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10 Steps to Start a Freelancing Business (On the Side) in 2021

Nov 20, 2020
(updated: Dec 2, 2022)
Max 5 min read

Welcome! You’re probably here because you’re looking to start your own business, but you’re not quite ready to make the leap and quit your 9-5.

You’re not alone. Several freelancers, including myself, started out by freelancing on the side. It’s the perfect way to build up your business and client roster before diving headfirst into being a full-time freelancer.

Luckily for you, freelancing is one of the easiest side businesses you can grow, while still maintaining your full-time job. As a freelancer, you set your own hours, make your schedule, and choose how much or little you want to work. This gives you both the freedom and the flexibility to work your freelance business around your full-time job.

Now, if you’re anything like me when I first began freelancing, you might be wondering: “Where do I start?” “What steps should I take?” “How do I even find clients?”

Trust me, I can sympathize! To help out and give you a head start on the competition, here’s a comprehensive guide on beginning a freelancer career while still maintaining your day job.

1. Define Your Why

This might sound like a silly first step, but understanding why you are considering freelancing in the first place is so important. Be sure that you’ve defined your goal for you, whatever that may be, and that you’re in it for the right reasons. 

Be honest with yourself about why you are starting freelancing.

  • Earning some extra income on the side?
  • Eventually becoming a full-time freelancer?
  • Turning your passion project into a full-time career?

Whatever your reason, just be sure you are clear and it’s the right path for you at this moment in your career.

We recommend you write down your “why” on a piece of paper, so you can revisit it if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed or don't know what the next step may be. Your “why” will help you determine the next steps you should take in your freelance journey. 

For example, if your “why” is transitioning out of your day job and into a full-time freelance career, making enough money from freelancing to cover all your expenses is required. This gives you a starting point. 

First, identify how much money you need to consistently make each month to quit your job. Then, map out how to make that happen. 

Having a “why” makes everything more attainable and manageable.

Business Development

2. Find Your Niche

Finding your niche is probably one of the most important steps in building your freelance career. Nowadays, we all have multiple skills we excel at. You might be thinking: I’ll just be the “do-anything freelancer”, but we strongly advise against this. In fact, we encourage the exact opposite!

Get as specific as possible. If you’re a graphic designer, what kind of graphic design do you specialize in? Remember, you’ll be competing against all the other graphic designers out there, so narrowing down your niche is important. Maybe you’re great at infographics or creating instagram designs. 

Whatever your speciality is, lean into it. Potential clients will be looking for experts, so don’t be OKAY at a bunch of different things, be GREAT at one thing.

3. Design a Website

The world is now digital, so it’s incredibly important that you have an online presence. Even if you’re just starting out and you don’t have much, you still need to create one! 

Take the time to invest in a website, since this will be how potential clients will find you. Not only will it improve your visibility, but it will also help establish you as a professional. If you don’t have a large portfolio, use what you do have. 

For example, if you’re looking to become a freelance writer, but you don’t have any published pieces yet, consider putting some of your own stories or essays on your site. Include anything that will give a potential client an idea of your voice and style, and a reason to hire you.

4. Decide on Your Rates

Now that you have a website, you need to add your rates there. But here comes the age-old freelancer question: “what do I charge?”. 

This is one of the most challenging parts of freelancing. When I first started out, this question terrified me. I didn’t want to charge my clients too little, but I also didn’t want to charge them too high and price myself out of work. Still after all my debating, I ended up charging my clients way too little for my services. 

Don’t be me! Even if you’re just starting out, you still deserve to make a liveable wage. Negotiate. Get paid a rate your worth.

If you’re wondering how to come up with this rate, look at what other professionals in your field are making, factor in your cost of living, your insurance costs, and your saving goals each month. This will give you a better idea of what you need to make. 

Remember that your rates will likely vary for each client, project, deliverable, or even client location. Nonetheless, having a starting rate and then negotiating from there is a good idea.

5. Start Small

It’s okay starting out with baby steps. Remember, you’re growing your freelance business on top of a full-time job.

Building up your business and client roster will take time, especially if you haven’t built those connections or relationships before.

Start by taking just one small project for a few hours. Give it your all and learn from it. Once you feel like you’re ready to take the next step, move onto a slightly larger, more demanding project. 

When I first started out, I was doing social media management for just a few hours each week. This helped me build up my portfolio and eased me into this new lifestyle, without the workload ever feeling overwhelming or unmanageable.

