The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Business

Starting a freelance business can be overwhelming—but it doesn’t have to be. Follow these steps to create a successful career that inspires you.

As our world becomes increasingly online, more and more people are opting to forego traditional careers and start freelance businesses that give them more flexibility to pursue their passions. If there’s anything that this pandemic is teaching us, it’s that time is precious. If you have the opportunity to do what you love, you should chase it. Whether you want to start a freelance business as a side hustle and grow it into a self-employed career, or jump right into freelance, we’re sharing a few tips and tricks to help you shift into freelance opportunities.

Making Your Side Hustle Your Professional Career

More often than not, creatives start their careers as a side hustle, working their day job while working on their creative skills on the side. Your career in a creative field may have grown and developed without you ever sitting down to consider how to actually structure your business.

My Personal Experience Pursuing a Freelance Business

When I first started taking on commercial clients, I was fitting them in between my 9-5 job. Over time I realized that I was getting more and more opportunities to pursue my freelance opportunities, but I was feeling burned out and overworked. Instead of relaxing, I spent my vacation days and weekends pursuing photography opportunities. I had never taken the time to actually structure how I wanted my business to operate and set it up for success.

Starting a freelance business is a leap of faith. Image by Stock Foto. Touch.

Now, I’m taking the time to backtrack and figure out what exactly I want out of my freelance business, and how to scale it into a professional and profitable business. Sometimes you have to go back in time and do the traditional groundwork of creating a business in order to set it up for success in the future. 

For photographers, videographers, illustrators, and musicians on our stock marketplace, implement these tips to help organize your stock business into a professional business.

What exactly is a freelance business? A freelance business is started and run by a person who works for themselves, generally through independent contract work. Contributing to Shutterstock is an example of a freelance business. While some of our contributors contribute full-time, other contributors use stock as their side hustle. In this article, we explore some key points to build a roadmap for starting and maintaining a successful freelance business. 

How to Start a Professional Freelance Business - 10 Steps to Starting a Freelance Business
In this article, we share ten steps to starting a freelance business. Image by Mountains Hunter.

10 Steps to Starting a Freelance Business

  1. Define your business and your goals
  2. Find your niche (or unique-selling-proposition)
  3. Get your finances in check
  4. Identify your dream clients
  5. Clarify what you’re going to ‘sell’
  6. Set your pricing
  7. Create a business brand that inspires you (and others)
  8. Maintain an online presence
  9. Learn how to pitch and talk about your work 
  10. Stay persistent when challenges arise 

Step #1: Define your freelance business and goals 

More often than not, creatives start freelancing before they even realize they’ve started a business. Whether you’re selling your art on Facebook, taking paid sponsorships on Instagram, or selling prints of your photography on your website, you are officially operating a freelance business. Congratulations! 

But, what that means is that you more than likely haven’t taken the time to actually consider what you want in your business. To do this, you need to ask yourself (and answer) the following questions.

  • What is your business? Decide what name you are operating with, what your quick pitch description of what you do is, and what service you are providing. Outlining this information is the first step in having a clear idea of what your business will be.
  • Why are you doing this business? If you’re leaving a job, why are you leaving it? Is it to set your own hours? How much time can you put in? Answering these questions will give your clarity if you reach a difficult situation down the road.
  • What are the goals for this business? Do you want to eventually become a full-time freelancer, or always use this as a side hustle?
  • How much money do you want to make? I mean, we all want to make as much money as possible. But, how much do you really want to make? The amount of money you plan on making will determine what type of business you create. Sole proprietorship, for example, is easier than operating an incorporated business. However, there are benefits to both. 
  • And with that money, are you claiming taxes? Depending on where you are in the world, certain thresholds of income require you to claim goods and services tax. Knowing what your countries requirements are is important for operating a freelance business. 

Answering questions like these are important to achieve your big picture goals for your business. Even if you’ve already started a business, it’s important to go back and consider how you’d answer these questions. Once you have clarity on what’s important for you, you can start making better decisions to set your business up professionally.

Step #2: Find your niche (or unique-selling-proposition)

Your niche is what sets you apart from your competition. While there’s never been a better time to be a freelancer thanks to the digital age, it also means there is a lot of competition. Being a graphic designer and being skilled at Photoshop isn’t enough to set you apart from the competition. You need to discover and outline your unique-selling-proposition, USP.

How to Start a Freelance Business - FInd Your Niche or Unique Selling Propisition
Your unique selling proposition is what sets you apart. Image by olpo.

What is a USP (Unique Selling Proposition)?

A unique selling proposition refers to the unique benefit that enables something to stand out from competitors. It’s a feature that becomes meaningful for the customers you are trying to attract to your business. 

Put shortly, you need to discover what makes your business better than the competition. Here are a few areas that you should analyze in your business strategy to decide what your USP/ niche is. 

