How to Start Freelancing from Scratch and Become Successful

Freelancers or freelance workers are self-employed individuals who are not necessarily committed to a particular employer long-term. Freelancers usually enjoy the flexibility to work from home (or from anywhere they want) on their own schedule.

Freelancing has become increasingly popular with the advance of digital technologies and flexible labor markets in the so-called “new economy” or “knowledge economy” supported by the Internet.

Some of the most predominant fields for freelance jobs are digital marketing, design, writing, translation, programming, web development, and consulting in general.

If you are interested in becoming a successful freelancer but have little or no experience on this topic, then the following steps are right for you.

The 7 Steps to Becoming a Successful Freelancer

Step 1: Focus on Major Freelance Websites

There are literally dozens of freelance websites out there, and it can be overwhelming to decide where to start. So you need to be strategic.

If you have little or no experience freelancing online, I suggest that you start by focusing on one of these four platforms: Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer or 99designs. The first three are for general freelance jobs, while the latter is specialized in design jobs.

Take your time to go through those websites and see what they have in common and what makes them different.

For example, at Fiverr, freelancers create a gig (e.g. “I will improve and optimize your website SEO”) and set up different price plans depending on the complexity of each package. On the other hand, at Upwork or Freelancer, it’s the clients who post jobs and define a budget, while the freelancer can browse available projects to work on. At both Freelancer and 99Designs, clients can also create contests into which freelancers can enter.

Step 2: Focus on Specific Skills

After you’ve learned about the peculiarities of each of the main freelance websites, it’s time to pick one and fill out your profile information.

To start, you need to identify one or a few specific skills you are good at. If you are not good at any of the available job categories at this time, try to identify a specific skill that appeals to you, something you feel might be a good fit for you.

An example of a specific skill would be PowerPoint or Presentation Design as opposed to something broader like Design. The advantage of picking a specific skill at this phase is that it helps you focus on a niche, making it easier for you to gain knowledge and develop authority in that niche.

Even if you are good at or interested in a lot of different stuff, I bet there is that one thing that appeals to you the most. This is what you should focus on in the beginning to start building your portfolio.

Let potential clients know what makes you a good candidate for their jobs, but always be honest about your experience.

If you are a beginner, make sure that this is clear in your profile information. Not every client is looking for experts as all projects are always constrained by budget. In other words, the optimal resource is not necessarily the most skilled one.

Filling out your profile is one of the most important things you need to do before you get your first client, so make every effort to do your best at this step -- this is your first chance to make an impression.

Step 3: Focus on Developing or Improving Core Skills

Now that you have identified which specific skills you are good at or interest you the most, it is time to come up with a plan on how to sharpen your talent.

Remember, jobs are evolving at a pace more rapidly than ever before. Even if you’re very good today at, let’s say, SEO, you need to keep yourself up-to-date with the trends and tools related to that skill, which may drastically change from time to time. Education is key for freelancers of all fields, and it’s an ongoing, never-ending process.

It is important that, in the beginning, you focus on sharpening skills that are core to the service you provide as they will work like the foundation upon which your freelancer reputation will be built. So, for example, as an entry-level presentation designer, you may like to first focus on mastering PowerPoint, which is a core skill to presentation design, only then to focus on other more diverse, complementary skills like illustration, graphic design, etc.

Step 4: Focus on Ideal First Clients

So far you have already registered on a major freelance website, defined a specific skill to focus on and the core skills to develop or improve. Now it’s time to get your first clients.

I consider this step as one of the most strategic for a beginning freelancer as it is the basis to start building a reputation. Focusing on the ideal first clients means that you don’t want to be accepting whatever jobs come your way. You need to be picky about which clients and projects you want to work with.

I know that this may sound controversial since beginning freelancers shouldn’t be in a position to choose clients, so let me explain. In the beginning, you start with zero reviews and nothing that indicates your reputation. So, in this phase, your goal should be to completely fulfill or even exceed the expectations of your first clients, so that they will be happy and compelled to submit positive feedback about you.

One way to achieve this is to only get involved in projects and work for clients to whom you are able to provide a satisfactory level of service, even if you are just a beginner. Avoid participating in projects which demand a level of expertise beyond what you can provide.

Also, before accepting your first clients, check if they have a good reputation and if they offer positive, high-quality feedbacks. Especially in the beginning, when you have little or no sign of reputation, you don’t want to be involved with high-risk clients who can harm the reputation you don’t even have yet.

Step 5: Focus on Building a Strong Reputation

After you’ve managed to get your first handful of clients, it’s time to focus on getting more. The best way to achieve this? Build a strong reputation.

And how can you build a strong reputation as a freelancer? By providing a service that meets or exceeds the expectations of your clients.

You will only be able to provide such a level of service when:

1. You have all the necessary skills required for the project

If the project is a presentation design and the client is asking for knowledge in PowerPoint and illustration, then a freelancer who is an expert in PowerPoint but has no knowledge of illustration does not have the necessary skills to accept the job.

2. You have the necessary level of expertise on each of the requested skills

If no level of expertise is informed, assume that the client is looking for freelancers with an advanced level of expertise.

3. You are committed to delivering a work of excellence

Let’s be honest: you cannot deliver high-quality work if you are not motivated. Therefore, one way to guarantee that you will be able to deliver a work of excellence is to make sure you are feeling motivated for the project. Is the pay rate reasonable? Is the project interesting? Will you be proud of having that work in your portfolio?

Step 6: Focus on Developing or Improving Complementary Skills

At this stage of the process, you’ve already won a couple of clients and are now building up a reputation. If you’ve followed the steps, at this point your core skills should be sharpened, which is important to get your first clients. Now, it’s time to focus on developing or improving what I call complementary skills.

Complementary skills are those that are not necessarily mandatory to deliver the service but are ones that can dramatically improve the quality of the work you are offering. For presentation design, PowerPoint is a core skill, whereas graphic design or Illustrator, for example, are complementary skills. While alone they are not essential for presentation design, a freelancer that possesses such skills can considerably enhance the quality of their work for this type of job.

If you don’t become an expert, which means possessing both core and complementary skills at an advanced level for a certain service, it’s unlikely that you will be able to proceed to the seventh step.

Step 7: Focus on the Most Valuable Clients

So far you should already have developed some initial reputation and knowledge in skills that are both core and complementary to the service you offer, which should have made it possible to build at least a small portfolio. By combining knowledge and experience with a good reputation, your perceived value as a freelancer is now higher, which gives you the confidence and know-how to participate in more complex and higher-paying jobs.

With that experience, you can now start focusing on the most valuable clients who will pay you more and generate more opportunities for recurring businesses. The more you specialize and dedicate to delivering high-quality work for your clients, the stronger your reputation gets and the larger your portfolio becomes. It is a virtuous circle. Consequently, to compensate for an increase in demand, your freelance fee (hourly rate) should increase as well.