Did you know that freelancers already make up a third of the US population? Some could have seen this coming, given the comforts of working from your own home (no boss, no commuting, no dress code) and attractive rates charged by top freelancers. Copywriters earn up to $250 per hour, while the rates of software developers exceed $1,000. Meanwhile, the median freelance rate globally is just about $5, pressed down by crowds of newbies and residents of low-cost nations who agree to work for just as much. While some may think that charging average rates and having greater professional expertise in their field is a most obvious path to success, the real situation is slightly more complicated according to the 2015 report published by the Upwork platform. On the one hand, the spheres of the highest demand are changing rapidly even in the information technology sector. For example, PHP Development and Content Writing have become more relevant than iOS and Android App Development. On the other hand, top freelancers usually demonstrate a unique combination of skills and tactics that let them escape the generic rat race altogether rather than ‘keep up with the Joneses’ more effectively.
So how can you stand out from the crowd and get closer to the top? Here are a few practical suggestions.
1. Pitch Perfect
If you’re not yet writing a tailored pitch for every project you bid for, you probably need to. Most clients will be hooked by a personalized statement showing you took time to study their requirement carefully. That’s one way to potentially win a gig over far more experienced freelancers who just send out a generic self-presentation. Here are some key ideas to make your pitching deadly accurate. First, demonstrate that you have thoroughly studied the project details and understand your customer’s needs. This will also allow you to identify potentially problematic areas or any hidden costs that may emerge later on. Second, throw in some ideas on how you would tackle 2-3 critical problems that you have found. Giving the customers a sample of your professional judgement demonstrates your openness to long-term cooperation and leaves them wanting for more. Finally, you can provide your credentials to demonstrate that you are the right person for doing this job. To write a good pitch, always start with your customer in mind.
2. Build a Personal Brand
As a freelancer, you are your own brand. People will be much more likely to buy from you if they like you. A strong personal brand is:
- Your public image must not deviate too far from who you truly are. Ask at least ten close friends or colleagues what three adjectives they would use to describe you. See which three traits are mentioned most often. This is the ‘core’ of your personal brand.
- Customers need to be able to find you easily on the most popular social media platforms. Complete your profiles on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, including all relevant details about your experience and skills that will be of interest to clients. If you can get your article or guest post published on popular media websites, that’s a power move to establish your perception as an expert in your field.
- Add a spark of humor to how you describe yourself. Showcase the facts and qualities that are most special about you and likely to grab attention.
3. Seek Your Own Niche
While this advice may not be fully applicable when you are just a beginner, it is good to keep in mind that the 27-year-old James Knight started making twice as much money after leaving a promising career path at Google. While his previous occupation was a dream-come-true for most coders, the world as we know it is rapidly changing and new opportunities are emerging on a daily basis. Setting for a generic path does not guarantee stable results even in traditional employment. You can double that uncertainty in the world of freelance. However, finding your unique niche can bring you more stability since you will be competing with a smaller number of rivals while being able to specialize and focus on the needs of specific clients.
4. Keep a Work-Life Balance
Each tenth freelancer was reported to work 60+ hours a week. It may be tempting to work longer hours in order to make more money, but that is a sure-fire way to over-stress and burnout. If you feel overloaded, the first thing to do is to get some rest. Do not hesitate to turn down less attractive offers – this will make space for better gigs you will be able to land when feeling fresh and energized. Also, try to keep in mind the reasons that made you become a freelancer, such as higher workloads planning flexibility. Make sure that you have not merely transformed your past 9-to-5 job into a 24/7 one. To do this, maintain a social life by meeting with friends, volunteering for some community associations or joining a dance class.
Despite all the above-said, every freelancer faces the problem of professional burnout caused by emergency situations or poor planning. If rest is not a viable option right now, there are some practical tactics that may help you close the deadline without risking your life and limb. Rule 1, exercise. It has been proven that regular physical activities reduce stress and anxiety, which may give you the extra push to complete that critical order. Rule 2, disconnect. Logging out of your Facebook account the day before the deadline will save you hours of sleep by minimizing unnecessary distractions. Turning off your work email notifications during holidays works equally well by saving you from the urge to check for new orders and allowing you to rest better.
5. Optimise the Processes
Process optimization is the key to advancing your career and earning more without over-strain.
- Working process. Keep track of your activities on a typical working day to see how much time you spend on each task (and how much is lost to distractions). For a better precision, make observations over a week or two. Reviewing the results, you will probably get a couple of ideas on how your productivity can be improved.
