Looking to make some extra cash? Ready to switch career fields? Learning how to start freelancing is one of the best new business ideas you can do in either of those situations.
More and more people are choosing to freelance because it’s incredibly flexible, and it can often pay better than traditional work.
But how do you start freelancing if you’ve never done it before? I’m going to outline the 7 steps every new freelancer should follow if they want to start freelancing in 2021.
How to start freelancing with no experience
1. Decide what service you’ll offer
This is the very, very beginning of working as a freelancer – what kind of freelance work do you want to do?
This is a major decision, and there are a couple of routes you can take:
Option 1: Leverage existing skills
Take a close look at your previous work experience, educational background, and even your hobbies. Which ones can you offer as freelance work?
Are you an experienced web developer? There are lots of opportunities right now for freelance web developers. Or maybe you have a natural ability to spot spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors – proofreading might be a good choice.
Relying on your existing skills and experience gives you an advantage. You don’t have to spend time or money learning how to do something new. The only problem is if there isn’t a high demand for the work that you’re already skilled in.
Option 2: Learn an in-demand skill
There are some kinds of work you can learn quickly and then start freelancing in with little to no experience. Some options for this are virtual assistance, digital marketing, and content marketing.
This obvious downside is that it takes time to learn a new skill, and you’ll be starting from the very bottom. However, I know a lot of people who’ve been really successful going down this path.
For example, Kat, one of the first people to take my digital marketing Facebook Side Hustle Course, went on to build a $10,000/month freelance business. She does digital marketing, email marketing, website design, course creation, lead generation, and more.
Kat learned a marketable and in-demand skill and took it from there. She would be the first to say it took a lot of hustle, but it’s paid off.
Once you’ve landed on the kind of services you want to offer, start narrowing it down even more and put together a list of your service offerings.
There’s a broad range of service options in every kind of freelancing field, and deciding what you will and won’t offer can help you decide what direction your new freelance business goes in.
The services you offer help you brand your business, make you more attractive to certain types of clients, and will eventually help you be seen as an expert in your field.
If you want to work as a copywriter (this is sought-after and high-paying writing work), you want to say that from the beginning. Writing stock web copy won’t help you achieve your goals.
While taking freelance jobs you don’t love can help you pay the bills as you’re starting a freelance business, keep your eye on your ultimate goal.
Related: 9 Low-Cost Business Ideas for 2021
2. Determine your niche
Your niche is the industry you specialize in working with. Knowing your niche can help you pitch and land clients. You want to know what clients in that industry are looking for, the lingo, what service they need, how you can help, etc.
A good practice when deciding on your niche is to think about what your ideal client will look like. Basically, who would you love to offer freelance jobs to?
You can start with simple things like deciding if you want to work with big companies or small ones. If you’re just starting a freelance business and don’t have a ton of experience in what services you’re providing, I’d recommend looking at smaller businesses.
People who already have a lot of work experience and are transitioning from a traditional job to freelance may be able to go after freelance work in the corporate world.
Beyond the size of your clients, think about your niche and ideal freelance client in terms of these three points:
- The kind of business who will need the services you’re offering
- Whether or not the businesses you’re interested in will be able to afford your services
- What you know about different company’s demographic trends – age, gender, interests, location, etc. – can help you identify a company’s specific needs
Let’s say I wanted to take my experience as a personal finance blogger and start a freelance business doing consulting services.
My background suggests consulting for other bloggers, and I can easily identify with blogs that have a focus on personal finance. I probably wouldn’t limit myself to personal finance bloggers only, but that would be a good starting point for me.
Now, affordability… this one is hard because you don’t always know what a business can afford, but there are a couple of signs. Are they expanding? That’s good. Have you heard a lot of negative reviews? That’s bad.
A small business that’s on the verge of expanding is an ideal client if you’re learning how to start a freelancing business that offers digital marketing services – they need someone who can help them develop a good ad strategy and bring in leads. Make sense?
Having a defined niche and ideal client also helps you identify certain industry standards.
If your dream freelance job is building websites for real estate agents, you’ll need to have a solid understanding of the industry terms, best practices, any legal issues, etc.
Think about what your ideal clients want, what you need to know about their industry, and those two things will help you when it’s time to start pitching your freelance services.
3. Set your rates
This can be one of the hardest parts of starting a freelance business. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with freelancers who waver on their rates. Is it too high? Will anyone pay me that much per hour? Most of the time their rates are too low.
The issue is that when you start a brand new freelance business, you look at yourself as entry-level. That’s true in some sense, but you might have years of experience in your field. Even if you just learned a new skill, you have to account for the time spent learning and the resources you’ve gained along the way.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to find industry standards, and I recommend looking at those to figure out your starting point.
There are subreddits for freelancers, freelance Facebook communities, and Slack channels where freelancers openly talk about what they’re getting paid.
Talking to others in your industry will give you the confidence to command the rates you deserve. Honestly, confidence is huge here. You need to set rates based on the value you provide to your clients.
Part of determining your rates is deciding on a rate structure, and here are the three most common types:
- Per hour: You bill clients based on the amount of time it takes to complete work.
- Per project: You have defined parameters for a project and charge a flat rate for that work.
- On retainer: The client pays you a set weekly or monthly fee no matter how much work you do.
There are some pros and cons to each kind of fee structure.
Charging per hour means you can account for all of the work you do, but it can be hard to keep track of your time.
