If you’ve ever thought about freelancing part-time but never done it, this post may help you. Most people never follow through on those thoughts because they are overwhelmed and confused by the process of starting a freelance business. The aim of this post is to provide a step-by-step guide to launching a part-time freelance business in 30 days, going from zero to taking on your first client.
The format for this challenge was inspired by the excellent 31 Days to Build a Better Blog program, which concluded recently. I really like this approach because it offers concrete, practical steps with a measurable result. Sometimes ‘do this, do that’ advice is more useful than theory. My hope is that you can follow the steps here, putting one foot ahead of the other, and find yourself with a little freelance business at the end of the process!
The program is designed to be completed while you are working full-time, either by dedicating a couple of hours in the evening or mornings, or working on the program over the weekend. It should be combined with daily hands-on practice in the skill you want to freelance in, particularly if you are a novice in that skill. If you are a novice, don’t delay the program until you feel you are ‘good’ enough. The emphasis is on selling a very specific skill that you can become good at in a short period of time. 30 days practicing one hour a day is more than enough time to develop a specific service that you are good enough at to sell.
The main aim of this program is to help you learn how to monetize a skill that puts you into flow. This will make you a happier and wealthier person!
If you’re going to create your freelance business in 30 days, you can’t afford to waste any time – so let’s get started.
Decide on the one service you will offer. I emphasize picking only one specific service because without freelance experience, you are probably not already highly skilled in the area you want to freelance in. Even if you have been practicing it as a hobby for a long time, providing that skill as a service is a different challenge.
If you are wanting to freelance in web design, don’t offer everything and the kitchen sink to begin with (complete design + front-end code). Provide PSD mockups only. If you’re more on the dev side of things, start with some code slicing jobs. If you want to write, start with one specific kind of writing.
This approach will help you become skilled in the service you provide very quickly. Since you want to be taking on your first client in 30 days, it’s crucial that you develop your skills to an adequate level. Once you become comfortable with providing that one service, you will naturally expand what you offer.
Gather learning materials to help you practice your service before taking on a client. As I mentioned in the introduction to this list, you should spend at least 1 hour per day just developing your skill. While this should be mainly direct practice (doing rather than reading about), you will need to gather materials to guide you here. This includes articles, interviews and tutorials. Focus mainly on developing techniques you could actually see yourself using in client work.
Decide on a business name – are you a studio or individual? Then, buy the domain name and hosting. You can freelance under your real name, a pseudonym, or a business name. Here are some example business names I generated with this cool little thing:
- Flying Dog Design
- Green Ant Productions
- Scarlet Zebra Interactive
- Blue Cat Labs
- Chestnut Rabbit Solutions
- Golden Lemur Studios
- Friendly Kangaroo Ltd
- Evil Pencil Media
Of course, some of these are really absurd, but they do give you an idea of some common naming conventions.
Once you’ve picked a name, it’s time to buy the domain for that name. If there’s no domain available for that name, pick another one. Your domain branding is really important.
Buy a domain name that comes with web hosting, as the next branding step is to create your portfolio.
Further reading: Naming Your Freelance Business – To Personalize or Not (With a Poll!)
Design your products. This is different from the service you are going to offer – here you decide how it is going to be packaged. Are you going to sell blocks of time? Completed projects? What will your rates be?
Your goals should be modest as you are only starting out, both in terms of how much you will work and how much you will charge. For your first job, I would suggest an hourly rate between $20 – $30. Keep in mind that you don’t publish these rates online and can therefore change them from client to client. Just because you do one job at $20 an hour as you’re starting out doesn’t mean you can’t be charging $50 an hour a few months later.
Per-project rates are a great option down the track as they decouple the direct exchange of time for money. I don’t recommend them to a beginning freelancer, though. It will be extremely difficult to come up with an accurate price estimate before you have the experience you’d need to look at a project and quickly have a reasonable idea of how long it is going to take. That’s something that will only come with time and experience. (Note that this advice doesn’t necessarily apply to smaller jobs like article writing.)
Set up a business email address and PayPal account. While your friends and family might not mind receiving email from firstname.lastname@example.org, prospective clients might! Create an email address linked to your new domain name. Forward it to a free Gmail account, then under your Gmail settings, put your domain email address as your default ‘Send Email As’ address. This will allow you to manage your domain email through Gmail, rather than the dubious email UIs provided by most webhosts.
A good format is @yourdomain.com. This will make it easy to give new people email addresses at your domain if your freelance business expands in the future.
Next up you should create a PayPal account if PayPal is available in your country. If not, try Moneybookers. Most online freelancing is paid via PayPal and I consider it a must-have. If you dislike the fees, you can build them into your rates.
If you already have a PayPal account, it might be a good idea to think about changing your address to something linked to your business, i.e. ‘email@example.com’ or ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.
Set up WordPress under your freelance business domain. Every freelancer should have an online portfolio, even if it’s very simple. If you’re a designer with time to spare you can probably take control of this step. If you want a quick solution that is quite effective, download WordPress and install it under your domain name.
Select and install a portfolio WordPress theme. This platform will give prospective clients the means to learn more about you and your services, view your work, and contact you. You can browse some great Premium options under $30 at ThemeForest.
Write your portfolio ‘About’ page. Include your current location, any relevant qualifications you have, previous work you have done in the industry and previous clients you have worked for (don’t worry if there are none). This is particularly relevant if you’ve been working in your field before going freelance. Keep in mind that this should be mainly professional rather than personal, but you can include some personal info at the end if you want. If you’d like to include a picture, a specially taken portrait is a good option.
Sign up at Formspring and create your ‘Contact’ form. I use Formspring often in my job and I think it’s an excellent way to create intelligent contact forms. You can use this form to find out what kind of work the client is looking for and even what their budget is. All this information will help you when it comes time to write your response and close the sale.
Design your invoice template. If you fancy yourself a designer, create an attractive template for your invoices. As someone who spends time receiving and paying invoices, they do affect my perception of how professional the freelancer is. If you aren’t confident in your design skills then I would create an account at Freshbooks. They’re my favorite free invoice management service and I’ve used them often.
Set up your home office space. You’re a freelancer now, so you need space to work. A room dedicated just to your work is ideal, but if you don’t have that luxury (I know I don’t!) set up a desk or table in one of the quieter rooms in your house. A bedroom is a good option, but keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to get away with late nights – or possibly early mornings – if sharing with someone else!
In my experience, the cornerstones of an effective home office are a computer that works quickly, a good chair and a large monitor, or multiple monitors, for better productivity.
Create a logo OR commission a logo OR work more on your skills. While not every freelancer has their own logo, it’s a fantastic addition to your branding. You can use it in emails, watermarks, business cards, invoices, your portfolio and when presenting work to your clients. If you don’t want a logo or don’t have the budget yet, work more on your skills today.
Start work on a portfolio item – you will have 5 days to complete this. More important than having items in your portfolio is the practice you will gain from completing this exercise. By the end of the 30 day challenge you will have three items in your portfolio, and this is the first. These items should involve the exact skills you will be selling to clients.
Here are some ideas for portfolio items in various industries:
- Copywriting – write an original sales page for an existing product or service.
- PSD to code slicing – purchase a cheap PSD template and convert it into a functioning demo site.
- Writing – write an article suited to appear in the kind of publication you want to work for.
- Web design – create a one-page design.
Add a page to your portfolio describing your one service. You should call this page ‘ Services’ – for example, ‘SEO Services’. On this page you will describe the service you provide to the client. Make sure to focus on benefits, not just features. For example, your SEO services “will funnel highly targeted traffic primed and ready to buy”.
Read Freelance Switch’s guide to Getting Started as a Freelancer. There are some great articles here that cover all aspects of getting started with freelancing in more detail. If you have questions, you’ll find answers here.
Familiarize yourself with tax laws for freelancers in your country. In my job I often receive invoices from Australian freelancers without an Australian Business Number listed. Unknown to them, it is actually illegal for me to pay them without that 11 digit number. Luckily it only takes a few minutes for them to apply for and receive their ABN once notified about this, but your country may have stumbling blocks of its own – and they might be a bit trickier to deal with!
Make sure you’re aware of the tax and government requirements freelancers must comply with in your country. A good place to start is the website of your national or state tax office.
Announce that you are going to be taking on freelance work soon. If you already have an audience online, whether it be blog readers, your social media network or forum buddies, let them know that you’ll be available for freelancing soon. This will build a little bit of buzz and anticipation. If you’re really lucky, you might even be able to line up your first client before you’ve officially opened for business!
Start work on portfolio item #2, add item #1 to your portfolio. Now that contains some work, you have a genuine portfolio. Now we’re going to work on beefing it up by adding a couple more items. Item #2 should again illustrate your one service, though approached from a different angle. If your first sales letter was for skin cream, the second might be for a membership site, and demonstrate a different selling style. If your first PSD to code conversion was for a WordPress blog, the next one might be for a business site.
