10 Things I Did Before I Went Freelance

Seth Coelen
6 min readAug 3, 2016

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Maybe you’ve thought about jumping into freelancing in a part or full-time capacity but are either overwhelmed by all of the things you need to do, or by the fact that you wouldn’t even know where to begin. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that knowing where to start can be the hardest part of learning something new, and that applies to making this type of career change too.

I too was a bit overwhelmed as I faced jumping into the unknown territory of full-time freelance, but did the following things to prepare as best I could. I can’t say that they are right or wrong, or that this is a perfect checklist to be followed in an exact order. But I hope that it’s helpful for you to learn from my journey and assess your situation in light of this list if you are contemplating a similar move in your career.

1. I found an accountant

I don’t know about you, but I hate preparing taxes. It’s confusing, I’m not good at it, and it only gets more complicated with freelancing. I found an accountant that helped me set up my LLC and meets with me on a quarterly basis to help me prepare for my taxes at the end of the ear.

2. I purchased accounting / invoicing / time tracking software

You’ll want something to track your hours, send invoices, and record your expenses. I highly recommend Harpoon or Freshbooks. It’ll cost you around $20 per month and is well worth it.

3. I registered as an LLC

For most freelancers, LLC’s make the most sense. They protect your personal assets, so that if you’re sued, you won’t lose your house, car, or property.

I had my accountant guide me through the setup process. It will cost you a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on where you live and the complexity of your LLC.

4. I networked like mad

People do work with who they know, not who they think is best. Networking and making contacts with people in your industry is one of the most valuable things you can do before diving into the freelance world.

Three types of networking you need to do:

  • Network with colleagues who are doing what you want to be doing. I got some great advice from seasoned freelancers. Their insight was invaluable to me as I was starting out. Meet as many of these people as you can; take them out to coffee or lunch and pick their brain.
  • Network with people/businesses you want to work with. Tell everyone in your network what you do and ask them if you can do work for them, or if they know of anyone who needs your services. If they don’t have something immediate for you, ask them to keep you in mind for the future, or make an introduction to someone else in their network.
  • Give your name to recruiters. Recruiters get a bad rap in the tech field because some of them feel a bit less than genuine. Be prepared to talk with anyone who will listen. Give them your resume, chat with them and tell them what type of work you’re looking for. This has helped me land a handful of awesome gigs.

Often times networking won’t yield you anything immediately. It’s a long play, and well worth it. Often these people didn’t have work for me but had other people that they could put me in contact with that did have work for me. You never know what might come from a conversation. It only takes one conversation to put your freelance career in motion.

(By the way, following people on Twitter does not count as networking)

5. I found side work

I had been working nights and weekends before going full-time freelance. The months up to your freelance journey (will be) should be extremely busy. Often I would get home, have dinner and work the rest of the night on freelance projects. To ease the transition, I suggest you have at least 10–20 hours of side work a week coming in before making a jump towards a full-time freelance career. If you don’t have billable side work, use that time to get things in order on the business side. This can also give you a feeling of relief during a high-risk transition. Once you do finally commit to leaving that 40hr a week job, your days are free to fully focus on growing what once was only side gigs.

6. I polished up my personal brand

This is important, but not most important. My perception is that soon-to-be freelancers will spend about 90% of their time updating their portfolio site, when what they should be doing in networking and meeting people. A personal brand is important, but not at the expense of networking and making business relationships. (You can check me out at SethCoelen.com)

7. I figured out a rate range

Freelance work, by its very nature, is unpredictable. Sometimes you’ll feel slammed, sometimes you’ll feel like you’re never going to get another hour of billable work again. This may mean agreeing on a slightly lower rate for someone who can give you consistent work, and a slightly higher rate for those one-off projects. Ride it out, and find a rate that you can justify. A few things to keep in mind:

  • I work more hours weekly now than I have at any of my full-time jobs, and bill for fewer hours. You alone are in charge of billing, tax issues, correspondence, networking, quoting, marketing etc. There’s a lot of non-billable work you’ll need to do in order to keep things afloat. I try to aim for 4–6 hours of billable work each day and set my rate according to that estimate.
  • Have beneficial non-bill work that you can do during any lulls. Write blog posts, make video tutorials, sharpen your skills (I worked on the Daily UI challenge during some of my free time throughout the course of a year,) reach out to people in your network, follow up with old contacts, ask for introductions.
  • You’ll have to pay your own insurance. Depending on your family situation, you’ll need to prepare to pay between $6,000 — $18,000 a year for health insurance. If you can get insurance through a spouse or parent, do it!
  • There’s no such thing is Paid Time Off. No work for a day = no pay for that day. The nice thing is, you can probably work from anywhere.

8. I had some cash on hand

Before I started freelancing, I planned that I wouldn’t make much money the first 3 months. I’d suggest planning on having 3–6 months of savings so that you can give your business the best shot at being successful without having to stress out about money.

9. I asked loved ones

Obviously, I wanted my wife’s support in this. She was more than willing to help me pursue this dream. Without her encouragement, I probably wouldn’t have made the leap.

Talk with your close friends & family, get their wisdom and insight as they probably know you better than anyone else. If a career change may affect more than just your own personal financial situation, make sure anyone else involved is prepared for taking that risk.

10. I defined what success meant to me and my family

In the end of the day, I wanted to work on projects that interested me, have the ability to work from anywhere and have more flexibility with my schedule.

Some people hate working for “the man,” some want to be able to work remotely and travel, some want the flexibility to spend more time with family. Whatever the reason you want to freelance, set that as your goal and evaluate your progress after a few months. Is it working? Do you see progress? Give yourself enough time to truly evaluate it and see how far you’ve come.

Freelancing is incredibly rewarding and I encourage anyone who has the itch to freelance to prepare well and then make the jump. If it doesn’t work out, then it doesn’t work out. No shame in trying. I’d rather try and fail than never try at all.

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