How To Start Freelancing – By A Six Figure Freelancer

There’s a reason why I like smart people – they ask smart questions.

You see, this site is about making money from home. A field that’s plagued by questions like ‘How to make money with surveys’ and ‘How to make money with AI’.

But that’s not what you asked.

What you asked is how to start freelancing – or how can you take a skill and sell it to people who need it, while working from home and being your own boss. Oh, and making a shit ton of money in the process.

That, my friend, is the smart question. Now let’s try to get you an answer.

Define your goals

Some people want to freelance for money. Others for lifestyle.

Some want to get to six figures like I did, no matter the cost. Others want to work from home to stay closer to their loved ones. Oh, and a few only need something that pays their bills while they travel the world.

Some want to scale this full time and quite their job. Others are just looking for a side hustle and have a certain amount in mind – maybe you want to make an extra $1000 per month.

Whatever your reasons to become a freelancer, it helps to start with a clear goal in mind, because what you want is going to have an impact on the road that you need to take.

Months 0-3: work. Months 3-6: make some money. 
Months 6-12: Part time income
Months 12-36: Free
If your goal is to replace your income and you are starting from zero, this is a rough timeline

Is freelancing your ONE thing?

Not to sound discouraging, but… it’ll suck.

If you are thinking that starting out as a freelancer will be exciting, rewarding and fully of joy… think twice. Ask all those people with a profile on Upwork that’s stuck at zero jobs, zero reviews, zero dollars. They were full of hope. Then they found out the truth – starting to freelance is freaking difficult!

That is why, before we even begin to answer, you need to ask yourself one question – is freelancing your one thing? The thing that you want so much that you can pour your heart and soul into?

You don’t need to answer now, but you’ll have to decide if it is before you start transitioning into your new freelance role. Because if it isn’t, there may be other ways.

The concept of the one thing is not mine (I am not that smart) – it comes from NYT bestselling book The One Thing by Gary Keller. Why should you care? Because it says some things that I want you to remember:

  • Not everything matters equally – you should prioritize what matters most to you
  • Success is the result you get when you narrow your concentration to one single thing
  • You don’t achieve wins through willpower, but as a result of habit

If freelancing is your one thing, and if you are ready to prioritize it for the next few weeks, months and maybe years, then we are ready to begin.

Find your niche

Have you got a skill that lends itself to start freelancing? If the answer is yes, do you want to use it?

A lot of times, people start thinking about freelancing because they want to escape their job. Do something different. If that’s your situation, don’t worry – there are other ways.

Today there are plenty of online courses to pick up skills you can easily sell as a freelancer. Examples include:

  • Proofread Anywhere by Caitlin Pike – If your colleagues call you for help when they have to send an email, deliver a paper or write anything in general, proofreading can be a fantastic freelance gig
  • Fully Booked VA by Gina Horkey – If you are a time management freak with good social skills, and you can do a number of things an entrepreneur might want to avoid, freelancing as a VA a great way to go
  • Bookkeeper Launch by Kelly Robinson – If you are good with numbers, freelancing as a bookkeeper allows you to make good money while working just a few hours per week

But it doesn’t end here. In fact, there are tons of freelance opportunities out there that are perfect for beginners, side hustlers, wannabe digital nomads, stay at home mums and many others.

Subject matter expertise

We all have skills we bring to the table – hard skills, soft skills and meta skills that make us valuable for someone.

When taken alone, though, skills don’t make us unique or irreplaceable. To become unique, you should focus on a mix of skills and knowledge in a specific area, or subject matter expertise.

A subject matter expert is someone who has thorough knowledge and in-depth understanding of a specific topic.

An example? As a translator with 10+ years of experience, I can easily charge any client €0.08 per word. Only when I add significant knowledge – and experience – in the Forex and crypto industry, though, I can jump into the € 0.12 to 0.15 range.

I have good news for you – as you are starting out as a freelancer, you don’t need to have subject matter expertise already. But if you want to grow your business, you can’t be a generalist for too long – sooner or later, you will need to develop some kind of specialization.

Start marketing your services to find clients

There are many ways to find freelance clients.

They include sending cold email pitches and Upwork proposals, commenting on Facebook groups, creating YouTube videos and many more. I actually listed 10 of them here.

Unless you want to wait for months or even years to get your first client, I’d never recommend you to start a website. Likewise, if you want this to become your full time profession in 2 years and you are in one of the least paid freelance niches, I’d recommend to stay away from Upwork.

Whatever your situation, here are my two favorite ways to get new clients fast, regardless of your situation.

Lead Gen Idea #1 – Answer job posts on Upwork

If you have never made a single dollar freelancing, now is not the time to worry about money. Your first priority should be to gain some resemblance of experience. I don’t care if it’s well paid or not, and you shouldn’t either.

I know Upwork has a bad rep for low prices, but I also know something else – when I started out as a freelance translator, I had no degree and no professional experience under my belt. The three years I spent on Upwork gave me the experience I needed to then move on to much more lucrative gigs.

