How to Start Freelancing with No Experience
Despite what most people say, things like having a ton of experience or a polished portfolio don’t really matter when starting a freelance business. Here’s what to focus on instead:
1. Focus on Talent and Communication Skills:
The most important requirement to start freelancing is having the bare-minimum professional skills required in your field. You don’t need a ton of experience. You don’t even need amazing skills. In fact, the quality of the your actual work is less important to your success with clients than you might think.
Why? Because often, your communication skills are more important. If you’ve ever had a boss who loves you, you can probably build a great freelance business no matter your talent level. Why? Because the bar is really low when it comes to servicing clients.
If you read a couple good books on communicating with clients and focus on keeping your clients happy by being organized and generous with your communication (things like sending weekly check-up emails go a really long way) you can build a great business.
That said, being proficient at what you do is a requirement, no getting around that. Plain and simple, it takes work to get to that level but there are some great classes on places like Skillshare that can help but lots of practice will be required.
2. Get a Good Computer and Internet Connection:
If you’re going to be a freelancer, there’s almost no getting around it, a computer is going to be your single biggest expense. Personally, I would go with the best computer and fastest internet you can afford. There’s no need for a top of the line iMac if that’s outside of your budget. You can make almost any iMac or Macbook Pro from the last 5 years or so work, so check out Craigslist for good deals. If all else fails, go with what you have now and upgrade when needed. I recommend not using the same computer you use for work.
3. Get the Required Software:
I recommend staying away from free software. If you’re a designer, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and XD are what most freelance graphic designers use. You can get all three for $39 per month. Alternatively, for primarily vector graphic design work (like illustrations) Sketch ($99) is a great option or Figma (free up to 3 projects, then $12/month) can also work. See if there is cheap software in your niche too.
Secondly, you’re also going to need a way to get paid. My favorite payment processor to use is Stripe. Stripe lets you manually create and send invoices and accept payments. They take a 2.9% + 30¢ fee per successful card charge. And that’s it! That’s all the software you really need. Well, besides an email address but I pray to god you have one of those already.
4. Learn How Taxes Work:
So how do taxes work if you’re a freelancing while working full-time? In most countries, you’re going to have to pay a higher rate for any income you make freelancing. The US, for example, charges a 15.3% self-employment tax on any income you make from freelancing. You’re also required to keep track of all deductions and paperwork yourself. You can do this yourself pretty easily yourself, or use something like Turbotax. Eventually you’ll also have to start making estimated tax payments (which are basically just pre-paying taxes in chunks.)
5. Find Clients by Getting Leads:
This is one of the most important areas to focus on if you’re freelancing while having a full-time job. The truth is if you don’t have clients you don’t have a business. But since you have a full-time job, you likely don’t have a ton of extra time to look for work too. That’s why we created the course Endless Clients which will help you automate your lead generation in a few weeks. While there are a ton of different approaches and methods for finding clients, here are a few tips for getting clients fast. The key is you want to focus on your value proposition. Freelance work alone is worthless. The value is in the result you produce for your clients. The best way to get clients at first is to focus on that and reach out to clients via great cold emails.
6. Decide on a Price (or “Rate”):
As mentioned above, every freelancer has do decide how much they are going to charge for their work. It’s one of the first things a client will ask you for. Typically, they will expect an hourly rate. I recommend starting with $50 per hour. If you are very new, go as low as $35 per hour. Keep track of how many hours you work in a spreadsheet and email your client every week with an update. Include how many hours you worked that week, a summary of what you got done, and what you plan to work on next. I also recommend billing your client upfront. Don’t start work until your client has paid you in full for the work at hand. This makes things simpler and less of a risk for you.
7. Learn How to Use a Video Chat App (or Have a Phone)
Talking to clients in real-time is also very common. A cell phone works fine for this, but if you want to use a separate phone number, you can use Google voice to create a new number for free. Another free option is to use Zoom for video calls. This way you’re able to integrate with your calendar, and share your screen.
8. Get a License (if Applicable):
If your government requires it, you may also need a business license. If it is required, don’t fret. It’s probably easier (and cheaper) than you think. For example, the business license in my city is only $40 per year and the application took less than 10 minutes to fill out. It’s unlikely my city will ever check on this, but it’s cheap enough that I prefer not to worry about it. (Anecdotally, most freelancers I know skip this step with little consequence.)
