I’ve been running my own freelance design business for 17 years, but only recently started sharing my expertise through writing. I usually speak to a more experienced freelancer audience, helping established professional consultants take their indie businesses from good to great.
However, in response to my articles, the most common questions I get asked, by far, are from those with little or no freelance experience: How do I get started freelancing? How do a find my first clients? How do I turn this into a consistent full-time career?
That should come as no surprise. The traditional 9–5 office employment model is collapsing, and flexible business options like freelancing are exploding in popularity. That popularity — combined with the low barrier of entry for most digital professions, and the global reach of remote working — has created a competitive market that makes gaining traction as a new freelancer very challenging.
I’ve come across some terrible freelancing advice, right here on Medium and elsewhere. So today I reflect on the beginning of my freelance career to impart some important knowledge on how to get started off on the right foot. These are all lessons I’ve learned through first-hand experience, trial and error. They’re the cornerstones I’ve built my successful freelance business upon.
Why are you freelancing in the first place?
This question should not be underestimated.
If you want to chart a path for freelance career success, you need to be sure you’re not doing it for the wrong reasons. Don’t do it because it’s popular, or you believe it’s an easier way to make more money. Don’t do it because you think it means you can instantly turn your passion into a profitable business. And definitely don’t choose freelancing solely for the promise of a glamorous nomadic lifestyle.
Your reasons may be as simple as wanting to avoid commuting, or having a more balanced family life. Or they may stem from the desire to be your own boss and have more direct renumeration from your successes and failures.
The importance is understanding what you hope to get out of freelancing, and having realistic expectations of what it will take to achieve those goals.
Do this: define and record your top 5 reasons for wanting to go freelance, and pair them with realistic short and long-term freelance business goals. Don’t jump into freelancing blindly. You should have a sustainable plan.
Where do I find my first clients?
This is the most frequently asked question, and the one that most people do completely wrong when they first start out.
To start, you need to know who your ideal clients are. You may not be able to get them right away, but you have to have a clear idea in your mind of who you’re trying to target, so the decisions you make about which clients you work for are gaining you momentum down that path.
You’ll find no shortage of freelancers encouraging you to jump on to freelance gig sites like Upwork, Fiverr, or Toptal to find your first clients. It may seem like the easiest way to find work is through large global marketplaces like this. You need clients, and when you first start out you cannot afford to be too choosey, so why not go where there are heaps of potential clients in one place? All you have to do is start applying for jobs and work flows in, right?
Ignore that advice. You won’t find the the best clients on these race-to-the-bottom marketplaces. If you do find a good job from a quality client — when you’re new to the platform and no previous experience or credibility in their internal rating system — you’ll find it nearly impossible to secure it. Believe me when I say, toiling away in those marketplaces is not worth it. There are far better ways than working cheap gigs to find clients and gain traction for your new freelance business. Gig-ing aimlessly isn’t building a career, or a lasting reputation.
Instead, look ultra-local.
This is counter-intuitive. Many people get into remote freelancing specifically for the opportunity to work with international clients. But that also means you’re competing with an international market.
Local connections make for greater trust, easier communication, and less competition.
Ask your family, friends, school connections, previous employers or colleagues if they know anyone who needs your services. Make personal connections with local community members you can meet in-person, and intimately learn the needs of their businesses.
When you first start out, your main objective is to gain experience. Making money — although it may be a pressing need — is a secondary concern for the long-term health of your freelance business. More experience and expertise will bring more money. You have to put in the work to build up to that goal.
I’m not talking only about experience of improving your craft. Equally important is learning all the business soft-skills that make you a reliable, professional asset to your clients. Learning how to organise a small business, how to communicate well and set clients expectations, how to manage your time and your projects. How to be a professional. Every project you take on teaches you those lessons over and over again.
Do this: research local business in your community that you may be able to connect with. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to cast your net into a global market immediately. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, there will be clients nearby who can use your skills, especially when you’re offering them cheaply as you gain experience. Things as arcane on posting a notice in your local supermarket may be more effective than online outreach, because it’s far easier to trust a local with inexperience, than an inexperienced stranger from the other end of the world you’ve never met.
Should I work for free to get exposure and experience?
Absolutely not. Just don’t. Never.
It amazes me how many people tell you that working for free can be a good thing for your career. It devalues your services right from the start, giving clients (and yourself!) the wrong impression about what to expect. Plus, it rarely offers you any better chance to gain experience than paid work does.
You should start out working for cheap though. My first few projects when I was still in university were working in the range of $25–$30 per hour. That was still far better than I would have gotten working a low-skill job elsewhere, so at the time I saw it as a win-win situation. I made decent money while gaining invaluable experience.
It’s really important to not misrepresent yourself. When you’re new to the game, don’t pretend to be a bigger company than the one-person micro-business you really are. Don’t claim to have skills you can’t back up, or you’ll dig yourself in a hole. Be straight up and honest about your strengths and experience (or lack of).
Many businesses simply don’t have the budget to pay an experienced professional for top-tier freelance work, so they’re willing to take a punt on cheaper inexperienced freelancers — perhaps university students, recent grads, or recent career-switchers. If you represent yourself honestly, and explain that your low rate is reflective of your lack of business experience, they’ll know exactly what they are getting and what to expect. If you perform ultra-professionally, you’ll blow their low expectations out of the water, and win a long-term client that will help you gain traction.
