With remote work on the rise, more people than ever want to become a freelancer and start freelancing. With the desire for remote and location-independent work on the rise, starting a freelance business has become an attractive prospect for making a living.
Thankfully, it’s easier to become a freelancer than ever before. More than 57 million Americans freelanced in 2019, and the trend continues to grow with more than 50% of Gen Z opting to start freelancing.
Not only is it more popular to become a freelancer than ever before, but companies are getting more and more comfortable hiring freelancers rather than full-time employees.
A lot of jobs can be done remotely, and companies don’t need to provide the same financial or healthcare benefits to freelancers as they do full time employees.
So maybe it’s time for YOU to become self-employed and start a freelancing business.
Let’s talk about how you can start a freelance business yourself very quickly with very little money up front.
1. Define your goals for freelancing
It all starts with knowing your goals for starting your freelance business.
You wouldn’t get in your car and start driving if you didn’t have a destination, and you shouldn’t start a freelance business without a destination either.
Without a destination, it’s hard to know what direction to move. Goals provide that destination for starting your freelancing business.
Start with why you want to start freelancing
Simon Sinek is famous for his TED talk encouraging the audience to “Start With Why.”
Every day, you’ll need to motivate yourself to find clients and do exceptional work for them – and the first step is understanding your own “why.”
Why do you want to become a freelancer in the first place?
- To create some income on the side?
- To replace your full time income?
- How much do you want to earn while freelancing?
The reason why you want to become a freelancer will be your north star for whether or not you are successful.
Start freelancing part time or as a side hustle
Freelancing part time or as a side hustle is a great place to start. When there is less pressure to generate income immediately, you can be more thoughtful with the type of work you do and the clients you do it for.
For this reason, it’s actually a great idea to start a freelancing business before you think you need to. Freelancing is often built from trust and client relationships, and those relationships take time to form.
So if you start freelancing part time or on the side, you give yourself time to create the crucial relationships you’d need to make a full-time living freelancing.
Making the leap to start freelancing full time
If you’re set on jumping into the deep end and become a freelancer full time that’s great! It’s never been a better time to be your own boss.
If that’s your goal, you’ll want to calculate how much you need to earn to cover your living expenses. And I mean all of your living expenses, including taxes, health insurance, and even retirement.
This is your freelancing income destination!
If you do have immediate bills to pay or even debt, you need to have a handle on that income goal so you don’t dig into a deeper hole.
You may not be able to hit that number in month one, but knowing what your income goal is will help you get there as quickly as possible.
2. Choose which skills you’ll start freelancing with
Whether you’re set to become a freelancer full time or on the side, your business will be built around the unique skills you have to offer. Those skills are your greatest asset.
So step one is identifying the different skills you’ve built over the years that other people may not have and want to pay YOU to use.
Start with a simple spreadsheet. In the first column, start listing each individual skill you can think of.
Start freelancing with skills from previous jobs
It’ll be easiest to start with all of the skills that you’ve already been paid to leverage. It doesn’t matter if the job was full time or part time, as long as you were being paid.
If an employer was willing to pay you to do that work, chances are that you’re pretty good at it! That’s a skill you can likely leverage to start a freelance business.
Think about your last several jobs: what were you being paid to do for those companies?
Don’t hold back – it may be customer service, graphic design, photography, or financial modeling.
If those roles required creativity or use of a specific software, it’s even more likely that someone would be willing to pay YOU rather than take the time to learn that skill themselves.
Some common software examples would be Adobe Photoshop, Figma, Sketch, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Excel, and so on.
Start freelancing with skills outside your job description
When you’re thinking about your previous jobs, don’t limit yourself to the job description or main responsibilities.
In most full time jobs, employees find themselves doing things that weren’t originally in their job description.
For example, if you were responsible for running a company’s social media accounts, you probably picked up some writing skills too.
So instead of only thinking about your social media skills, you may also be suited for copywriting or marketing work.
Add every specific skill to the list – the more skills you can name, the better.
Start freelancing using your hobbies and self-taught skills
Your skills aren’t limited to just what you’ve been paid to do. Go beyond the things you’ve already gotten paid for to things you’ve taught yourself, or even your hobbies.
What do you spend time doing just because you like doing it? Think about everything.
For example, if you collect stamps, you’re probably a strong researcher, organized, and you may even be good at negotiating!
If you’ve taught yourself how to design graphics in Canva, that counts too.
Again, at this stage, the more skills you can list, the better.
Narrow down your list of skills
Once you have a list of all the skills you’ve been paid to use, taught yourself, and use as a hobby, now we can start to narrow down that list.
