Freelancing is experiencing something of a renaissance. Although there have been freelancers in some form for hundreds of years already (the term was originally used in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to refer to medieval mercenaries), the current economic climate has made becoming a full-time freelancer a more attractive option than ever before.
As more and more workers don’t feel safe at their in-person jobs due to COVID, wages aren’t keeping up with living costs, and workers feel like they’re not being valued, the world has been going through what some have termed the Great Resignation, in which millions have quit their jobs in hope of finding more fulfilling work that will also afford them a higher degree of flexibility and control over their lives.
This movement, spearheaded in part by the subreddit r/antiwork, has only one problem: it tells people how to get out of their current lifestyle (by quitting their job) and motivates them to do so, but it doesn’t give all that much advice on how to move forward after that.
Here, we’re hoping that we can shed some light on that second part of the equation. If you’re interested in pursuing a freelance career, this guide will explain how you can get started and develop a new cash flow as soon as possible.
Before moving any further, it’s important to get a bit of a better handle on what we’re aiming for here. Sure, you want clients, but what exactly does that mean? After all, you don’t want just any old clients, you want ones that will provide value to you and help you earn an income. Unfortunately, some clients are more trouble than they’re worth, and some won’t even pay you. That’s the harsh reality of freelancing.
So, what we’re looking for are good freelance clients, and those come in two types: intermittent and consistent. Generally, you’ll want to have a few clients that provide you with a consistent amount of work each week or month and then a few others that pop in and out here and there. The former kind will make up your primary income base, and the latter will fill in the gaps and provide additional income.
Although you don’t need to follow this model (it’s entirely possible to freelance based solely on one-off projects, and this is standard in some fields), this setup reduces your non-billable, client-hunting hours so you can maximize your revenue.
As a beginning freelancer, you’re not going to have much ability to be picky at first, but this is something good to keep in mind as you ramp up your freelance business.
First Steps: Getting Together a Portfolio
Unlike traditional jobs, which tend to hire based on experience and education, freelancers get hired based almost exclusively on the results they provide. That means that if you’re used to applying for traditional jobs, you’ll need to take on a different strategy.
Think of it like this: as a freelancer, you essentially offer a product. If you were going to buy a new TV, would you make your decision based on where Samsung’s employees went to school and how much experience they all have? No, you would go to the electronics store, check out the TV for yourself, and read up on some reviews to make your decision.
That’s generally the frame of mind you need as a freelancer: your work is your product, and you need to find a way to make people want to buy it. Your portfolio is essentially your showcase room.
Now, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to throw out your experience wholesale — it’s still valuable, it’s just not the most valuable thing. If you imagine yourself as a store, your experience would be sort of like your tagline, i.e., “The leader in electronics for 30 years.” However, it’s important to realize that in freelancing, your work generally comes first and your experience second — get your work out front and center and lean on that primarily as you make your sales.
When you fully understand the basic concept behind what you’re trying to achieve with your portfolio, the execution will follow much more naturally.
Your portfolio will typically have two parts: your bio or introduction and a selection of your work. The bio is where you can mention a bit about who you are, your areas of expertise, how you approach your work, and your experience. However, the main goal here is to draw your potential clients in and get them to look deeper into your work. Then, of course, you have the main part of your portfolio, which is a selection and showcase of your best work.
To make your portfolio, you can use practically any widely-available website builder, like Squarespace, Weebly, or Wix. However, if you’re a freelance web developer or designer, it’s best to make your site from scratch to show off your skills right from the get-go. Similarly, you’ll want to look into industry-specific platforms, like Vimeo for video professionals, Clippings.me for freelance writers, and Behance for graphic artists and designers.
Keep in mind that your portfolio doesn’t have to be particularly large when you first start, and a website isn’t strictly necessary at the beginning — sending a few examples of your work via email is often enough. At the start, you just need enough work that you can tell your client, “here’s what I can do for you.” Over time, you’ll grow it into a more expansive catalog as you complete more client work.
How Do I Build a Portfolio If I’ve Never Had a Client?
New freelancers are sometimes confused about how to build a portfolio when they haven’t had a client yet. After all, isn’t your portfolio supposed to be a selection of past client work?
While showcasing work you’ve done for past clients is ideal because it lends you some social proof, it’s not strictly necessary to start. If you haven’t had a client yet, you can create “spec” (short for speculative) pieces instead. These are pieces that you create with an imaginary client in mind as a way of showing what you’re capable of.
