How I successfully freelance

Published Jan 24, 2018Last updated Apr 19, 2018
How I successfully freelance

It's always nice to get feedback from readers. Levi Barnes got in touch with me after my last article, and wanted to know more about how I freelance. Specifically, he's a scientific programmer (and a very accomplished one at that), and he's thinking about getting into this entrepreneurial world. He had a few good questions that got my brain fired up -- so all credit for this post goes to him!

In this post, I'm not going to tell the story of how I became a freelancer. I'll save that for another night around the fire. Here, I'm going to discuss how my freelancing works currently, and how I manage jobs and succeed online.

What's it like in freelance land?

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Levi: Would you mind telling me about your experience freelancing on your own? I saw you're on freelancer, upwork and codementor. Is that where you find most jobs? Who else do you pitch to? Are you 100% freelance, or do you have a day job?

Let's answer these quickly first, then get into some nitty gritty that might be useful to budding freelancers out there.

  1. I'm freelancing on pretty much every platform I find. Upwork, Codementor, Freelancer, Guru, PeoplePerHour, and a ton of other platforms that get barely any work on them. Some are crap, some are awesome. I'll often get emails from recruiters for new sites asking me to join, because I'm active on others (that's how I joined Codementor originally). I mainly frequent Guru, Upwork, and Codementor. I get the most jobs from Upwork (here's my profile, if you care).

  2. Probably 50%-60% of my work comes from these platforms. Another 20%-30% is from personal connections, or spin-offs from many of the freelancing jobs and clients I've gotten over the years and who now give me good word-of-mouth. And a last 10%-20% percent from random calls, people who find me online through searches and call me directly. Five years ago, I had never used a freelancing platform, and used to get all my work through conventional advertising, which was much more difficult!

  3. I am 100% freelance, no other day job for at least ... seven years now? And before that, they were just part-time since before I went to university. I worked at a startup for three months a couple years ago, but I loved freelancing too much, so I quit.

Getting the jobs (and hopefully the money, too)

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I see each freelancing platform as a fun chance to get my rating up. In fact, it's almost more fun when you're working your way to the top -- you have to be resourceful and you have no idea if things will work out. When I'm new to a platform, I focus on getting jobs marked "urgent", or small, cheap work that will only take a few hours but where I might get a good review.

Good reviews are absolute gold when you're starting. In fact, you should sacrifice profit for them until you have two or three. Then you can start to actually raise your rate and drill down into the types of expertise you want to grow and work in.

You will get burned sometimes -- especially when you start and you are not used to working with online clients. Getting burned sucks. The most I've been screwed out of is $10,000, though that wasn't from an online platform. Regardless, you have to realize that you are learning how to evaluate clients in the future.

My "client-sense" is very sharp and I can tell a bad client miles away. They come across as very disorganized, they insist that the job is easy or small, they talk about how money is no problem, or they want to hire you before the job is completely explained. You, as the freelancer, should take your damn time. A good client will want you to understand exactly what they are looking for. And you have a much better chance of making off with some good money if you clearly set out the job specifications. Type up everything you think they want in a neat list and get them to approve it before taking the job.

If you don't, you risk not only doing too much work for too little pay with an annoying client, but also risk a bad review. That's much worse than losing a bit of money, in my opinion!

What not to do

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Instead of telling you any more things you should do, since everyone talks about that, I'll give you a few tips, negation-style:

  • Don't think you're going to get jobs right away. Be patient, be persistent. If you can just get one job, you can get a thousand. There is infinite work out there.
  • Don't stick to one platform. Then they control you, and if they shut down your account over some misunderstanding, you're screwed.
  • Don't stick to only what you know. Freelancing is a great way to take on jobs a bit outside your skill set. Your good profile will convince clients that you can do the job, even if certain specific skills are missing
  • Don't focus on tests and don't obsess over the portfolio. Most clients scan them, so put some nice images and easy-to-click links and otherwise start applying for work.
  • Don't copy-paste proposals. Take the 2-3 minutes and write it. Your response rate will go up dramatically!
  • Don't refuse to learn. This should be more than obvious. You're a freelancer building things for real people -- you are the edge of the spear, so be sharp!

Do you have any more ideas of what NOT to do when freelancing? There's a thousand things, and I've probably tried most of them. Hell, I used to try using contact pages to get in touch with people with bad websites. Never got one message!

So explore some methods and fail a bit. If you can't get a job, be willing to lower your rate. Search for flat-rate jobs, and if you're truly an expert, you can really make good profit from them. Be kind to clients and pester them (in the kindest way possible!) once every few months about new work or a new skill you have.

The bottom line, the benefits, the negatives

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Overall, I make about $50k-$70k a year freelancing -- it can fluctuate quite a bit depending on how much I travel. For that, on average I probably work 20-30 hours a week, whenever and wherever I want (I'm starting a company, so I'm working more these days, though). For me, that's enough money to save, live life comfortably, eat well, and feel happy. That's why I feel successful as a freelancer. For now, at least. 😃

There are negatives. You have to be a bit of a loner. You have to chase clients. You have to work for nothing at times, and you have to be self-motivated. The money might suck at first compared to your steady full-time job. You might get stressed about making deadlines, make poor choices in jobs, take on something you can't finish. You might stay up all night fretting over a client.

All that is true. But the entreprenurial spirit in me calls for building things, and making my own way, and working on things I care about. The benefits of sleeping in, being creative, feeling powerful and self-supporting, and constantly improving skills is really worth something. And I love seeing the connections from all the different kinds of people I work with -- you never know where those take you.

More than anything, though: the freedom. Not just the freedom to work wherever, but the freedom that comes from knowing that you can create your success, that you can find work and make it happen -- and that you can build your own life while doing it.

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