21 freelancing tips for first-time freelancers

Xolo
Written by Xolo
on August 30, 2019

When we published the original version of this article, freelancing was already on the rise. But since then, there's been a global pandemic, the rise of remote work, and a great resignation. All of these forces have contributed to making it crystal clear that freelancing is the future. 

If you — for any and every reason — have decided that you want to start freelancing work, then this article is for you. But this isn't your usual article about tips for first-time freelancers. Here at Xolo, we've helped people quit their jobs and launch their freelance careers since 2015. So we know better than most that freelancing isn't as easy as industry influencers would have you believe. We're here to share the good, the bad, and the awkward when it comes to freelancing for beginners. But we're also going to give you our best tips to succeed as a freelancer — straight from real, successful freelancers who can still remember what it was like to be where you are right now. Here are the freelancing tips we wish we had when we were first-time freelancers!

1. Don't quit your day job (yet)

We've all had that recurring fantasy about quitting our job. You know, the one where your boss makes another ridiculous request and you decide it's the perfect opportunity to tell them how you really feel, before you storm out as your coworkers look on with something between admiration and jealousy...

... and in this fantasy, we always gracefully swan-dive into a lucrative solo career as a freelancer where we have a roster full of adoring clients who all pay on time. But this smooth slide into freelancing is rarely the case. Freelance writer Emma wanted desperately to leave her job working full-time at a non-profit to travel the world and be her own boss. But she learned the hard way that you'll want to have a minimum of three to six months of living expenses (rent, bills, food) saved to hold you over until you find your roster of regular clients. We suggest first-time freelancers do the same before you dramatically walk out on your boss for the final time.  

2. Start freelancing work with an open mind

The vast majority of the freelancing tips for beginners articles that you'll read will tell you that you should find your niche right from the start. That means that you should know exactly what kind of clients you're targeting, and what type of services you're going to offer them, right from the start of your freelance career. 

This is great advice for freelancers in general. By niching down into a specific category, you'll be able to charge a lot more than you can as a freelancer who offers a little bit of everything to everyone. But veteran freelancers caution that there's no better way to find out what you like (and more importantly — what you don't like) than by experimenting with different industries and niches while you're still relatively new to the freelancing game.

For example, as a new copywriter who ultimately wants to specialize in writing nurture sequences for eco-friendly beauty and wellness brands, don't be afraid to write a few landing pages for SAAS startups to build up your portfolio and flex your skill-muscles in new and different ways. 

3. Start looking for clients by using freelance platforms

Freelancing platforms are always marketed as magical places for new freelancers to go when they're trying to figure out how to find freelancing jobs. But we're here to give you our unvarnished opinion. Freelancing platforms can be a great place to go to find work, especially when you're brand new. But freelancing platforms can also be where (ok, we're just going to say it)... cheap companies go to exploit the time and talent of inexperienced freelancers. Our writer Jasper, who has spent her share of time on many of the most popular freelancer platforms, writes about this detail in her article New freelancers: 5 things to know before joining a freelancer platform

But don't let these warnings dissuade you from giving freelancer platforms a try! Just remember to do your homework on pricing and project scope so you don't get ripped off, be firm with boundaries, and trust your intuition. Many successful freelancers cut their teeth on freelancer platforms, so why can't you? 

Related: Xolo's Ultimate List of Freelancing Platforms

4. Build confidence with potential clients by creating a portfolio

If you're a new freelancer, clients are going to want to see what you bring to the table before they decide to take a chance on you. We've seen many freelancers get overwhelmed by this step. They feel that right from the start, they need to have a world-class website full of award-winning work to show to prospective clients. 

Not true. Clients just need to do their due diligence to confirm that you can do the job they're hiring you to do. In the beginning, this can mean nothing more than a simple Google Drive folder (just make sure it's well-organized and neatly formatted). There will be plenty of time to create that world-class website on Wix or Squarespace down the road. By this time, you'll have enough cash flow so you can hire someone to build a state-of-the-art portfolio website just for you! 

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5. No work to show? Prove what you can do with a 'spec' projects

Another tip on showcasing your work as a first-time freelancer. No one said it has to be a real, paid project. New creatives hoping to land their big break working at a fancy ad agency have long made "spec ad campaigns" or "speculative ad campaigns" where they conjure up an imaginary brief for a project to showcase the skills no one has paid them for yet.

There's nothing to stop you from doing the same. Just be sure to be up-front with the client by letting them know, "This is some spec work that I created to give you a better idea of what I can do."

