A guide to setting up as a freelancer
While the prospect of going freelance might incite fear in some, others completely thrive off the independent way of life. Whether you’ve been thinking about taking the plunge for a while now, or you’ve just handed in your notice, you’ll likely have some questions. The good news is, going freelance needn’t be nerve-wracking, especially if you’re prepared. To give you a head-start, here, we cover some of the most essential considerations, from money and networking, to looking after your mental health.
First thing’s first: Why do you want to go freelance?
The first – and perhaps the most important – thing to figure out is why you want to work as a freelancer. Ask yourself if being freelance is the right choice for you, and if you’re unsure, try weighing up the pros and cons of freelancing.
For example, would flexible hours suit you? Would you enjoy getting to choose your own clients, but also having to sort out your own taxes? More often than not, as a freelancer the trade-off is doing more admin and outreach in return for having more freedom over the way you work.
One of the main things that can hold people back from going freelance is fear, so if you know it’s the right choice for you, go for it! Below, we’ll summarise some of the main things to take into account to help you on your way.
Make a plan before taking the plunge
However long you’ve been deliberating about going freelance for, we advise that you make a plan beforehand. Whether short- or long-term, it’s a good idea to make a list of goals, and the steps you need to take to achieve them. For example, is there a specific client you want to work for, or a certain type of project you want to work on? Knowing this will help guide you and give you specific aims to work towards.
💰 Feeling confident about money
If you’re nervous about going out on your own, consider taking on a part-time job to help finance and ease the transition – whether it’s related to your creative work or not. While creatives don’t always speak openly about it, this is incredibly common. If you’re looking for tips on how to balance side jobs, check out It’s Nice That’s advice article on this here.
As a freelancer, you’ll need to cover your own finances, which can also mean a lot of admin. Scroll down to the section on finances for more specific tips on this.
🧹 Get organised
From the systems or programmes you use, to where you physically work, getting organised will help you keep on track. It’s also worth getting yourself a physical or digital calendar, to mark all of your dates, projects and deadlines. You can also use tools such as Toggl and Trello to keep track of your hours.
If you’re working from home, consider setting up a productive and tidy spot in your house. Try some of these methods for managing productivity and loneliness, and if you need to change it up, you could head to a co-working space. We recommend staying flexible to what’s working for you, and staying aware of where and how you work best on your own terms.
🗒 Make a list of potential clients
You’ll be responsible for securing your own clients and work, so now’s the time to get networking and reaching out. You can also look for contacts on LinkedIn, Instagram and within your own network. Start a list, and don’t be afraid to reach out to potential clients who aren’t advertising for work, either. You never know when someone might be looking for support on a project in the future.
Check out our guide to writing and sending cold emails here and some tips on following up to those emails here.
💼 Prepare your portfolio
It’s always good to get your work together in one place before going freelance, so make sure to set up some kind of portfolio. If you’re looking to spruce things up or start afresh, there are some essential tips in our guide to making a PDF portfolio here, and advice on portfolio websites here. You could also use social media platforms like Instagram as a capsule portfolio to share your work, too.
👋 Embrace self-promotion
If you don’t promote yourself, no one’s going to find you! Invest time into making a bit of a personal marketing plan, whether that’s creating a website, scheduling a monthly newsletter, sending out cold emails or updating your social media with your latest work.
📝 Understand contracts and legal rights
Before you start accepting work, it’s worth reading up on contracts. You can check out this article from It’s Nice That project manager Josephine New on mastering contracts and that pesky small print, which applies to any discipline.
Get your finances in check
A big part of being freelance is having to take care of your finances – from charging and invoicing, to budgeting and taxes. Here are a few things we suggest doing before getting started:
📊 Work out your bottom line
Your ‘bottom line’ is the minimum amount you need to earn in order to get by, which includes your bills and all your daily necessities. For example, if you know you need to earn £1,000 to cover all your minimum costs, then that is your target.
At the beginning of each month, set yourself a target based on this calculation. Next, break down how much work you need to do to achieve your bottom line.
Don’t leave it until the end of the month to realise you don’t have enough money. You might want to check in with yourself every few days to assess: how much money is due to come in from recent or upcoming work; how much potential work you’ve got coming in and when; how many new people you’ve reached out to for future work.
