Starting a career in freelancing is quite possibly the fastest route to financial and physical freedom, in that you get to work when you want, from where you want and for how much you want to charge (based on your skills/work ethic).
You may have considered freelancing before, but dismissed the idea, because you feel that you lack a skill you could take to the marketplace.
But, as the quote above illustrates, hard work is just as important to be successful. If you already have a skill you could offer as a freelancer, that’s great. But if you don’t, it’s possible to develop a new skill, and quickly land work as a freelancer.
How to Start Freelancing
The market for freelancers is worldwide, so there are always thousands of opportunities available to you. In fact, freelancing can provide you with better long-term security, as the internet lets you work for the world, not just your local jobs market.
This article will show you how to get yourself organised as a work-at-home freelancer, and show you the methods you can use to land well-paid freelance work.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, let’s take a second to cover how you should prepare your mindset to be a freelancer.
Mindset, Discipline, and Routine.
When you start freelancing, you will be your own boss, which is both good and bad. You may think ‘great, I can work in my pyjamas!’ But, if you lounge around in your pyjamas waiting for inspiration before you start to work, you are unlikely to achieve long term success. Freelancing requires discipline.
Developing a routine that defines your working hours and your non-working hours helps with your productivity. Your working hours might be in the evening when you are at your most productive, or at a time to work around other commitments. You are your own boss, and you get to make the rules.
So, set yourself up for success by defining a working routine. Get up, get dressed, make a coffee, and crack on.
Create Your Own Work Space
If you have space, create yourself a working area away from everybody else. Having your own space with the tools of your trade set out enables you to slip quickly into your work routine.
Another helpful mindset practice is to create goals for your freelance business. Without goals, it’s difficult to define success. You could choose an income goal, a number of clients goal, or even a quality of work goal.
Set a stretch goal when you start, then break it down into milestones to help increase your motivation as you go along.
So, now you have your mindset right and your workspace organised – what exactly is the freelance work you’ll do?
Defining your skills and choosing your freelance specialism.
You may already have a skill from previous employment that easily transitions to the freelance marketplace, and have established contacts in your market for people who can hire you. In this respect, you have a head start in freelancing, and nothing should stop you from succeeding.
If you don’t have an obvious entry point, set aside an hour or two to brainstorm your skills or see my posts – What Business Are You In? & – Your Business Goals to help you get clear both on what you enjoy and what you can do.
You will have amassed more capabilities than you might think. From an early age through play and education, we learn the soft skills of teamwork, negotiation and time management.
If you have also previously done general office work, then you have all the skills required to start freelancing in the role of a Virtual Assistant. A Virtual Assistant is like an electronic Man Friday. They help people with a wide variety of tasks, like managing email, booking appointments, and performing basic research.
If the idea of being a virtual assistant long term doesn’t inspire you, you might still work as one while you learn a new skill. Some of the freelancing in-demand skills today are content writing, graphic design, and web development. Educational sites like SkillShare, Udemy, and even YouTube have courses which are cheap (or free) that can help you become competent in an in well-paid field of work.
Don’t feel forced into starting freelancing in a field that you have experience in either. You can now learn skills that would previously have meant attending college, or getting on-the-job training. The internet can be your University and provides excellent opportunities to those prepared to put in the work and persevere.
Getting started as a freelancer is an exciting opportunity to develop new skills while getting paid to learn!
What do YOU want to be?
To make it as a freelancer, all you need is a portfolio of work that proves what you can do.
How do you put a portfolio together? That’s next.
Create a Freelancing Portfolio
Portfolio, from the Italian ‘porta fogli‘ – a binder to hold loose documents.
Many people see putting together a portfolio as a chicken and egg problem. You can’t get work without having a portfolio of previously performed work!
And it is in some way correct – you are very unlikely to be hired without a portfolio. But nothing is stopping you from creating one yourself. Here are three ways.
1. Work for free. You might be able to provide your services for free to a friend or relative to create a portfolio piece. Alternatively, you could contact local businesses and let them know that you are starting out and you could produce something for them free of charge. The worst they can do is say ‘no’. You could even find that if you do a good job, they end up paying you for your work.
2. Fake it till you make it. Set yourself a fake job to do. If you want to be a web designer, create a website for a fictitious restaurant or plumber. If you’re going to be a graphic designer, create lots of logos for made-up businesses. Setting yourself fake tasks is the quickest way to build a portfolio.
3. Work for peanuts. On the freelancing job boards, you can get jobs without a portfolio, but you’ll have to work for very cheap rates. This method works better for some people who need a real customer to motivate them to complete the work. Just don’t fall into the trap of doing more than a couple of jobs for unsustainable wages.
Here is an example of a job on Upwork that requires no experience and can help you build portfolio pieces. Just remember it’s slave labour and you should only do it as a one-off.
How big should your portfolio be?
Clients offering well-paid freelancing gigs will want to see around three related portfolio pieces. But, most won’t require a CV or a reference. This is the beauty of working freelance. If you can demonstrate that you can do the work, your previous life as a supermarket shelf-stacker or grave digger is irrelevant.
