A Beginner’s Guide to Freelancing in 2023

Start your freelancing journey on the right foot.

Freelancing guide for beginners

Freelancing is a type of working arrangement that is gathering a lot of traction and interest as the world moves increasingly towards atypical ways of working. If you have skills and experience that you’re ready to share with clients and are starting to consider a working life away from a standard organisation 9–5, then you might wish to consider freelancing for yourself.

This is the ultimate guide for beginners to freelancing. We’ll discuss industry-specific freelancing career options, freelancing skills and tips, if it’s for you, freelancing advantages and disadvantages, and how to get started in this rewarding and empowering line of work.

What is freelancing?

Freelancing is a type of work undertaken by people (“freelancers”) who are self-employed. Freelancers aren’t committed to a certain company or client, and can undertake work as and when they please. Companies and individuals can employ freelancers, but the freelancer is responsible for their own business administration, accounting, employment benefits and taxes.

Freelancing covers many different jobs (more on this later), but freelancers typically possess skills and expertise that they can market to clients. Most freelancers work from home but can also work alongside their clients in their homes or places of work.

Types of freelancing

The scope of jobs that can be undertaken by freelancers is massive and is growing every day. In this section, we cover a list of the top 10 industries for freelancers, and the jobs that can be undertaken.

1. Administrative

Administrative freelancing covers a wide variety of jobs and is chiefly concerned with clerical work or business support. Some examples of administrative freelancing opportunities include:

  • Data inputters
  • HR consultants
  • Legal services consultants
  • Secretaries
  • Translators
  • Virtual assistants

2. Computer and IT

Freelancing opportunities in the computing and IT industries are some of the best paid and fastest growing out there. They can include:

3. Creative

The flexibility and agility that freelancing requires really gels with the creative industry and creative thinkers. Here are some examples of creative freelancing jobs:

4. Customer service and sales

Customer service and sales jobs are popular for freelancers due to the ability to set uncapped commissions and flexible schedules. Some examples of these jobs include:

  • Brokers
  • Customer support agents
  • Realtors
  • Recruiters
  • Sales associates

5. Finance and accounting

Companies are increasingly outsourcing financial services operations. Examples of finance and accounting roles for freelancers include:

  • Accountants
  • Business consultants
  • Finance administrators
  • Surveyors
  • Tax advisors

6. Healthcare and therapy

Many healthcare and therapy professionals are looking to freelance in order to reach a wider variety of clients. Roles in this industry include:

7. Home support

People require all manner of support around the house. This industry is attractive to freelancers due to the plentiful possibilities and options, that include:

8. Teaching and tutoring

Teaching and tutoring might only be needed on an occasional basis and is, therefore, an attractive industry for freelancers. Roles can include:

9. Marketing and public relations

Marketing and PR freelancers are in high demand and can cover a wide variety of duties that require various skills and experience. Roles can include:

  • Brand strategists
  • Social media coordinators
  • Marketing consultants
  • Press release distributors
  • PR consultants

10. Writing

Writing jobs come in all shapes and sizes, and can suit various freelancers and skill sets. Freelance writing jobs typically include:

The freelance market

Though the COVID-19 pandemic convinced plenty of budding freelancers to take the plunge, freelancing has been becoming ever more popular long before 2020. As of 2023, 1.57 billion workers — 47% of the total workforce population — are freelancers or those working in the gig economy.

In the US, there are currently around 58 million freelancers (38% of the workforce population, with a year-on-year growth of 78%, the highest of any country in the world). Currently, freelancers contribute over $1.4 trillion to the US economy — this grew by $100 billion in the last year alone.

Freelancing is a great employment option for those who live in areas where organizational work opportunity is low, or in places where there are burgeoning small and midsized businesses, who view freelancers as a more affordable alternative to employing in-house workers, at least in the short term.

Based on current growth rates, freelancers are estimated to become the predominate workforce in the US by 2027. Many freelancing careers pay extremely well, with the average earnings for a US-based freelancer being around $75,000. Some freelance programmers and developers can earn more than $100,000 annually.

