How to Market Yourself When Starting a Freelance Career.
- Hosted July 20, 2020
- By Dustin Clendenen
Freelancing definitely comes with a lot of perks.
Freedom and the ability to set your own schedule are usually at the top of every self-employed person’s gratitude list. After that, they usually mention how great it is not to have a boss breathing down their necks.
For many, these benefits alone are enough to leave the nine to five grind for the rest of their lives. Depending on how you operate and what your field is, it’s also possible to make far more money on your own than you ever would as an employee.
But the freedom that comes with freelancing is also what makes it so challenging and tumultuous. As an employee, you are paid consistently from a pool of revenue—revenue your employer has built through the operation of their business. And operating a business involves a huge range of skills and responsibilities, (which depending on your role in the company) you might not be directly involved with, such as client and vendor relations, payroll, human resources, and of course, marketing.
When you’re a freelancer, you’re no longer just a worker—you’re essentially running your own business. And that requires a vastly different skill set than showing up to an office and putting in a solid day of work. You now have to secure your clients, manage their expectations, negotiate fair rates and then make sure they pay, all while building your own brand so you can continue getting work.
Marketing yourself as a freelancer can be one of the most difficult aspects of the biz. Here’s some tips on what to do when you’re just getting started
Get into the freelance mindset
If you’re entering the freelance market after working in traditional employee roles, prepare for a steep learning curve when it comes to understanding what being a freelancer even is. The word “freelance” is kind of deceptive, because the government doesn’t even recognize that as a classification. As a taxpayer, you are now self-employed (unless you form a corporation and pay yourself as an employee).
Regardless of how you decide to set yourself up, you are now a business owner, and you need to own that fully. And that means diving deep into your experience and getting crystal clear about exactly what your skills are.
“The best tip for quick results is to realize that the company you worked for was a freelance job,” advises Shawn Love, a freelance blogger. Think about your previous employment experiences, and look past the fact that you were working a normal nine-to-five workweek. Are there some small tasks or projects you did as part of your job that could be offered in bulk or on a per-assignment basis to clients as a freelancer? Or could you do the same job you did at your last company for multiple companies on a retainer basis?
When you separate work from the idea of showing up an office every day, you can see your skills more clearly and get a better understanding of what clients actually look for in people they’re hiring.
Seeing yourself as an entrepreneur with services to offer—instead of just a worker with time and energy to spend—sets you up to really succeed as a freelancer.
Polish your social media profiles
“Having a complete profile on LinkedIn and adequately maintained personal social media profiles will help your future clients assess you,” says Jovan Milenkovic, co-founder of Kommando Tech. “A LinkedIn profile is an excellent tool for freelancers to present themselves and look for jobs. Have the information up-to-date, and add any relevant experience or affiliation that can help you make a good impression.”
Beyond LinkedIn, also assess the content of your other social media accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Do you want these channels to showcase who you are professionally? If so, clean up any old posts that might make you look bad. If not, assess the level of privacy you’d like to have around them. As a freelancer, you are more likely to be Googled and researched than you are as an employee, because you will constantly have to sell yourself to new clients, and they will have to vet you.
Have a niche
The importance of a niche cannot be downplayed.
Being broad in your services and experiences is fine if your network supports that, but it will make it that much harder to successfully market yourself to potential clients. Focus channels energy into results. Lack of focus scatters it to the winds.
For some people, having a niche is logical and natural. For others, the idea of honing in can feel counter-intuitive.
“[To find your niche] ask yourself these questions: What are you good at, what interests you, and who do you want to serve?” advises Tatiana Dumitru. “I'm a branding specialist so I focus on companies that want to re-brand, and start-ups that want to build their brand. I could probably offer other services—and I usually do, further into the relationship—but branding is something that I love, and it's my main focus. If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll end up not appealing to anybody.”
Once you’ve gotten more clarity on your niche, you’ll be amazed by how it improves the way you speak about yourself to potential clients, and how much more streamlined and straightforward your search for work becomes.
“With the freelance market becoming increasingly busy, standing out is incredibly important,” says Ben Taylor, founder of the HomeWorking Club, an advice portal for aspiring freelancers. “Don’t just be a writer, be a cybersecurity writer, a fitness writer, or a mental health writer specialising in particular disorders. Don’t be a generic programmer, specialise in Python, or Swift, or Ruby. Clients seeking freelancers have a huge amount of choice, both on the freelance jobs boards and in the wider world. If you exactly fit the profile they are looking for, you’re more likely to succeed. And if you choose an area you’re passionate about, that should mean job satisfaction too.”
Build a website
Let me make this clear right off the bat: when you’re just getting started out as a freelancer, putting up a website will not magically bring clients to you.
Think of it primarily as a sales page, and a portfolio to showcase your work. For freelancers like writers, graphic designers, and other creative service providers, their portfolio is the key for securing new work—a way to show new clients what they are capable of. But a website can also be a way to showcase your story, providing a little more color and insight into why clients should pick you over your competition.
When you’re building your own site, do a search (on Google or LinkedIn) for other freelancers who work in the same field as you, so you can get a sense of how they showcase and brand themselves. You can quickly get an idea of what works and what doesn’t—and maybe be inspired to present yourself in a way that no one else has thought of!
