8 First Steps for First-Time Sole Proprietors & Freelancers

Twenty years ago, I started TWP Marketing & Technical Communications (originally called TechWritePlus) as a leap of faith–no business plan, no board, and no idea of the need in the community. I had one client and after a long while I had two. Gradually, I learned what to do and what not to do.

Are you thinking now about starting your own freelance, consulting, or sole-proprietor business? Let me share what I learned:

  • You need a clear idea of what you offer–not a vision or mission statement, but a 1 minute, 2 sentence summary of what you offer and why it is important to other people. If you don’t know, no one else will.
  • You have to commit. Revise your LinkedIn profile so that it features your accomplishments and experience that make you a great freelancer or consultant. Build your website around your business. If you are simply running in place until a full-time offer comes along, people will notice and you will never build loyal clients/customers.
  • Luddite is good. Yes, you need a website and a LinkedIn profile, but you also have to take advantage of off-line, real-life opportunities like speaking before the Chamber of Commerce or joining local networking groups or writing a press release (or even a column) for the local paper and industry magazine. You want to get your name out? Get yourself out.
  • Think about pricing. Pricing can change as your business grows but do not start by undervaluing yourself in relation to everyone else. Think about pricing in terms of your experience and your profit, not your speed or big heart. What do you need to live on? I began by charging by the hour; moved to charging by the project; and now charge by the word, except in the case of very small projects.
  • Consider your customer/client. Always, always, over deliver–for deadlines especially. Always be calm and reasonable but do not deal with unreasonable people. They are the ones who will end up not paying or delaying payment or never referring you and they raise your stress level. Not worth it. But the ones who appreciate you? Do everything for them! You might even consider a “preferred customer discount” once in a while.
  • Ask for referrals and make the most of testimonials. Let customers know their referrals are welcome (I mention that at the bottom of my invoices) and thank them when they come through. If a customer sends you a particularly nice thank you, ask if you can post it on your website or online profile or use it in your marketing material. Do not hesitate to ask for testimonials–or even a case study interview–when a project has gone well but remember to always make sure the customer comes off looking good. They were smart enough to hire you, right?
  • Get help. You are great at what you do but are you also great at bookkeeping, writing, motivating, organizing, publicizing, and so on? All of those tasks are available from other freelancers, consultants, and sole-proprietors and sometimes for free (for example, your local Small Business Association). Consider whose help you need most, and add them one-by-one to your team when you can afford it. Don’t fail for lack of help.
  • Act but not recklessly–and don’t give up too soon. Don’t delay because of your fears. However, make sure you have a year’s income to keep you going. If you or your family cannot risk that one year of income, definitely rethink. Most businesses do not take off in less than 6 months and most need the full year. Once you are past that point, you should re-evaluate–but if you decide to go for it, let yourself reach that point.

From our base in Peterborough, NH, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications writes marketing copy that engages your customers and delivers your message with accuracy, clarity, and passion.

How to Work with a Professional Writer

You are thinking of hiring a professional writer to handle your marketing collateral or technical documentation? Congratulations! Here are four tips on working with a professional writer:

1. Writers need to start somewhere to develop content, whether by interviewing you for information or by reading all the previous material written about the project or by researching your competitors. Nothing great is ever written from complete ignorance. The writer needs access to information or to those who have information.

2. Research takes time; writing takes time. If you hire a freelancer, you are hiring someone with multiple clients who compete for time. Deadlines should account for research, writing, proofreading, revision, and production. Writers aren’t born with a magic wand and the ability to bend time. When you set a deadline, keep reality in mind.

3. The right words may not be the exact words you would use. Listen to the professional writer. What seems perfectly clear to you, with your inside and specialized knowledge, may confuse a potential customer. Your priorities (“let’s list every product we ever manufactured”) may conflict with your audience’s priorities (“send help!”). Your writer’s goal is to make sure your message is being delivered clearly, concisely and passionately to your audience.

4. Every liberal arts major is not a writer. I once worked in a technical company that assigned me an assistant who majored in drama–it’s all liberal arts, they said. The assistant hated writing. In fact, some English majors hate writing. A portfolio will tell you more than a degree in a specific subject. Make sure the writer’s style and experience fit your writing needs. If you are using a freelance writer, make sure the writer is dedicated to freelancing and not simply waiting until a full-time job comes along. You want someone who will finish your current project and be up to speed for future projects.

If  you keep in mind that professional writers need information, time, respect, and a passion for writing, you will develop an excellent relationship with the professional writer you hire.