Is freelancing for you?

Freelancing comes with its own risks and is very different to working for an organization. Here are some six questions you can ask yourself to determine if freelancing is for you.

1. Am I ready to work for myself?

Freelancing requires lots of preparation, but none is more important than mentally readying yourself to work without the safety and security that an organization often provides its employees. In this respect, freelancing can be daunting, but preparing and informing yourself for this new reality can really help. Nevertheless, you need to be sure that you’re ready to go it alone and oversee all aspects of your work and income.

2. How well do I work by myself?

Freelancing often means an isolated work environment that requires significant self-motivation. Whereas you will be communicating with others, this won’t always be face to face. You must, therefore, be happy in your own company and content to work by yourself all day. Additionally, freelancing requires self-motivation. If you can set yourself goals and work towards them without the guidance or support from others, then freelancing could work for you.

3. How well do I network with others?

A key part of your success as a freelancer is in how you make a name for yourself and find leads or business. Networking in an organization can be easier, as you might have support structures and an established brand to help you. Finding new business as a freelancer is challenging, though, as you’ll often be starting from scratch and be reliant on your own networking and relationship management skills. If you’re confident in your abilities here, transitioning to freelancing will be easier.

5. How well do I cope with change and the unexpected?

Freelancing is unpredictable. Firstly, the pace and volume of work you receive will be a lot more variable than if you work for an organization. Secondly, you’re not bound to the structures and rituals that working in a company often requires. For some, this flexibility can be energizing and refreshing. For others, it can lead to uncertainty and stress. If the latter is true for you, then you might want to reconsider freelancing.

6. Do I have the money needed to get started in freelancing?

Even if you have a bulletproof idea for how to make it big as a freelancer, you’ll need to run some numbers to ensure you can afford to make the leap. There are certain setup costs you’ll need to factor in when you launch your own freelancing business, such as office equipment or marketing expenses. Additionally, it will take time for revenue to come in, so you need to make sure that you have sufficient cash flow to support yourself until your freelance business starts to make money.

The pros of freelancing

Freelancing is an exciting and empowering way of working that offers a lot of advantages. Here are the top five pros of freelancing.

1. You set your own working pattern

Freelancing offers a lot of flexibility for people, who can fit work around their home and personal lives. You can choose what time to log on and log off, as well as decide if you want to work in the week or split your job over weekends. You can also pick and choose your working location, such as working from home, a rented office or even a coffee shop.

2. You’re your own boss

Perhaps one of the best benefits of being a freelancer is that you don’t have to answer to anyone (well, except your clients!). Having no manager is a huge pro for many freelancers, as this gives them the space and creativity needed for them to really do their best work. Not having a boss can also remove a large chunk of the office politics synonymous with regular jobs.

3. You choose who you work with

Freelancing means that you can choose your own clients. If one customer has been tricky to work with and you have some more jobs lined up, it’s your choice to not work with them anymore. You can also choose any collaborators that might wish to work with you, or simply go it alone. In short, freelancing enables you to be surrounded only by the right people.

4. You choose your workload

The natural cadence of freelance work often means that you can elect to give yourself a hard or long day, and then make it back up with fewer hours later in the week. You can choose how much work to take on if you’re busy with other things, or if you want to take on extra assignments to earn a bit of extra cash. This is a level of flexibility standard jobs simply cannot offer.

5. You have control over your income

In a regular job, your salary is contracted, and changing this can be a long and difficult process. Freelancers can raise their prices if they feel they can charge more for what they do, and to recognize their own market value. Similarly, they can reduce prices to attract clients. Freelancers are in full command of their earning power, ie: what they create is rewarded with money not shared with anyone else.

The cons of freelancing

Of course, freelancing will not be for everyone and has some drawbacks as well. Here are five cons associated with freelancing. 

1. You’re afforded few socialization opportunities

With freelancing, you’re seldom going to be working in a large office or collaborating with others. This means that many of the socialization opportunities that other jobs provide will simply not be there, nor will break times and watercooler moments with workmates. You need to be comfortable enough in your own company to be able to work and be happy all by yourself.

