Zero to Freelancer: A guide to finding freelance jobs online for beginners

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June 9, 2021
5 minute read

Freelancing provides a great deal of freedom, and empowers you to work from almost anywhere. But it’s not always easy: As a freelancer, you have to manage all your own business administration, sales, client management, and client delivery. To accomplish all that profitably, you need systems in place to support you.

In this guide, we’re covering everything you need to know to go from beginner to successful freelancer.

What is freelancing?

In short: freelancing is when you run your own independent business, providing services to clients in exchange for your fee or rate. You’re a self-employed business owner that manages all your own administration, client management, and client delivery.

Because freelancers don’t have bosses or employees in the traditional sense of the word, they have to manage two key elements of their business: being both the employee and the entrepreneur.

Employee responsibilities

Client delivery: This is actually doing the work that a client hires you to do.

Project management: Making sure your work is done on time.

Client admin: Emails, meetings, kickoffs, and more.

Client management: Setting expectations and dealing with conflict.

Client support: Answering questions and solving problems.

Data entry: Managing day to day tasks and documenting everything you've done for clients.

Entrepreneur responsibilities

Sales: Making sure there’s a consistent pipeline of work.

Admin: Sending invoices, managing the books, and paying yourself.

Growth: Identifying new services, optimizing what you provide to clients, and looking for efficiencies.

Marketing: Building a brand for yourself as a freelance expert.

Managing cash resources: Ensuring you always have enough cash coming in to pay bills (and yourself) each month.

Many freelancers also choose to work from home, which can keep costs lower for running their business. They might have multiple freelance jobs at any one time, balancing multiple potential clients part time.

Key skills all beginner freelancers need to have

Beyond simply having a list of tasks to accomplish, freelancers need a wide variety of skills to get their businesses off the ground and growing. In specific, freelancers need: a craft, client skills, and business skills.

Honing your craft

You need to be an expert at a specific skill you can charge clients for. That means you need to be good at:

  • Execution of the craft itself (writing, coding, bookkeeping, etc.)
  • Using common technologies or platforms related to your craft
  • Common processes or frameworks related to your craft
  • Common language used to describe your craft

Client skills

It’s not enough to be good at something. To be successful in a freelance job, you need to be good at connecting your craft to client needs, including:

  • Time management
  • Ideation and strategizing
  • Revisions and editing
  • Expectation setting and communication

Business skills

Once you have a roster of clients, you need to do the backend administrative work for your relationship and your business, including:

  • Sending invoices
  • Managing receipts and expenses
  • Paying yourself (including any tax withholding)
  • Filing taxes for your business
  • Knowing how to use relevant business management technologies (such as a CRM or accounting software for freelancers)

A breakdown in any of these skills could hinder your freelance business and make it harder to find freelance work, so it’s important to have basic competency in all of them or know which you plan to outsource.

Positives of freelancing

Because of how freelancing is structured, there are a lot of benefits:

Remote work: You can work from anywhere (depending on if your contracts stipulate you need to work from a client office, which is uncommon but happens).

Time control: You work on a deadline basis, which means you can set your own hours.

Work-life balance: With remote work and having control over your schedule, you can design your life in a way that works for you.

Digital nomadism and travel opportunities: You can work from anywhere, so why not work from a beach? Or, work from home? The choice is yours.

Opportunity to take on any freelance jobs you want: You don’t need to ask for permission to take on freelance jobs that really excite you (or turn down jobs that aren't a fit).

Earning potential: Many freelancers earn more in a freelance job than they would doing the same work as an employee. You can set your own freelance rates and be in control of your destiny.

Negatives of freelancing

The same structure that makes freelancing amazing also comes with some downsides to be aware of:

Negotiations: Some clients will try to hard-ball you on your rates, pushing your earnings down.

Administration: You have to run everything. There’s no assistant or admin department to figure it out for you. This can lead to freelancers making mistakes, especially when they first start out.

Chasing late payments: Some companies skip out on paying freelancers, which means a lot of hassle and potential lost revenue.

