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What Does It Mean To Be A Freelancer?

By Brennan Dunn

I recently was asked to speak at the 99U conference in New York City.

Expectedly, I talked about freelancing. But I wanted to focus on what it meant to freelance. What does it take to be a freelancer? What are so freelancers so successful, and others aren’t?

The definition of freelancing

Legally, being a freelancer just means being a gun for hire. It’s a legal distinction that implies you’re paid as an independent contractor, have very few rights or obligations afforded by your clients, and own your own business.

This article isn’t about what it means to legally freelance, but rather what it means to succeed as a freelancer.

What do the best freelancers have in common?

A few months back, I surveyed the tens of thousands of people who subscribe to my newsletter for freelancers.

My focus was simple: What common traits do these people share? What sets them apart?

I must have spent at least over a dozen hours interviewing my readers and customers, many of whom I sourced from my freelance success stories database. Three common attitudes stuck out:

  1. They regarded themselves as business owners, and really lived the life of an entrepreneur.
  2. They looked at what they did as a product, rather than a service that’s sold to the highest bidder.
  3. They relentlessly focused on growth.

Below I’ve drilled down into each of these mindsets, and provided some advice on how you can both act on and adopt these common attitudes of the best, most successful freelancers.

1. The Role Switch

Many new freelancers make a legal switch.

They swap one boss for multiple, one employer for many employers.

Ask anyone who’s had to juggle multiple jobs, and it becomes clear what the problem with this is: burnout. Your clients end up vying for your time.

“Can you work this weekend?”

“I need this done before tomorrow night — you can do that, right?”

Eventually, you start wondering where the free in freelancing is. This wasn’t what you signed up for.

The real problem is that many of these freelancers don’t see themselves as owners of a business. Instead, they treat getting client work much like they would getting hired at a job. They focus on their credentials, their experience, and their résumé.

Their focus isn’t as much on what they have to offer their client (more on that next), but instead on their role.

Are they a web designer? Does their client just need a programmer? What’s the job description for this marketing gig?

The best freelancers don’t think this way.

Rather, they look at themselves as facilitating an equal exchange of value. Money comes in, business value goes out. There’s not a lesser-greater relationship between a client and their vendor; rather, both parties are businesses engaging in a B2B transaction.

Instead of interviewing for a project, they’re helping determine if it makes sense for the two companies to work together.

Instead of fumbling their way through a few sales meetings, they own and command the structure and purpose of these meetings.

And rather than firing off a proposal and praying for the best, the most successful freelancers anchor their prices, write assumption-less proposals, and charge what they’re worth.

2. The Product Switch

Successful freelancers also realize that what their clients want from them isn’t their skill multiplied by some number of hours.

Rather, their clients want outcomes — they want solutions. To put it succinctly, they want to pay something and get a product that solves their problem(s) in return.

Most of us don’t have a productized service. We are ultimately selling our time. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t sell an outcome.

No one has ever paid you for a website before.

If there’s one thing I hope you internalize after reading this article, it’s the above. (Substitute “a website” with whatever the usual thing you do is.)

The most successful freelancers know that they aren’t being hired to create stuff. They’re being paid for that stuff to do something beneficial for their clients.

It sounds totally obvious, but many freelancers miss this core truth — or they at least ignore it when they pitch their clients.

The most successful freelancers know they aren’t being hired for their time, or because the client particularly cares about what’s being produced.

These freelancers instead focus on the outcome, and work with the client to determine what path it’s going to take (that is, what project needs to be completed) to go from here to there.

And when they pitch clients and propose to them, they’re entirely focused on showing their client what’s at stake. They make sure their proposals recap the problem the client faces, paint a picture of the solution and outcome they’re looking for, and makes a compelling case for reaching that goal.

They also don’t bill. They tend to favor fixed-rate projects or at least weekly billing. They anchor their costs against the financial upside of a project, and use value-based pricing to determine their fees.

Much more about the “product switch” can be found in my course, Double Your Freelancing Rate. It’s the start-to-finish blueprint for making all these sales and proposal changes.

3. The Growth Switch

The last common trait of the most successful freelancers is their focus on growth.

I don’t mean just growth for growth’s sake. Instead, I mean a deliberate focus on growing their business.

These freelancers don’t look at selling as a phase. It’s not a temporary thing that happens only when work dries up. I think the underlying problem stems from the world of full-time employment.

Consider what it’s like when you have a full-time, salaried job. You’re set. You’re going to get paid every two weeks like clockwork. You only start to really shop around for other jobs when you end up unsatisfied or know that the company is going to be eliminating your position. Otherwise, you aren’t actively marketing yourself.

As a freelance business owner, you absolutely must treat sales and marketing as something that you do full-time. (If you want to just do your craft all day, you’re best off as an employee.)

Sales isn’t a phase, it’s an ongoing process — a part of your business.

And sales isn’t something icky.

It’s alignment.

It’s aligning the need of a client with what you’re capable of providing. You aren’t scamming someone out of their livelihood; rather, you’re delivering them something that has tangible business value and is going to measurably improve their business.

And the most successful freelancers are always working ON their business, and not just IN it.

They schedule time where they’re working on big ticket growth items — like working on their website, managing marketing campaigns, networking, and more.

The time they earmark for this work is sacrosanct. They aren’t allowing client meetings to overwrite the time they’ve dedicated to the long-term growth and success of the business.

Additionally, they regularly keep track of what’s happening in their business. Most have some sort of business diary that helps them stay on track.

These successful freelancers will generally measure:

  • What’s going according to plan?
  • What isn’t? And why?
  • What curveballs are affecting the business, and how can I mitigate them in the future?
  • What big eyeopeners did I learn this week?
  • How much money did I bring in or bill?

This way, if and when times get bad and they want to throw in the towel, these freelancers just need to reference their business diary and are able to see that they’re doing something right.

Finally, the most successful freelancers are in it for the long haul.

When they network, they aren’t looking for an immediate win. They’re building an audience, and want to find ways to deliver value at scale to this audience. They realize that relationships trump everything, and that the best clients come from direct referrals and their network and not from job boards or freelancer marketplaces like Upwork.

Can you be a successful freelancer?

Of course you can. Nothing and no-one can stop you from that.

But we often feel like we need someone to say “yes, Brennan, you’re now a legitimate freelance consultant” when, in fact, we’re the ones to determine that.

You can do this. (And soon, I hope you’ll be our latest addition to our ever-growing list of success stories.)