Prove your humanity

Thinking of ditching that casual job that has nothing to do with what you’re studying? Want to start a freelance business instead while you’re still studying, but you’re not sure how to get it up and running?

Here are the practical steps that I took when getting my freelance copywriting business off the ground.

1. Choose your services

Decide which services to offer clients, whether to niche or be a Jack or Jackie of all trades, and how many hours you want to work. I didn’t quit my job until I had enough clients to replace my salary. I recommend that you keep your casual job until you can afford to quit it.

As you’re still studying, consider services that won’t only help you use and develop the knowledge and skills that you’re getting from your studies, but that also help you build a portfolio of real work and real clients. This can put you ahead of others whether you plan to run your freelance business full time after graduation or plan to apply for employment when you graduate.

2. Decide how much to charge

You’re the only person who can decide what to charge, but your rates should be based on several factors such as your level of experience, how long it’ll take you to deliver the services and what the work is worth to your client. Also charge enough so that each client is contributing a little toward the costs for the software, equipment and supplies that your business needs.

There are various ways to determine your rates, but you could try one of the following to work out an hourly rate to use when calculating what to charge per piece, per project and per day:

  • Use the Freelance Hourly Rate Calculator from Flying Solo.
  • Find out what your industry association recommends as fair rates for freelancers.
  • Check whether your industry is covered in Calvary’s Freelance Rates and Market Guide 2019.
  • Use PayScale to check what you’d be worth if you were employed in a similar role.
  • Match what you’re getting from the casual job that you’re trying to replace. You want to ensure going freelance is worth it and that you won’t be living off bread and water!
  • See whether this simple calculation would work for you: “I need to make $5,000 per month. I can write 20 x 500-word blog posts per month, so I’ll charge $250 a piece.”

And while it might be a good idea to ask others in your industry for their rates, no two freelancers are equal. Charge what you believe you’re worth and don’t work for free nor for peanuts.

3. Name your freelance business

If you come up with a cool name before launching your freelance business, that’s great. If you can’t decide right now, don’t worry. Clients are hiring you for your skills, not for your business name. It’s also OK to use your personal name (e.g. John Smith). However, if call your business something other than your personal name, you must register it with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

You also don’t need a logo right away. Maybe leave branding for when you’re making enough money to cover branding costs.

4. Figure out your business structure and tax obligations

Many freelancers choose to run their businesses as sole traders because it’s the best structure when you’re the only boss of your business and the only person in charge of all the things ado with it. As a sole trader, you use your Tax File Number (TFN) when lodging your tax returns but also use an Australian Business Number (ABN) that identifies your business. ABNs are free and you should apply for one directly with the Australian Taxation Office via their Australian Business Register. Once you have your ABN, include it on all your invoices.

For all things tax obligations, the Australian Taxation Office offers information on their website. Just pop the following in Google: “sole trader + tax obligations + ATO”.

5. Set your contracts and terms and conditions

Don’t rush into projects without terms and conditions, otherwise, you risk leaving yourself open to a lot of headaches. Your terms and conditions should cover rules and procedures that apply to all projects and clients, such as who owns the copyright, what if you get sick and can no longer deliver the work, and how you deal with clients who ghost you, use your work but fail to pay you.

Next, consider creating a contract or service agreement template that you edit for each client and/or project to confirm everything you agreed to do for them and what they agree to do, including pay you the amount quoted and on time. Ideally, your contract should help protect you from scope creep, late payments and any issues that arise with this client. If you don’t want a formal contract that clients sign, then at least track your discussions via email or record them via Zoom/Skype. You never know when you’ll need it.

6. Set up your accounting and record-keeping systems

As a business owner, you’re legally required to keep your invoices, receipts and other business records for at least five years. There are many free and paid invoicing systems recommended by freelancers, with the most popular ones being Wave Accounting, Rounded, Invoice2go, FreshBooks and PayPal. These tools make is easy for you to issue and track quotes, invoices, payments and expenses, as well as produce reports for tax. These are all cloud-based services that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

When it’s time to get paid, many Australian freelancers like to receive payment directly into their bank accounts (usually a business account). If that’s your preferred method, then include your bank account details on your invoices. Also include the payment terms (e.g. “Due in 7 days”) and a link to your terms and conditions.

7. Build a freelance website

Your first website doesn’t need to be fancy and shouldn’t cost you a fortune. Start with an easy-to-use, free or low-cost website platform (e.g. WordPress, SquareSpace, Wix and Weebly) that you can set up yourself or with the help of your host, and then when you can afford you can improve the design or move the website to a better platform.

When starting out, it’s what you put on your website that matters the most. Maybe start with these basic pages: Home, About Me, Services, Portfolio, Terms and Conditions, Contact. If blogging is part of your marketing plan, then add a blog section.

8. Find clients

There are many quality clients out there looking for freelancers like you. But how do you find these clients? There are various ways you can do this:

  • Ask your Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections to keep an ear out for people who may need your services.
  • List the companies you’d love to work with and then reach out to them directly without being too salesy, spammy or aggressive, otherwise this approach might backfire.
  • Work with an agency or freelancer whose services complement yours.
  • Join the social media groups where your potential collaborators and clients spend their time.
  • Write blog posts that help business owners and their staff notice you.

And if you can, do stay away from eBidding freelancer websites (e.g. Upwork and Fiverr) where some freelancers go to compete for the same projects and then the ‘best’ price wins. Ask any freelancer who regrets using these sites and they’ll tell you how stressful it was since they had to do a lot of work for peanuts. This usually means you’ll work more to reach your financial goals. Instead, freelancers in my network recommend The Loop, Rachel’s List and Commtract.

I highly recommend learning to market yourself, so that you attract five-star clients who are fun to work with and who pay you what you’re worth and on time.

No matter which business you decide to launch, it’s important that you don’t let it distract you from your studies. Plus, no small business is easy to run, so do seek help when you feel stuck. Join some Facebook groups where freelancers go to ask for support (my favourite is The Freelance Jungle).

Now go forth, be an awesome freelancer and grow that portfolio!


Important: If you’re not a domestic student, please check whether your visa allows you to freelance while studying in Australia.