The choice to become self-employed – as a freelancer opens a lot of doors. You can set your own hours, work from anywhere, choose what jobs you take, and who you work with.
But opportunity without constraints can breed insecurity and doubt.
When you’re first starting out, the sheer number of paths available to you can be overwhelming. A quick Google search for “how to become a freelancer” yields millions of results with millions of conflicting opinions. It’s hard to know where to start, and there are a lot of false promises packaged as “foolproof formulas” to get you earning six figures in six months.
The thing is, there is no magic formula. There is no single path that works for everyone. In my decade of freelance writing (with three years fully self-employed), I’ve found that – if you really want to build a sustainable, long-term career – you have to test different strategies and blaze your own trail.
Below are just a few of the paths I’ve walked in my journey. Hopefully, these strategies can help guide yours as well.
1. Pitch your services on platforms.
By far the most common path to becoming a self-employed writer is that of the job board hustle.
Platforms like Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com offer beginners the chance to build their portfolios for free, while seasoned freelancers get access to a steady flow of jobs. As you build your reputation (and increase your rating), you can start charging higher prices and building relationships with long-term clients. Best of all, the platform will hold the client’s money in escrow so you don’t have to worry about payment (or invoicing for that matter).
The downside is that the volume of freelancers on these platforms drives the average price down. In Upwork’s case, freelancers might undercut themselves in a bidding war. If your reputation is good enough, you may find enough people willing to pay your prices but it’s easy to get lost in the noise.
If you go this route, I recommend looking into niche-specific platforms like 99designs (for graphic designers), Credo (for digital marketing), or Contena (for writers). That way, you’ll be more likely to stand out with quality work.
2. Build a community of supportive peers.
The days of speed networking that leave you feeling like a used car salesman are over!
Nowadays, people don’t want to hear your elevator pitch: they want to hear your purpose. They want to know what drives you. That’s why people are increasingly turning away from old-school pitch swapping and embracing community building.
In this model, freelancers band together in communities dedicated to personal and professional development. Freelancers and entrepreneurs can then collaborate with others whose skill sets complement their own. For example, if you’re a copywriter, you may want to team up with a web developer and a graphic designer so collectively you can refer one another and even work together on website projects.
Communities like the Freelancing School or Catalyst Shift invite you to share your knowledge, learn from others’ experiences, master new skills, and more. Some of these groups are free, while others may charge a monthly subscription fee, but at their core, they’re all about finding your tribe and building each other up.
The only downside here is that this strategy is for the long game. It takes time to establish authentic relationships. But if you’re willing to put in that time, the rewards of forging such relationships in what would otherwise be a pretty solitary career are well worth it.
3. Niche down or define your target audience.
The piece of advice that caused me the most frustration in my freelance writing career was the idea that I had to “niche down,” or focus on a specific topic or industry. Don’t get me wrong: this strategy works great for someone who has an all consuming passion for finance or health care or cryptocurrency.
If you want to go this route (and this one’s more particular to copywriters & content people) the idea is that you create a lot of content around a topic and engage with others on that topic, across social media and elsewhere, until people consider you an expert.
When I first started, I loved writing about food and wine. I was pretty well-connected in that world to boot. But I found myself with opportunities to write about travel, tech, entrepreneurship, and so many other fascinating topics that I didn’t want to turn down.
It took me some time to realize that “niching down” was more about defining your audience than it was about limiting yourself to an industry. You see, through my experience writing on a wide range of topics, I discovered that I like working with small business owners and creative entrepreneurs. Specifically with people whose work served some greater social or environmental purpose.
With this knowledge, I was able to rewrite my website so that I was speaking to this specific audience. I was able to create more genuine connections with like-minded people. And as a result, I was able to grow my network of ambassadors and referral partners so that I have more opportunity to write for the people whose work really inspires me.
Whether you niche down or define your audience, just remember this: you’re not bound to one topic or target audience for the rest of your life. You have the freedom to shake things up and try new strategies whenever you please.
After all, that’s what being a freelancer is all about: the freedom to explore your strengths and find the work that really lights you up.
Hillary Lyons is a freelance copywriter and brand strategist.
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