First, prioritize the list by which skills you WANT to get paid for the most.
You can create a new column in your spreadsheet and rank them in order, starting with number one.
It’s good to be aspirational here. If it were up to you (and it is), what would you want to be paid to do each and every day?
Next, you want to do a little bit of research.
When it comes to freelancing, having competition is a GOOD thing. If there aren’t other freelancers already getting paid for the work you’ve decided you want to do, chances are there isn’t much money to be made there.
Look through sites like Upwork or Fiverr and search for freelancers using the top five skills you’ve identified.
In another column, take note of the high and low ends of what other freelancers are getting paid per hour or per project.
If no one is earning a quality income using your preferred skill, check out the second, or the third, and so on until you’ve found a skill that people are being paid real money for and that you’re excited to start a freelance business around.
3. Define your target clients
Once you’ve identified the skills that will be the most profitable and enjoyable for you, it’s time to think about who is going to pay you to use them.
A lot of freelancers fail to be thoughtful and aspirational here.
They start freelancing and get so afraid of selling that they’ll take any client offering them any amount of money to do anything.
Don’t be like those freelancers!
Think about your ideal clients
Think about the skills you’ve chosen to start a freelance business with. Who needs that type of assistance? And who would you WANT to work with who needs that type of help?
Examples include small businesses, nonprofits, restaurants…
Don’t overthink this.
Start with stream-of-consciousness – who do you want to work with? Open up a blank document or notebook and start writing.
Dig deeper with client avatars
Now it’s time to get more specific with your ideal clients and break out of categories.
“Small business owners” may be a start, but let’s go deeper than that.
“Small business owners” may be authors or dentists. And “restaurants” may be vegan restaurants or family-owned restaurants.
These descriptions are still pretty categorical. Now, we want to get into their heads.
What are the problems they are facing? What is their story?
Maybe the family-owned restaurant has a hard time telling their story in a way that talks about the family history.
Maybe it’s an ecommerce business that needs a more beautiful website.
Or maybe they’re authors who are too busy to run their own social media.
You want to be so specific that you can actually visualize that person in your mind. It may help to think about a person or company you’re already familiar with, and base the description from what you already know about them.
This is called a client avatar.
Trader Joe’s describes their ideal customer as an “unemployed college professor who drives a very, very used Volvo.”
That’s vivid, right?
You should be just as specific about YOUR client avatar.
And, if you think that your target clients have a couple different avatars, describe each of them individually.
I’ve named my client avatars Jenni and Matt, based upon two of my actual clients who I believe represent a lot of other freelancers like them.
Does this client avatar make sense?
Once you’ve defined your target client and you feel like you understand them, it’s time for a quick gut check.
For this avatar to be worth serving, a couple things need to be true. Ask yourself:
- Is this client aware of their problem and looking for help?
- Is this client able to afford your help?
If not, you may need to go back to the drawing board.
Sometimes, the people we want to help most can’t afford our help or don’t even realize they need it. A lot of people find that they want to work with nonprofits or startup companies, but those clients often don’t have much of a budget to work with.
You may be able to convince someone that they need your help – but it’s a lot harder to start a freelance business by working with people who already KNOW they need help.
And to be honest, there are plenty of people who already WANT help that it’s not worth spending the time and effort to convince someone who doesn’t.
If you believe your target clients know they need help and are able to afford it, let’s move forward!
Identify real people and real companies
Now that you have the theoretical descriptions of your client avatars, let’s get real.
If you could work with any person or company in the world that fit the avatars you’ve described, who would you choose?
Create a new spreadsheet of your dream clients.
You may think it’s silly to include names of famous companies like Disney or celebrities like LeBron James, but write them down.
Anything is possible – but only if you believe in yourself and work towards it.
Don’t stop writing your list until you hit at least 50 dream clients. And if you’re really serious, write down 100.
The first step to actually working with your dream clients is recognizing that you want to work with them. Then, over time, you can build the reputation and relationships that help you get there.
4. Package your skills into a service offering
Selecting your skills was just step one of starting a freelance business – next you’ll need to sell them.
How would you actually use those skills for someone else?
What is the service you provide with those skills?
It’s a fine line, but it’s an important distinction.
Writing is a skill and email copywriting is a service.
Coding is a skill and creating custom mobile apps is a service.
In order to sell your skills, you need to think of them as a service.
Turn your service into a solution
Let’s take this a step further. Even better than selling a service is selling a solution.
Telling a small business owner that they can hire you for copywriting isn’t very compelling.
The business owner may be left thinking, “What does that mean? Why do I want copywriting?”
