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How to become a freelancer: a step-by-step guide

So, you’ve taken the time to understand what freelancing is, the pros and cons of working for yourself, and the surprises and challenges that might await. But now that you’re armed with information on freelancing, are you ready to get started and finally become a freelancer?

You’re ready! We’ve encompassed all the important points you’ll need to consider when getting started as a freelancer, from defining exactly why you’re going freelance, working out your price point and how to start building your brand. Read this guide to figure out your next steps for starting a successful freelance business.

Plan for success

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else” said the famous baseball player, Yogi Berra and we deem him to be right. Launching your freelancing career is exciting, and it is easy to get carried away and jump in feet first. However, spending some time upfront planning and making some decisions about how you intend to run your business can set you up for success in the long run.

Understand your why

One critical step that a lot of people skip is taking the time to understand your personal reasons for going freelance. Are you attracted to the idea of being your own boss? Want to avoid the commute? Or maybe you can’t stand your boss any longer?

While there might be many reasons why you find the thought of becoming a freelancer exhilarating, there’s that one juicy benefit that is so compelling you’re about to take the plunge. What is it?

Don’t go into freelancing for the wrong reasons, you’ll struggle to enjoy it.

Defining your personal why for becoming a freelancer will be your north star when the going gets tough. It will also help you set realistic expectations and goals and understand better what it’s going to take to attain the lifestyle you dream about.

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of your why—don’t fall into this trap.

Set your goals early

As a freelancer, you won’t have much time (and opportunity) for official training, attending conferences or career planning. But you’ll spend a huge amount of your working time learning on the job and from the projects you take on.

Think about your professional goals and where you want to be in five or ten years—write them down.

Your work will shape you. Your portfolio and past experiences will either win or lose future projects for you. When it comes to achieving certain milestones in your freelance career, it’s best to be strategic about it and plan ahead to avoid accepting work that distracts you or derails you from your path.

Same goes for your money goals. Sitting down and figuring out how much money you need to make to cover your living costs, health insurance, holidays, pension and other expenses at the start of your freelancing journey, will help you set the right rates.

While you may start out with one pricing list just to get the ball rolling, you’ll know when to up your rates to meet your financial goals. It’s too easy to get caught up in the daily running of your business, so it’s important to set time aside to review things such as your rates. .

Plan before you plunge in!

Figure out your niche and prices

The competition in the freelance economy is fierce. To be successful, you’ll need to nail your USPs (unique selling points) early and get your target audience and niche on point. Ask yourself: what are you really good at? Can you prove you’re really good at it? Will someone pay you for it? Who?

Flying solo can be a scary business. Save yourself the stress and do your homework well in advance by researching the market and other freelancers, and then compare this to your offering to find where you fit. With this ticked off, you’ll be set for a successful start.

When it comes to setting your rates, there are three key factors to consider:

  • Your current salary—this will be your starting point when figuring out how much you need to make in the beginning.
  • The going rate for your services—there’s typically a price range that covers junior, mid-weight and senior professionals’ rates. Research the industry you’re going to target to get a better idea of the average prices.
  • Your money goals—freelancing is a business. As soon as you feel comfortable negotiating, you can start charging clients based on what the perceived value of your work is, not how much time you spend on it. For instance, a good copywriter can charge a few hundred an hour when they’re working on a landing page copy because they know this sales page will soon be generating thousands for the client.
a freelancer negotiating to get a first client by explaining ideas on a table.

Where will you find your first clients?

The most successful freelancers think like entrepreneurs (because, essentially, that’s what they are). If you consider freelance as your long-term career plan, building a client list and finding your first clients should start with one task—defining your ideal customer.

You might not be able to land your ideal customer on day one, but any project you accept as a freelancer should be strategically aligned to getting you closer to your goal.

Exploring the freelance marketplace

Jumping on one of the large freelance marketplaces may seem like the perfect way to land your first few clients and there are many articles out there advising you to do just that. Ignore the advice. Without a solid portfolio and a good reputation score on one of these platforms, you’ll struggle to win great projects even if you find them. If you decide to advertise your services on these platforms, it is best to take a long term approach by winning a few smaller projects and building your profile and feedback, which in turn will hopefully lead to larger, more complex projects.

