11 freelance tips for earning like a pro

freelance tipsWhat’s the difference between high-earning freelancers and all other freelancers? For the most part, the high earners have a professional mindset.

And what does that mean?

It means making a shift from the paycheck mentality to the professional mentality. Here are 11 tips for doing just that.

1. Think like a professional. Whether you want to earn a little extra income on the side or go full-blown freelance pro, you should consider yourself in the same class as all other professionals, worthy of the same respect and income.

2. Ignore most of the advice from the freelance “industry.” Many magazines, books, and online sources give bad advice for those wanting to make money at freelancing. You must carefully weigh the advice you get, choosing to follow only what you know will further your business interests.

3. Politely disregard the advice from friends and family. Everyone thinks they’re an expert, even those who have never freelanced before. But you have to avoid seeking emotional support and start seeking success. If someone gives you advice, look at how much money they’re making from their own freelancing, if any. If they’re no better off than you, smile, nod politely, and promptly forget what they say.

4. Think long term and never give up. It will probably take 3 to 5 years to establish a profitable clientele and to get comfortable with your new business. Many freelancers simply give up too soon. Make a commitment to persist against all odds and slowly grow your business over the next few years. Easier said than done. But persistence pays off.

5. Offer special expertise. You must offer clients unique knowledge, experience, or skill in some area besides the physical task you perform.

For example, if you’re a writer, what expertise do you have in addition to writing? Perhaps you work in the PR department of a hospital, or you have a few years of volunteer experience raising funds for a nonprofit, or you’ve written a number of successful radio commercials, or you have a chemical engineering degree. Whatever it is, your specialty gives you the edge you need to a) differentiate yourself from all other writers, b) narrow your market and find the right clients, and c) charge higher, professional-level fees.

Neither your technical skills nor your special knowledge is enough by itself. Put them together, however, and you have the edge you need.

6. Avoid the “generalist trap.” Being a specialist is better than being a generalist. What happens if you don’t specialize? You will offer to do just about anything for anyone, as long as there’s a fee involved.

Your logic will go something like this: If I accept a wide variety of assignments, there are more businesses I can work for. And that means I will get more work and make more money. This sounds perfectly reasonable, but it’s dead wrong.

The generalist is seen as a jack of all trades, and a master of none. All-purpose freelancers are easy to come by. So, from a client’s point of view, the generalist has nothing special to offer.

Without a specialty, the generalist invariably concentrates on selling time or effort instead of helping a client accomplish something. Businesses are task-oriented. They want to get their newsletter out. They need a brochure to help their sales staff sell more widgets. They want a video to train employees. Clients need communication tools that do something, and they are not interested in your technical skills.

Since the generalist offers nothing special and doesn’t focus on the ultimate needs of clients, he or she will actually get LESS work and make LESS money. For example, I specialize in direct mail. My marketing pieces tell prospects to “Call the Direct Mail Copy Pro.” If a client needs a direct mail package written, who will they call? The writer who writes a little of this and a little of that? Or me, the direct mail copy professional?

Clients always call the specialist first.

By narrowing your market, you can more easily find your potential clients. If everyone in the phone book is a prospect, where do you start? By specializing, you decrease the total number of prospects and make it easier to market your services.

7. Specialize by industry or client type. This is the best way to specialize if you want to easily find your clients. It lets you use your specialized knowledge or experience and helps you hone in on the clients who could benefit from your services. There are literally thousands of ways to classify businesses, and therefore, thousands of ways for you to specialize by client type. Here are three common business classifications:

8. Specialize by function or format. Specializing by function means to specialize in something businesses need to do, such as generate sales leads, increase in-store traffic, build a brand image, improve customer communications, etc. Specializing by format means to specialize in a particular physical product, such as Web sites, annual reports, industrial manuals, and so on.

Specializing by function or format makes it more difficult to find clients, but easier to sell your particular skill set. This is the way I specialize, though if I were starting over today, I might consider specializing by industry.

