This is a guest post by Samantha Anderl, co-founder of Harlow. Check out our AMA with the Harlow founding team here.
So, you’re ready to start your own freelance content business? Rad. It’s a bold move to choose self-employment, and it can pay off in dividends if you go about it thoughtfully. In this post, we’ll cover all of the essential steps to launching your business successfully.
It’s important to set up a Limited Liability Company (LLC) for a few reasons. First, it relieves you of personal responsibility in the event your business incurs debt, which means collectors won’t be coming after your personal assets. Second, it makes your business the responsible party in the event you encounter legal trouble. And third, it gives you greater freedom when it comes to tax liability. Single-owner LLCs can register as an S-Corporation, which allows you to treat yourself as an employee of your company and bypass some of the self-employment taxes that make a major dent in your income.
Also, having an LLC is just a good look. It adds to your professionalism and creates a greater sense of separation between yourself and your business. If you’ve ever worked from home, you know boundaries go a long way. Something as simple as setting up separate logins on your computer for work and personal stuff can make a huge difference in your productivity. The LLC designation can function similarly, creating a much-needed distinction between you and your work.
Lots of people skip this step when they’re just starting out, mixing business with personal funds and creating a whole mess of hard-to-track transactions and payouts. We recommend opening a business bank account from the get-go so you don’t have to worry about the headache of untangling the two later. You’ll thank us come tax season, when you’re asked to report on your freelance business expenses and income, and you can log into one account to do it.
If you’re wondering where to turn, we’d recommend first checking in with your current bank to see if they offer incentives to current customers for opening a business checking account. Want to shop around? There are lots of banks that cater specifically to freelancers these days. For example, Lili offers no-fee checking, no minimum balance, and no hidden fees. They also allow you to automatically transfer a portion of your income to a tax bucket, so you can stow away money for tax season and generate interest on it in the meantime.
You may not mind having clients in your personal inbox when you’re just starting out, but trust us: You will mind later. Creating a business email is another simple way to build boundaries around your work life and ensure you’re presenting yourself as professionally as possible with new and existing clients. Plus, you’re less likely to miss important emails from clients because you’re mass-deleting spam from your personal inbox.
If you have an existing domain name for your business, it’s easy to set up a business email through your domain provider. For instance, if you purchase a domain name with Google Domains, you can access Google Workspace, which includes a professional email and other awesome business tools for $6/month. If you haven’t yet purchased a domain, don’t worry—you can use a distinct Gmail email address in the meantime.
This one is *super duper* important, so please don’t skip it. Creating a strong freelance contract that you can adapt for each client is essential—and you should get a contract signed for every. single. project. (No exceptions. Not even when you’re working with a friend.) Contracts can help you get paid on time, spell out exactly what will happen when clients are late with payment or feedback, and protect you in the event a client decides to sue you (knock on wood). They can clarify your boundaries from the beginning, including a scope of work that you can refer back to if a client starts demanding more than you agreed to.
Essentially, contracts are the Holy Grail of freelancing, and any expert freelancer would urge you to never begin work without your client signing on the dotted line first. If anyone presses you to begin work without a contract in place, citing their “word” as trustworthy, we encourage you to hold firm and either restate the necessity or just walk away.
Before sending a contract to new clients, many freelancers will first send a proposal that includes the scope of work, lays out the overall goals of the project, and includes payment structure. Proposals are your opportunity to re-pitch the client on the value of your services and detail exactly what you’ll be offering them. However, they can be time-consuming, so it’s smart to create a proposal template that you can tweak and repurpose for each new client.
Remember: Proposals and contracts are not one in the same. The former is a nice-to-have that sets expectations and helps you and the client align on what kind of services you’ll be offering. The latter is a must-have, legally binding document that you should never start work without. We do recommend you send both to come off as professional and trust-worthy.
If you’re going to do any cold outreach to generate business, we also recommend writing out your own positioning statement. Try to be concise about what you offer and the value of your services. Then you can simply customize and re-send to new potential clients.
Will you charge by the hour? By word? Based on a retainer? By article length? By the project? Will you require prepayment? What kind of packages will you offer, if any? All of these questions are best answered before you begin marketing your services, because as soon as you put yourself out there and start booking discovery calls, potential clients will be asking you for your rate and your pricing structure—and giving a clear, matter-of-fact response is ideal.