When you just share the service you perform, it leaves it up to the client to imagine how that can apply to them.
Now let’s frame it as a solution:
“I can help you write better sales emails.”
And if we take it a step even further:
“I can help you write better sales emails that convert to more customers.”
Now that is something I’d be willing to pay for. I know exactly what you’re promising, and it’s solving a problem I have: I want more customers!
People pay for solutions. They pay for outcomes.
The more clear you make the outcome of working with you, the more successful you’ll be in selling your services.
Positioning your solution to your target client
Think about the service you want to offer and the client persona you’re offering it to.
What problems do they want solved? What outcomes are they looking for?
There are a ton of articles, podcasts, and interviews about sales or negotiation tactics.
But people generally only hire because they want one of three things:
- More customers, clients, subscribers, or followers
- To increase their profit (increase revenue or decrease cost)
- To feel better about themselves (vanity)
And arguably, getting more customers is also towards the goal of increasing profits.
So when you’re having a conversation with a potential client, you just need to:
- Explain how working with you will make them more money long term than the cost to hire you, OR
- Explain how working with you will help them look better, feel better, or have a higher status in the eyes of people they care about
If a potential client believes you can do that for them, they will hire you. It’s basic business sense.
If you’re not showing how working with you can increase their profits or status, you’re leaving it up to them to connect the dots.
Sometimes they will, but usually they won’t.
So connect the dots for them.
Show the client how paying you for this work will lead to more money in their pockets.
It may not pay off immediately, and if it doesn’t then you should help them understand how long it will take for them to see that return on their investment — either by increasing revenue or decreasing costs.
If you can show how $1 today becomes $2 tomorrow, you’ll never run out of paid work.
For our example, our freelancer has decided they want to start a freelance business using their skills in marketing, copywriting, and social media.
They’ve identified their ideal clients are creators like me: people who are great at making podcasts, courses, articles, etc.
The biggest problems for those creators are centered around time. Creators don’t have enough time to do all the things that I know I should be doing – including being active on social media.
And because I’m not very active on social media, I’m not growing my presence as quickly as I could.
So a solution our freelancer could provide is social media management. If they offered to grow my social media presence by posting content for me each month, that’s a compelling solution leveraging their skills.
Social media management is a service, but it can be positioned as a solution for someone who is too busy to manage their own social channels.
How will you price your services when you start freelancing?
Now that you’ve defined the service you provide and the client you provide it for, you’ll need to decide how you’ll charge for your services.
There are a lot of pricing strategies for your freelance business, and a lot of nuances in which strategy you choose.
But at a basic level, there are four common methods of pricing for a freelance business:
Hourly: A standard rate for each hour worked for the client. Hourly pricing is used for both ongoing and short-term projects, and requires the freelancer to track their hours.
Retainer: A flat, monthly fee. Usually this is based on an hourly rate and a prediction of hours spent on a monthly basis. Retainers are used primarily for ongoing projects.
Fixed project fee: A one-time fee based upon the agreed upon scope of work and project deliverables. Fixed project fees are used primarily for short-term projects.
Value-based pricing fee: Similar to a fixed project fee, but based on the value of the work to the client, not the amount of work done by the service provider. This has the highest potential upside, but is the hardest to sell to the client.
Let’s return to our previous example of a marketer providing social media management for content creators. That service is probably an ongoing project and so either hourly or a monthly retainer is appropriate.
Freelancers tend to like retainer clients for their freelance business because they provide some level of predictability and income stability.
Ultimately, regardless of the pricing strategy you choose, the numbers are totally up to you.
I recommend choosing a number that:
- Makes you excited to get up and do the work
- Isn’t trying to compete on being the cheapest price
- Is still competitive with market rates
Competing on price is a race to the bottom and will burn you out if you make a name as being the “cheapest” option. Instead, find a number on the middle or high end of market rates for similar services that makes you excited to do the project.
Pricing Pro Tips
You can compare market rates for services by looking at other freelance businesses on Upwork and the rates they charge.
One of the best pieces of pricing advice I’ve ever received is to “think of the number that makes you a little uncomfortable to ask for, and then raise that by 40%.”
Pull it all together with your client formula
To really put a bow on your service package, wrap all your decisions into what I call your client formula.
Your client formula is the core of your freelance business, and it looks like this:
I help [person x] solve [problem y] for [price z]
In this formula:
- Your target client is [person x]
- Your service solves [problem y] for that person
- And you’re selling it for [price z]
I know it’s weird to mix math and creativity, but hear me out.
Let’s take our marketer example. Their formula may look like:
I help content creators grow their social presence for $2,000 per month.
