Four Steps to Becoming a Freelancer

Posted June 6, 2013 by Ellen Hunter Gans in Career Moves

I regularly volunteer at events for students and new graduates from my alma mater.

I know I’m not a famous author or a third string NFL quarterback (my two dream jobs), but I’ve noticed that my job sounds pretty cool when I describe it to 20-year-olds.

I work from home, usually in pajamas.

I am my own boss.

I make my own hours.

Inevitably, I’m asked: “How do I become a freelancer, too?”

That’s when the other shoe drops.

That’s when they hear about the lack of health insurance and income instability.

That’s when they hear about the constant need to wear ALL the hats: sales and marketing manager, accountant, writer, and janitor.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t set out to become a freelancer, and I don’t necessarily recommend that any person snap his or her fingers, quit a full-time job and declare freelance status.

I became a freelancer out of necessity. I finished graduate school when the economy was at its lowest point. I started freelancing to fill time and produce income — all while sending out dozens of resumés a day in hopes of finding a “real” job.

It took two full years before I made a reasonable income, and three years before I made an income I’m actually proud of. (And I’m really proud of it now. Honestly. Of course, it could go in the tank tomorrow, so there’s always an asterisk.)

Suddenly declaring yourself to be a full-time freelancer is kind of like suddenly declaring yourself to be a famous actress. You can call yourself that all you want, but unless you actually have the work to back it up, you’re just unemployed.

Having said that, I do love my job. The good FAR outweighs the bad, and it would take a call from a major publishing company — or the NFL — to pull me away from it. I truly believe that freelancing IS the way of the future.

So here’s what I DO recommend if you’re thinking about going freelance.

Step ONE: Don’t quit your day job.

I know, I know — you’re SO done with your job, and you can’t imagine having the time to squeeze in more work. Too bad. Start moonlighting (assuming it won’t conflict with or risk your regularly paying gig).

Step TWO: Network like crazy.

Use the alumnae career files at your alma mater. Use professional associations. Use LinkedIn. Use that guy who used to work with your cousin and started his own firm. Use Career Girl Network.

Step THREE: Build up your client base and portfolio.

This is the hard part. Start working. Start impressing people. Start building up a portfolio of work that you can show to potential clients.

Step FOUR: Make the leap.

Income is nearly impossible to predict when you’re a freelancer, so it’s very difficult to know when to make the leap. In my next column, I’ll talk in more detail about the finances of freelancing, but for now we’ll leave it at this: If you made $40K at your previous full-time job, you’re going to have to accept a major lifestyle shift if you’re only projecting $15K freelancing. Be realistic.

The bottom line? I didn’t have a choice, and if you’re unemployed, you might as well start freelancing. You may find, like I did, that you absolutely love it.

If you’re currently in a cushy job with cushy benefits and a cushy paycheck, you’ll need to be very honest with yourself (and your partner and/or roommate(s)) about the typically long, uncertain, and occasionally terrifying route to the solo life.

About the Author

Ellen Hunter Gans

Ellen Hunter Gans is a freelance writer and communications strategist. She's also a marathon runner, an Ironman triathlete, a wildly untalented cross-country skier, a newly minted Crossfit junkie, a yoga devotee, a wannabe culinary genius, a voracious reader, a grammar snob, a world traveler, an outdoorswoman, an oenophile, a mediocre gardener, and a secret fan of awful television. Her blog is at, and her business website is at