9 tips for freelancers

When I graduated from the University of South Carolina in May I had no idea that I would have started my own freelance business within four months. In fact, like most other students, I was applying to jobs like it was my (other) part-time job. I had never thought much about freelancing, and mostly wanted a company to bet on me, instead of having to bet on myself.

As luck would have it, some freelance opportunities fell into my lap and I couldn't say no. I now have a few digital marketing and social media clients, and I really like my system. There are days when I'd rather not schlump over to my office - the spare room down the hall - and make myself work, but I love the flexibility. If I have a meeting or an appointment, I work later. If I need to get things done early before heading down to Charleston, I can do that. Doing contract work is just like having a full-time job working for a company - lots of ups and downs.

Because of freelancing I've learned a lot, not only about starting and managing a business, but also about myself. After this experience, I think everyone should try to work for themselves at some point! Here are some valuable lessons I've learned:

Time management is critical.

Let me say it again. Time management is critical. Coming from someone who is skilled in procrastination, I've come full circle when it comes to work projects. When you work for multiple clients and are being paid hourly (or on a flat rate, regardless), it is so important to track your time wisely. In the past I've used time tracking programs like Freshbooks that work great and help you see how to maximize work time. If you don't have a budget, use a program like Toggl. Even simpler? Use a timer on your iPhone. However, in order for these systems to work you actually have to dedicate yourself to using them every day. Once you do, though, you may find how you spend your time, and on what, surprising.

Separation of work and home is im-por-tant

When I started working with freelance clients on a contract basis I set up an office only used during work hours. I set aside one weekend to clean out the room (formerly a bedroom) and organized my bookshelf, desk, and working area so that I could fully focus on work, and not feel like I was working from home. I set up an inspiration board to focus on branding, images, and ideas that inspire me to work hard on projects that I'm passionate about. I've had to (repeat, had to) keep a "no personal time" rule, so I don't work on personal things in that room. It is my blogging/work office, otherwise I couldn't get anything done. Feeling like relaxing in bed or Netflix is even an option is the worst position to be in at work!

You are your own sales force

I've always thought I didn't want to be in sales. I'm a social introvert, meaning I like being around other people, but I hate initiating conversation. Unless I'm drawn to someone (which overcomes me when talking to people I admire), I feel so uncomfortable talking to people I don't know, or worse, people I only kind of know. Going into freelance work has helped me grow out of my shell so much. Now when I meet people I tell them about my freelance marketing business as soon as possible, because you never know who needs extra help (or knows someone who needs it)! Every opportunity to meet someone or catch up with an old acquaintance is a chance to grow your business. Cultivating a casual elevator speech about what you do is the best thing for your business, especially for those of us who don't love speaking off the tops of our heads.

Your friends are also part of your sales team

Don't forget about your friends! Because marketing is an important part of any business, I never know who my potential clients could be. Having friends know about the services you offer, your strengths, and your interests, is like having a sales team for free. You never know - maybe your best friend will meet someone looking for exactly what you have to offer! You can even give your business cards to friends, which they can give to their contacts. The good thing is that if your friends believe in what you're doing they'll be happy to help. I've had more than a few friends send contacts my way!

Order business cards

It doesn't matter if you work five hours a week for a client or if your freelance business is your full-time gig - order business cards and make them custom to you. If you have the time and interest, don't make them the plain, run-of-the-mill cards that can be found anywhere. Brand yourself, and brand your company accordingly. I couldn't find exactly what I wanted for my price point, but I went to Moo.com, which had a great selection of designs, colors, and paper weights, and DIY'd the rest. Now I get compliments every time I pass mine out!

Don't limit yourself to pre-determined rules...

When I first started freelancing I thought that I should only work with long-term contract clients, since I assumed that would be the best and most reliable way to earn an income. I was stuck, though, by people and businesses who wanted my services for specific projects instead of a committed business relationship. Once I agreed to my first project, I realized how fun it is to work on specific goals, events, and plans. Projects allow you the flexibility of a short-term goal, with the structure of long-term plans. Not only did I prove myself wrong (in a good way!), but I also opened my business up to much more manageable jobs and opportunities.

...unless those rules are there for a good reason

Not all rules are meant to be broken. Though it is easy to jump into projects, jobs, or events that sound great at the beginning, having steadfast rules can save you from getting way over your head. I've had several offers to work with clients who needed a lot more time than I had to dedicate. Though they would have been great opportunities, I couldn't say yes since I had limited myself to a certain number of hours of freelance work per week. Saying no is difficult, but ultimately I saved myself from getting drowned in work and letting the quality of my work suffer.

Don't put your eggs in one basket

For one reason or another, whether accidentally or on purpose, sometimes things just don't work out. Plans, relationships, opportunities can all fall through quickly, which is why it is critical not to rely on one client to comprise a majority of your work time. Though every person's time and work load may be different, it is generally a good idea to consider what work you are good at, what each client is asking for, and how much time you are willing to dedicate to each. If one client relationship should fall through, would you be able to make it to next month? These are things to consider when starting a new business partnership.

Learn how to do your taxes, or hire someone to do them for you. Now.

As a graduate from a business program, I had to take two accounting classes, one finance class, and a business law class. Though I did well in school, I can't stress the importance of learning your tax codes and business regulations sooner rather than later. Do you want to set up your business as a sole proprietorship? What about an LLC? Those quarterly tax payments will sneak up on you sooner than you would think, and yes, they are much more complicated than you would expect too. Remember that, check the IRS website, check your city or county's business relations website, and figure out what you need to do.

So that's what I've learned! Congratulations to you if you've read for this long, and even more of a congratulations if you will learn from my experiences. I don't know if I will (or will want to) keep freelancing for the rest of my life, but freelancing is one of the most rewarding experiences I've had. I've learned so much about myself, business, and what I want out of my career. Take these tips and make. your. paper!