Are you a freelancing wannabe but are still employed? Alternately, are you a stealth freelancer? Employment has typically meant steady work and thus a steady paycheck, which might make you cautious about leaving your current job. However, here are six steps that you can take to turn your occasional freelancing into a dependable and lucrative job.

1. Seek out big(ger) and steady clients

Smaller businesses and “mom and pop” operations may currently be giving you work, but that work is probably operating on a “one and done” schedule and has no defined budget for you. You need to find bigger clients that can provide you with steady work year-round. Focus on companies that make at least an annual $5M in revenue and query them about freelance work. Other steady pay clients might include medical/dental outfits as well as insurance, law and investment firms.

What’s another great thing about big and steady clients? Besides providing you with a guaranteed sum of money every month, steady clients can also be asked for a raise. This is especially true if you’ve been working with a certain client for over a year and know his/her business quite well.

Don’t just seek out big name clients that offer those glamorous freelance jobs you’ve been vying for your entire life. Such “sexy” clients are great to snag, if you can manage it, but they will also take more “courting” too. This means that your first payment won’t materialize for months. As a starting freelancer, you simply can’t afford to waste too much time and effort snagging sexy clients and spending endless hours making them happy. Instead, line up a few “bread and butter” clients who can ensure that your mortgage and electric bills are paid on time. Then, by all means, go after the big name clients.

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2. Network with your current coworkers

Now’s the time to look at your current coworkers and employer as potential future clients. Given your insider status at your company, network like crazy and find out where current marketing/graphics/IT/etc. deficiencies lie. What do folks at your company wish they had more time to work on? What kind of projects have been sidelined due to a lack of human resources? You may wish to target these deficiencies once you resign (and not get fired from) from your current job. Staying on good terms with your company also gives you a good fall-back option should your freelancing efforts not work out.

3. Diversify

While you’re still earning a good income from your “real” job and time isn’t as critical, pick up additional skills like podcasting, SEO, programming, graphic design, etc. You might even luck out and have your current employer foot the bill or time for learning some of these skills. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to offer as add-on services to your future freelance clients, which will allow you to increase your rates and/or keep your clients longer.

4. Specialize

On the flip side of diversifying, try to specialize in a few fields that are in demand and lucrative. For example, instead of being a general desktop IT support agent, try taking up PHP or Java programming and complete a few freelance work projects in that language. Alternately, become proficient in writing about the hospitality industry and generate some clips for possible clients to peruse.

Such niche expertise will be invaluable to you when you apply for freelance work because most clients want to hire an expert (not a generalist) in a certain category. No one is going to pay you to become trained in a given subject category; that’s what employers do, not freelance clients. Likewise, because there are fewer freelancers out there who are knowledgeable in a niche field like biotechnology, PHP, grants or law, having that expertise instantly knocks out a good chunk of the competition.

Another advantage to having niche expertise is that you can easily do the same kind of work for the same or a different client. You can “spin” your work and provide different versions of your expertise, all without having to spend hours upon hours researching your subject matter. This means that you can do more work in less time. As a starting freelancer, being efficient is absolutely necessary for making a decent income because you won’t be charging the really big bucks until later on in your career.

5. Find some clients now

Don’t just quit your job without having at least some backup freelance work in place that can, at the very least, replace 20% of your current income. In fact, if you can swing it, find enough freelance work that replaces at least 40% of your income. Full throttle freelancing may take up to a year or longer; in my case, it took me about 10 months to go from earning just 20% of my former income to suddenly making 50% of my former income. Another 3 months passed by before I was at 70% of my former income. Therefore, it’s best if you have at least some money coming in while you ramp up your business.

6. Have a safety net

Whether it’s a supporting spouse/parent/significant other, a 12 month savings account cushion, or some other means of support, make sure that you have a safety net in place while you try your hand at freelancing. Such a safety net is usually not fun to think about but it does become a necessity during those lean times when nothing is going your way and you can’t line up a client to save your life.

As mentioned earlier, one safety net might include keeping on good terms with your former employer so you can get your old job back if freelancing doesn’t work out. Another safety net may include moving back home with your parents or giving up your large house for a small studio apartment. In essence, you have to expect that freelancing will initially not generate as much income as your old job did.

You will also be paying for your own health insurance, taxes, retirement, etc. All these extra costs will eat at your freelance earnings. Thus, it’s best to prepare for such monetary downsizing by downsizing your own lifestyle- at least until you start to recover and become even more profitable than before.

Is freelancing right for you?

Freelancing is certainly not for everyone. However, if you like working on different projects and hunting down new clients, then freelancing may be the best thing for you. The trick here is to prepare yourself as far ahead of your freelancing transition as possible so that client “dry spells” don’t cause you to panic and immediately run back to your old employer. Likewise, you don’t want to be completely without work and taking on low-paying clients who use up your valuable networking time.

Freelancers don’t pop up overnight and for good reason. However, if you follow the steps outlined above, becoming a successful freelancer should not be impossible.

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