So the good news is that you can start freelancing, like, today. The bad news? Your fears about leaving your day job are very real.
Not only will you be leaving the security of a steady paycheck, but you’ll also be letting go of perks like health insurance (for you and your family, if you have one), paid leave, vacation time, and more. You’ll also be responsible for every single aspect of your business, from marketing and client communications to accounting and admin.
So yeah, scary. Can it be done? Absolutely.
After all, freelancers like Joanna Wiebe, Ryan Robinson, and Melyssa Griffin have all done it—and gone on to build massively successful businesses. But here’s the thing: Leaving your day job to become a freelancer full-time is not easy or fast. And we wouldn’t recommend quitting your day job just yet.
Joanna didn’t leave her job at Intuit without a plan. She knew she was going to start CopyHackers and had laid down the foundation of a launch before she quit.
Ryan kept working his day job until he’d built his content marketing business to six figures!
And as miserable as Melissa was in her teaching job in Japan, she didn’t quit until she was earning enough income as a web designer to know she could make it work.
So as much as you may hate your job or want to jump right into the exciting and exhilarating world of freelancing, there’s a right way to make the switch. So take a deep breath, settle in, take some notes. Or better yet, bookmark this page, because we’re going to walk you through how to become a freelancer — from transitioning from your day job to freelancing full time.
Ready? Let’s go!
The 3 Things You Need to Do Before You Start Freelancing
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of moving from full-time employee to full-time freelancer, there are three things you need to figure out to make sure freelancing is the right path for you.
1. Lock in Your ‘WHY’
Why do you want to become a freelancer? While there could be many reasons you find freelancing attractive, what’s that one reason that’s compelling you to take the plunge now?
Is it working on projects that excite you so you don’t have to slave away on projects that don’t?
Is it the freedom to set your own hours so you don’t have to miss another recital at your daughter’s school?
Or is it getting away from micromanaging bosses?
Your “why” needs to be your north star. It’s the thing that won’t let you quit when things get tough (and I assure you, they will).
For example, as a freelancer myself, my big “why” is building a life that gives me the freedom to call my own shots, in every aspect of my life.
Every time things get hard or I get a job offer with nice pay and excellent perks, I think of the things I’d be giving up if I took a day job. I think about being unable to take the summer off to travel and spend time with my family. I think about the personal projects I’d no longer have the time for and the big plans I have for my business. Most of all, I think about the freedom I’d be giving up if I accepted a day job.
In my 10 years of freelancing, every time I’ve been tempted to accept a day job, either by a great offer or desperate times, the answer has always come back no.
When you’re struggling to find clients, when a client still hasn’t paid and you have bills to pay, when it feels like everything is falling apart, your “why” will stop you from quitting and going back to your day job. It’ll force you to keep going until things work out.
So lock in your “why” before taking the plunge into becoming a freelancer full time.
2. Give Yourself a Deadline
Like it or not, human beings are natural procrastinators. And as pumped as you feel about freelancing, you aren’t any different.
Right now, you’re reading as much as you can about how to be a freelancer. You’re making notes and figuring things out. But you probably haven’t made any hard decisions yet. Plans only work when you act on them. So give yourself a deadline.
Actually, you need to give yourself a bunch of them. Decide specific timelines for:
Figuring Out Your Niche
What are you good at? What do you do really well in your day job?
If money and responsibility weren’t a consideration, what kind of work would you want to do? Would you write all day long, go on photo walks, or sketch whatever catches your eye?
When it comes to making this decision, it usually comes down to three things:
- What are you good at? Think skills: multi-tasking, organizing, writing, drawing, etc.
- Will someone pay you for it? If there are already successful freelancers in this niche, then you have your answer. If not, this is where market research comes in handy.
- What do you enjoy doing? It could be a hobby or work-related. Something that you will happily do all day long.
The answer usually lies in the middle of these three questions. If you need more help deciding what services you should sell, we have more information in this guide.
For Cherry Thomas, it was photography.
Even though Cherry went to school to learn photography, she ended up getting a job in a financial firm where her career flourished.
But even though her career was going great, she knew photography was still her one true calling. So, while she handled a multibillion-dollar portfolio during the day, she launchedBy Cherry Photography and freelanced on weekends, vacations, and whenever she could take time off.
In a nutshell, I took the unsexy route: I kept my day job until I knew I could make the side hustle work. Also, it was important because the day job paid for my side hustle. Photography equipment is not cheap!
If you still need ideas, think about what help your friends and family come to you for. Do they ask for your help on budgeting, proofreading their documents, or dealing with tough situations?
And if you don’t enjoy doing any of the things people come to you for help with, find the answer to this seemingly simple question: What do you love helping people with?
When Lynne Somermandecided to go freelance, she thought about what she loved and who she loved helping the most. The answer came almost instantly to her because she realized she was already doing it.
I started largely because I love doing what I do (financial coaching) and it started because friends and friends of friends asked me for help when they heard I’d managed to make some big changes in my own life. I realized that I could potentially make a business out of it, especially if I helped business owners understand their finances, so I added bookkeeping to my coaching as well and started marketing.