Per project is good if you have a clear understanding of how long each project takes, but if it takes a lot longer, it will feel like you’re making a lot less.
A retainer provides a steady income, but scope creep (when you end up doing much more than you expected) is something many freelancers face.
The bottom line on setting your freelance rates: your time is worth more than you think and you can always adjust your rates in the future.
4. Start building your online presence
Every business needs a website, even your freelance business. It doesn’t matter how small you are – having an online presence lends credibility and makes it easier for potential clients to find you.
You don’t need a fancy website or to spend a lot of money and time on it. Here’s all your freelance website needs to include:
- An about page with a clear picture of you (doesn’t have to be a professional headshot) and a short bio that gives a little background information (but you don’t have to get too personal). This will help clients connect with you and get a better sense of who they’d be working with.
- A list of services that tells potential clients how you can help them. It never hurts to say, “If you don’t see the services you need, contact me and we can talk!” That opens the door to new opportunities
- Contact information is a must. Your site should have an email listed and maybe even a phone number. You can also embed a contact form on your website to make it even easier for potential clients to reach out.
- number if you want to include it, and some freelancers like to include a contact form too.
- A portfolio or client list to show off your previous work and industry experience.
I highly recommend starting a WordPress site hosted on Bluehost. It costs as little as $2.95/month when you use my exclusive Bluehost link, and WordPress comes free with Bluehost.
5. Market yourself
There are a few different ways to market yourself to potential clients, so let’s go through each one. Don’t worry, you don’t have to choose just one. You can, and should, try each of these strategies.
Freelance job platforms
The basic idea behind these sites is that you can either create a profile, and potential clients can browse profiles until they find the kind of freelancer they want. Or, you create a profile and pitch clients who create job listings on the site.
There’s often a fee or commission attached to these sites. That might be a monthly fee for creating a profile, or a commission – a percentage of your pay – goes to the site when you get paid.
What’s great about these sites is that you’re putting yourself right in front of people who are actively looking for freelancers.
The downside is that you’re competing for a small number of jobs with lots of other freelancers.
Networking in online groups is a really good and inexpensive path, like joining Slack channels, Facebook groups, LinkedIn, and Meet-Up groups.
You need to be prepared to email any leads and directly pitch clients you find out about through networking sites. It’s as simple as a quick email that explains who you are and how you can serve your client.
If you don’t get a response in a couple of days, send a follow-up email to make sure you have the right person.
Hearing “no” happens to the best of us. Don’t let it discourage you, because all it takes is one “yes.”
This is a really powerful way to find freelance clients because if someone is willing to introduce you to one of their contacts, it says a lot about you as a freelancer.
Finding clients through word-of-mouth gets easier when you’ve built your client roster, but it can still happen when you’re learning how to start freelancing. Reach out to your family and friends, possibly even old work contacts, tell them about your freelance business, and ask if they’d be willing to pass your name along.
I’ve actually hired a couple of freelancers for my site on word-of-mouth alone, and one of them had never worked as a freelancer in that position before.
6. Keep track of your payments and taxes
From the very beginning, you need to start a system of taking payments and keeping track of them.
PayPal is one of the most popular choices because it’s free to create an account and money shows up instantly. However, PayPal charges you up to a 2.9% transaction fee, plus $0.30.
Accepting checks is another option – it’s an affordable way to move money from your client’s account to yours. The problem is that you can find yourself waiting for checks in the mail.
Using accounting software is honestly the way to go in the long run, like QuickBooks or FreshBooks. While they cost you money to use, you can use the software to invoice and accept payments. It’s also helpful at tax time.
Ughh, taxes are my least favorite part about running a business. I’m so happy I have an accountant now.
When you’re self-employed as a freelancer, you’re responsible for tracking and withholding your taxes. And you have to withhold both the employee and employer side of your taxes, so you should expect to set aside around 30% of your income for taxes.
The other tax consideration freelancers need to consider is estimated quarterly taxes – these are taxes you pay every quarter, and there are penalties if you file annually.
My accountant (I really love this man) helped me write a really solid article about side hustling and tax time: How to Handle Taxes for Your Side Hustle.
7. Always deliver high-quality work
This one is obvious, but it’s too important to not say explicitly. Your freelance business is you, all you. Your name and livelihood are on the line for every project you complete for your clients.
Delivering quality work and value isn’t just about making your clients happy, it’s how you grow your business.
Some clients will give you feedback, but if they don’t, just ask. With long-term clients, you can set up quarterly meetings to talk about expectations and if you’re meeting them.
And whether they’re long-term clients or not, make sure you’re communicative from the very beginning of your relationship. Everyone needs to be clear on the tasks, expectations, time frame, etc. If you’re not sure, reach out and ask follow up questions. And current clients can turn into great references for future clients, too.
Knowing exactly what your clients are looking for ensures that you’re delivering what they want.
How to start freelancing – the final word
There are now more than 57 million freelancers in the U.S. That number has continued to grow over the last couple of decades, and I expect that trend to continue.
Freelancing is an affordable, flexible, and good-paying business option.
More and more big companies are outsourcing to freelancers, which only opens the door wider to anyone who wants to start working as a freelancer.
My biggest pieces of advice if you want to learn how to start freelancing with experiences are:
- Focus on marketable and in-demand skills
- Always delivering value to your clients
- Know your worth
- Don’t be discouraged if you hear “no”
It takes time to build a business from the ground up, but there’s never been a better time to do it.