When I first started thinking about freelancing as a digital project manager, I searched online for every freelancing guide I could find. Most guides highlighted the importance of proper financial management, legal considerations, and client management—but I was looking for more.
Finding the answers to my basic freelance start-up questions only created more questions. Sure, it’s great to know that I need to buy my own software, track my expenses, and market myself. But how would I do that specifically? How do others do it? And what advice is there specifically for a freelance digital 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.
Freelance project management involves managing projects for clients of your choosing, on your own. In this scenario, you’re not working for an established company or agency—you’re working for yourself.
This may mean that you’re working part-time or outside of the traditional 9-5. You may also be managing multiple projects at once, for different clients, or else managing only select aspects of a project, like project initiation.
You wouldn’t be reading this article if freelance project management didn’t sound appealing. Becoming a freelance project manager offers several benefits.
1. More Flexible Working Hours
Many people decide to pursue freelance project management because it offers an opportunity to set your own schedule and hours. When you’re on staff, you’re often expected to be available during core working hours. When you’re freelancing, it’s up to you to work with your clients to set expectations. This may give you more flexibility to choose what works for you.
2. Increased Opportunity for Creative Freedom
Freelancing also offers more flexibility in terms of the clients you choose to work with and/or the projects you are working on. When you’re on staff, you typically don’t have the opportunity to pass on projects that are not ethically or creatively appealing to you.
When you’re working for yourself, you choose who to work with. And, once you’ve landed an assignment, the only creative constraint is your client’s signoff. Say goodbye to bureaucratic review processes or your company’s hopelessly outdated design standards.
Working for multiple clients at a time also increases the variety of assignments you take on.
According to a survey that we issued in 2020, freelance project manager rates in the U.S. range from $50-$1,100 a day, depending on skill set and years of experience. The average daily rate is $444 per day.
Check out our salary guide for more information on UK and Canadian rates.
Becoming a freelance project management professional requires a blend of good old fashioned project management skills, plus the ability to successfully run your own business. Skills include:
Coordination, orchestration, and communication skills
Clients want a project manager that is capable of aligning and holding disparate stakeholder groups accountable to achieve a common goal
Budget and time management
Project managers must ensure that clients receive desired deliverables on time and within budget
project managers should be capable of designing, simplifying, and potentially automating workflows to improve how teams do business (and optimize how they run their own business!)
It’s important to make sure your finances are in order and you understand the legal considerations involved before embarking on a freelance assignment.
1. Save Up: Create a Reasonable Safety Net & Emergency Fund
Prepare an Excel spreadsheet and add up any recurring home/utility/service bills, loan payments, grocery costs, retirement fund contributions, incidentals, and any other “regular” expenses. Set aside enough money to cover these expenses for at least 3-6 months.
2. Understand the Additional Costs of Freelancing
Consider health and other insurance costs, research software purchases and mobile apps you’ll need, home office expenses, and any additional costs you may incur weekly, monthly, or yearly as you start working on your own.
3. Get Advice on Tracking Expenses, Costs, and Income
Find and meet with an experienced accountant or tax professional to obtain the most up-to-date understanding of what you need to track so that you’re always on point with your tax game as a future business owner.
An initial conversation can also potentially jumpstart a longer-term relationship with someone who can help you with your business’s financial decisions as your freelancing career grows.
4. Begin Preparing Legal Documentation
As you enter into client relationships, you’ll likely need to start preparing legally binding contracts and other documentation. To get started, ask other freelancers or online consultants or carefully review and vet free legal documents online.
Get familiar with typical terms in independent contractor documents and learn what you need to look out for as you’re signing onto 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. Prepare Your Home Office Space
This part is fun! Do you have space identified for a home office? What kind of equipment do you need? Where do you do your best work? 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!)
Breaking into freelance project management requires some introspection to find your niche, followed by pavement pounding to expand your client base.
1. Figure Out Your Freelance Project Management 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 an understanding of what you offer 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.
Define your project skills and experiences
Reflect on past projects you’ve managed. What did you do well? In which areas did your team excel under your leadership? What are the best clients you’ve worked with as a project manager?
Then, consider the commonalities across these projects. Were there similar deliverables or challenges (ex. tight timelines, small budget, many stakeholders)? What types of projects have you worked on (ex. software development)? What about your market or industry expertise?
Developing an understanding of your project management skills and personal project history will help inform work you might be qualified to perform as a freelancer.
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, especially when you have limited insights into the project situation.
Since project management can vary so much based on context, it can be helpful to create a job description for yourself to summarize the types of services you can provide. Update and maintain your job description with a list 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 your years of experience with particular industries, projects, and clients along with your freelance job description to attract the types of clients that would be most likely to hire a freelance project manager.
Not every experience may directly translate 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 available to guide your outreach choices.
2. Cultivate Relationships To Expand Your Potential Client Base
The ability to network is an essential component of a successful freelance project manager. It’s the primary way to find freelance project manager jobs. Sadly, there is 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: contact friends, former colleagues, and any business owners that you know to tell them 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 freelancing if you don’t tell them—don’t be obnoxious about it, but also recognize that word of mouth is powerful.