Finding your own customers: You need to spend a lot of time looking for freelance jobs. That means checking out different job sites like Upwork or Fiverr.

Setting up your own technology: Everything you do, you have to build from scratch.

Unstable income: Some months could be amazing, but then you lose a client and your revenue could drop overnight.

Home distractions: Many freelancers work from home, which lends itself to distractions.

Hard to take vacation: If you stop working, your income stops, so there’s a lot of pressure for freelancers to never take vacation.

Anxiety: You never know if you’ll lose all your clients or not be able to find new ones.

Self-management: You have to be incredibly disciplined to manage all your client work and deadlines.

What types of work can freelancers do?

The short answer: Freelancers can perform almost any service that employees do.

The longer answer: The structure of freelancing lends itself well to execution-focused tasks, but less so for team management or multi-project management tasks. In general, that means you can’t take on a managerial role as a freelancer. That said, if you can break down a job into execution-focused tasks, you can take on any of those tasks.

For example: Managing a team requires project planning, project management, and performance management. While project management and performance management is difficult to outsource, a freelancer could take on project planning.

Other services that are common in the freelance economy:

  • Content writing (all forms)
  • Design
  • Writing code
  • Web development
  • Bookkeeping
  • Accounting
  • Project strategy
  • Subject matter expertise consulting

How to determine if freelancing is the right fit for you

If you’re trying to figure out if freelancing is right for you, ask yourself these key questions:

1. Do you have specific execution-focused skills that companies need?

This is the first step. If you have a skill like writing, coding, or design, you can be a freelancer.

If you answered “no” to this question, challenge yourself: Do you really not have an execution-focused skill? Some examples include:

  • Writing emails
  • Booking meetings
  • Booking travel or rental cars
  • Writing blog posts
  • Building the foundation of an app
  • Setting up social media pages

You don’t have to be a savant that can write everything or code the next Facebook. You can break down your skills into smaller tasks that become part of a larger project. For instance, if you don’t have the skills to manage an entire social media campaign but you can set up a campaign, that’s an outcome you can potentially sell to clients as a freelancer.

2. Do you have a skill set that is rare/hard to hire for OR do you have a skill set companies need in-part, but not enough to justify a full-time hire?

When skills are rare or hard to hire for, there’s usually higher demand for freelancers with those skills. And if a company needs your skills, but not enough to justify a full-time hire, there’s a clear business case for hiring freelancers.

There’s also a third option here: you have a skill set that many companies hire full-time employees for. This does not mean you can’t be a successful freelancer in that field. Companies choose to hire freelancers for a variety of reasons, so if some companies are hiring full-time employees with your skill set, take it as validation that your skills are needed in the market. From there, think about what different kinds of companies might still need your skills but can’t afford to hire a full-time employee (for example, smaller startups).

3. Do you enjoy (and are you good at) working independently?

This is a must-have. Freelancers don’t have any of the usual structure that employees get, so you need to enjoy working independently.

If you don’t enjoy working independently, assess why. Is it that you don’t like being alone all day? Or that you need motivation from others? If it’s single items like those, you can find workarounds by joining a co-working space or virtual community. But if it’s something more fundamental, for instance that you aren’t self-motivated and need a boss to tell you what to do, then freelancing is likely not a good fit.

4. Do you enjoy working on multiple projects for multiple clients simultaneously?

Employees are often given multiple tasks, but always for one “client” - their employer. Freelancers have to balance multiple projects for multiple clients, and that means handling different communication styles, goals, and work styles.

If you don’t like juggling tons of clients or projects, you can still succeed as a freelancer: Many freelancers will sign long term contracts with 2-3 clients, almost becoming like part-time employees. This is a perfectly valid way to run a freelance business, so keep that in mind. However, it’s highly unusual that a freelancer will only have one client at a time, so you will have to be okay balancing at least two or three clients at a time.

5. Which problems would you rather have—employment (politics, crap work, bad bosses), or freelancing (bad/no clients, dealing with admin, etc.)?

