I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that the most difficult part of becoming a digital nomad is taking the leap. The main challenge that I first faced was that of making money. How can I make enough money online to sustain my lifestyle? I work on a lot of different projects, but at the core, I live off freelancing, as it is the one source of income I can always rely on.
There are so many fields that you can freelance in, including writing, sales, graphic design, digital marketing, web design, translation, photography, music and film. There is something out there for everyone. Obviously you can’t just build an entire freelance operation overnight, but you would be surprised by how quickly you can start earning money online and live off freelancing if you have the right approach.
Here is a quick guide to freelancing successfully, based on my trials and errors over the past months:
Step 1: Create a Portfolio
If you really plan to live off freelancing, you need to take yourself seriously and invest a little bit. Creating a website or online portfolio can go a long way to convincing potential clients that you’re the one for the job. Even if you do not have the most experience, it is important that you come across as professional, reliable and confident. A well-designed online portfolio goes a long way.
There are a lot of platforms out there for building an online portfolio. For those with little to no web design skills, I would recommend using Wordpres.com. It’s free and there are plenty of great themes to create a proper portfolio. If you choose this option, make sure you buy a proper domain name. It only costs 10-15 bucks a year and having “.com” looks a lot more professional than “.wordpress.com”. Another easy option is using Squarespace.
Despite its limitations, a WordPress.com portfolio should be enough if you’re in the early stages. However, for those with more experience and some web design skills, designing a proper website might be the better option. Further down the line, having a proper website will open more possibilities and will allow you to properly build your own freelance operation. Certain hosting providers like BlueHost are perfect for designing a proper WordPress site and only cost around $3.50 (€3) a month.
Step 2: Sign Up to Freelancing Platforms
Signing up to multiple freelance portals is great for increasing your scope, but in my experience, it’s best to just focus on Upwork. Upwork is the result of a merge between Elance and oDesk, the biggest freelancing sites on the web. It has millions of users from around the world and a great interface for finding suitable work. Setting up an account with all of these platforms is free and easy to do.
Step 3: Build Your Profile
Once you’ve signed up to your chosen freelancing platform, it is time to build a killer profile. If you have already created your own website or portfolio, you will already have a lot of the information ready. Make sure you fill out your profile as completely as possible. Share any relevant experience, choose a good profile picture and make yourself stand out. Try to make your profile look original and professional.
Upwork and Freelancer both have tests that you can take to demonstrate your abilities, though Freelancer charges for them. It is definitely useful to have a few tests under your belt to demonstrate your skills.
One of the best tips I was ever given was to look for very small jobs and offer to do them for free in exchange for a good rating. Upwork is highly competitive and it can take a while for you to get your first job. Everyone I know who uses Upwork says that it can be hard at first but becomes easier over time. The best thing you can do is seek out jobs that won’t take up much time and offer to do them for free, explaining that you are new to Upwork and are looking to get some good ratings. What worked for me was telling people that I had plenty of experience but was only new to Upwork. My personal website helped me convince a lot of clients. Once you have a handful of ratings, you will find it a lot easier applying to bigger jobs.
Step 4: Choose the Right Jobs and Don’t Undersell Yourself
When I first started freelancing, I made the mistake of underselling myself. I often chose low-budget jobs and offered to work for as little as $5 an hour, thinking that a low price will lead to more work. This logic is flawed and leads to a number of issues.
First of all, if you want to live off freelancing, you need to charge a living wage. I usually don’t do any job that won’t amount to at least $25 for every hour worked. Working for less simply isn’t worth it. The whole point of freelancing is to live life on your own terms. Turning yourself into a slave doesn’t achieve that.
Second of all, there is the issue of competition. Upwork has millions of freelancers from much poorer countries offering to do all sorts of jobs for close to no money. Though many of these freelancers are talented individuals, a majority of them offer a low quality service for a very low price. I’ve seen many freelancers lose hope after being rejected for the 10th time in a row because the client went with the freelancer from India offering to work for $3 an hour. The way to avoid this is simply to not play the “low budget game”. Instead of trying to convince the client with low prices, present yourself as a high quality “you get what you pay for” freelancer. Upwork offers a great function that allows you to filter jobs by whether the client is seeking experience, value or a combination of both. There is a strange paradox in Upwork whereby charging more money can actually make you more desirable because the client thinks that you must be professional and experienced. The moment I stopped applying to jobs that were looking for value and started charging more money, I saw myself getting more jobs that were paying really well.
It’s important to tweak things and figure out what works for you and your field. The more experience you get, the more you can tap into the upper market. Just make sure you do not offer to work for too little. It just isn’t worth it.
Step 5: Be Original, Stand Out
Once you have a strong profile, some tests and reviews under your belt and a good idea of what jobs to target and what to charge, it’s time to write your applications.
Even if you are targeting the upper range freelancing gigs, there is still a fair amount of competition. The key to a successful application is to apply for each gig as if you were applying to a full time job. Put effort into your application, be original and make yourself stand out. Whatever you have that could give you an edge over other freelancers, use it. This is another reason why a personal website is useful.
People looking for quality freelancers usually go over applications quite carefully, so you want to write a stellar application that is tailored to the job and client. At the end of the day, the extra effort put into applications will pay off big time.
Step 6: Turn Your Clients into Regulars
When applying to jobs, I usually look for clients that are looking to work on the longer term. I also always mention in the application that I’m looking for long term collaborations. If you do a good job, your client will be more likely to use you again the next time they need work done. If you want to live off freelancing, you need try and get some regulars. Having a good number of regular clients means you won’t have to look for work as much and you will have some financial and planning stability.
One of the reasons it becomes easier to live off freelancing over time is that regular customers often come back to you if they need more work done. Often times, clients will even refer you to others who need services that you provide. This is why the key to successful freelancing lies in providing a quality service.
As you become more experienced, you will see yourself getting more clients outside of the usual freelance portals. This is why it is important to have a good website that can attract more clients. One of the problems with Upwork and similar portals is that they take a pretty considerable cut from your earnings. It is possible to get clients to contact and pay you outside of Upwork, but obviously Upwork does all it can to prevent this. Sharing your email address with a client on Upwork could get you banned, so you need to be cautious and creative. One method is to send the client a link to your website and get them to contact you through there. Keep in mind that some clients will prefer to work through Upwork as their escrow offers more security. Still, if you have done a few jobs with someone on Upwork, it makes sense to try to move the freelance work away from there.
Hopefully these tips will help you launch your freelancing career, whether you’re looking to make a few more bucks on the side or planning to live off freelancing completely. Not only does living off freelancing allow you to live the life you want, but it can often open doors to other exciting opportunities. Working on so many different projects with all sorts of clients can eventually bring along other exciting projects and work opportunities. The longer you freelance, the easier it is to live off freelancing.
Since starting out as a freelancer I have gone on to do all sorts of things, but freelancing is still an important part of what I do. Being able to freelance successfully gives you a safety net and something you can always resort to when you need to earn some extra cash. Above all, being a successful freelancer means being your own boss and living life on your own terms.