5 Skills Every Freelancer MUST Have

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Can I rant at you for just a quick second? Do you get as annoyed as I do at the “373 Billion Skills That’ll Get You Hired” articles? It’s like… that’s NOT what I’m asking and how the heck is that even useful? Sigh. Anyway, I understand this question as what skills do you NEED… which, yes of course, your “core” skillset is one of those. But, beyond THAT.

So, if that’s what you’re after, that’s what this article is going to cover (By the way, if you are looking to figure out what core skills are best, instead of a massive list of 88 bajillion skills, you might find this article on the 3 highest-paying freelance jobs a bit more useful).

Quick, if you don’t know me, I’ve been a freelancer for over 15 years. I’ve worked on big name projects for Inc. Magazine, Tim Ferris, Lewis Howes, Michael Hyatt, Jefferson Bethke, Ray Edwards and others. I’ve worked full-time, from home, for the past 10 years..

I’m also the creator of the #1 freelancing course on all of Skillshare, Freelancing on Upwork and have taught over 11,000 students how to freelance.

And, in my experience, these are the five skills every freelancer MUST have:

  • The ability to market themselves and get clients
  • Customer service and delivering like a professional
  • Knowledge and talent at business-building
  • Accounting & bookkeeping
  • Time management and productivity skills

Now, if you’re looking at some of these and thinking, “Oof! Not sure I can do that.” Don’t worry. They’re really not as hard as you might think and I’m going to give you the shortcuts I’ve figured out over the years to nailing all five. Let’s do it.

1. Market Yourself and Get Clients

There’s a lot of hoopla and whizz-bang, magic, secret, ninja tricks you’ll see peddled online, but sound selling is a lot simpler than all that. I did face-to-face sales for years and I promise you… most of that nonsense falls flat in a real sales interaction.

So, what really matters:

Focus on problems.

I like to use an analogy here. Imagine you have a thorn stuck in your side. A guy comes up and starts blabbering out wellness and pain relief and his 13-step system for reducing inflammation… yada, yada, yada.

Compare that with a gal who comes up as says, “Ooh, that thorn looks nasty. I can remove it for you.” How quickly would you tell her to “shut up and take my money”. Point is, when you focus on solving problems, selling becomes a piece of cake.

Prove what you say.

When I sold shoes, we were expected to pitch our shoe-cleaning products to every customer. It could be difficult, because most people had never bought or even been pitched on shoe cleaners and water repellents.

So, what’d we do?

Demonstrate the products. My favorite was the water repellent. It’d take a piece of tissue paper out of a shoe box. I’d spray half of it with the water repellent and then dump water on it. The side without the repellent immediately got soaked. The side with the repellent… the water beaded up and ran off and the paper didn’t get wet, at all.

I darn near paid my rent every month off just selling water repellent that way. So, don’t get caught up in all this nonsense about flowery language and acting like you had 17 cups of coffee that morning. Prove what you say. Don’t make claims… speak facts.

Sell them what they already want.

Any salesperson worth their salt will tell you… you can’t sell somebody something they don’t already want. This stuff about “he could sell water to a whale”… it’s all nonsense.

People come in (to your store, website, etc) already knowing they want the thing. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t. Your job is to get them to buy from you and to buy now. To be specific, a client on your sales page already knows they want to hire somebody.

They would be on your sales page if they didn’t. Your job is to push them over the edge and give them compelling reasons to hire you and hire you now. Your job is also to get the right people to your sales page in the first place.

This is one of the reasons I talk so much about figuring out what services you’re going to offer and productizing your services. When you get this right, it makes selling your services so much easier. This video talks about more about that:

You focus on those core things and you’ll be just fine marketing yourself.

2. Deliver Like a Professional

This is one of the things I harp on heavily in my Beginner’s Guide to Freelance course, because a lot of new freelancers don’t fully get just how important this is. They’re so focused on getting new clients they often end up hurting themselves in the long-run.

Always remember. Any service industry… which is what you are as a freelancer… the way you have success long-term is through repeat business and referrals. The way you get repeat business and referrals is by providing top-notch customer service to your clients.

I talk a lot more about it in this video:

But, it’s not enough to be good at what you do. These things matter, as well:

  • How well you communicate with your clients
  • If you deliver the service on time
  • How pleasant you are to talk to and work with
  • If you do the things you say you’re going to
  • How well you listen to your clients

All the “intangibles” that are obvious when applying for a regular, 9-to-5 job… they all still matter. It all feeds into the “client experience” and their perception of you. Nail it and they won’t be able to help, but tell their friends and colleagues about you.

