How to Choose the Right Clients Based on the Stage of Your Freelance Practice

Using KPIs for clients to fuel a profitable and sustainable freelance career

Image: Marten Newhall/Unsplash

After an eventful year in the freelancing space, I’ve established a solid foundation with a collection of positive reviews and a network of clients. As I’m looking back on the progress made, I realized that the “ideal client” that I look for changed a few times over the course of just one year.

In this article, I’ll go in-depth in my KPIs and the rationale for choosing clients in three stages to a profitable freelance career with great potential.

Stage 1: Collect Positive Reviews

I was in this stage for six months since I started freelancing. During this time, I made less than $2,000 but achieved 5 stellar client reviews.

Social proof is a key factor for promoting anything, including yourself — this is one of the most important lessons from my years in marketing. At the beginning stage of a freelance career, positive client testimonials play a crucial role to attract potential clients and establish trust. It was also one of the motivations when I first started freelancing on Upwork as client reviews can serve as references and help me become more competitive in the traditional job market.

Therefore, to earn positive client reviews to establish influence in your field, I looked for budget-conscious clients who are in search of short-term, project-based freelancers. In the article below, I discuss in detail my initial client-hunting strategy to best identify these clients and win their contracts. At this stage, I applied for all jobs that check these boxes, as long as I’m somewhat confident that I can fulfill the clients’ needs.

I would argue this is the most challenging stage, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear back from most of these jobs. However, be strategic and reflective in your application efforts. In this article, I share my formula of writing a killer Upwork proposal that helped me stand out even as a newbie on the platform.

Stage 2: Stabilize Your Offering

I was in this stage from Month 6 to Month 12. During this time, I entered a new industry by following the Stage 1 client-hunting strategy. Four months later, my income in the new field surpassed my initial service offering on Upwork.

To achieve the most reviews quickly, it is likely that your responsibilities for the first few projects fluctuated. Once you’ve got several positive reviews under your belt and feeling more comfortable talking to potential clients, it is time to move on to stage 2 where you stabilize your service offering and become competitively skilled in this space.

I started on Upwork with a specialized profile for social media marketing. To kick off my freelance career, my first five jobs were: creation and management of paid ads on three different platforms, setting up product catalogs on social media for e-commerce stores, and influencer marketing.

After the first six months. I intentionally narrow my offering to paid social media only. By having a niche, I quickly became more confident in the delivery of the chosen area, as I could focus my energy to educate myself within a better-defined territory, keeping up with the ever-evolving best practices in my field.

At this stage, I look for clients who offer:

  1. fair compensations based on my current skill level;
  2. projects with competitive short-term rates or the potential to work long-term (as it’s hard and expensive to always acquire new clients);
  3. the opportunity to learn and practice in the fields that align with my long-term career directions to establish professional assets for future projects.

Compared to the first stage where I usually had to overwork and get underpaid to earn great reviews through stellar performance. I shifted my preference to hourly-based projects in this stage, providing me fair compensation and more flexibility to work at my own pace.

Stage 3: Sustain Long-term Growth

This is the stage I’m currently and will be in for the entire Year 2.

After the first year of working as a part-time freelancer, I’ve

  1. developed two essential skill sets that are project to long-term growth and specialization
  2. collected positive social proofs from clients in various industries
  3. reached a competitive rate based on my current level of skills and experiences.

Trust me, it is hard to shake off the imposter syndrome, even with a 100% job success rate and the Top Rated recognition from the platform. Kicking off the second year of my freelance career, I’m committing more of my time and energy towards building a sustainable, fulfilled, and optimized freelance practice.

Throughout Year 1, one of my biggest struggles in freelance is the lack of a team. It takes tremendous discipline, willpower, and hard work to maintain consistency and overcome both mental and professional challenges. With more aggressive business development, I realized the potential to streamline and optimize my practice by building a team to offload tasks and harness support.

When you start to consider your opportunity cost, congratulations, it’s the kind of problem you better have — it means now you don’t have time for all opportunities that are available to you! If it sounds familiar, it means you are ready to outsource, one of the most essential growth drivers in this stage, along with rigorous efforts in business development.

In a comprehensive project, the tasks vary in many aspects: hard VS. soft skills, the time required, significance… Find yourself a virtual assistant to start offloading the lower-level tasks — the manual labor of processing and repetition you used to do yourself, freeing up time and energy for senior tasks to maximize your day rate.

Therefore, I now prefer a project-based compensation structure, as it allows me to build a team to specialize and optimize. Besides the project-based setup, I also value the long-term potential more than ever to stabilize and scale up the practice.

Last but not least, this stage is great timing to find a few niche industries that you’d like to specialize in long-term. I now put great emphasis on the prospects’ industries, and more energy in finding, connecting, and working with people in relevant fields, gradually establishing my authority in these spaces.

In the past year, being intentional in client-hunting has helped me identify great clients and projects with potentials. I realized that it is not enough to just do the work. To maximize learning and growth, doing the right work is essential.

Choosing clients and projects strategically can benefit your freelance career in both profitability and sustainability, both short- and long-term. I’d love to hear about your criteria for the “perfect client”, and how has it changed over time to fuel your practice.

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Top-Rated Digital Marketing & PR Specialist on Upwork. I write about personal stories, reflections, and solutions to a fulfilling and holistic freelance career.

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