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5 Tips to Make a Successful Transition from Full-Time to Freelance

By Ken Chen

We’ve had the good fortune at EM Marketing to help dozens of marketers transition from full-time work to freelance consulting or contracting work. I’m a firm believer that if people were to do the cost-benefit analysis of working today at a full-time job, especially in the hyperactive Bay Area technology industry, they’d probably find freelancing a better fit. It seems like just about everyone I talk to would love to make the switch, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

Here are my 5 tips to make a successful transition from full-time work to freelance work.

1. Stop Comparing, Start Dreaming.

It’s natural to compare a freelance opportunity with the lens of full-time employment, but it’s the same thinking that will keep you from succeeding. When you become a freelancer, you should not expect the same perks including stock options, paid vacations, raises and promotions.

If those rewards are still your primary motivation in your career, you probably should stay at full-timer. Instead, I’d start focusing on all the positives you get from a life of freelancing like work-life balance, less commuting, less politics, variety of work and the power of being able to say no. Try it now, it’s pretty liberating. NO!

2. Think Long Term $, Not Short Term Funds.

Money is always a consideration when making a career transition. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to simply translate a full-time salary into an hourly rate. It’s been my experience that you may be able to get more or less depending on the need. That’s the key.

Your services are now subject to what the market will pay for your services, and that’s really the only number that matters. I’ve seen too many people make the mistake of trying to make more money freelancing right out of the gate. I know for me it took several years, multiple clients and many projects before I got back to break-even. I’m glad I was willing to make the short-term sacrifice because it’s paid off in the long-term.

3. Business Development Doesn’t Have to Suck.

This is another element of freelancing that prevents people from transitioning. It’s usually not that difficult to find a first consulting or contracting position, but the second and third become harder. To successfully string together gigs is even harder.

That’s why doing Business Development is a necessity. So many people have told me, “I don’t want to do any business development,” and this is the reason they stay unhappy at their current jobs. It doesn’t have to be that way. For me, I reframed business development into catching up and networking with past managers, colleagues and co-workers that I liked. The rest should take care of itself.

4. Be Open To Failing.

I’ve also seen many first time consultants take on a first project that was a poor fit or had nightmare circumstances and they got scared away. Or some have simply not done a good job because of a steep learning curve or slow social/mental adjustments. Consulting is like any other new endeavor. You have to acquire a new set of skills and some degree of failure has to be expected and even embraced. Don’t believe me, listen to Ira Glass:

5. Remember the One Golden Rule.

Consulting or contracting can be hard, but IMHO there is really only one simple, golden rule. Keep your client happy. This means doing the common-sense things with every engagement. For me, those common-sense steps are:

  • Setting up every project with a goal, strategy and measurable success criteria
  • Checking in with the client at a regular cadence
  • Documenting all important milestones and decisions
  • Being a good teammate and partner
  • Anticipating needs before they rise

To make sure you are doing a good job, simply ask your client: “How am I doing?” As a freelancer, you can’t be afraid of the answer. As you get better at your craft, you’ll find that getting honest feedback is a gift.

About Ken Chen

Ken Chen is San Francisco-based online marketing consultant and owner of EM Marketing. EM Marketing specializes in marketing strategy, product launches, customer acquisition, and mobile & social marketing.

8 thoughts on “5 Tips to Make a Successful Transition from Full-Time to Freelance”

  1. Great post, Ken. Good point about #4, sometimes a project isn’t a great fit or something you intended it to be. Even if a project isn’t the perfect fit, you can always learn new skills and understand how to approach problems differently. One thing is for sure, as a consultant, you are always learning!

    1. Sherry – very true. I feel like as a consultant, if you have multiple clients you are forced to learn exponentially. It’s another perk to being a freelancer.

  2. Especially true is your comment on Biz Dev. It’s been so rewarding to reconnect with those in my network and learn about what they are wanting to do and help them. If you see it as a chance to catch up with former business friends, it can be a joyful part of the process and re-energize you as a bonus.

    1. Kara – it’s Karma in action. I’ve found that if you did good work in your past roles and people liked you, they are likely to hire you in the future.

  3. Thanks for this insightful and helpful post, Ken! I think about these exact things as I make the (not-so-graceful) transition from FTE to consulting. One thing to add to #5 – don’t underestimate the importance of getting things done with a smile!

    1. For sure, a smile helps and a general great attitude is a must. This is why I advise consultants not to take on too much work because keeping a positive attitude is key.

  4. Great article! #1 was the biggest hurdle for me and those of us who used to chase the titles.
    I would also say freelancing can make you a more resourceful worker too. As a consultant you don’t get the “I just started” leeway as a typical full-time employee. You are expected to hit the ground running each and every time with VERY little transition or onboarding. Now after multiple clients I find I’m much more confident and can deliver for the client without much handholding.

  5. Great article. Love the pep talk from Ira Glass. So true – the more you write the better you get…

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