- Customer relations. Produce a standard contract and invoice/billing template. Have them close at hand to customize for use with each new customer. If you send many invoices per month, consider using an automated service to keep track of them easily.
- Income planning. Calculate your income over a set period (a month or a quarter) and break it down by types of projects, clients and channels. Take a note of which types contribute the most to pursue more of these in the future.
6. Set an Adequate Price
68% of freelancers are unhappy with the amount of money they make. The average rates for most freelancer roles are between $17 and $24, yet when the top contractors’ huge payments are factored out, many of their colleagues end up with less.
At the sight of extremely low prices charged by your competition, you may feel pressurized to go cheaper as well. However, the truth is that you don’t have to. The clients chasing the lowest price are many, but they are not necessarily the right clients for you. Others are willing to pay a decent rate for premium quality or for a service better matching their particular needs. Focus on serving these customer segments to boost your income.
7. Learn New Skills
To be wanted by high-paying customers (see Step 5), you need to offer high quality or a special blend of skills. In 2017, some of the most demanded skills in freelancers were Instagram marketing, blockchain, machine learning and augmented reality. By mastering any of these, you can obtain a competitive edge.
Certificates from completed courses, particularly those that are prestigious in your industry, are helpful to justify a higher rate. Besides, new knowledge is essential to keep up with – or be a step ahead of – competitors. In a recent survey, 55% of freelancers said they completed some sort of education or training in the past half a year.
8. Make Most of Your Competencies
Think of any of your past experiences, hobbies or personal traits that can enhance the value you provide to customers. For example, if you ever launched a crowdfunding campaign or tried to start a business, you will probably be able to cover these topics better than a bulk of other writers. If you lived ten years in a different country, you can specialize in marketing strategies for the companies entering it.
Following tip 3, you need to focus on finding your own niche or, as marketers put it, your unique selling proposition. To identify possible paths, allocate one or two days to revise your past orders. Are there any emerging patterns? Are you making most of your copyrighting orders for customers from the construction industry? Do you make more money designing iOS apps as compared to PHP development? Keep in mind that targeted advertising is substantially more effective and cost-efficient when you invest all available resources into the promotion to a small customer segment.
9. Look at the Big Picture
Freelancing jobs are usually incorporated into larger processes in the case of big companies outsourcing. A text created by the copywriter is revised by SEO specialists, uploaded on the website by page makers, and fit to the corporate brand book by design specialists. If you followed the previous recommendations, you have probably acquired some of these adjacent skills and know more about your key customers. The next logical step is to incorporate them into your daily work. On the one hand, this may allow you to charge more for creating a complete product. This may also attract smaller customers looking for one-stop-shop performers. On the other hand, this will make you invaluable to corporate customers or agencies. Their specialists will spend substantially less time processing your inputs if you prepare them in accordance with their internal best practices. This will soon make you the first person to call in the case of large-scale, critical, and well-paid orders.
10. Hire Help and Delegate
Building your expertise and client list, you will inevitably reach the point where you are offered more work than you can complete within a reasonable time. An easy way out is to turn down most projects – that’s what many top freelancers do. But what about all the lost profits? To make the most of your established freelancer reputation and enjoy high earnings, you can use hired help. That’s not necessarily about getting someone just as good as you to complete part of the gigs (although that can be an option). You can boost your productivity by merely shifting some technical routines to the shoulders of others. As a writer, you can get a proof-reader to check your texts before submission instead of doing that yourself. A virtual assistant can handle initial communication with clients if you feel it’s consuming too much of your time.
Some freelancers view this step as a move back towards the corporate schemes they tried to escape in the first place. However, this is actually a powerful focusing lens allowing you to spare the time from routine tasks. You can concentrate on the critical tasks, satisfy your own ambitions, build a more successful freelance business or simply have more freedom in your life. The actual benefits may be worth it.
The key idea of this article is to be consistent and constantly optimize what you are doing. While steep career paths do exist, it usually takes 5 to 6 years to build consistent six-figure revenue streams. Becoming the best, you can be in freelance requires thoughtful experimentation and effort. This may also allow you to realise your strongest traits and learn how to maintain your passion day after day. Following these recommendations, you may be surprised at what great projects you get offered. Freelancing is not only about hard work – it is about smart self-marketing too.
Anna Clarke is the owner of online writing company 15 Writers. She is a successful entrepreneur with over 20 years’ experience in freelancing, academic dissertation writing consulting, specializing in Business, Economics, Finance, Marketing and Management.