🗯 Know how much to charge and negotiate
The web is chock-full of resources to help you price your services from creative coach Kei Maye’s ebook Up The Ante, to the AIGA’s advice on calculating a freelance rate.
It can feel daunting setting prices, and it can be even more daunting to reject low-paying opportunities, because sometimes it feels better than nothing. However, if you’re worried about not making ends meet, know that undercharging will often undermine this. At the very least, you need to charge what you need to earn in order to survive; head here for more tips on negotiating.
If you decide to take on unpaid work, question whether it will be mutually beneficial. Some creatives have a blanket rule that working for free undercuts the industry and ruins pay rates for everyone; while others claim that it can, at times, be beneficial under the right circumstances. You can read more about this here.
🗂 Set up an invoicing system
Creating an editable, one-page invoice template will save you time when it comes to filling out and sending invoices for future work. Having an invoicing system in place will also help you keep track of invoices sent and paid – see more on that here. You could set up your own digital spreadsheet, or sign up for a service or app.
If you can afford it, having an accountant can ensure you don’t miss anything when it comes to filing taxes. You could also use financial programmes like Xero to help manage your money.
Registering as self-employed and paying taxes
On the subject of money: No one likes doing them, and people often leave them until the last minute... You’ve guessed it, it’s time to talk about taxes!
💻 Register online as self-employed
As soon as you earn more than £1,000 as a self-employed person, you will have to file a tax return before January 31st for the previous year of work – read more about this here. This is why keeping track of your invoices, earnings and expenses, and storing everything chronologically using a system will make things easier in the long-run.
To get started, follow this link and register on HMRC either as a sole trader or limited company. Gov.uk has some useful resources to help you work out whether you should set up as one or the other.
🗓 Start your tax return early
Rather than waiting until January to create a last-minute self-assessment, do it on April 6th. You’ll save money, time and a lot of stress. You’ll also be able to clearly track your bill throughout the year so that you can save way more effectively.
💳 Get to know VAT
VAT, or Value-Added Tax, is a tax charged on the majority of goods and services in the UK. So, why would a freelancer need it? Well, if you have a turnover over a certain amount – usually £85,000 per year – and most of your clients are big corporations with VAT, most accountants recommend you include a VAT charge on your work. This allows you to reclaim VAT on business expenses and means your clients can claim back on the expense of working with you.
🤝 Get support
Although it does cost money, you can also consider getting an accountant to help with all of this. There are lots of online resources online, and even Facebook groups on the matter which can all give a helping hand!
Take care of your mental health
Working as a freelancer means being your own boss, but it can sometimes feel lonely. Some might experience burnout, while others find it difficult to turn down work, or switch off. However, it’s not all doom and gloom if you know how to look after yourself. Here are some tips...
😌 Enjoy the downtime
If your work is slowing down, don’t fret. The freelance lull is pretty normal and it doesn't have to be terrifying. Use the downtime to focus on outreach, marketing and how to develop.
This could be updating projects, refreshing your website or portfolio, arranging meetings, finishing a passion project, evaluating the work you’ve done so far or assessing your rates.
🗣 Ask for help
It’s as simple as the title suggests. You lose nothing at all when you ask someone to give you advice or feedback, so don’t forget to look for support if you need it. This could be anything from government support, to mentoring groups, to grants and newsletters – there is so much support available, as well as opportunities to access monetary support. Taking the time to look for these things could also change your career forever. You can see a great list here to get you started.
Further reading and resources
We’ve linked to a whole lot of resources and articles above, so here is a definitive list of everything we’ve mentioned:
Money and confidence
- A new freelancer’s guide to feeling confident about money
- Four creatives discuss side job stigma
- Finding work and finances: What you need to know before entering industry
- A growing list of resources to help freelancers prepare for new challenges
Setting up finances
Working from home
Networking and outreach
- A beginner’s guide to networking
- A guide to writing and sending cold emails
- The dos and don’ts of networking and following up with industry
- Three ways to promote yourself and attract new opportunities
Charging for work
- Up The Ante, by Kei Maye
- A guide to making, sending and chasing up invoices
- Know your worth: How to negotiate fees and master money chat
Navigating slow months