Five Tips for Freelance Success

by Rebecca MacDonald

Looking back on twelve years of freelancing, here are five key rules I’ve used that have helped me to be successful.

One of my early reinventions came when I made the leap from full-time employee to freelance marketing copywriter.

For me, the transition was pretty smooth, and I have been fortunate enough to make a full-time living from freelance work. As a result, I get asked a lot by people who are thinking about going the freelance route what tricks I use to generate business. The truth is that I don’t have a lot of fancy tricks up my sleeve, but looking back on twelve years of freelancing, here are five key rules I’ve used that have helped me to be successful:

1. Do good work. I can’t stress this enough. All the social media marketing, networking and self-promoting in the world will not make up for half-assed work. Take the time to research your client thoroughly. Make it your business to know their business. If you work with corporate clients like I do, spend time on the company’s web site, and on their competitors’ web sites, before your first meeting. (As a former marketing director, I can’t tell you how many vendors have started a meeting with, “Well, I haven’t looked at your web site yet, but…”). Whether you are a copywriter, a designer or a management consultant, take your assignments seriously and treat them as if your reputation depends on it. Because it does.

2. Don’t burn bridges. This sounds obvious, but it’s still surprising how many people who are unhappy in their jobs wait for an incident to spark a rebellion, and then use it as an excuse to leave in a huff. In my first year of freelancing, my main source of income came from contracts with my previous employer. Eventually, some of the people who worked at that company left to work at other companies. Because they knew I did good work, those people called, and my client list expanded. The lesson: don’t underestimate the power of your current corporate job, it can be a valuable source of work for you in your freelance life, even if your current job and the field you are going into are not related. In the same vein, try to develop good relationships with other vendors in your field. Keep in mind they may become clients or refer business to you in the future.

3. Say “no” once in a while. It’s good to challenge yourself and stretch the boundaries of what you think you can do. Just don’t stretch them too far. Whether out of fear (there may not be another assignment) or bravado (I can handle it) when you first begin to freelance, it can be tempting to take on every assignment that comes your way. Sooner or later, you’re drowning in work, and turning in less than stellar results. (See number one). When you take on too much, it shows, and pretty soon, you’re chasing business because that last client never called you back. Practice saying “no” once in a while. When you take the time to do good work, word gets around, and more work comes to you. Then you get to pick and choose which assignments you want to take.

4. Do what you said you would do. If you did only this, you would be ahead of much of the pack. That is not an exaggeration. For example, if you promised three versions of a web page or a 1,500 word article, do the work. Don’t “mail it in” with a cobbled-together version just so you can check the box on an assignment. In a former job, I once asked a design firm for three well-thought-out comps of a new logo design for our company launch. Instead, I got three pages of what were basically font variations of the company name, turned in two days late. It was worse than useless, they wasted our time. And they made me look bad. Needless to say, I didn’t use that agency again, or refer them to anyone else. Speaking of time…

5. Deliver on time. At least 95 percent of the time, turn in your work when you said you would, preferably earlier. Do this by estimating how long it will take you to complete the project, then add a day or two. Things happen. Computers break down. The power goes out. New clients call for estimates. Build in some extra time to account for the unexpected. Not so much that you’re being unreasonable, just a little cushion is fine. Most of us tend to underestimate the time it takes to complete a project, anyway. If it turns out you can deliver a little early, you’ll look like a star (make sure that article/comp/report is proofread and polished, first!). And when you do this on a regular basis, you burnish your reputation. Then, the few times you do have to be late with an assignment, your clients are more likely to be understanding. But don’t ever turn in something late without letting your client know as soon as possible that it will be late, and when you’ll have it done.

There are lots more tips to running a consulting business, but these are my five keys to freelance success. They’re not groundbreaking by any means, but you’d be surprised at how well they work at generating business once you put them into practice.

Rebecca MacDonald is the founder of Cogent Communications and a freelance writing professional with more than fifteen years of experience in corporate communications and publishing. She blogs at

by Rebecca MacDonald | Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | Entrepreneurship, Be Your Own Boss

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