The big fat guide to freelancing
For aspiring writers, programmers and designers, work experience is crucial. But what's the secret to learning the trade and getting paid? Freelancing!
For many of us, it normally takes a lowly-paid internship or endless coffee making for you to earn your stripes and eventually land that all-important big break in your chosen industry.
Worse still, most of the part-time jobs on offer to students are completely irrelevant to your career plans, with inflexible (and anti-social) working hours.
However, there's hope on the horizon. With a bit of determination, you can become a paid freelancer – providing articles, animations, apps or admin support to the world. A significant proportion of the roles require no prior experience, too.
The benefits are many. Not only will it look awesome on your CV and give you the freedom to work from home when time allows, but with the right project, the pay can be pretty decent.
So – without further ado, here's our ultimate guide to becoming a freelancing supremo!
What's on this page?
Writing and translating
This is probably the most accessible type of freelancing work out there – especially if you have an English qualification and are constantly churning out essays to grab that elusive degree.
The type of jobs are varied. You could be asked to write articles, whole eBooks (under the condition that someone else's name appears on the front), product descriptions for online stores, or even Facebook posts and tweets. Yes, you heard – paid to do social media.
Plus, if you're fluent in another language, translation work beckons. It can be a lot less competitive for these projects – mainly because most of us only have conversational Spanish… at best.
Comes recommended if…
You're a stickler for grammar, and love learning new, random things – such as whether it's normal to have a mole on your penis, or where the best place to buy a dishwasher is if you live in Slough (both writing assignments I've had before).
Design is a bit more of a challenging sector to join. Not only do you need copies of industry-standard software, but you need the skills – and imagination – to use it to its full potential and meet the demands of your clients.
You could be creating a logo for a new start-up company, animating videos, illustrating snazzy PowerPoint presentations, or even working on adverts that will appear in papers and magazines.
Comes recommended if…
You're always doodling in class, and fancy transforming your procrastination talents into a profit. Computer skills are pretty crucial here too.
Programming and IT
Programmers are the brains behind the websites and apps we all use every day. They're tasked with building software that is well-designed and easy to use for the typical customer, and often have to write swathes and swathes of code to make it happen.
As well as this, you might offer virtual IT support. Typical projects include helping websites with their search engine optimisation (SEO), which involves making them more visible in Google, Bing and Yahoo! rankings. Analysing statistics and managing databases are common jobs on freelance sites, too.
Comes recommended if…
This industry has fierce competition. One of the most popular tasks is called transcription, and this involves listening to recordings of conversations and typing them out. You could even be a part-time personal assistant – wearing a hoodie and joggers instead of dressing to impress.
The roles and responsibilities of a good virtual assistant include answering phone calls from customers, planning the boss's schedule and booking their travel arrangements, or performing light research for their reference.
Comes recommended if…
For some inexplicable reason, people think you're well organised – meaning you're always saddled with planning birthday parties and college reunions.
Other people have started offering really… er… niche services. You could become a puppeteer and create a character such as Piggy McPiggy, who produces adverts. Some offer novelty impersonations, and sing Happy Birthday like Marilyn Monroe.
Comes recommended if…
Anything resembling a normal job is not for you.
The idea of rocking out of bed, making a frighteningly brief commute to your laptop and beginning work sure sounds like bliss. But nobody ever said that working from home would be easy, and every advantage is tempered with drawbacks.
- There's plenty of flexibility working from home – you pick your hours, and will be able to work in the style that best suits you.
- But being self-employed, you're in charge. And it takes a lot of discipline not to spend an extra hour in bed of a morning, or to put work off and watch The Jeremy Kyle Show.
- With no rules, you can take regular breaks and head out to see friends.
- But although you don't have a boss who's breathing down your neck, remember that you still need to attend to your clients – and avoid endless distractions which could stop you from hitting your deadline.
- You can cherry pick the assignments you take on – so if a job is too complicated, or doesn't pay well enough, there's no harm in rejecting it.
- However, you're foraging for yourself in this industry. The best work will have plenty of competition – and you might have to see off dozens of other applicants.
- Freelancers get to work with people from around the world.
