Not everyone is cut out for freelancing. Learn the 10 skills and personality traits you need to succeed as a solopreneur, and decide whether a freelance career is your best bet.
Whether you’re moonlighting on the side and feeling insecure about your job, have always wanted to run your own business, or just want more control over your job security, now is the time to be a freelancer.
Look at it this way: When you have a job, you essentially have one main client who can fire you at any moment. But when you’re a freelancer, you can have as many clients as you like, which reduces your dependence on any one.
But freelancing isn’t for everyone, so it’s important to see if it’s right for you before jumping in head first. Here is a checklist of 10 skills and personality traits you need to run a healthy and successful freelancing practice. A lot of these skills are interrelated and build on one another. Some will be obvious; others, not so much. But none are inherent. With work and practice you can develop them, especially if your livelihood depends on it.
10 Skills and Personality Traits you Need to Run a Successful Freelancing Practice
1. Curiosity. When you’re curious, you see any and every interaction with a client or prospect as an opportunity to learn more about what they need and how you can help them. But many designers consider themselves to be introverted or shy, which often impedes curiosity and the interaction that goes along with it. As a freelancer, the more curious you are, the wider your network will be and the greater your potential for growth. That type of curiosity is worth developing.
2. Self-Discipline. For both new freelancers and veterans, self-discipline can be a challenge. You have no boss to tell you what needs to be done. It’s up to you to determine and then to do it. This goes for everything from what time you get up in the morning to how you plan your workflow to ensure you meet project deadlines. You are accountable to your clients for the work they’ve contracted you to do. But as a self-employed person, you’re especially accountable to yourself. So self-discipline is critical when it comes to the tasks that help your business grow but for which you aren’t paid. This strength must come from within, which takes practice, particularly if you’re accustomed to having a boss.
3. Professionalism. A reputation for flakiness precedes most creatives. So you have to work against that preconception by being more buttoned up than you may be on the weekends or that you feel like being. This applies to every detail about how you run your business, even what you wear. There’s nothing wrong with working in your pajamas—as a freelancer, you’re free to do that. But getting dressed to do your work can have a psychological effect on you; it’s often more conducive to being productive.
4. Organizational Skills. Success doesn’t spring naturally from chaos. With piles of paper on your desk and your inbox overflowing with e-mail, you won’t be able to find the things you need. The time you waste searching could be spent developing new client relationships. In fact, when you’re disorganized, you’ll miss opportunities without even knowing it. Order is essential and it’s a skill you can learn, but it requires discipline (see No. 2).
5. Self-Awareness. Being self-employed is one of the best ways to learn about yourself; at least it can be, if you’re curious (see No. 1). Your own business is a laboratory for your personal growth, and your clients are an ongoing flow of people to experiment with. Every day is different, and you get to see how you respond in all sorts of situations, especially if you choose to challenge yourself and try new things. You learn what types of people push your buttons and trigger your least productive behaviors. And when you’re a freelancer, you can choose to either get better at dealing with those responses or decide not to deal with those people at all.
6. Self-Confidence. “I don’t have the confidence to do that,” is a common (and accepted) excuse for not doing something new, like presenting your pitch to a new prospect. But self-confidence isn’t a “thing” you either have or don’t have. And it isn’t a prerequisite for action. In fact, it’s a byproduct of action, and it develops through practice—practice running a business every single day, doing the marketing, and negotiating with and managing clients, vendors or subcontractors. The only way to develop confidence is by doing, by experimenting, by trying something out, and by making mistakes and learning from them.
7. Patience. It’s a muscle, a weak one in many people, completely hidden in others, but well worth strengthening because, as the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” And there’s a lot to wait for: It will take time for your marketing efforts to take hold, for prospects to respond and for people to be ready to work with you (i.e., in their moment of need). Because even if they love your work and want to work with you, timing is essential. You have to wait for the right time, which requires patience.
8. Flexibility. Freelancers are actually in the best position to be flexible. You must be ready to adapt: your services, your clients, your prices, how you package your offerings. You must listen closely to hear what the market needs, then turn on a dime and offer it, even if it’s something you never thought you would provide. As the future moves more and more online, you, too, must move in that direction, whether that means allying yourself with partners who have services to complement yours or learning the basics of WordPress design so you can say yes when a prospect asks for it.
9. Strong Communication Skills. You can’t control how someone receives your “communications,” but you certainly can control what and how you communicate, verbally or in writing. Whether in response to an unsatisfied or impatient client or because a vendor has made a mistake, if you haven’t thought through what you want to say, you may say the wrong thing or, at best, something unclear that can be easily misconstrued. This happens often via e-mail, which people read quickly or simply skim. So it’s worth putting some communication processes in place—even if it’s just you—about how to respond in common situations, especially the difficult ones when emotions are running high and there’s a lot at stake.
You are accountable to your clients for the work they’ve contracted you to do. But as a self-employed person, you’re especially accountable to yourself.
10. Commitment. If you’re a new freelancer, you may not be ready to commit 100% to running a business, but you must be committed to giving it a try, even as it changes and evolves. If you’re committed, you return calls and e-mails in a timely manner, you meet deadlines (or communicate clearly when you can’t) and you bill your clients right away. Clients and prospects can tell if you’re not committed.
If you focus on these 10 basic elements, you’ll put yourself on the right track. Over and above these, the real secret to success (which is really no secret at all) is perseverance. Built on commitment, invigorated by confidence and made possible by patience, perseverance will allow you to bypass everyone who isn’t committed, confident or patient.
Your clients will take you seriously if they realize that you’re serious, that you’re not going away, that you care and that you’ll be there to help them. Perseverance builds trust, an essential element of every successful business. By doing good work and staying in touch, you send a message that says, “I’m reliable. I’m consistent. You can depend on me.”
Ilise Benun, founder of Marketing Mentor, works with creative professionals who are serious about building a healthy business. Follow Benun on Twitter (@MMToolbox) or sign up for her Quick Tips at www.marketing-mentortips.com.
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