If you hate the idea of dealing with clients and sending invoices, freelancing is not for you. But on the flip side, you might enjoy freelancing if you hate dealing with office politics and bad bosses you have to manage.

This kind of analysis helps with the mindset shift required to be a freelancer. The upside is pretty great: control over your time and higher earning potential than most employees. But the worst days can be pretty crappy. For employees, bad days are often tempered by the fact that they have secure employment or, if they do get fired, they get severance and government support until they find their next day job. It’s not that one is worse than the other per se, but it’s instead a question of priorities and which experience you want to have in your career.

6. Do you like sales?

Every freelancer will have to do some form of sales. For most, that means taking sales calls and closing clients. Or, if you decide to use a freelancer marketplace, that means pitching for freelance jobs in a way that’s similar to a job application and interview process. Some freelancers build inbound funnels that bring clients to them, but there’s still an element of sales because you have to demonstrate that you can solve a client’s problem and give them confidence that you’re the right person for the job.

It’s important to remember that freelancing is a form of entrepreneurship, which means that you’re in control of making your own destiny. If you want more work, you have to go find it, whether that’s inbound, outbound, or marketplace driven.

If you absolutely hate sales and want to minimize it in your freelance business, a common method would be to join an agency as freelance bench talent. That way, whenever an agency sells a project you’d be a fit for, they bring you on board. This is a valid way to freelance, but it’s often not sustainable as agency projects can be few and far between. If you want to join multiple agencies to fill your work day, that’s possible, but again turns the process back into you being a good salesperson.

Most in-demand freelance skills

Thinking about learning a skill to become a freelancer? Want to assess if your current skill set is lucrative in the freelance economy? If you want to launch a freelancing career from scratch, learning these in demand skills is a great way to get contract work, part time freelance jobs, or find freelance jobs around the world.

1. Development

Web developers—whether front end or back end—are in high demand because the skill set is so impactful. A good developer can build a product that millions of people use and pay for, meaning the investment carries a huge ROI. Because of that ROI potential, freelance web developers can make a lot of money with high paying freelance job opportunities. If you want to learn web or software development, there are a lot of courses you can take (both free and paid).

Pay rate: Between $40 to $150+ per hour depending on experience.

2. Freelance writing

Freelance writers can work on a wide variety of tasks, from emails, to blog content, to books, and more. This means that you have a huge opportunity to specialize or find work as a generalist throughout your freelance career. Further, you can work for almost any company in the world, since every company will need to communicate in writing at some point (even if it’s just their website).

Pay rate: Anywhere from $15 to $500+ per hour.

3. Virtual assistant skills

Virtual assistants handle a lot of tasks, depending on the client: booking travel, managing email, managing calendars, and even managing people. This is a great freelance job opportunity for people with organizational skills who like the idea of working with a single person instead of a whole team.

Pay rate: Between $10 to $60+ per hour depending on your experience and what skills you have.

4. Web design and graphic design

As the world becomes more tech-forward, design skills are more critical than ever. A freelance web designer could easily build beautiful designs that help companies attract new customers, build a great experience, or even win design awards.

Pay rate: Anywhere from $50 to $100+ per hour depending on experience.

5. SEO

Search Engine Optimization is a lucrative career path for freelancers online. You help clients find relevant keywords that will drive traffic and customers to their website. It’s an ever-changing system as Google and Bing update their search algorithms, meaning high demand for people who understand the space.

Pay rate: $50 to $500+ per hour depending on experience and the project you take on.

6. Accounting and bookkeeping

Accounting and bookkeeping is about three key things: managing cash flows, staying compliant with local laws, and finding opportunities to save money in taxes or expenses. This kind of work is incredibly valuable because it touches so close to actual cash in the bank. If you’re good at accounting or bookkeeping, you’ll have a lot of opportunities as a freelancer.

Pay rate:

  • $25 to $75+ per hour for bookkeepers
  • $150 to $450+ per hour for accountants

7. Social media marketing

If you know your way around Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or any other social platform, you can make a lot of money as a freelance social media marketer or social media manager. Brands use social media to scale up their communities, build a brand, and close new customers, which means your work directly impacts the company’s reputation and top line revenue.

