Friday Feb 03, 2023

5 Easy Steps: Start Freelancing in 2023

Start freelancing in 2023 with 5 easy steps. Happy woman smiling, working on a laptop.

I’ve been working from home as a freelancer since 2014 (January, part-time…I went full time a few months later). That’s nine years. This morning, I woke up to several people in my DMs on various platforms. They all asked the same question: How do I start freelancing in 2023? Here are 5 easy steps you can take.

A Quick Disclaimer

But first, a little disclaimer:

There’s no such thing as an overnight success. All of us in the freelance industry/self-employment industry started at zero. You’re starting where we did. And it is daily work to get yourself out there, in front of the right people, sending out proposals, and then doing the work. At some point, unless you’re a very rare breed, you will want to quit before it gets successful. Now, if it is just that freelancing isn’t for you, it’s fine to quit. I recommend you don’t quit building it until you’ve given it a fair shake.

And I know at least one person reading this believes they will be an overnight success. Good luck and don’t forget what I just wrote. You’re not a statistical anomaly.

Starting a Freelance Career

One more thing before I get to the easy steps to start freelancing. It’s not for everyone (I know I just said that, but I also know people don’t read entire blogs). It’s also imperative that you know what you do not want to do…the things you hate to do. Even if you’re good at those things, you don’t want to create a life you hate. Starting a freelance career is about starting a life you enjoy, if not love.

I can do a lot of things, do them well, and charge a lot of money for it. That doesn’t mean I want to do it. Paralegals (my undergrad) can get paid very well in the freelance space. Imagine working from home in a state where, despite experience and a degree, you’re lucky to make more than $15 an hour…and pay for parking…and probably worry about hourly billing. I loved being a paralegal, but I hated a lot of the things associated with it.

Now, if I wanted, I could go gangbusters online and create a thriving career that pays well, no parking, and I could work in the areas I really enjoyed. But I don’t do that because there are many aspects of “law office life” I don’t enjoy. So, instead, I use my skills in my career as a freelance writer and editor (and just overall professional nerd). I have few meetings, few phone calls (I hate the phone), and I create my own FULL schedule. If I were to stay in the paralegal space, I would probably need to adjust my hours and be involved in trial prep meetings and be on the phone. No thanks. Hard pass. I would be miserable. I enjoy my solitude. I enjoy choosing when I will meet with others.

So, think long and hard (and make a list) of what you do not want to spend the rest of your life doing. And avoid it. If you don’t, you’ll definitely hate freelancing and quit.

Let’s get to it:

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Easy Steps to Start Freelancing in 2023

Step 1: Determine What You’ll Offer

See my little rant above about making a list of things you hate to do. Avoid those things. So, what should you offer? Do you need a degree to offer it? Let’s start with the second question: do you need a degree to do whatever you want to do as a successful freelancer in 2023?

If you’re involved in a career that currently requires you to maintain licensure of some kind and you want to do it for yourself as a business, then yes you probably do need a degree and to keep your license current. Some exceptions would be if you are currently degreed and licensed as a nurse, for example, and you no longer want to work actively as a nurse, you could use those skills and work for personal injury, med mal, product liability attorneys (they all love working with nurses to review medical records); become a writer for websites, companies, and outlets that want someone who worked as a nurse; get involved in marketing for companies that offer medical or pharmaceutical services if you enjoy marketing; etc.

Other than that, no. You don’t need a college degree or even a high school diploma (I’ve worked with high school dropouts. I am a high school dropout! I did get my GED and then eventually decided that I wanted a college education!). What you need is talent or skill, dedication, passion, and you’ll eventually grow a thick skin. It’s also imperative that you enjoy learning. My degrees aren’t in writing, editing, communication, journalism, or English. They are:

  • BS, Paralegal Studies, Summa Cum Laude (2008)
  • MA, Forensic Psych (no honors, lol) (2012)

And here I am…just writing away. Now, one thing I did do was start my writing career by focusing in an area I knew about: websites, law offices, civil law, and criminal law. Turns out that paralegals make damn fine writers, if they enjoy it!

So, take some time to determine what you can offer starting now. Again, do not include anything that you would hate doing if you were stuck doing it for the rest of your life. Oh, and a quick spoiler: at some point, you’ll still experience burnout and hate what you do…but if you take care of yourself then, you’ll be fine!

Step 2: Put a Portfolio Together

I use the term “portfolio” loosely. Right now, nine years into the game, I do several things to house samples. When I started, there was this site known as Associated Content. It was the grandparent of Medium. It worked like Medium, but the payouts were crappier. I didn’t care about the pay. For me, as a new writer, it was a place where I could write about a few topics I know well (leaving out opinion), publish, and share as samples. Boom – insta-portfolio of the time. Of course, if you’re a writer, artist, photographer, graphic designer, or other creative starting out, you have many options.