Keep doing this over time and before you know it, you’ll have a successful freelance career.

6. Target Clients to Work With

Here’s the fun part - there’s no one right way to do this. I’ve spoken with freelancers who’ve found clients via Facebook, through their own personal networks, or even while out grabbing a coffee. 

When starting out, we advise you to cast your net as wide as possible. Look at freelancer Facebook groups, LinkedIn, job boards, your Alma Mater’s website, Twitter, and spread the word yourself. 

It might feel weird, but tell all your friends and family that you’re getting into freelancing and you’re looking for clients. Everybody knows somebody, so they might just have the perfect client for you.

If you’re still lost with finding clients, determine your ideal client so you have a starting place. Again, we’re looking for specifics here. In a perfect world, what type of client would you love to work with? Small businesses, startups, healthcare companies, beauty businesses, entertainment companies, etc? Determine your ideal client and then start reaching out to businesses that fit that mandate.

My friendly reminder to you (that I wish someone told me) -- it’s absolutely OKAY if your first client isn’t your dream client. Remember, this is a learning process! The more clients and projects you take on, the more you will start understanding what you’re looking for in a client. This will help you fine-tune your process and your outreach for potential clients.

Business Development Strategy

7. Learn How To Pitch

This one is HUGE! Now that you’ve mastered the above steps and you’ve targeted your dream clients, you need to be ready to pitch yourself so you can land the job.

The better you get at pitching, the more clients are likely to hire you. Clients want to work with someone who exudes confidence in their work and their services, so be sure you know how to “sell yourself” to a client.

Whether you’re communicating via a cold email, LinkedIn, or a job board, you’ll need to position yourself as an expert and prove to the potential client why you’re the right person for the job.

To do this, we encourage you to include the following in all your pitches/proposals:

  • Pinpoint a problem
  • Show how your solution will solve it
  • Demonstrate your knowledge/expertise
  • Back up your work with testimonials, case studies, and your portfolio

If you’re still not sure where to start, check out these easy templates to get started on creating a professional proposal to help land your dream client.

8. Build Your Portfolio

As you continue to grow your freelance business, be sure you’re continuing to build your own professional portfolio

Clients will usually ask to see your portfolio when deciding if it’s a good fit to see if you align with their brand and vision. This is where you really want your work to shine! 

If you don’t have any professional experience in your field, consider taking on some work for free. I know this is a touchy subject and I’m ALL for getting paid what you deserve! However, speaking from experience some of my most fulfilling and beneficial projects I’ve worked on, I’ve done for no cost. 

The experience helped me build relationships, network, and add high quality work to my portfolio, which in turn led to more clients. It really was a win/ win for me! If you’re looking to build your portfolio, this could be perfect for you. 

For example, if you’re a freelance writer, reach out to some blogs that are in your writing niche and ask to collaborate on a guest post. Although the work would likely be unpaid, you could get a byline and a published piece online. Yes, the first piece wouldn’t be paid. But that piece would lead to several paid pieces, which in turn would pay for itself. 

9. Network & Foster Relationships

A MAJOR part of freelancing is networking. The way I find most of my clients is through my own connections and networks. Many of you probably dread networking (I don’t particularly love it myself), but I encourage you to work on it.

Identify leaders, executives, or other freelancers you look up to and offer to buy them a coffee. It could even be a virtual coffee. You don’t have to go into the meeting with an “ask”; the idea is to just pick their brain. Many times with these networking sessions, these leaders will listen to what you have to say and get inspired, and might even connect you with one of their own contacts.

We also recommend joining some of the freelancing Facebook groups out there. It’s great to have your own tribe of freelancers when questions arise or help is needed, and those groups are a gold mine for freelance jobs and opportunities. 

Think of each person as a potential client. The more people you meet, the more clients you’re likely to land.

10. Don’t Give Up

Most people don’t experience freelance success overnight. It takes time, energy, and a ton of networking to build a successful freelance business. Remember, you’re starting this out as a side gig. Keep at it and don’t give up!

It’s not always an easy path, but it’s incredibly rewarding. With freelancing, you get to set your own hours, create a schedule that works for you, choose who you work with, and be your own boss. If you can create a steady income and put in the work to be successful, the benefits far outweigh the extra time it took to get your business off the ground.

If you feel overwhelmed, pull out your piece of paper with your “why” written down and remind yourself why you started in the first place.

The first step to all of this is starting. Even if you’re scared, even if you’re unsure, just start. And once you start, don’t stop. 

Get started today!

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