Pay rate: Between $40 to $60+ per hour depending on demonstrated experience or certifications.

8. Data analysis

Crunching numbers—taking raw data and finding insight from it—is an incredibly valuable skill to have as a freelancer. We’re creating more data in our world than ever before, and companies don’t know what to do with it. If you know how to perform data analysis, particularly statistical analysis in SQL or Stata, you can make a lot of money.

Pay rate: Anywhere from $35 to $200+ per hour depending on the complexity of the project and your experience.

9. Data entry

Data entry jobs are a great way to kickstart your freelance career. There are many data entry freelance jobs available, ranging from portfolio documentation to customer service. Unfortunately, it doesn't pay as well as you might find in another freelance job, but there's still an opportunity to earn good money and you might be able to get long term customers that offer stability.

Pay rate: Anywhere from $10 to $22 per hour.

10. Video editing

As a video editor, you'll help clients produce fantastic audio visual content for their blogs, websites, or social channels. It can be a lucrative freelance job as well, depending on your experience and the industry you're in.

Pay rate: $30 to $50+ per hour.

11. Customer service

If you enjoy answering customer questions, solving problems, or responding to comments online, you might like customer service freelance jobs. They also don't pay as much as some other jobs, for example freelance writing jobs or virtual assistants, but you get to interact with people on a regular basis. You can also often work from home while working freelance customer service jobs, making it easy to stay comfortable while you help people.

Pay rate: $15 to $25 per hour.

Resources, courses, and technology to get started

Not sure how to get started as a freelancer? There are a lot of ways to learn:

  • Free online resources
  • Paid courses
  • People to follow on social media

Free online resources

Social media: Experts regularly post insights and ideas on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Blogs: Blogs like the Wave Freelancer Hub help with guides, how-to’s, and other written insights.

YouTube: YouTubers regularly share their freelancing insights for free on the platform.

Paid courses

Mylance: Mylance helps tech workers transition from employee to freelancer.

Erin Booth: Erin Booth’s courses help people start and scale virtual assistant businesses.

Udemy: Udemy has hundreds of courses for freelancers at different prices.

People to follow

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a freelance writer who tweets about cultivating work-life balance as a freelancer, how to run your business, and how to work from home efficiently.

You can follow her @kat_boogaard.

Matt Mottola

Matt is the founder of Venture L, a freelancer platform. He tweets about the future of work, freelancing, and shares paying freelance jobs people can apply to.

You can follow him @MatthewRMottola.

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a freelance writer and founder of the Freelance Sales Blueprint course. He regularly tweets strategies and tips for freelancers.

You can follow him @StefanPalios.

Michelle Garrett

Michelle is a freelancer writer and PR consultant who tweets about the importance of effective PR, how to protect yourself against PR scams, and other useful tips for freelancers.

You can follow her @PRisUs.

Brooklin Nash

Brooklin is a content marketer by day and a freelancer by night, and he tweets about freelance strategy.

You can follow him @realBrookNash.

Nia Gyant

Nia is a freelance writer who regularly tweets about freelance strategy and building a freelance business.

You can follow her @Optimized3x.

Kaitlin Arford

Kaitlin is a freelance writer. On Twitter, she regularly amplifies freelance job postings or job sites that other people share, so her feed and retweets are filled with job postings.

You can follow her @KaitArford.

Step-by-step guide: How to find your first clients

Finding your first clients is easier than you think —you just have to follow the right process.

1. Clarify your offering

You need to start with what you are good at. What can you do that people want to pay for? That can be any skill that people hire for or rare skills that are in high demand. The clearer you are, the easier it will be to find potential customers, whether you check job listings, job boards, or try to find freelance work from your network.

2. Identify your ideal client or customer

Your ideal client is the person who:

  • Has a problem you are capable of solving
  • Has the budget to purchase a solution to their problem (hiring you!)

Within those two things, pay attention to the details:

Problem you can solve: Make sure it’s something you can actually do to the level they need. For example, they might need writing, but they need writing on a very specific subject. You need to have subject matter expertise to win the deal, not just the ability to write.