In the past, I built WordPress websites for entrepreneurs. My client formula was:
I help entrepreneurs bring their business online for $5,000
There’s a bonus to this: by creating this formula, you also create the perfect Elevator Speech for your freelance business with the phrase “I help [person x] solve [problem y].”
Your Elevator Speech is a short, memorable way for you to answer the question, “What do you do?”
“I help content creators grow their social media presence”
“I help entrepreneurs bring their business online”
And when you add the price, you have a full set of assumptions to go out and test for your freelance business.
It’s just like testing a hypothesis in science class.
You need to:
- Talk to people who fit the client avatar of [person x]
- Try to sell them your service as [solution y]
- Price the package at or above [price z]
Assume you’re a videographer and you believe that [independent Realtors] would pay [$500] for [a video about themselves].
Your client formula sounds like:
I help independent Realtors showcase their personality to clients for $500
But what happens if you can’t seem to sell any independent Realtors on a video for $500?
When you’re not getting paying gigs or purchases, it’s easy to think that your experiment, as a whole, is a failure.
But you need to remember that there are THREE variables here.
So if you aren’t getting independent Realtors to pay $500 for a video about themselves, all we really know is that one part of the experiment is off.
It could be that a team of Realtors would pay that price for that service.
Or maybe independent Realtors would love to invest in a video, but they wouldn’t pay more than $400.
And maybe you shouldn’t be targeting Realtors at all – maybe accounting firms would pay $800!
You can experiment with all of those variables. But the first step is defining your formula.
5. Legally incorporate your business before your start freelancing
Now let’s talk about how to legally start your freelance business.
You could delay this step, but I recommend doing it sooner rather than later to make tax planning easy from the start.
“Start a freelance business” sounds intense – but it’s not. Technically, starting a freelance business is as easy as incorporating a legal entity.
**This is a good time to mention that I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t legal advice!**
Choose a name for your business
The first step to filing your business is choosing a name. It can be anything you want – it can include your own name, or it could not. It could be a made up word, or it could not.
It’s totally up to you. Ultimately, I chose “Freelancing School” because all of the content is related to freelancing, and I wanted to show that learning was part of the business.
I could have just as easily used my own name, like “Jay Clouse Creative” or a hybrid like “Jay Teaches Freelancing.”
Nothing you choose is permanent, but changing it is a bit of a pain. So while you shouldn’t let this step be a roadblock when you start your freelance business, it’s something to take seriously.
It’s also used for legal purposes much more than for marketing purposes.
If you file an LLC called “John Doe Creative,” and later decide you want to call the company “Doe Designs,” you can operate under the brand name “Doe Designs” but still have your company incorporated as “John Doe Creative.” You will just see the former name on things like your bank account, invoices, and so on.
And if you really want to change the legal name, you can either file a new entity or open what is called a Trade Name or DBA (Doing Business As).
Perform a basic name search
Before you officially start your freelance business with the name you’ve chosen, you need to perform a basic name search to ensure it’s not already in use.
Just as you wouldn’t want other businesses using your name, you can’t use someone else’s. If you have a name that is so similar to another business that it causes consumer confusion, you may be infringing on a trademark.
You can avoid all that risk and headache from the beginning by performing a name search through your Secretary of State website. If your name is taken, or there are similar names already in use, you’ll want to choose something else to start your freelance business.
File an LLC
There are different ways to incorporate when you start a freelance business, and you may have heard the abbreviations “LLC, C-Corp, S-Corp,” and so on.
Most independent freelancers are best suited for an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) when they start a freelance business. But if you’re an independent freelancer earning more than $175,000, it may be worth exploring an S-Corp.
An LLC operates much the same way as being a sole proprietor (which has no legal business entity) but the major benefit is legal protection for your personal assets.
How to file an LLC
You file an LLC directly with your secretary of state. It’s a very straightforward process that may even force the name search we were just talking about to ensure that the name you’ve chosen for your LLC is not already being used.
Most states allow you to file an LLC online in just a few minutes. To check if you can file your LLC online, and for links of where to do so for each US State, check out the spreadsheet here.
If you can’t file an LLC online, you will need to file them with your local government directly. In either case, the whole process will cost you under $200 to start a freelance business in most states.
Get an EIN
Once you’ve filed your LLC, you can apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service).
Think of an EIN like a Social Security Number for your business. Your EIN will be used on a lot of legal forms and documentation, such as a W9.
Getting an EIN is free, immediate, and you can register it online here.
Open a Business Bank Account
With an LLC and EIN in hand, you now have the tools you need for most banks to allow you to open a business account. This isn’t necessary, but it’s useful for a few reasons.
