How to Become a Successful Freelancer: A 5-Step Guide

Author profile picture for Emil Lamprecht

So you’re reading this because you want to become a freelancer. You’ve thought about what you want to freelance in, you’ve got a couple of useful email addresses and you’ve even bought yourself some sweatpants that will look great with your slippers.

So you’re ready to dump that job and get cracking on your first assignment, right?


One of the biggest misconceptions about freelancing is that you sit at home and work comes to you. When the reality is you have to fight for it, and fight hard.

As our friend Leif Kendall aptly put it:

“First: you must strive. Nothing good is ever easy.”

I hate to break it to you, but working freelance means working. And I mean really working. Unlike your 9-5 cubicle, there is nothing cushy about freelancing, nothing stable about it until YOU have made it that way.

But there are some simple secrets to becoming a successful freelancer which I am going to share with you in this blog post. Here they are in brief—feel free to select one to jump straight to it, or read on for the full story.

  1. Contact everyone you know.
  2. Work on your personal brand.
  3. Write a plan of action.
  4. Do your research and pay attention to competition.
  5. Get yourself a mentor—and your first client.

Using these steps—and a bit of determination—I’ve seen people get out of their desk jobs and start working comfortably for themselves in 30 days.

If they can do it, so can you. As Leif told it:

“Your first few days, weeks and months are probably going to be challenging, and likely to take everything you’ve got.”

So what did I do when I first went freelance?

Let’s be clear here, because what I did—what made me successful—was done BEFORE I went freelance, not after. Granted, my path to the flexible profession was abnormal. Having decided in college that “normal jobs” weren’t my thing, I used time in between studying and a karaoke bar job to set myself up.

But when you read how I made the transition, you’ll realise that if you have any experience in your field at all, you’ve got it easier than I did. Just always remember that becoming a successful freelancer doesn’t begin the day you quit your job, but the day you decide it’s the lifestyle for you.

In between deciding to become a freelancer and becoming a freelancer, you need to prepare to be a freelancer.

So how did I do that?

A man using his phone to manage freelance work

1. I contacted everyone I have ever known

Literally. Everyone.

The very first thing I did when deciding to make the switch was to get in touch with every single person I have ever known and told them my decision.

I told them the field I was going to be working in and as it became clear, even the date I was planning to leave my awful day job (in 30 days time).

I also told them that I would be more than happy to take on projects straight away.

If I was still studying, and working a job, why did I say I could take on projects? Wasn’t I a bit busy already, studying/working 14+ hours a day and organizing myself to go freelance or to take on projects in my free time’?

The reason I told my friends and friends of friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues that I was willing to take on projects straight away was for three reasons:

  • Experience
  • Contacts
  • References

And the earlier you send this email the better. Do it 30 days before you want to go freelance, or do it six months before. But the point is, don’t leave people hanging.

Not only do you want to make your announcement actionable, but clients take time to develop. Don’t put yourself in a position to do the work “in a month”, when the discussion you need to start may take that much time anyway!

The more experience, contacts and references you have when you go freelance, the easier making that final break from your job will be.

And when people asked me to do a job for them that they couldn’t pay me for I would again consider:

  • Experience
  • Contacts
  • References

If I was going to get just one of these things out of the arrangement then there was no way I was turning down that work, money or no money. If in doubt, remember the wise words of freelance expert Jon Norris,

“Building a network and finding work are two sides of the same coin.”

Here I just want to include a note for those of you who have already started freelancing, as for you guys too I cannot emphasize the importance of this step enough. It’s never too late to start reaching out to people and expanding your network.

If you have work to show for your efforts already, your outreach will go much further, a reason why this step should be repeated annually even once you are a successful freelancer! Keep yourself fresh in people’s minds and be their go-to person when they need a professional in your field.

So after I’d contacted my entire network, what did I do next?

A woman blowing bubbles, symbolizing fun and freedom

2. I got to work on my personal brand

So what does my personal brand have to do with anything? I’m an experienced [insert profession here], not a social networker – why can’t I just make an ad and put it online/buy a spot in the newspaper/stick it to a tree/leave under windshield-wipers in the parking lot?

The reason is that as a freelancer, YOU ARE YOUR BRAND.

So help me god [or deity of choice], this is a truth among truths, irrespective of whether you’re a web developer, a user experience designer, a writer or a marketer.

