80 rules to follow to become a better freelancer

When you become a freelancer, you’ll learn more about yourself, other people and the business world than you ever thought possible.

The challenges, difficulties and achievements you’ll experience along the way will make you a lot wiser and ready to take on anything. And the beauty is – you never stop learning.

But what if you’ve just started? You’ll probably want to know all the secrets to success, so you can avoid any hiccups and survive your first few years in business. From learning how to boost your skills and improve your attitude to dealing with difficult people and achieving that essential work/life balance – the following 80 nuggets of wisdom will help you become a better freelancer.

1. Listen and learn

Do you know the old saying about the two ears, one mouth ratio? How you listen more than you talk? Well if you want to become a better freelancer, this is my number one tip. Listen and learn my friend. You will pick up a lot more than you think. So listen!

2. Learn about body language

Body language can reveal a lot about a person. It can show you what they’re saying behind the words and help you deal with any situation. Subtly observe and look at how people are sitting, standing, and where they’re placing their arms. Consider what they’re doing with their hands. If something looks uncomfortable and closed off, it’s probably because the person feels that way.

In the meantime, become aware of your body language. Learn how to come across more open, trustworthy and friendly in the way you use your body. Wising up to your own and other people’s body language will help you out enormously, particularly in meetings when you’re trying to win some work.

3. Learn to say no!

It’s a sad fact of life, but people will always try to take advantage. Don’t let them by learning to say no when appropriate. It means if a client keeps adding extra bits of work to a project that’s already over-budget, say no and explain politely why. Stick to your guns but don’t jeopardise your relationship. Be firm but fair, polite, but professional. And recognise those times when it’s worth your while to say ‘yes’ because you don’t want to cause any unnecessary issues. Pick your battles, as they say.

4. Avoid the hard sell

These days, the best freelancers are those who don’t push a ‘hard sell’ and understand that winning work is about building relationships and ultimately trust. Whenever you go to a conference or networking event, be cool, calm and confident. Avoid immediately ramming your services down people’s throats and almost let them ask you what you do, instead of talking about yourself first. In pitches or new business meetings, imagine you’re an iceberg. Chill because you know you’re good at what you do.

5. Learn how to charm

Top tip to make people instantly like you and walk away with a great first impression? Let them talk about themselves until the cows come home. Ask them lots of questions to encourage further conversation. Listen, smile and be genuinely interested in what other people have to say. People will love you for it.

Ego is the easiest thing to stroke, and you do that by sincerely being interested in other people. Understand that people aren’t interested in you. They’re just waiting for the opportunity to talk about themselves. I say, give them the floor! Let them talk as much as they like. They’ll walk away really loving you and, even better, they’ll remember you.

6. Listen to your inner voice

Trusting your gut feeling is something you should do when running a business. Of course, those gut feelings will only get stronger with time and experience. Because if something doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t. Listen to your inner voice and tread carefully.

7. Understand that no one pays you enough to treat you badly

One of the worst things about freelancing is that you’ll sometimes come across nightmare clients who make your life a misery. Remember this nugget of wisdom – no one pays you enough to mistreat you! So if someone is driving you crazy, plot your escape. Just make sure you don’t burn any bridges by walking away gracefully.

8. Learn how to walk away without any stress

Got a lousy client you need to ditch? Learning how to walk away gracefully is a skill that everyone needs to acquire. You don’t want to damage your reputation or leave any ill-feeling. So either put your prices up, or the next time they want to hire you for a job say you’re working to full capacity and won’t be able to help. There are right and wrong ways to lose clients; find the right approach.

9. Avoid negativity

It’s a fact of life: people don’t like negative people, so avoid being negative and be happy and positive instead. For example, if you’ve just arrived at a meeting and your client asks if you got there ok. Even if the traffic was a nightmare, smile and say that you did and then ask a question that allows them to chat about themselves. Positive people are well-liked. Remember that.

10. Spot the difficult clients

The longer you’re in business, the more experienced you’ll become at recognising those difficult clients that cause stress. Learn how to spot the warning signs of needy, over-demanding characters and give them – what I like to call – your ‘F**k off!’ rate. If they still want to hire you at that higher price, at least you’ll be financially rewarded for the burden.

