10 Principles of Successful Freelancers

How do you know when you are successful? If you’ve ever questioned your freelancing success, you’ll want to learn the principles of successful freelancers.

Running an effective freelance business is a learning process. Even experienced designers still have plenty to learn about the business aspect of freelancing. In this post we’ll look at 10 principles that I have learned from my own experience, and have observed to be true of other freelancers as well.

1. Happy Clients Lead to More Clients

One of the leading sources of business for most successful freelancers is referrals and word-of-mouth advertising. Whether it is from your past clients or friends and family, potential clients who have been referred to you often have more trust for you and more respect for your work than the average potential client that you find through other methods, such as someone who finds your portfolio through a search.

Based on my experience, referrals are often the most pleasant clients to work with, and they also typically have the highest conversion rate from lead to client. If you hope to build a successful freelance business primarily through referrals, producing a high level of quality in your work is essential to encourage your clients to refer others. However, quality of work certainly isn’t the only factor. Clients usually will only recommend someone who they feel has treated them well and given them a positive overall experience. Customer service and communication are key for this reason.

To learn more about customer service here are 6 Very Effective Principles to Improve Your Customer Service & Make Your Clients Happy.

2. Competing on Price is not a Good Strategy

As a freelance designer there is always plenty of competition. Potential clients could spend a little bit of time and find a number of other designers who could do essentially the same job. Because of this, freelancers need to have something about themselves and their work that separates them from the competition and encourages clients to choose them. It’s not unusual for freelancers to take the approach of competing with others by offering lower prices. However, in my opinion, competing based on price is not an effective long-term strategy.

While lower prices may help you to get a few jobs now, competing based on price has several negative long-term effects.

  • Clients and potential clients will view your work as inferior to other designers who are charging more.
  • After under charging for a while you may subconsciously start to see your own abilities and services as being less valuable.
  • You’ll need to work a lot more to make the money you need to get by.
  • Having extremely low prices puts you in a bad situation if/when you want to raise prices down the road.
  • Without realizing it, you may start to resent your clients for paying you so little.

If your competitive advantage is based on having low prices, and suddenly you raise your prices or others come in and undercut your prices, your price advantage is blown. If you think it won’t happen, think again. There is always someone willing to charge less.

What’s more effective in the long run is branding yourself to be an expert in a particular area, or establishing yourself as someone that people want to do business with because your work is different from other designers in some way (see Effective Differentiation for Freelancers at Freelance Switch). Of course, this approach takes time and is not as easy as just lowering your prices, but it’s the stronger long-term option. Once you’ve differentiated yourself from other designers in some way, clients will be less sensitive to price if you’re the one they want to do the job.

3. Open Communication is Critical

Hands of two partners communicating during coffee break
Effective communication is one of the most important skills that a freelance designer should develop. Although creativity and technical skills are clearly important, those abilities without effective communication skills will not be able to accomplish very much. The success of a client project depends on your ability to understand their needs and wants, and to communicate your approach to them. Clients always know their business much better then you will, and you will know more about the technical aspects of the project. Ideally the two sides will work together to achieve the best results, which requires plenty of communication.

Communication goes both ways. Freelance designers need to be able to effectively state their own points and word things in a way that clients will understand, but they also need to be able to listen to clients and pick up on the things that they may not be explicitly stated.

Freelancers often face significant challenges in communication because of location and dealing with clients in other parts of the country or the world. Rather than meeting face-to-face, email and phone may be the only methods of communication possible. In some situations, communication over the phone may be difficult due to time zone differences. This makes the freelancer’s need for communication skills even more critical.

Always keep time differences in mind when communicating with a client–especially if you are communicating by phone, Skype, or Google Hangouts. If your client is located halfway across the world remember that typical working hours for you might occur during the middle of the night for them.

4. Time Invested at the Start of Projects Saves Future Headaches

Have you ever jumped right in to a project only to realize later that you didn’t fully understand what the client wanted, and now the work has to be re-done?

Here are some steps you should take with a client before the project starts:

  • Discuss their needs.
  • Talk about what they want from their website.
  • Ask questions about any part of the project you are unsure about.
  • Generally get a good feel for the requirements of the project.

If you do these things, you will build a solid foundation for the project that will help you to prevent wasted time and to live up to the expectations of the client.

Not putting in the necessary time up front often leads to less-than-spectacular results, and it may wind up costing you more time in the long run if you have to go back and re-do some or all of your work. Depending on the client, you may have a difficult time getting them to understand the need for effective planning, but this is where your communication skills need to come into practice in order to convey to them how important these steps are.

5. Spend Money to Improve Your Productivity or Quality of Work

The natural reaction to expenses from most new freelancers involves resistance to just about anything that costs money. As a freelancer, your profitability is obviously the result of your income minus your expenses, but expenses aren’t always a hindrance to increased profitability.

