Taking the leap from full-time to freelance can be scary. It means missing out on the stability of a 9-5, a cushy benefits package, and the knowledge that a set salary will land in your account every month. It means hustling for opportunities and sometimes being disappointed. But it also brings extraordinary freedom, flexibility, and the chance to be your own boss.
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Whilst career-paths, promotions, and pay raises can feel structured and secure in a traditional working environment, freelancers often find that how much they can earn, what kind of work they are doing, and who they work for is much less predictable. In order to secure the best rates and attract the best opportunities being able to advocate for yourself is an important skill — after all, you don’t have a manager or colleagues to sing your praises or give you a good performance review.
Whatever stage you’re at in your freelance journey, these tips will enable you to ask for what you need and want, and to make choices that empower you.
1. Lay the Groundwork
Although you might be confident that you can provide a good service to a client, what reasons do they have to work with you? It can be difficult to justify asking for the big bucks if you have little to show for your rates up front. After all, there will often be other freelancers offering the same service for a lower price.
In order to convince clients that you’re a good value, make sure that you have a strong portfolio to showcase. Build a professional-looking website that demonstrates your work and direct potential partners to take a look at it in your initial exchanges. Craft your pitch so that it explicitly sets out the value that your service brings and why you’re the perfect person for the job.
2. Do the Math
An important consideration when it comes to setting your rates as a freelancer is what you can personally afford to work for. Calculate the number of hours it would take to complete your work at a high standard and what kind of hourly rate you would realistically require to give you your lowest feasible fee. Don’t forget to factor in any additional time outside of the hours spent working on specific deliverables — such as those spent pitching, negotiating, or completing any follow-up work that the client may request.
Once you’ve calculated your lowest possible rate, you should aim to enter negotiations asking for a higher figure. Having a firm idea in mind of what you can realistically go down to will enable you to know when to walk away.
3. Don’t be Afraid to Ask
One of your most helpful resources as a freelancer is other freelancers (although they can be trickier to track down when they aren’t simply a few offices away!). There are plenty of freelancer networks to be found on social media, or you could search to see if there are any meet-ups in your local area. Once connected, start conversations about what those in a similar field tend to charge clients, and gauge whether your skills might be worth more or less. Because there is little transparency when it comes to freelancing, you will likely find that clients pay wildly different fees to different individuals. Having a rough idea of how you stack up and a ballpark idea of payment for possible jobs is invaluable information for future negotiations.
4. Know What’s Important to You
Although it can be tempting to chase the highest paid jobs, there are other factors that you might wish to take into consideration when setting individual rates. You may decide that you are primarily driven by cold hard cash and want to be firm when it comes to only taking on well-paid work. Alternatively, you may be willing to accept a lower rate if a role is likely to lead to future opportunities, if it is a company you really enjoy working for (or if it is for a cause that you are particularly passionate about). If stability is something you value, you might consider a lower fee per job for a stream of regular projects. Maybe you are juggling commitments and would accept lower-paid work that can be undertaken during hours that are more convenient for you, or maybe you are willing to offer a significant discount for work supplied to a charity or client who supported you early in your career. Think carefully about what factors might tempt you to accept a lower rate and take these into account when negotiating.
5. Have Boundaries
When you don’t have a set job description, it can be difficult to determine what work is within your sphere. Aim to be clear when it comes to outlining what work you offer and ensure that clients know what is included in your fee and when they can expect you to be available.
Be prepared to push back on clients who request extra work outside of the initial brief or the hours that you have agreed to work. Being freelance doesn’t mean sacrificing your working conditions, and you are well within your rights to respond with a polite “I’m sorry, but this wasn’t set out in our original agreement,” or to inform people that there will be an extra charge incurred for work that you weren’t expecting to complete.
6. Know Your Rights
Freelancing can be a fantastic opportunity to work with a range of great companies and individuals; however, you may also come across clients who don’t treat freelancers well. Poor conditions, unsafe working environments, and late payments (or even no payments at all) all come with the territory, and you should be alert to these issues.
Although freelancers are (unfortunately) less protected than contracted employees, there are still some laws in place when it comes to what protection they are entitled to. Research what rights you have in your jurisdiction, and don’t be afraid to point these out if you’re being mistreated. If you experience major issues, consider taking legal advice from an employment lawyer.
7. Be Prepared to Walk Away
The unpredictable nature of freelancing can make it hard to turn down work. Every freelancer will be familiar with the inevitable dry spells, and there is always a fear that if you say no to a project then another one might not come along any time soon.
Taking on too much work, accepting a fee that is lower than you can afford, or doing work that you’re not comfortable undertaking will only damage your business, your mental health, and your bank balance. Have enough confidence in your abilities and enough respect for your own time and talent to know when to walk away if an opportunity isn’t right.