The Business

How to Succeed as a Freelancer: 7 Expert Tips for Beginners

Use these pro tips to take your freelance biz to the next level!

Hand holding a light bulb coming out of a cardboard box

Starting out as a freelancer can be exciting, and I bet you want to make sure that your business succeeds.

After all, many freelancers have crashed and burned, realising that there’s more to freelancing than just “being your own boss”.

Or, “being able to work in your pyjamas”.

What else do you need to know then?

Here are 7 tips on how to succeed as a freelancer in Singapore, as shared by experienced freelancers.

These tips cover a range of areas—from having the right freelance mindset, to networking without being scammy about it, and (the ever-popular freelance question!) deciding how much to charge.

Let’s get started!

1. Hone your business skills

Having mentored a few young freelancers, principal innovation consultant Thomas Smart of Binary Thinktank has seen one common misconception:

“Being a great architect/developer/designer/whatever does not translate to being a good FREELANCER,” Thomas emphasises.

That’s because freelancing is a business.

It’s not just about being able to produce great work—you’ll need to be able to sell your work and earn enough money to make this sustainable.

So what are some other skills you need to be a successful freelancer? Thomas lists a few:

  • Basic business management, strategy and planning
  • Financial and accounting, understanding of taxes
  • Sales and marketing
  • Communication and presentation skills
  • Agile project management

Apart from these, Thomas also recommends general skills in innovation, design thinking, brainstorming and prototyping.

“If any of these make you nervous, then go take a course first,” he shares. “The universities here [in Singapore] all have courses to cover most of those.”

2. Tap on your network to get projects

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, you can’t expect clients to immediately start lining up to work with you. You’ll need to go find those freelance clients yourself!

But how? Freelance identity and web designer Renessa S recommends reaching out to your network.

“Let everyone know you’re freelancing and looking for opportunities!” Renessa shares. “Word-of-mouth had been (and still is) really effective for me when starting out, and [sending a] simple text message to the right people has gone a long way.”

“I’ve also done charity projects that have opened up opportunities and raised awareness of what I offer—helping me get my services out there and book more clients.”

3. Make friends, not “contacts”

But here’s the thing about networking: you need to be sincerely interested in the other person, instead of just being there to sell them your services.

That’s why freelance scriptwriter Marcus Goh recommends a different approach to networking:

Make friends. As in, really make friends, not ‘contacts’,” says Marcus. “People can tell when you’re just talking to them to widen your network, or when you’re talking to them because you genuinely want to know more about them.”

“If you think their OOO [out-of-office] reply is funny, or they did something interesting, or you’re just intrigued by something they did—tell them and start from there.

Don’t start by unloading all the work you are available for.”

4. Charge enough to cover all your costs (not just your salary)

Another mistake frequently made by new freelancers is thinking that they just need to charge enough to cover their salary.

But in doing so, they forget that salary is just one cost involved in running a business!

“Remember that as a freelancer, you do not get all the benefits of being employed,” says Thomas. He lists what your fees should include:

  • Your salary: This amount has to include your personal savings.
  • Money to set aside for holiday leave and sick leave: The number of days of leave you take will reduce the number of hours you can bill clients for in a year. So you’ll need to charge more per hour to cover your costs.
  • Budget to cover non-billable work, such as sales and marketing: Because spending time on such work will also reduce the number of hours you can bill clients for.
  • Business expenses that you can’t bill to clients, such as hardware, software, rent, utilities and website costs.

As for how to charge, an hourly rate can be a guideline. But Thomas recommends trying to bill based on the client’s financial capacity and the value that you can deliver to them.

He also shares that over time, you’ll get an idea of your “utilisation percentage”, or how many days and hours you’ll be able to bill clients for in a year.

“The amount you get paid in those utilised days needs to cover all of your costs for the entire year,” he shares.

“Knowing this will help to calculate your base hourly rate or what you minimally need to charge.”

5. Use apps to keep track of projects

As a freelancer, chances are you’ll be working with multiple clients at once. And sometimes even multiple projects with a single client at once!

Then throw in different client requirements, project milestones and payment deadlines, and you can easily start to lose track of everything if you don’t have a system in place.

“If you’re used to working in a team environment, the process of running a project from its orientation to the final handoff by yourself can be a little daunting in the beginning, especially when managing multiple projects at the same time,” shares Renessa.

“To keep me organised and on top of things, I use apps like AND.CO to keep track of contracts, due dates and invoicing.

This has saved me a lot of time in dealing with things like drafting proposals and bookkeeping so I can focus on the work itself.”

6. Be aware of the transactional nature of freelancing

A big difference between being an employee and being a freelancer is that freelance work can feel a lot more transactional in nature.

Clients tend to reach out only when they need your help and go quiet once a project is done. Befriending clients isn’t impossible, but can take a lot more time and effort.

Thomas cautions:

“If you are someone that tends to make deep friendships and mix social and work a lot, this [aspect of being a freelancer] might be challenging.”

He adds that the transactional nature of the job can be especially noticeable for on-site retainer work. “The connection to colleagues is very different from being an employee, because it won’t be long before you move on to the next project.”

“There can be a social toll,” he shares.

7. Don’t take things personally

Many freelancers take pride in their work. But as a result, if their work is criticised by clients, imposter syndrome kicks in. They start to lose confidence in their abilities.

This can lead to unnecessary stress and unhappiness over the long run, and freelance copywriter Tabitha Tan of The Write Co thinks that it’s important to learn not to take things personally.

“You are not your job and your identity or worth is not based on the work you do, or the compliments you may or may not receive from your clients,” she shares.

Give your best in everything you do no matter how small the job, [and] be willing to admit your shortcomings and be honest with your clients about your skills.”

For those who feel disadvantaged by their shortcomings, she reassures that it is “absolutely okay” to not know how to do something, as long as you “learn how and then practise hard until you become good at it”.

Tabitha adds:

“At the end of the day, never forget that you made this decision [to freelance] for yourself to enjoy a certain life. If one day you find that it is causing you more stress instead of joy, it is also okay to find something stable for the time being.

You can never fail at freelancing.”

Freelancing can be a challenging journey, but don’t go at it alone! Join our lancerX Facebook community to connect with fellow freelancers and get help for freelance issues in a positive and supportive environment.

Tan Siew Ann
I’m a freelance writer for some of the most amazing software businesses in the world. On this blog, I share tips on how you, too, can run a sustainable and meaningful freelance business. Let’s forge your freedom. 💪

Leave a Response