So you’ve lost your job due to the coronavirus pandemic, and you’re staring up at a mountain of bills: Rent, utilities, insurance payments, auto loans. You need a new, safe source of income, and you need it quickly. Say hello, my friend, to online freelancing.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 2017, so I say this with confidence: There has never been a better time to start building a contract-based remote business. Sure, there might be more people entering the gig economy than ever before, but there are also just as many businesses transitioning online. As a freelancer, you can help them build an online presence and survive this pandemic. Plus, they’ll pay you well to do it.
This guide will show you the basic steps to start freelancing. I’ve written it from the perspective of a freelance writer, but it applies to web designers, illustrators, social media managers, and more. Keep reading or jump ahead to these sections:
- A Note About This Guide
- Step 1: Find a Mentor
- Step 2: Choose a Niche
- Step 3: Create an Online Presence
- Step 4: Do an Unpaid Gig
- Step 5: Find Jobs
- Step 6: Pitch to Ideal Clients
- Step 7: Set (Then Increase) Your Rates
- Step 8: Pay Your Taxes
- Final Thoughts: Starting a Freelance Business During Coronavirus
A Note About This Guide
You need a new source of income, and you needed it yesterday. As such, I’m literally typing this guide as fast as my fingers can type it. I’m most likely going to leave things out (not to mention make an imperial ton of grammar mistakes), so if you have any questions, email me. I’ll answer them as quickly as possible and build on this guide as time passes.
You can also join my email list, which I haven’t even started yet but will in like five minutes. These emails will help guide first-time freelancers through this crisis. Freelancing in the best of times can be lonely and challenging, so I hope to provide a community where you feel supported and empowered. Sign up here:
Just as I’m putting together this guide in a seat-of-my-pants fashion, you should also start your freelance career in a similarly slapdash way. Don’t wait to be perfect. Don’t have your ducks in a row. Get started, and get started now. You’re going to have a lot of failures and a lot of wins, pandemic or not. Get used to it.
Welcome to the world of freelancing. It’s freaking crazy out here, but it can also set you free.
1. Find a Mentor
Whatever you’re trying to do, someone has already done it and started a blog about it.
When I started out, I spent hours absorbing blog posts from Creative Revolt and Elna Cain, who both made their fortunes doing exactly what I wanted to do. They have mountains of resources about how to build a professional website, find clients, pitch to them, and raise your rates.
There are Elna Cains and Jorden Ropers in every freelance industry. Find those people and study them.
2. Choose a Niche
The most common advice you’ll find is to be specific about who you serve. You might think that being a generalist will let you cast a wide net and find more clients, but in the long run, you’ll have trouble attracting the right people and only make yourself miserable.
Like, be honest with yourself, Carol. You don’t want to do design work for lawyers that represent tobacco companies. You want to design jobs for wildlife advocate organizations. So do that!
But if you have several interests, don’t be afraid to pursue a more blended client roster over time.
Example: I like writing about environmental sustainability, culture, travel, and business. Here’s how that breaks down:
- I write articles for a content marketing company about DIY projects using upcycled materials. These are my lowest paying articles, but they’re also fun and easy to write.
- I ghostwrite articles about marketing, sales, and management techniques for leading software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies. These are my medium-priced articles. They require more research, but they also teach me a TON of marketable skills.
- I write articles about culture and sustainability for magazines and online media. These are my highest paying articles and have the biggest emotional pay-off, but I also write them less often.
This combined workload gives me the financial freedom and emotional energy to work on my actual passion, which is writing a novel (which, not coincidentally, revolves around themes of culture and environmental sustainability).
What will freelancing allow you to do that your day job couldn’t?
3. Create an Online Presence
An online presence, whether it’s a simple website or a polished LinkedIn profile, gives you professional clout. You need somewhere to point potential clients so they can:
- Get a better idea of who you serve
- Understand exactly what it is you do
- See examples of your work
- Read testimonials from other people that you’ve helped
- Learn how to get in contact
If you can’t afford to buy website hosting because the coronavirus pandemic took away your financial stability, focus on creating a polished-looking LinkedIn profile. It’s free, it’s professional, and you can display a portfolio of work on it.
Google is your friend here. Search for these terms, substituting [profession] with your job or industry:
- freelance [profession] portfolio examples
- freelance [profession] website examples
- freelance [profession] LinkedIn profile examples
Use the examples you find only as a guide. Remember, at the end of the day you’re trying to showcase your prowess and personality, not someone else’s.
4. Do an Unpaid Gig
If you don’t already have experience in your industry or niche, you’ll need to prove to your ideal clients (and yourself) that you’re fully capable of doing the job and doing it well.