First, a business bank account makes it easy for you to accept payments on behalf of your business. Whether you’re sending invoices or charging through a processor like Stripe, most processors will want you to connect a bank account for your business.
Not to mention, it makes your business look legitimate to clients when you are using a business banking account.
Second, a business bank account will give you a dedicated debit card and checks for your business. You’re going to have expenses for your business. Being able to pay for them directly from your business account will make things simple when you start your freelance business.
When tax season rolls around, it’ll be really easy to determine whether or not an expense was a business expense or not when you can see it was paid for using your business debit card!
Finally, a business bank account allows you to apply for a business credit card.
You should only open a credit card if you are comfortable managing your finances. Credit cards are debt, and they are designed to take advantage of you if you don’t understand how to pay them off and avoid over-drafting.
But business credit cards often come with great perks on points or cash back. And if you’re good at managing your finances, you may as well take advantage of those perks if you’re going to be spending money on things like website hosting, software, or meals with clients anyway.
With an LLC, EIN, and Bank account, you have a legally legit business!
6. Create a portfolio to showcase your skills
Every client, whether they realize it or not, hires you because they trust you.
They trust you to do what you say you’re going to do, and deliver on the quality of work you say you’re going to provide.
Why you need a portfolio to start freelancing
Sometimes a client project comes easily – they may be family or a friend. But most of the time, that client will need a reason to trust you.
So you need to BUILD that trust.
The best way to build trust with a new client when you start a freelance business is by showing examples of past work that are similar to the work they are considering hiring you for.
Who would YOU rather hire: a graphic designer who can show you 10 logos she’s made for clients or a graphic designer who can’t show you a single one?
The answer is obvious – we want evidence to show us why we can trust this person.
Plan to have work samples available to share with new clients from the beginning so they have reason to believe you can do the work.
What to include in your portfolio when you start freelancing
Your portfolio work samples should align with the services you’re offering.
If you want to create Shopify websites, don’t fill your portfolio with WordPress websites.
Narrow your work to samples that you are truly proud of. In this situation, less is more – only include your most impressive work.
Building a portfolio that will help you start freelancing
When you just start a freelance business, you may run into a chicken-and-the-egg situation: if you’ve never worked with clients before, it’s hard to show client work samples.
So if you don’t already have examples of work you’ve done for clients in the past, think about any free work you’ve done for yourself or someone else.
Is there anything that you’ve made that you can show as an example of your skills, even if you weren’t paid for it?
If you still don’t have any relevant examples, then your best option is to start building some.
Create something for yourself, do pro bono work for someone you know, or even do work for a company that didn’t hire you.
Look at your list of dream clients: if they did hire you, what would your work look like?
Check out this UX designer who took it upon herself to totally redesign Instagram – just to show how she would do it.
She wasn’t hired to do this work – but she can use this as a case study for how she approaches her work, her style, and her process.
My friend Val Geisler, one of the most sought-after copywriters I know, built a name for herself by doing public teardowns of real company emails.
(PS: I interviewed Val on my podcast, Creative Elements. Take a listen!)
As long as you don’t claim that someone paid you when they didn’t, doing imaginative work for real companies can be incredibly powerful.
Whether it’s work you’ve already completed or work you do to show examples, this is the beginning of your portfolio.
And your portfolio is arguably your most important tool for creating new clients.
How to display your portfolio when you start freelancing
Some people share their portfolio on a third party website like Instagram, Dribbble, or Behance. Others may build their own website to showcase their portfolio.
If you need to start with a third party platform, that’s OK. As long as clients have a way to find and see your work, without needing to ask for it, you’ll be in good shape.
Having a website and your OWN platform, not being dependent on a third party like social media, will be a huge benefit in the long run.
We expect people to have a website. And we expect them to have an email address specific to their website.
Plus, learning the ins and outs of those website tools can be a valuable skill on its own.
7. Develop a strategy for finding clients
Congratulations, your ducks are officially in a row!
At this point, you’ve set a strong foundation to start freelancing. Now, we need to talk about getting your first clients.
There are three major strategies to consider for finding new clients when you start freelancing:
- Working with clients directly
- Working as a subcontractor
- Leveraging freelance jobs websites
Let’s talk about each of them.
Working with clients directly
Working directly with clients is the purest form of freelancing – someone has a problem, they pay you to solve it, and there are no other people or platforms involved besides the two of you.
There are two major benefits to working directly with clients.
The first benefit is keeping every penny of the transaction. You and the client agree on the price, the client pays you, and all of it goes into your pocket.
There are no fees to a platform for matching you, and there are no fees to someone for referring the work to you.
