The number of Americans who freelance for at least some of their income is on the rise. According to Statista, there are 73.3 million freelancers in the U.S. as of 2023, and that number is projected to grow to more than 90.1 million by 2028. The flexibility that comes along with being a freelancer is appealing to many, but it also carries significant obligations and administrative burdens. Still, whether it’s to supplement their income from a full-time job or the entirety of their livelihood, many Americans find freelancing an attractive option for making ends meet. To make the most of it, keep a few key tips in mind.
When you’re a freelancer, your responsibilities will be different from those of full-time employees. Freelancing gives you greater freedom over when and how you complete your work, but it also means you’ll have to manage all your affairs without the support of a bigger company. Don’t worry, though; with a bit of preparation, this can be easier than it might sound at first.
In the past, freelancers were often considered short-term or temporary employees, designed to complete a one-off project or fill a gap for a company until it could find part-time or full-time help. That’s not the case any longer, as more companies rely on independent contractors to support their ongoing operations.
“Modern businesses are choosing to run in a very lean fashion,” said Nikolas Badminton, chief futurist at Futurist.com. “Sometimes there are solopreneurs that build everything they need using freelancers and they run the business on their own. Even large businesses are using freelancers as part of their contingent workforce.”
Rich Pearson, former senior vice president of marketing and categories at Upwork, said he has observed a similar pattern, noting that some freelance positions are for projects extending as long as six months. Freelancers should pay attention to this trend if they are looking for steady work.
College graduates and laid-off employees who have difficulty securing full-time positions near their homes frequently turn to remote freelancing to support themselves.
“From a business standpoint, companies hiring freelancers can get better talent by escaping the local economy,” Pearson said. “It helps freelancers too in areas where there’s not much local work.”
Though competing with a national pool of applicants might be intimidating, you may be more qualified for a job than someone who’s geographically closer to the company. Freelancing ensures that you won’t lose a job because of your location.
Generating new business means constantly networking and pitching your services, but not everyone will be ready to work with you at any given moment. Don’t view rejection as a failure on your part; keep pounding the pavement. Eventually, some of the people you met may come back and work with you in the future when their business budgets expand or their needs change. Even if they don’t, keep trying to find clients that are a good fit for what you offer.
“Get cozy with rejection,” said freelance content writer Minda Honey. “Don’t get discouraged, just keep grinding. If you do good work, people will talk and more people will want to work with you.”
It’s important to have a small business community to fall back on for support, accountability and resources. There are local chapters of Freelancers Union in major cities, but if you can’t find the right group to join, don’t be afraid to start your own.
“Build a community of other freelancers to stay motivated and keep you going,” Honey advised. “I get so much energy and motivation through my friends’ successes, and we learn from each other’s missteps too.”
Honey stresses that the freelance industry is often “a numbers game” of sending out persistent letters of introductions, pitches and cold calls.
“You have to always be adding to your pipeline, even when times are good and your schedule is full,” she said.
When you work as a freelancer, it’s important to constantly conduct outreach to potential clients. Schedule and plan work for the future so you’re never left without any work to do. Your freelance projects are your income, so it’s important to fill your calendar months in advance, if possible.
This also means consistently marketing your services across social media and on your website, as well as networking with professionals offline, no matter how much work you already have piled up.
Building a professional network is one of the most important keys to success for freelancers. Most people prefer to work with those they know personally, so if cold calls and emails aren’t landing the business you need, consider joining networking groups and trade associations to meet people face to face.
Pearson said most companies that hire freelancers use them to fill specific skill gaps in their staff. If a job description lists a highly specialized combination of skills and you have them, make sure you focus on that when contacting the employer.
“Make sure you highlight your unique skill set, some success stories, and why you are the best freelancer for the employer’s job,” Badminton added.
Consider launching a website that displays your portfolio and includes testimonials from your satisfied clients. Show off your skills by treating your own site like a client. For example, if you’re a content marketer, your website should reflect that by incorporating a great blog and sound web development principles that would be effective for any of your clients’ projects.
When you’re self-employed, you’re not only providing services to clients, but you’re also completely responsible for bookkeeping. Staying organized will help you dodge any mistakes and mishaps along the way, especially when tax season comes around.
“I just use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of pieces after they’ve been accepted, and color-code them to know where in the process I am with them — if they need to be written, if they’ve been published, if I’ve been paid for them,” said Sulagna Misra, a freelance writer and editor.
Freelancers don’t pay taxes the same way employees do. Instead, at the end of the year, their clients send them a Form 1099, which includes their income from that client. The 1099 is then filed with the IRS and the freelancer must pay taxes on that amount. It’s best to save money from each paid invoice for taxes, and to pay quarterly estimated taxes if you earn enough from freelancing each year.
Although freelancing means you work for yourself, it’s critical that your clients are satisfied. Part of that means proactively communicating and setting realistic expectations around deadlines. If something goes wrong or there is a delay, get ahead of the issue by telling the client. If someone isn’t responding about a particular project and you need their reply to move forward, follow up and let them know it’s important. Don’t wait around for someone to contact you first.
“Use IM, video chat and email to talk with potential employers, ask questions, and connect on a deeper level,” Badminton said.
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Once you submit a project, be open to feedback and willing to make changes if the employer wants something different. Receiving critical feedback can be difficult, but it’s an important part of learning about a client’s perspective and expectations. As you continue to work with a client, you can adjust to meet their needs and ensure they’re satisfied.
Remember, clients are hiring you for your expertise, so if their feedback doesn’t jibe with what you know to be effective, gently offer your insight. Explain that you understand their feedback and are willing to implement it, but that in your experience an alternative may be the better option. That way, you’ve given them the choice and explained your rationale. If they still prefer to do things their way, that is their prerogative and you should carry out their directives — after all, they’re the ones paying your invoices.
The tips in this guide serve as a great jumping off point, but there’s a lot more to know about being a freelancer. If you’re looking for more guidance, check out our other content on freelancing, which covers subjects such as landing new business and paying your taxes.
Being a freelancer brings unique challenges, but also great opportunities. While you will have to do a bit of extra work when it comes to generating leads, satisfying clients, collecting payments and managing your taxes, freelancing enables independence that a full time job does not. The best freelancers can go on to build successful businesses with their services, sometimes even expanding into agencies and hiring other professionals to get more done. If you’re interested in freelancing, consider the tips above when starting out — you can be sure they’ll pay off in a big way.
Tejas Vemparala also contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.