Upwork acted as a springboard for my freelance career, and it can do the same for yours.

I wrote a pretty exhaustive guide on writing Upwork proposals that work. Here’s the TLDR:

  • Study the job post carefully; posts say more than meets the eye, but only if you know how to read them
  • YOU are not the focus of your proposal – the client is; determine their problem and be relevant
  • End your proposal with a call to action, aka tell the client what you want them to do to move to the next steps
  • Be quick – most of the time, the job goes to the first freelancer who sends a 5-star proposal

As you start writing your first proposal, accept that it will be bad. That’s ok, we all start somewhere, and even more important… it doesn’t matter.

Put things in perspective. You won’t ‘lose your face’ if your proposal sucks.

It’ll be just another proposal that sucks, in a long list of proposals that suck, in a long list of projects that the client needs to assign. They won’t remember your bad proposal. They don’t know who you are, and they never will until they start working with you.

You know what that means.

Hit the send button.

Lead Gen Idea #2 – Network on Facebook groups

I feel like networking has become such a broad term that I wouldn’t be surprised if you are wondering ‘What does this even mean?’

Not every group lends itself to productive networking. In fact, I think many freelancers waste their time writing things only other freelancers are interested in.

I don’t want you to waste your time, especially now that you should use it to get your first clients. Instead, I want you to find the right groups – groups where your clients hang out.

If you offer funnel building services for SaaS companies, the SaaS Growth Hacks Facebook group (31K members) can help. Freelance proofreader? Self Publishing Support Group (50K members). Last, if you are a VA, Time Management & Productivity For Female Entrepreneurs is a much smaller group (‘only’ 1.5K members) but full of pre-qualified potential clients.

Whatever your freelance skill, there is a group that is perfect for your ideal client – and therefore for you.

What to do once you have found the perfect group? Just contribute whenever you can be of help. If someone is asking something that you know the answer to, share your knowledge. Start with ‘Based on my experience as a freelance X’, then help.

Don’t get sales-y – there is no need to. Once you start showing competence, leads will come.

Important note: before you start implementing this strategy, make sure your profile is optimized. That means no drunk photos with friends, no unprofessional updates, the usual suspects. If you are an active Facebook user, you may want to keep you and your solo business separate – in that case, create a dedicated profile.

Why is it so difficult to start freelancing?

There are three reasons why starting to freelance is so difficult – imposter syndrome, fear of rejection and the obsession with inbound marketing. When you are just starting out, you can’t afford any of them.

Pitch as if your life depended on it, network in the right places and tell everyone about your services, and you will build a freelance business in no time.

Tip

If you can, consider offering a retainer to your first clients to turn them into anchor clients. They may pay a discounted rate, but that’ll make sure you start making some money while you work on growing your freelance business.

Create your marketing assets

As you’ll quickly find out, each marketing strategy requires some assets. Cold pitches become more effective when you can link to a case study you created or an item in your portfolio. If you want to white label your service to an agency, they may require a resume. And if you choose to start on Upwork, you are going to need a perfect Upwork profile.

Website

Please don’t choose one of the free options – they make you look cheap. You are running a business, and you are lucky – it has minimal initial investment to get it started. So invest in your business – the expense is minimal and it’ll make you look more credible.

Buy a domain name on Godaddy and a hosting package from a reputable provider (I recommend WPX), then decide if you want to design the website yourself or pay a professional to do it.

If you are tight on budget, you will find many web designers on Upwork that’ll be happy to design an ok website for less than $250.

If you decide that you want to use your website to attract leads, then you’ll also need a blog (and a content plan). If not, keep things simple – home page, about page, portfolio and contact are all you are going to need.

Portfolio/Work samples

Your portfolio is not your own journal of success stories – it’s a tool to attract new clients. Highlight what they want, not what you want.

What does that mean? That you may have to let go of what you want to say to make room to what your clients want to hear.

If you rebuilt a website for a small business in your area, don’t focus on how beautiful it is. The client may agree or disagree, but even more important, they don’t care.

What they care about is how the higher speed helped the business with their SEO to rank higher on Google and attract new leads. Or how the interface you redesigned highlighted the email subscription boxes, resulting in a noticeable increase of email subscribers.

Resume

Do you even need a resume as a freelancer? That depends on your niche and your ideal client.

In my industry (translation) you usually need a resume. If yours is like mine, here are a few tips to create a great one:

  • Target your resume to the specific client you are sending it to. Make it ultra relevant. Mirror their key words. Cut the fluff.
  • If possible, include data from previous work you did. Clients want results, and if you have tangible proof you can get them those results, you are more likely to be selected.
  • Don’t hide your niche – if you did your homework, your niche will be relevant to the potential client at hand. Showcase your previous work in their area as best as you can.
  • Don’t just shoot your resume and pray – create a great cover letter and use it in the body of your email.

Determine your rates

As a beginner, there are two ways you can price your services: based on your hourly rate expectation, and based on your competition. My advice? Calculate them both ways, then find the sweet spot.

