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 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.
Look out for Part 2!
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.
Still looking for freelance project management specific advice? Are you a pro freelance digital project manager already? Stay tuned for part 2 of the ultimate guide to freelance project management, where we cover juggling multiple agency clients, work/life balance, career advancement, and more!