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How To Start Freelancing: Four Steps To A Steady Second Income

Getting started freelancing is the hardest part, but can lead to a rewarding and lucrative second income.More money is not always the answer. There are plenty of people with six figure incomes who are as financially hapless as those earning far less.

That said, earning additional income can often help you achieve financial freedom faster. This is why “earning more” is the half step on our 6 1/2 Steps to Financial Stability. When we think about ways to get out of debt or save more money, we immediately think about cutting back on the things we like to buy. But, if you’re smart, you’ll realize that a faster and more fulfilling path to your financial goals can be finding a new source of income.

Saying you want to earn more money is one thing; actually doing it, though? That’s a different ballgame.

If you have the stamina, you can take on second (or third) jobs. Or, you can learn to identify skills you have that others will value and learn how to start freelancing.

1. Find a skill (that you can sell)

Most people already know what they like to do. It’s usually what you do when you’re not working.

If you’re thinking “that’s usually the time when I crash on the couch and watch hours of reality TV”, then you’re not alone. We all do that. I’m talking about the other stuff. Your hobbies. DIY projects at home. Restoring old cars. Or cooking, hosting parties, or telling jokes.

If you’re trying to figure out what to do for freelancing, try making a list of activities that fall into these two categories:

  1. activities you enjoy
  2. skills you have

Found a skill and/or something that you love to do? Congrats! You have a freelancing idea. Now you have to figure out whether people will pay for it.

You can transform almost any idea into a part-time business, but whether you’ll be raking in thousands or just doing the occasional gig for your Uncle depends on how you well you position and market your business. You need to ask yourself:

  • Do people want what I have to offer?
  • Will they pay for it?
  • Can I target a specific sub-market to limit competition and increase what I charge?

For example, maybe you’re an excellent writer and you love writing short stories. You can probably guess that writing fiction isn’t the easiest freelance path, but let’s examine this idea anyway:

  • Do people want short stories? Sure, people love to read.
  • Will they pay for it? Probably not. Getting published is difficult and doesn’t pay well; starting a fiction blog is unlikely to generate revenue. 
  • Can you target it? Yes, niches like sci-fi or romance (or something even more specific) may get you noticed faster, but it will still be hard to get paid.

But let’s try that again. What if you take your love of writing and editing and market yourself to college and grad-school applicants struggling with admission essays.

  • Do people need help with their essays? You bet!
  • Will they pay for it? Probably; applicants to top schools (or their parents) will do pretty much anything for an edge.
  • Can you target it? Yes. You can target your city or target specific groups (high school seniors applying to top colleges or med school applicants, for example).

The point is, you can take one skill or interest and use it to start freelancing in myriad ways. Let’s take restoring old cars hobby as another example. Let’s assume you know everything there is to know about old cars, where to get the parts, how to fix them up, and all the history that goes along with them. Here are some freelance ideas (both big and small, pricey start-up costs or free) from just that one hobby:

  • Start a blog about old cars
  • Buy, restore, and sell old cars (there’s a website for that)
  • Offer services to help others re-build or fix their old cars
  • Offer consulting services on how people can fix their old cars
  • Write a book about old cars
  • Sell parts for old cars
  • Take cool pictures of old cars to sell
  • Enter your car into a car show
  • Share your story or apply to contribute to an old cars magazine (there’s a magazine for that)
  • Start an old car repair shop or parts store

So think about this list — or your own list of ideas — and ask the questions above. Which ideas come out on top?

2. Get some work

After you have a freelance idea and are fairly certain that people will pay you for it, it’s time to get some work.

(Note: Notice that we didn’t say it’s time to print business cards or create Facebook page for your business. Yet.) If you want to start freelancing, you have to get started.

Depending on your business, friends and family may be a starting place — at least to get referrals for potential clients. But don’t stop there. It may be a tough realization that part of freelancing is selling your services. A lot of us don’t like doing it, but it’s necessary. On the upside, the more clients you land (and impress), the less selling you should have to do because you’ll be getting repeat business and referrals.

Before you go any further, try to get at least two paying gigs by calling or emailing people you know or local businesses. If, after several weeks of trying, you can’t land any clients other than family, maybe it’s time to tweak your business model.

3. Embrace the Web

Have you done some work and proven your idea is marketable? Great. Now you can put your business online.

If you suspect working online is just for writers or computer geeks, think again. The online world is practically a free advertising platform. With the explosion of social media and blogging, people are connecting online more than ever. You have access to people across the street, across the state, or even across the globe. Once you’ve proven your business idea is viable, you can use the Web to expand your marketing reach.

Start a website or a store. Whatever your business is – drawing funny stick figures or designing landscapes or motivational speaking – having a website can lend credibility to your venture or even help you land sales. Many people use free blogging platforms like WordPress or Blogger to get started. It’s free and you don’t need design or Web expertise.