Calculate your target hourly rate

Before you can even start thinking about your rates, you need to determine how much money you want to make per year and how much time you want to dedicate to work.

A year has 52 weeks – assuming you will be sick for 2 and you will take 6 off, there are 44 weeks left.

If you want to work Monday through Friday, 5 hours of billable work per day, you have 1100 working hours per year. If you want to make $55,000, you’ll need to charge $50/hour.

If, however, you can dedicate 6 billable hours to client work every day, then you are up to 1320 hours. In this case, you only need to make $42 per hour.

Fill in your numbers and find out. The formula goes like this

Target hourly rate = Target yearly income / Billable hours per day * number of days per week you want to work * number of weeks you want to work in a given year

Once you calculate this, you need to find out how long it takes you to deliver your service. If you are selling 2000-word blog posts, how long does it take you to write one? If you design 3-page websites, can you anticipate how many hours they take? (If you are not sure, a time tracking app can help you)

Compare that with your target hourly rate, and that’s how much you should charge.

EXAMPLE: Jim is a freelance writer. He wants to make $100,000 per year, working 4 hours per day for 5 days a week, 45 weeks per year. The math is simple:

100,000/4*5*45 = $111/hour.

If it takes him 4 hours to research and write a 2,000-word blog post, he’ll need to charge his clients either $444 per article, or $0.22 per word.

Model your prices based on your competition

Good news for you – the Internet is full of service providers. If you want to charge a reasonable price, study how much they are charging, then try to understand if their services are better or worse than yours. (If they are better, by the way, work to get up to speed)

As you will quickly notice, prices vary widely for similar services. Some translators work at $0.02 per word. Others charge 10 times more. Are they 10 times better than their poorer colleagues? Probably not.

But if they can charge as much as they do, and still get clients who are happy to pay them, that’s great news for you. It means there is a market that can pay those rates.

As you are starting out, you will probably end up working somewhere along the lower portion of the rate continuum. Most online gurus will tell you not to do that, and that you should charge what you are worth.

I disagree.

As you are starting out as a freelancer, I think gaining experience is the most important thing you can do. That is, in and by itself, the most important currency you are going to get for the first few months.

Charge as much as you can, but not enough that clients won’t hire you. If you can’t find any other way, charge peanuts, but find a way to charge more. Invest in yourself. Develop your skills or your ability to market them.

The world is full of former freelancers who went back to the corporate world because they thought their gig was not lucrative enough, while others in the exact same area are thriving.

Follow the perfect system to start marketing your services

Before you start using any of these strategies, you need to create a bulletproof system to do it not just now, but over and over again.

Freelancing means owning a solo business – just like any other business, either it’s growing, or it’s shrinking.

In other words, you need to create a habit of marketing your services. Here is how you can do it.

Turn finding clients into a habit

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits and personal hero of mine, this is the backbone of every habit:

The cue is the initial trigger that signals a potential reward, motivating the brain to engage in a behavior. The brain constantly scans for these cues as they indicate the proximity to a desired reward.

Cravings, the second step, are the motivational forces driving every habit. They’re not about the habit itself but the change in state the habit promises. For instance, the act of smoking a cigarette is driven by the craving for relief it provides, not the action itself.

The third step is the response, the actual habit performed. If the action is too challenging, or if you lack the ability to perform it, the habit won’t occur.

Finally, the reward satisfies the craving and teaches the brain to remember the action. Rewards have two functions: satisfying immediate cravings and teaching the brain to recognize actions that fulfill desires. Pleasurable experiences reinforce the habit, completing the cycle.

A habit only forms if all four stages are sufficiently fulfilled. Mr. Clear’s recommendation to form new habits is this:

  1. Make the cue obvious.
  2. Make the craving attractive.
  3. Make the response easy.
  4. Make the reward satisfying.

Here’s how can you apply this to your freelance journey:

  • Choose a time or a moment of the day for your promotional activities. Same thing, Monday through Friday, at a specific time or when something occurs (e.g. the kids leave to go to school). You want to get your mind used to do that thing, at that moment, till it becomes an automatic response.
  • Bundle this new habit with something that you actually enjoy – e.g. if you are a morning person, take care of finding leads while you have your coffee in the morning. The brain will slowly start to associate the two things.
  • Start simple. If you decided to send Upwork proposals (LINK) but you are struggling to actually hit Send, accept that you’ll write one without actually sending it. You’ll do the same thing for whatever time you need, until you feel confident enough to actually push the Send button.
  • Reward yourself for what you just did! Common ideas include eating a snack or doing an activity that you enjoy, like walking the dog.

Conclusion

I have to make a confession – I am lucky.

You see, a lot of people dread freelancing for the uncertainty, the feast and famine, the lack of 401Ks and paid days off. Others consider freelancing one of their options. Something that may or may not materialize, and if it doesn’t, that’s ok.

For me, freelancing has never been just an option.

I knew it from the moment I got my first job.

It was a measly $20 project on Elance (today’s Upwork), but I couldn’t care less. My freelancing journey had just begun.

Now is your time to begin yours.

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