- Part 1: Is freelancing a good career choice for aspiring digital nomads
- Part 2: Freelance business ideas
- Part 3: How to find clients as a freelancer
- Part 4: How to build your freelancing brand
- Part 5: How to price, manage and schedule your work
- Part 6: Going beyond freelancing
Most of the digital nomads I have met are freelancers. There are some really good reasons for this: freelancing is huge, it is easy to enter, and you can do it on your own schedule from almost anywhere in the world.
Freelancing is worth close to $1 trillion dollars in the United States alone, and it is a booming industry. Moreover, it is easier than ever to join! You just need one marketable digital skill, a laptop, and an Internet connection to get started.
But you might have a lot of questions about freelancing:
- Should you become a freelancer?
- How do you find clients?
- How do you build a brand?
- How much do you charge?
- How do you manage freelance work?
The purpose of this guide is to answer all of these questions for you. The guide is split into six extensive parts in which I will provide you with all the knowledge and tips I’ve gathered through my own digital ventures and those of my digital nomad friends.
Let’s dive straight in!
Part 1: Is freelancing a good career choice for aspiring digital nomads?
Let’s consider the pros and cons of freelancing for digital nomads.
- Location independence – as long as you can manage your time and communication well, you can do it from anywhere and anytime;
- No boss – your only bosses are your clients now, and you have a lot more independence in how you plan your work;
- No office – forget ties and suits, it is the work that counts and not how you are dressed or what time you wake up;
- More freedom – you can choose the clients and projects you want to work on;
- A chance to work smart, not hard – quite often your pay depends not on the work hours but on how much you can get done;
- Growth potential – the freelancing industry has been growing tremendously and is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon;
- A springboard to other things – freelancing helps you learn new skills and establish connections, which you can use to start other ventures in the future.
- Takes time to build up income – when you are a beginner, projects are hard to come by, and you often need to work for very little money just to build up a portfolio. Therefore, if you want to start freelancing, you might need some savings or a day job that supports you financially and gives you some time off to dedicate to freelancing;
- Uneven distribution of work – freelancers often talk about feast or famine cycles, where sometimes they are overwhelmed by projects, and sometimes have none;
- The income is not passive – freelancing is lots of work, and you need to constantly be putting in work in order to make money. This may make it harder for you to find time to enjoy your travels and otherwise organize your activities;
- Lots of competition – the low entry costs make it difficult to apply for new projects and drive the prices down;
- Requires lots of discipline – as there is no one to set your schedule and to constantly check on you, procrastination may be a real problem. You really need to learn to pace your work well;
- It may be lonely – you are usually working by yourself and rarely have others to consult you or help you;
- It is risky – especially when you are taking on work from new people, you risk running into dishonest or otherwise bad clients;
- It might become bureaucratic – if you expand your freelancing, you will have to do accounting, invoicing, drafting contracts, paying taxes, and so on. All of these tasks require effort, and some of them might not be very pleasant to do.
As you can see, freelancing is not a walk in the park. There are many problems you must be willing to face if you want to proceed.
Perhaps it would help if we know what kind of a freelancing job you could potentially do. Let’s talk about that in the next part!
Part 2: Freelance business ideas
In the first part of this series, we discussed the various advantages and disadvantages of being a freelancer. In this part, we will discuss what kind of a freelancing job you could do.
Our starting assumption is that you not only want to be a freelancer but also a digital nomad. In other words, you need to find some line of work you can do remotely. For that you will need a digital skill.
Your digital skill can be something you know already or something you will learn. Luckily, most computer-related things fall in this category.
If you already have a career, the easiest thing is to look at what your current skills are and see if you can turn them digital. For example, if you are a tax consultant, see if you could advise people on their taxes online. Alternatively, you could look for websites about taxation and offer to write content for them. Not only that, you could help other consultants outsource some of their work to you. The possibilities are many.
If you do not have a marketable skill, however, you will need to learn one. In doing so, you will need to find a decent balance between choosing something you like, but also making sure that it is a skill that people are actually willing to pay money for.
