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First Steps: Getting Started as a Freelancer

Ever think about choosing when you work, where you work, and how you work? Curious about what it’s like to be a freelancer and want to learn more about how to get started? Women Who Code DC interviewed a few current female entrepreneurs: Eve Freeman, Erin Upton-Coulsich, Evan Taylor, and Becca Goodman about their experiences as freelancers.

There are many ways to get started in freelancing. For Becca and Evan, freelancing evolved organically as a result of requests from friends and acquaintances. Becca began her freelance career six years ago, when a boss had a side business and lost his in-house developer. “He eventually turned it over to me and I kept working on it,” she explains. Similarly, Evan became involved in freelancing through requests coming from her network.“I started when a lot of people in my network started asking me for advice on the same few topics in the space I was already working.”

It’s also possible to proactively seek freelance opportunities, as Eve Freeman did to get started.

“I used websites like rent-acoder and elance (now upwork) to find work. I don’t recommend them (at least, in my past experience), because often the rates are far lower than they should be. One place I do recommend is — I’ve had a very good experience there with short term clients (1–4 hours) at good rates.” — Eve

Erin started gradually, “I took on a couple gigs for a year while I had a boring office job. Then I transitioned to a part-time job in the same industry and grew my client base for a year. Finally, I quit that job and went freelance full time — and signed on that part-time employer as my largest client (consider talking to your boss about this if they’d be open to it and you’re feeling indispensable). By then I had a portfolio and a solid client roster. I also had enough in my savings account that I was able to hold out for high-quality, high-paying gigs instead of desperately grabbing at whatever came my way just to pay the bills.”

Switching from being a full-time salaried employee to a full-time freelancer can take some time to adjust, as all the administrative aspects of being employed now are your responsibility. What considerations are important when making the switch?

“There is no HR…You are the CEO, CFO, CCO, CMO and COO unless you have the resources to outsource specific elements or department functions all together. It helps you develop a new awareness and distinct appreciation for all the “middlemen [or middlewomen]” of department processes.” — Evan

“Don’t be shy about telling clients that your hourly rate is (at least) twice what you made at your office job. That’s what you need to charge to pay the bills as a freelancer — no less” — Erin

In addition to health care, it’s worth looking into establishing a business structure, such as a DBA (Doing Business As), LLC (Limited Liability Corporation),or a Corporation (if you think you’ll need to hire other employees). In some cases, businesses might also require professional liability insurance. “Some larger corporate clients have requested that I maintain professional liability insurance (which has costed me about $75/month). I didn’t buy it until a client requested it though. Unless you’re making $10k+ on a single gig — or if your potential mistakes could cost the client a lot of time and money — I wouldn’t worry about legal stuff for the first few months when you’re getting started. Focus on marketing yourself and knocking each gig out of the park,” Erin explained.

Another requirement of self-employed work is taxes. As freelancers, you must file taxes on a quarterly basis since you do not have an employer filing taxes on your behalf and deducting it from your monthly paycheck.

“If you don’t, you can get burned at the end of the year.” — Becca, on filing quarterly taxes.

After making the decision to start a freelance career and sorting through the administrative details, we asked our entrepreneurs how to begin marketing as a freelancer. Word of mouth was an obvious starter. “Start with word of mouth (it’s free),” Evan suggests. “Then once you can explain precisely and concisely what you do, why you’re better than anyone else and what you can deliver if someone hires you; you can take your show on the road.” Meetups, networking events, and small intimate events in your target market’s community serve as a great starting point for bringing awareness to your services and specialties.

For Eve, this worked particularly well.

“I have sort of a niche expertise with the Neo4j work I do, people have seen my contributions and classes and talks. I will say that going to meetups, organizing meetups, giving talks, and doing open source work has done wonders for my career in general, as well as my freelance marketing.” — Eve

Erin also agrees that Facebook is a valuable place to gain clients.

“Let everyone and their sister know you’re available for hire — now is not the time to be shy! After I announced my freelance transition on Facebook, I got a few gigs right away from long-lost friends I never would have expected to need my services.” — Erin

Getting started in freelancing may seem intimidating, but as Eve, Evan, Erin, and Becca have shown, it’s not impossible. Keep an eye out for the second part in this two-part series, where we discuss managing client relations, additional resources for freelancers, and other aspects of freelancing.


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