  • Geographical Location: Are all your services available remote? Having a global reach could be a USP. Or are you located in a small town with limited competition? Your existence may simply be your niche. 
  • Specific Genre: While there are plenty of landscape photographers, maybe your business seeks to specifically capture drone images of the ocean, like this photographer. Having a highly-specific genre can set you apart from the competition. 
  • Services: While there are quite a few illustrators on Shutterstock, there are not a lot of illustrators that specialize in dog art. If you offer a service to clients that they can’t find elsewhere, they are going to think of you as the specialist for that service.  

Step #3: Get your finances in check

Pursuing what you love in a freelance business is the dream, but it takes a lot of work and careful consideration, especially when it comes to financing. You need to understand your personal finances before taking the leap. Before you decide to start a freelance business, take a good look at your personal finances. Determine how long your savings can sustain you if opportunities don’t come as quickly as you expect. 

Preparing your personal finances

Be prepared to not have work. Even if you set yourself up with long-term contracts and have a few things lined up when you start your business, plan on not having any business. It’s always smart to start with a bit of a nest egg. Pursuing a freelance business means you put all the pressure on yourself to succeed, and it can take a toll on your mental health. Preparing your finances to cover your monthly expenses for a few months can alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety when starting a business.

How to Start a Freelance Business - Preparing Your Personal Finances
Get your personal finances in check. Illustration by GoodStudio.

Understand the costs of operating your business professionally 

When you start to operate a professional freelance business, there are certain overhead costs that you have to be aware of. When you were selling a few hundred dollars on Facebook, you may not have had to consider these so ensure that you fully understand and track the costs of your business. 

  • Monthly Subscriptions: Plans for software like editing apps, scheduling apps, or social media apps can compound in unexpected ways. This also accounts for website hosting or domains. Take a good look at what you are paying for in monthly or yearly subscriptions.
  • Equipment: While you might own all your equipment now, what if something breaks? You are now responsible for the equipment you maintain, and things happen. Cameras break, laptops get old, and all of these things add up. Consider how much you’ll have to spend when you upgrade or change your equipment. 
  • Accounting and Taxes: Every year, you’ll have to do taxes on your business, which could cost a significant amount of money. In addition, you may need to hire an accountant to support you. Ensure you understand what you can expect depending on what you earn.
  • Medical: You are now responsible for your medical expenses and private plans. So, ensure you know what costs you can expect that are were once covered by your job. 

Step #4: Identify your dream clients

Now the fun stuff. Now that you are pursuing your freelance business, you have the opportunity to expand your client pool and work with new and interesting clients that inspire you. The first consideration that you should take is to build out personas for your ideal client. These are representational information on who your ideal customers would be based on the market and your existing clients. It’s essentially the kind of clients that you want to attract. 

How to Start a Freelance Business - Identify your dream clients
Create a list of the characteristics of your dream clients. Image by LightField Studios.

As an example, I’m going to outline a few of my ideal client personas. Use this same strategy to discover your ideal clients. Refer to this when you are building any branding, copy, or marketing strategy to ensure you’re targeting the right kind of clients and businesses for your work. 

Examples of Buyer Personas for a Tourism Photographer

  • Example 1: Provincial Tourism Organizations
    Description: I am looking to target my work to marketing professionals within my provincial tourism organizations to my work. More than likely, these people are between 30-40 years old and want to see professional examples of commercial work in areas of landscape, people, and architecture throughout the specific province. 
  • Example 2: Local Small Business Owners
    Description: I am looking to target my work to the owners of small businesses in my town. The goal of this is to highlight commercial photography work in an obtainable way, that makes good photography accessible when small businesses have smaller budgets. 

Create your own dream client personas to better target the work that you create and how you pitch yourself to businesses you want to work with.

Step #5: Clarify what you’re going to sell

You can’t conduct business without having something to sell. The success of your business quite literally depends on if you sell your product or service or not, so figuring out what you want to sell is important. 

Selling one thing really well 

There are two different ways that freelance businesses can consider deciding on what they want to sell. The first is that businesses come highly specific in one thing. They offer one service or product and sell it well. The goal of this is to become the best in that specific one thing. An example of this is stating that you take portraits of dogs in your studio on a pink background. There’s a uniformity to what you do, and clients go to you for that specific thing.

Diversifying your work

The second way is to diversify your business into multiple areas or skillsets. If you’re more of a generalist or have multiple skills you’d like to work on, this can be a good area to focus on. Diversifying what you offer means you have more opportunities to shift and pivot if something unexpected happens (like say, a pandemic). 

How to Start a Freelance Business - Clarify What Your Going to Sell
Decide what you’re going to sell in your business. Image by Jared Lam in Hong Kong.

For my business, I’m a professional photographer but I also happen to write freelance. I also produce videos with my husband for commercial clients around the world. Diversifying works for me because it allows me to use different skillsets that I have a passion for. That being said, there are benefits to both types of selling strategies, it’s important to consider the best one for your individual business. 

Step #6: Set your pricing

Determining pricing for your services or products is more than just deciding on what to sell, but also how to sell it. For freelance businesses in creative arts, this could mean answering any of the following questions.

  • Are you offering hourly services? Are you charging a flat day rate?
  • Do your prices change depending on the size of the client? 
  • Will you quote on individual projects?
  • Will you put your prices public on your site? 