  • Medium. I highly recommend this. It’s free. You can use it to showcase your work and your knowledge. I don’t use my account often. For me, it’s just for things I want to share. But if I were starting over, this would be my go-to place. It’s actually perfect for any freelance industry professional who wants to showcase their knowledge. If you’re really good at writing, building an audience, and promotion, you can even get paid. I love Medium. I have the app. I follow people. I read something daily.
  • Dropbox or Google Drive. Or any other type of cloud device. I had several sample pieces I wrote that I converted to PDF. I also put a watermark on them. The header of each had my contact info. I don’t use this method anymore, but it’s very convenient. And free.
  • Website. You do not need to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a website, mmkay? My first portfolio is still up on Wix. It doesn’t have a dedicated domain. It still gets traffic. I still get inquiries through it. It cost me zero dollars and about two hours of time. There’s WordPress. You don’t need a domain…and if you decide to buy a domain, don’t do hosting or anything through them. If you ever want to monetize or provide freebies for download, you’ll need to pay close to $400 a year for one site. I use this. I have probably six or seven hosted sites (some aren’t created, and some belong to friends). I can do what I want… I pay about $400 a year for all of it. But, again, you don’t need a site that costs you money when you first start. Wix and Weebly are both free. If you don’t like the look of their link, Bitly is free. Convert your link with a custom ending. Here’s an example of one of mine: https://bit.ly/JoinReclaim
  • Behance, Dribbbl, or even Instagram. Are you a visual artist of some kind? I think what I’m about to say would work for coding as well because of video support, but don’t quote me. I haven’t used Behance or Dribbbl in years. Those are all great places to host images of your work. If you’re using IG, I’d suggest one of two options: either create two accounts (one personal and one professional) or if you mix the two (I do that), remember that people are on IG for social reasons a lot of the time. So, keep a list of links to your best samples and maybe put together a highlights reel.
  • YouTube. If you enjoy showing people how you work or you want to showcase your knowledge, I highly suggest YouTube. I’ve used it for streaming, podcasting, and a few how-to videos. It’s not my strongest platform, but I enjoy it when I do it. If you want to stream to more than one platform, there are apps to help you with that. And they are simple. Restream is my favorite and you get YouTube and one other channel for free. So, you can start streaming from two channels without a cost. Their plans are very reasonable in price. I did have a subscription, but I don’t use it much. Click here to get $10 toward a Restream plan.
  • Upwork/Fivver. I am only active on Upwork. I’ve had an account on Freelancer and PeoplePerHour. Initially, PeoplePerHour did give me some traction. However, I’m now only active on Upwork as far as the freelance platforms go. The rest of my clients find me because I am all over social media. Upwork gives you the opportunity to set-up a portfolio. Mine isn’t full because I have so much feedback that it doesn’t seem to matter…but I do tell people that I can provide them with a sample from “my portfolio” of projects. With that said, if you use a client’s piece for your portfolio, get permission. It’s theirs once you turn it over. All of my clients have been very good about saying yes or telling me which piece I can use. If you Google “Robin Bull Penn Foster,” you’ll find a screenshot (and cheating documents) for a course I reviewed and updated for them…probably more than one, but one for sure.

So, go forth and establish thyself online, mine protégé!

Step 3: Determine What You’ll Charge

Alright, so, only last year did I start accepting flat rates for monthly projects. Why? Because if you’re not careful (if I’m not careful), they’re not properly priced. You (I) end up with more work than what the price entailed even when you have it in writing. So, I personally don’t recommend starting in this manner. Of course, it’s your life.

I did simple math (as I call it) when I first started nine years ago. I had two jobs (both part-time). One worked out to minimum wage (despite teaching college – but once you factor in all the time you spend in prep, grading, and staff admin…). The other paid me only around $12 an hour. And for a paralegal where I am, $12 (nine years ago) was good money since I didn’t worry about billable hours and no parking fee.

I remember when I started this simple math. I was actually sitting in a McDonald’s waiting for my husband and youngest son to get done at speech and OT. I knew what I made that year: an abysmal $18,000….to support all of us (and I made it work. In fact, until freelancing, the most I ever made in a year was $21k. I would float checks to feed my kids and get gas…so I know that life. Recently, the older two said they never felt poor or like we were struggling. They only recognize it now because they pay their own bills.)

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By the way, that should be a shrug emoji…we’ll see if I know what I’m doing with embedding, huh?

What I am about to say about money…you need to take in several factors: your cost of living (I live in Oklahoma…a lot cheaper than the coasts or Arizona or Nevada…I’d love to live in the desert), what you need to SURVIVE, taxes, health insurance (if you want it). So, understand that I am telling you where my head was nine years ago. It was a good starting point, but just a starting point.

