The 6-Step Guide to Building an Online Freelancing Career
Cruise through some of the profiles you find on freelancing websites such as Upwork or Fiverr and you will likely be amazed—maybe even a bit envious—of what you see. Freelancers living all over the world who are earning substantial incomes doing what they love. And by substantial, I mean high five figures and well into six figures.
What propels those freelancers to that level of income is a mixture of honesty, integrity, punctuality, and an effective online profile that highlights their skills in a compelling way.
So, let’s go through six steps that will help you reach your income goals by building the freelance career you envy. Because if you come at freelancing as a professional, freelancing will treat you as such.
Step 1: Be Honest With Your Profile
This is your only chance at the proverbial “first impression” that, hopefully, keeps a buyer interested in who you are and what you can offer.
First and foremost, be honest about your skill set and who you are.
Seriously. Don’t pad your profile with skills that aren’t your real strength just because you think it makes you look more well-rounded. No one at the freelancing sites is checking to make sure you’re honest, but if a buyer hires you for a specific skill you supposedly possess, yet you don’t deliver the expected quality in a timely fashion, your failure will ultimately reflect in your rating—which then impacts how future buyers judge you.
Worse, if a buyer complains to the freelance site about the quality of work you submitted, you could find your account blocked or closed permanently. And suddenly your budding freelance career is dead in the water.
As part of the whole “honesty” thing, always use your real, full name—not initials such as Ulysses G. And don’t use your company name. You are you. You are not your company. Be proud of who you are and the work you do.
Also, include a clear headshot of yourself in your profile, not a picture of your logo, and not some avant garde, hyper-modern portrait of you in deep shadow or singing in the rain or whatever. Buyers connect to real people and if anything about your profile is off-putting, then you’ve already lost. Think about it this way: You’re building a relationship, no different in many ways than online dating. Would you go for the profile without a photo, or do you want to see who you’re dealing with?
Step 2: Sell, Sell, Sell Yourself
Whatever you’re really good at…really sell those skills.
I spent 17 years writing for The Wall Street Journal, and that is the very first fact potential buyers see about me. Because my freelance career is structured around general writing and business writing, I want those potential buyers to immediately equate me with high-quality expectations.
Provide a concise but detailed description of your abilities. Don’t be shy—be complementary to yourself. You are your own wingman on this date. Sell what a catch you are.
Use impactful, active verbs. Don’t say “I’ve been to a lot of countries and I’ve written many, well-received travel stories for several publications.” Instead, be specific: “I’m an expert in travel hacking, I’ve ventured across 70 countries (so far), and my travel-hacking stories have appeared in X, Y and Z.” Suddenly, a potential buyer has a real feel for you and senses the excitement with which you approach travel writing. Plus, he/she knows exactly which other organizations have hired you, which adds to your credibility.
And always keep your buyer’s needs front-of-mind, meaning always explain precisely how your skills will help that buyer stand out. For instance, a buyer examining my business-writing profile sees this: “I have 17 years of experience writing for all sections of The Wall Street Journal, and I will deliver to you business presentations, blog posts, or Journal-caliber articles of the highest quality so that your expertise shines through.”
You want a potential buyer to feel that you’re exactly what they need to complete the task at hand so that, because of you, others see them as a professional, knowledgeable expert.
To the degree you can, include examples of your work in an online portfolio, or be able to direct a potential buyer to a blog or website where your work might be visible.
As part of your selling job, write a compelling headline atop your profile that will make potential buyers at least stop and consider the first few sentences about you. Atop my specialty business-writing profile the headline reads: Business Writing at a Wall Street Journal Level. I’m not saying that’s a brilliant headline. I’m saying that it clearly and concisely articulates my specialty and my experience in trying to catch the eye of a buyer who is specifically seeking a writer for a business-related project.
If you have limited experience, don’t let that stop you. Just be forthright about that fact in your profile. Some buyers are willing to take a chance on a newcomer, if the price is right. And while you’re waiting for those buyers, go out and get some experience. Barter or offer your skills for free to someone locally who might need them. Maybe a small brewpub is opening, for instance. Go offer your logo design skills for free, or in exchange for $100 worth of free-beer credit, or whatever. Suddenly, you have experience and an example for your portfolio.
Step 3: Connect to Your Social Media
To the degree it makes sense in your case, and to the degree the freelance site allows it, connect your profile to your social media accounts. This isn’t always for clients, but for the freelance sites to get a better idea of you and your skills, which, through whatever algorithms are in use, can then lead to better job prospects coming your way.
Just be hyper-judicious about this.
