Find your first gig and get paid as a freelancer

A solo freelancer is part sales person, part therapist, part project manager, and part whatever it is you actually do.

A solo freelancer is part sales person, part therapist, part project manager, and part whatever it is you actually do. It's a rare breed that can balance it all.
I've been a freelancer for the last four years, working on hard problems for startups while traveling around the world as a digital nomad.
It's not always easy, actually it's pretty darn hard.
These are my hard-won lessons for anyone who’s freelancing now, or planning to start.
Let me make you a healthier, wealthier, and happier 👇

How to find your first gig as a freelancer

Finding consistent work at the beginning is one of the hardest parts for someone just starting out on this path.
Almost all successful freelancers I’ve met don’t rely on platforms like Upwork to find gigs. In fact, they actively avoid them.
If you want to control your future you need to source your own deals directly. Luckily, that’s easier then it sounds (it just takes patience).

Ways I've gotten gigs as a freelancer:

  • Hire by a friend
  • Friend referral
  • Freelancer group-chat
  • Posted in Hacker News "Seeking Freelancer" thread
  • Volunteered at a conference

Kickstarting word of mouth opportunities for yourself:

1. Make friends with other freelancers.

Freelancers trade gigs constantly, and by making friends with other freelancers you set yourself up to take on their overflow.
So, b outgoing, reach out to freelancers on Twitter or LinkedIn, ask for advice.
It may take some time to build up trust, but before you know it your network will become a powerful source of leads.

2. Build a portfolio.

The portfolio is a freelancers CV, resume, and landing page.
It can be a pdf, it can be a website, it can be a text file you copy and paste into an email.
The important thing is that you’re gathering evidence, artifacts, of your previous work.
The examples you provide will not only prove your competence to a potential client, but it will also help inform them what it is you do exactly and may inspire them to hire you for something they didn’t even know they needed help with.
If you don’t have a portfolio, then you need to start building one now.
Do work for free. Create projects for your own use. Create evidence of your abilities.

3. Send DM's, but don't spam.

Reach out to people you can learn from and people who might need your help, but don’t launch right into a salespitch.
No one likes to be hard-sold with no warmup. No one likes to receive bland spam.
Enter conversations with a legitimate desire to make friends and learn new things with no immediate expectation of a return.
Ask about them and their goals.
Don’t worry, polite people will soon turn the conversation around and ask about what your goals are too.
Now you can talk about looking for work and even offer up your services without being dismissed off-hand.

4. Deliver value for free. Be a good listener.

Everyone loves to talk about themselves, but rarely do they get the opportunity.
Be that friendly ear. Offer your advice and feedback.
You’ll be surprised how quickly people warm to you if you just take a genuine interest in what they’re interested in.
When you give value up front without an expectation of return you create ally’s who will think of you first when they have a problem you can solve for them.
That’s how friends become clients.

5. Tell your friends what you do & that you're looking for gigs.

Your friends and family love you. They also might have other friends to connect you with from their work or social life.
Many freelancers make the mistake of toiling in secret.
Once you have a portfolio and you’re ready for gigs you should make sure that everyone knows about it.
Post on all your socials. Tell your friends and family that you’re setting off on this new adventure.
They’ll be excited for you and on the lookout for opportunities on your behalf.

6. Eventually word of mouth takes over.

It may take days, weeks, or even a couple months, but if you’ve done all of the above sincerely, you will soon find yourself receiving opportunities.
“My friend is working on…” “At work we need help with…” “We’re looking for someone too…”
Those words are your currency.
Now it’s time to scope a project. Now it’s time to negotiate.

How much should you charge?

Whatever the number you have in your head is, multiply it by 1.5
Before you get on the call, remind yourself what the value is that you're providing for the client. Quantify it.
If the client objects to your number, walk them through the value you will be providing them.
Always talk numbers on the phone, not through email.
It's harder to say no on the phone, easy to haggle via email or drag your feet on a decision. On the phone you can talk through any concerns about price immediately and hopefully avoid days of wasted back and froth.
Negotiate on scope, not $$$s.
e.g. If this amount is too much for you, we can remove deliverable X in order to get it within your budget.
Any negotiation will go better the more levers you have available to pull. Price should be just one lever and not the first one you use to close a deal.
Always take an upfront deposit as a condition to starting work. This should be 1/3rd to 1/2 of the total.
It only gets easier with practice. Make sure that YOU understand the value you're bringing to the table.
It can help a lot to write out possible objections and answer them before hand. If you draw a blank on the call you can refer back to your cheat sheet.
Practice with a friend, have them role play as the client.
As you encounter new objections, you'll improve your pitch and product.

Define deliverables diligently

Make sure that the deliverable is clearly defined, both on the call and in the contract that you sign.
Think clearly through what you're promising. Don't promise anything that requires someone else's effort to fully realize.
e.g. Don't promise 50% improvement on a metric based on your advice unless you'll also be the one implementing your advice.
Does your deliverable need to be integrated into their existing systems?
Make sure it's clearly defined who will be doing that implementation.
Is the project done when you finish your work? Or done once it's been integrated?

Know when to walk

Be willing to walk away from deals that don't pay well, aren't a good fit, or that you wouldn't be able to do great work on.
Choosing the right gigs and clients will make your life much nicer.
The deals you walk away from might be perfect for someone else. Share the ones you passed on with your friends or in groups like @indie_worldwide to build good will.
It might take a few tries to figure out the kind of gigs you want. That's normal and OK. It's a learning process.
If you're a consultant, you must be willing to walk away from deals that don't pay well, aren't a good fit, or that you wouldn't be able to do great work on.
Choosing the right gigs and clients will make your life 1000% better.

Be great at what you do and picky about who you do it with

Always do your best work and leave your clients in a better spot than you found them.
No matter what service you provide, half your job is just to be a great listener.
Really understand what your client needs, they might not know it themselves at the start, they might need you to help them figure it out.
Make them feel heard.
Ask probing questions. Understand how their business works. Figure out their pain points.
If you hear them say "that's right", you're on the right track.
Present your solution. If you aren't the right person to solve their problem, tell them so. Now you have a friend for life.
Include a clause in your contract that makes it easy to "fire" your client if need be.
e.g. You can drop them by returning part of the deposit, they can drop you for a % of final payment.

You got this

A solo freelancer is part sales person, part therapist, part project manager, and part whatever it is you actually do.
It's a rare breed that can balance it all. If this sounds like a headache, you might want to look for a full time job or work with an agency instead.
And if that sounds exciting to you and you can do it all, then freelance is likely just a stepping stone towards building your own startup or agency.
Good luck to you out there my unicorns 🦄🌈

Thanks for reading 👋🏻
I’m also tweeting at @AnthonyCastrio and running a community for bootstrapped founders at Indie Worldwide where I make curated introductions between founders based on their revenue and goals.
See you there,
Anthony