laptop and internet connection.
But once I had adjusted my mindset (see #1), I began seeing more opportunities for investment, which in turn increased my sense of permanency and ownership over my career.
Here’s how I’ve invested in my business in 2018:
Time. I parcel out hours every day to spend on growing my business instead of on client work. At first, this switch was painful, because I felt like I was losing money. If I wasn’t working on client work every hour, was I even earning? Yes. The time I spent drafting the messaging for my website, reaching out to new potential clients, networking, etc., has gone a long way toward making my business sustainable.
A business coach. When I felt like I’d hit a wall—my income was no longer increasing month-to-month—I reached out to a more seasoned freelance writer who offered a one-on-one coaching program. I chose her because she worked in a similar industry doing similar types of writing, but her career was about 5-10 years ahead of mine. It was so worth it to have someone who’d been where I was and was currently where I want to be someday give me personalized advice, introduce me to other people, and offer hard-won insights into the field.
Software. I purchased subscriptions to software like Boomerang for Gmail, Wave, Typeform, and Calendly, to help me organize my workflow and finances.
Web design. Still in progress! Working with a web designer means that my website—often the first thing potential clients see about me—will be top-notch and reflect how seriously I take my work.
3. I created replicable processes for every stage of my workflow.
A year ago, I treated every project and client differently. That led to a lot of disorganization, wasted time, late payments, clients that would ghost on me, and probably a not-so-great experience for my clients.
Then, I created set processes for onboarding new clients, for my workflow for each type of project I do, and for closing projects. This also includes about six different email templates that I can quickly customize for each client, a contract that’s customizable, and software like Calendly and Typeform to organize information and schedules.
A while back, I sent a survey to past clients asking why they ultimately hired me over some other copywriter. The majority response was because of how seamless and professional my communication during our initial interactions was. That’s 100% thanks to the processes I created.
4. I convinced my introvert self to network.
I cannot overstate how much I hated the idea of networking for my entire life. But being a professional means doing things that scare you or make you uncomfortable that you know are good for business.
And whoa, I actually look forward to networking opportunities now.
Here’s how I started:
I scoured the internet for networking events, Facebook groups, and Meetup groups that seemed like people either in my field or people who were likely to be clients would be hanging out. I made a point to go to one event a week in Los Angeles. I found a couple groups that really felt right and kept going to those events, ultimately becoming a regular.
The benefits of networking are enormous, not least the sense of no longer being alone in this world of freelancing. I’m newly inspired by other women in business or fellow freelancers who are killing it, I’ve met talented people I can refer my clients to for other services, and I’ve connected with potential collaborators for future projects.
5. I squared away my finances.
Nothing says amateur like not understanding your own finances. Still, it took me longer than it should have to finally get to a place where I feel like I’m pretty in control of my money.
I did four things that helped me get a firm grip on my finances:
Separating my business finances from my personal finances. I’m still filing as a sole proprietor, but I have officially separated my business income and expenses from my personal money by using a separate account. This makes it easier to estimate taxes and keep track of expenses, plus it has allowed me to give myself a fixed salary every month, with the extra I earn staying put in my business bank account.
Paying quarterly taxes. I owed a lot of money in taxes every April for past years. Now, I stay on top of what I earn and pay quarterly taxes, so that come tax season, I owe a lot less.
Setting income goals every month/year. How can I grow if I don’t have goals? I break down what I want to earn every month by how I can get there in X number of projects per month. Then I go out and get those projects!
Creating a standard rate sheet. Even though this article recently reported that one reason female freelancers earn less than male freelancers is that they share rate sheets with clients, having a rate sheet for myself has actually increased my earnings per project. That’s because amateur-me used to quote people based on what I though they could afford, or just generally under-quote because I wanted to be “nice.” Having a rate sheet that lays out exactly what my services are worth eliminates the possibility that I’ll take on a low-paying project.
6. I set standards for my business practices and decisions.
This is my way of keeping myself accountable, even when I’m tired or busy.
My standards are pretty basic, but they’re incredibly important to maintaining a professional level of service and communication:
I will do what I promise to do
I will respond to emails within 36 hours, except during weekends
I will respond to every person who reaches out for work inquiries
I will be honest and upfront about my process, turnaround time, and rate
I will meet or exceed every deadline
I will champion making my client happy whenever I’m reasonably able
I will put in 100% on every project
I won’t accept projects I’m not confident I can deliver on
7. I took the leap to niche down.
Let me qualify this by saying that I’ll likely continue to specialize further and further as my career progresses.
But for now, this first step toward clarifying who I work with and what I write is worlds better than when I was taking on work that was, seriously, all the over the place. Having a direction with my work has made it easier to find clients and given me more confidence in determining goals for my business. Plus, you just seem like you know what you’re about when you have a niche. That kind of self-assurance is appealing.
Here’s what I do now: I write website copy and blog posts for purpose-driven e-commerce companies and thoughtful solopreneurs to help them speak to their customers’ values and emotions, rather than just “sell.”
Here’s what I used to do: I write in a way that sells services or products.
You tell me, which version would you feel more confident hiring or associating with?
8. Finally, I became a pro at saying no.
This problem of feeling unable to say no is so common among the other women in business I meet. I think it comes from a place of scarcity—if I say no to this client, will I earn enough money this month?—and fear of disappointing others—if I say no to this request, will they think I’m unreliable?
Yet, as so many before me have discovered, saying no is damn empowering. It has not only saved me from burnout, it’s also given me the availability to take on the work that really lights me up. And since I’ve started saying no to any request that wasn’t right up my alley, my income has increased, not decreased.
Looking back, I’d like to say that this all hit me in a big a-ha moment and I spent two solid days folding these eight things into my business and then emerged a new, perfect professional human.
But in reality, the process was slow and haphazard. Plenty of embarrassing trial and error was involved as I tried to figure out what advice to follow or who to model my business after. And I’ll probably look back at this article in a few years and marvel at how naïve I was!
So, if you’re reading this—know that my business is and will forever be a huge work in progress. But I’m in it for the long haul.