11. Don’t reveal your day or hourly rate

It’s a piece of wisdom my father keeps sharing with me, and that’s not to reveal your day or hourly rate, if you can help it. It’s often difficult in the creative industries where services are time-dependent. The problem is, once you’ve told a client that it’s going to cost £X for a certain amount of time, they’ll start to try and pin you down. They’ll say things like “Surely, it’s not going to take you a day to do that!”. In which case, ask people what they need and provide a quote saying: “That’s how much you need to spend with me to achieve your objectives”. Just give a price. Don’t reveal any time.

12. Recognise that the competition will play hardball

It’s a tough lesson to learn, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world. If you’re freelancing, you’ll quickly learn that it’s difficult to know who to trust. Particularly when you meet rival firms. My advice is always to be friendly and professional but keep your cards very close to your chest. Don’t be naive because people really will use any information you give them to their advantage.

13. Be careful who you trust

I share this next top tip with sadness. It’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn over the past four years. You should be very careful about who you trust. Don’t put people on pedestals and expect everyone to be as morally sound like you. People really can stab you in the back if you’re not careful, so only trust on merit.

14. Don’t worry about the competition

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of constantly seeing what other people are doing. Stop right now! The only time you should consider your competition is when you’re putting together a marketing plan to make your own business better. The rest of the time, you should concentrate on yourself. If you’re doing a great job for your clients, you don’t have to worry about anyone else.

15. Find out people’s problems and solve them

As a freelancer, you exist to provide skills and experience that people need. You’re a problem solver. Find out people’s problems and offer ways to solve them. Whenever you meet people and listen to what they need, you’ll find that they need answers. Give them the reassurance that you can help.

16. Be nice at all times

When answering the phone, meeting new people or bumping into others in your local supermarket, be nice at all times because you never know when you’ll bump into them again. First impressions count, and people will remember if you did something negative like ignore them or say something rude. A good example of this was when a woman was rude to me in the street for no reason. I later bumped into her handing out leaflets to announce her new shop was opening. Now, I’m not a petty person – so I did go into her shop and buy something. But many others wouldn’t have bothered, remembering that initial bad impression. Always be nice.

17. Don’t take trust lightly

Trust is like a mirror. Once it’s broken, you’ll always be able to see the cracks. Yes, we should all learn to forgive and forget, but in business, trust isn’t something to be taken lightly. Building trust is incredibly difficult and precious once you have it. Don’t mess things up by damaging any trust because they’ll probably never want to associate themselves with you again.

18. Go with your values

When putting your website copy together or describing your business to other people, put your values first. People want to find out what you’re passionate about rather than just what you do. Because people buy into values rather than products and services. Apple doesn’t go around saying “We’re a software company” – it talks about how it’s driving standards and researching new technology. People buy into that and love Apple for it. Do the same for your own company.

19. Use Lynda.com

It’s an online tutorial service of software training but includes other things like lessons on social media marketing and SEO. Sign up for a free trial – if one’s available – and do as much cramming up as you can. New skills will always benefit your business.

20. Answer those niggling questions

Got a question that keeps bothering you? Write it down and then aim to find the answer during your spare time. For example, you might always open Photoshop and wonder how to add drop shadows to images but never find the time to figure out how. Find time to learn how to do something that’s been bugging you for a while.

21. Get better at communicating

Clients like to be kept in the loop. Happy clients are ones that are constantly aware you’re doing the job they hired you for. Reassure them by keeping the communication channels open. Got a sinking feeling something might be wrong? Pick up the phone or arrange a meeting as nothing beats face-to-face communication to put things right.

22. Beat your clients to it

Got a gut feeling you’ve neglected a client? Or worried you’ve not done something for someone for a while? It’s probably an indication that your client is wondering where you are. Beat them to it by picking up the phone and being proactive.

23. Make your clients feel important

Every client likes to think they’re special, so treat them that way. Bend over backwards to keep them happy. For example, if you’re in a meeting and they ask when you’re likely to complete a project, explain that you’ll move your workload around to meet their deadline.

24. Status reports are your best friend

When managing projects for lots of different clients, it can sometimes be overwhelming. Why not create a status report for each client and keep them updated with every job or project that’s ongoing. You can then easily keep track of where you’re up to and send an updated status to your clients at the end of each week or month. Use something like Excel and – if you do send a copy to clients – make sure everything’s spell-checked and looks tidy.