Before freelance writing, I was a teacher and a winery cellar hand. I had no proof that I could write. So, I submitted this entry about the Dome of Light in Kaoshiung, Taiwan to Atlas Obscura following their submission protocols.
After it was published, the piece got shared thousands of times across social media. So not only did I have an example of my work on an internationally-known media outlet, but I had proof that my work could spread virally (no pun intended).
To find your first gig, tap into your network of family and friends. Know a business owner who just had to close their brick and mortar store? Offer to help build their website, manage their social media profiles, grow their email list—whatever it is that you do—but for free. Not only does this become your first portfolio example, but you’re helping a stressed-out friend or loved one in a time of crisis.
Once the work is complete, don’t forget to ask them for a testimonial or recommendation that you can display on your website or LinkedIn profile!
Side note: Some blogs will tell you that you need at least three unpaid gigs before you look for paid work, but I call bullshit. I only did two, and in retrospect, I only needed one before I landed my first high-paying assignment.
5. Find Jobs
You have an example of your work. Now it’s time to get paid for what you do. My advice is to start by searching for jobs on industry-specific boards.
For writers, these job boards could be:
Side note: The number of jobs I’ve seen advertised in these places has grown as the pandemic has gone on. Work is definitely out there, so get yours, y’all!
Chances are you’ve heard of Upwork or Fiverr, but I generally advise against these job boards. The jobs you find there are often underpaid. You could work yourself to death and still not make enough to meet your needs.
6. Pitch to Ideal Clients
After I wrote the free Dome of Light piece for Atlas Obscura’s “Places” section, I brainstormed an article idea for their “Stories” section, which they pay writers for. Following their submission guidelines, I sent this pitch:
They got back to me within 24 hours and offered a rate that was 6x higher than what I expected to earn as a new writer. Cha-ching!
When it comes to finding and pitching new clients, different industries are going to have different norms. If you’re a writer, it’s common to go into detail about:
- The angle of your story or article idea
- The specifics, such as word count
- What makes you qualified to write the piece, including your past writing experience
Need more help writing your first pitch as a writer? Elna Cain already has an amazing guide on how to write a pitch that lands clients. You can also email me a copy of your pitch and I’ll send you back some suggestions on how to improve it.
Writing a pitch as an illustrator, a UX designer, or whatever else is likely going to be different. This is when you scour Google for examples and guides from people in your field.
No matter your field, keep this in mind: When you feel really excited to write a pitch for an ideal client, you know you’re onto something good. Writing pitches that feel forced is usually a sign that you don’t actually want to work for that person.
7. Set (Then Increase) Your Rates
Unless you’re writing exclusively for magazines and media companies (which often have standard rates that they offer for projects) you’ll need to set your own rates. To do that, consult the mentors you found in step 1 of this guide to learn what you should be charging as a newcomer to your industry. This guide from The Balance Careers can also help freelancers of all stripes settle on a pricing strategy.
When you’re first starting out, it’s tempting to undercharge for what you do so that you can land the gig. This is especially true in a time of financial uncertainty as terrifying as the coronavirus pandemic. But whatever you do, resist the urge to undercharge.
You don’t want to work for penny hoarders that treat you less-than just because you’re an independent contractor in a volatile market. You want clients who respect you and pay you on time for your services.
And I promise you this: Respectful, high-paying clients are out there. I work for them. They pay me on time. They have no problem when I notify them of a rate increase. Hell, I have one client that raised my rate without me even asking.
Charge your worth. Do your job. Do it well. Then, when you’re booked-out and have a ton of happy clients, raise your rates.
8. Pay Your Taxes
The subject of paying your taxes and managing your finances as a freelancer could fill a whole book, and in fact, it does. Behold:
I can’t recommend The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed* enough. It holds a permanent place on my bookshelf and I reference it often.
Before I read it, I was constantly coming up short each year when I filed my taxes. Now I have more than what I need to pay The Man, and I’m consistently saving for retirement, paid off all my debt, and have an emergency fund.
I bought a used version of the book, and so should you. A used version costs less than that tall cinnamon dolce latte you used to get from Starbucks and is going to help you save a whole heck of a lot more money.
Final Thoughts: Starting a Freelance Business During Coronavirus
The coronavirus pandemic cost you your job, and yes, that sucks mightily. It could also be a huge blessing in disguise.
When you work for yourself, you create a source of income that’s pandemic-proof. You don’t have to worry about being fired or laid off because you are the boss. You’ll have the skills to go out and find new clients if an income stream dries up. You also have the power to give yourself a raise in the form of a rate increase. You are literally in control of your financial destiny.
Good luck, y’all. You got this.
*This is an affiliate link. If you click it and buy the book direct from Amazon, I get a teeny portion of the sale, but at no extra cost to you. Buy it used if you can though. It’s cheaper and you’ll be supporting an independent used bookseller.