Essential guide to making it as an independent creative

Expert freelancers share 18 tips on working for yourself, finding clients, setting budget goals and time management, to show you how it can be done in 2018.
Essential guide to making it as an independent creative


With the era of the independent contractor well and truly upon us, not only are we seeing more individuals branch out as freelancers, but organisations are outsourcing, hiring independent contractors, and moving towards a more flexible workforce.

As ­­William Deresiewicz details in The Atlantic, ‘Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.’

So what can artists in particular do with this newfound opportunity of entrepreneurism? Many freelancers and independent creatives already have vast experience in cobbling together various income streams, creating and expanding new opportunities, and simultaneously juggling the role of the creator, the accountant, marketer and producer.

Yet despite such experience, skill and success, the dominant narrative is that while freelancers can make a living, they'll only ever scrape by.

The reality may be broader than the starving artist trope. Here we speak to freelancers with diverse approaches to accumulating income – from earning over $100,000 as a freelancer writer, to making a portfolio career work – in order to present New Year advice to aid both the established freelancer, and those contemplating going solo.  

1. Plan before you start

With the hype and growing accessibility of freelancing, it can be temping to simply take the leap, but Lillian Ahenkan aka. Flexmami recommends planning for the right time, right place.

‘My experience to date has been me teetering between "right time, right place" and deliberate planning. I didn't jump into freelance work without a safety net. By ensuring I had significant savings from my traditional office job, I gave myself ample time to transition with ease, with no concern about where the next pay check was coming from.’

She continued: ‘My advice for thriving is to truly understand what it costs for you to live the life you desire; from there you need to work more or charge more. Either way, it requires consistency and determination to not flop.’ 

Arts publicist Ali Webb of House of Webb recently made the move to freelancing after craving variety and new opportunities. ‘I’m an adventurer by heart and I was ready to go out on a limb,’ she told ArtsHub.

But echoing Flexmami’s advice, she noted that said limb had some structural integrity.

‘Prior to going freelance, I was the PR Manager for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I spoke to my employer about the change I wanted to make, and they were very supportive of my move. So supportive, they are now one of my clients! I provided them with enough time to work out what they wanted to do with my current role and to ensure there was time to communicate to the many musicians and stakeholders about the change in my role,’ said Webb.

The next steps included creating a website, printing business cards, organising an ABN and having a lengthy chat with her accountant. ‘Then began the giant job of contacting everyone in my network and beyond to let them know I was going freelance.’

2. Set and track your income target

The first step to making money feel less like a mystery (or a misery) is to become intimately familiar with both what you want to earn, and what you are making and spending.

In 2017, Lindy Alexander of The Freelancer's Year set an income target and exceeded it – earning over $100,000 from freelance writing.

The key was having a big goal and then breaking it into digestible, short term chunks.

‘Having a long term goal was important as I was the sole breadwinner for our family, so I had an imperative to make a certain amount of money so we could pay our mortgage and maintain our lifestyle,’ explained Alexander.

‘I knew what figure I wanted to hit, but that felt like a huge goal so I needed to break it down month by month. It meant that in the middle of each month I could check in and see how I was tracking and either take the foot off the gas a bit and relax, or really start pitching to bump up my income.’

3. Make contacts goals

As ­­­Deresiewicz continues in The Atlantic, ‘One reason may be that [people] recognize that 10,000 hours is less important now than 10,000 contacts.’

The adage ‘it’s who you know’ proves true.

In my own experience as a freelancer, one of the most valuable experiences was a year-long experiment in meeting a stranger each week – which surprisingly led to work referrals.

With over seven years experience as a freelancer, illustrator Jeffrey Phillips often manages multiple projects ranging from commercial storyboards, live drawing events, editorial illustrators and corporate commissions.

Having a group of creative friends means work can be shared as schedules fluctuate. ‘I occasionally get passed work from fellow creatives who can’t take it on,’ said Phillips.

Working as a freelancer can be isolating, so making contacts goes far beyond the monetary possibilities – it’s important to have people who can give you a pep talk in the absence of colleagues and also share advice.

‘For me, there are opportunities where you don't always expect them,’ said Alexander. ‘Go into events or networking things with low expectations, but be open and have coffee with people.’ 