6. Find the right prices for your freelance services

Here's another subject that can instantly overwhelm new freelancers. You don't want to scare off the client by charging too much, but you also want to be fairly compensated for your work. It's extremely difficult to find this elusive break-even point between undercharging and overcharging — especially when you've never done the work before. 

So here's one of our best tips for first-time freelancers: when you're first starting out, agree to an hourly rate that you and the client both feel is fair. From there, meticulously track the time you spend on each stage of the project with tools like Toggl. Before long, you'll have a better idea of how much time a project takes and you'll have the data to back it up, should you choose to adopt a project-based pricing structure in the future. That will help you feel much more confident when creating project proposals for prospective clients. 

7. Learn how to negotiate like a pro as a freelancer

Negotiating as a freelancer is both an art and a science. While there are some clients who will accept your proposal no questions asked, there are others that will be looking for a discount through any means necessary (begging, threatening, and stealing AKA refusing to pay).

For this reason, it's important to do your research. Freelancer communities can be your best friend when it comes to figuring out rates in your industry/niche (more on that later). It's also important to conduct yourself like the confident, competent professional that you are from the very beginning of the interaction to prove that you're worth every penny.

Freelance writer Blessing has a clever suggestion when it comes to negotiating with clients, but you'll have to go read her post, 5 tips for negotiating freelance rates with a new client, to find out what it is. 😉

One last comment on negotiating: no matter how many pep talks and power poses you do beforehand, it's going to feel superrrrr awkward the first few times. But from there, it gets a lot easier, we promise! 

8. Create a world-class client onboarding experience

As a freelancer, you'll soon learn that each client has their own style when it comes to collaborating on projects. Just like ballroom dancing, there are certain partners that will immediately take the lead, while others will want you to take the lead. We have first-hand experience with how tempting it can be, as a first-time freelancer, to let the client take the lead from start of the project. Less opportunity for them to see how inexperienced you are, right? 

Actually, wrong. There are a lot of great reasons to have a bullet-proof client onboarding process: it eliminates unnecessary back and forth, reduces scope creep (aka the client expecting you to do more than initially agreed), and work more efficiently. With an onboarding process, you immediately establish that you're a professional who knows what they're doing. This will also help you reduce client churn and even get more referrals! (More on referrals later.) 

Most experienced freelancers swear by having a well-thought-out onboarding process, and lucky for you, long-time freelancer Sofie has written the ultimate guide to onboarding a new client with her step-by-step guide. 

9. Make sure you're legally compliant

When it comes to mistakes new freelancers make, this one's a big one. Even though you're just one person, you're still operating a business by offering your services in exchange for payment. As you grow into your new role as a freelancer/solopreneur, you'll want to do some research about what type of legislative options there are for you to structure your business with. Each country will have its own laws, which can result in stiff penalties if you don't comply, so it's best to consult a local professional to learn more about your options. 

Having a registered company isn't just to avoid fines from your local tax authorities. By having a registered company you're often subject to a different (lower) tax rate, you'll be able to optimize your tax bill by expensing business purchases (like that expensive new Macbook or that flashy new website we just talked about). Having a registered company can help give your freelancer contracts more teeth legislatively, should a client decide to stiff you (more on that next). 

How Xolo Go can help you invoice like a company

If this all sounds incredibly overwhelming, know that you're not alone. Our Xolo Go product is a favorite for freelancers (new and not-so-new) who want to legally invoice clients in the EU, USA and Canada without registering a company. Everyone's favorite feature when it comes to Xolo Go is the fact it only take 10 minutes to sign up and send your first invoice.

... But a close second is the fact that you use Xolo's unique partnership structure to borrow a "slice" or our legal entity to send clients VAT-compliant invoices in a click (we do all the math for you). You'll also get your very own complimentary business bank account to receive payments, reimburse business expenses, transfer money to your personal bank account, and more. When tax time comes, you can download a withdrawal report to send to your accountant.

the freelancer's favorite pay-as-you-go invoicing tool

10. Yes, you need a freelancer contract

Freelancer contracts are another thing that can cause anxiety for even the most pragmatic freelancer. It's another one of the most common mistakes new freelancers make — thinking they can just skip the contract and pray that everything turns out ok. We're here to tell you that there are all kinds of ways for things to go wrong when there's a partnership without a contract: everything from scope creep to your client ghosting you when they get the bill. And without a contract, it's basically impossible to do anything about it. 