The second benefit is owning the relationship. When you work with clients directly, they know exactly who is doing the work, you learn a lot about them and their needs through communication, and ultimately you create a strong relationship with them.
A lot of freelancers have clients they work with several times or continuously over a long period of time. These relationships are really valuable because the client already knows, likes, and trusts you – so it’s easy to go from conversation to paying project.
And these relationships are most easily formed by working with clients directly.
Subcontracting is when a business enters into a contract with a client and creates a second contract with someone else to fulfill that first contract.
It usually looks like an agency selling a large project, and then contracting one or more freelancers to help fulfill the actual work of that project.
Agencies that subcontract may refer to this as “subbing out” the work.
An example of this would be a large creative agency selling a new brand package for a client, and subcontracting website development or website copywriting to a freelancer.
For a lot of creatives trying to start freelancing, this is a great deal! Instead of creating a lot of individual relationships with clients, you can form a few strategic relationships with larger creative agencies and let them worry about finding clients.
While that may seem like an efficient way to create a stream of paid work, there are a few major trade offs.
The biggest trade off is that you are dependent on someone else to supply you with paying work. So what happens when they can’t, or if they won’t?
Subcontracting takes a lot of the control out of your hands.
Another tradeoff is that you are leaving money on the table. The agency won’t just pass through the whole client fee to you for doing the work – they keep a cut of the fee for signing the contract.
And lastly, you don’t own that client relationship. Some agencies even require you to sign a contract with them agreeing that you will not work directly with the clients they subcontract to you.
So even if you do communicate directly with the client, in their eyes, you work for the agency. And you may not be able to work with them on future projects without working through that agency.
Freelance jobs websites
Freelance jobs websites make finding new clients very easy when you start freelancing. In fact, they are built to connect as many freelancers to paying projects as possible – and fast.
These freelance jobs websites are two-sided marketplaces. On one side, they build a supply of freelance talent (that’s you!) and on the other side, they build jobs that demand that talent.
So at any given time, they are working to actively add new freelance jobs or projects to their website. And then they try to connect those jobs to a freelancer as quickly as possible.
For a long time, the most popular freelance jobs website has been Upwork. In fact, it was formed as a merger between two former freelance jobs websites: Elance and Odesk.
It used to be free for freelancers to apply for freelance jobs on Upwork. But recently, they’ve created a pricing structure that works out to about $0.15-$0.90 per job you bid on.
It’s not much, but if you’re getting started and bidding on a lot of projects, it can add up quickly.
There are some new alternatives that I highly recommend.
The next alternative is Solid Gigs. Solid Gigs was built by freelancers and also takes a lot of care in curating high quality jobs that they send via email daily. With that added curation comes a higher cost at $19/mo, but you can trial it for just $2.
Finally, for freelance writers specifically, I recommend Contena. They have a ton of high quality writing jobs available for you to apply to. These jobs pay well and are meant for high quality freelancers too.
These platforms often protect you by verifying that you are compensated for the work you do for clients found through the platform.
But of course there are some trade offs to any freelance jobs websites, especially Upwork.
They all cost something – whether it’s to bid on projects or have access to the jobs they curate. And sometimes, as in the case with Upwork, the platform will keep a transaction fee as well.
It is possible to take the client relationships you build on these platforms outside of the platform if you trust the client to pay you through their own systems.
Click here to see the 15 best freelance writing sites
Start freelancing by utilizing multiple strategies
Perhaps the best strategy for finding clients is not focusing on one single strategy. Instead, you can be open to all strategies and dedicate time to each.
You can work to find clients yourself, create profiles on freelance jobs websites, apply to jobs on those websites, and build relationships with other agencies and freelancers all at the same time.
And in the beginning, I think it’s wise to do all of them until you build more demand for your services.
Eventually, you’ll find a strategy that works best for you and you can really focus on one. In the meantime, it’s smart to explore them all.
And while you’re at it, add yourself to the Freelancing School Talent Directory (it’s free) so that I can help connect you to jobs and projects (also free).
8. Tap into your existing network
Let’s explore finding clients to work with directly and subcontracting.
Remember how I said people hire who they trust? Well, they’re even more likely to hire someone they like, too.
So the most likely person to hire you, especially when you’re getting your start freelancing, is someone who already knows you, likes you, and trusts you.
I call these people your advocates.
You already have advocates. They’re your friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, and so on.
Your advocates are always the most likely people to hire you or refer others to you.
The majority of service-based businesses grow from word-of-mouth…and those words come from the mouths of your advocates!
But, chances are, those advocates are not as good at referring people to you as you’d like.