To give you an idea, here are ten things you could do as a freelancer:
- Consult companies on how to implement artificial intelligence (AI) solutions in their business;
- Make online shops for businesses that want to start offering their goods on the Internet;
- Become an online tutor;
- Manage social media pages for small businesses;
- Design logos;
- Write product reviews;
- Edit landscape photos;
- Provide literary editing services;
- Become a college admissions consultant;
- Become a game tester.
Want more ideas?
Moreover, purchase online courses that will give you an even better idea on what you could do as a freelancer. Here’s one Udemy course dedicated to helping you choose a freelancing career.
If you are still having trouble choosing, find other digital nomads and see what they are doing. The first place to start is the digital nomad interviews section on this website. Stephanie is doing design work for female entrepreneurs, Christopher learned web development in three months and became a freelance programmer, and Adomas is managing Facebook Ads.
If you think you have the required skills or are at least willing to develop them – you can jump to the next section where I discuss how you can find freelancing work.
Part 3: Top ten ways to find freelancing clients
In the previous part of this series, we talked about what kind of work you could do as a freelancer. Whichever type of work you choose, one thing is likely to stay constant: the need to find clients. After all, freelancing is just like any other business: if you do not have clients, you do not have a business. Therefore, it is extremely important you learn how to find clients fast.
Luckily, I have some tips prepared to help you with this. Below are my ten best tips in roughly the order I think you should try them.
Some of these tips require you to build up a portfolio and a brand (branding in itself is a massive vehicle for getting clients, and I discuss branding in more detail in the next section). But the vast majority of these tips can be attempted before you have even built a brand for yourself. Let’s go!
1. Use your existing contacts
This tip is often overlooked, and yet a staggering number of successful freelancers I know got their initial work through their friends, family and acquaintances.
For example, if you want to make websites, just ask your friends if they need a website or if they know anyone who does and could put you in touch.
The nice part about this is that if they do not know anyone at the moment, it is likely they will have you in mind when the topic comes up when they are chatting with someone else. Just do not forget to remind them from time to time.
While asking in person works best, consider also sending a message similar to the following to your extended network of friends:
Hey [name], Have I told you I have started freelancing in [insert your field]? Here's my portfolio: [insert link]. I'm now looking for new projects, and I know you have super good connections in [insert friend's location]. I'm wondering if you know anyone who could be interested in hiring me? Thanks a lot! By the way, how do you like my website? I would be very grateful if you could share your opinion!
You can also use this strategy to find people to reach out to. Just think what the profile of your ideal clients would be, and ask your friends if they know any people who fit this profile and could put you in touch.
For example, if you are managing social media content, your clients could be small companies which do not have an active social media presence. Ask your friends if they know anyone who has a small company. Get all the leads, draft a list of these companies, check each one and see if they are on Facebook or Twitter. If not, offer your services to them.
2. Look for opportunities in everyday life
You probably talk to people and engage with companies every day – and you could try to make them your potential clients! This is a good option especially when you are starting out and still need to build up your portfolio.
If you have still not embraced a fully digital nomad lifestyle, first look for physical places you frequent. Imagine you are a graphic designer, and there is a coffee house you always go to work to. Start thinking about how you could help them out.
Could you improve the design of their cups, of example? Does their website need more color? Identify potential problems and offer your help!
Companies are very often willing to listen to their clients, and if you can identify real needs, you can turn them into your own clients.
Here is another tip: be flexible and willing to offer to barter. For example, if you know you spend $20 on coffee every week, offer to redesign their cups for free in exchange for free coffee for a month.
In that case, the business will be much more willing to hire you, you will get some much-needed experience, and you will still be able to save a decent amount of money you would have otherwise spent.
What if you are constantly on the move or do not have businesses you often use. Well, you can still apply this tip online! Do you follow some companies on social media? You do not like their logo and think you could do better? Just message them, say you are a fan and offer your services for a discount – or tell them that they do not pay if they do not like your work.
3. Apply for projects on freelancing websites
Freelancing websites are one of the most common ways to consistently get clients. Therefore, it is definitely worth learning how to use them if you are serious about advancing your freelancing career.