- But take it from me – having to stay up late for meetings with clients in Australia and America isn't always fun, especially if you have an early morning lecture.
- With the right reputation, the amount of money you can earn is limitless.
- That said, filling out your own tax returns, being paid inconsistently and having an unstable income can make things quite tough from time-to-time.
To avoid getting cabin fever, and to stay focused, I recommend heading out to a coffee shop and making the most of their free WiFi. Public libraries are another fantastic place to visit. Breaking up your tasks into bite-sized chunks – and getting several changes of scenery during the day – will help you to stay creative and fresh.
In the freelance world, there's two ways of getting paid – by the hour, or with a fixed fee for each project.
Unfortunately, your competitors for the best online jobs are often from around the world. And, if they live in a developing economy where it costs a lot less to live, it can be impossible to compete with their prices and still get the minimum wage.
As such, you need to prove that you're the right person for the job with a gripping application. Also – before you throw your hat into the ring for a freelancing gig – think carefully about how long it will take, and what you would want to earn per hour.
If you possess rare skills, it's likely that you'll be able to command a higher rate – and remember, you need to sell yourself. Just make sure you have realistic expectations of the money to be earned (sadly, few clients are willing to pay £500 an hour), and have a browse of the existing jobs on major freelancing sites (see below).
WARNING: In return for helping you find work, freelance companies take a cut of your earnings. Make sure you're aware of the commission you'll be paying, and add these charges on top of what you're quoting a client.
Never work with a client who wants to pay you outside a freelancing site (unless you know them personally). It makes it easier for them to dash off into the sunset without settling the bill, and you could be banned from applying for new jobs by the freelancing site because you tried to dodge their fees.
There are quite a few well-known websites for getting started in the freelance world. Some specialise in attracting workers and clients for a particular industry; others are more generic. Here are five of my favourites:
At the beginning of 2014, two of the most well-known freelancer websites, Elance and oDesk, merged to create Upwork. Upwork claim they now have more than ten million registered freelancers working with them and upwards of four million clients, meaning they’re certainly the biggest service of their kind now, too.
They host everything from hourly-paid gigs with startups to larger projects with some seriously high-profile clients, too.
With a recent redesign since the companies merged, the website is really clear and easy to navigate. You also get plenty of information about what clients are looking for in postings, which helps when you’re writing an application.
Top advantage: They have a secure payment protection system which ensures you’re always paid for the work you do. Clients send payment to Upwork before the job begins, and the company keeps the money safe and secure, meaning that neither of you can access it without the other’s permission. Once the job is finished, the cash hits your account.
Top drawback: Upwork charge a fee of 10% of the transaction, meaning for every £100 you make, Upwork take a tenner of it. This charge is disappointing, as prior to the merger, Elance charged a fee of only 8.75%. They also offer a weird ‘service’ to those clients hiring for hourly-paid work – they send a snapshot of freelancers’ screens every ten minutes to make sure they’re working for their money. Pretty patronising!
Freelancer.co.uk seems to be a nice website to use. It's easy to sign up – you just need a Facebook profile – and you can list up to 20 of your skills once registered. Then, it looks for jobs which reflect these talents. When I did the sign up process for this article, I found 2,478 potential assignments to bid for in the Writing & Translation category (sorry Save the Student… I'm off!)
Top advantage: You can see exactly how much people are bidding to work on a project. This feature isn't normally seen on other sites. It allows you to be competitive, and see what experienced rivals typically charge.
Top drawback: Again – astronomical fees! You'll get 13% automatically deducted after finishing a job, and this will especially hurt when you're working on a small job. Put into context, if you earn £100, you'll only get £87 of it.
PeoplePerHour.com was set up in the UK – and given the other sites out there, it's rather weird to see pound signs next to each job! It's a pretty nice company – and at one point, they were inviting freelancers to use the desks in their office… nice touch!
You'll commonly see the clients on PeoplePerHour stipulating how much they're willing to spend for a project. Oftentimes, the pay's not bad – indeed, I spotted one job which involved coining a new slogan for a company. Their budget? A cool £287.
Top advantage: The way their fees are set up. For the first £175 each month, you'll pay 15%. But for all earnings after that, the rate plummets to just 3.5%.
