If you’ve been considering freelancing for a while now, you’ve probably run into some less-than-encouraging comments from (hopefully) well-meaning friends and family.
“Freelancing is sooooo risky”, or the classic ”You’ll never have any job security as a freelancer!” Oh, and let’s not forget this gem: ”Freelancing is just a fancy word for unemployment.” (Ouch!)
But if you were to sit in a room filled with successful freelancers, you’d soon realize that these comments couldn’t be further from the truth—and are usually made by people who haven’t successfully tasted the freedom and satisfaction that freelancing offers.
Many aspiring freelancers hesitate to take the plunge simply because they don’t know where to start. But the truth is, starting your freelance career isn’t as daunting as some folks would have you believe.
If you hear someone saying how “hard” it is to freelance, chances are they jumped in with no system; the first step to going freelance is making sure you learn the skills to become a successful freelancer.
So instead of letting the doubters hold you back, it’s time to tune out the noise and focus on the very simple steps you need to kickstart your freelancing journey.
Step #1: Establish Your Service and Offering
Once you make the exciting decision to venture into freelancing, the first step is to define your service and offering. This step is what will set the foundation for your freelance career and determine what value you bring to the table.
Take a moment to reflect on your skills, passions, and expertise. What are you really good at? What do you enjoy doing? What problems can you solve for your potential clients? These questions will help you pinpoint your unique strengths and offerings.
The freelance services you offer are often ones you’ve done before. So, if you’ve been a web designer for 10 years, then offering web design as a freelance service is a perfectly good choice. After all, if you’re planning to sell a freelance service to clients, you need to excel in the service you’re offering.
Focus on One Area of Expertise
While it might be tempting to cast a wide net and offer a number of services, honing in ONE area of expertise will ensure that you’re delivering the most value to your clients.
Too often, freelancers think they need to add freelance services to get more clients (and increase their income). For example, that web designer might think they need to learn copywriting so they can be a “one-stop shop” for their clients.
But remember that taking on an entirely new skill set requires dedicated practice and refinement. Clients are looking for specialists who can deliver exceptional results in their specific area of need. So attempting to be a “jack of all trades” may undermine your credibility and reputation as a freelancer (and potentially lead to burnout by trying to juggle too many roles at once).
Instead of spreading yourself too thin, focus on mastering your core service offering so you can build a strong reputation as an expert in your field and attract clients who are specifically seeking out your area of expertise.
To Niche or Not to Niche?
Choosing a niche is often touted as the path to success in freelancing. But pigeonholing yourself into a niche can actually limit your career opportunities (more on why here), especially in the early stages of your freelancing career.
Niches may *seem* appealing, but they impose unnecessary limits and make it harder to adapt to changes in the market. Plus, they can hinder your ability to showcase your versatility to potential clients.
Instead of rushing to specialize, take the time to explore different industries and projects—it’s impossible to know exactly what you’ll enjoy working on the most when you’re just starting out.
Crafting Your USP
Your USP (unique selling point) is what makes you stand out from the competition. It is the statement that makes it crystal clear to potential clients what YOU bring to the table that no one else does, drawing on your strengths, passions, and unique life experiences (and no, being “good at what you do” doesn’t quite cut it!).
By crafting your most compelling USP and communicating it clearly to potential clients, you will attract those who truly appreciate what you uniquely offer.
Step #2: Showcase Your Work
Regardless of what industry you’re in, having a portfolio is essential for freelancers. It’s how you give potential clients confidence that you’re a professional who can not only get the job done, but also help them grow their business.
Ultimately, your portfolio is an advertisement that details how you help your clients and shows them evidence of your expertise—so you’ll definitely need to include samples of your work.
But if you’re scratching your head, thinking, “How do you prove you’re good when you haven’t landed a job yet?!” Well, that’s where spec work comes in (aka work you create without a company or client paying you to do so).
Of course, real samples are preferable. But until you’ve found paying clients, you need to put something in your portfolio and spec work is a good solution. You just need to remember to label these as “spec” pieces in your portfolio. (Don’t worry—it won’t take away from their impact as long as they’re high quality and you can swap them out as soon as you start to get real samples!)
Adding some personality through your bio or “about me” page will show prospects know what kind of person you are and including your USP will help clients understand what makes YOU the best person for the job.
If you’re not a web designer by trade, we get that you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the thought of building a portfolio site. But the good news is there are several easy tools for making a portfolio website yourself.
Step #3: Create a System for Landing Clients
Seeing as you’re already considering starting a freelance career, we probably don’t need to sell you on why freelancing is important.
The bad news is, no one is going to bring work to you (well, at least not in the beginning).
So if you truly want to benefit from the freedom to control your own income, schedule, and work, you need to use a proven system for finding and landing high-paying clients.
Otherwise, you’ll be joining all those other “feast and famine” freelancers who sit around waiting for clients to find them or hoping projects pop up on job-bidding sites like Upwork (not how you build a successful freelance business).
The best way to take full control of your career is to send value-packed pitches. We get it—reaching out to people feels intimidating (which is typically why sites like Upwork look SO much easier by comparison).
But if you want to avoid the low income, high frustration cycle that comes with those crummy job-bidding sites, then you need to start sending value-based pitches (not the generic, spammy-looking ones like these).
There are *so* many more companies and organizations out there than we realize—and most of their projects aren’t even posted to the public. If an employer will hire you for your skill as an employee, they will hire you as a freelancer! Clients need your services and pitching allows YOU to decide who you want to work with.