Figuring out your pricing as a freelancer can be a bit tricky though. It’s not the same as the hourly wage or salary that you’d receive in a paid role, where your taxes are automatically deducted, you generally don’t cover expenses, and you may have additional benefits, like insurance coverage and paid time off. As a freelancer, your take-home pay needs to cover your personal expenses, taxes, insurance, additional benefits needed and give you enough space to be a human with human needs. In other words, you gotta plan for vacation, sick leave, and existential crisis days.
So, when you’re thinking about your freelance rates, be sure to factor in all of the life expenses and factors that may impact your income. Ideally, give yourself a buffer—charge more than you think you should! Almost every freelancer we know has faced discomfort when it came time to name their rates, as they gave a number that sounded “too high.” And every freelancer we know was grateful they upped their rates when they did. Discussing your freelance rates gets easier with time. (Promise.) So charge your worth. You won’t regret it.
There’s a lot of paperwork that goes into running a business, and it can be a headache to do it all on your own with no guidance outside of Google’s wise words. Turning to the professionals is always a good move, especially when it comes to money. If you’re not a schooled accountant yourself, finding one in the early stages of your business is smart.
Accountants can help you set up your financial systems, plan ahead for tax season, and elect to file taxes correctly. Plus, they can help you identify the many freelance tax deductions that you may have otherwise missed, reducing your taxes and saving you precious income. We suggest finding someone well before tax season rolls around, so they understand your business and know their way around your books before it’s time to file.
Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your business, it’s time to get out there and find clients. When you’re beginning to put out the feelers, it’s helpful to consider which channels are already accessible to you. Are you well connected on social media? Are you a part of any communities where you could market your business? Have you told your friends and family about what you’re doing? Be sure to check the boxes on all the easy, accessible marketing tactics, especially word-of-mouth.
There are loads of other ways to find new clients. Which methods are best for you depends on the resources you have at your disposal and the types of services you’re offering. For instance, if you do have a lot of connections, you may be able to find clients through your network by sharing what you’re up to and asking for referrals. If you’d rather browse and source opportunities on your own, you could land work through freelance job boards and marketplaces, where projects are constantly being posted.
The most important thing to consider when looking for freelance work is that you can and should define what yourideal client looks like early—and it actually benefits you to get really specific. By creating a detailed mission statement for yourself and leaning into a niche, you’ll generate leads that are specifically geared towards your skillset and more likely to turn into successful relationships. So go ahead and dream big. You’ll only see your perfect client manifest in the 3D if you know what they look like first.
Alright, we’re transitioning from the must-dos to the nice-to-dos now. So if you haven’t checked all the boxes above, please double back before moving into this bonus zone. Good? Done? Cool. You’re killing it. Once your foundation is in place, setting up a website for your business is the next frontier. A website acts as your fluorescent sign, attracting leads organically. Building one to rep your brand is an important step in your marketing plan.
When potential clients are considering working with you, it’s a great look to have a professional website that covers your services, describes your background and qualifications, and (ideally) includes a portfolio where they can scope your work and style. Basically, they get to know you better. And you get to answer a whole bunch of redundant questions upfront by spelling out your services and offerings on your website.
You have officially reached cruising altitude when you’ve made it to this step. Once your business is launched, it’s high time to connect with other freelancers and focus on making industry connections. If you’re doing this already, amazing! If you don’t have any freelance content marketing friends yet, don’t worry! Freelance Twitter is a great place to start connecting. And if you’re craving a community designed for content freelancers, Superpath has obviously got you covered.
Building a freelance network is valuable for many reasons. Being pals with other freelancers provides much-needed social connection and solidarity. This ain’t always a party. Having people in your life who know what’s up can make an incredible difference when you’re facing shared challenges and in need of a pick-me-up, some sage advice, or just a knowing look (or tweet). Your network can also present you with all sorts of opportunities that you never would have discovered on your own.
And let’s be real. Freelancers are awesome. The best part of having a bustling network of other content marketers is that you get to talk shop and learn from other brilliant, witty, wonderful humans who have a lot to offer.
Life as a freelance marketer can be incredibly rewarding. You get to live more autonomously, choose who you work with, and constantly evolve on your own terms. Having your business shored up and solid before you jump in is the best way to pave that path. Check these boxes early and your future self will look back with gratitude when you’re living the freelance life you’ve been dreaming about.