One of the scariest decisions you can make as a freelancer is the decision to freelance full time. Even if you’ve saved for months in preparation for going solo, the thought of not having a guaranteed income is enough to help many would-be full-timers back. And if you’ve never freelanced before, learning the ins and outs of the setting your rate and finding clients can be overwhelming.
I started freelancing full-time in April 2017, after I was let go from the marketing agency where I worked. I was far from prepared financially, and though I’d freelanced here and there in the past, I had no idea how to make it work full time. I had to figure out a lot of things on my own through a very steep learning curve and a lot of trial and error. But 6 months in, I finally feel like I have things under control.
If you’re considering becoming a freelancer — whether as a side hustle or a full-time job — here are 7 steps to get you started.
1. Conquer the imposter syndrome
This is step №1 because it’s the biggest thing I struggled with when I started freelancing. Chances are that at some point you’ve also struggled with imposter syndrome — the feeling that your accomplishments are the result of dumb luck or fraud, and not actually earned through skill or hard work — even if you didn’t know the term for it. Approximately 70% of people will experience this feeling at some point in their lives, according to a study by Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander. It’s especially common in younger people, with 30% of millennials experiencing severe self-doubt at work. And bonus points if you’re a woman — 40% of us reported feeling intimidated by senior coworkers, compared to 22% of men.
As a 24-year-old starting my freelance career in earnest, imposter syndrome manifested itself through thoughts such as:
- You’re too young to know what you’re doing.
- Nobody will want to hire someone who was just fired from their 8–5 job.
- Clients want to hire marketing agencies, not individual freelancers.
- You don’t deserve to charge that much per hour.
- They’re going to think you’re terrible at [insert skill here].
- The work you do isn’t good enough for someone to pay for it.
Here’s the thing: Thoughts like these make it hard to be confident, and it takes confidence to run your own business. It takes a lot of guts to message a perfect stranger and ask them to give you money for something, even if you know logically that they’re going to benefit from your services just as much as you’ll benefit from the pay.
The fact of the matter is that as a freelancer, you provide value for your clients, and that value deserves adequate compensation. You’re not asking for a handout. You’re doing a job, the same as a salaried employee, and just like that salaried employee, your work is worth something.
I highly encourage you to take this imposter syndrome test from New York Magazine. Seeing “you have imposter syndrome” in print can be a great kick in the pants to start realizing your own value.
2. Define your services
One of the mistakes I made early on in my freelance career (long before I decided to freelance full time) was to look for clients in any area where I had even the smallest shred of experience. At the time, I had just graduated college and was looking for my first “big girl job,” and freelancing was the only way I could think of to pay the bills while I looked for a salaried position.
That’s how I ended up with a client who wanted me to re-write and design her resume and CV in Adobe InDesign … a program I’d taken a class on in college, but not something that I should have been doing professionally. I didn’t enjoy doing the job, and the client wasn’t happy with the end result.
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Now, I stick to what I know I’m good at and what I enjoy. I like playing around with InDesign and Photoshop on my own time, but I’m not very good at it, and it’s not what I really love to do. I love putting words together to educate and encourage people. I love poring over analytics to learn what kind of content resonates with an audience. I love getting people excited about something that can change their entire business for the better.
I offer copywriting and content marketing services because it’s what I love to do, and because I love it, I’m much better at it.
Take a while to nail down your services before looking for clients. Think about what jobs you’ve done in the past that you really enjoyed. What specific duties did you like? What type of work consistently gets the most praise from professors, supervisors, and mentors? Narrow things down to one or two services and stick with those.
3. Choose your focus
Once you’ve decided what services to offer, the next step is to determine who you’ll provide them to. Here, again, it’s better if you can narrow it down to 1–3 areas. The more you work with businesses in just those areas, the more you develop a level of expertise … and the higher your level of expertise, the more you can charge your clients.
Think about it in terms of health care. If you tore your ACL and needed knee surgery, would you choose a general surgeon who operates on any part of the body as needed? Or would you choose an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knee surgery and has published an article on ACL repair in a medical journal?
It’s a no-brainer, right? Hands down, I’m choosing the orthopedic surgeon.
Now apply that to your freelance career. Will you still get clients if you oversee Facebook advertising for realtors and veterinarians and plumbers and bicycle repair shops and food trucks? Of course you will, just like that general surgeon still gets surgeries. But you won’t be as appealing as someone who only works with one industry and knows that business like the back of their hand.
So just like when you decided what services to offer, think about what types of businesses you have an interest in or have liked working with in the past. For example, if you can’t stand looking at photos of teeth with cavities, you might want to steer clear of working with dentists and orthodontists. But if tax codes and deductions just make sense to you, maybe accountants are your ideal clients.
