Working for yourself from home, freelance jobs and contract work bring a lot of variety to your career. To make a success of freelancing you'll need the business acumen to build a client base and the ability to manage your finances

What is freelancing?

A form of self-employment, freelancers lend their skills and talents to a number of clients on a flexible basis. They aren't employed by a company or committed to a single customer - freelancers have the freedom to choose the projects they'd like to work on and the clients they'd like to work for. They usually work from home, although some rent studio or office space.

While it's possible to balance freelancing with other employment, many commit to freelancing full time. This is the most effective way to build good working relationships and an impressive portfolio.

'You may believe that you are too young to go freelance, but this is no barrier,' explains Dave Chaplin, CEO and founder of contracting authority ContractorCalculator and author of The Contractors' Handbook - Third Edition. 'If your skills meet the demand then you will get hired. Increasingly, more graduates are setting up on their own straight out of university.'

Freelancing vs contract work

So, what's the difference between freelancing and contract work?

Dave outlines how freelancers and contractors are self-employed workers who provide services and carry out projects for clients.

'Contractors tend to work on fixed-term contracts for end clients and are usually based on the client sites. Many of them are sourced via recruitment agencies although some will work directly for the end-hirers. They almost always work via their own limited companies,' he explains. Contractors tend to work in sectors such IT or engineering, social work, finance and health and education.

'Freelancers on the other hand tend to work for multiple clients at any one time and often work from their own home or office space. It is less common for freelancers to work full-time from a client site. Freelancing is a popular way of working for those in the creative industries, such as designers, photographers or marketing professionals. Freelancers can either be sole traders or work through their own limited companies,' says Dave.

'Neither benefit from employment rights from the clients they work with and both are responsible for managing their business administration and taxes.'

What jobs can I do freelance?

Companies look to hire freelancers and contractors in a number of roles, including:

While creative roles are particularly popular for freelance or contract work, freelancers with the right motivation and skills are welcome in a range of industries.

Browse job profiles to learn more about going freelance in your chosen career.

How do I go freelance?

There's no set path into freelancing, but to succeed in any form of self-employment you'll need the motivation, enthusiasm and passion for your work to secure clients and build your career from the ground.

Before you give up the office job find out what you're getting yourself into. Talk to other freelancers in the industry you'd like to enter to learn from their experiences.

Going freelance means starting a business, so you'll have to get to grips with your finances, general admin and paying taxes - areas you may not know much about. Before you get stuck in write out a basic business plan detailing how much you think you'll earn and what costs you'll incur. This is called a forecast. Once you've done this expand your plan so it includes specific goals for the short, medium and long term. A basic plan helps you prioritise tasks on a daily basis, but it's also important to plan where you think you'll be in 12 months' time.

There are a number of practical tasks to carry out when going self-employed, such as registering with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC). 'As a sole trader you'll have to pay income tax and National Insurance contributions. If you're a limited company you must inform HMRC, because there will also be corporation taxes to pay. You'll need to sort insurance too. This will cover you if something goes wrong. Set up a meeting with a specialist adviser and talk through public liability insurance, professional indemnity insurance, contents insurance and business interruption insurance for times when you cannot work,' says Dave.

As a freelancer or contract worker getting out there and meeting potential clients is another essential element to growing your business. While social media has it’s uses you shouldn't underestimate the personal touch - meeting face-to-face and exchanging business cards will improve your relationships and bring in referrals.

While being your own boss sounds ideal, it’s vital to create structure when you're working under your own steam. You need to be disciplined with your workload and stick to the deadlines you set yourself. When working form home it's all too easy for the boundaries between your work and personal life to become blurred. To ensure maximum productivity establish a daily routine and work within set hours.

'Spend a little time each week keeping on top of your financial admin - sending invoices, chasing payments, checking your accounts etc,' says Julia Kermode, CEO and founder of IWORK. 'Keeping accurate financial records is essential to make it easier when you come to submit your self-assessment tax return because you might be trying to remember the detail of something from over a year ago.'