25. Use Task Management tools

Juggling lots of different jobs is always a challenge. Make life easier for yourself by using a task management tool like Things for the Mac, or if you’ve got Microsoft Outlook, there’s a pretty decent in-built task manager on there. Spread out your different tasks throughout the week and don’t overburden yourself with too many things on one day.

26. Don’t multitask

Multitasking is for losers. Seriously. It will drain your energy and leave you doing a half-hearted job. Pick out the most important job of the day and focus on doing that and that alone. Yes, you’ve got loads of other things you need to do. But multitasking won’t get anything done any faster. Concentrate on one job before moving onto the next.

27. Switch off social media

Social media is great for networking, building new relationships and winning new business, but it can also be a huge distraction. Switch it off when you need to concentrate and only spend a short time every day updating your Twitter or Facebook accounts.

28. Make the most of Twitter

When using Twitter, don’t bitch, gossip, complain or moan – people don’t like negativity and will be turned off. Just be nice, professional and positive, and you’ll be winning. Oh and ditch the desire to self-broadcast. It isn’t a platform that suits old school marketing. Twitter is all about the long game – you’re building relationships with people over a longer period, that’s what’s important.

29. Push yourself out of your comfort zone

Are you petrified of public speaking? Put yourself forward for a talk in front of 50 people! Hate doing pitches? Sign up for three if you can. It’s always great to put yourself out of your comfort zone as it’s often the only way you’ll progress.

I used to hate public speaking, but after doing a handful of talks, I’m now brimming with confidence and feel comfortable in any situation. Bottom line? It’s good to scare yourself and do something you’ve been deliberately avoiding.

30. Read from the industry’s finest

Learning from others is a great way to work on your expertise. Find out who the big players are in your creative field and follow their blogs. For example, Scott Goodson is the founder of the world’s first cultural movement agency, and his blog gives great insight into the world of modern marketing.

31. Ditch the pride

Even the brightest and best have made mistakes. We all fail. It’s a fact of life. Don’t let mistakes dent your pride. Understand that failures are a necessity in life. It’s the only way you’ll ever learn anything. Just make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

32. Learn from your mistakes

When you’ve made a mistake, take a minute to sit back and learn from the experience. Ask yourself why you made the wrong decision or what went wrong. Consider how you can improve yourself, so you don’t fall foul of making the same mistakes again.

33. Never stop learning

No matter what your creative field, there will always be something new to learn. Never rest on your laurels or stop improving yourself. Keep up with industry news and developments. For instance, if you’re a digital marketing firm – make sure you’re one step ahead of all the latest SEO updates. You then want to pass on this wisdom to your clients by expanding upon your offering.

34. Impress your clients by getting under their skin

Every client considers its business to be its baby, so make sure you share their love by getting under the skin of what they do. Buy trade magazines and read up about their industry, so you can impress your client by showing that you know your stuff.

35. Don’t forget the downtime

When you’re a freelancer, it’s all too easy to work every waking hour. If you’re working too hard, stop right now! Downtime is so important for your well-being. Besides, working long hours doesn’t mean you get more work done. Understand that you’ll be far more productive if you work six or seven hours each day while getting enough rest during evenings and weekends.

36. Write a blog to share your expertise

Don’t all groan at once, but blogging is valuable. Not only will you build quality content on your website that will help with your digital marketing, but you’ll also be learning something new every day. Researching and writing about different topics is a great way to expand your knowledge.

37. Take a night class

There’s no harm in signing up for a new course to improve your skills. That’s whether you want to become a better bookkeeper or you’re keen to learn more about marketing. Contact your local school or college to see if they run any adult classes.

38. Be pro-active to win more work

Take a look at your existing clients and see if there’s anything you could offer to grow your business with them organically. For instance, if you’ve just built a new website for someone, could you offer digital marketing? Or if you’ve designed some business cards, why not get in touch and suggest a new brochure as well? Always seek out ways to win more business from your existing clients.

39. Learn how to present the right image

When you put together your brand, consider how you’d like to come across to other businesses. Do you want to be seen as friendly? Professional? Corporate? Consider your image at all times and make sure this is reflected across everything you do from your Twitter profile to your website and marketing materials. How people perceive you can make a difference.

40. Be creative

Don’t be afraid to try new things and change anything. Be creative and come up with new ways to let your business and your clients shine.