Turn to your existing connections

Instead, turn to your connections first. Talk to your family, friends, university connections, colleagues or the barista at your local coffee shop. It’s very likely someone knows someone who needs something—and that’s all you often need to get your foot in the door.

The first few clients will not pay you millions, but the projects will teach you everything you haven’t considered about running a small business—how to set expectations, manage your time, accept feedback and deliver quality work.

a freelancer pitching her own idea to her client with a PC.

How to build and pitch your freelance portfolio

In the freelance world, very few clients will ask to see your resume before they see your portfolio. Most clients won’t even bother checking your CV if your work doesn’t seem like the right fit. Building a strong portfolio is an absolute must for any type of freelancer. But where do you even begin?

Whether you’re a freelance programmer, writer, designer or recruiter, you’ll need a collection of work samples or past achievements to show your prospective clients that you’re capable of completing the task at hand. Essentially, that’s what a portfolio is.

Evaluate your previous work

Be a tough but fair critic when evaluating your work. Start with your strongest pieces first (or achievements, depending on your field of work) and give them the proper introduction.

  • Include captions: what is it that you’re showcasing here?
  • Outline what you contributed to this piece/challenge.
  • What impact did the project have on your client’s business? Did it generate sales/traffic/engagement? How much?
  • Did you receive good feedback from the client? Can you include a testimonial?
  • Did you face and overcome any challenges in the process, such as creative, budgetary or timeline constraints?
  • Did you get published/mentioned in the media or receive any awards for it?

When pitching to a new client, ensure the most relevant work is at the top. If you hope the client will comb through your portfolio to find something that fits—that won’t happen. Ever.

Create your narrative

Be prepared to present your work and how it relates to the project you’re angling to win. Storytelling is always the best strategy to hook the listener in. One of the best-known pitching techniques follows a simple structure:

  • The problem/challenge I faced...
  • To overcome this challenge, I…
  • As a result…

If you’re just starting out, honesty is the best policy. Don’t try to oversell your skills or experience because that won’t end well. Think about the long-term health of your freelance business and take on work that plays to your strengths.

a freelancer's brand color design - color book with ipad on a table.

Define and build your personal brand

Building a personal brand might sound like something an Instagram influencer would do. But that’s not the case. A personal brand is just a fancy term for reputation and, when you think about it, every person that you know has a reputation for something.

As a freelancer, you want to build a personal brand that sells your services for you. The best indication of the strength of your brand is the amount of work you get through word-of-mouth client referrals. Once enquiries start flooding in without you having to do anything, you know you’re on the right track.

Adding your personality

So, how do you go about defining and building a personal brand? Start with outlining your personal and professional values. What do you want to be known for? Are you a problem solver or an eccentric creative? What’s your working style?

Answering these and similar questions will guide you through the brand-building process and inform most of your decisions. To have a strong online presence, you will need to get yourself a website as well as brand your personal social media accounts. Even simple things like sorting out a professional headshot, creating a work email and a professional email signature, and figuring out a colour scheme for your website will impact your personal brand.

Again, think about your long-term plan—what you do today will have a major influence on your future success.


Final words

If you learn one thing from this article, let it be this: there are no growth hacks in freelancing.

Instead of fueling your energy into quick wins and getting caught up in looking for shortcuts, play the long game and move strategically. Let your personal why dictate your decisions and don’t jump into freelancing without a plan. It’s ideal if you can start with a few side hustles and build your business slowly. But if that’s not an option, focus on building long-term relationships and a strong reputation. Every project and client you take on should get you closer to your ideal customer and your dream career.

Planning well and consistently delivering high quality work is what will set you apart from a mass of gig-workers. Becoming a freelancer requires commitment, resilience and strategic planning—but you’ll look back at your hard work one day and be grateful you made the leap.


Your money at N26

If setting up your own business is causing you confusion, N26 are here to help with their free bank account for freelancers and the self-employed, which makes things easy, letting you earn 0.1% cashback on all purchases you make, and enjoy free card payments worldwide. And now that time really is money, luckily it only takes a few minutes to set up.

N26 Business banking for freelancers and the self-employed

N26 You: free travel and theft insurance, foreign medical expenses and more

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