What I wish I knew when I started freelancing

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I’d say I officially started as a freelancer at the beginning of 2018. I did a WordPress bootcamp and learned a lot of code in mid 2017. (I share more about that in this post on how to become a freelance web developer.) Then, I had about 6 months of false starts and stops until I really got started.

I followed all the traditional advice of trying to find work, applied to teach with CodeAcademy until they ghosted me 3 interviews in, even tried to become an expert in something like Teachable. I got so much bad advice and wasted so much time, it hurts to think about it! But in the end, I found something that worked for me and have been really happy with my freelancing career ever since.

I’d heard about sites like Upwork and Fiverr, of course. But everything I heard said that they just lowballed people and that all the jobs paid $3/ hour. And of course, you have to watch out for Upwork scams and red flags. But then my Australian friend told me all about her freelancing career that she built on Upwork. And I knew she was doing really well and charging high end prices. So I decided to give it a try, and it was the best decision I ever made for my freelancing career.

If I could go back in time, there’s a lot of advice I would give my beginning freelancer self. Here’s what I wish I knew when I started freelancing:

>Keep trying things until you find something that works. Then, go all in on that.

I tried a bunch of things to find a platform that worked for me. I applied for jobs, tried to find a niche, and yes, even sent out tons and tons of cold emails. Not surprisingly, none of that really worked out for me. But once I found something that did work, I went all in and built the best freelancing business I could on that one strategy.

>It’s going to take a long time to build up clients, but once you do, things will be pretty steady.

I’d say that the first 6 months, I had maybe one client at a time, and lots of down time. The rest of that first year, I had more clients, but it was still nowhere near what I’d consider a full workload. But once I got a solid portfolio and a bunch of solid ratings, after about a year, I had a pretty steady stream of clients after that point.

>Find tools that work for you.

Systems and tools that save you time and help keep you organized are everything when you’re a freelancer who bills by the hour. I use Toggl to track my time, my notes app to keep lists, and Google Drive for shared documents that become messy with edits and notes and to do lists. Specifically for web development, I chose pretty early on to stick mostly to WordPress and Divi, and to use SiteGround for hosting. And those tools have helped me build hundreds of websites at this point. Find the tools you need and save yourself time and frustration.

>Always have something else to work on when the clients aren’t there.

This is key to not only building good habits as a freelancer. There are just going to be times when there’s not any client work and you want to use that time productively. In the beginning, I used that time to build my freelance business. I worked on my portfolio, learned new design techniques & code, tracked down client feedback, applied for more jobs, built systems, all of that fun stuff that happens when you’re just starting out. Now that I’m more established and I don’t have to do those things as often, I use my downtime to work on other businesses and passive income streams, like writing this blog.

>Getting good feedback is everything in the beginning.

In the beginning, I took on easier jobs for much lower rates, because I knew I could overdeliver and get 5 star ratings from those clients. Every rating that’s lower than 5 stars effectively hurts you when you’re getting started. So I made super sure I was going to get a perfect rating from each and every client I worked from. It took a long time to reach top rated and have a 100% success score, but it’s totally worth it. You definitely want to be in the top 5% of whatever group of freelancers you’re in, and getting stellar feedback right from the beginning is key.

>You can’t afford to NOT be picky.

Yeah, I know. It’s tough when you’re starting out, for sure. I was (and sometimes still am) tempted to work with clients who lowballed me or who I knew were going to be nightmare clients. I took them on in the beginning because I thought I had to. And because I hadn’t learned to see the red flags. But honestly, they just wasted my time and made me frustrated. Any little dollar amounts that I made from those were just not worth it. And I lost time and other clients by getting bad ratings or having to offer refunds to insane clients or getting negative feedback from overly demanding people. Just not worth it. And spoiler, I’m still here 6+ years later, and every single one of those nightmare clients is no longer in business.

>Build good habits from the start.

This is key for your mental health. Building good working habits from the beginning will save you from burnout and feeling stressed later on. Keep your to do list and desktop clean and organized. Train yourself to just sit down and focus, or figure out what you need to do in order to be able to focus. These things will save you later on when you do get busy!

>Document & save everything for your portfolio.

Keep everything! Screenshots, save your code, save the compliments your clients give you, as much as you can. Document the progress you made for the client. Download the PDFs or videos of the websites you’ve built or seo statistics or pieces you’ve written or social media posts you’ve created. Make sure to check site traffic or sales and show a difference before and after you worked on the project. Save everything you can so you can clearly show other clients exactly how you helped.

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