4. Diversify your skillset – and plan accordingly

‘One of the most conspicuous things about today’s young creators is their tendency to construct a multiplicity of artistic identities … Like any good business, you try to diversify,’ writes Deresiewicz.

Flexmami is one such creative who has mastered the art of the portfolio career as a DJ, radio presenter, content creator and writer.

But how does time management factor into being a “slashie” for Flexmami?

Read: How to succeed in Generation Slashie

‘As a classic over-committer, clashes used to be a massive problem for me. To combat it, I started putting everything in a calendar – tentative lunch plans, booking enquiries, nail dates, all of it – that way I don't have to rely on my fallible brain,' she said.

‘When the opportunity arises, I'll sleep as long as necessary. I'm more concerned with getting work done at a time that works for me, and sometimes that means forgoing a good night's rest.’

5. Build routine and habit

One of the upsides to working is a freelancer is that your schedule is flexible – but it can also be a severe downside for those prone to distraction or procrastination.

It takes time to find the balance between flexibility and discipline. For Phillips, routine is key. ‘The only way I get by is by slotting myself into routine and habit. A bit like how a tram needs rails to get to where it needs to go.’

He continued: ‘I find that work expands to fill the time available, so I have to be strict with deadlines for myself otherwise I am forever chasing my tail.’

Routine in order to make room for flexibility is key for Ali Webb.

“I have a routine that I stick to most days: I set my alarm for 6am, which is when my brain is at its best. I do an hour’s worth of work before my son wakes up. I love food and always make a big production surrounding breakfast. My kitchen table is always a hive of activity. It doesn’t matter if I’m working from home or from an office – I always dress for work and pop a statement lippy on, and pack my lunch!

6. Get a handle on worry

Finding a sense of ease, calm and effortlessness with work and everyday life as a freelancer was the most common challenge identified by our interviewees.

For Phillips, what’s most difficult is figuring out a direction for the future when you’re the only one on deck. ‘I constantly feel that I am in the driving seat and I’m fumbling around for a map,’ he said. 

‘My challenges often revolve around questions about the future, the direction I want my life to take and how I can use my work to leave a positive mark upon the world. Having almost total autonomy over a life can be hard because there is no one to blame but myself if things don’t turn out how I want them to.’

7.  Make the move

Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your services out there. ‘Simply ask and you shall receive,’ said Flexmami.

‘Stop waiting for clients to come to you and start pitching your skills out. Whether that be teeing up a meeting to remind pre-existing clients that you're grateful for previous work (and available for future work!) or letting people know that you are available. It's easy and effective.’

8. Balance the creation and the administration

Freelance dancer, writer and creator of the diary each day designed, Elle Evangelista, has been making a living as a creative freelancer since graduating from WAAPA in 2013 and knows the importance of finding the balance between the creative work and the ‘unglamorous’ administration side of freelancing.

‘I’ve taught dance classes in small local churches, travelled hours on the train to teach workshops, written articles for lots of different publications, danced in many different projects all over the place. I think that aspect has allowed me to "thrive". You have to be willing to put in the unglamorous work like emails, follow up emails, the travel time and always, always being a professional regardless of the situation.’

9. Power of hand drawn to-do lists and calendars

While there is a proliferation of apps and software to help freelancers organise and track their time, often the best tool is pen and paper.

‘I hand draw my weekly schedule every month, exactly the way I need it to be. Mainly because I couldn’t find one that was perfect for me, but also hand-drawing it makes me more invested in the whole process,’ said Phillips.

Alexander also uses pen and paper. ‘What has been really helpful is working out the night before what I’m going to work on the next day, because I am someone who can puddle around for an hour and a half and loose that time.’

She continued: “I have an A4 writing pad and each week I divide that into four grids. One is a writing grid with all the things that are due; another is bits and pieces with things to invoice and pitches to send; another grid is a running tally of the pitches I’ve sent out and need to follow up on; and the final grid is the top three things I need to do each day.” 

10. Create the right work environment

‘The environments we exist in greatly influence our behaviour – and I believe that by changing our environments we can affect our behaviour in positive ways,’ said Phillips.

It’s about creating order out of the disorder of freelance life. Ideas for improving your environment range from keeping pens in groups according to type, having two separate desks for different work types, and keeping your desk as clean and clear.

