Can you make it as a full-time freelancer without any savings?

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One of the first pieces of business advice you’ll hear is how it’s a good idea to save at least 6 months to a year of living expenses before trying to win big at full-time freelancing.

While this is wise advice from smart people, sometimes fate has other plans.

Given the fragile state of today’s economy, who can afford to stash that much cash and maintain?

I’m not knocking that advice at all.  (I actually gave it here.) But plenty of people have successfully transitioned from full-time employee to full-time freelance without a lot of cash.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

I spoke to a few of them from the Millo Mastermind group and was impressed by their willingness to share openly about their business successes and failures.  Here’s what they had to say:

Cindy Rodriguez, Freelance Designer at StylishInk and Podcaster at The Fierce Entrepreneur:

Cindy was a full-time marketer for a manufacturing company. She began freelancing on the side, but her business grew to the point where she could no longer hold down a full-time job and her side hustle.

She clocked out of her job for the last time in September 2013 and hasn’t looked back since.

Q: How long did it take for your business to begin making money?

A: I had freelanced for years, but in 2009 I finally began to get serious about building my freelance business. After I made that decision, it took a year for me to start seeing a steady stream of income.

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Q: Where do you find most of your business?

A: Almost all my business comes from client and friend referrals. I don’t have an elevator speech, but I make it a point to talk about my business wherever I go.

Q: What advice do you have for new full-time freelancers?

A: Work on your business every day. This way, you won’t have to worry about where the work’s going to come from when business is slow.

Q: What did you wish you did different when you first started?

A: I would have waited to quit my full-time job until I had more money in the bank. I also would’ve reinvested ALL my profits into hiring people to help.

Q: What’s the one tool your can’t live without?

A: Trello. Not only can I brainstorm and make lists quickly and easily, but I can communicate with clients and make mood boards by copying and pasting screenshots onto cards. I also save screenshots of things I find around the web on an inspiration board so I can find them quickly later on.

Q: What role does your education play in your business?

A: School taught me the technical aspect of design, like color and typography. But it didn’t prepare me for running my own business at all.

Q: Do you have any sources of passive income?

A: I just posted my first product on Creative Market, and I’d like to create more so I can have a steady source of income from there.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: Starting a business is much easier with money, it’s better to have a little savings than none at all. Being an entrepreneur is an emotional journey. It’s important to have patience and persistence, as well as move forward through failure.

Paul Smith, Freelance Web Designer:

Q: How long did it take for your business to begin making money?

A: Because I built a business part time, it always made money. I was fortunate to partner with an SEO guy early on and that helped bring in more income than I could generate based on my work alone.

Q: Where do you find most of your business?

A: Over 90% of my business comes from referrals. Even though we rank pretty well on Google, most of the leads from there are not good potential clients.

Q: What advice do you have for new full-time freelancers?

A: Don’t let the fear hold you back from doing what you want to do. I could’ve left my job much earlier, but I think the fear of failing kept me there longer than I needed to be.

Q: What did you wish you did differently when you first started?

A: Not trying to sound egotistical, but I don’t really have any regrets. I feel that I did the right thing by building a business while holding down a part-time job. If I was working full-time, I wouldn’t have had the time to do what I needed.

Q: What’s the one tool your can’t live without?

A: Asana. Since I work with a remote team that’s spread out between Australia and the UK, it’s a great tool for collaborating with my partners and clients.

Q: What role does your education play in your business?

A: In the UK, you either go to University or get an apprenticeship. I went to work with an entrepreneur that began the first online dating site [in the UK] and learned so much from that experience.

Formal education isn’t as important, you can learn anything you need to online easily.

Q: Do you have any sources of passive income?

A: Yes. There are only so many hours in a day, so I had to look at how I could increase my income without doing more work. One of the first things I did was partner with an SEO person, and sold his service as an added value to my clients. He did the same with me for web design work.

I also find web hosting services to be extremely valuable. Though some designers don’t want to deal with the headache, I find it accounts for a large percentage of my passive income.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: If you’re good at what you do, don’t let the fear keep you from leaving your job. I really hesitated going full-time freelance because I could never save up six months of living expenses, but I found in my case that wasn’t necessary.

Teanna Ross, Principal of Kreative Eye Design:

Teanna was a full-time educational consultant for the California school system. Business was good until the State of California passed new legislation that took away the need for her services completely.

Instead of looking for a new position after being laid off, she decided jump into full-time freelance design in 2008.

Here’s what she had to say about making the switch:

Q: How long did it take for your business to begin making money?