Julia also recommends setting aside a certain amount of income regularly so that you have accessible funds ready to pay any tax and NICs owed to HMRC. 'In addition, the pandemic has really demonstrated the importance of considering certain types of insurance such as sickness and income protection.'

To weigh up the pros and cons of going freelance, see is self-employment right for you?

How much can I charge?

You'll be able to set your own rates for the work you complete. You may charge by the hour, day or project, depending on the nature of your work and which payment method is most cost efficient.

'Setting a contract or freelance rate is a careful balancing act,' says Dave. 'You want to establish a competitive rate that rewards you for your efforts without pricing yourself out of the market.'

For instance, you may be able to complete a high-quality project in a short space of time, which if you're charging by the hour leaves you at risk of undervaluing your work. On the other hand, if you've completed a project for a client and they decide it needs changing, working to an hourly rate means you'll be compensated for the extra time you put in.

'Don't undervalue yourself,' advises Julia. 'Once you start working with a client for a low price it can be difficult to increase it, so it is much better to quote a higher price and potentially negotiate that figure down. Also, don't forget that your clients are buying your skills because they have a gap there, so don't be shy about pricing accordingly.'

As you gain experience in completing work and collaborating with clients you'll gain a better understanding of how much to charge certain clients for certain projects. With this experience you'll also be able to charge more for your services.

'Ask other freelancers (for guidance on fees),' suggests Dave. 'Talk to as many colleagues and friends as you can, but do so discretely, especially if you're currently permanently employed.

'If you can, speak to an experienced freelancer who has similar skills and experience to your own.'

Professional bodies and societies may also be able to provide a baseline, which can help you to calculate how much to charge. For example, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SFEP) has a guide of suggested minimum rates freelance writers can expect to negotiate from. As of March 2020, a freelance copyeditor should aim to charge at least £29.60 per hour, a freelance proofread can expect at least £25.40 an hour while editors doing substantial rewriting and development can realistically charge £34 per hour.

'Market conditions can also significantly impact freelancer demand. Browsing contract advertisements online can therefore help you create a clearer picture of the rates you should command in the current climate,' adds Dave.

Julia warns against working for free. 'Never do any work free of charge, even when you're starting out. Some clients try to strike a deal of free work in exchange for building your portfolio, or a good reference but that approach is insulting and shows they undervalue your skills.'

Where can I find freelance opportunities?

If you're yet to build up a client base, signing up to freelance agencies is a good first step to take. You'll gain access to clients in a range of locations, offering plenty of freelance jobs and contract work to choose from. Consider the following when starting your search:

  • Find a Freelancer - the directory for FreelanceUK, specialising in creative and media-related professions.
  • Freelancer - choose between fixed-price and hourly projects, and local and international jobs. It's free to join and you can bid on up to eight projects per month.
  • Freelancers in the UK - hosts a range of freelancers, from graphic designers to sound engineers, as well as a blog full of useful advice and support. Membership costs £12 per year.
  • PeoplePerHour.com - includes a communication service between client and freelancer, with instant messaging and a secure payment method. An artificial intelligence system matches your skills to projects, and you can send up to 15 quotes per month for free.
  • Upwork - jobs are available in hundreds of categories, and a payment protection plan means you'll always be paid for work on time. You can join for free, or upgrade to a Plus account.

Having prepared to go freelance, Dave suggests following the checklist below to ensure you're optimising your job search activities.

  • Call any agencies that you applied to the day before.
  • Proactively post on LinkedIn and check LinkedIn groups. Reply to relevant activity with proactive comments and questions of your own.
  • Chase up any other positions you have applied for.
  • Send out email applications.

Unfortunately, the search process can often be dull and frustrating, but the harder you work at it, the sooner you'll get a role.

This webinar featured in the Prospects Future You: Live event in November 2020.

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