Answering all of these questions is important to determine how you will charge clients for your work. When you are setting your prices, it’s important to do market research as well as research on your current and future operating costs to decide what you’ll charge for your business.

  • How much overhead costs do you have? Monthly? Yearly? 
  • What are your profit margins? How can you price your service to make sure you hit them?
  • Are you putting money back into your business, or profiting it all? 

Finding the right price for your product or service often takes some trial-and-error. It’s important to document the process and experiment until you find the right prices that work for your business. 

Step #7: Create a business brand that inspires you (and others)

Now for the real fun part, creating a business brand for your business. Your brand is essentially how you tell your story to the world. It’s what makes you stand out online and on social media so that people recognize your branding as your work. 

You want to create a brand that inspires and resonates with an audience, and that encourages them to engage with it. For example, you’re not going to see a burlesque photographer with a minimalist white website and branding. You also won’t see a landscape photographer with nothing but portraits of people on their social media.

How to Start a Freelance Business - Create a Business Brand that Inspires You
Brand your business around the type of work you want to create. Image by TabitaZn.

Here are a few considerations that you should keep in mind when designing your brand.

  • Logo: Create a logo that highlights what you do. It should have your business name or a variation of it and match aesthetically to your website, social media, and other typefaces. 
  • Colors: The colors of your business should be visible no matter where you are. If you’re a photographer whose style is quite warm, then you should see warm colors on your website, social media, and other marketing materials.
  • Type: Decide on a few typefaces (a header, sub-header, and paragraph type) that you will use throughout your business. While you can play with this sometimes, type is a huge factor in visualizing your brand. 
  • Slogan: Talk about your business consistently, regardless of where you are. If you are a photographer who specializes in people and landscape, say that everywhere. Make sure people understand what you do, who you are, and have a consistent experience regardless of where they discover you. 

For contributors on stock, your stock portfolio should be as well branded as any other website or social media account you showcase your work on. Ensure you have a display picture, links to social media, and a business description that matches the brand experience you have on other sites. 

Step #8: Maintain an online presence

Now, we’re not saying you need to be constantly posting on social media for your business. However, you should definitely be present and discoverable. These days, more often than not, online is the first place people discover new work and ideas that interest them. Having a great-looking and cohesive online presence is important to catching eyes. 

How to Start a Freelance Business - Maintain an Online Presence
Maintain an online presence so customers know you’re available. Image by MURRIRA.

Here are a few considerations to maintain a presence online.

  • Website: Ensure that you are updating your website and displaying new work or products that you’re offering. If you have a blog, keep it up-to-date. 
  • Social Media: While you may not want to post daily, you should do your best to post at least once or twice a month to stay present. This also helps people know you are operating your business.Social media is a huge opportunity for the discoverability of new businesses. You can also use it to direct traffic to other areas of your business, such as your stock portfolio.
  • Stock Portfolio: Keep your links, bio, and images up-to-date. Remove any old images that no longer fit your style of work to maintain a cohesive, visually-appealing portfolio on stock. 
  • Review Services: If your business or service gets reviews on Google or a platform like Yelp, ensure the information there about your business is correct and up-to-date. In addition to being a useful source of user-generated content, sites like these help potential clients find your business quickly. 

Step #9: Learn how to pitch and talk about your work

The most uncomfortable part of owning your own business is that you need to be the one to hype it up. You can’t conduct a business without being willing and able to talk about what it is that you do. It can take a lot of personal energy and time, but the first step in creating clients who love and admire your business is showing how much time, energy, and commitment you have to running it. Here are a few tips on how to talk about your business if it’s not something you are used to doing.

  • Think about a one-line pitch that you’ll use when people ask what you do. Refer to this if you ever get stuck on people asking what your business is.
  • Remember that you are building this from the ground up and that before you started it, it didn’t exist. People are inspired by stories of resilience and perseverance. Own how hard you worked to get to this point.
  • Talk about the business as part of your personal journey. While the two may operate independently, your business is personally important to you. Use that passion to talk about why you do what you do. 

Talking about yourself and your business can be awkward, but making dedicated efforts to connect with people interested in your company can only help make your business stronger.

Step #10: Stay persistent when challenges arise

And finally, for our last step, stay persistent when challenges arise. You are more than likely going to reach a roadblock in your first year of operating your freelance business, and you may not see perfect results right away. Starting anything takes time and effort. So, try to stay persistent and do your best to keep pivoting, and keep pushing yourself to achieve your dreams. 

How to Start a Freelance Business - Stay Persistent When Challenges Arise
Keep charging forward. You got this. Image by KNST ART STUDIO.

There is no failure in adapting to changing climates, offering new services, or trying new platforms to make your business work. You made a huge step to try and forge a professional business that inspires you. Every day has its own individual challenges and setbacks. It can be as small as feeling anxious one day, or as big as a canceled contract. Each setback still has value in pushing you closer and closer in the direction you want to achieve.

If your head and heart stay in it, it’ll be worth it in the long run. We can’t wait to see what you create next. 

For more business tips, check out these articles:

Cover image by Wonderful Future World.

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