2. Your earnings might vary

Although freelancers have control over their earning power, this works both ways, as sometimes the business — and the revenue — simply won’t be there. This means that your take-home pay might be different every week or month. You need to be capable enough of supporting yourself when you’re having leaner months and optimistically ride out the tough times and divide ways to make more money.

3. You’re responsible for your success

In a regular job, responsibility is shared or delegated. Being a freelancer requires exceptional self-motivation, in both the good times and the bad times. You need to be positive enough to power forward to evolve your business or fix it when things go awry. You have to consistently reflect what’s happening, learn, ask for feedback, act on it, and continuously improve in order to stay competitive.

4. You have to find your own work

Freelancers don’t have marketing departments and, as such, must advertise what they do and network with the right people in order to find jobs. In a regular job, there might be sales and marketing teams to support this process. Given that networking and relationship building are often at odds with the solitary working life that freelancing often creates, many freelancers find this part of the job especially challenging.

5. You don’t receive employee benefits

An important con to consider is that freelancing means that you won’t have many of the workplace benefits that regular jobs and organizations provide. These can include healthcare plans, pensions, paid leave and sick pay. As you start out as a freelancer, you might even struggle to pay yourself a fair wage until your business takes off.

How to start a freelance business

So, if you’ve made it this far and want to know the basics on how to get started in the world of freelancing, here’s how to help you take the plunge.

Step 1: Consider your career purpose

Freelancing begins with taking stock of what you’re looking for in your working life, and what your long-term goals or aspirations are. If these are aligned with what a freelancing job might be able to provide you, then it might be time to get started.

You might discover during this process that freelancing might be a good plan for the future, but not right now. If this is the case, then you can use the shorter term to prepare yourself for freelancing further down the road. Develop your purpose into more focused SMART goals as you carry on setting up your freelancing business.

Step 2: Work out your area of expertise

It’s essential that you give careful thought to what you might be able to offer freelance services in. With this step, you need to think about specifics, as saying that you want to write or become a freelance IT consultant isn’t enough.

Discover your specialisms, as well as your strengths and development areas. It might help you to conduct a personal SWOT analysis to help you understand what you can best offer your clients. Remember that you need to bring subject matter expertise to the table!

Step 3: Set your target audience

When you’ve figured out your area of expertise, it’s time to start thinking about who you’re marketing yourself towards. There could be various audiences that can benefit from your services, such as SMBs or multinational companies, people with little knowledge of your specialisms versus fellow experts, as well as various social demographics.

Using your skill and career assessments, consider what your largest and most lucrative market might be. For example, if you’re a seasoned HR expert with connections to large companies, tapping into professional audiences might be a good move.

Step 4: Understand what makes you unique

Every company needs a “hook”, or a unique selling proposition, and freelancers are no exception. When you have worked out your target audience, take time to think about what you can do to ensure you stand out from the crowd.

Freelancing is so popular that you’ll have plenty of competition, regardless your specialism, and you must think differently to succeed. Consider offering different approaches, personalized services and unique branding, or tap into unique or unusual expertise to create and develop your USP.

Step 5: Develop a budget

The key to a successful freelancing business is a well-crafted business plan and budget. Think about what expenses you need covered, expected income over the first year (broken down by month), and factor in unexpected costs.

Be realistic, but also prepare your budget for any eventuality. You’ll also need to consider overheads, such as living expenses and lack of income during the first few weeks or months while you wait for revenue to start coming in.

Step 6: Register your business

Before you start freelancing, you need to understand what steps you need to take to start operating legally. This begins with registering your business.

Freelancing beginners typically start out as registering as self-employed, which is important for tax purposes, like submitting W-9 and 1099-MISC forms. You might also want to consider other formalities, like developing an accounting process. Whereas you don’t legally need business insurance, you might wish to take out freelancer insurance to protect yourself in case of the unexpected.

