When I was in my early 20s, I volunteered at a high school. I bonded with one of the students over our mutual love of dance, pop music, and sarcasm. When she got tickets to an ‘NSYNC concert for her birthday, she asked if I wanted to go with her, explaining that her mom insisted she go with an adult. For a moment I found myself contemplating, “What adult should we invite?” Then I realized, much to my chagrin, I was the adult her mom was talking about.

It was a surreal experience. I had magically become an adult without even recognizing it.

I had a similar experience recently when a friend needed advice regarding his choice to transition into freelance work. I immediately thought, “Who could we ask to find the answer?” Then it dawned on me; I knew the answer to his question. I was the experienced freelancer he needed.

Much like my transition into full-fledged adulthood, becoming a skilled freelance professional snuck up on me. However, when I stop and reflect on the last four years I can see the lessons I’ve learned, and the knowledge I’ve gained. I’ve worked hard to become adept in my field. The growth hasn’t been easy, and the path to proficiency hasn’t been smooth, but I’ve earned my expertise.

Advice for a New Freelancer

The conversation got me thinking. If I could go back and share a few lessons with the newbie freelancer I once was, what would I tell her? I settled on four key pieces of advice for a new freelancer that I knew I had to share.

Say No More Than Yes

During my first year as an independent contractor, I accepted every opportunity that I was offered. I said nothing but yes because, frankly, not a lot of people were asking for my help. In my second year, however, after doing solid work and making a few connections, I said no more often than I said yes. That sounds counterintuitive when you’re trying to build a business, right? But it worked. In my third year, my income tripled over year two. By saying no to the wrong projects, I was available to say yes to the right ones.

It’s tempting to take every job that comes your way. It’s especially tempting when you’re trying to build a portfolio of work and gain experience. But a portfolio full of off-brand work and a bunch of experience that turned your hair prematurely gray isn’t necessarily going to get you to where you want to go.

Picking the right projects is the key to success. There isn’t one job I turned down that I look back on and wonder, “What if?” Every time I say no to a project, I have a legitimate reason to turn down the work. Every time I say no, it allows me to pursue a project that is a better fit for my business and my brand.

Consider the Negotiation an Extended Interview

As a new business owner, it’s easy to get so thirsty that you turn every negotiation into a plea for work. When we start talking money and particulars, it’s easy to get blinded and preoccupied. But remember: you have limited time and limited resources. Finding the right client and the appropriate projects is a serious responsibility. Take a minute to reframe the negotiation phase as an interview. If you’re to the point where you’re negotiating a contract, you’ve convinced the client you’re right for him. Now it’s time to ensure he’s right for you.

Carefully consider how the potential client handles the whole negotiation process. It’s a perfect opportunity to see how timely, respectful, and considerate he is. When someone shows you who he is, believe him. Chances are that when you’re working together there will be plenty of compromising happening. This negotiation is your preview of things to come. Use the time wisely, and don’t be afraid to bail if the client shows characteristics that aren’t appealing.

Don’t Celebrate Until the Ink is Dry

A sad truth of freelance work is that deals fall through. Terms can’t be agreed upon. Timing can’t be worked out. Stuff happens. Sure, it’s flattering to be courted by a potential client. It’s an ego boost to know someone is interested in hiring you. Just make sure you aren’t celebrating the new deal until the ink is dry on the contract.

It might be easy to let your excitement over the possibility of work take your focus off actually getting the work. Don’t let your pride cloud your judgment. Negotiating a deal that is financially and professionally beneficial isn’t child’s play. It takes patience, wisdom, and skill. Keep your eye on the ball and stay focused until the deal is done.

Who You Work With Trumps What You Do

There is so much to learn when it comes to freelance work. You’re not only expected to be an expert at what you do, you need to be an expert at running a small business. During those shaky, training-wheel days, it’s important to surround yourself with clients you trust and respect. This early work is going to shape your business in many ways.

Who you choose to work with is so much more important in those early years than what projects you choose to work on. An off-brand project with someone who can mentor you will pay dividends for years to come. A small and less lucrative gig with a company that can help you make connections in your field is golden. Remember, as a freelancer, every job is the stepping stone to your next. Choose wisely.

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