How this Little Ducky Went Freelance: Part 1

Welcome to the first installment of a three-part series on how I went freelance. I’m going to share why and how I set up shop, where I find clients and where I’d like to go from here.

Spoiler alert: This is not a “how to be an overnight success” story. This is my real story. And the overnight part is turning out to be longer than I thought.

Each post is going to be longer than usual, so feel free to grab a snack and get comfy.

Introduction

Azkaban

I was on the 8th floor.

Last year, I was a corporate copywriter in the professional equivalent of Azkaban. Then one sunny afternoon, the dementors laid me off.

For a week afterwards, I channeled my anger into scrubbing every nook and cranny of my home.

And I thought. Hard. I decided that I wasn’t going to let those dementors beat me. They’d spent a year calling me mediocre, telling me that I wasn’t going to be anything more than what I already was.

But I was done letting them decide how far I could go. I was done working my tail off and believing in “If we like you, we might hire you.” I was done. And not just with the dementors. I wasn’t going to buy that line ever again.

I was going freelance.

Chapter One: Setting up Shop

When I ran out of things to clean, I put on my PJs, sat on my living room floor and made a list of what I needed to set up shop as a freelance writer.

  • Website
  • Online portfolio
  • Blog
  • Business license
  • Business bank accounts
  • Invoicing system
  • Piddly stuff I don’t know about yet

Even now, I realize that it’s small potatoes compared to what many consider overwhelming. But I was so far out of my comfort zone I needed a compass to find the floor under my butt.

And I hadn’t even started looking for clients yet.

Item #1: Website
I started building my website HayesCopywriting.com  (now moved and updated to Hayes-Writing.com) less than two weeks after I’d been laid off. My actions were rooted in panic and desperation. I just wanted someone—anyone—to hire me.

I was too emotional and unfocused to produce solid content. And it turns out I know just enough HTML to meddle and make my site look like something Picasso coughed up.

In reality, I just needed some basic pages. So I went with a predesigned GoDaddy theme and straightforward copy. Much to my surprise, it was well-received. Prospects were less concerned with the design than with seeing my portfolio.

  • Your Takeaway
    Don’t be too hard on yourself when you’re just getting started. And you don’t have to get too fancy. Straight and simple is hardly ever as bad as you think.

Item #2: Online portfolio
My years as a corporate copywriter gave me a solid portfolio ready to show. And thanks to my background in technology, it was already specialized.

However, most of my work was done for just a couple of companies. I could show variety of deliverables but not style or voice. And I worried that my work looked old.

I organized my online portfolio by type to highlight what I can do instead of the companies. And I built a blog to showcase my own voice with updated content.

  • Your Takeaway
    You have valuable skills. Focus on showcasing why you’re worth hiring. There’s a workaround for everything else.

Item #3: Blog
Before winding up in Azkaban, I blogged for a SEO company. Which gave me a decent understanding of how blogging works.

Then I ran into my biggest obstacle—me.

When I started, I tried to sound like an expert freelancer so people would hire me. But how smart can you sound if you’re trying to be an expert on something you just started? Even I didn’t want to read what I was cranking out. It was that bad.

After building and deleting three blogs, I gave up writing about what I thought I was supposed to write about. Instead, I started writing about what I knew. Fear. Doubt. Learning  to freelance. The craft of writing.

Now my blog fits like bunny slippers. And prospects appreciate that I have one in the first place.

  • Your Takeaway
    Be authentic. If you start a blog, make sure it’s about something you love. You’re far more likely to keep up with it and put your best into it.

Item #4: Business license
My first client is a company that requires its independent contractors to have a business license. I thought getting a business license was going to be expensive and complicated.

Nope. Fifteen minutes and $20 later, I was a walking, talking business.

  • Your Takeaway
    Even little steps can be scary. And that’s okay. But they’re still just steps to a bigger goal. And they’re rarely as bad as you imagine.

Item #5: Business bank accounts
My friend (a certified accountant) told me to set up business bank accounts immediately. And she was right. Setting aside part of my earnings in my business savings account kept it out of sight, out of mind and less likely to be spent on books.

This year, I can answer the tax man with confidence: Here take the money just please don’t hurt me.

  • Your Takeaway
    Sometimes the best advice you’ll get comes from people outside your profession. Pay attention.

Item #6: Invoicing system
When I started, I didn’t know about the multitude of invoicing options for freelancers. Instead, I set up an Excel spreadsheet to track my billing and I emailed my clients PDF invoices.

Simple but effective. And unlike the professional-grade options, my spreadsheet was free. When my billing outgrows my spreadsheet, then I’ll upgrade.

  • Your Takeaway
    Go with what works for you. Even if it isn’t what you think “real” professionals use.

Item #7: Piddly stuff I don’t know about yet
Going freelance requires little overhead. But there still seems an endless list of miscellaneous stuff. Filing supplies, postage, business mailbox, business cards, thank you notes, professional development books, style guides and the occasional Happy Meal. (Don’t judge. I like the toys.)

Fortunately, I already had pens, paper, printer, computer, comfy chair and yoga pants.

  • Your Takeaway
    You’re never really starting from scratch. And, there will never be an end to the piddly stuff. Just do the best you can to budget for surprises.

Notice what’s missing from the list?
Contracts. It was six months before I started on my freelancing contracts. I’ve been lucky. Most of my clients had their own contracts, and prospects for which I would’ve needed my own contract went kaput before the subject came up.

But really, contracts need to be at the top of any freelancer’s list.

  • Your Takeaway
    No matter how much you prepare, you’ll always miss something important. Kinda like packing for an overseas vacation. Just deal with it as best you can as fast you as can.

Coming Up

Next, I’ll delve into how I set my rates and found work. Stay tuned for Chapter Two: Hanging out My Shingle.

7 thoughts on “How this Little Ducky Went Freelance: Part 1

  1. Your story sounds a lot like mine, except it happened twice in the last eight years. It wasn’t until the second time that I took it seriously. Looking forward to the rest of the series!

    • I did the math and on average, I’ve been laid off every 12-14 months over the course of my career. This was my eighth, but it was the first time I was truly angry enough to take my career into my own hands. I don’t normally take being laid off personally, but this one was personal.

      Good for you for listening the second time. 😉

  2. Hi Erica, I have been waiting for you to start to post your series (I have been checking every couple of days). I did settle in with my bowl of soup for lunch and really enjoyed this post. I will be looking forward to the next ones. I apreciate the sharing of your experiences. Thank you.

    • Hi Peter, sorry for the wait. My internal editor had a doozy of a job trimming this down – it started at 3,000 words.

      Thanks for chiming in. I always appreciate it. 🙂

  3. I’ve actually been fired — but you already know that. This is a great resource, Ducky! I am definitely RTing this. Also – your old site looks fabulous in comparison to mine haha.

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