Step 7: Price your services

One of the most critical steps to becoming a freelancer is to price your services. This begins with market research; you can have a look online to see what comparable freelancers are charging, or simply do a bit of networking and ask them.

You might wish to consider setting a price range, and also think about introductory pricing for the first few orders to get your name out there and garner some positive reviews. Nevertheless, you should price yourself correctly and avoid the temptation to undercharge for too long.

Step 8: Set up your online presence

Most freelancers will operate online, as this offers excellent reach for your business. Getting your online presence set up is an important initial marketing step, as it gets your name out there.

There are two main ways you can set yourself up online. Freelancing websites like Upwork and Fiverr manage a lot of the marketing and ordering processes themselves, and are easy to use and are popular with buyers. Alternatively, you can go it alone and set up your own website. Either way, ensure your website is polished and professional.

Step 9: Market yourself

Setting yourself up online is just one thing you can do to advertise your services. You need to work hard to get your name out there, especially if your freelancing business is new on the scene.

Setting up a few social media accounts and engaging with those who follow you and your posts can be very effective, as is joining LinkedIn. Freelancing websites will have active forums and can also feature your freelancing business. It’s a good idea to actively participate in these forums to raise awareness of what you do, and engage with anyone who messages you, even if this doesn’t immediately result in an order.

Step 10: Find and contract your first freelance client

Hurray! You’re landing clients! Choosing your first client is harder than it sounds. You want to ensure you’re engaging someone who will pay you fairly and has the potential to offer repeat business, not just someone who is looking for a cheap and cheerful order at the expense of a beginner.

Don’t overcommit to clients at first; focus on one or two orders, and get them right. Whoever you work with first, ensure you draw up a contract, so both you and your buyer keep to the deal. Freelancing websites will look after this for you. Try to ensure they leave a positive review to help you attract more business.

Tips for successful freelancing

Freelancing is not easy and requires some careful working practices. Here are 10 key tips on how to be a successful freelancer.

1. Be flexible

When you’re a freelancer, no two days are ever the same. Successful freelancers are comfortable with change and the unknown, and are able to navigate good times and bad times with confidence and positivity. They can also easily adapt to changing circumstances.

2. Be tenacious and determined

Freelancing is never easy, and people who say otherwise are not telling the truth! In particular, starting out as a freelancer can be fraught with shortages of clients, money and time. You need determination and grit to navigate these moments and find a way through.

3. Find a niche

Effective freelancers stand out from the crowd and ensure what they do has a USP and is marketable. This could be doing something measurably different or better than someone else, or creatively finding a new angle or niche in your area that no one has explored before.

4. Know how to market yourself

Always look for ways to stand out from the crowd and market yourself as a freelancer. This might not come naturally, but you must shout about what you do and maintain an active online presence. This will sustain interest and lead to more clients.

5. Learn to say “no”

A successful freelancer knows what they can and cannot do. Saying “no” to clients or other stakeholders might be difficult, especially when you’re starting out, but it’s important in ensuring you engage the right kind of business and stay organized when at work.

6. Maintain a portfolio

As you complete work for clients, save snippets of it and compile them into a portfolio to show your clients. This way, you’ll have a collection of marketable works to show prospective buyers and increase the chances of them ordering from you.

7. Never stop learning

For great freelancers, success is never final. Always find time to learn about your profession, as this will ensure you develop new skills and keep your freelancing offer fresh and exciting. Similarly, continuously learn about how to be a freelancer, as this will support you as your journey progresses.

8. Set yourself goals

Your success as a freelancer is dependent on self-motivation and setting yourself goals is the best way to stay true to this. Having a purpose, as well as practical SMART goals, is equally important and will help you stay focused on work and productive.

9. Stay on top of legalities

Successful freelancers are legally and commercially astute, and will always know what laws they need to follow. These might include business law, accounting processes, labor law, and much more. There is plenty to learn, but understanding what’s what is essential to success.

10. Track your time

As a freelancer, you’re not just managing your orders and gigs, but also your whole business, from accounting to administration and marketing to legalities. You need to ensure you stay on top of everything, as well as finding time to look after your clients.

