A question I get asked a lot is how I got into freelancing, so I’ve neatly packaged up my freelance journey into one handy blog post. I’ll take you through starting out as an unpaid online contributor, to banking my first paid job, right up to now where I’ll charge anything upward of $65 an hour for my work.
What freelancing is not
I think the word ‘freelancer’ has been so glorified by American TV shows, that it sounds like this super fun life of hopping from Starbucks to Starbucks and guzzling filter coffee while donning a rustic, misunderstood writer vibe.
While admittedly I fell for the same fairytale (and I do, on occasion, indulge myself in the Starbucks-clad fantasy), freelancing is a tough slog. It takes time to build momentum, but the dawn of digital has made it substantially easier to make bank from the comfort of your laptop.
What freelancing is
Freelancing is a great way to earn extra money (or even all your money) on your own terms, doing what you love. I’ve freelanced in various capacities for about five years – sometimes full time, and sometimes on the side of a 9-5. But what is brilliant about freelancing, is you can take breaks and pick it back up again when you choose to.
How to get started as a freelancer
Your overall approach to kick-starting a freelance career does depend on what type of work you’ll actually be doing. I’m a copywriter, so this blog will be heavily focused on getting into freelance writing, though many of the steps can be applied to any craft.
My freelance work ranges from writing website pages and promotional emails, to blog posts and advert copy, and even award submission writing.
Getting hired means you need some kind of portfolio or previous work. But, how do you get work experience when you need work experience to get work experience? I feel ya. Let’s dive into how I got started as a freelancer.
Contributing to websites for free
I applied for writing jobs for a full 6 months and got absolutely zero response, so I took matters into my own hands and built up a portfolio myself.
Between writing articles on an old blog I hosted, and sending out emails to online magazines, websites and blogs asking if I could contribute pieces (unpaid, of course), I soon had myself a neat little digital footprint.
In 2013, I was actually offered a writing job for a fancy hotel, but I turned it down for reasons I won’t go into now. Basically a bucket-load of gut feeling.
Turns out that feeling was right, because I ended up meeting Mr TBG a few weeks later.
Freelancing with marketing agencies
My real paid freelance work started when I moved to Melbourne in 2015. In the 3 months prior to coming over to Australia, I sent out a shit ton of emails to marketing/copywriting agencies asking for work, offering up the unpaid work I’d done as examples of my skills. I ended up getting freelance work from two of them, which really kick started my writing career in Melbourne.
They paid me a daily rate, and assigned me tasks to complete either in their offices or from home.
After about a year of freelancing with those two agencies, I wanted to get clients of my own.
How to get freelance clients
In 2016, I started my direct client work by setting up a profile on Upwork, and applying for freelance writing jobs on there. My first one ever was writing eBay descriptions with keywords for a guy who sold electronics. I was so excited.
On Upwork I found writing work for a superannuation company, a homewares retailer in the US, a menswear retailer and even a photographer. That really helped me build up a portfolio of paid work, and I learned a lot about client relationships along the way.
At this point I was getting paid varying amounts. At its lowest it was about $25 per full blog post, and at its highest it was about $25-$35 an hour – I felt like an absolute baller. I was getting paid to write, and I totally couldn’t believe it. Some days I still can’t, to be honest.
Going direct to businesses
In 2017 I did slightly less freelance stuff as I went full time with one of the agencies, moved in with my boyfriend’s parents for a few months and focused on buying our first apartment – but I had a couple of ongoing clients that I’d retained from Upwork. Other work came from directly cold emailing businesses to see if they needed help with their web copy or social media. My rates hadn’t really changed much by this point, but I was still learning a lot and enjoying building up a portfolio.
Getting freelance work from referrals
Referrals are really the freelance goldmine everybody wants to get. Referral work requires little-to-no effort to obtain, and the more work you do, the more chance you’ve got of getting referred. Referrals I’ve had have come from ex-colleagues who’ve gone freelance and have overflow work, contacts from old jobs, and friends/family/acquaintances of people I’ve worked for before.
By 2018/2019, I started to see referral work coming in. The experience I’d built up and the fact I’d spent time with two agencies meant that my writing had dramatically improved, and I was able to offer a more professional service to my clients.
By this point I was starting to charge more like $40 per hour, as my time was more valuable and my skills were far more developed. I was networking more in Facebook groups and on LinkedIn, which helped get my name out there and legitimised my offering as a writer, too.
I created a PDF portfolio and a suite of links to some of my work, and started honing what I really wanted to work on. Previously I’d just written anything and everything I could. I realised finance was one of my main interests, and started moving more towards the finance/insurance/superannuation niche – and then The Broke Generation was born.