What is more important is the quality of work that you can do. And remember, all successful freelancers, including the top ones who earn fat six-figure salaries, once had empty portfolios – start building yours today.
Freelancing Portfolio Delivery
Once you have your portfolio pieces ready, then you need to work out how to show them to potential clients. This is as simple as setting up a shared folder in your Google drive.
If you don’t have Google drive yet, here is how you get started. You’ll also need a Google account first, so sign up for a Gmail account if you haven’t already.
It’s worth getting familiar with Google drive; some clients you work with will use it themselves and may share documents with you or ask that you collaborate via the drive.
Once you have signed in to your Google drive, it will look like the image below. To set up a shared folder, click ‘New’ in the top left corner.
Then select ‘folder’.
Call it ‘Portfolio’, then right-click on it to get the context menu. From this select ‘Get shareable link’. This will ask you to turn link sharing on. You can return to this menu to get a shareable link anytime you want to give someone access to your portfolio folder.
All you need to do now is copy your portfolio pieces as PDFs or documents into your folder and share the link with a prospective client. No fancy Italian leather folders required!
Create a Case Study
If your chosen field does not lend itself to easily demonstrating your work via portfolio pieces, then you can create a Case Study. A Case Study is a short report that illustrates how you helped a client. They follow a relatively standard format of Problem – Solution – Result. Describe the problem your client was having, how you helped out, and the end result. Here is a great guide from the folks over at Semplice on how to write a case study for your portfolio.
OK, you have your portfolio ready to roll, so now it’s time to find some paid work.
How to Find Work As a New Freelancer
When starting out as a freelancer, many people turn to freelance websites like Upwork and Fiverr. These types of sites are often frowned upon by seasoned freelancers because many freelancers working from there take part in race-to-the-bottom pricing.
To be fair, there is a lot of that going on, and if you are not careful, you too can get caught in the trap of reducing prices to win work. But, some clients want to hire freelancers for a decent price in return for quality work.
How you price yourself is critical for building a successful freelancing business. You should also factor in that you won’t always be doing paid work. You don’t get paid while looking for your next job or keeping on top of your accounts. You could spend as much as 40 percent of your time dealing with unpaid tasks, so set your fees accordingly.
Most Popular Freelancing Websites
The freelance websites operate a little differently to each other, so let’s take a quick look at the two of the most popular ones.
Upwork is a freelance website formed by a merger between two of the oldest internet freelance freelancing platforms, Elance and oDesk. Thousands of job postings are added here daily, across all types of work.
The registration process is in-depth, requiring you to add plenty of information about your experience, skillset, time availability, payment details, and also upload a picture of yourself. For an in-depth tutorial on the registration process, there is further information on their site.
Once you are registered, you can then look for work by searching the postings of active jobs. Some jobs will be for a quick one-off task that may only take an hour, and some jobs will be for regular ongoing work that can provide you with thousands of dollars of income.
Here is an example of a job for a Graphic Designer:
Submitting a Proposal
When you find a job you like the look of, click into it for further information, and if it all looks good, you can submit your proposal and price to complete the work.
Upwork does have a system in place where you need to purchase ‘connects’ to apply for a job. Each connect costs $0.15, and a job will cost between 1 and 6 connects to apply for it.
This is viewed by some as Upwork charging freelancers to find work, which is a fair accusation. The opposing view is that it reduces the number of applicants for each job and prevents freelancers spamming all vacancies with a standard proposal in the hope that something comes off.
Even so, it is a numbers game on Upwork. The more jobs you apply for, the higher chance you have of finding work. You will have to decide how much you wish to ‘invest’ in applying for work.
Once you land a job, the client should pre-fund the full fee for the work into Upwork’s escrow account. When you have completed the job, the client approves the payment, and Upwork transfers the funds into your account – less their fee of 20 percent.
Upwork faces criticisms about the size of the fee it charges freelancers, as many feel that 20 percent is too much. But it is worth noting that this is only on the first $500 of any job. Once you reach certain thresholds, the amount taken by Upwork reduces as low as 5 percent.
Whatever the criticisms of Upwork, numerous freelancers are earning an excellent full-time income just on this one website.
Fiverr started out 10 years ago as a website where anyone could sell their time to perform a small task for $5. People were offering sensible or absurd services, like showing you how to boil an egg or phoning your job on your behalf to call in sick.
It has developed since then into one of the more prominent freelancing websites. It differs from Upwork in that freelancer’s post projects they will do for clients and the price they charge for completing them. Also, you won’t have to work for $5 if you don’t want to – some users charge hundreds of dollars for their services.
Registering is straightforward, and when you sign up, your account covers you for both buying and selling on Fiverr. Once registered you post what Fiverr calls a ‘gig’. A gig is a service you want to perform, and you set the price you are willing to complete it for.
Here is an example of a well-paid gig offered by a Graphic Designer.
