1. Don't expect "normal" work hours
I worked in a 9-5 job for almost 15 years and you get used to "clocking on" and "clocking off". When you are off work, you go home (or somewhere else) and work takes a backseat until the next work day. Being a freelancer, you have the freedom to plan your own day, your own week, your own month. You are in charge, but you will find that some days you have to work 14 hours, because you might have paid work, you need to quote on upcoming work, you are having lunch with a new connection, you are responding to an existing client, and the list goes on. Some days you won't have any commitments at all, and it is up to you to make the most of the time. Most of your days will not be from 9 to 5, because you are no longer in a normal job. You are taking charge and creating opportunities, which leads me to....
2. Every lead must be chased
You will get emails from people you don't know about projects you have no idea how to do with a deadline that sounds ridiculous. Always reply. Even if it is involving a technology you don't know or have never heard of, still reply. If it is a poorly written email and they misspell your name, still reply. And reply at your earliest possible chance within business hours. By replying you are opening a door to a phone call, a meeting, a future project. You just don't know where the next might come from. I have got a job from a person who found out my website contact form was broken and looked up my WhoIS information to find my old email address that still worked. My email provider marked the email as spam and I found it a day later. I am still working with that client.
3. Risk mitigation
If you have a job, you get a pay check at regular intervals. The risk is low, so you get paid less. That is called business and is how they make a profit.
When you are a freelancer, you invoice the client and you then hope and pray they pay. The truth is that you often want them to pay within the first week, because you also have bills to pay. Well, they don't always do that. You can have 7-day terms for payment, but they may still take 30 days to pay, and if it is your only gig at the moment that is a long time to wait to get paid. Having enough of a buffer to survive while waiting to get paid is a great thing, but that is not always how it works unfortunately.
There are a couple of tactics I have used with new clients (to find out what their willingness to pay is like) and with already proven bad payers. The first is to only do a small amount of work equivalent to a day or two, then invoice them. See how they behave, figure out any delays caused by "incorrectly formatted invoices" (yes, I have been told that), missing emails etc. If they pay straight away, then great. If not, you have only lost a day or two. The other trick is to offer a good discount for upfront paid work. Giving a client 20% off for work paid up front is not a bad deal, because you have much less stress, and you don't have to chase chase chase. Most clients I have proposed it to are happy to save the money, and if they don't they probably don't actually have the cash.
4. Network all the things!
Every user group, event, conference, client meeting, well, everything you do in a professional capacity, is an opportunity to get to know at least one new person. All of my gigs, except one, has been through people I know, have met, know me from some event or we have a mutual connection. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know people, to network, to connect, whatever term you prefer.
5. Learn to say "no"
Once you have built some recognition and get traction in your business, you will get more and more opportunities coming your way. This article doesn't cover anything about setting goals, but all of your work should somehow lead towards a common aim. If you are building recognition in Ruby development, then taking on a SQL server optimisation job is possibly not the best use of your time. I understand that at certain times you will take whatever is possible to pay the bills, and that is okay. However, when you have a choice between various jobs, always be very critical about which will get you the furthest. It is perfectly okay to say no, and if you know someone that can do the job (see networking above), you actually come out ahead.
6. Keep a day plan
Juggling client work, replying to email, quoting on work, updating your website, improving your business card, writing a blog post, updating social media, the list goes one. You are in control, but that also means you are responsible for every aspect of your business. Keeping a day plan with a simple line item for each task and then crossing the task out when done, is simple and yet so incredibly effective. There are lots of "to-do" apps in existence, but I find a simple physical notebook, or just a text document works the best. No overhead, no unnecessary ceremony.
7. If you do something, do it well
If you have accepted a gig, decided to create your own product, started a podcast, whatever you invest your time in, do it well. If you aren't going to do something 100% and to the best of your ability, say "no" (see above, again).
8. Be consistent
When you make a commitment to yourself, or a client, about a regular service or update, be consistent. I co-host a podcast, which we do once a week, every week. Our listeners now expect a new episode to be published on Mondays. If we break that routine, we lose listeners.
If a client expects you to report on something every Tuesday, make sure you do it every Tuesday. If you are considered consistent and dependable, the likelihood of getting more work and continue the relationship is much higher.
9. Self discipline
If you work from home like me, there are a gazillion things to distract you. You won't have a manager that tells you what to do next or a colleague to keep you focused. The work still has to get done though. Your day plan (see above) is a great way to stay on track and make sure you get through your tasks, but there are also a lot of other techniques. Get rid of distractions such as social media, email and phone calls for a set period of time. Only focus on the task at hand and spend at least 20 minutes on it. I completely get this is super difficult sometimes, but you will thank yourself for it, and your day plan will get completed a lot quicker.
Don't be a one trick pony. If you put all your eggs in one basket, and you drop the basket, then you got nothing. Spread yourself to projects you are passionate about and create multiple income streams. One of the fears of being a freelancer is to not have an income for too long, and by having multiple passive and active incomes, you can manage situations without new work.
Have you got other tips to share? Let me know in the comments.