Here are some famous freelancing websites that are worth checking out:
- Upwork – the world’s largest freelancing platform by far. The advantage of Upwork is that it is so big, it includes almost any kind of project you can think of. However, herein lies its disadvantage: because of its size, the website is very competitive, and it is very hard to differentiate yourself from the other freelancers, especially as you are just starting out. It is notable that it also has a branch called Upwork Pro, which involves more experienced freelancers who are pre-screened. There is an entire online course dedicated to client acquisition on Upwork, so maybe you should check it out if you choose to go with this platform.
- PeoplePerHour – another big website for freelancers that has grown quite a bit in the last few years. It has plenty of diverse opportunities for many different kinds of freelance jobs, thus it is worth taking a look at.
- Toptal – an invite-only community with expensive projects (think $1,000 or more). If you are an experienced developer, you may want to try your luck and apply.
- Fiverr – only do this if you have a service that you can easily automate to other people (for example, an analysis of website traffic or shares on social media – things that take time to learn or set up initially, but are easy and quick to repeat afterwards).
In addition to these sites, here are a couple more tips:
- Keep looking for small and new freelancer websites – since freelancing sites are very competitive, and since reviews matter a lot on such sites, early birds get rewarded. Newer sites have fewer people with outstanding profiles, hence it is a lot easier to stand out from your competitors.
- Find sites specific to your niche – you should target your particular industry. An example of such an industry-specific site is 99 designs for graphic designers. The narrower your targeting the better results you can expect.
- Do not forget simple classified ad sites – many less experienced customers do not know about freelancing sites and are more used to posting on websites like Craigslist. You should be constantly scanning these websites for new offers too.
- See digital nomad job boards – those can often have freelance projects and they are made exactly for people with your aspirations. We Work Remotely is a famous one you should check out.
Once you have identified a couple of freelancing sites you want to try out, create a profile on them. Here are the most important things your freelancing site profile should have:
- A link to your portfolio – people will want to know whether you can deliver, and seeing a successful portfolio is a very important signal that you can.
- A short description and slogan that define what you do and helps you stand out. Try to encapsulate your skills and experience in as few words as possible.
- Reviews – you normally need reviews to get projects. If you have no reviews at all, a good tip is to try to get your new customers to offer you new projects through the freelancing site instead of doing so directly so that they can provide you a review of your work afterwards.
Once you have a profile set up, the next step is to keep looking for and applying for projects.
I have put together a handy infographic giving my best experience-based tips for applying for freelance projects:
Apply these tips, and you will save lots of time.
4. Do cold calling
One simple way to try to acquire clients is to personally contact them and ask if they need your services. However, you should be careful not to spam and not to make unsolicited calls. Yet personalized calls offering someone a service that you have good reason to believe they genuinely need might be a good strategy to acquire customers.
You should proceed as follows:
- Make a list of companies or people you would like to work for and get their contact info. You can usually get such info in various public directories or search engines.
- Investigate them and see if they might need your services. For example, if you build websites, carefully investigate the websites of all the companies in your list and note down any that lack websites or have websites with major issues.
- Note down all the relevant information about each company in an easily accessible format and have it ready in advance.
- Call (or otherwise contact) the companies in the list, introduce yourself, point out the results of your research, provide them as much value as you can by suggesting possible improvements to their product, and propose your help.
The most important thing is to remain polite, and not to come across like you are only calling to sell (and, in any event, you should not be).
Cold calling is a skill that takes time to develop, but it can be an effective way to get clients.
5. Establish a web presence for the keywords your potential clients search for
If your expertise is something that people are likely to search for on a search engine, you should try to appear on as many of the relevant search results as possible.
How do you do that? Well, there are many ways. One is paying for ads through Adwords, another one is doing search engine optimization (SEO). I briefly discuss both of these ways below.
However, there is something a lot easier I wanted to mention first: make sure to leave useful comments and answer questions on as many pages that people find when searching your keywords as possible.
This is how you do it:
Rinse and repeat these three steps to get yourself potential free clients!