11. Nurture existing clients above finding new ones

‘We are definitely in an industry where your reputation precedes you. New work will come easier when people are already speaking well about you,’ said Elle Evangelista.

Prospecting for new work can be one of the most time-intensive activities for freelancers, so a key to productivity is building on existing relationships.

‘There’s a line in an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix where they say “no one builds a successful business on first-timers”,’ explained Phillips.

‘It really rang true for me. It’s much easier to keep and nurture an existing client than constantly trying to find new ones.’

12. Bust the myth of the unorganised creative

Having created a diary and planner specifically for creatives, Evangelista proves individuals can be both organised and creative.

‘I have a to-do list with things I want to achieve every day and I love ticking things off. The part about being creative also comes easily. I know it can be hard to get stuck in the negatives or caught up in the administration of being a freelancer so I try and create something every day. I’m an avid knitter so even though I am not "dancing" I’m still creating something when I knit – thinking about what I want it to look like, the colours, the texture, the patterns etc – and I completely credit it as part of my artistic practice,’ she said.

13. Get clever about pitching

To hit her income target, Lindy Alexander realised quickly that she couldn’t keep writing short articles for little remuneration. Instead, she had to tailor the publications she was pitching to.

‘A lot of people are paddling in the shallows, and these publications are heavily pitched and only pay maybe $200 per post, so you have to go beyond that. You have to invest and look and email editors and do some searching and be on Twitter and look out for pitch requests and be on LinkedIn and do your own ground work.’

14. Don't bank on work that hasn’t happened yet

It can be helpful to project your income (and expenses) when doing longer term budgets, but be careful not to rely on funds where the work has not be confirmed.

‘I might start the month and think some corporate clients have promised that work will be coming my way, but I would never bank on that because things fall through all the time,’ said Alexander.

It can be a disappointment when work falls through, Evangelista added. ‘Honestly, I’m still working on how to deal with it. I respond to the email calmly and professionally, remind myself that the project probably wasn’t right for me for some reason and then I go and do something I really enjoy like a dance class or my knitting.’

15. Have work come to you

You would imagine earning six figures in one year would require working around the clock, but Lindy Alexander said she isn’t working more than 30-40 hours a week.

‘I’m probably writing for half of that time, maybe not even that much. The rest is pitching and admin and following up and interviewing and invoicing and all the kind of back end things that need to happen.’

The secret? Being able to have some brainpower freed up by editors coming to her with work. ‘In 2017, lots of editors were coming to me with work so it took that pressure off having to hustle all the time and prospect for work.’ 

To build to this point, Alexander recommends delivering quality work on time, being good natured and easy to work with, and asking editors or clients if there is anything else you need or what areas they are focusing on.

‘I think that is more important than a set number of hours that you are working, It's your ability to be a go-to freelancer for editors.’

16. Set boundaries

Boundaries are also key to avoid the trap of working around the clock as a freelancer, said Webb. 'Some weeks I have more work on then others, but as a single (and very excellent) parent, I have time boundaries. I believe these boundaries make me more efficient. As does a time sheet and monitoring the time spent working with each individual client.’

Being able to work from anywhere, anytime makes it even more important to set boundaries, she added. ‘In the early days of freelancing, I took on too much work and found myself working until all hours of the morning trying to finish projects to deadline. I think this is a common challenge with freelancing, but something that you can only learn by physically doing it,' Webb said.

17. 'Don’t forget to invoice on time!' – Ali Webb

If you suck at numbers, hire an accountant, use Xero or another program, and stay ontop of tax and your earnings.

18. It takes time, so don’t beat yourself up  

Having amazing clients come to you, or earning $100,000 in one year freelance can sound like a intimidating bar to reach –but behind these impressive accomplishments is time. It not only takes years to build up experience and a client base, but years to adjust working for yourself and learning what works for you. For some, that may mean working solidly in the morning and having a break during the day – for others it may mean mimicking a 9-5 schedule.  

While it may take years to get into the true swing of freelancing, don’t overlook the day to day.

‘A very good friend once told me that every day holds an opportunity. And it’s true,’ said Webb. ‘You never know who you are going to meet or where your conversation will go. It all starts with a hello!

‘Be bold, be brave, be kind. Or as Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken”,’ Webb concluded. 

Madeleine Dore

Monday 8 January, 2018

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator