When I first started thinking about freelancing as a digital project manager, I searched online for every freelancing guide I could find. I learned the importance principles of financial management, legal documents, and managing clients—but I was always looking for more.
I felt that every guide out there was just a little too vague and not quite tailored for me, a soon-to-be freelancing digital project manager. After finding the answers to my basic freelance start-up questions, I realized I had created even more questions for myself. Sure, it’s great to know that I need to buy my own software, track my expenses, or market myself. But how would I do that specifically? How do others do it? And what advice is there specifically for a freelance project manager?
That’s where this guide comes in: the ultimate guide to getting started in freelance project management as a digital project manager. Instead of wasting time scouring the internet for the puzzle pieces of vague, non-industry specific advice, keep reading so that you can get started the right way as a freelance digital project manager.
Before you quit your full-time project manager gig, to go freelancing project management, do some practical preparation
First, it’s important to make sure your finances are in order and you understand the importance of specific legal and business entities before embarking into full-blown freelance work.
1. Save up so that you have a reasonable safety net and emergency fund available
Get yourself to a spreadsheet and add up any recurring home/utility/service bills, loan payments, grocery costs, retirement fund contributions, incidentals, and any other “regular” expenses. Put aside enough money to at least cover these expenses for 3-6 months.
2. Understand additional costs to freelancing
Look at health and other insurance costs, research software purchases and app services you’ll need for your work, home office needs, and audit any other expenses you’ll be be tacking on weekly/monthly/yearly as you start working on your own.
3. Meet with a finance or tax professional to get the best advice in tracking expenses, costs, and income for tax time
Find (via word of mouth or internet searching) and meet with an experienced accountant or tax professional so that you can get the best, most updated understanding of what you need to track so that you’re always on point with your tax game as a future business owner. Pro tip: often, the first meeting with an accountant or finance professional a non-billable consultation/meet and greet. This is a great way to gain access to knowledge that will help you get started the right way in your business, as well as potentially start a longer-term relationship with someone who can help you with your business’s financial decisions as your freelancing career grows.
4. Start working on legal documentation
Ask other freelancers, online consultants, or review free legal documents online with careful searching/vetting to start preparing legally binding contracts and any other documents you might need as you enter into client relationships. Get familiar with typical terms in independent contractor documents and learn what you need to look out for as you’re signing into others. Additionally, figure out if you’ll be filing for a business entity or license within your state/country—plan carefully, because this will affect how you deal with your taxes and finances.
5. Prep your home office space
This part is fun! If you don’t already have a place carved out with a desk and space to work in your home or apartment, start thinking about what this could look like (and what you have room for). What kind of equipment and space do you need to do your work? Where do you do your best work? Alternately, if your city has coworking spaces, these make a great supplement or alternative to working from home (but add another recurring cost to your expense spreadsheet!).
Figure out your freelance project management project niche
How you’ll think about and present yourself as a marketable project manager is the key to building client relationships. Clear, concise descriptions and understanding of what it is you do well and provide a service will benefit every conversation you have with potential customers—with the obvious benefit of building a foundation for your own career progression as a freelancer.
1. Define your project skills and experiences
Think back on past projects you’ve managed and what you did well, what your team excelled at under your leadership, and the best clients you’ve worked with as a project manager. Did any of those projects have things in common? Deliverables, skills, particular challenges (tight deadlines, small budget, many stakeholders), or other notable identifiers? Consider the types of projects you’ve worked on (design, development, marketing, multimedia), the markets you’ve had experience in, and any other experience points that you felt were just right for your skills and comfort level. Create an understanding for yourself of your own personal project history to start giving context to work you might want to do as a freelancer.
2. Create a job description (or several!) for yourself
Many people don’t understand how a project manager—let alone a freelance project manager—might benefit their project or organization. Sometimes it can be hard to answer the question of “what can you do for me” on the spot with less-than-ideal insight into a project situation. This is where having a job description for yourself can help—it takes the place of a one-size-fits-all list of services or scope of work (since project management can vary so much based on context). This job description can be for your eyes only, but keep it updated with a description of your skills, experiences, case studies, and examples of situations you’ve worked through as a project manager so that it’s always fresh in your mind.
Once you have a solid foundation for your own skillset and marketability, apply that to future business relationships. Use all of your past experiences with particular industries, types of projects, and types of clients as well as your freelance job description to detail to yourself the types of clients that would be most likely to hire a freelance project manager. All of your experience might not translate directly to types of clients that might hire you—but be creative and look for similarities between projects you’ve worked on, projects you want to work on, and the type of work that you specialize in as a project manager. Have a list of target markets ready to go so that you always have this to guide your outreach choices.
3. Reach out to start relationships
This is where the meat of the work rests. There is, sadly, no perfect formula to finding freelance clients—but there are certainly resources out there that come close! It’s helpful to start from a place of existing relationships: reach out to friends, former coworkers, and any business owners that you know and have a good relationship with to let them know you’re embarking on a solo gig and would love any references or advice they can send your way.
No one will know you’re doing this if you don’t reach out to let them know—don’t be obnoxious about it, but also recognize that word of mouth is powerful. Start determining how you might market to the potential markets identified in the previous step. Are they active on social media? Does that industry thrive off of written guides, content, and white papers? Is there a company locally that you might be able to connect with via local meetup or chamber of commerce? Do some research to understand where these organizations naturally make connections. There are endless resources out there for content marketing help, email campaign lead generation, getting involved in local communities, and more. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask someone you know for an introduction to someone attached to a company you’d like to work with, but never be pushy about it.
When all else fails, good ol’ job searching never hurts. Scour job boards for part-time or contract gigs, search local ads on your chamber of commerce’s website, seek out freelance-specific gig sites, even check Craigslist now and again. Put in some footwork to search for positions where not many other freelance project managers might be looking locally, and you could end up finding something that works well for you.
How To Juggle Agencies, Clients, And Maintain A Work/Life Balance As A Freelance Project Manager
Agency work, multiple clients, and attempting to have a life in between it all can start to be overwhelming. It’s better to anticipate your limits than to learn the hard way—here’s how:
1. Set boundaries around your work and your clients:
As a contractor, you are in the unique position of protecting your time, your skills, and limiting anything you won’t or can’t commit to. Even though you need to earn enough money with each job you do to cover your expenses (and hopefully make a profit!), you also are in charge of delivering your terms to your clients via contract language, project scope, or setting and reinforcing expectations during project interactions.
Understanding your skills and services as a freelance project manager should drive how you set boundaries around your work and time as a project manager. You can use this idea of scope as a freelancer to help you say no to projects that won’t appropriately consume your time and skills—or to help you justify a rate raise or new freelance project management contract when it’s something you want to work on but beyond your current contract or available time limits. Remember that even though clients are our livelihood, we also need to set our own rules—we’re our own experts.
2. Always be clear about your intentions and setting expectations:
Communicate your intentions and set expectations as to your role on a project, your team’s role, what you expect from the team, and any client interactions. Communication is one of the most important parts of freelance project management, and as a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure you’re constantly communicating your status if it’ll impact a project, as well as properly setting expectations for your role as a contractor.You have a bit more freedom as a contractor to state your intentions as you’re hired onto a project. Take advantage of that by being the most communicative you can be regarding your schedule (for the project and for any time off that might impact a project), your availability, project roles, goals, and expectations regarding team members and stakeholders on projects.
3. Plan for vacations, life changes, and (unexpected) time off accordingly:
Document, document, document. Leave a trail for all of the work that you’re doing in an accessible way to your project team, stakeholders, or client contacts. Live your freelancing life by the “hit by a bus” principle: if anything were to happen to your availability, it should be clear where you’ve left off with work and how this can be picked back up by someone else involved in the project. While this may seem counterintuitive to the idea that you are a unique freelancer and that’s why you’ve been hired, it’s important as a freelance project manager to work transparently with your team.
