Marketers: Here’s how to get started as a freelancer

By Megan Van Groll, Freeman+Leonard talent

For independent thinkers, marketers and creatives, taking the leap into freelance work is often a natural and fortuitous move — even if the circumstances that inspire it are anything but.

How do I know? I was one of them.

In 2018, after being laid off by a global B2B tech company, I knew I had a choice to make: Keep working for other people, or make my own way.

As a fiercely independent artist, writer and digital strategist who for a long time had molded my skills to fit the roles available, I was burned out, restless, and ready to try something new.

So I took the leap into freelancing. And I was pretty good at it, despite not having much of a plan.

As it turned out, most of what I knew about freelancing and running a services business I’d actually already learned, even without realizing it — and perhaps from some of the best.

Before taking the role that would eventually see me laid off, my career had led me to The Richards Group. During my time there, I learned how real agencies were run, how to apply my skills and expertise effectively, and how to manage client relationships.

Those learnings translated easily to the freelance work I embarked on later, allowing me to find clients, get results that would keep them happy, and make money doing it.

In case it helps other marketers who find themselves at a similar professional crossroads, I’m sharing the first steps I took and the lessons I learned along the way. After all, the year 2020 has wrought many flavors of chaos. Likely none of us are where we thought we’d be at the start of the year.

The playbook has been scrapped. It’s time to write our own.

That starts with deciding what kind of work we’ll do, and for whom.

Step 1: Create packages that eliminate pain points.

Before you do anything else, you’ll need to decide which services to offer your clients. Ideally, this will be a marketing or creative specialty you’ve been working in already, so you can easily sell-through your past client experience and results.

Hopefully, that’s the easy part. Perhaps less intuitive is determining how to package those services in a way that solves a specific problem your clients have.

Offer painless solutions to specific problems

Ideally, your services solve a problem that is truly pivotal to your clients’ success. Your solutions should serve the metaphorical function of a fast-acting pain relief medicine, rather than a merely nice-to-have nutritional supplement.

That distinction may mean the difference between tepid, short-term success that evaporates with the next economic hit, and truly meaningful, stable growth.

Determine your pricing

Pricing is the final stage. Though it helps to have market research or your own prior knowledge as a guidepost, this is a highly personal calculation. Why?

As a fellow marketer, I know that we like to wax poetic about selling our expertise or results.

But practically and operationally speaking, as a services business owner, we’re trading time for dollars.

The only way to generate the annual income you’d like is to determine your preferred hourly rate. Whether you ever opt to share this number with your clients is up to you; there are pros and cons to an hourly rate vs. flat-rate packages based on an estimate of hours.

There are a number of ways to calculate your hourly rate, but the method I found most helpful is to take the annual salary I wanted to earn, add my expected expenses onto that number (including new ones like self-employment healthcare costs and higher taxes), and then divide by the number of billable hours I was likely to work in a year.

Click here to see a helpful infographic on calculating your hourly rate from CreativeLive.

That number of hours should account not only for your vacation days and sick time, but also for the fact that as a business owner, you’re doing the operations, bookkeeping, business development, marketing, everything — so, not every hour can be billable.

Personally, I know that if I work about 45-50 hours in a week, roughly 25-35 of those will be billable client hours, and this tracks with other agency founders, consultants and freelancers I’ve spoken with.

Step 2: Find your first paying client.

Now that you’ve clarified what you’ll offer, getting your first paying client is your most important move.

Even if you don’t have the perfect package or service, move forward anyway, as that can work itself out over time.

When you alone are responsible for your own success (and your own paycheck), cash is king and imperfect action beats indecision every time.

Tell the world what you’re up to

Finding your first client may come more easily than you’d think — but you have to be willing to make a public splash about your venture. Treat it as a true launch, and share it with your network. Tell everyone you know what you’re doing now, and update your online presence.

When I made the decision to go out on my own, among the very first things I did was update my LinkedIn profile. I created a company page for my consulting venture so that I could display my logo on my profile, and added a new position. I first called that position “Social Media Consultant,” knowing this was a term someone might type into LinkedIn if they were seeking my services.

