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How To Set Up Your Freelance Business While You’re Still Employed: A Step-By-Step Guide

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Last fall, after being laid off from my corporate office job, I set my sights on a full-time freelance career. I was looking for more flexibility in my lifestyle, and wanted to build a location-independent business that I could take anywhere I wanted.

With only a few months left at my corporate job, I knew I needed to use my time wisely to set my business up for success. I followed all of the typical advice given to aspiring freelancers: I saved up several months of expenses; a nest egg I’d steadily been building for a few years. I paid off my credit cards. I cut back my expenses significantly. I researched the freelance writing industry to get an idea of what I should expect when I took the plunge. I felt pretty good about all of it.

The day my old job ended and I embarked on my new career, a cold panic washed over me. What had I been thinking? The money I’d saved suddenly seemed paltry. It would be gone in a few months. Meanwhile, I had few prospective clients, a wobbly-at-best plan, and no idea where to actually start.

I began kicking myself for not taking more advantage of the stability of my day job to build my freelance business. Even though I’d followed the tried-and-true freelancing advice, I felt woefully underprepared for what was to come.

To avoid making the same mistakes I did, here’s what you should do to set up your freelance business while you’re still employed:

Set up your business systems:

Your business will need some systems in place to be successful. And yes — you are running a business. This is the most dreaded part of freelancing for a lot of creatives. But if you’re serious about making a living freelancing, having these systems will pay off in the long run.

Some questions to consider while you’re still at your 9-to-5:

  • What is your budget, for both your lifestyle and business? How much money will you need to make to sustain yourself?
  • How will you manage your projects when you have multiple clients with different needs and deadlines?
  • How will you track inquiries for work, pitches, proposals, and letters of interest?
  • How will you handle invoices and payments?
  • How will you manage your time between seeking new business, completing administrative tasks, and working on projects for clients?
  • How will you manage the many contracts, tax forms and documents that come with freelancing for multiple clients?
  • How will you organize the work you create?
  • How will you set up the accounting for your business?
  • Should you set up a business bank account or open a credit card dedicated to your business?

If this list of questions seems overwhelming now, imagine how anxiety-inducing it will be when you are bringing in zero income and the clock’s ticking on the funds you have left. It’s probably best to give this some thought while you have the stability of a day job to back you. That will free you up to hit the ground running when the time comes to go off on your own.

Build a portfolio website:

Building a portfolio website can be one of the most daunting tasks in setting up a freelance business. It’s not easy to distill years of varied work experience into simple copy, or to figure out how to organize all of your work in a cohesive way. But make no mistake, having a website is a must if you’re going to freelance full-time. Every prospective client will want to see your website. And if you don’t have one, how can you expect your dream clients to find you?

There are tons of resources out there for building beautiful portfolio websites. But truthfully, the most important thing is that you just have something to show people. Your website doesn’t have to be perfect the first go-around. It just needs to be functional. It should explain who you are, what you do, and provide some solid work samples. Besides, you can always add more bells and whistles down the line when your business is increasing. For now, having a solid website will make finding work exponentially easier, setting you up for future success.

Educate yourself on how to find paying work:

Once you go freelance, a large chunk of your time will be dedicated to bringing in new business. But how, exactly, will you go about doing that? It’s a question for the ages, and one I definitely did not think enough about while setting up my business.

There are many different approaches to finding clients, and tons of freelance experts who offer resources for landing work. Start researching and honing your methods now. The learning curve can be overwhelming: to the uninitiated, terms like “LOI” (letter of interest) and “cold pitching” (writing to propose a story to an editor/client you’ve never worked with before) read like a foreign language. Get yourself up to speed by trying an online course or reading a blog by a trusted expert in your field. Also, check out these top sites for finding all kinds of freelance work. Which leads me to the last thing you should absolutely be doing:

Start networking and actively seeking clients in your free time:

It’s hard to motivate yourself to network when you’re still employed. But putting yourself out there now could set you up for success when you’re finally ready to take the plunge into freelancing.

At this point, you’ve got your systems set up, you’ve built your website, and you’ve schooled yourself on finding clients. You’ve even got a few templates of those LOIs on hand. You are ready! Start reaching out to your networks and tell them you’re starting a freelance business. Attend events related to your industry and start building potential client relationships immediately. Remember that any work you get now will help bolster your portfolio and give you much-needed experience to attract the best possible clients.

Why do all of this now? Often, in freelancing world, things move at a glacial pace. A lot of the work is of the hurry-up-and-wait variety. The more seeds you plant while you’re still making a steady income, the better you’ll be set up for your future business.

(Image via Pixabay)

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