Many freelancers forget that to grow your business, you need to be consistently reaching out to people (don’t panic, this gets a LOT quicker and easier the more you do it!). As soon as you stop prospecting, that’s when you can expect to see dry spells around the corner. So no matter how much work you currently have, you always need to be looking for more!
Step #4: Develop a Pricing Structure
While the idea of pursuing our passions in life is exciting, we can’t avoid the fact there are still bills to pay and food to put on the table.
You can certainly make enough (and a lot MORE than “enough” in many cases) to live solely off your freelance income (student Phil did it, and so can you!).
As a freelancer, it’s really up to you what rates you charge to which clients. It starts with having a concrete idea of your monthly expenses, so you know exactly how much income you need to bring in. Then, you can start exploring job listings and reaching out to recruiters to determine your rates as a freelancer.
And don’t forget that as you gain experience, make new connections, and increase the value you’re delivering to your clients, you’ll want to raise your freelance rates.
Many freelancers (wrongly!) assume you can’t possibly have the same benefits as an employee at a company. But what they don’t realize is that you just need to factor your benefits into your rates (which actually gives you wayyyy more control over your income).
Did you know most companies build in the cost of benefits into your salary or hourly rate? And this is exactly why on-staff workers typically make less per hour than their freelance counterparts!
Step #5: Focus on Delivering Value
There is MUCH more to freelancing than just waiting for clients to assign you work, doing it, and delivering it (although many freelancers aren’t aware of this).
If you want long-term, sustainable freelance success, you have to partner with clients to help move their businesses forward.
That means instead of waiting for opportunities to come knocking, you are proactively looking for ways to add value to the companies you work with by continually suggesting new ideas.
Making the switch from freelance producer to partner is key for landing repeat work and building lasting relationships with your clients. It’s about becoming an indispensable asset to their team, and someone they turn to not just for one-off projects, but for ongoing collaboration and support.
This shift in mindset to position yourself as a strategic partner rather than just a service provider, will not only differentiate yourself from the competition, but also earn the trust and loyalty of your clients.
Step #6: Keep Track of Payments and Taxes
Invoicing should be one of the most exciting parts of freelancing—it means you’re getting paid, after all! But so many freelancers put this task off, simply because they’re overcomplicating the process.
Invoicing does not have to be scary and you certainly don’t need any fancy software to do it—all you need is a word processor (see here for an example of how to format your invoices).
Start building good habits right from the get-go by invoicing a project as soon as your client approves it. (Unless you have regular work with a client that you bill monthly. But even then, the advice still applies: send your invoice as soon as the last day of the month comes around!)
Remember, as a freelancer, you’re responsible for managing your freelance taxes. Unlike traditional employment, your clients don’t withhold taxes on your behalf. It’s essential to set aside a portion of your earnings—typically 25-40%—to cover federal and state taxes.
We strongly advise planning ahead for this by stashing away your tax savings in a separate account, which remains untouched until tax season rolls around. Depending on your income and tax situation, you may also need to make quarterly estimated tax payments to stay compliant.
As the famous saying goes, “Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.” Paying taxes is an inevitable part of running your own business *sigh*. But seeking guidance from a tax professional early on can alleviate a LOT of headaches further down the road.They can provide invaluable insights into deductible business expenses and help optimize your tax strategy, potentially saving you both time and money in the long run.
There’s no denying that working as a freelancer brings a great deal of freedom. We work on our own schedules, in a field we love, making great money.
But if you haven’t set boundaries when it comes to core parts of your business like your rates and your working hours, your newfound freedom can fizzle out fast.
Step #7: Establish Your Business Boundaries
To avoid clients encroaching on your out-of-office time or adding a ton of responsibilities to your to-do list, you’ll need to take time to set boundaries with yourself and your clients.
But they don’t have to feel restrictive. It’s simply a way to help you—and your business—stay on track by allowing you to make decisions faster and more efficiently. In fact, one of the key traits of a successful freelancer is to create and enforce your own business rules.
Step #8: Set Goals
If you want to grow your freelance business, goal setting is crucial—especially when you are your own boss.
It’s what will help you build a stable, successful, and thriving freelance business.
Remember your goals should align with your personal, professional, and life goals (not what someone else thinks) and they should certainly take into account your current position.
For example, if your ultimate goal is to become a six-figure graphic designer and you’ve just started out, you’ll need to break down that goal into smaller goals to make sure you stay on track.
Your first goal might be to land your first paying client. Then, you might set your sights on earning $1,000 in a month. Increase these monthly goals as you go so that you know when you can reasonably expect to meet that ultimate, six-figure year goal—and don’t forget to celebrate those wins along the way!
Aiming for just one big goal each quarter makes it less likely you’ll feel overwhelmed and end up losing momentum. It’s easy to keep your head down, working in your business, and ignoring those all-important business-building tasks. So at the start of every week, it’s a good idea to determine your top task for moving toward your goal(s) and growing your freelance business.
With all the doubters and misinformation surrounding freelancing, it’s no wonder people can feel overwhelmed. But the truth is, freelancing isn’t as daunting as it seems, especially when you have a clear roadmap to follow.
Freelancing offers unparalleled freedom and flexibility, but instead of putting the control in someone ELSE’S hands (ahem, Upwork, Fiver, and the like), you have to take control of your own success.
The only way to build a successful, predictable, six-figure freelance business (WITHOUT working crazy hours or working for peanuts) is to follow a proven, scalable, step-by-step system for finding and landing high-paying clients.
With over 10,000 students successfully implementing our strategies, we have the expertise to guide you on your journey to freelance success. Take the first step by watching our free, on-demand video training now, where we reveal the three secrets to earning six figures as a freelancer!
Last Updated on February 12, 2024 by Kate Sitarz