4. Collect work samples
Having work samples to show is even more important than specializing in one or two areas because it lets potential clients know what to expect from you. I can count on one hand the number of clients I’ve had who didn’t ask to see work samples before hiring me … and they were referrals from existing clients.
The bad news: When you’re just starting your freelance career, you may not have much work to show.
The good news: There’s a solution to every problem, including this one. If you don’t have work to show from previous clients, create your own work samples. Here are some ways to do this:
- Use work from previous classes or jobs, if allowed (some businesses have strict policies on using work in your portfolio, so be sure to check with your company first).
- If you’re a photographer, ask a friend to pose for you in exchange for free portraits. Aspiring wedding photographers can stage a bridal shoot without the pressure of shooting an actual event.
- If you’re a writer, start writing the kind of content you want to be hired for. You can start a free WordPress blog or publish through Medium or LinkedIn Pulse.
- If you’re a social media manager, do some pro bono work for a friend’s business. Measure results and save screenshots to use when pitching clients.
- If you build websites, create one website for yourself as an example of what you design.
Next, choose a way to showcase your work samples. At the very least, you should keep a Google Doc of links that you can share with potential clients. At best, you should have a portfolio website that features your best work and a way to contact you. You can create a free WordPress or Squarespace site, or you can pay for your own custom domain and hosting for a more professional presence.
5. Set your rate
Here’s another big one that a lot of freelancers struggle with. I covered it a little bit above, but it’s big enough that it gets its own section.
When I first started freelancing, I charged a rate that seemed like a lot to me because it was more than I’d ever made at a “real job.” But I didn’t factor in extra expenses like freelance taxes, insurance, or coffee shop visits when I needed to get out of the house.
Fast forward two years, when I started freelancing full-time. I upped my rates significantly because I now had WAY more experience than I did as a newly minted college grad, and I knew that some very necessary business expenses would need to come out of what I earned. The rate I set was one that I still felt might be a reach — thanks again, imposter syndrome — but the first client I quoted at that rate didn’t even bat an eye. And when 2018 hits, I’ll up my rate again for any new clients.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I could have been smarter about how I set my current rate. I simply started with the salary I made as an employee at my previous job, which I knew was a liveable wage, and added 25% to account for taxes. Then I took that number and added a 25% cushion to accommodate the fee that Upwork charged me (more on this in a bit). This left me with the rate that I currently charge — one that I’m comfortable with for now, but can easily increase in a few months.
A better way to set your rate is to start at your desired annual salary and work backwards, accounting for taxes, cost of living, added expenses, and how many hours you plan to work. This article from Forbes explains the process super well, and this handy infographic breaks the formula down visually.
6. Tell people
If you’ve gotten this far, it’s time to tell people about your new career. You want to do this for two reasons …
It builds accountability
If you’re anything like me, it can be hard to follow through on a plan when you’re the only one who knows about it. There’s just no pressure to actually do it. Telling friends and family that you’ve decided to freelance full time adds a layer of accountability that may not be there otherwise. It’s also a big motivator to make that career path work, because nobody wants to have to tell their grandma, their college roommate, or their partner’s uncle that they couldn’t hack it.
It’s the first step to marketing your new business
The plain and simple truth is that if you don’t tell anyone you started a business, that business won’t get clients. If you want people to hire you, you have to tell them you want to be hired.
Telling friends and family that you’re a full-time freelancer is one of the easiest ways to start getting clients, because everyone knows someone who needs help. Maybe your dad’s accountant needs a new website. Maybe your college roommate’s startup is looking for someone to manage their email marketing. Maybe your sister-in-law is looking for someone to photograph her pregnancy announcement. This kind of referral client is much easier to sign than someone you sent a cold email, and with one or two clients under your belt, you’ll have the momentum to really start marketing yourself.
7. Use a freelancing platform
Another easy way to get clients is to join a freelancing platform like Freelancer, Fiverr, or Upwork.
I said “easy” because these websites connect you to clients who are already looking for freelancers, saving you the steps of searching for companies to pitch and then emailing or cold-calling them. Clients on these platforms are warm leads, which means they’re easier to sell your services to. But don’t go into this expecting clients to drop into your lap, because you’ll still need to compete with other freelancers on the platform.
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I personally use Upwork to find, pitch, and sign clients. It’s free to create an account and the pitch or proposal process is simple and easy to follow. It has a built-in time tracker and guarantees payment for all hourly work, so you’ll never have to bug problem clients about late payments. In exchange, they charge take a small percentage of your earnings for each client. Their fee starts at 20%, and decreases the more you earn.
You can sign up for Upwork here (don’t worry, it’s not an affiliate link).
Making the decision to freelance full time can be really scary, especially if you’ve never freelanced before. But the more you know going into it, the more prepared you’ll feel to take the leap into a career of self-employment. Hopefully these tips help you feel a little more comfortable as you start your freelance career.