Becoming a freelancer is exciting and difficult. A lot of it is trial and error, and you find success through creativity and perseverance. On the other side of that struggle is the reward — doing what you love, having flexibility, and being your own boss.
According to a recent Freelancing in America report, there were 57 million freelancers in 2019, composing 35% of the workforce. This is an upward trend — more people are transitioning into freelancing every year.
Taking the first step is usually the hardest part. You realize that there’s a lot you don’t know and you have to learn along the way. It can be overwhelming, and those who aren’t ready for the challenges often give up really early.
10 years ago, I began my career in freelancing. It started with graphic design. Over the years, I’ve done a variety of service-based jobs including copywriting, photography, advertising, public speaking, and even being a wedding DJ (that was short-lived). I currently freelance as a web designer and marketing consultant.
Over the years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in freelancing — I’ve written about them here. Though learning through your mistakes is a valuable experience, there are some things I wish I knew when I started.
If you’re new to freelancing, here are some of the first steps you can take.
Don’t quit your day job
This is more of a don’t than a step, but it’s important.
There’s a toxic mantra in the freelancing world to quit your job and go all in. It’s this belief that unless you detach from everything that’s “holding you back,” you’ll never be successful. It’s over-glorified, irresponsible, and stupid. You won’t have any money coming in, putting unnecessary pressure on you to generate income.
There was a period of my life when freelancing was the only thing I did, and it was one of the most difficult. I always had no money, was running up credit card debt, and was constantly facing anxiety. Eventually, I had to go back into a normal day job to stabilize my life.
Your day job is a gift that will help your freelance career. It will pay the bills while you pursue freelancing. It allows you to save up so that you have a runway when you decide to transition. If it’s a desk job, you’ll most likely find free time to work on your freelance gig during work hours. If it’s in the same industry, you can practice refining your skills.
Yes, it’s ultimately the dream to turn your freelance side hustle into your main career, but there’s no need to rush it. Making the switch prematurely could end your freelancing career pretty quickly.
Get decent at your skill
It’s obvious you have to be skilled at something to freelance, but it can be difficult knowing what level you should be at and the right timing.
On the one end, you should be good enough for people to pay you. There’s this unhealthy idea among the “teaching” freelancers that you only need to be one step ahead of your students. I think that’s cheating out your clients. For your clients and for your own reputation, be good at what you do. Take the time to hone those skills.
On the other end, you don’t have to be the best. You’ll be able to grow in skill and experience over your career. The important part is that you have to start somewhere. If you’re doing this skill for your regular job, you’re good enough — because someone else is already paying you to do it.
How good is “good enough” really depends on your industry, your competition, and your clients, so you’ll need to decide that on your own.
Have some projects in your portfolio
Before you get your first paying client, you’ll need to have some projects in your portfolio.
If you do this for your work, you’ve got a head start — though make sure you don’t get in trouble for using it. If your skill doesn’t necessarily have a tangible portfolio, such as fitness training, then get testimonials.
In the event that you can’t get anything, you still have some options. Do some small, free work for friends and family. Get them to write testimonials. Or at the very minimum, do samples for made-up projects. The point is to show your work — clients won’t simply take you for your word.
The more in your portfolio the better, but a solid 3 projects and/or testimonials would be a good start.
Get your stuff together
To run a freelance business, there are a few things you need.
First, a website. It’s how clients will find you, learn about you, connect with you, and possibly pay you. Along with that, get an email address that’s not your personal Gmail. Ideally, something like “email@example.com” to look professional. Next, a method of payment. This could be an online invoicing or payment setup, or a physical credit card swiper for in-person transactions. Then, you’ll need a business bank account to put your money. One of the most important things about a side business is to keep your business income/expenses separate from your personal — it’ll save you a lot of headaches and trouble in the future.
Start with your network
Now to find some paying clients.
The easiest is to start with people you know — your friends, family, or former coworkers. You may not get any business from them, but they know people. Your first clients will most likely come from the referrals of friends.
It might feel weird, but just let people know that you’re getting into freelancing and talk about what you do. Chances are that someone will know someone who would hire you.
When you get those first few clients, it’ll be essential to ask for 2 things — a testimonial and a referral. The testimonial adds to your portfolio, and the referral will ensure you continue to get more business.
Early in my freelancing career, I got a lot of clients from word-of-mouth referrals. But my biggest mistake was not getting testimonials and not asking for more referrals. I ran out of clients within my network pretty soon and had to do the hard work of cold-calling people for projects.
Find gigs on job boards
When you’re starting out, check on job boards to find some gigs.
At first, you may have to take some pretty low paying jobs. It’ll be time-consuming, and you’ll get a lot of non-responders, low-ballers, and scammers. This isn’t to devalue your time or skills or to make you work for nothing. Soon, you’ll want to increase your prices and set a standard for the types of clients you want to work with. But at first, you need to get the ball rolling and get something. You need to earn your first dollar.
Where you look will depend on what you do, but consider places like Craigslist, Upwork, Fiverr, Indeed, or Facebook groups. There are probably also job boards for your specific freelance industry, so do some research for those.
Plan your growth
Once you get your first few paying clients, you’ll want to grow your freelancing career by getting more clients and getting paid more for your work. But you’ll run into some challenges that inherently come with freelancing.
After finishing a project, there’s going to be the in-between time when you have to go look for another client — time you’re not getting paid. You’ll realize that how much you earn is limited by how much time you have to work, and your potential income will feel like a ceiling. You’re going to waste some time with bad clients who are demanding, pay late, don’t pay, or just unpleasant to work with.
You’re going to have a lot of growing pains, but there are ways you can get through it. I have a separate article on growing your freelancing career, but here are some quick tips.
- Identify your ideal client soon, so you can focus on narrowing down who you work with and get more quality clients.
- Try to create packages of services with different tiers and price points. It’ll eliminate the back-and-forth of negotiations and weed out low-ballers.
- Create a marketing plan and schedule things ahead of time. This ensures you’re always reaching potential clients while you work on projects.
- Working with existing clients is easier than finding new clients. Try to create recurring services, complimentary follow-up services, or off-season services for your past and current clients.
These aren’t must-do’s to follow in any particular order. They’re more like helpful tips that will make your transition to freelancing a little smoother.
As you start your freelance career, you most likely won’t have a lot money to spend. You’re actually trying to make some money first. But freelancing is a business, and there are things that you need setup to run a business. Things that cost money, like websites, invoicing software, or accounting tools. Fortunately, there are great options that are free to help you get started with zero money in your pocket.
If you’ve been freelancing for awhile, then some of these steps may be obsolete. There are things you do in the beginning to get started, but then you have to stop doing them and change course if you want to grow.