Then, as you gain experience and confidence with each new project, re-asses whether you provide enough additional value to warrant a rate increase (or experiment with different pricing methods) for your next job.
Do this: research what other local noob jobs pay in your area. You want to start out charging more than a low-skilled burger flipper, but not nearly as much as a seasoned pro with years of experience in your industry. How you price your services has a huge psychological affect on how your clients perceive your value. Price yourself so that you’re respected, but you still come across as a bargain due to your lack of experience. Giving your time away for free accomplishes nothing.
Starting small is ideal
If you’re in a part-time or full-time job now — or you’re a student — you’re in the best place to start freelancing. Jumping straight into full-time freelancing from nothing is a shock. It takes time to build up a client base, especially if you haven’t previously grown a network of connections to call upon.
Absorb as much as you possibly can from your current employer. Learn their project management process. Learn how they communicate with clients and manage accounts. Be a sponge who can absorb all those supporting business skills that will be invaluable when you’re out on your own as a freelancer.
Start freelancing with one small project at a time on the side. When I started out as a college student I only worked about 5 hours per week on my first project. My client knew what he was getting, and he was happy to give a student some experience in exchange for slower, cheaper work.
When that jobs done, take on another. Maybe a slightly more demanding one this time. Is your confidence growing yet? After you’ve gone through the process once, does it feel more natural the second, third, and fourth time around?
Before you know it, you’ll have completed 5 or 10 little project and you’ll feel like you know what this freelancing thing is all about. (You won’t really know yet! But every little bit of confidence and experience adds up.)
Can you live cheaply too?
When I graduated university and jumped into full-time freelancing, I lived in a small town with a relatively low cost of living compared to a big city. I was fortunate enough to allow my freelance business to grow into a steady full-time stream of project over the course of many months, rather than demanding it happen overnight. It simply won’t happen that quickly, so you need to set yourself up with some security to allow for a sluggish start.
Not everyone will have that luxury. What if you have no choice but to live somewhere expensive? What if you already have a family to support?
Many people recommend not getting into freelancing unless you’ve saved up the equivalent of 3–6 months salary (or at least living expenses) as a contingency “runway”. I completely support that idea. Even the most experienced freelancers who’ve learned how to mitigate the freelance rollercoaster of inconsistent income, will still have the odd slow patch that leads to uneven earnings. You can’t be living pay-check to pay-check and survive as a freelancer. It’s simply not consistent enough and you’ll stress yourself out before you’ve barely gotten started.
Do this: make a plan for how you can transition smoothly from your current position into a freelance life. Can you start freelancing on the side and only make the jump once you’ve built up a small client-base and some savings as a cushion? Can you set up your living situation to save costs in preparation for unpredictable income as you gradually build your business? Talk to your parents, partner, or other family and friends about ways they can support you so you don’t have to dive straight into the deep end.
Build relationships & reputation
This is what successful freelancing is all about. Even when you’ve been doing it for years, this goal never changes.
The number one way to build a sustainable, full-time freelance career is to build quality professional relationships with satisfied clients who love to refer you to their friends and colleagues. Word of mouth referrals are where the best work comes from, so even your earliest freelance efforts should be directed at generating these types of relationships.
That’s why working on cheap gig marketplaces doesn’t get you very far. The relationships you make there are often impersonal transactions that don’t build any real reputation beyond the un-portable internal ratings within those platforms.
It’s also why working locally gives you a much stronger start. The reputation you build working closely with businesses in your community leads to a trusting network of satisfied clients who’s referrals carry a lot more weight than those from random internet strangers.
Building a strong reputation is easier than you might think. All it takes is committing yourself to providing your client with as much value as you can possibly give, over and over again on every project you do. If you genuinely care about your client’s success, and do everything in your power to help them achieve it, they’ll notice those extra efforts and reward you with loyalty and frequent referrals.
So choose clients who you can connect with. You want to be building partnerships, not just doing jobs.
Do this: think about what kind of personal or professional relationships you’ve cherished most in your life. Do characteristics like dependability, compassion, trustworthiness, honesty, and kindness fit that description? Make a plan to foster those types of relationships with your clients, and they’ll love you for it. More client love equals higher pay, and more new work from referrals.
Play the long game
When you’re excited about building your own business and taking control of your career success, it can be easy to get caught up in looking for shortcuts and short-term wins — Looking for life-hacks that will propel you prematurely into the freelance limelight. Once you’ve found the direction you know you’re meant to go on, you want to get to that destination overnight!
However, establishing a successful freelance business is about playing the long game. Every client you partner with, and every project you focus on, should be another step towards building the freelance career you imagine. Define your ideal clients, and then plan how to market your skills and build your reputation in order to attract them and win their trust.
Be patient. Keep your feet on the ground, and settle in for a commitment to delivering your best effort for every client, on every project. Be consistent about being professional, and the results will come.
Freelancing is a big choice that requires an equally strong commitment. Those who plan well will rise above the masses of gig-workers to establish a truly dependable, secure career. It may take a few years, or it may take 10. But even 10 years building your own business is better than slaving for 10 years building someone else’s, amiright?
More of my writing about Freelancing: