Learn how to become a freelancer, the top freelance services, how to land your first client and everything you need to know to get started as a freelancer.
If you want more flexibility in your professional life or cash in your wallet, you may be wondering how to become a freelancer. The good news? While it takes some planning and effort, your freelance business is within reach. We’ll show you how to get started so that you can earn money on your terms.
Quickstart Guide To Getting Started As A Freelancer
- The majority of freelancers find job opportunities by browsing through general job boards, job posting sites or specialized freelance websites. In addition, they often engage in self-promotion and networking activities on a regular basis to enhance their chances of landing new projects. We recommend checking out ZipRecruiter to find potential opportunities.
- Launching a website or portfolio can be a great way to showcase your skills and talent. When creating your website or portfolio, we recommend using WordPress + WP Engine for a fast, secure site.
Is Freelancing Right For You?
Before we go over the steps you need to take to become a freelancer, let’s define what a freelancer (also known as an independent contractor) is and explore whether going freelance is the right professional move for you.
A freelancer is someone who earns a living or generates a side income by providing a service to a client. No employee-employer relationship exists, and you’ll typically work with multiple clients at a time.
Freelancing comes with a lot of perks, like:
- Increased income potential (because you can set your own rates)
- Location independence (for gigs you can do from your laptop)
- Flexible schedule (as long as you complete the task by your deadline, when you work often doesn’t matter)
- Choice of clients and projects (you can fire a difficult client or decline an assignment)
However, freelancing has some significant pitfalls, too, such as:
- Lack of employer benefits (you’ll have to cover your own paid time off, health insurance, retirement, and more)
- Responsibility for paying taxes (your clients won’t withhold taxes like your employer does)
- Income fluctuations (the amount of cash you bring in each month can vary a lot depending on how much work you do, so having a well-funded savings account is critical to fill in the gaps)
- The need to hustle (you’ll have to continuously pursue new clients and projects to fill your pipeline and bank account)
So, although freelancing can give you the flexible way to earn a living that you crave, you need to weigh the good with the bad before deciding if it’s a good fit for you.
Top Freelance Services
You can offer nearly any service as a freelancer (as long as it’s legal!), but these are some of the most in-demand on the market today:
- Graphic design
- Web design and development
- Social media management
- Virtual assistance
Did you know that as of 2023, there are more than 70 million freelancers in the United States alone? That’s a staggering number of people supplementing their income or earning a full-time living through self-employment!
For more ideas, check out our guide to the best freelance jobs.
How To Become A Freelancer
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics of freelancing, we can outline your strategy for how to become a freelancer. If you follow the steps below, you’ll be well on your way to building a lucrative freelance business.
Understand Your Why
Before anything else, you should determine and understand your motivation for going freelance - and use it to guide your decision-making. For example, if you became a freelancer to spend more time with your family, you probably won’t overbook yourself with client projects. But, if your primary goal is to earn as much money as possible as soon as possible, you’ll likely say “yes” to that assignment with a short deadline.
Can’t pinpoint your why? Take a moment to reflect on your career and life. What do you want to change about each of them?
For example, if you spend 12 hours a day commuting and working, never seeing your spouse or your children, you may wish for a flexible way to earn a living. Your reason for going freelance would be to be more present and involved in the lives of those you love.
Or, perhaps you already have a decent work-life balance but can barely make ends meet on your current salary. Your why could be earning extra money on a schedule that fits your life – or replacing your present income tenfold by charging your clients profitable rates.
Choose Your Service
To maximize your freelance earnings, you need to offer a service that’s in-demand and high-paying. To determine what you should offer, take an inventory of your skills and interests. Then, do a little market research on the internet and within your network.
You can do market research in various ways. Here are some ideas:
- Ask business owners what they’re struggling with or what they’d like to get off their plate.
- Poll your friends and family to see if they have experience freelancing. If so, buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain.
- Look through job postings to gauge the popularity of or need for different roles. Many companies hire full-time employees and freelancers.
- Find and hang out in social media groups geared towards freelancers, entrepreneurs, and professionals in industries that interest you. Note trends in the conversations.
As you go through this exercise, be sure to answer these questions:
- What are businesses (or individuals) looking for right now?
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- How much do those roles typically pay?
- What could you do to earn a solid living enjoyably?
If you love to write, freelance writing may be your best bet. Or, if you’re incredibly organized and detail-oriented, becoming a freelance virtual assistant could work. Remember: you’re not locked into providing a given service forever, so try one out for a while and see what happens.
Close Any Skills Gaps
Once you know the service you want to offer, you need to identify and close any significant gaps in your skills. For example, say you want to be a social media manager but don’t know how to use Instagram.
If your market research revealed that most of your target clients have a presence on that platform, you should invest some time learning the ins and outs of it. That way, you can confidently create compelling posts, build a following, engage an audience, and convert those leads into business for your clients.
Set Your Rates
Next, you need to set your rates. You can get some information by running online searches. But, for the best pricing guidance, you should network with other freelancers who provide a similar service in a similar industry. Remember, as a new freelancer, you may have to work up to your desired rate over time as you build your portfolio.
Unsure where to find other freelancers? Social media is a great place to look. LinkedIn is likely your best bet, but Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms can be useful, too.
If you want to meet other freelancers IRL (in real life), attend local networking events. Your town’s Chamber of Commerce may host meetups. You should also consider going to industry conferences. They can be ideal for building your freelancer network and client roster simultaneously.
Pick Your Schedule
You'll have to decide if you want to freelance on the side first - or go all in from the start. If you’re like most people, freelancing as a side hustle initially probably makes sense. You’ll be able to work towards replacing your full-time income while building a deep cash reserve to cover you during slow months. But, if you’re financially secure and comfortable with risk, you could quit your job before launching your business. That way, you can devote all of your time and attention to freelancing.
Review Your Budget
Your income will be different from month to month, so you may need to adjust your spending habits on the fly. To make that process easier, it’s a good idea to get familiar with your budget in advance. First, think about what you do (and what you’d like to do) with your money each month. Then, put each item into one of two buckets:
- Essential Expenses (housing, utilities, food, transportation, medicine, insurance, minimum debt payments, etc.)
- Discretionary Expenses (shopping, dining out, home upgrades, vacations, extra debt payments, investing, etc.)
Assign each item a dollar amount and add up the buckets. You must earn at least enough money every month to cover your essential expenses. Otherwise, you’ll need to tap into your savings to make up the difference. But, when you have an especially profitable month, you can put more cash towards covering items in the discretionary expenses bucket (or replenishing your savings account).
Think About Your Benefits
If you can get health insurance through your spouse, parents, or other means, that’s great. But, if you can’t, you should factor paying for it into your budget. Plus, you should research retirement savings account options for the self-employed, such as the Solo 401k or SEP IRA. That way, you can continue to save for your golden years as you freelance.
Plan for Your Taxes
As a freelancer, you’re solely responsible for paying taxes. Since your clients won’t withhold tax from your fee, it’s a good idea to set aside some of your earnings to meet your obligation. That way, you won’t have to scramble to cover the bill at tax time. In most cases, you’ll have to pay estimated taxes every quarter.
You may want to speak with an accountant to figure out how much to save for taxes. But, you’ll need enough to cover your federal income tax, any state or local income tax, and what’s known as the self-employment tax. The self-employment tax is 15.3% of your net income and gets allocated to Social Security and Medicare.
Pro Tip: Keep track of what you spend to run your freelance business. Expenses such as internet access, a new laptop, travel and attendance to industry conferences, etc., can reduce your taxable income.
Open a Business Bank Account
When you freelance, you’re a small business owner. As a rule of thumb, business and personal finances should be kept separate for tax purposes. That means you should open a business checking account to receive payments from clients and pay for freelancing-related expenses. As your enterprise grows, you may also want to apply for a business credit card.
Launch Your Website or Portfolio
Your website or online portfolio is where you can highlight who you are, how you help clients, and what you’ve achieved. Since prospective clients will likely look you up on the internet before hiring you, you should launch one as soon as possible.
If you don’t have past client work to show off yet, you can create work samples or include relevant school projects that you’re proud of. For example, if you’re trying to break into freelance writing, you could start a blog to demonstrate your writing abilities and subject matter expertise.
Get Your First Clients
You’ve done a lot of legwork, and it's finally time to land your first clients! Here are some client acquisition methods you can try:
- Sign up for freelance websites like Upwork or Fiverr.
- Apply for freelance gigs you see listed online.
- Send cold pitches to people or companies you’d like to work with.
- Get extremely active on social media to promote your services and build credibility.
- Befriend other freelancers and entrepreneurs who can commiserate, offer advice, and possibly share leads.
- Attend networking events and exchange business cards with prospects.
- Make it VERY obvious that you’re for hire everywhere you have a presence online (and in the physical world as applicable).
If you’re struggling to land that first gig, consider trading your service for a testimonial. It doesn’t help you make rent or buy groceries, but it can make it easier to convince someone else to pay you. You’ll be able to say you have a satisfied freelance client and can point to the successful project in your portfolio. And, who knows? That initial barter could turn into a lengthy and lucrative string of paid projects.
Sometimes it can be helpful to send a resume to potential clients. Check out our guide to learn how to create a freelance resume.
Warning: Don’t do too much free work. You should get compensated for your efforts and abilities.
For more help and resources on becoming a freelancer, check out our guide to the best freelancing courses.
How Does Freelancing Work?
The freelance process happens when a freelancer and a client meet and agree to do business. The specifics of that process vary from situation to situation. For example, as a freelancer, you may connect with a new client by applying to a gig listed on a job board or sending an email to pitch your services.
Or, a potential client may see something you posted online and reach out to you. Once your business is more established, you may find that more new leads find you rather than you having to chase them.
Once you’ve made that initial connection with a new client, you need to hammer out the details of your working relationship. Having a written contract spells out what you’ll do for them and what you’ll receive in return is a smart idea.
The nature of your work will dictate the best way for you to get paid. For example, freelance writers often charge per project or written piece. That’s because an hourly rate would penalize them for being efficient, and a per-word rate could make for odd invoice amounts. On the other hand, it’s industry standard to pay a freelance proofreader per word or page.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I start freelancing?
You can start freelancing by choosing a service to offer, setting your rates, launching a website, and landing your first client(s).
How can I become a freelancer with no experience?
To become a freelancer with no experience, you should create a starter portfolio with work samples to show prospective clients. You may also want to trade doing a small project for a client testimonial to enhance your credibility.
How do freelancers find work?
Freelancers find work in various ways, such as searching on job boards, joining freelance websites, attending networking events, and using social media. They can also learn about gig opportunities from other freelancers.
What skills do freelancers need?
Freelancers need many skills to be successful. They must be experts at providing their service and possess soft skills like communication, negotiation, time management, organization, and more.
How do you put freelance or contract work on your resume?
If you are looking to add freelance or contract work to your resume, check out our guide: how to put freelance work on your resume.
The Bottom Line
Due to the many perks, tens of millions of people in this country have turned to self-employment. If you believe the pros of freelancing outweigh the cons, then this may be the right path for you, too. So now that you know how to become a freelancer, what’s stopping you?
Don't forget to explore ZipRecruiter to find freelance opportunities near you!