What do I mean when I say you are your brand?

I mean that when you are selling your services, you are actually selling yourself. So how you come across online or off is reflective of your success, your ability, and your professionalism. Your personality counts. Big time. If people don’t like you, they won’t buy what you’re selling.

So, how did I build my personal brand?

  1. I got myself on LinkedIn and I fully filled out my profile. Every single detail of my experience. Every relevant job I ever had. Every morsel about me that could be interesting.
  2. I then did the same thing on Facebook. I joined relevant groups for my field and started asking questions, lots of questions, as well as answering any I could.
  3. I did the same on Twitter.
  4. And on Meetup.
  5. And when it was made available I did the same with Quora, which has become the fact-filled platform for experts.
  6. I then went to every industry-relevant event I could find, afford and get to, and hustled like a maniac…

If you’re someone who still believes social media is the devil, you’re in trouble, because it’s never a single tactic that will get you anywhere, it’s a combination of many intelligently coordinated pieces.

Asking and answering questions is the easiest way to get people involved and invested in what you do, and while you could meet 15 people during a night out, you could meet 100 online. And perhaps yes, the contact is “shallower” but you can be a hell of lot more targeted.

So I recommend starting online, understanding who’s important for you, pre-empting offline events by connecting with people via Twitter, and leveraging LinkedIn connections into meetings for coffee.

If you combine a strong digital brand with meeting people in person, you’ll make yourself:

  • Easy to find
  • Easy to remember
  • Good to know

You want to be understood as an expert and an influencer in your field, and in a world where most industry communication is digital, you better be all over it!

Just remember not to get discouraged if you don’t get 1000 Twitter followers instantly, because what’s important here is that quality wins over quantity every time. Stay focused, stay targeted and talk to every new connection like they’re your best friend.

And vice versa, if you’re awkward and depend entirely on social media to drive your network, you’re doing it wrong. You have to get out, you have to meet people and confirm that you’re real and worth investing in. As Jon Norris explained:

“Although it can be awkward attending networking events, it’s a great way to build contacts. Get out there, hand out business cards and make friends.”

A freelancer walking a tightrope to symbolize risk

3. I wrote a plan of action

I want you to pay very close attention to the next statement.

Never, ever, undervalue time taken to plan. Never.

For each of those 30 days before I quit my job I had a goal. Sometimes that goal was to email a relevant contact in my field asking for advice. Sometimes that goal was to expand my network by X number of people, answer a certain number of questions, or attend a meetup.

And sometimes it was simply to plan out the next steps.

For each of those 30 days I wrote down my trials and tribulations into a short (often emotional) blog post, charting my ups and downs in that final month before taking the leap.

I also carefully drafted and redrafted a personal business plan , including my financial requirements, goals, and how I thought that would actually translate into work.

I realized that if I landed the equivalent of 2 short projects a month, I could survive. Well barely, but it’s good to know where your survival limit is, because when push comes to shove, it’s accomplish that goal or be stuck eating dry toast for a month.

Unless you’re one of these eternally adventurous types, freelancing is no fun as a hand-to-mouth game. Nobody chooses this path with the goal of living on a financial knife edge. And by the way, it’s ok to be scared, in fact if you’re not, you’re either invincible or a dumb ass, so keep your eyes open, know your limits, and plan accordingly.

I also used this as another excuse to grow my network, reaching out to experts in my industry to ask for advice:

  • How much should I charge?
  • Where do I best find my clients?
  • How difficult is it to close a deal?
  • Should I template my pitches or create new ones every time?

This created an opportunity to learn, improve and perfect the skills I would need in a month while growing a power-network of professionals in the field. Two birds in one stone at its finest!

Two freelance designers looking at a phone

4. I did my research and paid attention to competition

Whether it was hours scanning social media, reading blog posts like this one, offering my services to friends, or just generally building a network however I could, I absorbed as much information as possible.

Sure, it’s overwhelming; anyone who has spent a 4 hour stint on a single topic online knows that the rabbit hole is deep, and easy to get sucked into. At the end of the day, you have to pick and choose what’s important for you, but what I found most helpful was taking a real good look at what my competition were doing. And there is always competition.

