5 Steps to Become a Successful Freelancer

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When I graduated from college with a degree in Anthropology many moons ago, my career options felt limited. I could get a job in corporate America, accept another unpaid internship, or submit to the grind of retail. You only picked up gigs or freelanced if you couldn’t find a “real job.”  

These days, pursuing freelancing as a full-time profession is a strong choice. It could also serve as a stepping-stone for starting your own business. And, with the global COVID-19 pandemic impacting the job market—pushing the national unemployment rate to a record-high 14.7% at its peak in April—and moving workspaces to the virtual sphere, many people have turned to freelancing either out of necessity or due to the flexibility that it offers. 

Interested in becoming a successful freelancer? This article will go over the steps you can take to do just that. Read from start to finish to review the best pieces of advice I can offer, or skip to a particular section by clicking on one of the links below:

How to Freelance and Make Money

One of the biggest misconceptions about freelancing is that it isn’t profitable or a viable full-time career. However, this simply isn’t true. According to Upwork’s 2020 Freelance Forward report, approximately 59 million Americans did some kind of freelance work in 2020. While many of those workers freelance part-time and either maintain a day job or make a living from other sources of income, 32% of them freelance full-time, meaning they don’t have a traditional employer and earn their income on a project-to-project basis. 

Freelancing can also be a liberating endeavor. When working for an employer, it can feel as if you have no ownership over your work, like it’s something that belongs to someone else. When you freelance, on the other hand, you’ll likely feel more of a connection to the work you do and more pride in the results it yields. 

Additionally, you generally get to choose the projects you want to work on and the people you work with while using the tools and methods best suited to your skillset. Not to mention, you get to set your own rates! 

With regard to rates, in some cases, freelancing work can actually pay quite well. The median annual rate among skilled freelancers this year was $25 per hour—over three times the national minimum wage—and some freelancers can even manage to pull in six-figure salaries. 

As you can see, going the freelancing route offers all sorts of exciting benefits. You often have an increased amount of flexibility with regard to when and how you work. However, making a living as a freelancer often isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work and time to establish yourself as a freelancer and build a client base. 

So, how can you start earning money from freelancing? Here are some steps you can take to start landing projects and making money from freelancing: 

#1: Join a Freelancing Platform  

If you’re just getting into freelancing without any prior experience, then get ready for a grind. The first step in that grind is finding clients who have work for you. And one of the easiest and most convenient places to find work is on a freelancing platform. 

When you join a freelancing platform as a beginner, it’s best to start off with cheap projects so that you can build a reputation on the site. With the swath of existing platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr, the barrier to entry is low. It costs nothing to join. Just set up a profile, and you’re ready to go. You can also create a free portfolio that showcases your work and offers your services on Behance, Contently, and Working Not Working. By creating a profile and scouring a platform for available gigs, you’ll also begin to learn the basics of marketing yourself and offering your services.

The downside: Because there are quite a few freelancers on the platform, don’t expect to get paid a competitive rate—not at first, anyway. You’ll most likely need to start off on a few cheap projects to build a reputation on the site, says Lintao.  

Best freelance websites for beginners 

  • Upwork: Perhaps the most popular freelancing website, Upwork allows people to post jobs, and then you, as a freelancer, can submit proposals for the ones you’re most interested in. It can be competitive—as opposed to beginners, experienced freelancers can earn more money on this site. 
  • Freelancer.com: A straightforward website for all kinds of freelancers. Companies post projects they need to be completed, and freelancers bid for the work. 
  • Fiverr: On Fiverr, freelancers post their services, or gigs, for a price of $5 or more. If buyers are interested in your services, they’ll purchase them at the price posted. This website is generally used for quick and cheap projects and can be an excellent resource for a budding freelancer working on building a portfolio. 

#2: Tap Into Your Network 

Is there anyone in your life that could benefit from your skills or the services you offer? If so, you might be able to land some projects just by reaching out to them. Your personal network is your strongest asset—this includes friends, family, and any professional contacts you may have. If you’d like to get your feet wet in freelancing as a creative, hit up friends who own businesses or are building their personal brand.

Or maybe a company you did a summer internship with could put your creative chops to use. It doesn’t hurt to see if they could use some help with, say, crafting copy for their site or designing a logo.

That’s how I got started freelancing. My first gigs, which were copyediting art magazines and novels, came through friends. While these gigs weren’t enough for me to leave my day job, I learned a lot about positioning myself as someone who had valuable skills to offer.

These small jobs also gave me opportunities to develop the negotiation skills that served me well as my career grew. And as I waded through numerous freelancing gigs, I learned what kind of work I was best at, and what I ultimately wanted to do more of.  

#3: Reach Out Directly to Brands

Is there a company you want to work with? Try reaching out directly to brands that you know and love. It certainly takes guts, but you might be pleased with the results.

For example, you could try cold-pitching an article to an online magazine that you read on a regular basis. Since you’re a regular reader and presumably a legitimate fan of their work, you’ll already be familiar with the publication’s tone, style, and tastes. Generally, companies will be more inclined to hire individuals who demonstrate an understanding and enthusiasm for what they do. 

#4: Attend a Professional Event

My first paid gig as a personal finance writer was from a connection I made at a conference for personal finance content creators. During the freelancer’s marketplace, the VP of talent for a large content platform and I hit it off. I had no clue how content platforms worked, and my only personal finance writing samples at the time were through my blog. But since he liked the content and my writing style, I was placed on an editorial team.

Check out professional mixers, free coworking days, and meetups. A few of my favorite places to meet fellow solopreneurs are the Freelancers Union monthly SPARK events, and the breakfast lecture series Creative Mornings. Yup, both are free to attend.  

As a full-time solopreneur, I run the risk of being biased when I say that freelancing is pretty awesome. And that’s in large part because you don’t have to follow a traditional route. You can focus on just a few things that you love and are interested in, and build a career out of it. 

The worst thing you can do as an aspiring freelancer is simply not trying. After all, what do you have to lose? Crafting some proposals, reaching out to potential clients, and honing your skills can’t hurt. It’s all about putting yourself out there.  

#5: Learn From the Best

Whether you’re a beginner in your field or an expert, it’s essential that you always remain a student. Never stop making an effort to learn more about ways to improve your craft, market yourself, and expand your client base. Sharpen your skills by collaborating with colleagues, taking free online courses and workshops, or completing professional certifications that can give you a competitive advantage in your field. On the business end, research budgeting tips for freelancers and explore different ways to cut freelance business costs

As Albert Einstein once said: “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” And this sentiment holds true whether you’re a theoretical physicist or a graphic designer. The main point is that there’s always more you can learn, and there are always ways you can better yourself!


While it may not be easy to become a full-time freelancer, think about what you get in the end: flexibility in how you work, when you work, and who you work with. For many people, freelancing and working for themselves is a dream opportunity. 

With that being said, there’s nothing wrong with freelancing as a side hustle. It can be a great way to supplement your income and, after getting some experience under your belt, maybe you can eventually shift to full-time if you choose to. Just keep these tips in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to freelancing success!

Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

Jackie Lam
Jackie Lam

Written by Jackie Lam

Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs heyfreelancer.com, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers. More from Jackie Lam