Don’t spend a lot of time on a website if it’s not crucial to your business. If it is, take the time to do it right or enlist pros that build a good site for you.

If your biz involves selling goods, setting up an online store is a must. Chance are, you’ve visited the popular e-commerce website Etsy. Okay, well, you’ve definitely visited it if you’re a girl! And if you’re a guy, your girlfriend or wife or sister probably told you about it at one time or even bought something there. It’s an easy way to start selling crafty-type items.

Sign up at freelance sites. These websites provide online marketplaces for your services; Elance is the biggie. Set up your profile, list your skills, your previous work (if any), and your bio. Then, find work in your field and bid on the jobs. Just don’t count on these sites to replace good old selling. These sites are big, global, and competitive. You’ll be competing with people with huge feedback scores and workers in Asia willing to work for much, much less.

One tip: If you line up work outside of these freelance sites, ask your client to pay you through Elance and leave feedback. This will help establish yourself so you’ll stand a better chance in future bids.

Say ‘Hello’ to the Social Web. If you hate cold emailing every business on Main Street, the Web may be able to send customers your way.

Remember traditional paid advertising that used to live in phone books, on the radio, or in stores or restaurants? You don’t need that anymore (not at first anyway). Instead you can tell the Internet about your business. Set up a Twitter account and follow people in your niche or potential customers. Don’t be afraid to follow these people and get involved in their conversations, there are not any Twitter etiquette rules that say you can’t jump in whenever you want. You can even e-mail possible collaborators or customers directly and introduce yourself. Same goes for Facebook. Start a fan page and invite your friends to it. Hell, we all know we’ve “liked” all our friends facebook pages, so it’s time for them to return the favor, right? After you’ve mastered Facebook and Twitter, set your sights on Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and more. There are no limits to your social media presence.

One word of advice: Don’t start these accounts “just because”, start them with the goal of acquiring new clients. You should be using social media to sell your work, not just hang out and procrastinate.

4. Master your craft

Figuring out what kind of freelance work you want to do and landing your first client is the hardest part. After you’ve done those two things, you can work on your craft. Which, if it’s something you enjoy doing, is a pretty sweet deal.

Here are some tips to keep you moving onward and upward:

  1. Keep and make a schedule. The world is busy. We all know that. Make a pact with yourself to work on your freelance work every Monday night. Or every morning for an hour. Or every Saturday. Whatever works for you. If you pencil the work like an appointment, you’ll stick to it.
  2. Keep growing. This applies to both your client list and your skills: Don’t let either stagnate. Set a goal to get one new client each week or month. Then, learn more about your work and get involved with others who are in the same field. A little friendly competition is inspiring and motivating.
  3. Practice good business. Don’t be a business jerk. Treat your customers like kings and queens and you’ll have a successful business for the long haul. If even one rumor about your crappy work gets around, the possibility of a successful business could be tarnished forever.
  4. Recognize your efforts. It important to keep records of your work and your accomplishments. This way you can look back over the previous months or years and see how far you’ve come or what mistakes you’ve made along the way to keep progressing. Besides, we all deserve little pat on the back every now and then.

What about you? Are you a freelancer or business owner? What are your tips for others on how to start freelancing? Let us know in a comment.

Published or updated on August 6, 2012

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About Amber Gilstrap

Amber is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money. Follow her on twitter @amberinks.


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  1. Debt RoundUp says:

    I have been a freelancer for years. It was very tough in the beginning because I didn’t have a direction. I was setup on many different freelance websites, but I didn’t really market myself. The key to success is to market yourself properly. There are thousands of people offering similar skills, but you just have to make yourself stand out.

  2. I have recently begun attempting to freelance skills that I never really thought of as marketable in a freelance situation.. it’s been a great way for me to earn extra income as my current income just isn’t enough on it’s own. Thanks for the great tips!

  3. Kevin Mzansi says:

    Agree with Daisy – blogging is a great way to build credibility that you can take with you out into the real world. People often attempt to freelance without thinking about it clearly first. Your list is definitely a great way to logically start looking at what is out there for you.

  4. Blogging is a great way to establish some credibility in a field. It also helps in showing potential clients what you are capable of. Especially if your ideal freelancing project is writing articles or staff writing.

  5. John says:

    I can testify to the fact that these tips work. Identifying your skill set and capitalizing on those skills by focused intensity – now that gets you some work online! You can be paid to write! 😀

  6. Mai says:

    I have skills that I could use to do freelancing but never really knew how… so this is really helpful! Thank you so much!

  7. Great tips! Thanks for sharing. I definitely need to check out Elance.

  8. I think many freelancers have a tought time streamlining their business and how much to charge for their products or services.

    I think it’s also good to test out your idea, too—kind of like an experiment to get an idea of what your target audience want

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