41. Determine your strengths

Take a long hard look at yourself and determine what your strengths are. Once you’ve recognised your strengths, shout about them through your website, marketing materials and when talking to potential clients.

42. Tackle your weaknesses

We all have weaknesses; it’s just a fact of life. Pick out your own and try to fill the gaps – either by improving yourself or hiring outsourced support to make your business stronger.

43. Boost your self-confidence

Running a business takes guts and determination. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. So work on your confidence. Because confidence is infectious and people love to be around self-assured people. Still not convinced you can become more confident? Take a course or speak to family/friends to ask them why they like you. Get out and exercise, setting yourself a challenge to run a certain distance. Do anything you can to work on boosting your confidence.

44. Identify client needs

To get to grips with any client, go above and beyond to discover their needs. Because sometimes, a client may find it hard to express what they want. Just ask lots of questions until you’re completely clear and then act accordingly.

45. Keep track of happy customers

It’s no good doing a great job and having thrilled clients unless you can shout about it! Make sure you ask your clients’ permission to use their testimonials on your website and marketing materials. Nothing adds more credibility than a happy customer.

46. Make allies wherever possible

The business world can be a small pond, particularly if you’re a business working with clients on your doorstep. Make sure you’re friends with everyone and collect as many allies as possible. Allies will look out for you, defend you and send more business your way. Be someone everyone likes, including your competition.

47. Take advantage of free software

There is so much free stuff on the web, so make sure you make the most of it. From SEO tools and learning videos to social media monitoring systems, there is plenty that you can get your hands on without paying for it.

48. Create a marketing plan

Want to become a better freelancer? When you work for yourself, it’s all too easy to get your head down and work without any real forward-planning. Take a step back and make your marketing plan. It will help you identify areas for improvement.

49. Save for rainy days

To get to grips with freelancing, you have to understand that there will be some drought periods. Save money for these quieter times, so you always keep healthy cash flow.

50. Carry a notepad

When you work in the creative industries, you’ll undoubtedly have to come up with new and creative ideas for your clients as well as yourself. Carry a notepad wherever you go because inspiration can strike at any time.

51. Be humble

Don’t become arrogant or too big for your boots. Be humble and remember to willingly take advice from other people or clients who have more experience than you. You don’t know everything, so stop pretending you do.

52. Take the time you need

There’s no point rushing through work as it will only make you suffer. Take the time you need to do a great job and if it means you go over deadline, keep the communication channels open with your client.

53. Ask for feedback

Client feedback is like gold dust. Ask for it, and you’ll be able to see where you can make improvements to your products, services and customer service.

54. Keep finances tidy

Money is key to your survival. So keep finances tidy, file invoices away in one place and have a system that makes your accounting a breeze.

55. Know when to start and finish

When freelancing, you don’t necessarily have to work the old nine ’til 5. You can choose your hours and work during your most productive hours. In which case, know when to start and finish. Don’t keep ploughing away with your workload if you’ve run out of steam. So what if it’s 11 am and you can’t find the motivation. Go for a walk in the fresh air for an hour, have a long lunch and then work later on.

56. Remember to de-stress

Stress can be a killer. Stress isn’t good for anyone. Remember to chill whenever you can by stepping away from your desk, taking lots of deep breaths and going out to exercise. Downtime is just as important as work time. Don’t neglect to give your mind and body a rest.

57. Give a positive response to negative criticism

Ok, so it’s not nice when someone criticises your work, but it’s no good becoming defensive. Give a positive response whenever someone points out holes in your work and see their criticism as a great opportunity to learn and improve.

58. Say yes to new challenges

Has a client thrown a difficult new challenge at you? Don’t be afraid to have a go and embrace the opportunity. Challenges put us out of our comfort zone and are a great way to learn new things and become a better freelancer overall.

59. Read and read some more

Never stop reading. That’s whether you’re learning new skills, reading about the general daily news or keeping up with the industry you work. Never rest on your laurels and read as much as you can.

60. Stay active

Exercise is the best way to tackle stress and clear your mind. Get out for a nice walk, cycle or jog in the fresh air, and you’ll find that any business worries or stresses will melt away. When I’m out running, I often come up with solutions to any problems I have. Stay active to stay healthy, happy and stress-free.