6. Buy search ads
Just like you can try to appear on pages with relevant search results, you can also buy your way into the search results.
The most common way to do is is to use Adwords. If you use them, your link would appear next to Google searches when people search for the relevant keywords.
You would only pay when people click on your link. The flip side is that you might need to pay quite a lot.
If you want to try this route, you will need to register for Google Adwords. Then use the Keyword Planner Tool and select the keywords you would be bidding for.
For example, if you are interested in becoming a freelance math tutor, you could type in “math tutor online” into the Adwords Keyword Planner Tool and get the following list of keywords you could be bidding for:
Then create a website with a description of your services, and an ability to sign up for them. Buy some ads, lead people to your website and see how many of them convert into customers.
Track your results carefully: see how your keywords are performing, how much you end up spending
You may need to optimize the keywords, ad text, website content, etc. How to do this goes much beyond the scope of this guide, but there are Adwords online courses purporting to teach you exactly how it is done.
In the end, however, you should hopefully be able to crank out a positive return on investment – if you try hard enough, that is.
7. Create relevant content and optimize for search engines
Just like you can buy ads on search engines, you can create content and try to rank for those keywords for free.
There is a whole industry called search engine optimization centered around this specific technique. If you are interested to learn more, you can have a look at this beginner’s guide to SEO. Moreover, you can also have a look at various introductory and more advanced SEO courses available online.
For now, here are some easy ways you can try to create content and rank for it:
- Create a blog and write about topics relevant to your industry – things that your clients are likely to look for.
- Have easy-to-read and useful information.
- Include the relevant keywords you want people to find you by prominently on the page.
- Make sure your pages load fast, are readable and sufficiently long.
- Look for inbound links – try to get other website owners to link to you. You may need to bring your content to their attention through e-mail or social media (but do not spam).
SEO is more of a long-term strategy for establishing yourself in your niche. If you are in for the long term, SEO is worth doing. However, I would recommend that you do not rely on SEO in the beginning and look for other strategies for getting clients.
8. Build partnerships with freelancers and businesses providing complementary services
Another important tip is to become friends with other freelancers in related industries so that you can recommend each other for relevant jobs.
Think of what related services your clients might need and befriend the people providing those services.
For example, if you do front-end design, your clients are likely to need to do back-end development as well. Thus see if there are communities of back-end developers you could join or related events you could go to.
Introduce yourself, give them your contacts and say you are open to working on new projects. An important tip for this to work is to reciprocate: whenever possible, and as long as you can be sure they can do a good work, send your clients their way.
Relationships like this take a bit of time to build. But once you establish them, you have free marketing!
9. Leverage existing clients
Once you get your first happy clients, make sure to keep them. Moreover, encourage them to recommend them to your friends and business associates.
You can do this in a number of ways:
- Make sure your existing clients know you are free to do more work and actively looking for clients;
- Offer discounts to your clients if they recommend you to their friends;
- Ask your customers for feedback and insight into their industry – even if they do not have someone to recommend you to right away, they might provide you ideas how you can get more clients.
- Think about client retention – give your clients perks and incentivize them to come back to you for more projects or improvements to existing projects.
10. Go where your clients go
My final tip is to network with your potential clients.
You need to find out who such clients are. One good way how you can do this is by looking at other successful freelancers in your field and seeing their clients’ list (you can usually find this information on their portfolio page).
Then see what kind of online forums, conferences, and events they go to. One can usually find this information on their websites or Facebook profiles.
Once you know, set up and maintain an active profile on the same websites, go to the same conferences and events, and otherwise try to make yourself known to them.
Doing this will probably not produce results right away, but it should ensure you get a steady stream of clients in the longer term.
Talking about the longer term, another thing becomes crucially important too – branding. And it is branding that I turn to in the next section.
Part 4: How to build your freelancing brand
We talked about finding clients in the previous section. However, one of the best ways to acquire clients in the long term is to build a brand around what you are doing. This topic is so important we have dedicated this entire part of the series to discussing it.
