By Gemma Church, Nixon Williams

Whether you're stuck in an uninspiring job, have a brilliant business idea or are fresh out of university, most people will sooner or later debate whether the freelance life is for them. The independence of going freelance may provide a powerful lure, with varied work, flexible working hours and the chance to be your own boss — but is the grass actually greener on the freelance side of the fence?

Budgets, chasing payments, forecasting, tax returns, invoices, accounting and networking are elements that most people do not take into account when considering freelance work. But with professional freedom, expanding horizons and the potential for a better work-life balance, a move into freelance work could be a great option for anyone prepared to take the plunge.

We've spoken to experienced freelancers who have been there, done that, dodged the pitfalls, survived the cash flow drought and become so successful, they actually have to turn work down. So read on for their advice, and ours, with these 10 steps towards a fruitful freelance existence...

1. Brand yourself

Finding your way as a freelancer can be tricky and building a brand around your work and ethos is the best place to start. This first step can be the most difficult as it means you will have to answer several tricky questions about your business objectives and requirements to develop your brand fully.

There are many steps along this road but the key points to consider are defining your business goals and defining your target audience. Once these have been fully developed, you can move onto the aesthetics of your brand, such as its logo, website, and so on, as well as the ways you are going to target potential clients and expand in the future. Once you have a clear idea of your brand, you can start to target clients and build your business from there - the sky's the limit!

2. Create an online portfolio

Every freelancer needs an online portfolio to showcase their talents and skill set to potential clients. Building a portfolio is easy — the hard part is making it good because a killer portfolio will transform visitors into clients.

An online portfolio will be personal to your business and could be in the form of a blog, website or more dedicated solution tailored to your business. There are plenty of clever tools to help you build an online portfolio, Carbonmade is a good place to start. Many more seasoned freelancers choose to employ a dedicated marketing team to improve their brand and its reach.

3. Make contacts

Getting yourself noticed is one of the most important tasks for a new freelancer. Draw on personal contacts and sign up to all the usual social media suspects to get your portfolio noticed, participate in the wider community and research the right people to link up with. Well researched speculative emails can still bear fruit with potential clients, but there is no real substitute for getting out and about and attending as many events as possible.

"I'm always fascinated to find out about people and their work, and I rarely even think about 'selling' them mine. If I get along well with someone I meet and there's a fit work-wise, we'll usually end up working together long-term," says Lucy Goodchild van Hilten, a freelance writer, trainer and editor at [nur=http://www.telllucy.com]Tell Lucy[/nurl].

4. Manage your time

All freelancers manage their time differently. Whether you prefer a notepad and pen or a time tracking piece of software, it is important to keep on top of your timekeeping for invoicing and project management.

"As a freelancer, it is vital not to miss a deadline as your reputation hangs on your ability to deliver exceptional results on time," says freelance writer Gemma Church. "It is not just about delivering results either, timekeeping on a project by project basis can highlight how your day is spent, so you can identify time-consuming work and budget accordingly," she adds.

Whatever approach you favour, set a clear list of achievable tasks each day and prioritise on a daily basis as requirements and deadlines can move. Wendy Haywood, founder at Wendy Haywood Editorial Services says: "Being organised is absolutely crucial. When I have a bit of down-time I research ways to be more efficient and create checklists for repeat clients to help everything run more smoothly when I am busy."

5. Manage your finances

Freelance life can be one of feast or famine. Make sure you build up adequate savings to fall back on if your cash flow does dry up and make sure you understand the business basics of chasing payments and invoicing.

Balancing the books can be a tricky business as understanding legal and financial requirements can mean that you spend more time working on a financial spreadsheet than doing the work you enjoy. Appointing an accountant with experience in the freelance market to help you navigate through the financial details can ease this burden — and ensure that you do not miss any important financial milestones.

It's also something other freelancers would recommend, as Lucy adds: "The thing about freelancing for me is that I spend every day doing what I love. That means the work itself can take over pretty easily, making me forget to do things like track my time, send invoices and check that I've been paid. My accountant is an indispensable part of my business: he keeps me on track and does all the things I don’t have the time (or the skill!) to do."

Jon Cage, founder of Hyperlight Technology, agrees: "If you can afford one, get an accountant to sort your books out. Keep records of everything you buy and sell and they should be able to take care of the details for you."

6. Keep on top of your paperwork

When it comes to paperwork, HM Revenue & Customs lays down requirements for sole traders to ensure they can submit a valid tax return for each financial year. Tax returns are not as scary as they sound and are usually pretty simple to complete — as long as you keep on top of your paperwork. If you do decide to work through a limited company, you will also need to submit your annual company accounts, though a good accountant will be able to take care of this for you.

Keeping invoices, supplier bills, bank statements, receipts from payments that you may not have an invoice for, and other such documents safe and organised (so that they are easy to find should the tax man come calling) is a vital part of freelance work.

7. Set your prices

Setting a fair price is one of the most difficult parts when freelancing. When you start out, you will probably charge either too much or, more likely, too little. Pitching the perfect price is something that will come with time as many clients have a set budget for projects, taking price negotiations out of the equation and giving you a better idea of the going rate for your services.

8. Learn when to say ‘no’

If you take too much work on, the quality of your work could suffer, so it’s important to turn down work if you are feeling swamped. It’s also important to have a clear idea of the sort of work you want to do and try to stick to this wherever possible so you build on your area of expertise and build more contacts in your chosen field.

9. Find your perfect work place

Whether it’s the garden shed, kitchen table or a rented office, finding the perfect place of work will boost your productivity as a freelancer. It all comes down to individual tastes and what works best for you.

Although most freelancers often start off using their home as a business base, it can be a good idea to rent an office and share the space with other freelancers to expand your network of contacts and help you better manage your time.

10. Find a trusted circle of freelancers

Working solo as a freelancer can, at times, be a lonely business, so make sure you network with fellow freelancers and build a trusted circle of contacts.

These contacts can help you as you launch and grow your business by offering ideas and advice, referring prospective business, problem solving, and offering encouragement. And, if your workload becomes unmanageable, you can always use your trusted fellow freelancers to help with or take over the work — which works both ways as they will hopefully return the favour when you need a little more work.

But is freelancing worth the risk? As long as you have the right attitude, an aptitude for hard work and the ability to deliver, it can be a great career choice, as Jon so succinctly puts it: "If you can get through all of these points, being in charge of your own destiny can be a very rewarding, albeit often terrifying, experience!"