Project management is all about facilitation and communication, and this can’t be done in a vacuum. With all of the documentation you’re doing, you’ll thank yourself when that crunch time comes just before a vacation, or sudden long-distance travel comes up: most of your prep work will already be done and documented, and all you’ll need to do is arrange (and communicate!) your time off.
4. Apply project management principles to your freelance life:
In the end, be realistic in your expectations for what you can get done within certain constraints (whether those are time, skills, or something else). Figure out the value of your time, the cost of what you’re doing for each client, and if these numbers work out for your own profitability. Understand that if you take on more than you can handle, you won’t be providing quality work—and will likely damage your reputation as a freelancer.
Limit “scope creep” in your own contracts and positions by setting boundaries for yourself and your clients, and knowing when to ask for a new project contract or more clarification as to your role on a project. Be a project manager in your own freelance life and reap the benefits for yourself, as well as for your clients.
Leveling Up As A Freelance Project Manager
Once it’s all working as a freelance project manager, what’s the next step? How do you ensure your career progresses and helps you continue to grow?
1. Seek out new or additional freelance project management work:
Reconsider your job description and skills/project list that you created in Part 1 of our series. Can you add anything new to this list? Are there any additional types of projects you’d like to try? Can you expand your potential market for clients and projects? Run through the initial start-up phases of freelance project management again, and see if you need to revamp any of your client marketing approaches or focuses.
If you’re feeling more senior in your freelance role, perhaps it’s time to try consulting, training, running a workshop, speaking at conferences, or partnering with freelance colleagues. Consider what you feel comfortable doing to use your advanced knowledge of your craft to further your own career. How can others benefit from your knowledge? Is it something you can charge for?
2. Raise your rates:
The time comes for all of us to consider raising our rates with clients—let’s be real: most of the time this happens because we suddenly realize we’ve been vastly undercharging for our time and skill. The bad news is, you (usually) can’t spring a huge rate change on your clients out of nowhere. The good news is that a regularly scheduled annual or semi-annual rate increase by a small percentage is normal, as long as you’re continually expanding your knowledge and skillset as well.
Give your clients at least a few months’ notice and send out correspondence regarding your rate change: let them know that you’ve expanded your skills and are thus more valuable in specific-to-them ways, and end the message with an opening to discuss further if needed. If this is not an option, go into each new client contract knowing you can charge just a bit more than last time—and get yourself where you need to be!
3. Market yourself in new ways:
Look at what you’ve been doing to gain new clients. What has or hasn’t worked for you? Do you currently have a website, or write content? Do you network locally, or in online communities, or at professional events?
Think about what you’ve been doing and compare that to other options available to you. Perhaps starting a blog, podcast, or email marketing course might appeal to your potential client audience to help gain more awareness of your work. Or, maybe getting more involved in the local community in your town or city would be beneficial to your business. Think about what you can start doing to expand your marketing efforts if you’ve already got the basics working for you.
4. Continue your professional development as a project manager:
You’ll need to be a bit more proactive in professional development than as a full-time employee since you don’t have a full company backing you financially or educationally. But the exciting thing is that you have a lot of access to continuing education as a freelancer. Conferences and meetups specific to project management, the industry you work in, or specific to freelancing are all great places to meet people and learn more about your craft. There are conferences for virtually any industry/topic, and many come with online communities that you can continue to be a part of after the event.
Additionally, you have access to all sort of business owners with the clients and other freelancers you might work with regularly. A former client and business owner I worked with has given me some of the best business advice I’ve ever received over the years. One of my freelancing colleagues is a business partner of mine now, and countless other contacts I’ve had through the years have been willing to give me advice at one time or another when I had a business-specific question. This sort of network is gained only through freelance experience and outreach, and something you’ll be constantly exposed to as you work as a freelance project manager.
Ultimately, freelance digital project management resources are still new and few and far between—but we want to keep the conversation going.
What do you think?
Do you have more questions, thoughts, or anything to add to the conversation? Share with us in the comments or over email and let us know—we’d love to address it!
Make sure to check out our series of Live Mentorship sessions with Patrice Embry, where she deep dives into all things freelancing (you'll need to be a member to access these)