To maximize the amount of money that you make, first maximize your productivity and efficiency. There are plenty of tools, resources, and services that freelancers can invest in that will save them time on a daily or weekly basis, leaving more time for income generating work.

Most freelancers don’t enjoy dealing with the financial aspect of running a business. As a result, managing finances can take much more time and effort than necessary. This is a good example of where many freelancers could help their bottom line by being willing to spend a little bit of money that will save them some significant time (see 15 Online Financial Tools for Freelance Designers at Webdesigner Depot for a description of some options).

Another way spending money can save you time is the delegation of routine tasks to someone else (such as a virtual assistant). Think of it this way. If you spend a lot of time on unbillable tasks that anyone could do, that’s time that you aren’t earning any income.

6. Long-Term Clients are Extremely Valuable

Most freelancers have to invest some effort into finding new clients. Whether your approach involves bidding at sites like Elance, searching design job boards, writing blog posts, updating your social networking profiles, or anything else you can do to increase your chances of being seen, you’re devoting valuable time to simply finding the work before you can even do it.

Long-term clients are extremely valuable because they allow you to do work that earns an income without dedicating time to constantly finding new work. These on-going gigs may be very involved, or they may only require periodic updates and changes, but either way having a long-term client can save you some time. Even if you have a steady flow of leads coming through your online portfolio or some other source, it’s still going to take time to follow up with these people and find the ones who will ultimately become paying clients. With repeat clients all of this is avoided.

However, don’t rely so heavily on your long-term clients that you stop marketing your freelance design business. Remember that circumstances change. Today’s long-term repeat client could be tomorrow’s former client.

7. Focus on Being Very Good at Something Specific

You can’t be good at everything. There are so many aspects to web design and development that it is impossible for anyone to be an expert at everything.

Instead of trying to be good at everything, it’s more effective to differentiate yourself by aiming to be as good as possible at something specific. Maybe you want to position yourself as an expert at WordPress theme development, e-commerce design, logo design, or just about anything else.  By establishing yourself as an expert in a particular area, you’ll be one of the first people who comes to mind when potential clients look for someone to do that type of work.

8. Treat Your Freelancing Like a Real Business

Freelancing is a legitimate business. You should treat it with respect.

Although many freelancers start out on a part-time basis, at some point they decide to approach freelancing as a business and begin to take it seriously. Freelancers who see their work as a hobby are unlikely to ever get the results that will justify full-time work from freelancing.

Regardless of whether you are a full-time or part-time freelancer, here’s how to treat your work like a business:

  • Make your freelancing work a priority.
  • Block off a specific time to work.
  • Have a budget for necessary expenses.
  • Develop a plan for business sustainability and growth.
  • Use a contract with your clients.
  • Keep up with bookkeeping and taxes.

9. Build a Strong Network

hands holding four pieces of a puzzle with copy space, gray background

As a freelancer, networking is critical for building referrals, establishing your name and reputation, branding yourself, growing your business through outsourcing, and for getting help and assistance when needed. Ideally, a freelance designer’s network will consist of individuals with a variety of skills and experiences.

Since designers spend so much time online, the internet is a natural medium for networking with other professionals. Whether you’re using social networking sites like LinkedIn and Google+ or spending your time blogging and interacting with other bloggers, using Twitter, or participating in forums, there are plenty of opportunities to connect with talented and influential people.

Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of ignoring the social networks.

10. Effective Time Management Skills are a Must

Earlier we looked at the need for communication skills, but time management should also not be overlooked. Freelancers need to be able to manage their time well, because no one else is going to do it for them. As a freelancer, your productivity and profitability rests in your own hands. By being able to manage your time you will maximize what you can get out of your working hours. If you’re looking to make more money or work fewer hours, evaluate your time management skills to see if there is room for improvement.

For more on business and freelancing, please see:

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
  1. April 22, 2009

    This is a great post that applies to many types of freelance businesses.

    I especially see the importance of number 6, maintaining long-term clients. That has been crucial for the success of my business. It’s better to have a few great clients than a lot of less-than-stellar ones.

  2. Pingback: 10 Principles of Successful Freelancers : Design Newz

  3. April 22, 2009

    I couldn’t of put it better myself, I have been freelancing since age of 18, now 22, and I learnt most of the above points the hard way.

    One of the most important points in my opinnion is effective time management. I, like most freelances, have a day job, this means I can only take or 2 or 3 projects at a time, effetcive itime management allows me balance freelance client work, work work & my social life.

    Secondly, a strong network!! this so important, I find msn is one my greatest tools, I have an abundence of friends and industry experts and my finger tips & its great!

    Awsome post, thanks for the tips, regards, Phill

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  5. April 22, 2009

    I’m just starting out in the freelance business, at the moment I’m focusing more on getting visitors to my blog and posting some good quality content. I have a month or two until I leave college yet, and although I will be looking for a full-time job, I’m going to try my hardest to fall into the freelance world.