To cut to the chase: all of your branding should convey qualities that can help you get hired. I have prepared a small graphic to demonstrate what the most important things clients are usually looking for in freelancers are.
Here are some concrete things you will need for branding.
Portfolio. For most industries, you should create a portfolio which you can then send to clients. When you start out, you do not necessarily need a website for your portfolio. You can just create a portfolio on some specialized social network (for example, if you are a graphic designer, check out Behance). You can even create a document with descriptions of and links to projects that you have worked on that you would send to prospective clients.
If you are only starting out and do not have many projects, anything you have to show is good. Here are some possibilities:
- Relevant certifications;
- References from people you have helped;
- Links to and screenshots from personal projects – personal projects are often important because they allow people to assess your skills much better than if you are just a small part of a big team;
- Links to projects you have contributed to, even if you did not make them yourself.
Website. I suggest that you do not bother with building a full website until you already have some clients. When you do get around to doing it, make it simple: a simple static landing page or a blog should do!
Here are the things your website should include:
- A short description of your service – try to be as concise as possible;
- Your unique selling proposition – name what you are particularly good at and how you are different from your competition. If you do not have much experience, you could also just rely on some personal qualities instead (for example, you can say your goal is always making deadlines or that you are a precise communicator, etc);
- A list of your skills and education related to those skills;
- References from clients;
- Your full portfolio;
- Information about pricing – this is applicable if you do a service with standard pricing (for example, if you teach and have hourly rates);
- Your contact details.
You should also gradually start creating relevant content and publishing it on your website. When you start creating content, you should be sharing it on social media – which is another important aspect of branding that I want to talk about.
Social media and online communities. You should establish social media accounts and share unique and relevant information related to each particular network.
Here are the most important social media networks you should consider participating in:
- Facebook – use Facebook to share your own original content. Remember that Facebook likes content that is fun or novel, and try to cater to your audience.
- Twitter – apart from just sharing your content, try to engage. Look for prospective clients and follow them, sometimes commenting on their updates if you have something to contribute. Always look for questions closely related to your niche (Twitter search is great for that!) and answer them.
- Quora – Quora is a site where anyone can ask and answer a question. It has a lot of high-quality answers, which sometimes get millions of views. You should sign up for Quora and look for questions related to your field. Where relevant, you can sometimes even include a short description of your service and occasionally even a link to your own website with the answers.
- Networks specific to your niche – there are many specialized social networks in each niche. For example, if you are a graphic designer, you should be on Behance, and Dribble. If you are a programmer, check out Stack Overflow and Hacker News. To find others, google “social networks for [your niche]” and join them, gradually growing your profile and improving your branding.
Of course, branding is a much broader topic than what we discussed here. You could check out some online courses about branding if you are interested in the topic. Here is one branding course on Udemy that has tons of good reviews.
If your branding works, you will start getting more and more clients. Then you may run into problems related to pricing, project management and dealing with clients. It is those things that I would like to discuss next.
Part 5: How to price, manage and schedule your work
Once you finally start getting clients, and perhaps even building a brand, like we discussed in the two previous parts of the series, there are practical issues you suddenly need to solve. Things like how much to charge, or how best to communicate with clients. This short section attempts to give you insight into these things.
How to price your work?
Many different pricing strategies exist. One strategy that is sustainable long term is to find out what your hourly rate is and use it as a signpost for pricing different projects. I have three tips for setting your hourly rate.
First, find out how much other freelancers are charging for similar services. If you have any freelance friends, ask them what the usual rates are. Also look for open accepted bids on freelance sites. Use those rates to set a baseline, but take your skills and experience into account. Also have in mind, that you may need to have somewhat lower prices for the first clients just to get into the business.
Second, calculate your break-even rate and never go below it for any longer period of time. Your break-even rate includes everything you need to survive as a digital nomad: accommodation costs, travel costs, tax, health, food, insurance, utilities. You absolutely must cover your costs, so make sure your hourly rates are never below them. Also remember, that clients will pay you what the service is worth, not what the service costs to you, therefore I would advise not to use these rates for anything other than setting the lower price boundary.
