How to successfully set up as a freelancer

set up as a freelancer
© Artem Medvediev

Dave Chaplin, CEO and founder of ContractorCalculator, and author of The Contractors’ Handbook – Third Edition, shares his advice on how to set up as a freelancer in the current economic climate

We are living and working in unprecedented times. The economy is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19 and many jobs have been lost. For anyone finding themselves out of work right in the current climate, now might be just the right time to take the plunge and embark on a freelance career. Many businesses are likely to be taking a cautious approach to hiring permanent staff so for those risk-averse businesses, access to key skills that freelancers can offer presents a viable alternative to hiring someone permanently. For those with an in-demand set of skills, now could be the right time to set up as a freelancer.

Whilst deciding upon a business model, registering with HMRC and enlisting an accountant are important tasks to focus on, here Chaplin shares his advice on setting a contract rate, marketing yourself and finding work.

How much to charge

Setting a contract rate is a careful balancing act. You want to establish a competitive rate that rewards you for your efforts without pricing yourself out of the market.

There are useful sites online that share the standard rates that specific skills command. However, while these sites provide useful guidelines, they don’t account for the combination of skills or the level of experience required. Therefore, you should create a baseline rate based on your current salary, assess the results from your research, and ask around. Otherwise, lack of clarity over your market value could leave you vulnerable.

Ask other contractors. ‘Human intelligence’ is a good source of information. Talk to as many colleagues and friends as you can, but do so discretely, especially if you’re currently permanently employed. Existing freelancers and contractors, as well as permanent employees who have worked with freelancers, understand the work and recognise the value of specific skills. If you can, speak to an experienced freelancer who has similar skills and experience to your own.

Market conditions can also significantly impact freelancer demand. Browsing contract advertisements online can therefore help you create a clearer picture of the rates you should command in the current climate.

And even if you end up undercharging for your first client, rest assured that you aren’t the only person who has done this. It’s more important to secure that first client.

Marketing yourself

Your CV and LinkedIn profile have one purpose: getting an agent or client to speak to you on the phone with a view to lining up a client meeting. These profiles are the key marketing tools you must use to be shortlisted for a possible contract. Think of them as offline and online sales brochures to market yourself with.

To ensure sustained success in your freelance career, both your CV and LinkedIn profile require special attention. Design both as though you were creating an ‘elevator pitch’, where your most relevant skills and accomplishments are the most prominent, demonstrating that you perfectly match the assignment’s requirements.

Remember, the decision about whether you are shortlisted for a client meeting is made by a recruitment agent or client, who will typically devote 20 seconds to the first make-or-break reading. Don’t expect the reader to take time fishing out qualities that are irrelevant to them. The onus is on you.

Other useful tips when structuring your CV and LinkedIn profile include:

  • Find out what your potential client is seeking to achieve from the project in question
  • Tailor your CV to demonstrate how you can add value to the project
  • Always detail the measurable outcomes of your previous work and how they have benefitted your employers
  • Recall your learnings from previous jobs

The freelancer who secures a client meeting is not always the best person available for the contract but the best person at marketing themselves, so the importance of a carefully designed CV and LinkedIn profile can’t be overstated.

Finding work

Having prepared to go freelance, following the daily checklist below ensures you are optimising your job search activities. It also gives you a routine. Being at home after years of structured life can be disorientating, but finding your next contract is your job, for now. 

  • Call any agencies that you applied to the day before
  • Proactively post and prospect on LinkedIn
  • Chase up any other positions you have applied to and have not yet spoken to the agent about
  • Search job websites and LinkedIn for suitable positions that have recently been added
  • Check some LinkedIn groups, reply to relevant activity with proactive comments and questions of your own
  • Send out email applications

Unfortunately, the search process can often be frustrating, but the harder you work at it, the sooner you’ll get a position. 

Use online job boards

Being a useful source of potential contracts, you should monitor job boards regularly. Though in many respects LinkedIn has become the primary source of quality contracts, most contracts are still advertised via job boards.

There are many specialist jobs boards for specific sectors, but some of the most important sites include: TotalJobs; Indeed; Reed; CV Library; JobSite; JobServe; Monster; NHS Jobs; CWJobs. These sites dominate the recruitment sector, meaning agencies frequently post the same position on all boards.

Most jobs boards also have a free alerts function that you can set up to automatically email you when a new job is advertised that matches your specified criteria. You can set up multiple alerts with different criteria, and with a bit of tweaking you should find a way to refine the results.

Ensure you keep a log of what roles you have applied for. It’s a good idea to maintain the log using a cloud service, so that you can immediately access it on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC when an agent or client calls. This way you will instantly know which role the call refers to. A log also prevents you from submitting multiple applications for the same role through different agents. 

Go for it!

If you don’t want to find yourself asking ‘what if?’, or, if you’ve been forced into thinking ‘what next?’, then now is the right time to take control of your future career as a freelancer. You may find freelancing to be the perfect remedy to the Covid-19-induced recruitment problems, and you might never look back.


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