It worked. My very first client found me just a week or two later, having searched “social media consultant” on LinkedIn and seeing the number of connections we had in common.

Collaborate with other service providers

Another surprisingly effective avenue for finding clients? Other agencies, freelancers and consultants who lack your specific expertise, and are seeking a white-label solution.

Some of my best clients are other marketers!

Similarly, don’t overlook marketing solutions and staffing companies like Freeman+Leonard.

They don’t just place talent into full-time or contract roles — they can also connect you with clients seeking freelancers for a variety of marketing needs on an ongoing or project basis.

Many on the Freeman+Leonard team are former marketers and agency folks themselves, so they’re uniquely equipped to understand your marketing and creative skill set and match you with right-fit opportunities.

You may even find yourself working on a team with other freelancers, collaborating with other creative minds to solve client problems while maintaining your independence and freedom.

For marketers recently laid off, finding work through a partner like Freeman+Leonard can also be a great launching pad while figuring out their next move, whether that’s freelancing full-time or otherwise.

No matter how you get the word out about your availability for projects, remember that no one can pay you if they don’t know about you.

You have to let people know you’re open for business, and make it easy for clients to find and connect with you.

And if networking or putting yourself into the spotlight makes you uncomfortable, reframe it: You’re not promoting yourself; you’re helping as many clients as you can.

Find your niche

As you navigate this part of your freelancing journey, avoid the temptation to get hung up on who you’re serving. Advice about “niching down” is everywhere. It’s true that the more specific you are about the client industries you serve, the more likely you are to be an easy yes for those clients.

But when you’re just getting started, it’s unlikely you’ll have enough information to make a confident decision, without future regret, about who you provide your marketing services to. Instead, learn your own preferences over time and arrive at a gut-check list for your ideal client.

I struggled with this initially, because my own client experience spanned multiple industries, and I found a reason to enjoy all of them. Today, I clearly know who’s an ideal client and who isn’t, but it’s more about a company’s vision, culture and customers than what industry they’re in.

Until you arrive at a particular niche over time, use your testimonials, case studies, and original thoughts to differentiate yourself instead of your client industries or categories.

Step 3: Establish systems and processes that lead to profitable client success.

At The Richards Group, I learned that time was money, and how it was spent (and by whom) determined profitability. One piece of evidence for this was the daily timesheet requirement. Every day by noon, our previous day’s time had to be entered and accounted for. Annoying as I found it at the time, this requirement instilled a habit I now find incredibly effective.

Once I secured my first client as a freelancer, I immediately focused on time tracking and using that information to scope hours more accurately going forward.

I quickly invested in a time tracking platform (we use Harvest) to track both my time and the time of any long-term contractors I employ. Later, I began using the same app to send invoices, which provided me with even more visibility into the profitability of each client project.

I also began building out tools, templates and frameworks for my clients that create consistent, repeatable results.

Even if you plan to stay solo forever, creating intellectual property around your unique approach to serving clients builds your reputation and puts you in higher demand.

Creating consistency and clarity around client touchpoints and boundaries has also contributed to happier clients and better relationships over the long-term.

You don’t have to have any of this figured out immediately, but starting your freelance career with an eye towards systemizing your operations will make everything easier down the line.

If you do nothing else, track your time. Trust me, you’ll need the information it provides in order to make strategic decisions in the future.

Entering the world of freelancing is a lot more straightforward than you may think.

Contrary to what I used to believe, you don’t need to have everything figured out before you begin.

This perfectionist thinking held me back from my entrepreneurial dreams for too long before a layoff forced my hand.

If the volatility of this year has found you similarly unemployed and considering your next move, know that a job loss can become one of the best and even most profitable catalysts of your career — if you decide to make the most of your newfound freedom.

In fact, few things will ensure the success of a new venture as much as the lit fire of sudden unemployment.

So get out there, spread the word, land your first paying client or two, and the rest will often work itself out via force of momentum.

From there, take it one day at a time.

You’ve got this.

About the Author

Megan Van Groll is an award-winning social media strategist and digital creative director serving B2B and B2C clients across healthcare, technology, financial services, education, nonprofits, and more.

Interested in working with Megan? Click here to get in touch with a Freeman+Leonard consultant.