Later, as more people start to visit the site, it could improve your SEO ranking and make you appear higher in search results when clients search for freelancers and businesses who offer the same kind of services you do.
There are a number of options for creating a website for free or cheap to get you started in your freelance journey. If you just want a place to showcase your portfolio, platforms like Cargo and Behance are great services to utilize for free. They also operate as a community and help expose your work to other freelancers and potential clients. More customized and comprehensive sites can be developed on Wordpress, Wix, and Squarespace, all with little or no experience in coding and web design.
Reach out to your network
After you have your online presence in order, the next logical step to marketing yourself isn’t to start an email campaign or run ads on Facebook or Google (that’s super advanced!).
“The most impactful thing people can do right now, if venturing into the world of freelancing, is to utilize their current network of contacts,” says Nicole Riccardo, a marketing strategist who helps creatives build their brands. “Take the time to personally reach out and let people know what you're up to and ask if they know anyone that might be interested in your services! Your conversion rates will be MUCH higher if you have a real relationship with someone.”
Simply making people you already know aware that you’re looking for work is one of the best ways to generate leads. Your outreach could even extend to some of your former employers. Maybe there are specific tasks from your old job that they could farm out to you on a freelance basis. Or maybe some of your old bosses have moved on to other companies who could use freelance help.
There’s no telling what kind of opportunities you could come across with this strategy. Best of all, these people already know you, so it will be much easier to sell your services.
Work for free
If you’re starting to work in a new field or you just don’t have much experience yet in the field you’ve always been interested in, you’re not going to have many samples in your portfolio, if any. Unfortunately, when you don’t have a strong portfolio, it’s going to be hard to find paying clients since you don’t have any real demonstration of your skills. In that case, consider doing some work for free.
This gives you an opportunity to get some great work samples for your portfolio, as well as build your experience level and confidence. Since you’re working for free, the client will be more inclined to give you a review or testimonial in exchange for your service. Free work is most likely to come about through people you already know, so this is a great excuse to help out a friend or family member.
Hustle for starter gigs on Upwork, Fiverr and Freelancer
If you have some samples in your portfolio to prove your skills and don’t feel comfortable working for free, Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer are great platforms. All of them serve as a marketplace for freelancers to find work. Oftentimes the rates are lower than you’d find in the mainstream market, but there are many freelancers who make lucrative livings from these platforms if they are strategic about the kinds of clients they work with.
It should be noted that competition here is fierce, and as you look at profiles for other freelancers, the importance of having a niche and a polished profile will become immediately apparent.
All of these platforms are a great way to quickly expand your portfolio and work with a variety of clients without working for free. Each platform processes client payments as well, so there is less risk of getting ripped off after completing your assignment. The reviews you get on the site can also serve as client testimonials.
Don't just “network.” Build community
Networking has such negative connotations. The overused word often implies superficial schmoozing to gain a personal advantage. As you get more and more experienced as a freelancer, you’ll quickly discover that we’re all in it together—including the people who hire you.
Your fellow freelancers are not competition—they are friends in the trenches who can give you advice and refer you to work. By that same token, you could help their dreams come true as well. The people who hire freelancers are part of this community too.
When you’re getting started out, go to in-person networking events every chance you get—especially if it’s specifically focused on your niche or field. Meetup and Eventbrite are great resources for this. Scour Facebook for groups you can join. There are many that will post job opportunities and gigs. Take stock of your personal background too. If you’re a member of any sort of marginalized group, chances are, there are Facebook groups specifically for other professionals like you. And the people in these groups really look out for each other.
Twitter is another great resource. Refer to the websites and LinkedIn profiles of other freelancers in your field or niche that you researched before building your website. Find them on Twitter and follow them. More likely than not, they will post content related to freelancing, and other people in your field will respond. Soon you’ll start to see hashtags relevant to your work, and even see the shape of the community you have a chance to be a part of.
Cold-pitch to potential clients
Before long, you’ll be getting some substantial work and opportunities. As your portfolio gets stronger and you become more confident in yourself and your abilities, it will become time to start cold-pitching yourself to potential clients.
You probably already have companies and people in mind that you’d like to work with. Maybe you’ve even been watching them for a while and learning from the work they’ve put out—and now you have some ideas you’d like to bring to the table.
LinkedIn and Twitter make it easier than ever to reach out to stakeholders in these companies directly. When you’re ready, don’t be afraid to send a note. Maybe compliment some work they’ve recently done or a breakthrough they’ve had. Approach them with a conversation rather than a request to be hired—after all, you’re both just professionals working in the same field and excited about what you’re doing.
Speaking of which, maybe members of your growing freelance community already know people at the companies you want to work with and can make an introduction.
Marketing yourself as a freelancer requires you to re-imagine yourself as a business, and to promote yourself accordingly. As a business, you need to amplify your social media presence, clarify your niche, create a calling-card website, build a portfolio of work you showcase, and be part of a community that you can provide services for. If you’ve been following the advice given so far, you’ve probably been so busy you haven’t had a chance to stop and reflect on the journey thus far. In case you didn’t realize it, let me say it now: congratulations, you’re doing it! You’re a working freelancer!
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