How to Get Started as a Freelancer: Get Organized

20130901.How to Get Started as a Freelancer: Get Organized

As a freelancer there is nothing in the world more fatal to profit and productivity than bad organization.  Imagine what would happen if you announced your business right this minute, and low-and-behold clients just came pouring in.  That would be absolutely wonderful, right?

Wrong–unless you have a solid system of organization in place.

Starting Backwards

The last thing you want to do when you start freelancing is constantly playing catch up with yourself.  Freelancers are usually looked at in two lights: Those that are serious and those that are just goofing around, wasting everyone’s time.  Through the eyes of a client, there is rarely any wiggle-room between these two types of freelancing individuals.

Before you start pulling in clients, take a moment to reflect on the ideal picture of your business.

    • How will you charge clients or customers (hourly, per project, on retainer)?
    • How will you bill them?
    • How many clients will you handle per month?
    • Where are you going to keep your records?
    • Will you be entering all your records by hand or inputting them into a computer?

Now back up and decide what systems and tools you need in place to make this picture a reality.

Putting Plans into Place

Contact Organization.  You’ll want to keep track of clients, potential clients, and all the contact that you make with them.  Perhaps, you’d prefer separate file folders for each, properly labeled and organized between current, potential, and past clients.  Or, maybe you’d rather invest in some snazzy software (I use Sage Act!) to help organize this all for you.

Payment Method. Before the first potential client approaches you, you have to decide how you are going to have them pay.  Nothing looks more ridiculous than a service provider that has to “get back to you” on how they’re going to charge you.  Decide if you’d rather send out printed invoices bi-weekly, monthly, or immediately following the exchange of services or products.  Are you willing to give online clients your personal address to send checks to, only allow them to pay via PayPal, or do you want to set up a P.O. Box at your local post office?

Income and Expenses.  How are you going to keep track of your income and expenses?  Columnar pads or software—what’s your poison?  Where do you plan on keeping your receipts of payment and expenses (the IRS advises you keep them for six years)?  Some people love old shoe boxes, others like to scan it all in, and then some people (like me) love to get those little plastic file folders and keep receipts sorted by months (one file per year).  I’ve even toyed around with the idea of making origami shapes—a swan for income receipts and little men for expenses—not really.

Marketing.  You should allocate a specific amount of time you’re going to spend updating and managing content on your website and/or blog.  The time you spend on business-related activities should be considered when you go back and determine just exactly how much money you’re really making.  (I mean, let’s be real, it’s incredibly easy to spend five hours on social media talking about your business, then one hour actually working.  If you made $20 off that project, spread out, you really made $3.33/hr.)

Recording Time

This leads me to the all-important recordkeeping process of recording the actual time you’ve worked.  If you don’t turn diddley-squat of a profit, and you report a plethora of “business deductions” to the IRS, you better be able to provide a record of your time.  If it looks like you just dabbled with the idea of making money, but didn’t really treat it like a business (set amount of hours per day, for example), you might be in for a heap of hurt.

When I first got started, I shelled out a minuscule amount for one of those little black “CASH” record books from Wal-Mart.  I designated the sections “Date,” “Description,” “Start,” “End,” across the top.  Then I just left the little black book open and jotted my time for every activity until I was done for the day.  This system of recordkeeping was rather tedious, to be sure, but it was cheap, yet detailed –exactly what fitted my needs at the time.

Now, as I mentioned above, I use Sage Act! to record all my contact with clients and potential clients.  It was rather exhausting trying to modify all the settings and product prices to work for my particular services, but totally worth it in the end.

You can get some great iPad productivity apps, as well.  (In fact, one of these days, I’m going to have to make a post just about the ones I’ve found helpful.)

Recording Money

If you think losing track of your time for a client is a bit of a stressful situation come billing time, you’d be dead wrong.  Literally.  Like, as in, your little ticker may stop ticking.

One piece of advice I give to anyone who asks me to sort of mentor them into the world of freelancing is simply: do your homework.  Get ahold of an accounting guru or (if you’re more like me) a college-level accounting textbook.  Take the time to learn how to properly record the money coming in and going out of your business.  If the term “accounts receivable” or “capital” mean nothing to you, back your train up before you blow yourself right off the tracks.

I prefer to keep my accounting in a lovely little 13 column columnar pad.  A while ago I had a hard-drive commit suicide, and the tech guys told me the antagonist took out my backup disk with it.  Okay, well, that wasn’t true.  In reality, I shot myself in the foot, because my computer crashed, and I hadn’t backed up everything like my dad told me to do over and over and over.  So, second lesson in one paragraph: KEEP A BACKUP!

Organization is More Than Just Paperwork

Make sure you keep yourself structured, too.  One of the first things I specified on my website’s flip-book blog (I’ve mentioned this doozy of idiocy in previous posts), was that even though I work from home, I treat my business as just that—a business, and I expect my clients to do likewise.

Working from home may make you think about pajamas, but they’re not exactly productivity-inspiring.  If you get too comfy-cozy out there, you’re more likely to fall asleep than turn a profit.  (This coming from a person that has been known to create a makeshift desk and tickity-type away out amongst her grazing horses…Pot-ketttle-black anyone?)

There truly are great benefits of being your own boss.  However, lack of discipline should not be one of them.  Treat your business like the business you want it to become.  That means recordkeeping and solid organization.  To be treated professionally, you must act like a professional (whether your clients see you or not).

Previous post on How to Get Started in Freelancing: Recordkeeping

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