Freelance retainer work
Working on a retainer means you charge a set amount to a client once a month – either for specific deliverables or for a set number of hours – and you repeat the contract each month.
This type of work is a freelancer’s dream, because it’s really the only smidge of reliability or consistency you get in this field. I started to see momentum with retainer clients in 2019, and it’s really helped me scale my freelance activities to be much more lucrative. It’s also great for your energy and skill development because you’re not flipping from project to project all the time. You get to focus on your client for the long haul, and that really helps you develop the voice and tone you use for their content.
You have to be wary of the fact that a client can terminate a retainer (in accordance with the terms in your contract), but it gives you an element of confidence that the work will continue.
I’ve got a couple of retainer clients at the moment, which really helps with planning my work around my full time job. Retainer work brings in about $1300 a month for me right now, which obviously makes a huge difference to my income!
Tips for wannabe freelancers
Keep at it. Getting to the place I’m at now hasn’t been a linear experience. It’s been highs, lows, and a lot of muddling through. Some months I’ve done zero freelance work, and others I’ve brought in $3000. It’s not a static job, but try to leverage the beauty of that as much as you can to offset the downsides.
Whatever it is you want to freelance as – i.e. a writer, a designer, a virtual assistant – try to do something everyday that moves the needle forward. Whether it’s designing something for your portfolio, reaching out to a brand or applying to an agency for overflow work, keep at it.
The beauty of digital is that we can do a whole lot of this groundwork from the comfort of our couches, or on our morning commute to the office. Network when you can, too, even if it’s digital networking in Facebook groups and on LinkedIn. You never know who might remember you and get in touch in the future.
Knowing what to charge in the early days
Setting rates for freelance work is tough at the best of times, let alone when you’re a rookie. In the early days, it’s a balancing act of the value you receive from doing the work beyond financial remuneration. Yeah, writing articles for $25 a piece seems insane to me now, but I wanted that client so badly. If it’s a client that’s going to mean you might get more work in future – or your work will get more exposure – then offering a low-ball rate to secure the work is actually a smart idea.
Balance what you’re getting and what the client is getting, and work it to your advantage.
Also consider the business concept of value pricing. This means pricing your work according to the value it provides to the client, and leaning into what their budget is like. A company with a bigger budget and more commercial power will get more value from your work than an independent small business. So, charge more to the bigger brand as they’ll make more money from your work, and less to the independent who’s starting out.
Lessons I learned along the way
I’m grateful for the journey I’ve had to this point. It’s taught me SO much about writing, about client relations, and about business.
If I could go back in time and do it over again knowing what I know now, these are some things I’d do differently (aka hot tips for newbie freelancers to look like established professionals):
- Lock down processes early on. I’ve only in the last year or so locked down templates for client briefing, contracts and agreements, and it makes all the difference to your organisation and efficiency.
- Separate your freelance income from your other income. It helps you keep on top of how profitable you’re really being, and is much easier come tax time in terms of sorting expenses and income. It also really helps you understand when you can reinvest in things that’ll grow your business, because you’ll be clearer on how much you’ve actually made.
- Get accounting software. I did actually get this fairly early on, but I wish I’d had it from the day dot. It makes everything so much easier and looks much more professional.
- Have contracts. It seems unnecessary in the beginning, and if I’m honest I’ve learned that contract or no contract, you barely have a leg to stand on when it comes to low-value jobs. But, a contract is always better than no contract. It also cements your credibility and shows clients you’re organised and committed.
- Set payment terms and stick to them. I once lost out on about $600 because a client I was working with went into administration and never paid me. While that part was unavoidable, I shouldn’t have done $600 worth of work without payment (especially when it was $25 a blog, so we’re talking 24 blogs that weren’t paid for). They’d paid me in the past so I trusted they would, and I kept plugging away at the project despite them missing the payment deadlines along the way. I learned the hard way never to keep working until payments have been made at the agreed milestones.
The final word
From doing unpaid work 7 years ago, to now getting most of my work from referrals or old contacts, it’s proof that keeping pushing on really can get you where you want to be. Try to keep the fire alight inside you, as it’s that love of your craft that keeps you going through the rough times. Through all the unpaid invoices and terminations of retainers, the clients that don’t know what they want but won’t be guided either, through the negative feedback and offers of ‘exposure’ over payment, you can and you will get there. You’ve so got this, and I totally beleive in you.
If you have more questions about freelancing, drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram. I know a lot of people explicitly say they don’t offer career advice or reply to emails asking for career direction, but while I’m still able to respond to 95% of my emails and DMs, I want to help as many of you as possible. I know how hard it is starting out – hell, it’s still hard now! – but if I can help you in any kind of way, I will. It might take me a couple weeks to reply, but I’ll try!
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