Budget to purchase a solution: This means the “pain” needs to be so great they are willing to spend money to solve it. But it also implies you are able to get in touch with that person. Millions of dollars flow around the business world every day, but if you can’t get connected to the people spending the money, you won’t be able to close the deal.

In thinking about your ideal customer, also consider how you like to work. If you want to work from home for your whole career, for example, you might not want to seek customers that require you to work from their offices.

3. Build a portfolio (even if you don’t have clients)

The goal of a portfolio is to show examples of your work that prove your ability. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work you got paid for.

When you’re first starting out, pull portfolio samples from one of two sources:

1. Work you did yourself: Do a project by yourself just to put it in your portfolio.

2. Work you did for charity or nonprofits on a volunteer basis: You may have worked for free, but it’s still work you can show to prospective clients.

Note: Never do work for free just “for your portfolio.” It’s not worth it—always charge for your labor. If someone asks you to work for free and says they will pay you later, there's a pretty good chance you're being misled.

4. Source opportunities

Once you know what you do, who you serve, and have a portfolio at the ready, you need to start finding some clients. Here are the main paths you can take:

  • Freelancing marketplaces
  • Your network
  • Social media channels
  • Agencies

Freelancing marketplaces

Marketplaces are common and easy ways to find new freelance work. Companies post the freelance job, you apply, and you might have to interview—it’s a lot like applying for a job.

Here are some common freelance sites you can use to find freelance jobs:

The key to remember when using freelance sites like Upwork, Fiverr, or People Per Hour is that the platforms take a percentage of your pay. This can be valuable because they bring you clients, but at the same time, it eats at your profits.

These sites are also different from a job board, which just posts the opportunities but you have to do all the work. If you want to use a job board, try something like LinkedIn's freelance job search features.

Your network

Using your network is one of the best ways to find freelance jobs and potential clients because they can vouch for your work. Even if you don't have a big network, you can still find your first freelance job. Here’s what you can do:

Make an announcement: Write a post or send private messages letting people know you’re a freelancer.

Ask for referrals: Let your network know you’re happy to chat with anyone they know who is facing challenges you’re able to solve.

Join community groups to expand your network: Look for specific communities you can join where you’re more likely to uncover good freelance work.

Social media

Billions of people use different social media channels every day. If you want to use social media to discover new freelance jobs, here are three strategies to try::

LinkedIn: Update your profile and turn on LinkedIn’s “Open to work” feature, noting that you are a freelancer.

Facebook groups: Many Facebook groups are made just to share freelance job opportunities.

Twitter: Follow people who have the job title of your ideal customer (for example: VP Marketing). These people often tweet when they have a need to hire freelancers.

Agencies

Most agencies work with a combination of full-time staff and freelancers. If you’re looking for new work, you can apply to join an agency’s freelancer roster.

The key here is to do your research on agencies that offer the kind of work you do. For example, if you’re a freelance developer, you should go to a development or business transformation agency.

Note: Agencies can be notoriously fickle and might expect steep discounts in exchange for providing work. It can still be profitable, but pay attention here.

5. Craft your pitch

Whether you’re submitting an application or having a sales call, you need to craft your pitch well.

Focus on three elements:

1. Value alignment: Get to know your prospect a bit—check out their website or ask questions on the call. Then make sure you explain how you’re aligned to their goals.

2. Problem solving: Focus on the problem the prospect needs solved, then explain how you are able to solve it with your offerings.

3. Proof points: Use your portfolio to share relevant examples that demonstrate you’re able to do what the potential client needs.

6. Make it easy to say yes

Make sure your communication with potential clients is clear on:

  • The problem they are facing
  • How you can solve the problem
  • What you will do for them (itemized list)
  • Prices and rates for each item

From there, make sure you have administrative things set up like invoicing so you can easily get paid for your work.

If it’s not easy to say yes to working with you, a prospective client will move on.