Luckily, it's not nearly as scary as you think. Even Google Docs has a very basic Freelancer Contract template in their template library. But we would be remiss if we didn't mention that our very own Xolo Go has a very basic Terms of Service template (that your client will be required to agree to) and a Project Tool so you can easily get all parties on the same page before you proceed. And if the client does end up trying to stiff you, you'll have more options when it comes to recovering the money you're owed.  

11. Set yourself up for success as a new freelancer by getting organized

Many people assume that freelancers sleep until noon, do a few hours of work, and call it a day by the time cocktail hour rolls around. Sure, you can totally get to that point as an established freelancer. But it's not possible to start out with this lack of structure and expect to make enough of an income to live on when you're first starting out. 

Don't use this lack of structure as an excuse to adopt bad habits in the beginning. Treat freelancing as you would any other job. Have a set time you open and close your laptop every day. Set goals. Create a framework that works for you (a lot of freelancers, including our writer Jorge, swear by the Pomodoro method). It's easy to think you're being productive when you spend the entire day passively engaging with the content in your LinkedIn feed. Be honest with what is actually creating value (bringing in clients and/or making you money) and where you're just procrastinating.

Jorge (mentioned above) is both a seasoned freelancer and a digital nomad. He found himself struggling to keep himself motivated while working remotely in Asia (can't say we blame him). He wrote this article about how to use product management best practices in order to run your freelance business like a freelance machine and also this one about productivity tips and techniques for solopreneurs. If you struggle to stay on task as a new freelancer, these articles are a must-read. 

12. Automate and outsource with the right tools

As a freelancer, you'll soon learn that your to-do list will always be longer than the amount of hours in a day. As a business owner, one of the most important things you can do is pinpoint what activities are creating the most value for your business, and which ones you should outsource.

Take invoicing, for example. You'd think freelancers would love creating invoices because you're about to get paid, right? But as it turns out, the vast majority of freelancers struggle with these dull, repetitive tasks — which is why they should be the first ones on your list to automate or outsource (and Xolo would be more than happy to help you with 😉). 

Related: How to optimize/outsource freelancer invoicing awfulness

Keep in mind that in any and every freelancer forum, there will be freelancers that swear by a certain app or platform. But it's important to find the right one for you. Every freelancer is different, and it takes some IRL experimenting to learn which ones are your tech tool soulmates.  

Related: 7 best online tools for scaling your business as a freelancer 

13. Show your freelancer finances who's boss

Would you believe it if we told you that even financial professionals struggle with finances when they become freelancers? Before she became a digital nomad, Xolo writer Thilini worked in the finance industry in both Australia and her native Sri Lanka. But she learned from experience how awful life can be when you don't manage your finances. Lucky for the rest of us, she has created a definitive guide about managing your financials as a freelancer: how to create a budget and stay consistent, how to track your income and expenses, and more.

You can read it here: How to show your freelancer financials who's boss

14. Join an online freelancer community

One of the mistakes we see new freelancers make is not reaching out to fellow freelancers in their industry. While it can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing them as competition, or being hesitant to engage because it triggers your imposter syndrome, the fact is that these people are your people. No one else will be able to understand the highs and lows of freelancing like your fellow solos. Which is why we, your friends at Xolo created a Freelance Xchange group as a safe space to crowdsource how much you should charge for a project, share pro tips, or vent about nightmare clients. So don’t be afraid to reach out and engage — you may have chosen a solo career, but there’s still strength in numbers!

And while the community aspect is invaluable in itself, it's super common for freelancers to share jobs that they're either too busy to take on or not right for. And as a member of the community, you'll be in a great position to leap on these juicy opportunities!

Read more about why a great freelancer community is essential

15. Never stop upskilling as a freelancer

No matter how confident you are in your skills, the reality is that way the world works is evolving at lightning speed —  with a 0% chance of slowing down anytime soon. What does it mean? It means that taking a single Hubspot course (sorry, Hubspot, we love you!) about Introduction to SEO back in the Spring of 2010 (or 2019, for that matter) isn't gonna cut it by today's standards. Especially if you're claiming to be an SEO expert.

By choosing to earn a living as a freelancer in today's competitive landscape, you're committing to life as a forever student of your chosen craft. And while courses can be a great way of staying up-to-date, it comes down to retaining your sense of curiosity.

Commit to reading just one article a day and watch how quickly you pick up the "industry lingo." Listen to podcasts. Watch tutorials on YouTube. Attend webinars. Follow other industry professionals on their chosen medium and keep an eye on what they're up to. Join a community, as suggested above. As long as you remain engaged in your craft, remaining on the cutting edge becomes a lot easier. 