For example, as a web designer, you could make a spec website for Coca-Cola or some imaginary business that you come up with. This will give prospects an idea of what you can do even before you’ve locked down your first client. Just make sure that if you create a spec piece for a well-known brand you make it exceedingly clear that it’s spec work.
LinkedIn: The Portfolio Supplement
If you’re offering any kind of B2B (business to business) service, having a solid LinkedIn profile is practically a must. While proper treatment of LinkedIn profile optimization could take up an entire article in itself, the most important thing is simply that you have one, that it is an accurate representation of your experience, and that it links to your portfolio. If it ticks those three boxes, you’re good for now.
Should You Pick a Niche?
Beginning freelancers are often advised to pick a niche to work in since specialists can usually charge higher rates and may have an easier time developing a client base and pipeline. Although this is good advice, it can create a degree of analysis paralysis that stops new freelancers from simply rolling up their sleeves and getting the ball rolling.
Unless you already have a clear idea of what niche you’d like to work in (for example, you’ve spent the past 20 years as a C# developer for fintech companies and are sure you want to continue in finance) or you think you can choose one fairly easily, this is a question that’s best left to the side for now. Instead of choosing a niche, you can let one emerge naturally as you gain experience and discover what type of work you enjoy the most.
Basically, don’t let picking a niche prevent you from getting started reaching out to prospective clients. If you have a niche, great! If you don’t, that’s fine too. Just get started freelancing either way and adjust as you go.
Getting Your First Client
So, you’ve put together a portfolio, and you’re finally ready to start hunting for a client. This is when the rubber is going to finally meet the road, and it can be both a confusing and intimidating time in your freelance career.
Perhaps the hardest part about this juncture in the freelancing path is that there isn’t just one “right” way to go about it or some secret formula that you can follow. Instead, client acquisition is a process of trial and error, and you’ll develop a system that works for you over time.
That said, here are some tried-and-true strategies you can test out for yourself.
Use Your Network
As a beginning freelancer without much experience and without a huge portfolio, it can be difficult to break through that first hurdle and get your first client. After all, if you were hiring a freelancer, would you pick someone who has never completed a single freelance project?
Chances are, the answer is no. But there is one exception: if you knew the freelancer well beforehand, you would be a lot more willing to overlook their inexperience and give them a shot.
This is the major advantage of going to your existing network to find clients — especially your first one. In fact, one great way to find that coveted first client is to check with your family and friends whether they need some work done. At the same time, check with any past employers, colleagues, and other professional relationships you may have.
And don’t forget about the people and local businesses that play a smaller part in your life, like your plumber, your financial advisor, or even your dentist. Depending on what type of freelancing you do, you may be able to offer your services to any of them as a way to help grow their business.
Whoever you reach out to, be sure to tell them that you’ve decided to pursue freelancing, and explain what type of work you do. If they say they could use your services, great! If not, ask them to keep you in mind for the future and let them know that they can pass your contact info along to anyone else that may need freelance work done. That way, even if they don’t hire you, you’ll have warmed up a lead, started getting the word out, and you may even land a referral.
Unfortunately, there is one major risk you run when you reach out to people you know: if you don’t do it skilfully, you may come across as overly salesy and annoy the living daylights out of them. You do not want to become known as that annoying person who won’t stop trying to sell their video editing services to everyone they talk to.
Luckily, there are a few rules you can follow to reduce the risk that your outreach will be poorly received:
- Send one message to start. If you don’t get a response, or your prospect says that they’re not sure yet, follow up in a week or two. But don’t go overboard and spam them.
- Don’t mention prices unless they ask. When you reach out to your network, your goal should be to pique their interest, not to make a sale right away. If you send out emails or messages with a list of your services and your pricing, your prospects are more likely to view that as spam. Instead, think of it like a friendly update about where you are in life. For example, let your last boss know that you’ve started freelancing and would be happy to offer your services to her if she needs them. Do not tell her that you’ll build her a website for $5,000.
- Be careful about sending your portfolio in your first message. This one isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s something you should be mindful of. When you’re reaching out to your network, you’ll often be approaching people that know you on a more casual and friendly basis. If they haven’t specifically asked to see your work, they may take it as an imposition if you kick things off by sending them work to look through. Usually, you’ll want to tell them that you’re freelancing and then let them know that you’d be happy to send them your portfolio. If they express some interest, then go ahead and send it. The exception to this rule is people who you’re close enough with that would always be interested in seeing your work, like your family and friends.
