Mastering the New Freelance Economy

More and more workers are opting to work for themselves, even if it’s just on the side.

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[See And on the Side, I'm an Entrepreneur.]

Protect your day job. Slim warns people against violating their employers' policies that prohibit outside activity like blogging or selling products that could be in competition with the company's products. In some cases, companies can claim ownership of any products employees create while employed full-time. "First, check for any non-compete agreements," she says.

Take advantage of free technology. Twitter, Wordpress, Facebook, and other forms of social media make it easy to build a brand and a business for little or no money. "It's very easy and an almost negligible cost for anybody to put up a basic website where you can sell a product or service," Slim says. In the past, she says, entrepreneurs were limited by their location; now, you can create in Iowa and sell in California, or even throughout the world.

Grow your loyal followers. Today, blogs on Internet marketing often focus on the importance of building one's brand and readership by forming strong relationships with readers and customers. But Gentile says big numbers aren't the only goal. Her website gets about 1,000 visitors a day, which is relatively low compared with some of the big-name blogs, but it's plenty considering how much revenue she brings in from those visitors.

Stop planning and take action. One common mistake for would-be freelancers is taking too long to start selling a service or product. "People have a hard time knowing how to put out a small test of something they can bring into the market and see if it works. Sometimes they're thinking of a huge detailed plan when really they just need to bring one thing out. You want to get it out into the market as soon as you can to test it," says Slim.

Sometimes, says Guillebeau, people fear getting started because they worry about being rejected by the marketplace. He met one aspiring photographer who delayed setting up his website to sell prints because he worried no one would like them. When he finally launched his site, he made a sale within two weeks, and that helped affirm he was on the right path.

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Stay optimistic. "There's no such thing as overnight success, but if you start out with a lack of optimism, you're doomed," says Johnson. That's why believing a entrepreneurial project will be a success is so essential—you have to keep your energy up to get through the hurdles.

Enjoy the rewards of your labor. About a year ago, Ralph Callaway, 27, decided to leave his IT services job in San Francisco, which involved helping companies customize databases and sales data, after realizing freelancing would allow him to also pursue his travel goals and have more control over his schedule. He has since figured out how to juggle multiple clients, work without the comfort of water-cooler talk, and find new clients on his own. In exchange for overcoming those challenges, he gets to decide how much—or how little—he works each week, and he now earns more than he did as a full-time employee. Says Callaway: "I love what I do and I get to do it in a different way every day."