Whether you’re struggling to find a job or are hoping to escape an existing one, freelancing offers another way of working. While freelancing isn’t for everyone, it can offer the opportunity to manage your own workload, work from home, and control your hours. If you’re not sure whether freelancing is for you, check out my guide to the realities of freelancing.
If you’ve already made the decision to go it alone as a freelancer, it can be difficult to know where to start. As a full-time freelancer, here’s my non-nonsense guide to starting as a freelancer from scratch.
Step 1: Know your skills.
It might sound obvious, but to start freelancing, you need to know what you want to do. Start asking yourself some questions. What service do you want to offer? What skills do you have that could be used in a freelance capacity? This might be something related to previous education, something you do in your current job, or something you did in a previous job.
At this stage, it’s better to avoid choosing something you’ve absolutely never done before, as a huge learning curve is not a great place to start as a freelancer. But you can consider transferrable skills—for example, if you’ve worked in admin, you could have skills that would be useful as an Online PA. Also known as … pick what you’re good at.
Step 2: Don’t quit your day job.
When you’ve figured out what you want to do, it can be tempting to jack in your current job today (if you have one) and think you’ll start as a freelancer tomorrow. After all, you need free time to set yourself up as a freelancer, right? In reality, having no stable income to rely on while you get started is likely to be a hindrance and send you back job hunting.
Unless you’ve got bags of money squirreled away to survive on while you get started (or an extremely lengthy notice period), it’s better to start small while you’re still a payroll employee and build up until you’re ready to make the leap*. At the same time, you should start saving as much as possible to enable to cushion the leap later.
*A small note: If you’re going to be doing similar work to your day job, you may need to check with them whether you are able to freelance at the same time. Most employers are fine with this as long as you are ensuring sufficient breaks between work and not working for competitors.
Step 3: Start small.
Starting small means doing a few jobs outside your normal employment i.e. in your spare time. While the last thing you want to do after a day at work is more work, doing so will help to build your reputation and enable you to get a feel for freelancing and whether it’s right for you. The small jobs can be as simple as helping out a friend or family member who will vouch for your skills later or offering some of your time as a volunteer in a relevant area. Alternatively, you can set yourself set up on some freelancing websites and apply for small jobs on there to get started.
Step 4: Get set up.
Getting set up means the boring practicalities of freelancing. You need to find a way to source work, and many freelancers do this through freelancing websites such as PeoplePerHour and UpWork. Set up profiles for yourself on these sites and apply for a few small jobs on there to start with. Most jobs advertised are a few hours work, and PeoplePerHour enables you to set up “hourlies” where buyers can purchase an hour or more of your time.
Later on, you can decide which site you prefer or continue to work via a few of them, though it’s easier to manage building a large volume of good feedback by working through one site, rather than several. Ensure you set up a LinkedIn profile or add “freelance” somewhere in your profile, as freelance jobs are also advertised on there. Just remember, you probably won’t get paid much to start with until you have an established reputation on the site.
Step 5: Get paid.
When you get paid as a freelancer, you’re liable to pay tax. Depending on your country of residence, you most likely need to apply for self-assessment tax, even if you’ll only be earning a small amount and even if you’ll still be a paid employee elsewhere. You can usually set this up online through the government’s website, and your first tax payment won’t be due for a while, so don’t worry too much about the tax for now—just keep a record for later.
Step 6: Keep a record.
So you don’t encounter problems later down the line, keep a record of any payments you make (such as receipts to set up the business) or receive (such as invoices). It’s easiest to set up a simple spreadsheet to keep track of these things. Scan/photograph all receipts and keep them in a folder on your computer. In the long term, you can always hire an accountant to sort your tax for you, and they will need this paperwork.
Step 7: Find your niche in the market.
When the practicalities are out of the way, you can focus on improving your offering. Check out what other similar freelancers are offering and consider how you can ensure you stand out from them. What skills or experience do you have that your competitors are lacking? Are your prices reasonable considering what others are offering? Does your profile look compelling compared to theirs? You can also ask friends and family to check out your profiles and provide any feedback.
When doing this, you might have spotted a gap in the market for a particular niche. Or you might have noticed that similar freelancers are lacking a particular skill you have, and you can use this skill to create a niche offering. This doesn’t mean dropping your main offering, but it means you can offer additional services that set you apart from your competitors.
Step 8: Build a reputation.
Much of freelancing depends on building a reliable reputation, as most freelancing sites use a “review” system to rank their freelancers. And the higher you rank, the more often you appear in search results. So as you build your reputation, you become more visible and gain more work (and you can charge more for your services).
In the early days, it’s important to gain great feedback to build this reputation, so if you encounter any problems with buyers early on, find a way to ensure they’re left happy and give you good feedback – even if it means offering them a freebie next time to avoid negative feedback that will put off other potential buyers. The beauty of this is that happy customers are often return customers and provide regular work.
Step 9: Make the leap.
When you’ve built up a good amount of positive feedback and a savings cushion, it’s time to make the leap into freelancing. At this point, you can quit your job knowing that while it might be a difficult few months to start with, you can successfully make it as a freelancer. Ensure you have enough savings to cover your bills until your freelancing brings in a full-time income. If taking the leap is too much, you could ask to cut your employed hours to part time and freelance part time. Or you could look for a part-time job to sustain yourself in case the freelancing doesn’t always pay off.
Step 10: Don’t give up.
The first few months of full-time freelancing can be tough, especially if you don’t get as much work as you expected. You might feel like your wage isn’t as much as you had hoped, or that you’re spending more time working than you’d wanted to. Don’t give up hope. It can be a hard slog at first, but as you build a bigger and better reputation, the work will increase and you’ll get used to managing your own hours and workload.