It’s one thing to connect a professional LinkedIn account, or even an Instagram page that highlights your photography or design skills, for instance. But maybe you don’t want to connect the Twitter or Facebook page if you regularly use it to rant about social or political issues. Be vigilant about this. A freelance career is about what you bring to the client, and your client wants no baggage associated with your personal, social life and beliefs.
Step 4: Set Your Price
This is art, not science.
How much you charge for your services is entirely dependent upon the freelance task you’re marketing and the price at which others with similar skills are willing to do the same work. I price my writing at $49 per hour, well above many who set their hourly rate at $20 and below…but under many others who price their services at $55 and above.
You have to feel comfortable earning what you’re earning relative to the time you’re committing to an assignment. I know my skills and I know the quality of the writing and research I deliver. So, I’m not willing to write below a certain price point. That absolutely means I miss out on lots of potential assignments. Then again, I’m not looking to load myself down with scads of low-dollar jobs just to earn a few extra bucks when I have other side-projects I can do that earn substantially more.
That said, I negotiate prices all the time based on the project. If a potential buyer approaches me with something I am interested in because it expands my skill set or because it fits within my areas of personal interest, I will accept a lower rate (to a degree) and work within my buyer’s budget. That often works to my advantage because that buyer already has a positive experience with me before the project begins, and he often specifically looks for me the next time writing needs arrive.
But, again, it’s all about what you feel comfortable earning relative to the task.
If you’re new to a freelance career and you want to build a reputation and a high rating quickly—or you want to start generating an income immediately—then setting a more competitive price can make sense. But only you can make that call.
In general, set your price based on a few factors:
Experience: An animator with a decade at, say, Disney is worth more than someone who just graduated college.
Expertise: Specialized skills in a specialized niche are always more valuable than general skills in a specialized niche.
Qualifications: A translator or interpreter who is certified, for instance, should earn more than someone who simply speaks a foreign language.
Geography: Freelancers in Western economies simply earn more than those in India, Southeast Asia and Latin America (there are exceptions, of course).
Project complexity: Writing an ongoing series of blogs is one thing. Copyediting and proofreading an academic research paper is something entirely different. Fully understand what is involved in the project before you negotiate or commit to a price.
And be polite when you want to be offended. The fact is that lots of potential buyers want professional work at amateur prices. Don’t argue with them or try to explain why you’re worth more. You’re just trying to teach a pig to sing. Decline the proposal and move on.
Step 5: Don’t Outsource.
I don’t care what videos you’ve seen or what advice you’ve heard or read from people telling you how they built a big-dollar freelance career by accepting projects and then turning around to outsource the work for pennies to some worker in a developing nation.
An example of what I mean: I came across some yahoo on TikTok directing viewers to head to a particular website that highlights what magazines are looking for from freelance writers, and to pick any random, high-dollar listing, then send the requirements to a writer in the Philippines who will write said story very cheaply…and you, the freelancer, get to pocket the difference. In this particular example, the TikTok yahoo randomly clicked on Alaska Airlines’ inflight magazine, which noted that it pays $150 for articles of a particular nature. The TikTok yahoo then claimed that a Filipino writer would write that story for just $5—never mind the fact that Alaska Airlines wasn’t requesting a specific story but simply laying out generalized guidelines for the kinds of stories it accepts as pitches from freelance writers.
The real horror here is that anyone who thinks a $5 story is going to match the caliber of writing required for an award-winning airline magazine read by hundreds of thousands of people monthly…well, you probably shouldn’t be a freelance writer to begin with.
Buyers know quality. They are not noobs. And, no offense to workers in developing nations, but most of them are pricing their services low because they’re trying to do volume business, and volume is not synonymous with quality.
So if you’re chasing a prosperous future in freelancing, do your own work. Steer clear of outsourcing, and anyone who tells you that’s the way to make money as a freelancer. I guarantee that person is not a successful freelancer. The only time I would ever outsource is if I need someone to tag-team with me on a specific aspect of a project in which I do not have the requisite skill. But even then, I’m consulting with the buyer to explain why and seeking their approval.
Step 6: Ask for a Review
Once you’ve completed the task, once your buyer is happy, and once you’ve been paid, ask for a review and/or a rating.
Ratings and reviews add to your credibility and help attract future buyers, so they’re important. Not all your clients will remember to rate and review you because they get wrapped up in their own lives. So it’s OK to ask. But only ask once. If they forget to do it even after assuring you they would, well they forget—move on.
Now, venture forth and build your freelance profile. Win over some clients…and start enjoying the benefits of an online freelance career.
Written by Jeff D. Opdyke