Sep 26 / Matt Saunders

How to Start Freelancing (5 Tips for Beginners)

If you're looking for total freedom and uncapped earning potential, then becoming a freelancer might be the right path for you. In this piece I share my best advice for freelance beginners starting their journey.
Matt Saunders coach
Above: all the podcasts and publications I've been featured in as a business coach
You don't need to look very far for freelancing advice. So let me start by quickly qualifying myself for you - why should you listen to me?

Well, I've been a self-employed web developer for 15 years. I've worked with hundreds of clients. During the pandemic, I grew my own agency to six figures. I've facilitated workshops, appeared on podcasts and published my own book which generated 10s of thousands in revenue.

That's the success story. But I've also failed plenty of times. I used to be unconfident, lacked focus and purpose.

But over the past 5 years I have completely transformed my self-belief and mindset to reach levels of success I had never thought possible.

I want the same for you. So in this article I'm going to share 5 freelancing tips that I hope will set you off on the BEST possible path. 

Tip #1: Let go of perfectionism 

Some wooden dominos spelling the words done is better than perfect
Done is better than perfect, because perfect is never done
So many people are out there thinking "I'll start freelancing some day".

Well, "someday" is not a day of the week. It's very rare in life that the stars align. If you are waiting for the right time or if you've been busy "planning" for more than even a couple of months, it's time to let go of perfectionism and dive right in.

The life you want won't happen by itself. But it also won't happen if you keep letting the need to have things figured out drive your actions. At some point you just need to take the plunge.

Of my 5 freelance tips that I share here, this is actually the only piece of advice I didn't need to hear. I left my full-time job with a £700 freelance project - that's it. You might say that is too risky, but the truth is that I knew I could get another job if it didn't work out.

But here's the real thing about perfect: it doesn't exist. You will always, always be growing, changing and iterating. There is no "done" state. So take your half-baked business plan and get out there today!
Above: 5 tips to start freelancing

Tip #2: Never, ever work for free

A hand holding some 100 dollar bills
Take "free" out of your vocabulary
If you ask somebody "how do I become a freelancer?" the advice often given is to work for free at first to build up your portfolio.

But there are two reasons why I strongly disagree with this advice, and why I think you should start freelancing from day one doing only paid work. 

The first reason is because your time is valuable. Even if the work you're doing in the early days is sub-par. Charge accordingly. I'm not saying you shouldn't give discounts. I'm saying you should never work for free.

Asking a client to put money on the table makes it serious. You're less able to deliver a good service if you don't feel respected by the client or if you're worrying about paying the bills. Value your time and your work, and the rest will follow.

The second - and most important reason - is that selling is what freelancing is all about. A lot of people don't like this, but the truth is you can't create a flexible and profitable freelance life if you don't know how to sell. And the best way to learn is to do. So why would you rob yourself of the opportunity to get into the money conversation with clients? Ask for payment, always.

Don't use "free" as an excuse to avoid selling. And don't work for free whilst you build your portfolio. Start as you mean to go on, by creating a proper mindset aimed at building a real business.

Tip #3: Don't rely on agencies

A journal with the words dream it, believe it, achieve it written on it
Take control of your business by serving your own clients directly
If you currently work at a marketing or design agency, you might feel the temptation to start freelancing for these types of businesses. After all, you can earn more as an agency contractor, doing fewer hours than a full-time employee (makes you wonder why anyone remains employed, doesn't it?)

That's fine if this is the sort of business you really want to build. But IMHO working for agencies is a bit of a cop out. You let the agency find the work, negotiate the scope and price and manage the client. This might seem like an easier life than building your own business working with your own clients. But such is the abiding rule of life: great things do not come from taking the easy route.

When you work directly with clients, you create the opportunity to become real partners, with genuine influence and respect. Your day rate isn't capped by an agency, and the possibility to create a serious income is unlocked.

So take your service to market. Don't stay tethered to the safety of the shoreline. You want to leave your current agency for a reason, right? Don't hang around as a contractor. Make what you really want, happen.
Above: why freelancing is better than any job

Tip #4: Be disciplined 

An open paper calendar on a wooden table
Build positive daily habits so that your growth becomes natural 
This is one freelancing tip that didn't really hit me until shockingly recently. 

When you're figuring out how to start freelancing, you'll hear a lot of stuff about how you can live life on your own terms. It's completely true, you can. However, this doesn't mean you can sleep in all morning and take random days off whenever you feel like it. Well - you can - but at some point you'll be wondering what it is you're actually working toward. Enjoying the journey is important, but don't forget about the destination.

As a seasoned business owner who's been freelancing for ages, I wish I could tell my younger self to be more disciplined. To figure out WHY I'm freelancing, to define WHO I'm helping with my service and to build a positive daily practice toward making it happen. Without this anchor, your lazy lie-ins are bittersweet. In fact they feel more like distractions than perks. Take your freelance business seriously, from day one.

Tip #5: Make fun a priority

Plastic monkey's swinging on a blue sky background
This picture says "fun" to you, right?
Whilst I strongly believe you should take your business seriously, I think it can be very easy to take ourselves too seriously. Even if my business grows to multiple employees and turns over a million dollars, I want to have fun along the way.

In my first few years of business it was all about trying to get sales and make money. Every conversation seemed haunted by the spectre of failure, and tainted by the pressure I put on myself. This is not fun.

So my parting tip for freelance beginners is to make having fun a part of your business plan. Forget about all the stuff you think you should be doing and decide for yourself what a fun and exciting business looks like to you. Then do it.

Frequently asked questions

Is freelancing easy or difficult

This is a tempting question to ask, but it is the wrong question to ask. The difficulty of freelancing depends on your outlook and expectations. I noticed that when I got into alignment, when I accepted that good things do not come easily, it seemed that freelancing got "easier".

The outside world had not changed, only my perspective on it had.

How to start freelancing without a portfolio

There is a myth that you need to have a strong portfolio in order to get clients. Well if that were true, nobody would ever get clients, because they wouldn't have a portfolio.

The reality is that you need only a few things to start freelancing: the drive to help people, some basic skills and the confidence to reach out to potential clients.

Here's some related reading that you might find helpful: 

In short: don't let not having "proof" stop you from reaching out and starting conversations with prospects.
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