Then, start determining how you might advertise to the potential markets you identified in the previous step. Do some research to understand where these organizations naturally make connections. For example, is this industry active on social media? Do they thrive on written guides, content, and white papers?
Is there a company that you could connect with via a local meetup or chamber of commerce? Don’t be afraid to ask someone you know for an introduction to a company you’d like to work with, but don’t be pushy about it.
3. Search For Freelance Project Management Gigs
When all else fails, good ol’ job searching doesn’t hurt. Scour job boards like LinkedIn, search local ads on your chamber of commerce’s website, seek out freelance-specific gig sites, and even check Craigslist now and again. Search for positions where not many other freelance project managers might be looking, and you could end up finding your next opportunity.
Agency work, multiple clients, and attempting to have a personal life can start to become 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. This means saying no to projects that won’t appropriately consume your time and skills. It also means understanding the value you bring to justify a rate increase or new freelance project management contract.
2. Be Clear About Your Intentions and Set 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 skills are essential for freelance project management, and as a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure you’re constantly communicating project status and impacts.
You’ll also want to update your clients on your schedule and availability, project roles, goals, and expectations for project team members and stakeholders.
3. Plan for Vacations, Life Changes, and (Unexpected) Time Off
Document, document, document. Leave a trail for the work that you’re doing that is accessible to your project team, stakeholders, and 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, transparency is critical to preserving your reputation. You’ll thank yourself at crunch time before a vacation, or when sudden travel comes up: most of your prep work will already be done and documented, making it easy to arrange (and communicate!) your time off.
4. Apply Project Management Principles to Your Freelance Life
Be realistic in your expectations for what you can get done within certain constraints (whether those are time, skills, or something else). Calculate the value of your time, the cost of what you’re doing for each client, and see if these numbers translate to profitability. If you take on more than you can handle, you won’t provide quality work—likely damaging your reputation.
Limit “scope creep” in your own contracts by setting boundaries for yourself and your clients and knowing when to ask for a new contract or additional clarification about your role.
Once you’ve established yourself as a freelance project manager, what’s the next step? How do you ensure your career progresses and you continue to grow?
1. Seek New or Additional Freelance Project Management Work
Reconsider your job description and skills/project list. Can you add anything new? 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 a senior project manager, perhaps it’s time to try consulting, training, running a workshop, speaking at conferences, or partnering with freelance colleagues. How can others benefit from your knowledge? Is it something you can charge for?
2. Raise Your Rates
Let’s be real: most of the time we raise our rates after realizing we’ve been vastly undercharging. Unfortunately, you (usually) can’t spring a huge rate change on your clients out of nowhere. Fortunately, it is reasonable to increase your rates by a small percentage either annually or semi-annually, as long as you’re expanding your knowledge and skills.
Give your clients at least a few months’ notice of an impending rate change, highlighting the specific skills or experience you’ve acquired and how that adds value. End the message with an offer to discuss further, if needed. If you’re unable to raise your rates on existing contracts, approach each new client contract with a plan to charge slightly more than last time so you can get yourself where you need to be.
TLDR: raise your rates, but do it carefully.
3. Market Yourself in New Ways
Evaluate what you’ve been doing to gain new clients. What has or hasn’t worked for you? Do you have a website or produce content? Do you network locally, in online communities, or at professional events?
Perhaps starting a blog, podcast, or email marketing course might appeal to your potential client audience to promote awareness of your work as an experienced project manager. Or, maybe getting more involved in the local community would be beneficial to your business.
Marketing yourself is one of the best ways to increase demand and thus how much you can charge for your services.
4. Continue Your Professional Development as a Project Manager
Even though freelancers lack access to the corporate financial or educational backing of full-time employees, they still have lots of options for continuing education. Take advantage of conferences and meetups specific to project management, or the industry you work in to meet people and cultivate your craft.
While freelance project management offers increased flexibility, it also presents challenges. These challenges may include:
1. Lack of stable income
Unlike in a full-time gig where you get paid regardless of whether business is fast or slow, ebbs and flows in freelance work translate to peaks and valleys in your income. You’ll need to plan accordingly.
2. Potential for longer working hours
Freelance project managers must spend time completing existing client work, while also seeking out new business. While you may be able to set your own working hours, setting boundaries is critical to avoid burnout.
3. Potentially high costs of doing business
In the United States, contract work does not offer health insurance or other benefits, so you’ll have to purchase benefits separately if you don’t have the option of being a dependent on someone else’s policy. Doing so can be costly, so you’ll need to budget accordingly for these expenses.
Freelance project managers can benefit from project management software to make it easier to manage your project portfolio, if you choose something with the right functionalities. For example, you can use project management software to:
- Manage project timelines, including task management and execution
- Track hours and expenses
- Monitor and mitigate risks.
You also might consider this article for information about the best remote project management software to meet your project needs.
What Do You Think?
Do you have more to add to the conversation? Share with us in the comments or over email and let us know—we’d love to address it!
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