The Accidental Freelancer's Survival Kit

Trolling the Freelance Job Sites Is Not Networking

The prevailing wisdom these days is that if you want to freelance, you sign up for a freelance job site like Elance, Guru or oDesk, and you bid on the projects that sound like they're up your alley. But this is not the only way to get freelance work.

As in the employee job-hunting world, seasoned freelancers get a majority of their gigs through referrals, courtesy of friends, former coworkers and satisfied clients. And as in the employee world, if you're limiting your search for work to the job boards, you're greatly limiting your options.

If you haven't yet e-mailed a note to everyone you've met since the day you were born, saying that you're now accepting freelance projects, get cracking. Be sure to include a link to your Web site (mandatory). Also, if you're not schmoozing on Biznik, the social networking site for independent workers, or at the regional face-to-face meetups sponsored by the Freelancers Union, time to get there. Ditto for industry-related events and mailing lists (some of which offer freelance job listings).

The Competition Is Not the Enemy

A common misconception among new freelancers is that it's sacrilege to fraternize with the so-called competition. But nothing could be further from the truth. After clients, other freelancers are our biggest source of referrals and job leads.

I'm not suggesting you run around demanding that your fellow freelancers fork over their entire contact lists or marketing strategies. (They won't.) But the more solo workers you befriend, the more referrals you'll get from those offered extra gigs that don't fit their schedule, grab their interest or pay their going rate.

Besides, freelancers in the same field often work in different niches. One graphic designer may specialize in Web design, another in logos and print campaigns. Freelance journalists specialize in everything from food to health to -- ahem! -- careers. So if someone offers me a gig reviewing steakhouses, I'll likely refer them to my friend the food critic.

Paying Quarterly Taxes Is Not Optional

If you want to see a freelancer throw a temper tantrum, stop by her office on Jan. 15, April 15, June 15 or Sept. 15, when her quarterly tax payments are due. (That's right, Virginia. We freelancers pay Uncle Sam directly.)

You're bound to have 101 questions about making your quarterly payments, as well as which business expenses you can deduct -- questions your cousin the accounting intern won't be able to answer. And despite being mildly helpful, the IRS Web site will only explain so much.

Do yourself a favor and hire an accountant who has experience working with small business owners, and do it now. Tax day is always right around the corner.

A Fist Bump Does Not a Contract Make

One of the biggest mistakes rookie freelancers make is working without a written contract. Sure, your client may seem reasonable and trustworthy. But even reasonable and trustworthy people forget what promises they made six months ago. Also, if your contact suddenly leaves his or her company, you'll have no proof of that handshake agreement they made with you. Better to get the terms in writing, even if all you do is reiterate in an e-mail the deadlines, project parameters and terms of payment you verbally agreed to.

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