Skills and qualities you need as a freelancer

Freelancing also requires specific abilities that can help you get a good start and be successful. Here are 10 skills and qualities that all freelancers need.

1. Adaptability

Adaptability is used by freelancers to help them navigate changing priorities, last-minute requests, business updates and changes to income or work structure, all of which characterize the world of freelancing.

2. Business management

Freelancers have to run all management and administrative tasks; therefore, having a wide range of business management skills helps them stay on top of these important responsibilities.

3. Communication skills

Freelancers need to draw upon a wide array of communication skills to support their clients, ranging from written correspondence and conflict management to negotiation skills and active listening.

4. Financial planning

Financial planning is an important skill for freelancers to have. Not only do freelancers have to manage their own business accounts, but they also must budget their own money while their business gets off the ground.

5. Marketing skills

Marketing skills are important in saturated and competitive freelancing markets. They can include updating social media, finding creative ways to advertise products, and reaching new markets or clients.

6. Networking skills

Networking skills are essential for freelancers, because their business won’t spread by word of mouth alone. Freelancers have to source clients and new business proactively and constantly.

7. Reliability

Reliability is one of the most important skills to have. Freelancing requires a lot of hours and effort to make it work. This means that freelancers need to commit themselves to their work 100% of the time.

8. Risk tolerance

Freelancers often don’t know they have made it until they have made it! A high degree of risk tolerance is important, as freelancing requires many sacrifices and significant investment in terms of time, skills and money.

9. Self-motivation

Self-motivation is used by freelancers to stay focused on goals and stay productive in environments where there might be a lack of people or processes to help them along the way.

10. Time management

Freelancers must juggle many different balls, such as managing clients, dealing with multiple deadlines, and handling administration work, so effective time management is an extremely important skill.

Mistakes to avoid while freelancing

Freelancing has its pitfalls, and it’s easy to make mistakes. Here are five mistakes to avoid when starting out as a freelancer.

1. Not having clear enough goals

Failing to set SMART goals means that freelancers run the risk of not focusing on what their freelancing business needs. It might also mean that too much time every day is lost in fighting fires, rather than working towards predefined targets.

2. Not having enough cash flow in place

Many freelancing businesses get into trouble because they lack the initial investment needed to get them off the ground. This can include setup fees, tools and resources, home office equipment, and simple living expenses needed for support until revenue starts to come in. Cash shortfalls can mean that shuttering your freelancing business becomes inevitable.

3. Not managing your time

Never underestimate how busy you will be as a freelancer. Time will run away with you very quickly, both in terms of completing client work but also in administration. It’s vital that you organize yourself so that no day is wasted.

4. Not selecting the right clients

Having the wrong clients can mean that you’re unintentionally undervaluing your services, or time is spent working on low-reward projects. Some clients won’t leave feedback or will monopolize your time for little outcome. Undertaking client research and being selective (to a degree) can ensure an optimal client portfolio.

5. Undervaluing (or overvaluing) your offer

Not pricing your services correctly at the outset of your freelancing journey can make repricing at a later stage challenging. This is because clients become accustomed to what you charge and won’t accept price corrections. This can have long-term implications for your business viability.

Key takeaways

Freelancing is an incredibly exciting way of working that can get you to draw upon your talents in new and exciting ways. It’s also a great way of being your own boss and controlling your career passion and purpose. Here are the key points for freelancing beginners to consider:

  • Many industries offer freelancing career opportunities.
  • Freelancing offers certain freedoms but also some limitations — and, therefore, it won’t be for everyone.
  • Ensure you do your research and prepare yourself before committing to freelancing.
  • Dare to be different, and ensure you market yourself for success.
  • Be aware of the skills needed to be a successful freelancer, and the mistakes to avoid.

If you keep in mind this guide and these points, then you’ll stand the best chance of excelling as a freelancer and enjoy a fruitful and rewarding career working on your own terms. Good luck!

Got a question? Let us know in the comments section below!

Originally published on October 3, 2016.