7. Kick off strong

Once you close the deal and start work with the client, make sure you kick it off strong. Consider three factors:

Expectations: From the start, be upfront and honest with how long it will take you to deliver a certain piece of work. You can also add some buffer time just in case there’s a rush request or you get really busy with extra work. The important thing is to not underestimate, then get stuck delivering late.

Delivery: When you deliver work, you have to send it in a way your client can use. That might be a certain file type, collaborative document, or format. The key is that your client needs to be able to take your work and plug it into their bigger project, whatever that is.

Communication: As you continue to work with your clients, ongoing communication is critical. Make sure to give progress updates, explain red flags or problems, and be transparent if things change or the scope of the project needs to be adjusted.

Freelancing pitfalls and red flags to avoid

Unfortunately, the freelancing world is filled with unscrupulous characters who will try to take advantage of you. While you shouldn’t approach all potential clients that way, you should make sure you’re protected and aware of the pitfalls to avoid.

Keeping yourself protected

Not having a contract: Never start working without a signed contract in place. While someone confirming and agreeing in email could hold up in some courts, it’s usually not a fight worth getting into.

Stop work if a client doesn’t pay on time: If a client doesn’t pay you properly, stop work (and politely tell them you’re stopping work) until you’re paid. You’re in a business relationship with your client, and part of that relationship is you being paid for the work you produce.

Not taking project scoping seriously: When you scope a project with a client, you’re agreeing to what you will deliver for them and how much you’ll get paid. You need to take this seriously, or else you will find yourself being unable to make a profit due to tons of extra work and scope creep.

Growing your business

Not using technology: Freelancers work independently—and often alone—but you shouldn’t need to do everything yourself. Many technologies exist to help automate basic tasks like booking calls, receipt management, task management, scheduling and sending invoices, and more. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to do it all.

Not asking for testimonials: If you do great work, collect a testimonial for it. Not only are testimonials great for demonstrating your work ethic and results, but they can be helpful in getting new clients. Either the testimonial might attract a new client (because they read it on your website), or asking a client for a testimonial might remind them of a connection they have that needs your services, and you get a referral.

Asking for referrals the wrong way: If you ask someone to send you business, you’re fundamentally asking for a favor. Instead, offer yourself as a solution to someone’s problem. If someone has a need for your services, you’d be happy to book a call with them and see if you can help them solve the problem.

Red flags with clients

Asks for free work: Unfortunately, a lot of companies are just out to get free work. They will dress it up in fancy terms like calling it a “trial” or “competency test,” but it’s simply them trying to get you to do things for free. If someone asks you to do free work so they can see your skills, offer to show them work samples from your previous work (clients or personal). If they say they want to assess your working relationship, offer to do a paid trial at your full rate, but with a smaller scope.

Asks for illegal work: If a client ever asks you to do anything illegal (like stealing, or not disclosing certain relationships required by law), don’t do it. You can be held liable and responsible, since technically you’re the one who did the illegal act. It is never worth it, no matter how much a client promises to pay you.

Asking for big discounts with a vague promise of future work: Some companies will promise freelancers huge deals in the future if they give a discount now. More often than not, this is either a lie or at best a misrepresented truth. Unless you have a signed contract in place that says a discount now leads to further work (at your full rate) later, don’t agree to anything. They can pay you your full rate now and if there really is a huge project later, you can negotiate a bulk rate at that time.

Clients who attack you personally: Clients are allowed to be upset with work, and you will have clients who deliver critical feedback on occasion. This can be really helpful, as it’s a way for you to improve. But clients who attack you personally are not worth it. They are usually bully bosses to their employees and use personal attacks to get you to do free work. Don’t engage with these people - and fire them if they are already your clients.

Freelancing is a great career path for some

Freelancing can be incredibly lucrative, but it’s a challenging career path. At worst, you have to handle unstable income, bad clients, and not being able to rest as much as you’d like to. However, you also get the amazing benefits of location and time freedom plus great earning potential. So it’s about making a choice that works for you: if the benefits of freelancing outweigh the downsides, then do it. Done well, you’ll build a thriving and successful career on your own terms—and what’s better than that?