Perform some simple SEO on your portfolio. Sprinkling a little SEO-dust on your portfolio can eventually help to bring a trickle of prospects to your portfolio on autopilot. To begin with, use likely keywords in your portfolio title (i.e. ‘Jane Smith: Flash game designer – Melbourne, Australia’). Try to work keyword phrases into your copy and page titles if they seem natural. Install a WordPress SEO plug-in like the All-in-One SEO Pack. If you want to learn more, read SEOmoz’s Beginner’s Guide to Search Engine Optimization.
Make your portfolio public (link it up everywhere). It’s time to debut yourself to the world (very quietly). Google can’t know about your portfolio if it can’t find it, so you need to leave a trail. You give Google that trail by linking to your portfolio wherever you can. Start by linking to it on every online property you have ownership over – blogs, Facebook pages, forum signatures, email signatures, Twitter profiles, Flickr profiles, etc.
Create free portfolios and profiles wherever you can. Yes, you already have a portfolio, but you want to get your work out to as many people as possible. Some prospective clients may never know the right keywords to find your site, but they might browse Carbonmade or LinkedIn instead.
Sign up to job boards relevant to your industry and subscribe to their RSS feeds. The Monster List of Freelancing Job Sites is your roadmap here. You don’t need to apply for any jobs today – your only task is to gather a ‘watch list’ of job boards and sites. Browse through some of the jobs available to get an idea of what’s out there, but don’t apply for anything yet.
Start working on portfolio item #3, add item #2 to your portfolio. Another portfolio item done and dusted – well done! It’s now time to move on to item #3, your final item in the 30 day challenge. Once again, show your ‘one service’ in a different shade. This time, create the item as if you were working for the type of client you most want to work for. If you’d love to write sales pages for high-end internet marketing products, make that item #3. If you’d love to get work as a live show photographer, go out and photograph a gig in your area. The type of items in your portfolio will affect the kind of work you get. I think this quote from freelance designer Barton Damer illustrates this well:
“A couple years ago, I began only posting projects I love. I pulled down logos, brochures, etc. off my portfolio and only posted digital art. The result, people started contacting me for digital art!” (Source)
Announce that you are now available for freelance work. Most people prefer to hire someone they know. They could spend 30 minutes searching online and probably find somebody more talented than you are (there’s always someone more talented!), but people place a lot of value in feeling they can trust the person they’re working with. That’s why your existing network and audience is an excellent place to find work. Post about it on your blog, tweet about it, update your Facebook status. Let the world know that you’re ready to work!
Apply to 10 jobs on various job boards. Over the last few days you’ve hopefully been keeping tabs on your jobs ‘watch list’. You may have earmarked a few jobs that looked good to you. Now is the time to really take the plunge and start applying for work.
I have advertised for freelancers before and I speak from experience when I say that by following the instructions in the job ad very carefully you will launch yourself into the top 5% of applicants. Seriously!
A friend of mine recently applied for (and won) a job in web development. The instructions in the job ad stated that the subject line of the application email had to contain the word ‘Elephants’. Though a little confused by this request, he complied. Later on after winning the job he learned that although the company had received close to 100 applications, only 7 of them contained the word ‘Elephants’ in the subject line. The company did not even open the other 93 emails. For them, the ‘Elephant’ instruction was a way to test the applicant’s attention to detail.
As a final note, make sure to only apply to jobs that match your ‘one service’. If you can’t find 10, don’t broaden your scope just to make up the number. If you end up applying for and winning a job that requires skills you don’t have, you may also end up delivering a sub-standard end product to the client. Remember: you want this job to be something you can add to your portfolio!
Email 10 prospective clients. Erm… didn’t you just do that? Yes, but this kind of emailing is different. Here you are offering your services to people who don’t know they need them yet. If you’re a PSD to code slicer, look for the portfolio of a web developer who states that they are not taking on new work at the moment. This means they’re really busy. Send them an email presenting yourself as someone trustworthy to outsource to and help them get through more clients. (Note: this works in just about any industry, not just design.)
Next, look for people who might need your skills for other reasons. If you’re a freelancer blogger and you know a good blog that pays for content, email the owner and offer your services. If you’re a copywriter and find a lackluster sales page, offer to create something better. If you find a website that’s poorly coded, offer to shore it up with impeccably valid and clever code.
