How to Be a Freelancer

how to be a freelancerOk, maybe that’s not the right question.  Being a freelancer is easy.  If you have a specialized skill and want to be an independent contractor, just do it.  That’s the beauty of freelancing; you no longer need to ask someone’s permission. The real question is how do you jump out of the crowd and get the attention of an employer?

Here are a few tips from an employer’s perspective that will help you get hired and maintain a steady flow of jobs as a freelancer.

Prepare Yourself to be Found

  • Utilize the best freelance websites like Elance and Odesk.  That’s where I’ll be posting jobs, so that’s where you’ll find them.  Yes, there are many small, niche freelancing sites out there, but most employers (especially those posting their first jobs) are not aware of them.  If we can’t find a site, we can’t find you.
  • Put serious effort into preparing your profile for each site.  Look at other freelancers in the same category and find those that have long, continuous work histories.  Figure out what these top performers are doing right and include their key characteristics in your own profile (in your own words).
  • Take tests on freelancing sites seriously.  High test scores differentiate a candidate. And if you think you’ll do poorly in a subject, don’t take the test (unless the site allows you to remove test scores).  Low test scores in your profile can lose you work.
  • Look for test assignments or jobs that hint at long term work and offer a low price on a small job to get in the door.  Treat short term assignments like they are interviews for more work.  Do everything you can to wow the employer.  If the company looks reputable, you may even consider completing the assignment for free.  The best freelancer I ever hired offered to do my test assignment for free.  Before he even started the job he made a good impression that set him apart from the crowd.
  • Utilize social media. Being active on social media is a great way to be found.  Just don’t do too much self-promotion.  Sell yourself in a subtle way with a link to your website within your profile and then start promoting others and good karma will come back to you.

Bidding on Freelance Jobs

  • When responding to a job posting be clear, concise, and honest.  And check for spelling and grammar.  I’m always shocked by the number of errors I find in simple messages.  Even if English is your second language, that’s no excuse. Type your message up in Word or Outlook first and use the automatic spelling and grammar checks.  Use translate.google.com if you are unsure about the meaning of a word.
  • Make sure you tailor your response towards the job posting.  The first thing I do when screening candidates is filter out any generic job bids that don’t mention any of terms I’m looking for.  Prove to me that you understand my specific needs and give me a response which shows you understand my requirements.  If someone asks for experience in coding Thesis websites, mention a few examples of Thesis websites you’ve coded.
  • Read the entire posting before responding.  Some employers (like myself), put secret phrases at the bottom of their job postings to make sure candidates read everything.
  • Mention jobs or clients where you have done similar work in the past. Links to example websites in your portfolio make it easy on me as well.
  • Be helpful in your job response.  If you have some expertise in a given area and have some relevant  tips for my project consider offering them before you are hired.  “I see you are looking for someone to <<requirement>>, have you considered <<tip>>, it might save you a few dollars”.
  • Have a positive attitude.  Studies have shown candidates with a positive attitude tend to receive more offers.  More importantly, contractors and employees with positive attitudes tend to receive better performance reviews and pay increases.
  • Answer my questions quickly.  If I don’t get an answer in a timely fashion, I’ll assume that it will be the same way we work together.  Also, follow-up messages show your interest in the project.  A timely, friendly follow-up separates you from your closest competition.  I like people that are proactive and follow-up on details.  Just don’t take it too far and become a pest.

Keep Getting Hired

  • Ask for positive feedback and ask early.  Since I look for candidates with several positive reviews, you need to have them if you want to get hired.  One trick I’ve learned from consulting is to ask the client at the beginning of the project,

    “I take my work very seriously and if at any point in this project you think I don’t deserve the highest feedback score, please let me know right away and I’ll do whatever I can to make things better”.

    Employers appreciate your desire to succeed and will remember this when it’s time to rate you at the end of a project.

  • Keep me updated on status regularly.  Not only does this ease my mind, but if you’re on the wrong track, you’ll save yourself a lot of re-work by checking in early.  This is especially important on fixed bid projects where extra time applied costs you money.
  • In the same vein as the last item, if you are able to find consistent work, try to keep using the same freelancing site to build your work history.  It’s much better to show four positive reviews on one site than a single positive review on four separate sites.
  • Treat everyone as a reference.  Your jobs can come from the most unlikely places.  If you’re a freelancer graphic designer, make sure that everyone you know is aware and willing to recommend you.  When someone hears of an opening, you want your name to be the first one that comes to mind for a recommendation.
  • Don’t list references you haven’t asked.  As an employer, nothing is more irritating than getting an unexpected call from another employer who said I was listed a reference.  Especially for someone I fired because of incompetence! (yes, it’s happened more than once)  If you need to give out references, make sure you call them first and ask their permission. It also helps to tell them the type of job you will be interviewing for so they can help sell you in the right way.

Working from Home

  • Have a quiet work environment.  If you work from home, make sure your home office is quiet and that you’re not disturbed during business hours or while you are on the phone.
  • And for Pete’s sake, get a business line with voicemail.  There’s nothing more unprofessional than calling someone and not being able to leave a message if they don’t answer.  And having to leave a message on a family answering machine is almost as bad.  Also, if you’re overseas, Skype is a fine alternative for phone calls.  But if you’re in the States, don’t be so rude as to make employers call you on Skype rather than a land line.  And never, ever tell an employer you are trying to save cell phone minutes.
  • If you’re going to use Skype, get a microphone and headset and test it with a friend before talking to an employer.
  • Get a high speed Internet connection.  ‘Nuff said.
  • Unless you are working on a long term assignment, let the freelancing site handle your payments and escrows.
  • Keep track of your time using one of these time tracking applications or one of these.  Even if you do fixed bid assignments, you still need to understand how much time you spend so you can bid properly.
  • Get to know other freelancers in your niche.  Freelancing can be lonely and it’s important to share knowledge and lessons learned. Not only that, but referrals from other freelancers can be one of your best sources of work.  If they are busy, they may offer to send the extra your way.  And don’t worry so much about competition, freelancing sites are huge.
  • Learn to estimate jobs properly.  Employers really appreciate freelancers who complete work on time and on budget.  Especially if you are completing a fixed bid project. If you underestimate the amount of effort, you can cost yourself a lot of money.
  • Remember to pay your taxes.  In the U.S., self-employed freelancers need to make quarterly withholding payments to the IRS.  Some freelancing websites like Elance and Odesk offer payroll services to help take care of this for you if you don’t want to take care of it yourself.

I hope this helps you take the plunge into freelancing or step up your game a notch.  At a minimum, it should teach you how to get along with me should we ever have the chance to work together :).

If you have more tips on being a successful freelancer, please share them in the comments.