A: I made money from the beginning, but not as much as I wanted.

Q: Where do you find most of your business?

A: I get more business from referrals than anywhere else. I really focus on building relationships with clients instead of trying to get them to hire me for their projects.

Q: What advice do you have for new full-time freelancers?

A: I think the most important advice is to be open to failure and not let fear keep you from getting started. You’re going to make mistakes; it’s part of the process. You have plenty of room to learn from your mistakes and adjust your business as you grow.

Find a business mentor, but don’t blow all your money on a business coach. I’ve found more value from my business mentors than I did in any paid coaching program.

Q: What did you wish you did different when you first started?

A: If I had priced myself more competitively, I believe I would’ve grown much faster. I didn’t understand I had a gift, and I tended to minimize my abilities when speaking with others. It’s important to not only own your skills, but be excited about whatever potential projects are coming your way. Don’t be small, no matter where you are in your career.

Q: What’s the one tool your can’t live without?

A: Photoshop. You can open and manipulate almost any type of file without an issue. I’ve tried lower-priced alternatives, but the versatility of Creative Suite can’t be beat.

Q: You have a Bachelor’s and an MBA.What role does your education play in your business?

A:  My education taught me the basics of business and a foundation to build my skills from. But design school definitely doesn’t teach you to run a business.

You can learn anything on the internet, regardless of your background or finances. There is no excuse to keep you from adding to your skills and getting better at what you do.

Q: Do you have any sources of passive income?

A: Not yet. I want to teach typography, color and technique in the future. I also really enjoy writing; I just finished my first ebook and am working on one about branding.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I have a few:

  1. Being a freelancer is all about operating within your purpose and dream, NOT the money.
  2. Don’t get caught up in trying to do what everyone else is or it will set you back. Be authentic and do what’s important to you. That’s why you got into business in the first place.
  3. Find five mentors you can call on anytime who will hold you accountable to grow your business.

Conclusion

Leaving a steady 9-to-5 job to follow your dream of owning your own business isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding.

Whether you’ve been on your own for years or you’re just starting out in the freelance world, you’ll hear lots of advice (some good and some not so great). I hope this advice from the Millo Mastermind group has been helpful and inspiring!

Do you have any advice as a freelancer? What would you share with those looking to branch into the world of freelancing? Let us know in the comments.

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About Sharon McElwee

Sharon McElwee helps creative businesses with blogging, email, copywriting and social media. She loves to partner with designers on web and print projects. You make beautiful things; don’t let them get ruined by ugly copy. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Great Post. As a freelancer you should always:

    1. Never stop learning. Branch into different design disciplines, learn different coding languages and keep trying to grow your knowledge.

    2. Have fun and enjoy what you do. If you are not enjoying a project, its often reflected in the quality of the work.

    • Thanks Allan 🙂

      As a writer, I’m continually learning something new everyday.

      In such a fast changing world, it’s critical to keep learning and improving.

      As far as the fun part, I agree too. I have taken on some things that were not so fun, and decided that there was no point being in business for myself if I would take on things I didn’t enjoy.

  2. Ha! This is an article for me. 🙂 My savings are close to zero, so I believe self promo is key in finding new clients fast, so you won’t have to eat stale bread all the time. 😉

    • I think that also building relationships with clients so you can have a monthly retainer is important, this way you don’t have to spend as much time promoting yourself…

      Thanks Eva 🙂

  3. Nice article, reassuring! One thing, I think I spotted a typo..

    …plenty of people have successfully transitioned from full-time employee to full-time freelance with a lot of cash.

    Shouldn´t it be NOT a lot of cash?

    Cheers,

    Stuart

  4. Good article… instead of freelance say it business only… people treat business man better.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful post Sharon,

    It’s so good to see an interview sessions with the people since it’s always full of experiences and it really assists in the learning process.

    If you have some other interviews with you and can share it with the community, I’d really appreciate it.

    Either way, keep up the good work 🙂

    Cheers

    Hammad

    • Glad you liked it. I don’t do many interviews, so it was very much a learning experience for me. I would recommend joining the Millo Mastermind Facebook group, where you can learn alot by talking to others 🙂

  6. Thanks, it’s fear that’s holding me back. I’ve gotten so use to a 9-to-5 job, that I anticipate the checks, and so does my wife. Fear of putting my family in the hole is what’s holding me back.

    Appreciating all the advice. Getting bolder….

  7. Awurumibe Michael Dubby says:

    All I can say is “THANK YOU”.