9. Go with what you know. If you have an advertising background, stick with some form of advertising or marketing. If you have a technical degree, you might try technical writing. If you used to work in a graphic design studio, any sort of graphic design will be your strong suit. Whatever you choose should be specific enough to set you apart, but broad enough to give you a sufficient client pool to hire you.

Can you make a radical jump, say, from a public relations job in the fashion industry to technical writing for software companies? Sure. But you won’t have the right samples to show your prospects. Few prospects will believe you can handle the work, even if you can. And you’ll dramatically increase the time you’ll need to understand your new business and become profitable.

I know, because I started out as a writer for a small television station. My jump from television writing to direct mail added about three years to my learning curve and probably cost me a hundred thousand dollars in lost profits from those early years.

10. Choose what is most profitable. Not every specialty pays the same. You could specialize in newsletters, for example, but you will probably earn less than someone creating annual reports for Fortune 1000 clients. On the other hand, any sort of freelancing can be profitable if you find a way to make it work for you. If you can get $1,000 for a newsletter, and create five each month, you’ll be earning $5,000 a month and $60,000 a year just from the newsletters.

11. Have more than one specialty. Being a specialist isn’t a matter of who you are, but how your clients think of you. I’m a direct mail copywriter for many of my clients, but I’ve developed additional specialties in sales lead generation programs, writing and producing radio commercials, and creating ads for software products.

For now, you should focus on one strong specialty. But keep your options open. As you get work, you’ll probably find that similar clients are hiring you and that you are automatically developing specialties in several areas.

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7 Responses to “11 freelance tips for earning like a pro”

  1. Matt Ambrose on October 1st, 2008 10:23 am

    Hi Dean,

    Excellent advice.

    I’m into my third year now and only just breaking into profit. However, it’s taken the amount of time that was necessary to be able to build my portfolio and prove my credibility, which isn’t something you can invent for yourself. If I’d rushed and made claims I couldn’t back up (a track record in direct response copy for example) then I would have simply killed my business before it even got going.

    Narrowing down to specialising in a specific field (as you recommend) is now my next step.


  2. MarkusX on October 7th, 2008 4:06 am

    Excellent read. Very very good advice.

    However, in respect to point 2 and especially to point 3, we have to ask you:
    How much money do you make with your freelancing?


  3. Cynthia Maniglia on October 15th, 2008 3:30 pm

    You might also add to this list of things that can help put you in the professional mindset:

    12. Join a professional trade association like the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) or your local direct marketing association.
    You’ll need to network and align yourself with companies or agencies that NEED freelance writers.

    One of the best ways to start might be to back up another freelancer when he or she goes on vacation or if that person is unable to take a job. You can try to work out a non-competitive way to do this and share the workload. It pays to have colleagues who do what you do or want to do … I’d go as far to say it’s good to have at least one person like this – it can be a great asset.

  4. Kunal on November 6th, 2008 10:00 pm

    “If you have an advertising background, stick with some form of advertising or marketing. If you have a technical degree, you might try technical writing.”

    I don’t quite agree with this. If by a pro you mean a veritable know-it-all who can spout astounding data and insights but on one topic and one topic only, then I’d rather remain jack-of-all all my life.

    In my experience, when I’ve been really excited by my work, researching / learning hasn’t been an issue.

  5. Dean Rieck on November 7th, 2008 1:23 pm

    Kunal: The point I was making about sticking to what you know is about marketing yourself and the time it takes to understand an area of specialty.

    For example, if you have no technical experience and try to pursue tech writing jobs, you’ll have a much harder time than if you formerly worked in that area. You can research all you want, but you can’t make up for lack of time spent in an area of expertise.

  6. Charles Cuninghame on September 7th, 2009 8:58 pm

    Hi Dean

    Thanks for the valuable advice.

    Re specialisation: Would it be best to specialise by industry AND format e.g. direct mail for the agricultural industry?

  7. Dean Rieck on September 7th, 2009 9:09 pm

    Charles, if you can specialize by industry and format, go for it. The more specialized you are, the more you can “own” a segment of the market.

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