Be a Bulletproof Freelancer: Three Rules for the First Six Months

11/14/2014 02:14 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Leaving your daily grind to strike out on your own? Great! Freelance work can be one of the most rewarding, lucrative, and fantastic careers ever. But getting past the first six months is, hands down, the hardest part of freelance work.

I started freelancing six months ago, and after months of hard work, it's finally paying off. Clients -- the kind of clients I want -- are calling me, instead of me hustling after clients. I'm getting more work than I can handle, and I'm anticipating raising my rates within the next few months.

How did I do it? Three simple rules. No matter what you're doing, successful freelancers focus on building the infrastructure of their business first, not on making money right away. While it seems counterintuitive, three simple rules can help you to build your business and create the career of your dreams.

1. You must spend money to make money. Freelancing seems like a great gig -- for many who do writing, artistic work, or photography, you probably already have everything you need to do your job. You're all ready to make it rain!

Not so fast. For the first six months of your freelancing career, you will have to make some serious investments in building your career base. This doesn't just mean doing work for free to build your portfolio, but paying to belong to professional organizations, networking groups, and other business services.

Especially if you're new to the entrepreneurial world, paying to take a good workshop or class that teaches you the basics of prospecting, networking, and business development can dramatically increase your earning potential. In six months, I've spent in excess of $2000 for professional memberships, classes, and workshops, and it's been worth every penny. While it might be costly now, paying to get connected to established professionals is an investment in your business, not just an expense.

2. Testimonials are gold. The fastest, surest way to establish your freelancing business is to steadily get referrals and testimonials from your clients. When you agree to take on work for a client, be sure and ask up front about their willingness to give you a testimonial if they are satisfied with your work. Having plenty of testimonials on your LinkedIn profile and website will help to give potential clients confidence in your services.

One great way to do this is to write referrals for yourself, using your client's permission, of course. At the completion of an assignment, ask your client what problem you solved for them, and what was the outcome of your work. Write up a recommendation, and email it to your client. Ask them if they would be willing to post this on your LinkedIn profile, or if you have their permission to post it on your website. Not only have you saved your client the trouble of writing, but you have a sparkling recommendation that makes you a stand-out!

3. Relationships first. The money will follow. During the first few months, you may be feeling the "freelancer panic" -- where am I going to find my next gig? Am I making enough money? Where can I find the right clients? How am I going to pay my bills?

Sure, everyone has to eat. But if you think your business just means making money, you're not going to last long.

Your best gigs are going to come from people who refer you. So how do you get referrals? You must help other people first. Rather than walking around with your hand out, begging for clients, ask others what problems they have. How can you help them? Are you interested in listening to what others do, rather than telling everyone how great you are?

All the advertising dollars, marketing strategies, and slick website designs in the world cannot buy you real life, raving fans. While it is very time consuming to share coffees and lunches with strangers, the relationships you build and the value you give to your professional community is going to be the best investment you can possibly make in your new career.