9. Get a Good Contract:
It’s a good idea to have use a contract with your clients to protect the both of you legally. Getting a custom contract written by a local small business lawyer is your best option. This typically costs a couple hundred dollars, however, you can also use a boiler plate contract you find online. For these, I recommend Docsketch’s contract templates (free), and Bonsai’s contract template (free).
What about X?
Here are some common mistakes that new freelancers make when starting a freelance business. It’s a mistake to focus on any of the following:
- Business cards: waste of time and money.
- Tons of supplies: most of your work will be in your inbox.
- Accounting or Book-keeping service: safe to skip until after you have a few clients.
- A Logo: not needed, nobody cares.
- Business Formation / LLC: consult your tax laws and business regulations, but usually it’s easiest to start off as a sole-proprietor.
- Office or Storefront: work from home, or, once the quarantine ends, the library or Starbucks.
- Employees: focus on getting clients not hiring someone.
- Strategy / Business Plans: here’s a business plan go find some clients.
- Website / Portfolio: the truth is your portfolio or website isn’t going to sell itself, instead get good at communicating the value of your work over email.
- College Degree: You do NOT need a formal education (degrees or certificates) to start freelancing.
Should You Really Start Freelancing?
Yes! Here’s why: when you’re a freelancer, you have options. Instead one source of income you have (hopefully) many clients. Instead of filling one role, you take on different projects. Instead of getting paid a salary and asking your boss for raises, you set your own rate.
But nowadays the lines between a full-time job and a freelancer are becoming blurred. The truth is most people don’t work at one company “permanently” anymore, in fact most full-time employees I know are constantly looking for another job “just incase.” On average, most people really only work at a company for 3-5 years (or less) before moving onto their next gig.
That’s not too different from a freelancer. In fact, often freelancers work with clients for years too (some even have only one). They can even work on-site!
The main difference between a full-time employee and a freelancer nowadays is who has control.
The hardest part though is actually just taking the leap. It can be tough to build a system for looking for clients regularly at first that’s why I recommend starting with a proven system.
How Long Does It Take to Start Freelancing?
If you have 10-15 hours and the talent to produce quality work that’s currently in demand (for example, website designs, blog posts, video, web apps, just to name some options), you can start earning real income on the side in just weeks or months. You don’t need a degree or business plan to get started. What you do need is focus. Making money quickly means you can’t waste time on non-essential tasks.
How Much Can You Make?
As mentioned above, freelancers decide their own hourly rate. Which means everyone charges and earns different amounts.
But don’t get hung up. Most freelance designers charge between $20–$150 per hour depending on experience. If you’re just starting out I recommend not overthinking price and just picking a number, like $50 per hour. That should allow you to start adding $1,000–$2,000 or more to your monthly income in just a few months.
From there you can improve your rate fairly easily. I’m writing a follow up post on this soon. To get it sign up for my newsletter.
What Else Can You Do to Start Freelancing With No Experience?
#1. Set realistic expectations
You’ve followed freelancer extraordinaires online and marveled at their success. At the same time, have you asked what their lives were like before they could share their good freelancing fortune?
For one thing, it’s super-common for freelancers to struggle, at least at first. You can study every strategy the pros share, but it’s a different story when you have to start from scratch yourself. You might find that you do have a period where things seem hard, although of course, you should always work to put systems in place to mitigate any struggles!
Have goals, be determined, but also be gentle with yourself. Comparing your beginning to someone else’s fourth year freelancing will not be helpful. Sure, see what strategies you might be able to borrow from them, but don’t beat yourself up because you’re not able to share massive success on a Medium story yet!
It can help to have a strong “why” for making the switch to remote contracting. What’s your key motivation? How will moving to freelancing full-time help you to meet goals you have for your career and your life? This is important to have because when things do get tough, it’s often your “why” that helps to get you through.
#2. Know your own risk tolerance
Not to dull the shine of freelancing, but it is a risk! Especially at first when you’re just trying to get established and ensure that you have a strong pipeline of clients. I mean, the reason everyone doesn’t move to remote contracting is because it doesn’t come with insurance, sick and vacation leave or a set payday per period.
