Career

How To Jump Start A Freelance Career

No daily commute, no boss-person breathing down your neck, and filing work while still in your pyjamas – these are just some of the many perks of being a freelancer.

If you feel you’ve been at your job for too long, that entrepreneurial spirit is stirring in your heart, or its time to explore the world as a Digital Nomad, freelancing could be your ticket out. Here’s our guide to getting that gig going while keeping your finances afloat.

Own it

It’s your business, and for those leaping into freelancing full-time, it will be your main bread and butter. Even if you’re just testing the waters with weekend work, you need to invest the time and effort into it that you would any business venture.

Set yourself some goals and work out the journey to get there. For Rachel Hills, activist, author of acclaimed book The Sex Myth, and veteran freelance journalist, it all began with a New Year’s resolution, “In 2005, I made it my resolution to send an article to the opinion editor of the Sydney Morning Herald each week until they accepted one.” They accepted the second one she sent.

From there, Rachel moved the bar up, from getting the occasional article accepted, to making it a living. She’s now written for over 30 of the world’s top publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Vogue, The Atlantic and Girlfriend.

Get noticed, and that pivotal first client

If no one knows you’re open for business, the doors of opportunity will remain shut. Leo Wiles, the PR gun behind media recruitment and connection website Rachel’s List, places online visibility as the number one secret to getting work. “No matter how talented you are, if you hide your light under a bushel, if people don’t know you exist, then how can you expect them to hire you?”

She suggests that you have – at a minimum – a personal website and a LinkedIn profile.

Another way to get the word out there is to reach out to your network and let them know about your services. Josh Mawer, a director and editor in film, TV and advertising, recounts how he took the leap into full time freelancing – the week after being made redundant when the global financial crisis rolled into town.

“I decided to take an alternate route home past a client I’d once worked for, and coincidentally the producer was out on his balcony having a smoke. I reintroduced myself (all cool and offhand-like), and dropped that I was looking for gigs. Bam; I worked consistently with them for nearly a year.”

Since then, Josh’s work has snowballed with stints at major production and corporate companies around Australia and even a year with the New York Department of Environmental Protection.

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You have the freedom to work from anywhere.

Sending e-mails out to your network to let them know your shift towards freelancing can generate leads you never expected. So will plain old talking. Josh remembers, “I was at a workshop for a short film I’d won funding for, and talking with the camera operator over lunch, it turned out he needed an editor at a major Telco he was working at.”

Bolster client relationships

Josh believes in maintaining relationships throughout your career, because you never know where it could lead. Nicole Lee, a New York-based actor and writer, agrees. When she moved stateside a year and a half ago with not much experience, she was lucky that an editor she’d worked with in Australia had also made the move. He accepted some of her stories and from there it was just a step to getting published in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

If, however, you’re contacting potential clients consistently and not getting any bites, industry-specific job boards like Rachel’s List for media gurus, Arts Hub for arts professionals and The Loop for digital creatives are good sources of leads.

And the easiest way to keep client’s on side? “Deliver high quality work, on time, and be easy to work with – make ‘em laugh,” adds Josh.

Work out your financial needs

Before you start being your own boss, it’s worthwhile to take a look at your bank balance and work out how much you need to be earning a month. Be aware that it will take time to get your freelancing business up to full speed and in the meantime, you’ve still got bills to pay.

Rachel’s articles for the SMH led to a subediting gig at Yen, which got her foot in the door at RUSSH and a subsequent gig at Girlfriend – but over the course of a year and a half.

Nicole admits that she wishes she’d saved up more money before she began freelancing. “You’ll have dry periods,” she cautions, while Josh mentions how “not working for a week or two doesn’t hurt straight away, but will sneak up and bite a month from now.”

Building up your freelancing business before you take the full plunge can be a way to avoid financial stress. “Number one on our Rachel’s List members’ bugbear list was the financial insecurity brought on by the feast or famine nature of the business,” says Leo.

The last thing you want to do is ask your parents for a loan while eating baked beans for the second week in a row because you’re still waiting for a delayed payment to come through. If your finances are looking less than stellar, Nicole suggests having other streams of income, or keeping your regular job until you feel ready to take the leap.

Don’t forget the paperwork

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Save paper. Use Excel.

Ah, the fun stuff. We’re talking invoicing, GST, superannuation and taxes. Read up on your obligations as a sole trader so you’re not caught offside come tax time and check to see if you’re entitled to a super contribution from your client.

Being organised is crucial; Excel is your friend here. Keep a record of everything, from your overheads and expenses to when invoices were submitted and when they should be paid. Then chase up those unpaid invoices periodically – there is always a straggler or two.

And if you’re feeling out of your depth? There’s no shame in calling in the experts and forking out for an accountant. “Not only does it keep you off the ATO hit list, you’ll be filling in your BAS with a pro who understands depreciation, what it is legally OK to expense and how that whole family tax benefit system works,” says Leo.

Above all else, resilience and persistence is everything

When you freelance, there is no one accountable for your business except you.

Are you trying to generate leads during the ad breaks of My Kitchen Rules, or putting off those email pitches in favour of that weekend pool party? Yeah? Then good luck to you my friend, because a successful freelancing career probably won’t happen.

In Leo’s experience, “if you don’t have the cojones to get up every time you’re knocked down, or spend every waking moment outside your nine-to-five working towards being a freelancer, you are not going to make it.”

“You don’t need permission to start,” says Rachel. “If there’s something you want to do or make, just do it, and start looking for people who might be willing to buy it. You’re in the driver’s seat.”

Ultimately, if you can sell yourself while staying organised and passionate about your work, then you’ve got it cinched, for sure.


Catherine Mah is an editor and writer based in Sydney, but she’s lived in Spain, Taiwan and Brazil. She’s written for publications like AWOL and The Guardian Australia, but secretly dreams of creating bizarre flavours of ice cream as a full-time job.