Top drawback: Unlike other sites, where you can start applying for jobs as soon as you've signed up, PeoplePerHour expects you to complete an application, too. This gobbles into precious earning time!
So: the four sites above are probably the main contenders in your quest for freelancing work. But there's a final, quirky site that's definitely worth a mention – and that's Fiverr.com.
This site started out as a marketplace, where people around the world could offer their services for the princely sum of $5 (about £3). Examples include:
– "I will create a cinematic movie trailer for $5"
– "I will write a message underwater for $5"
– "I will record a video as a geek girl for $5"
– "I will do a voiceover of 100 words as an Australian man or woman"
As you can see, some of the tasks are quite unusual – but this is cool, as it allows you to get creative.
It's best to offer the most basic of your services for $5. From here, you can offer add-ons for any price you like – such as a fast turnaround for $20 (about £12), or a longer video or article.
This site has fees of 20% – meaning although you're charging five bucks, only $4 (roughly £2.50) will reach your account.
…behold, a snazzy graphic which explains which sites are cheapest:
(Of course… use this info logically. In some cases, you might have to pay slightly higher fees in order to get better-paying jobs overall. Cheapest isn't always best!)
To get work, you need to make proposals (applications, basically) to the jobs available on your chosen freelancing site. This is usually accompanied by a profile – which shows the feedback you've received from past clients, your rates, and samples of your past work.
In my many years as a freelancer, I used Elance. This is an example of what my profile looked like:
As you can see, there are several sections that you need to fill in. Getting this right is crucial – especially if you're a professional writer – because in many ways, this is the most important sample you'll ever provide to a prospective client.
Unlike dating profiles (as I learned the hard way), you're fully entitled to blow your own trumpet on a freelancing site. Don't be afraid to namedrop the clients you've had in the past, and include quotes from their feedback in the introductory par. By showing you have extensive experience, it encourages clients to take you seriously.
Get good feedback
Even if you write the world's best profile, no one will pay attention if you have a long history of one-star and two-star pieces of feedback. Go slow at first, and do every job to perfection. Once an assignment is complete, hound your client for their testimonial. If you manage to get loads of five-star feedback at the beginning of your freelancing career, it becomes easier and easier to pick up new work. The first few weeks are always the hardest.
Tell them about yourself!
Just because you're working remotely doesn't mean you have to be impersonal. If you're great at playing the bassoon, have trained as a pilot, or you're a gold medallist archer, don't be afraid to come across as fun, friendly and engaging. The clients you'll find on freelancing sites are seldom stuffy, and love a good personality.
Of course, it's highly unlikely that you'll meet most of your clients. That makes it difficult for them to verify your credentials. Thankfully, many freelancing sites can do this on your behalf, by checking your qualifications and geographical location. Once you've done this, you'll get a big, shiny tick next to your name. Also consider taking aptitude tests in your chosen area of freelancing – short, 40-minute exams which test things including your Photoshop knowledge, coding skills, editing abilities or spelling prowess. The results then appear on your profile – and if you're lucky, you could be in the top 1%!
Keep it brief
Bearing all of the above points in mind, make a concerted effort to keep your profile concise and to the point. If a client has shortlisted 10 possible providers, they don't want to read a 2,000-word profile every time. Boil your page down to the most important points, and carefully cherry-pick the samples included in your portfolio.
Also, I lied. There's six points to the perfect profile. The last one is to CHECK YOUR SPELLING AND GRAMMAR. Even the slightest typo undermines your credibility, especially if you're vying for editing work. I know it sounds like an obvious pointer, but you'd be surprised at how many people don't make the effort to give their profile a thorough proofread.
Now – you've got the profile, an idea of what you want to freelance in, and an expectation of how much money you want to earn. But how do you secure that elusive job offer?
Understand how credits work
Usually, on a free membership, you'll be limited to sending just a few job applications per month. Buying a subscription – which can be cancelled every 30 days – allows you to send dozens, boosting your chances of getting accepted. Typically, it'll cost you around 50 cents (about 30p) for every application you make. When you consider that a job could be worth £100, it's a minimal investment to make.