Expand the Search With Social Media
In addition to contacting your network individually, you may also want to spread the word via social media. This will let you reach people that you wouldn’t normally speak to. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter are all good bets, although not all of them will be relevant to every industry. Graphic designers, for example, will likely find Instagram much more useful for client acquisition than a data scientist would.
Whatever social media platforms you decide to use, the strategy is the same: make a post that explains that you’re now taking on new freelance clients and what you can do for them.
However, unlike reaching out to your network on an individual basis, it’s a good idea to include a link to your portfolio in your post. That said, you should still shy away from including prices upfront — save those for when someone engages with your post, expresses some interest, and asks for your pricing.
Facebook Groups and LinkedIn Groups
Engaging with groups of like-minded professionals is another way that you can use social media to find work. There are groups on both Facebook and LinkedIn where you’ll find gigs that you can apply to.
Unfortunately, it can be a bit difficult to find high-quality groups. Plus, as a new freelancer, you’ll often be up against stiff competition when applying to job postings, which can make it difficult to find work when going this route.
However, even if you don’t get work from a group right away, you can start getting involved with the community to build trust around your new freelance business. If you have a niche and a lot of experience from your previous roles, you can also start positioning yourself as an authority.
If your goal is to find new clients and not just to learn from a community, then it’s best to join groups that are either specifically for job postings or groups that are tangentially related to your field. For example, if you’re a freelance writer with a specialization in digital marketing, you’ll likely have more luck finding work from digital marketing groups than freelance writing groups, unless the latter is specifically for freelance job postings — after all, freelance writers don’t usually need to hire other freelance writers.
Cold outreach isn’t all that different from reaching out to your network — the main difference is just that you’ll be contacting people that don’t know you. That makes it a lot less likely that you’ll get a response, let alone any interest, but it does expand your options to pretty much anyone or any business you think could make use of your services. In that sense, the numbers can even out.
Although cold outreach is often recommended as a way to get clients, the freelancers tend to have mixed opinions about it — some will say it’s great, others will say that it’s not worth your time.
As long as you have at least a couple of solid examples of your work, cold outreach may be worth a shot. Plus, it can give you a sense of forward momentum if you make a goal to send out a set number of emails each day.
The key to successful cold outreach is personalization. If you send out the same email to every lead you contact, it’s very unlikely you’ll see any success. Instead, take the time to look through your prospect’s website, identify specific ways that you can help, and find a way to connect with them.
For example, if you’re a freelance writer, you might send an email to a mental health startup saying that you’re a freelance writer who’s passionate about mental health, but you noticed that its blog was a bit sparse, so you’d be interested in writing some SEO-focused blog posts to help them grow.
This approach is more time-consuming, but it’s also more likely to actually get you a client.
Applying to job postings is perhaps the most obvious way to find new freelance gigs, but it can be very effective as long as you’re a competitive candidate. Unfortunately, freelance job postings on popular sites are often inundated with applications within just a few hours of going live, so it can be very hard to stand out from the competition.
There are a lot of niche and industry-specific job boards out there, but you can also use the big names like Google Jobs, Monster, and ZipRecruiter. There are also several subreddits on Reddit that have job postings, like r/hiring.
Many new freelancers think that marketplaces, like Upwork and Fiverr, are the best places to land clients and freelance gigs. However, you’ll find that many experienced freelancers shun these platforms for several reasons: they charge fees, they don’t let you build direct, long-term relationships with your clients, and you’re always at the whims of the admins.
These freelancer platforms can be a great place to cut your teeth and gain some experience, so don’t overlook them. However, keep in mind that you’ll likely want to move off of them eventually. That said, some freelancers make their entire living off of these platforms, so let your experience be your guide.
Next Steps: Sustaining a Pipeline
Once you’ve found your first few clients, your strategy will likely start to shift. While you can continue using the above tactics indefinitely, at a certain point, you may find it more efficient to focus on inbound instead of outbound marketing.
In short, the change will come down to this: as you get more clients, you’ll start to accumulate reviews and testimonials, which will generate some awareness through word of mouth, and past clients may start to give their colleagues recommendations to you. In other words, at a certain point, clients will start coming to you, not the other way around.
But that’s a topic for another time. In our next article, we’ll go over inbound marketing for freelancers so you can take your pipeline to the next level.
And don’t forget: once you find your first client, you’ll need to send an invoice if you want to get paid. Blinksale makes invoicing simple with intuitive, easy-to-use professional invoice templates.