61. Plan ahead

Avoid the Sunday night blues by leaving work on a Friday with a well-planned work schedule ready to pick up on Monday morning. Plan and you’ll feel in control, and therefore happy, with your work.

62. Be aware of new trends

To stay one step ahead of the competition, always be aware of any new trends that your business could benefit. For example, when I first started as a marketing freelancer, Twitter was becoming extremely popular. I made sure I learnt the skills I needed to offer social media marketing as a service to my clients.

63. Look the part

Even if you’re working from home and tempted to stay in your pyjamas, don’t! Dress professionally and look the part. It will make you feel professional, and it’ll boost your productivity. Get up, have a shower, put on some perfume/aftershave and wear something smart. Make an effort with your appearance even if you’re at home.

64. Don’t forget your taxes

The only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. Don’t ever forget to sort your annual tax return. It’s so important to pay your taxes on time; otherwise, you could face heavy penalties.

Take some time to file away all your invoices, bank statements and receipts, ready for the annual tax return. And always save money for the big bill because you don’t want to be suddenly stung just after Christmas.

65. Always carry business cards

When you work for yourself, you often do your marketing. That’s why you should always carry a business card. Because you never know who you might see.

66. Be a chameleon

To become a great freelancer, you have to learn how to be flexible and adapt to different types of clients. One client might be very stiff and corporate, while another might be laid-back and fun. Wear the right clothes and talk the right language with different people. Become a chameleon and adapt to others.

67. Have a goal in mind

No matter what you’re doing, always have a goal for your business in mind. Stick to that goal and do everything you can to achieve it. Remember, goals can change – so don’t be too hard on yourself if things adjust.

68. Respond to emails and phone calls quickly

Happy customers love a quick response, so make sure you respond to emails and phone calls as quickly as possible. If you’ve received a complicated email, reply and explain that you’ll look into the issue and come back to them as soon as you can.

69. Don’t over-promise

Never over-promise and under-deliver. Always manage client expectations by telling them what you can and can’t realistically achieve for them. If you over-promise, you’ll only cause yourself problems.

70. Tackle small jobs first

Got a massive workload to get through? Get rid of the small jobs first. You’ll feel great when you’ve ticked them off your ‘to-do’ list and will be ready to handle the bigger stuff without distraction.

71. Be patient

Be patient with your clients and suppliers. It’s a noble quality to have, and one that makes you a more likeable person. And if people like you, they’ll want to do business with you again and again.

72. Be flexible

There are times when you really should be flexible for your clients. Learn to recognise those occasions when it will do you no harm to be flexible to your client’s needs. Just don’t let others abuse your reasonable attitude.

73. Be understanding

Sometimes, clients might not pay on time, or they might let you down because they’re suffering from their issues. If they’re usually reliable, try to be understanding and give them room to sort things out.

74. The client isn’t always right

Don’t be afraid to go against what your client is saying if you think they’re wrong. Clients aren’t always right, so bear that in mind. Gently lead your client along the right path and have confidence in your expertise.

75. Don’t procrastinate

Don’t sit there and twiddle your thumbs, talking about all the things you could be doing without actually doing anything. If you’re waiting for inspiration to strike or you can’t get started on a new job, spend 10 minutes trying to get stuck in. You’ll soon get the ball rolling.

76. Take breaks

It’s easy to work without taking a break, but it’s no good for your mind and body. Every 15 minutes, get up and stretch. Take some deep breaths and walk away from your computer. Make the most of your lunch breaks and take a full hour if you can. If the sun’s shining, get outside.

77. Research client’s target market before you begin

To understand your customer, you have to understand their customers. Research your client’s target market before you start any work, and you’ll be on to a winner.

78. Advertise yourself outside of your local area

When you want to broaden your horizons and win more work, extend your reach outside your local area. Advertise in other towns or cities that are close by. Don’t be afraid to try out new markets. A great way to extend into new areas is to go to new networking events. Just go armed with lots of business cards and a big smile.

79. Consider having contracts

Contracts are a great way to protect yourself against any common issues that may arise with clients. They legally bind your client to an agreement to provide services that they will pay for. Consider getting something drafted up by a legal professional.

80. Love what you do

Finally, there is no point in becoming a freelancer if you don’t love what you do. So make sure you love your line of work and enjoy the freedom of running a business. If you don’t love what you do, find something that you’re passionate about and pursue a career in that instead.


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