When you think of your future life of freelancing, do you see the romanticized version where you hang out in coffee shops and eclectic studios with tons of natural light, where you have lots of other freelance buddies, where you work in your pajamas some days and only work at the hours you wish? Where “work” doesn’t actually feel like work most of the time?

Do you think my next sentence is going to be about coming back down to reality and that freelancing is nothing like that?

Well surprise my friends: That’s not my next statement.

All of your romanticized visions are actually possible, give or take some minor details. It’s just that none of it happens until you lay the right foundation. As with anything of value in life. Sure, you can fight me on this one and reference the one person in the world you heard of who was wingin’ it and flying by the seat of their pants so well that they eventually met with success.

But, you could also just go with me on this one because my desire is to save you time and help you turn your talents and interests into income in an efficient way, in a peaceful way, and in a way that is going to take some real planning and real (hard) work for now.

If you’re still with me, let’s review the 12 essential steps to starting your freelance business from scratch (okay, there are actually 13 steps, the extra one being Writing a Freelance Business Plan–but it needed a post of its own). Okay, let’s get to work.

P.S. These steps apply whether you’re freelancing as a graphic designer, wedding planner, writer, illustrator, web designer, social media pro, web developer, or ______________.

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1. Develop a Content Plan

If we take a look at all the types of “content” you’ll need to develop, I think you’ll understand why a “content plan” is a good first step (as opposed to a business name, or pricing, etc.):

  • Credentials: Past work experience, resume (in some fields), client testimonials–anything that speaks to your expertise + ability
  • Digital/Multimedia: Portfolio items, headshots, video (if applicable)
  • Business: Contracts (talked about in #10), business plan, price sheets, budgets
  • Website: About page, bio, services pages, FAQs, “the process” page, etc.
  • Products/Services: Descriptions for each, information on the process + how to hire you
  • Blog: posts to be ready at launch, future posts, categories

You’ll be doing a lot of writing and a lot of content creation in order to launch your freelance business. With this much to create, a plan is of the essence. Your plan doesn’t have to be elaborate or difficult to form.

Three easy steps to form your content plan:

  1. Use the list above as a starting point to write down all the items of content you need to create or obtain. Consider recording them in the first column of a spreadsheet.
  2. Write down everything you need to do or get in order to complete each item in the second column of your sheet. As an example, if one of my items is “Get new headshots for website and social media,” then my second column might say, “Get new all-white suit, find a photographer, budget their fee . . .”
  3. Write down a projected completion time and/or date in the third column and schedule deadlines in your calendar.

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2. Discover Your Ideal Client
You have a general idea of the services you’re going to offer, so let’s get familiar with your ideal client first. Get to know everything about the type of person you want to attract. I mean everything. What will make them trust you? What’s their biggest frustration or need right now? How will your ______ change their circumstance?

Try out this ideal reader survey. It’s built with bloggers in mind but it will help you get to know your ideal client quite well.

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3. Decide Your Services or Niche
What do you do? And please don’t answer “graphic design” or something vague. Talk to the ideal reader you identified above and really answer, “What do you do?” Whenever you hear that question, understand that it really means, “What can you do to make my life easier or better?”

Write down every single thing you like to do within your freelance niche, then split it into a diagram like the one below–I use this in my classes. Write down what you’re interested in that people are willing to pay you for vs. what you’re just interested in vs. work that you’re interested in that people are also willing to pay your for. Then, within that list, select the things that will bring you an ideal amount of income and satisfaction.
Venn diagram of your freelance services

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4. Choose Your Brand Name + Business Entity
Now that you have a clear handle on who you’re working with and what you’re able to do for them, choose a brand name that fits you and appeals to your clients. The major debate with most of you crazy, wonderful freelancers is whether or not to choose your own name or a “business-y” brand name. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will I ever want to sell this company? (Perhaps don’t name it after yourself if so.)
  • Will I ever want to expand this company beyond what I’m doing now? (Don’t include any “limiting” words as a part of your official name–ex: “graphic design” or “tech consulting,” etc.)
  • Will my ideal client think my name is too playful? Too stuffy?
  • Will my ideal client be confused about what I do based on my name?
  • Am I trying to name my company something trendy that won’t be cool or relevant in five years?
  • Am I naming my company something so “deep” and personal that it would be hard to explain to others, or that I wouldn’t want to explain it to others, or that I would be “so over” it in five years?
  • Does my intended name fit me as a person, or am I trying to stretch beyond who I really am at my core?
  • Will I like this name in five years?

When you’re done with the name question, answer the “which official business entity?” question.