Be picky with jobs you apply for
Find clients who have been incredibly detailed throughout their description. This allows you to personalise your response, and show them that you've paid attention to their needs. Don't be afraid to ask questions if anything seems unclear in their advertisement.
Consider sponsored proposals
This is where you pay an extra $1.50 (about 90p) to ensure that your application appears at the top of the list a client sees. It ensures you don't get buried among dozens of your rivals. The cost can add up, but statistically, clients are more likely to go for someone who uses a sponsored proposal. You'll find that this marketing technique will be invaluable when you're first trying to get noticed.
Personalise every application
The one thing you should never, ever do when you're applying for freelance work is use the same application for every job. Clients can spot copy-and-paste jobs from a mile off – and they often use little tests (such as asking freelancers to use a secret word in their application) to make sure applicants pay attention. If you have an individualistic approach, it proves you care, and boosts your chances.
When you've completed the work, and given yourself a pat on the back, you'll want to withdraw your hard-earned cash. Most freelance sites give you a plethora of choices, but each offer pros and cons. They are:
- PayPal: It's quite fast to reach your account, but if you're being paid in dollars, the exchange rates can be brutal… and that means fewer pounds in your pocket. Despite this, it's the option I'd recommend – as it's the least hassle, and the fastest by a country mile
- Wire transfer: Getting funds sent straight to your bank is possible. However, it's tricky to set up – and some sites charge you $25 (that's about £16) every time you make a transfer
- Cheque: The most time-consuming method. Sure, you dodge a lot of charges – but not only do you have to wait for the cheque to arrive from the States, it takes five business days before it's processed and sitting pretty in your bank account
- Prepaid card: Bigger freelancing companies offer prepaid cards which enable you to draw cash straight from your account on their website. You'll have to pay fees for every transaction you make – and expect to be stung whenever you withdraw cash from an ATM.
- Remember: if you freelance, you're responsible for tax and National Insurance contributions. The easiest way to avoid any nasty surprises is to save 20% of anything you earn. Try to seek advice from an accountant if you can – normally, they cost about £150 a year – and get to grips with your self-assessment as soon as it's due. If you feel you're paying too much to the taxman, check out our guide on how to get a rebate.
- Remain vigilant about dodgy clients. Always use an Escrow system where it's available, and make sure you know exactly how much you'll earn for a job up front.
- Don't do any jobs that are illegal. I know this sounds obvious, but there are some jobs – such as editing videos for a porn site, or even writing erotic novels, which could get you into trouble.
- Never provide free samples. Although you may think it's the right thing to do – especially when you're on the lookout for your first job – many freelancing sites forbid their talent (that's you!) from dishing out free samples. Instead, respectfully ask to be hired for the sample only – as this allows them to decide whether to continue with your services afterwards.
- Profit-sharing opportunities are a bust. Clients who try to offer you a share of the profits from a website (instead of a fee for your hard work) are normally bluffing about their "amazing opportunity" and should be avoided like the plague.
- Watch out for freebies! Many freelancing services offer great freebies – such as complementary business cards and heavily discounted access to work spaces.
- Had a good client? Generate repeat business! Whenever you finish a project, offer a bulk discount – or 5% to 10% off – if they hire you again within seven days. Clients are a sucker for a bargain, and it's more cash in your pocket without hunting for new work! As most websites work on a feedback system, always make sure that a good customer leaves a testimonial, as this will help you to develop a reputation.
- Ask if you can get your name on work. If you're looking to establish a reputation, some clients might be willing to include your name on any work you do – including eBooks you write or posters you design. This can be rare, but there's no harm in asking. Just make sure it can be included in your portfolio. Most of the time, you will not own the copyright to any work you complete as a freelancer – in effect, clients are paying you for it!
- Check out some of the nifty tools out there to help freelancers. Skype and Dropbox can be essential – especially for communicating and sharing files with clients over long distances. Add-ons such as Pamela for Skype also allow you to keep recordings of your calls for future reference. If you get serious about this freelancing malarkey, you might also want to check out project management tools such as Trello or Basecamp, though all the freelance sites have similar functionality now.
If you've made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back, and pour yourself a stiff drink. Comment below if you have any questions, dilemmas or success stories – and let's show the freelancing world how epic students are!