The truth is its a combination of things.
Whether or not you make the jump to freelance is something you need to weigh heavily, and that could be an entire post in and of itself-- but I'll assume you've jumped the fence and now you're working from the comfort of your home while all your former co-workers are sitting in traffic everyday.
Veronica made some brilliant points about freelancing that we've both talked about over the years. She puts it a lot nicer than I do-- and I apologize for that. I am a person who likes to be talked to directly-- don't beat around the bushes-- and that's how I deliver advice too.
1. BE YOUR OWN BOSS
And that means holding yourself to committments and a legit work schedule. Working from home doesn't mean more hours of online shopping or poking your friends on Facebook-- it means setting working hours for yourself and sticking with them. You need to have the discipline to work.
It's nice that I can go and take a nap, or run to the store or do whatever I want in the middle of the day, but I hold myself to working at minimum eight hours a day. So if I take three hours off to look at sport jackets as Jos A Bank that means I'm getting back to work for those three hours when I get back.
Don't be so easy on yourself that work doesn't get done when you promise it.
2. OVER-DELIVER and UNDER PROMISE
Don't fall prey to trying so hard to impress your client that you give them an unrealistic deadline. Give solid thought to what they are looking for and realistically calculate when you can have it for them-- THEN ADD A DAY-- that way if you finish on your original schedule they get it a day early-- and if you've underestimated it you have bought yourself another day.
You will get more work from word of mouth than ANY advertising could buy. I don't advertise anywhere and 90% of all my work comes from either repeat customers or referred customers.
3. LEARN HOW TO SAY 'NO'.
Pass if a project isn't right for you, or if you get a bad read on the client. If your negotiating contact has been stressful just imagine what its going to be like when you've got a deadline.
I had a person contact me once saying they loved my work and they wanted to do a line of toys for girls and that I would be perfect for the design work. They were offering a fair amount of money but I knew instantly this was not a match and recommended someone else.
Getting on a project that isn't right for you just for the money means you have to turn down the next project that comes along and that one might have been perfect.
4. NETWORK BOTH PHYSICALLY AND ONLINE
This past weekend I attended two gallery openings and one cocktail party. Both to support the artists, see the work but to also get my face back in front of people I've worked with in the past-- and that pays off.
I also try to send out Christmas cards to my clients as well-- thanking them for another year of business, this goes a long way towards keeping you at the top of the rolodex.
Online-- I used LinkedIn and I've gotten so much work from it I'm confounded when others tell me they get little or nothing from it.
LinkedIN is the professional version of Facebook-- there's no nonsense on there. There are no snowballs to throw, Farmstand games to play, seldom do people update their visits to the dentist, instead its about professionals by professionals. Mine is linked to my TWITTER account-- so whatever I write there for an update appears on Twitter-- I can't tell you the last time I've been on Twitter. I'm not saying its a black hole (like Facebook is-- and I don't have a FB account) but it becomes a distraction when I've logged on in the past.
For those that LinkedIN doesn't produce results-- how much work are you putting into it? Are your posts professional or are you writing things you'd find better suited to FB or Twitter? Is your picture professional? Do you use your own name? Is your resume updated?
5. PRODUCE WORK WHEN THERE IS NONE COMING IN
Between assignments keep working-- keep building your portfolio with personal projects. Do art that made you want to be an artist. You need this to cleanse your pallet, otherwise you'll get stale. Open a BIG CARTEL store and sell copies of these projects as prints-- and change it up.
6. CREATE A PROFESSIONAL LOOKING SITE or BLOG
I know my blog is a mess-- it's too busy but you aren't me. I already have clients. A website is great-- something that just summarizes you, gives some background and then shows some work-- which can be a simple link to a portfolio site like COROFLOT.
A BLOG is critical because you can update it and that creates traffic. It also raises your Google results. Neither your site or your blog should be built and then left to die, which is what happens if you don't update it. Your portfolio, your website and your blog are living things. Neglecting them is akin to not feeding a pet or a plant.
Please don't give me that crap that you are too busy-- my blog updates 365 days a year thanks to the scheduling feature of Blogger, and I guarantee I am busier than you are so pull up your socks and get it done.
7. BE A PROFESSIONAL
A professional, by definition-- gets paid. DON'T work for FREE. Can I make that any clearer? Exposure as payment is baloney. Payment by getting copies of a CD from a local band is worthless. Even friends and family-- you can't pay the bills with thank you's, and you wouldn't ask your friend the plumber to work for free so don't let them do it to you.
If it's personal work- if it benefits YOU, if it's for charity and you support the organization then by all means go for it-- but it should be less than 20% of your total workload otherwise you'll be needing an application from Wendy's and learning how to work the fry machine.
8. THOU SHALL NOT SPEAK ILL OF ANOTHER
Karma rules the freelancer universe.
Don't steal jobs. Don't badmouth others. Don't gossip or think ill of your competition. I've recommended many people whose work I admire and who I like. It's paid off in spades for me. If I don't like someone I give them no thought and I don't recommend them.
9. SHARE YOUR KNOWLEDGE
Will Eisner once told me your only obligation to the world of art is to teach what you know to the people who are coming up. Teaching is not for everyone, but that doesn't mean you can't offer advice or a helping hand to someone traveling in the path you've walked.
10. BE AWARE OF YOUR WEB PRESENCE
A prospective client is likely to google your name to see what they can learn about you. You should be doing that too. I had a very talented friend lose out on a big job because they found a Facebook photo of them at a party looking a little under the weather with some really questionable language (not even written by them but by a "friend").
Is this fair? Of course not-- but if someone doesn't know you they are going to judge you based on the information they have. Simple as that.
Had a former student with several creative face piercings tell me he could not understand why he was constantly getting turned down for jobs. I suggested he remove the piercings just for the face to face interview and whenever he'd be working with the client, and that he could put them back in on his own time.
His initial response was "If they can't accept who I am then that's their loss."
Maybe so, but you're the one not getting the jobs. Eventually he tried my suggestion and, you guessed it, it worked on the first try.
Face tattoos are harder to hide, and that is one reason I advocate you not get them. In several cases you're dealing with business people-- not creatives-- and they may be hesitant to hand hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone who looks like they should be loading cannonballs on a pirate ship.