Understand your own risk tolerance, because if you move into freelancing and find that the risk level is beyond your comfort zone, you’re going to face some anxiety. Honestly, not too many people are comfortable not knowing how they’re going to meet their expenses this month…
It’s not that those who are risk-averse should avoid it altogether, but you may want to do some additional planning for your own comfort. For example, work out the minimum you need each month to maintain your current lifestyle. Save at least a couple months’ worth of funds as backup. If you want to be extra-prepared, look at what you can cut back on now to minimize expenses. No one likes to hear “prepare to be broke,” but prepare to be broke ;).
#3. Have systems in place first
Unless you’ve got considerable savings to tide you over, it’s a good idea to have certain systems in place before you make the transition to full-time contracting. Importantly, those systems should include how you’re finding clients, how you’re marketing yourself and how you’re doing your work.
It will work out much better for you if you have a consistent approach to finding and landing new clients. Sure, one of the first things you do is get the word out to your networks, but that’s not always fruitful, at least not over the long-term. You need some kind of reliable system that you religiously follow to land clients. (Folyo.me has two products that can help with this – a referral newsletter that shares quality project opportunities and Endless Clients, my exact system for developing a steady stream of dream clients).
Marketing yourself is also an important task to do well consistently. The basics should include your website, social channels and portfolio. Understand who your clients are, what they’re looking for and how they will find you. This doesn’t look the same for every freelancer so it’s important to have that fundamental understanding of your clients first. Here’s the best freelancing site for most beginners.
It’s also worth mentioning when, where and how you will do your work. People often have this starry-eyed view of kicking back at home, being super-productive in your PJ’s, but the reality is working from home can have its own set of difficulties. You might have a rowdy family or roommates. People might expect that you’re “available” just because you’re at home. Consider how you do your best work and what you might need to put in place to ensure you have the environment to produce it.
#4. Mind your mindset
Mindset is often one of the trickiest things for people new to remote contract work. It can be rife with issues that cause you to doubt your own abilities or question why you’re doing this. Imposter syndrome can be a real thing – where you doubt your own talents and accomplishments and have this internal notion that you’re a “fraud.”
There’s no one right way to manage your mindset, but there are a few common things that can help. For example:
- Be clear on why people should hire you. Perhaps someone else is a more experienced contractor, but you might have specific industry knowledge, a likeable personality, different connections…
- Be firm in your own value. Have the portfolio samples to back what you can do and remind yourself of why you’re a worthy hire.
- Remember that how you choose to work is okay. You don’t have to be always on the hustle if that’s not true to yourself. Try not to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others who seem to be always hustling (hey, they’re probably not!). Everyone needs breaks and you shouldn’t feel guilty for needing one too. Find a work schedule that you can maintain and that will help you to meet your specific goals.
#5. Be prepared to compromise
… on some things. It’s important to have clear standards and expectations, but don’t let those translate into an overly rigid approach to your work. We’ve all heard the expression “do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life,” but the truth is you’ll work very hard. Expressions like this seem to have taught people they should reject work in the everlasting pursuit of “your passion” but the reality of freelancing is that you still have to pay the bills somehow!
People who have been contracting for years will almost always tell you that, even if they’re able to only work on passion projects now, that wasn’t always the case. They did what they had to in order to stay in business and attain those passion projects. Or, sometimes the projects you’re really passionate about just don’t pay well – what will you do then?
This is where some sense of compromise can be the more realistic approach. For example, if you’re a photographer that prefers grittier, editorial work, the fact is that this often isn’t the best for your wallet. Branching out into some commercial projects that pay well can help to tide you over so that you can still take on the passion projects and remain enthused for your work.
So maybe give some thought to these questions:
- The projects I really want to do are …..
- Other projects I will take include …..
What to do next
Starting as a freelancer isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s the toughest part. My recommendation? Get out there and find some clients. Freelancing is an amazing lifestyle. Within just a few years you can build something amazing. So stick to it. Focus on nailing the basics (the list above) and know that you can find awesome clients on the side.
The days of working for one company forever are over. And so is the illusion that a full-time job is more stable than being a freelancer. To help you get started, I’ve put together a free course which will walk you through everything you need.
You’ll also get a notification when Endless Clients, my new course on finding 10+ $10,000 client projects in under 30 minutes, opens up. It only opens twice a year so make sure to sign up.