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16. Learn the subtle art of client pitching

Yet another mistake we always see new freelancers make (we were totally this freelancer) is setting up a website, printing out some expensive business cards... and then assuming the leads will come rolling in from there. We so wish it was that simple. 

To keep a healthy amount of leads on deck so you can pay the bills every month, it's imperative that freelancers spend a lot of time learning how to pitch clients. This could be as easy as emailing a local business you admire (that might as well have tumbleweeds rolling around on their Facebook page) — and asking if they would like some help with their social media strategy. Send them a proposal that will get them the volume of leads they need in order to retire early and fix up that Tuscan villa they've been dreaming about. (Remember, don't just talk about the features, but how your freelancing services will benefit them.) 

In the beginning, you'll get a lot of no's. But keep refining your approach and it won't take long for you to hear more yes's. Before long, you'll be able to stop pitching altogether because you'll have clients booked 9 months in advance. 

Related: How to easily find clients for your freelance business

17. Learn how to take feedback as a freelancer

When feedback burns your fragile freelancer ego, it can be easy to come up with excuses to help distance yourself from shouldering that shame. "They have no idea what they're talking about?" or, "They're just trying to devalue my work so they don't have to pay."

And yes, sometimes that is the case. But by choosing to shoulder the responsibility (even just momentarily to see if it truly belongs to you) — you put yourself in a place to actually do something about it. Just like any other relationship, honest, open communication is key when freelancers and clients work together. So take that negative feedback, hold it up to see if anything can be gained or learned from it — and then let it go. Once the lesson is learned, there's no need to continue carrying that shame along with you. 

18. Protect your health as a freelancer (physical and mental)

There’s a lot to like about being a freelancer. You set your own hours. You choose your own clients. You work independently, control your workload, and vacation whenever you like. Who wouldn’t want a job with all those perks?

But just like any other career, being a solopreneur — especially if you work remotely from home — has its downsides. There are occupational hazards just like with any other job. And if you're not aware of the dark side of freelancing, your physical and mental health will suffer the consequences. 

Related: The dark side of freelancing: protecting physical and mental health to avoid burnout

19. Set the right mindset

It really bugs us when random people on the internet make it seem like the transition into life as a freelancer is a cakewalk. It's not. There will be times when you feel like you're doing everything right, and you'll still struggling to keep the bills paid. Why are we telling you this? Certainly not to make you think freelancing isn't for you — quite the opposite. 

It's important to be prepared for those freelancing dry spells because they happen to all of us. And when these freelancer dry spells occur, having the right mindset is what will get you through. One of our writers is an Ivy League-educated Psychologist who writes for Forbes and Psychology Today, in addition to running his own remote therapy practice (he uses our product, Xolo Leap, for this). He writes a monthly column about solopreneurship from a mental health perspective, and his column about crafting a winning mindset, will give you science-backed insight into how to stay motivated during tough times. 

Related: When the going gets tough, the Xolopreneur gets tougher

20. Ask for that referral

We all know that having a client referred to you is the most cost-effective way to grow your business. But many new freelancers still struggle to ask for referrals, which can usually be traced back to every freelancer's frienemy, imposter syndrome

Did you know that 89% of freelancers name "referrals" as the best way to get new projects? For comparison, less than 25% rely on "cold pitching" or "job boards." Another study of independent workers found that 84% of solo business owners who earn more than $100,000 per year get most of their work through word-of-mouth recommendations. 

TL;DR: If you're going to thrive as a freelancer, you need to ask for that referral. And lucky for you, veteran freelancer Elena has written everything you need to know about getting referrals for your freelance business

21. Know when to level up

Believe it or not, there will come a time when you have plenty of clients who love you and pay on time, and more leads than you know what to do with. This is a turning point for the pro freelancer: you can either stay where you are, or you can take things to the next level. And again, veteran freelancer Elena has some thoughts on very real strategies to help you grow and scale your freelance business

How Xolo Leap can take your freelancing business to the next level

If Xolo Go is the tool for new freelancers who are looking for a no-strings-attached way to invoice cross-border clients for their freelance work. 

Our Xolo Leap product is for freelancers who want to take things to the next level with their very own EU solo business, which can be run remotely from anywhere on the planet. The team here at Xolo will help you set up and run the administrative (aka boring and stressful) parts of your business (including accounting and tax reporting) while you gain access to the EU single market and receive payments from global clients through popular gateways like Paypal and Stripe. 

Learn more about Xolo Leap

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