Third, increase your rates accordingly to take unbillable time into account. You will always lose some hours for administration of projects, invoicing, communication with clients and other daily tasks. Do not forget this and take it into account when pricing.
When it comes to negotiation, this tip is a bit culture-specific: if your clients come from cultures where negotiating is the norm, then you will, of course, have to adapt and raise your prices somewhat so you can negotiate them down. Otherwise, giving a price that is close to what you expect to get paid might save both you and your client time.
Finally, remember to increase prices with time as you get better and get more clients. A good rule of thumb that another freelancer has: if you are booked for more than two months in advance, that probably means it is a good time to increase your rates.
How to communicate with clients?
When you are starting out, I recommend having two or three basic communication channels you check often and using whichever one your client prefers.
If you are working on the project alone, e-mail might be a good enough option. For bigger teams, I recommend Slack. Slack is a communication tool that allows you to create many different channels for different parts of the project (for example, channels for discussing design, code, content, etc.), and to structure your communication in terms of these channels.
If you do Skype talks, my biggest tip is to schedule them and to dedicate a clearly defined amount of time to them. Remember that it is often time that you will not be able to bill (or at least not bill fully), thus you need to be really efficient in your voice conversations.
Here is one of my biggest tips: always have the most important things in writing! Even if you do voice chatting, always write up an overview of the most important things discussed and send it to your client for approval. You can avoid a lot of problems in the future if you have everything in writing.
How to manage work
When managing work, always try to make sure what the client’s deadline is. You should assess whether you can reasonably make the deadline, and also take Hofstadter’s law into account.
Be upfront with your clients about your ability to make deadlines, and it is good to ask for extensions well in advance if you see you may not be able to make one.
Do not hesitate to turn down work if you know you will not be able to make it before the deadline – your reputation as someone who delivers is extremely important, and it is better not to risk it for one extra project.
Once you get to work, you should track all of your working hours. This is useful not only because you can show your progress to the client if necessary, but also because you can later analyze your work patterns yourself.
For time tracking, I recommend an app called Toggl – it is free to download, works on most platforms and does a great job helping you measure all of your working hours and providing helpful reports afterwards.
For TODO management, you should check out Trello. Trello is another very popular tool that allows you to create boards and TODO items, and to easily move those TODO items from one board to another. It also allows you to structure those TODO items in lists, and to set deadlines for them. it is very useful for bigger projects.
The tips provided above can be useful to you regardless of whether you stick to freelancing or you grow beyond freelancing and start doing other things too. But what other things? Let’s discuss that briefly in the last section.
Part 6: Going beyond freelancing
So far, this guide has been intended for beginner freelancers. As a result, I will not go into much detail about how you can progress beyond full-time freelancing. Yet it is important to have some perspective about what may be awaiting you and how you can transition into other things. Therefore, we will touch upon this topic now.
Once you start growing and getting more clients, there are two main ways you can grow your existing freelancing business: raising prices or hiring people to help you so that you can take on more work. Your ability to raise prices is dependent on your industry. However, most industries have an upper bound, which it will be very hard for you to go above.
Hiring staff to help you may be a much better option. Yet for that you will need people management skills, which are very different from what you needed in your official freelancing career. If this is a path you want to go, my advice is to start developing these skills early, and also looking for people you can potentially hire later. Networks tend to take time to build up, thus the earlier you start, the better.
However, there is another way you can grow – transition into things other than freelancing. While freelancing, you will certainly be acquiring new skills and partnerships, and you should be thinking about how you can turn those into products.
For example, are you a good copywriter? Start writing informational products with some of your best tips on copywriting and selling them online. Are you a WordPress designer? Think of ways you could maybe use the skills you have developed to make your own WordPress themes and sell them online.
As you progress, you should start spotting more and more opportunities – try to find some time and jump at them. Do you know that policy where Google allows their employees to spend 20% of their time on side projects? If you can afford to, you should also consider adopting a similar policy for your freelancing work.
Freelancing is a long journey. However, if you do it right, it can not only sustain your digital nomad lifestyle but also serve as a springboard into many new and exciting ventures.