So, I thought for a lot of years, until nine years ago, I thought OMG to just make $3k a month? I’d be fucking set. I’d be golden. Everything would be paid. Life would be good. That was my (first) goal. Here’s how I used it to determine a rate back then:

  • 36k/12 (12 mos in a year). As you know from my previous paragraph, that’s $3k a month.
  • 3k/4 (4 weeks in a mo). That equates to $750 per week (remember, I am only talking base money -= back then, I had no idea that I needed to add on for taxes, insurance, etc. I’ll discuss that last).
  • 750/5 (5 days a week…the number of days each week I would ideally work…keyword: ideally): $150 per day. Now, the full disclosure is that I worked seven days a week for a long time to grow my business. I now take weekends off.
  • 150/8 (8 represents the number of hours I would ideally work at that time): $18.75 an hour.

If I started over, from here I need to add the fees (online) for Upwork (always work in that 20%!), taxes (25%), and if I carried insurance, I’d work that in as well. I need to get signed up, honestly (it’s Jan. 3 and the feds gave everyone until Jan. 15. Having AS, narcolepsy, and enteropathic arthritis, insurance would be a good idea, lol). So, the Upwork 20% based off my hourly fee is almost $4. So, $18.75 + $4 = $22.75. Now, I need to add another 25% of that (taxes), that’s about $6….so, before insurance… $28.75.

Let’s say health insurance costs you $150 a month because you got a great deal (IDK what it costs – I do easy math!). You need to figure out the daily cost. So, $150/30 (30 days in a month or you can go the long way like I did above): $5 a day. I would charge, to be sure I am covered, no less than $33 an hour. The fact is that you won’t work every day when you VERY first start out. So, when you do start working, you need to make sure everything is covered.

Note I didn’t talk about costs of running a business…that’s because while they exist, that’s better for its own blog. You can do almost anything online for free. Or close to free.

So, what about flat rate projects? They exist…even for writers. Think about the time it would take you, multiply that by your hourly rate, and add extra for a cushion because it will take more time than you think.

What about “per word” projects for writers? I still take these on. When I started, I started at .02 cents per word. I wanted the experience. I charge a lot more than that now but I also consider the difficulty of the material. And if a prospective client tells you it’s “easy, fast, and anyone can do this job.” Run the other way.

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Step 4: Put Yourself Out There

This is the step everyone hates. When you start a freelance career, all you think about is working your own schedule, working on projects you love. But to get there…you must be found. There is no client fairy.

Starting a freelance career (and maintaining it) is unique because you’re not just selling what you can do. You’re also selling your knowledge and likeability. People hire and work with people they trust and people they like. Yes, you’re going to be considered the expert…but that doesn’t make anyone else beneath you.

I am on Twitter, Facebook (don’t use it often since they originally shut down my huge page over a Jeffrey Dahmer meme…before the Netflix thing), IG, LinkedIn, this blog, another website, Medium…and probably sites I’ve forgotten. My link is the same everywhere except FB because the new FB goal is to help people like you become a better freelancer. So, everywhere else, I am TheRobinBull.

Showcase your knowledge, learn how to contact people, and learn how to write a good proposal.

And you must get over yourself. Here’s a video of me talking about how to get over rejection. And the video itself is terrible. My filter jumped around…I’m outside and can’t see. On a personal level, I cringe a little. Butttttttt…the message is the same and it’s necessary (and we all start somewhere).

Step 5: Set Up Your Biz Management Systems

This is a subject that’s better as its own post…so I am going to keep this short. You need, at the very least:

  • Invoicing and payment software. Some let you start for free, but you can only add so many clients. You and your CPA will thank you if you get something to track expenses and break up “Upwork” or “Fivver” into each individual client per invoice. You may have expenses you can write off that you don’t know about.
  • An onboarding plan for clients. How do you plan on bringing them on and getting their project started? Pro tip: google onboarding plan for INDUSTRY business to find a free one that you can edit to fit your needs.
  • Policies and procedures. Know in advance and let your clients know how payments work, when their payment is expected, and whether you charge late fees. How many edits do you provide? Do you charge for time on the phone or in meetings? My policy is 5 days for payment unless otherwise discussed/managed, late fees can be charged (my clients are great so I rarely need to do this), and provided that I’m not on the phone or in a meeting with them WEEKLY, I don’t charge for that time UNLESS it’s a time we scheduled to outline the project. Oh, and I provide two edits. I realize providing two changes for code or websites might be different. So, know your own policies and procedures. Put them in writing. Expand on them as you learn and grow your business.

Work the 5 Steps to Start a Freelance Career

Nothing I wrote will help you unless you actively work it. As I say in my book, plan your work and work your plan.

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Robin Bull

You may not know me by name but you know my words. I've helped you connect with clients, educate audiences, and inspire loyalty. And I also LOVE helping people work at home, whether they are stay-at-home moms, retired professionals, or folks with disabilities.

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