You can change that.
Reconnect with your advocates
Since your advocates are the most likely people to hire you and refer you anyway, let’s start with them.
The goal here is to make your relationship even stronger.
Start by spending some time meeting and catching up with everyone in your network who you’re already close with. It may have been a while since you spoke with them, and so they may have no idea that you’re freelancing.
You’ll make a great impression right off the bat by being thoughtful and reaching out. It won’t be difficult to convince people to spend 30-60 minutes catching up.
Be helpful to and interested in your advocates
In these conversations, you need to be genuinely interested in your advocates. Talk about their work, what they’re excited about, and how you can help THEM.
They will probably bring up a problem they’re facing right now. You might be able to help them! Even if it’s not your typical service offering, this is a really quick way to find some paying work.
And if you can’t or don’t want to help with a specific problem, you may be able to refer them to someone else who can.
Right away, you’re building the relationship with this person by caring about THEIR problems.
Tell them you’re going to start freelancing
At some point, they will ask you what you’re up to, or how they can help you.
This is your opportunity to share your new Elevator Speech and make it clear you’ve decided to start freelancing.
“Thanks for asking! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately helping [person x] solve [problem y]. Does anyone come to mind that I should chat with?”
“Thanks for asking! I’ve been spending a lot of time lately helping small businesses launch ecommerce websites. Does anyone come to mind that I should chat with?”
They are going to go into their memory and try to tie those two variables, your ideal client and the solution you offer, to someone they know.
And if someone comes to mind, they may offer to introduce you!
Or, they may say, “You know what, I could use your help” and hire you themselves.
Of course, they may also say, “I’m not sure,” and that’s OK too.
Be patient with your advocates
The goal for these conversations isn’t actually to create a client on the spot.
The goal is to start training your advocates how to think about you when they are out in the world going about their daily lives.
Now that they’ve heard your short, specific Elevator Speech, they know who to refer to you. When they go out into the world, and meet someone like your target client or someone mentions the problem you help solve, you’ll come to mind.
That’s how referrals are born.
But I cannot stress enough how important it is to be genuine in these conversations and try to help that other person too.
It’s not about “I’ll help you if you help me.” It’s about being a good friend and building a real relationship with someone.
If you try to shortcut this step, people will sense that. And they may not be an advocate for you anymore.
No one likes to feel used – so don’t use anyone.
The only way to avoid being transactional or using people is to build real relationships with them.
9. Start creating new advocates
When you make the rounds and reconnect with your advocates, ideally one of them hires you or makes a direct introduction to someone else who hires you.
That first project will be your start – do a great job for them and you can build out from there.
If that doesn’t happen right away, you may begin to panic and think about meeting totally new people to pitch your services.
So let’s talk about how to do that.
But I cannot stress enough how much better off you are reaching out to EVERY existing advocate you possibly can first.
It is so much easier to find clients amongst people who already know, like, and trust you. So be absolutely sure you’ve talked to everyone you can before doing any direct outreach to strangers.
Cold outreach vs. warm introductions
Have you heard the phrases “cold outreach” or “warm introduction?” When someone says “cold” outreach it means there is no previous conversation or connection to the person you’re reaching out to.
It’s “cold” because there was nothing to warm them up and make them anticipate hearing from you.
Warm introductions are great because the person is already anticipating your message and has already “warmed” to the idea of hearing from you. It’s an easier starting point.
Things are harder to do when you go in cold, because it’s up to YOU to warm that person up to you.
Cold outreach is tough, but it’s possible.
The goal of direct outreach
The goal of outreach is simple, but often misunderstood. Your main goal in outreach when you start freelancing is to create more advocates.
Advocate is an important distinction from client.
Yes, of course we want clients.
But even clients are advocates first. If they weren’t advocates, they wouldn’t become a client – they had to convince themselves that they should hire you!
Remember it as your ABCs: Advocate Before Client.
So the goal of outreach, first and foremost, is to create new advocates.
The reality is that a very small number of people in your life will actually hire you. But ANYONE can be an advocate for you.
Now, remember what I was saying about cold outreach vs. warm introductions? You need to warm people up.
And the worst way to warm someone up is by being salesey off the bat.
Outreach isn’t about selling a project. Outreach is about selling a conversation.
If you are able to convince someone to take a 20-30 minute conversation with you, then you have the opportunity to create a new advocate.
This is your best long-term strategy. It’s not necessarily quick, but it’s about creating strong relationships.
Choose your outreach targets
Too many freelancers are reactive: they sit back and wait for clients (or advocates) to come to them.