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5. Develop Your Brand Identity
Time to get a visual identity that matches all the decisions you’ve come to above. If you’re a designer, treat yourself like a client and go through the careful design process with yourself. If you’re not a designer, hire someone who is likeable, who has a portfolio that speaks to you, who is responsive, and who seems to give very useful information. Here are some of my favorite designers right now who are capable of crafting full, thoughtful, unique brand identities: Bethany of Love Grows Design, Jon of Jon King Design, Ciera of Ciera Design, and Angela of Saffron Avenue.

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6. Create Your Website + Blog
Decide if you will have just a portfolio website or a blog and a website.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

That was a joke. And a test. You will be blogging. For the most part. It is the best way I’ve seen to establish your expertise, show your skills, help your clients, and become the most likeable person on the Internet. Here are a few benefits of blogging if you really need convincing, and here are 10 ways you can actually make money from your blog, as more incentive.

Now that you know you need both regular website pages (about, portfolio, etc.) and a blog, figure out how you’re going to build the site. Are you going to go it alone? You’ll totally love the free WordPress class I’m releasing soon. Are you going to hire out? Find someone who will build your site with a content management system (like WordPress or SQUARESPACE) that you can update and blog from easily.

Also, consider creating a content plan that will create customer delight.

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7. Curate Your Best Portfolio
You don’t need to include everything you’ve ever made in your portfolio. You just need to include the best items that communicate value to your ideal clients. Very few people are going to scroll through your 103 items. However, if you have seven items that appeal to your client and match the quality they’re going for, you’ve done your “job.”

Note for designers: Make sure any logos or website designs you include in your portfolio are still in use by your clients. If you link from your portfolio item (of a website design) to your client’s site which now has a new design, this doesn’t look too good for you. And yes, I’ve seen this numerous times.

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8. Decide on Your Pricing
Will you charge by the hour or per project? One of the exercises I take all of my clients through is writing down every single task they have to complete for a particular process in one column. Then estimating the time it will take in the next column, followed by how much they’d like to compensate themselves per hour for that task. Finally they can multiply to get a total compensation amount for each task in the last column. I have them follow a similar process for all the inputs + materials they need to complete a project. View the example I created below for an invitation designer.
How to calculate service prices

Whether you get this total number and decide to set a flat rate for the project, or if you get the total and decide to quote the project hourly, don’t forget to compare your prices to competitor prices and to the value you’re adding to your client. You may be underpricing if you arrive at the total above and stop there.

Here’s a very quick, recent article a fellow blogger I like (Holly of HollyMarieDesigns.com) wrote on pricing your services. Also, perhaps you can try the MyPrice app to figure out how much to charge.

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9. Establish Your Workflow + Processes
One of the most important yet most ignored steps in the process of starting a freelance business is establishing a set workflow and set of processes that happens with each type of project and each client.

  1. Client submits an inquiry form on my website.
  2. I decide whether this sounds like a project that lines up with me or not.
  3. I either respond by email with (a) my “thank you” template, a personal note, and my “process PDF” or a link to the applicable page on my site, or (b) my “thank you but . . .” template and recommend other freelancers
  4. Client then . . .

. . . and so on.

This is important because you will identify additional content and resources you need to create (forms, emails, attachments, etc.) and you will be able to pinpoint places in the process where you can add in extra goodies and excitement for your clients. You’ll also be able to set an organization system in place that works for you and figure out blog posts or additional offerings you can create to complement the process.

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10. Develop Your Contracts + Other Documents
Sign a contract/agreement with everyone. Even your friends. If anything, it will just clearly outline what the other person can expect from you. It protects you from people adding on services they thought were implied or that they tried to sneak in. Yes, it happens.

Don’t forget to develop documents like a price sheet, a PDF of the process you’ll take your customer through, and any other information you communicate regularly.

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11. Decide on Your Invoicing + Payments System(s)
Since you’re going to be balling out of control, you’ll need to decide on a way to invoice your clients professionally + accept payments online. Hello 21st century.

Free invoicing software with the ability to accept credit card payments built in:

Invoiceable.co is an optional free invoicing solution that I love.

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12. Launch Your Freelance Business
You’ll want to plan a careful brand launch. You can use this guest post by Deidre Guillory on launching a blog as a guide.

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So, talk to me. Any questions about building your freelance business? I’ll be releasing a course in the near future that guides you through each of the steps above, and more, in detail . . . with my craziness mixed in. Don’t worry; it will be fun. Let me know on my contact page if you might be interested in joining the first round and I will email you a special discount.

Photo: © Alen-D – Fotolia.com