Looking closely at what others were doing, I found out 3 things that helped me a lot:

  1. I had local competition, and I mean local. As in down the street from me. But even if they had been doing it for a while, they didn’t seem to be effectively marketing themselves, it took effort to find them.
  2. People who were looking for someone of my expertise had no central data bank to find me, or other freelancers like me. I had to be in the right place at the right time.
  3. I could easily differentiate myself from my competition by having an attractive personality, and a digital presence.

Leif Kendall likes to tell people to:

“Deliver work that is better than anything your competitors are doing.”

and truthfully, I couldn’t agree more. Maybe you have a lot of experience, and maybe you don’t, but your job is to perform better than everyone else in your field, both in the work you do, and the way you act.

But how did I know what my competition were actually doing?

Remember that old adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”? This is one way of looking at it, but in a world of freelancing where your network is everything, you can’t afford to have enemies at all. So try this instead:

“Keep your friends close, and make friends with your enemies.”

Don’t be guarded, don’t be defensive. Share, trade, and exchange what you can from your own knowledge and then keep doing it better, and better, and better, and better, and better, and better.

In the end, you’ll find that some people have big egos, but a lot of people are happy to have a friend. Freelancing can be a bit lonely sometimes as by its definition you often lack those daily colleagues who understand the work you do. A lot of people out there are just like you, and happy to have someone they can relate to about work, and even share a bit of knowledge and experience.

Two men sat on a step chatting with one another

5. I got myself a mentor and landed a real client

The best piece of advice I ever received was simple in theory and tough in practice:

“Don’t burn any bridges.”

If you’re a freelancer, this quote should be read in all caps-lock and underlined, because you can’t afford to. Every contact counts , and on behalf of your reputation and livelihood, although it’s very tempting to give your boss the finger as you storm out the door, it’s not something you can afford to do, ever.

No one likes “sucking up” and I don’t really recommend it, but now that you’re leaving you need your employer more than ever before, because face it: your current employer is your strongest link to your first job as a freelancer. If your job is at all related to what you plan to do, they may themselves be your first client.

In my case, the karaoke bar owner would eventually make it very clear that he “didn’t give a flying f&%$” what I was doing beyond his bar. But I needed something, so I went and found myself a mentor. Aka, I willingly put myself in thrall to an influencer in my industry. It was the smartest decision I ever made because despite totally over-working myself, I sure enough gained Experience, made Contacts, and walked away with one hell of a Reference.

Oh, and yes, I did this on top of the study, the job, and the prep. If you want something, don’t half ass it.

So how did I manage to get myself a mentor?

Well if you have a boss who knows anything, that’s the best place to start. But if you’ve read this article then you can probably guess how I did it: I networked like a maniac, showed my plan of action, and proved I knew how to work like the competition.

In the end, I convinced my would-be mentor that I was worth that little bit of time and effort, and sure enough Richard Levy passed me my first client after only a couple weeks. And Bam! I was officially a freelancer, on schedule and making money.

Whether it’s a boss, mentor, professor, uncle or neighbor with good advice, the people you see daily are most likely to have the biggest impact on your transition. So be accommodating, be thankful and be willing to work your ass off for an opportunity to do what you love.

As Rik Lomas wrote in his blog post about freelancing on Medium:

“Do not piss people off. Remember that you’re a professional and are soon to be leader of your own company. Act like it.”

Feet poking out of a tent, sitting at the top of a mountain

So finally….

So what’s my last piece of advice? What’s that final nugget of understanding you need to open the doors to your new career, new lifestyle, and impending financial freedom?

The simple answer is that there isn’t one. There is no one solution, there is no one path. Your puzzle is your own! And understanding how the pieces fit together is what will guarantee your success.

If you’re hunting for that single piece of magical advice that will get you out of your job and thousands of clients a year, let me tell you, it doesn’t exist. Like in life, relationships, and all other forms of comedy, it’s your ability to understand the big picture and refine each detail to pixel-perfect clarity that makes you who you are and good at what you do.

So my advice is don’t forget that, don’t get hung up on singularity in a world full of complication, because what will make you successful is knowing how to apply who you are to what you want to do to the best of your ability.

As for the rest of what you need to know? Start by reading this article! People will say you’re crazy to set out on this path of uncertainty, which if you’re like me is just confirmation that you should be doing it! Freelancing is something you really have to want, and be prepared to work hard for. And the result of that is a lifestyle, and a sense of freedom that is unrivalled by any other job in the world.

So prep it, work it, and then LIVE IT for all your worth!

Further Reading

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