But it’s so much better to be proactive: reach out directly to the clients you want to work with, and sell them on the opportunity to work with you!
This is a fundamental shift in mindset from finding clients to creating clients.
So start reaching out to people you truly want to work with. Reach out to well-connected people in your community. If you can create an advocate out of someone who is well-connected, that’s a powerful advocate to have.
Here’s the secret truth: every client you work with will probably lead to other clients a lot like them.
This can be a great thing! But it can also be a bad thing.
If you start doing the photography work you swore you wouldn’t offer, you’re going to keep getting people asking for more photography work.
Why? Because people assume you do the work that they see you doing.
And clients who refer other people to you are going to talk about the work you did for them.
You want to find the right clients off the bat.
So if you can’t get the dream clients you want, at least start by doing the right kind of work for your first clients.
You want your portfolio to be laser-focused on the type of work and the type of client you’re looking to work with.
How to perform effective outreach
Once you’ve identified your outreach targets, you need to find a way to convince them to talk with you for 20-30 minutes.
Start by letting them know that you respect their business, their work, or something else they’ve done.
And then tell them you’re looking for their insight. People love to share their knowledge or their opinions – so ask if you can learn from them!
If you think that you can help realtors by building personal websites for them, DO NOT reach out to a realtor and ask, “Will you pay me to build a personal website for you?”
Start with a relationship. Start with a conversation. Maybe even start with a little bit of flattery before asking for a few minutes of their time to get their perspective.
I’ve been following your Instagram for a while now, and it really looks like you do an incredible job finding dream homes for your clients! They all have such great things to say about you.
I’m a little new to the real estate space, and I’m trying to talk with some realtors to learn a little more about it. I’d love to ask you a few questions to get your perspective. Do you have 20 minutes some time in the next few weeks to get on the phone?
Lower the bar. Start by simply asking for their time and insight.
But this isn’t a bait and switch. If they get on the phone, you still shouldn’t start pitching them.
Instead, ask them what they are struggling with or what is holding their business back. Try to understand what would make THEM more successful.
When you get the other person talking about their problems, you start to see opportunities to help solve problems for them.
And this is where the magic happens. If you can help someone identify a problem they have, and you offer up a solution, you have a very good chance at landing that project.
We hate having problems and we love finding solutions. If you’re offering a solution right in front of them, they just may take you up on it.
And even better: if you help them identify a problem, then you are probably the only option they’re considering to solve it.
This is how you create new clients instead of find new clients. When you create clients, they are less likely to shop around to your competitors.
But first and foremost, these conversations are about making a great first impression. You need to be interested in that person (just like any of your advocates) and ask them questions about their work.
If they ask you what you do, it’s an invitation to share your elevator speech and let them know how you may be able to work together some day.
Outreach requires patience
Outreach is a long-term strategy. It’s about forming strong relationships and creating new advocates for your business.
Sometimes, you hit it off and things move quickly.
And as you’ve probably seen from your existing advocates, those relationships don’t always bear fruit quickly.
But if you have enough advocates for your business walking around the world talking to people in their own lives, chances are that one of them will refer someone to you. The more advocates you have, the higher your odds.
The numbers are in your favor.
Congratulations my friend, you are ready to start freelancing!
We just covered a lot of ground, but it was all about creating a strong foundation for your freelance business.
To recap the steps we covered:
- Define your goals for freelancing
- Choose which skills you freelance with
- Define your target clients
- Package your skills into a service offering
- Legally incorporate your business
- Create a portfolio to showcase your skills
- Choose a strategy for finding clients
- Reconnect with your existing network
- Start creating new advocates
You should have some clarity around the skills you’re going to leverage as a freelancer. You should know how you’re going to package them as a service, and sell them as a solution to your target clients.
If you haven’t already, choose a name for your freelance business and file for your LLC.
Start building your portfolio to show your potential clients. Whether you plan to work with clients directly, subcontract, or work through freelance jobs websites, you will need to show off your skills.
You’ll need to spend a lot of time building and rebuilding relationships with your advocates. Reach out to them – line up some conversations to find out what they’re up to and let them know that you’re beginning to freelance. Use that Elevator Speech whenever anyone asks what you’re up to.
And once you’ve reconnected with your advocates, it’s time to create new advocates. Outreach can feel scary and difficult, but remember it’s not about selling a project – it’s about selling a conversation.
Have fun, make some friends, and you’ll be creating new clients in no time.
Take the next step
We are here to help! Join our free community to support you on your journey.
If you want to take this a step further, our course bundle will walk you through everything you need to know to build a truly profitable freelance business.
And if you haven’t already, add yourself to the Freelancing School Talent Directory.
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