Keep in mind, though, that when presenting your services as a ‘better’ option you are often talking to creator of the original. If something looks DIY, it probably is. Rather than criticizing the original, point out the virtues of a professional service.
Exchange your skills for promotion. Money is not the only currency a freelancer earns. They also earn promotion, referrals and reputation. Today your goal is to trade your skill for promotion and exposure. Pitch a guest-post to one of your favorite blogs. Offer to create a logo for a popular website that doesn’t have one yet. If there are errors in their web design, offer to fix them.
The key here is not to do something for free and hope that you get something in return. Negotiate this exchange like you would if you were being paid in cash. Outline specifically what you want in return. Do you want to be mentioned in a site update? Do you want a testimonial? Do you want a post written about you? Do you want a banner on the site for a set period of time?
You’re providing the client with something of value, so you should expect to receive something of equal value in return. It’s essential that this arrangement is made before you do any work at all. This guarantees you won’t waste your time and that you won’t spring any surprises on a client who thought they were getting free work without any strings attached!
Create a Twitter account for your business. If you already have a Twitter account, consider whether it is consistent with your business branding. If not, you might want to consider creating a separate business Twitter account. The point of this is to get your clients to follow you. This is, in my opinion, the best possible way to stay in the minds of previous clients and encourage repeat work. Some freelancers are so good at generating repeat work that they don’t even need to look for new clients! If you begin working towards this goal from the beginning you will give yourself a useful head-start.
If you create a Twitter account for your freelance business, make sure the visual branding is consistent with your portfolio. You need consistency to create a ‘sticky’ brand that clients remember.
Here is a quick introduction to Twitter for freelancers.
Ask 5 people for a testimonial. Testimonials are solid gold to a freelancer, yet most of us don’t know it. Consider that more than talent, more than cheap rates, more than a slick portfolio design, prospects are looking for someone they can trust. Your portfolio items help them trust that you do good work. Your client list helps them trust that you are professional. Your testimonials help them trust that you are good to work with and deliver what you’re paid for.
Even though you don’t have clients yet, you can still have testimonials. A testimonial is, at heart, a statement vouching for you. Clients are not the only people who can provide these. If you’re a designer, get a testimonial from someone who thinks your work is great. If you’re a blogger, get a testimonial from a reader who thinks you’re talented. And finally, something anyone should be able to do: get a testimonial from a friend who thinks you’re a good, kind, trustworthy person.
If you feel uneasy asking for a testimonial, look through comments, tweets and emails about you. When people say nice things, that’s an instant testimonial you can use.
Add portfolio item #3 to your portfolio, then buy yourself a home office gift for completing 30 days to become a freelancer! Your portfolio now contains 3 items – not bad at all! You’ve been working hard these last 30 days. Whether you have found a client yet or not, you’ve set up your own freelance business, and that’s an achievement. To celebrate, buy yourself an upgrade to your home office – something you will use to improve your business. Whether it’s a 30″ screen or a nice packet of ballpoint pens will depend on your budget, of course…
If you haven’t won a job yet, don’t worry. Your first job is always the hardest to land, and the process will get easier over time. Keep applying to any job that looks good, building your skills and your portfolio. Eventually your tenacity will be rewarded.
From Moonlighting to Daylighting
While you’ll begin doing 5 – 10 hours of freelance work a week, plugging away at it on evenings and weekends, you may eventually decide that you’d like to make freelancing your primary source of income. While much has been said on transitioning from part-time to full-time work, I can’t stress enough the importance of a financial safety net. Ideally you should use the extra income gained from part-time freelancing to build the cushion you’ll need when you go 100% solo. Having said that, most freelancers won’t make the jump until they are consistently turning down good quality job offers that they don’t have the time to complete while moonlighting. Chances are you won’t need to rely on your safety net, but it’s still an essential.
Taking it to the Next Level
What I’ve outlined here is really the most basic kind of freelance business. It’s effective and can be very lucrative, but there is still more you can do. I’ve not had the space to touch on more advanced SEO strategies, creating a launch process for your services, using a blog to funnel clients into your business, building a referral program, becoming an industry leader to charge premium rates, and other advanced business strategies. I know many Skelliewag readers are just getting started, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to post these high-level strategies on the blog. Instead, I’ll put them in the newsletter I mentioned in the ‘flow’ post. Don’t worry – it’s getting closer to being ready every day!