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The Power of the Freelance Mindset: Strategies for Success by Alison Grade

Discover how to be a successful freelancer with Alison Grade, founder of Mission Accomplished and author of The Freelance Bible.

Freelancer works on her laptop

Being a successful freelancer is much more than having the necessary skills to do the work you do. Successful freelancers embrace the freelance mindset. Everything from how you approach your work, how you like to work and how you manage your time. It’s about finding a place of security amid the insecurity. 

What is the Freelance Mindset?

Let’s start by defining the Freelance Mindset. To me, the freelance mindset is about being independent and self-motivated. It means having the ability to take risks, be adaptable, and be comfortable with uncertainty. It also means having a strong work ethic, being accountable (to yourself), and flexible in the way you work with clients. 

I’ve freelanced in many independent TV production companies doing the same role, Production Manager, and each time I had to be flexible and adapt how I worked to align with that company’s processes and infrastructure. 

Successful freelancers not only possess these traits, but they are always striving to improve themselves. A successful freelance voice actor colleague, Marc Silk, puts it well, 

“Get good.

Tell people you’re good.

Keep being good”.

The getting good part is something most of us are familiar with and know how to work on. The much harder part for freelancers is telling people you’re good. Somehow, it just doesn’t come naturally. Even the most experienced and senior marketers I’ve met who’ve gone freelance say they were fine when they were selling the company’s goods or services but selling themselves is a whole new challenge.

Equally, the ‘keep being good’ can be hard when you freelance. There isn’t any structured training provided on the job and it’s down to you to work out what you need to learn to take your career forward. And it’s often not the most interesting things or the most obvious that will open up that next opportunity. 

Human nature encourages us to get better at the things we enjoy most and are already good at. However, what will make us a better freelancer is re-focusing our mindset and working hard to improve the things we do less well and are, quite often, outside our comfort zone.

How to be a successful freelancer

What does it take to freelance successfully? For me, the successful freelance psyche is very much like a 3-legged stool. It is only comfortable to sit on when all 3 legs are bearing equal weight. Each leg represents a key aspect of freelancing and you want to be the freelancer sitting comfortably atop the stool with a smile on your face. 

The first leg is SKILLS. You have to have the skills to do the work for your client. If you don’t then you aren’t going to do a good job. The client won’t be happy and the stool falls over. 

The second leg is FINANCES. Finances are crucial, or more specifically, the financial drive to earn a living doing your freelance work is crucial. If you don’t have the financial drive to earn a living doing this work, then bluntly, it’s a hobby. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with hobbies. I’ve got some amazing hobbies, I just don’t expect them to pay the bills. Again, without financial drive, the stool falls over.

The final leg is DESIRES. Your desire, or passion to get your message out there. If people don’t know you are available for freelance work then they can’t book you for it. Again, the stool falls over. Your freelance career stops in its tracks, often before it’s started. 

Cultivating a broader mindset and working on your thinking across all 3 legs of the stool will set you up for a more successful and sustainable freelance career.

Getting started with freelancing

But how do you get started? It can feel very daunting and like there is an enormous series of obstacles to overcome to get started with a freelance career. Exactly how you go about it will depend on whether you are currently working as an employee, and therefore have more limited time, or if you have a clear diary and are therefore ready to go but with minimal income. Both have their pros and cons.

For me it goes back to the 3-legged stool. You will need to work out what skills you can offer in the marketplace and importantly, consider why companies might want to buy them in from you. 

You need to work out what you need to live on because the bills still need paying and you need to eat AND have a life. Hand in hand with working out what you need to live on is figuring out what your value in the marketplace is. You need to calculate how much work at your rate you’d need to do over the course of a year to pay all your living costs. 

The big difference between freelancing and employment is that when you are freelancing you will have irregular income, so you can’t plan like you do as an employee. For me, I like to assume I’ll do somewhere between 24-30 weeks of paid work in a year and then I’ll look to check that I can pay all the bills with this predicted yearly income. 

And I must remember to factor in taxes (in the UK, it’s Income Tax and National insurance). It’s likely that I’ve calculated my living costs on post-tax income and my rates on pre-tax income.

Assuming I’ll only do paid work for 24-30 weeks per year, it means that if I have a few quiet days or weeks then sheer panic doesn’t set in. What it does mean is I have to keep across my cash flow and ensure I don’t spend all the money as soon as it comes in!

How to sell yourself as a freelancer

The ‘desires’ leg of the stool is often the most daunting when getting started, as it necessitates talking to real people and selling yourself. This doesn’t have to mean going to a networking event, introducing yourself to a load of people you don’t know, and getting them to buy from you. 

Should you be getting out and about and letting people know you are available for work? Absolutely, you should. That said, I like to get started with people already in my network. Firstly, it isn’t scary to arrange a meeting as we know each other. So they’ll likely be gentle as I hone my pitch and my freelance offer. 

And, what’s more, they’ve often got great ideas on how or where my services could be valuable and in a way I’ve never considered. Also, everyone you know also has a network, and if they think you’ve got a solid offering, they are likely to be able to introduce you to people who might need your services. This is a great way to grow your network in an accessible fashion.

Making your freelancing career work for you

Time is a challenge when you’re just starting out with a freelance career. If you’re still working then it’s finding the time to dedicate to working on your freelancing whilst still doing your job. Once you’ve run the numbers, you can assess whether you can reduce your hours to give you the capacity to develop your freelance career. 

On the flip side, if you are starting from a clear diary, time can move very slowly indeed. This is when your personal resilience needs to kick in. It will also stand you in good stead throughout your freelance career. Whilst you’re working on getting your freelancing started, your brain will tell you that you’ll never get work and no-one will need your services. It’s tough. 

That said, building up momentum in any new endeavour takes time. Every step you take, every conversation you have, means one more person knows you are available for freelance work. So be kind to yourself. Enjoy the opportunity to have a mid-afternoon walk or go to the gym when it’s quiet, or just sit on the sofa and lose yourself in a book. You’ll miss those times when work is busy! Equally, you need to keep working away at your freelancing, honing your offer and reaching out to potential clients. 

Resilience doesn’t just kick in when it’s quiet – you’ll need it in busy times too. Busy times can seem like nirvana when you are quiet but they come with their own challenges. Your clients expect a top job from you, and if you’ve taken too much on, can you deliver? 

Likely you can for a short period, but not over the longer term. In the long term, you run the risk of burnout and you certainly don’t want to burn those client bridges because you’ve taken on too much. 

You need to look after you when you’re freelance. No one else will. My colleague Sarah McCaffrey from Solas Mind puts it well, “It’s like they say in the in-flight safety briefing, you need to put your own oxygen mask on first”. Look after yourself and you will be able to look after your clients.

Why I love the freelance life

It can feel like there is a lot to working as a freelancer, and to be honest, there is more to do than as an employee, but it does come without the office politics and bureaucracy! 

For me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. I can work from anywhere at any time. I have autonomy and independence. Every day and every project is different. My clients value me for the work I do and I can choose what I want to do.

The key to successful freelancing is shifting your mindset to encompass working ‘on’ your freelancing as well as ‘in’ it.

If you want to learn more about having your own successful freelancing career, you can join our The Freelance Bible: How to Be a Freelancer in Any Industry course, with tips and tricks by Alison Grade.

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