And, they’ll definitely come back to you again and again.

But…

There’s two things that are “x-factors” when it comes to client experience. These two things alone can make clients say “wow”. They are:

Deliver faster than expected.

If you deliver faster than what your client expects, it’s the simplest way to make them love you. It just doesn’t happen in most industries. Most clients assume their project will take longer than what you say. If you buck that expectation, you’ll have a loyal client for life.

Communicate proactively.

A lot of times clients have to drag updates out of their freelancer. We have a tendency to “cave up” and go incognito mode with a project in order to deliver. It makes sense, but it drives clients insane.

Remember, even though they hired you, they’re still terrified you’re going to take their money and they’ll never hear from you, again. The less you communicate, the more that fear gets ratcheted up. And, they’ll begin pestering you for updates.

But, if you’re proactive in how you communicate. You email them and give them updates without them asking. You do it more often than they expect. First, it’ll keep the 9pm on a Sunday “hey, can we jump on a call” stuff in check.

But, you’ll also create that loyalty you’re after.

So, there’s lots that goes into “client experience”, but if you nail those two things, they tend to override everything else. That doesn’t mean don’t think about the other stuff, but just be sure you really focus on speed and communication and your clients will love you.

3. Build a Sustainable Freelance Business

Business-building may be the skill that terrifies most freelancers. A lot of us “just want to do what I love” and not have to worry about all this business-y stuff. And, no, you don’t need to be the next Steve Jobs in order to do this, but some basics will help you out a ton:

The two ways to grow a freelance business.

In a pure freelance business, there are only two ways to increase revenue: 1) increase the number of billed hours and 2) increase the hourly rate. That’s it. So, it’s a good idea to start thinking now about whether or not you want to grow into a full-blow agency.

That is, hiring a team of freelancers and you, eventually, moving into more of a management/CEO role. I think it’s a matter of personal preference. For example, I think about running an agency and cringe. It’s the last thing I want to do.

But, others think about it and get excited. So, it’s up to you. But, just know that if you don’t want to eventually run an agency, the only way to increase your revenue, in a pure freelance sense, is to increase your hourly rate. So, that should be your focus.

Diversify your income.

That leads nicely into the next part of building your business, which is to diversify your revenue. That’s why I keep using the phrase “pure freelance”. Because, one way to grow your revenue is to add income streams that are related, but not freelance work.

For example, let’s say your freelance service is to build e-commerce sites. After working with enough clients, you’ll probably learn a thing or two about the business side of things. And, what separates successful e-commerce sites from ones that fail.

You could create an online course where you share those insights. It would appeal to the exact same clientele you already have, but give you another income stream. And, one that’s not tied to how many hours you can work. That’s the idea behind diversifying.

Have an exit strategy.

You may never want to exit. But, it’s a good idea to build your business as if you will sell it, one day. It’ll give you that option if you change your mind later, but it will also make your business more sustainable because it won’t be 100% reliant on you.

The big thing here is process documentation. All the things you do to get clients, deliver, run the business, etc… they all break down into processes. Document those processes. Develop SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for how you run your business.

It’l make you more efficient, plus it’s easier to hire an employee to take over part of the business and easier to hand off to somebody else if you do decide to sell. Which will make the price you can get for your business even greater.

You may never do it, but plan like you will.

Are you a web developer looking to go freelance? If so, check out this article where I lay out the first steps you’ll want to take to start or transition into a freelance web development career.

4. Accounting & Bookkeeping

I screwed myself on this the first year I made significant freelance income. I just didn’t set anything aside for taxes. Didn’t pay quarterly estimated taxes. And, thought it would somehow work itself out.

It didn’t.

And, I ended up owing thousands of dollars in back taxes. I was lucky I had enough revenue coming in that I crawled my way out of it in a little over a year, but it was stressful. And, completely unnecessary. Some simple accounting would have taken care of it.

I’ll tell you what I do to simplify all this in a second, but here’s the keys in my experience:

Track everything.

Income. Expenses. Owner draws and/or payments to yourself. When accountants do taxes for people, the bulk of what they charge is them going through all the bank statements and figuring out what’s what.

If you have that stuff already in order, it’s easy to do your taxes and ensure you get the maximum tax breaks you qualify for. Categorize your expenses. Make sure income is tracked as income. Make sure owner draws are not tracked as an expense.

Simple things like that will make all this a lot easier.

Know what you’ll owe in taxes.

I do my own taxes every year and I use Turbo Tax. One of the benefits is after I’m all done doing my taxes for that year, Turbo Tax will ask me if I want them to calculate next year’s estimated taxes.