    Great list, thanks for the tips 🙂

  6. April 22, 2009

    Very true. Nice article!

  7. April 22, 2009

    I think these are some solid principles. I take a bit of issue with #7 regarding focus on a particular area. We’ve probably all heard “Jack of all trades, master of none” but what I see requested in the market sometimes is the opposite. The important thing to realize is that you need to be ready to learn new things as times change.

  8. April 22, 2009

    Great article, thanks alot.

  9. April 22, 2009

    Defy Creative,
    I agree with you that you need to be knowledgeable all around, but my point is that you shouldn’t try to be an expert at everything. If you do that you’ll probably wind up being an expert at nothing (at least, that’s what would happen to me). For a solo freelancer I think it helps to stand out as the first person that people think of when they are looking for an expert at a particular specialty.

  10. April 22, 2009

    I agree, you can’t be an expert at everything. My path led me to specialize in book design, yet now as a freelancer everyone I meet in my networking asks if I do web/interactive design. I now feel as though I focused on the wrong thing or at least should have stayed on top of my coding skills. It’s not as much of a problem now as schools focus on web design more than they used to. Your example of WP is a good one in that even if it died off as a platform, its foundation in HTML/PHP/CSS etc. has application outside the platform. My advice is to be flexible.

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  12. April 22, 2009

    Defy Creative,
    That’s a good point, flexibility definitely is key. I see your point and it’s true that you can specialize yourself out of work in some cases. From what you’re saying I think we pretty much agree, maybe we just look at it a little bit differently.

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  16. kit
    April 24, 2009

    Thanks for highlighting where we should focus. It is very useful regardless if we are freelancer or employee. To get a good job, it always depends on referral. Networking and long term strategy become a must. I have been working for a very long time. I find myself beating around the bush most of the time and unable to move forward in my career. It is time for me to think and change.

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  18. April 29, 2009

    This is a great post, that could also be related to working within a company, because client contact and time management are examples of skills used within an individual project that you self manage within a company.

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  20. Great article thanks, i’m building my business and found these are some of the challenges i encountered. Also invoicing and cashflow are some key points. Happy freelancing

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  24. September 10, 2009

    Specializing can work for you depending on how you approach it, just make sure it’s in something that is high in demand. Also make sure you can transfer your skills from system to system (if say you are a cms designer).

  25. April 12, 2010

    Awesome post, I’m a big fan of this blog, keep on posting that great content, and I’ll be a regular visitor for a very long time.

  26. April 27, 2010

    Would it be possible to get permission to use some of your posts on forums with a link?

  27. April 28, 2010

    Sorry, our posts cannot be republished.

  28. June 1, 2010

    Thanks for the well-thought article. I’m actually at work right now! So I need to go off without reading all I’d like. But, I put your blog on my yandex feed so that I can read even more.

  29. June 2, 2010

    Great article. We have developed a tool to handle number 10. It’s low priced so maybe it’s also interesting for startup freelancers. Check it out at: http://www.xperttimer.com

  30. June 5, 2010

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  31. June 19, 2010

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  32. June 27, 2010

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  33. June 28, 2010

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  34. July 25, 2010

    Of all the money making methods online, I prefer filling surveys. You don’t have to deal with building and promoting a blog which is more of a pain in the butt. It depends on how much work you put into it you can probably reach a couple hundred pretty fast.

  35. July 27, 2010

    great article …

  36. July 30, 2010

    Thanks for such a Amazing Article!!!

  37. August 8, 2010

    good ~

  38. September 3, 2010

    Spotted a link to this post over at Digg. Thanks for posting it. I’m sure I’ll be back one day.

  39. October 6, 2010

    I wholeheartedly with no.3. It is the reason why clients will come back and hire your services again. Clearing up the air for whatever doubts you have before embarking on a project is essential to having a happy client. And you can achieve that through good communication.

  40. October 15, 2010

    Cool… I saw them talking about this on our public tv channel last night. I happened to still have my Tivo running for some reason, so captured the whole thing – I’ll try to put it up on good ole youtube.com and post a link when it’s up!

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  43. December 7, 2010

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  44. December 30, 2010

    Freelancers can choose to operate as one of several business entities including Sole Proprietor, Partnership, Limited Liability Company, “S” Corporation, or Corporation. Each of these options uses a different tax form for reporting purposes so make sure that you know which one to apply. Working as a free-lancer has many benefits including flexibility and limitless income potential. At the end of the day it is not how much you make that matters. It is how much you are able to reinvest and multiply to create the lifestyle that you desire.

  45. December 31, 2010

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  46. January 3, 2011

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  47. January 17, 2011

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  48. January 21, 2011

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