As you can see, they are charging over £800 for their basic package. Now you can get the same package offered by others on the website for significantly less. But, some buyers want a quality product and service, and are prepared to pay for it.
Don’t compete on price, focus on quality and service.
Fiverr charges the same 20 percent rate on fees as Upwork, though it does not reduce as the amount you earn with a single client rises. It’s the price you pay to leverage the traffic their platform gets.
Again, there are lots of freelancers earning a full-time income from Fiverr. And it’s worth noting that you aren’t restricted to advertising a single gig. When you start out, you can list up to seven gigs, and this number increases as you successfully complete jobs.
Other Freelancing Sites
There are numerous freelance job boards that you can sign up for. It’s worth seeing if there is also a freelance board specific to your niche. But when you are getting started in this business, you can’t go too wrong focusing on the more general ones. A few more freelance websites you might consider registering on are:
Set up a Website to Advertise your Freelance Services
An alternative to the freelance job boards is to use a personal website for advertising your services. It’s fair to say that many freelancers transition away from Upwork and Fiverr after a few years and strike out on their own. Those that have made the switch recommend it, as you get to keep all of your fee (before taxes!) and some think the best clients are found off the freelance job boards.
It’s not a step you would want to take without gaining some experience first. But, let’s look at a website for a freelance copywriter at the top of her game – Laura Belgray.
Laura has spent time, money and effort to market her freelance services well.
It’s unlikely that you will be as polished as this when you start out. But if you set up your own freelancing services website, this is the standard you need to aspire to.
Set up a website that has the following on it:
- Home page – where you talk about the services you offer and how the client will benefit from using your services.
- About page – Informative and often humorous. Use this page to tell the visitor a bit more about your background (and how they will benefit from using your services)
- Portfolio page – An attractively laid out page that highlights some of your best work
- Services page – More information about your services, and an indication of price to ward off the tire kickers.
- Contact page – How a prospective client can get hold of you to hire you.
One further element you could add to your website is a blog section. You use this to create information relevant to your freelancing field, to demonstrate your knowledge and mastery.
If you are just starting your freelancing career however, don’t let this part hold you up. Get it going then get it right as my buddy Jason Fladlien likes to say!
Once you have your website and portfolio set up, then you are ready to pitch clients for work.
Pitching for work
When you start freelancing and begin to pitch for work, you need to be organised and targeted. Those who are most successful using this method to systematically target companies that they want to work for, produce a bespoke pitch.
For example, if you are a freelance writer, there may be several high-profile blogs you would love to write for. In this case, you would;
- Regularly read the blogs to get a feeling for the tone and style of writing.
- Find out the name and email address of the editor to pitch to.
- Brainstorm some articles you think would be great for the blog.
- Pick your top three, and flesh out a basic article plan.
- Email this to the editor in a short-and-to-the-point message (they get lots of these, so it needs to be good).
- Follow up after a week if you have not heard anything.
An organised, switched on freelancer, would also track all the pitches she has sent on a spreadsheet, to enable timely follow-ups and prevent double pitching.
Pitching for work is a task that never ends as a freelancer; you’ll always be on the lookout for your next job. But once you are established, you’ll also benefit from repeat custom and referrals.
Here’s a great guide, written by a six figure freelancer on Upwork, on How to Write Proposals. Reading through it many of his tips would work both on and off Upwork!
Tips to Start Freelancing Successfully
Do communicate promptly with your clients. Clients will soon go off you if they have to wait several days for a reply from you. Respond to any queries as soon as practical, and make sure you keep an eye on your emails, so you don’t miss anything.
Don’t take on work that you don’t know how to do. If you take on a job that you think you’ll be able to figure out how to do, then it’s likely that you won’t do it to a sufficient standard. Make sure all the work you do falls within your capabilities.
Do push for further work if you find a good client. It could be as easy as sending a quick email on the completion of a project to see if they have any other work. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know!
Don’t take on work at a reduced rate because the client is dangling a carrot of future, higher paid work. It probably won’t transpire. This is a common tactic used by some individuals to squeeze you on your fees. If clients can’t afford your rates, politely turn them down.
Do apologise when things go wrong. Sometimes life happens and you’ll let a client down by missing a deadline, or produce substandard work. If you apologise and offer to rectify the mistake, it will go a long way to repairing most relationships. As a freelancer, you only have your reputation. At all times, make sure that your work and actions will enhance it.
Don’t be afraid to fire a client. Some clients are just not worth it, they enjoy picking out small issues and trying to leverage them to reduce your rate. Complete the job and move on. There is plenty of work out there.
Do constantly learn about your specialism. The world today does not stand still, and there are constant changes and improvements made in your field of speciality. Budget some of your time weekly to keep abreast of the changes. Many freelancers don’t, and those are the ones who struggle to increase their rates. If you can incorporate the latest developments into your work, your clients will love you for it.
Well, that wraps it up for how you can go about starting your freelancing career. Define your skill, build your portfolio, register with the freelancing websites, and start building your business!