I was also in a job that I knew wasn’t a great fit for me but wasn’t so poor a fit that I’d leave unless I found something that was a great fit. So, I decided to start my financial coaching business, The Wiser Miser, while I worked full time. Took me 18 months to build my business enough to quit my day job.
Finding Your First Client
Are you really a freelancer until you work with clients? It’s easy to get lost in the research, planning, and setting-up phase of your freelance business. If you’re not careful, another year will have passed and you’ll still be without a single client.
Giving yourself a deadline to land a client makes it real. It will push you to go out there and market yourself. We’ll discuss getting your first client a little later in this article.
Quitting Your Day Job
Quitting your day job is not an easy thing to pull the trigger on. You’ll be throwing away your security blanket, and that is a scary thing to do.
But the ultimate goal of starting a freelance business on the side is to quit your day job and start freelancing full time. If you aren’t deliberate with your planning and timeline, you’ll never be ready to quit your day job.
And no, we don’t suggest you quit your day job and then start freelancing. Seriously, don’t do that. While it’s true that many freelancers started after they were laid off, every single one of them would have preferred not to face that situation.
While there’s no specific timeline to quitting your day job, some freelancers have transitioned in as few as three months. For others, it takes a year. It all depends on how well you plan the transition. We will discuss this transition in more detail from here on, which will give you a better idea of how to set this deadline.
But no matter what happens, don’t quit your job until you…
3. Do the Math
While you don’t have to wait until your freelancing income matches (or surpasses) your day job income, you do need to figure out some money-related stuff.
How much money do you need to survive/live comfortably/thrive?
Those are three different states of freelancing, so you should come up with three sets of numbers.
1. To survive: The amount you need to survive includes money for rent, food, health insurance, utility bills, school, and installments of any debt/loans that you may have to pay. Basically, all the necessities of your life. This is the amount that you absolutely must make before leaving your day job.
2. To live comfortably: This includes everything you need to survive, plus things like entertainment, a car, food other than Ramen noodles, etc.
3. To thrive: What does the top of your game look like? When you think of a lavish lifestyle, how do you envision yourself living? Is it having enough money to take a vacation and travel? To send your kids to summer camp? To buy/renovate a house?
List your expenses for each set of numbers. Not only will doing so tell you how much you need to make, it will also make it immediately clear to you when you’ve moved from surviving as a freelancer to living comfortably, and finally, to thriving.
It’s your decision as to how much you want to earn before you transition over. We recommend covering your basic needs first and also having some money in savings.
How many months of savings should you have before you go full-time freelance?
Once you have crunched the numbers for the first question, it’s time to decide how many months of savings you want before you quit. Ideally, it should be three to six months. This will give you the buffer you need to make decisions that pay off for your freelance business in the long run, without having to scramble for short-term gains. You also won’t have to worry about finding clients or matching your full-time income right from the first month.
How will you replace your full-time benefits like health insurance?
Before you quit, explore your insurance options. One of the biggest benefits of a day job is having health insurance for yourself and your family. Unfortunately for freelancers, the individual costs go up and there aren’t many options to choose from.
In the U.S., depending on the state you live in, there are multiple coverage options under the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. Also, there are sites like Freelancers Union that make things easier by handpickinghealth insurance plans for freelancers. Not sure what kind of insurance you need? They also have a handy quiz to find thebenefits and insurance plans you need.
What will your business expenses be?
Every business has some expenses—even those run on nothing but a laptop. Once you start freelancing, your internet connection, laptop, smartphone, and any business services and apps you pay for are counted as your expenses. If you work from a dedicated home office, you can also count a portion of your housing and utilities costs as business expenses.
Pull up a list of expenses you already have and see which ones are necessary for any freelancing you do. They’re now your business expenses and will continue to be after you leave your day job.
As your business grows, you’ll likely start investing in more software and services. You’ll find a lot more info on business tools and services that your freelance business might need later in this guide. For now, while you are transitioning and still at your day job, keep it lean, and keep a running tab of any purchases you make or expenses you incur for your freelance business.
Knowing how much you need to make, save, and invest is crucial to starting your freelance business. If you don’t have the answers to the above questions, you could end up making costly miscalculations and missteps.
Doing the math allowed Ryan Robinson to become a freelancer and hit the six-figure mark in just a year, working with clients like LinkedIn, Zendesk, Intuit Quickbooks, and more.
It took me almost a year to get to the six-figure mark with my freelance side business, and it wasn’t ever easy. I remember charging $250 for my first paid blog post with a client and doing the math—it looked like I’d never get to the point where I could freelance full time for myself.
So I took the fact that my freelance work was a side project as a luxury that gave me the room to experiment… I didn’t NEED the income from my freelance clients to survive, so I began doubling my prices per article, working on my selling skills and seeing how I could tweak my offering to offer more value that’d be of interest to my dream clients.