Say yes. It’s not going to be 100% accurate. In fact, they’ll probably over-estimate what you’ll owe. But, you’ll have some idea of what you need to set aside each month and/or quarter in order to pay your taxes. That’s one of the hardest parts of this whole thing.

Be disciplined.

Pay your estimated taxes each quarter. Don’t spend or draw out every dollar you make. You’ll need to re-invest in your business in order to grow it. So, keep some operating capital in your business account to do just that.

You’ll hear all this cliche advice about “investing in yourself”… and, it’s true. Well, this is how you invest in yourself directly.

Finally, I said I’d tell you how I keep all this simple. Use QuickBooks. No, I’m not being paid to promote them or anything. In fact, I resisted it for years, but as soon as I switched I regretted it. QuickBooks will sincerely make your life so much easier.

It pulls in all your transactions from your bank account. You can, then, set up rules so it automatically categorizes all your transactions (income, expenses, owner draws, etc), it will tell you based on your data what you owe in taxes.

It literally does everything I said to do… for you. It took me about an hour to set up and I could go the rest of the year without looking at it. It’s that simple.

5. Time Management & Productivity

This may be the hardest part. We all say we don’t want a boss breathing down our neck to get our work done. But, for a lot of us, the moment we don’t have that… our productivity plummets. It’s so easy to let a day, then 2 and 3… slip away.

Netflix is calling.

So, let me share with you some things I do to deal with all this:

Exercise to stay motivated

There’s all the health benefits and all that, but for me, exercise helps me to clear my head. I tend to over-think things. And, when I start over-thinking something, I get overwhelmed and stressed out — and, I procrastinate.

For me, that’s the main source of my procrastination and feeling unmotivated.

Over-thinking stuff.

But, when I exercise, it clears all that out of my head. I almost always get done and am more clear and more certain on what I need to do. So, consider using exercise, not just to stay in shape, but as a tool to help you stay focused and clear.

Limit your work hours

And, I’m with you. I fought this for years. I used to tell myself, “This is just how I am.” And, I had zero separation between my work life and my home life. But, as I’ve gotten older and my kids are growing up so fast, I had this urge to spend more time with them.

So, I started creating some separation. And the more I did, the better I felt. That time completely away from work helped me recharge. And, one interesting side effect is I now feel more motivated in the hours I do work.

Because, I know I have a hard limit I’m pushing up against. I can’t just “do it later” because I know I’m going to be on the computer until midnight. I have to get it done now or push it off until tomorrow. So, it creates some real consequences for being unproductive.

And, I’ve become a lot more productive as a result.

No entertainment during work

This has been a big one for me. And, it was hard. But, I used to throw on YouTube or Netflix in a second browser while I worked. And, of course, I ended up spending more time watching them than I did actually getting stuff done.

Eventually, I had to make a change. I was just wasting too many days. So, I have a strict “no entertainment during work hours” policy for myself. The only thing I’m allowed is music. But, if it requires my eyeballs, it’s a no-no.

I know a lot of people will scoff at that. That’s some of the benefit of working from home. But, for me, it was destructive. And, while my old self would get to “watch Netflix at work”, he’d also be “at work” until midnight or later.

Whereas, my new self doesn’t get to watch Netflix at work, but I stop working around 4-5 pm. And, I can watch all the Netflix I want… without having to work while doing it. It’s not for everybody, but it’s been life-changing for me.

Conclusion

So, there you go. Those are the five skills I believe every freelance must have. I know this can be overwhelming, at first, but you don’t need to be perfect at all this right away. In fact, I was terrible at selling myself for a lot of years. Then, I was terrible at delivering. Then, I needed to get my productivity in check. And so on. But, during all that, I was getting clients. So, think of this as a long-term plan and now you know what you need to learn.

By the way, if you’d like to join my community of other freelancers where I take your questions directly and help you through all the little stumbling blocks and confusing parts of freelancing, then consider joining me in my Let’s Talk Freelance course on Skillshare. It’s a unique, Q&A-style course that lets me help you a lot more directly. You can learn more about it here.

Do you want more freelance clients?

I’ll show you what I learned over the last 15 years to grind out (from absolute scratch) a backlog of new clients wanting to hire you. Who your best client prospect are, what services you should be offering them, where to find them and more. Just enter your email address in the box below and let’s get started:

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John Morris

JOHN MORRIS

I’m a 15-year veteran of freelance web development. I’ve worked with bestselling authors and average Joe’s next door. These days, I focus on helping other freelancers build their freelance business and their lifestyles.

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