Is everyone going freelance these days? Quitting full time work is definitely trending. The media is buzzing about the Great Resignation.
NPR’s “Planet Money” newsletter called the flood of quits “unlike anything we've seen before.”
No kidding. In August 2021, nearly 3% of the U.S. workforce quit their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — more than any year since at least 2001.
That trend has been moving upward since mid-2020, and job openings have been growing with it in near-lockstep, suggesting that those new hires aren’t taking new jobs, despite a high demand for full-time hires.
“[T]his level of quitting is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better,” The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson wrote.
To some people, “We can do better” means “We can go freelance.”
A recent study by CNBC and research firm Catalyst found thats over 75% of American workers want more flexibility and remote work options — hallmarks of freelance life.
A fifth, or roughly 22%, of those workers plan to leave their full-time jobs and open up their own businesses or become freelancers.
Even people who don't quit their jobs want to freelance. A quarter of Americans plan to stay at their full-time jobs while freelancing on the side, according to a Zapier study.
But getting a freelance career started — and ramping it up — can be intimidating. You have to find your own clients, pitch your own services, and set your pricing.
Without a strong network, solid cold email game, and a firm sense of what you’re worth, you can run into serious problems.
Here's how to start off on the right foot, according to three active freelancers who've made it work — and made mistakes along the way.
Meet the experts:
- Darius Glover, a marketing program manager at Amazon Web Services and a freelance growth marketer
- Austin Sandler, director of brand partnerships at Circuit, and a freelance performance and growth marketer
- Sam Omidi, a freelance growth strategist and founder of Brave Media
Here’s what they had to say about preparing for the freelance lifestyle, structuring your first client interviews, and managing existing gigs while also taking on new ones.
3 ways to become a freelancer
Becoming a freelancer doesn't have to mean becoming a full-time freelancer.
Glover works a full-time job in addition to freelancing. Sandler first started freelancing while he had a 9-to-5, and then negotiated his contract down to part-time so he could freelance more. And Omidi freelances full-time.
They’re all freelancers.
So, whose path will work for you? Our experts talked us through the benefits and drawbacks of each arrangement.
Work a full-time job and freelance as a side hustle.
Over a third of Americans had side hustles at the start of 2021, Zapier found, and nearly 25% more planned to start side hustles before the end of 2021.
Why? Zapier found that...
- 38% said they wanted to do something they enjoyed
- 33% said they wanted to diversify their income
- 28% said they wanted to develop new skills
The upside: Holding onto a full-time job often means holding on to benefits like 401K matching, reliable base pay and health insurance. “I’m a bit of a hypochondriac,” Glover said. “So I like to have [medical] benefits and things like that.”
The downside: If you use your LinkedIn profile or other social media accounts to advertise to potential clients or collect testimonials, “you do have to be careful,” Glover said. Your full-time employer will be able to see those, too. He recommends checking in with your manager to make sure freelancing doesn’t break the rules of your contract.
Renegotiate your full-time job to accommodate more freelancing.
When your freelance business takes off, a full-time job can feel unmanageable.
That’s why Sandler re-negotiated his full-time role to a part-time consultant role and kept freelancing.
“I can still have all my benefits through them, which is great,” he said of his former full-time employer.
Because of the scale of this Great Resignation, your employer may be willing to cut a similar deal, as financial planner Roger Ma told CNBC.
The upside: It’s a nice blend of stability and autonomy.
The downside: Part time roles don’t always command health benefits, and you might have a tricky time when tax season rolls around.
Diving into full-time self-employment.
This is the most traditional way to think about becoming a freelancer, and it’s a great option for people who feel burnt out from working on someone else’s schedule, or for people whose lives aren’t compatible with 9-to-5 work.
The upside: You get diverse, hands-on experience more quickly than you could as a full-time employee. “I’m working with a variety of different clients in different industries,” Omidi said. “I’m learning from each one and bringing that knowledge into the next project.”
The downside: It takes some time to build enough client pipeline to sustainably diversify your freelance revenue. And clients can take a long time to pay invoices — sometimes up to eight months.
And waiting for freelance clients to pay can be unpleasant.
6 steps to take before you start freelancing
The road to high-quality freelance jobs is paved with questions, like:
- What services should you offer?
- What should you charge?
- What kind of a portfolio do you need?
- Should you sign up for digital marketing courses?
The experts we spoke to described a six-step checklist for answering those questions and starting down the freelance career path.
1. Imagine your dream lifestyle.
Or, as Glover put it, “Figure out what your personality is.”
It will help you determine how you want to freelance. Think about things like:
- How do you feel about working non-standard hours? Freelancing is “not a five-day week,” Glover said. “It’s a seven-day week.” Your week doesn’t have to go long if you freelance, but the beauty of freelancing is that you can work as much or as little as you want. For Omidi, it’s important to keep his workweek as close to five-days as possible, though he does use Sundays to prepare for the week ahead. “Thank god for Asana to help me with task management,” he said.
- How much consistency do you like? If you love predictability, full-time freelancing might not be for you. Freelance clients come and go, and some weeks can be very busy while others are quieter.
- Do you like to promote yourself on LinkedIn or Twitter? Building a personal brand online is how many freelance marketers find work — though it’s less important if your work will come from an agency or a talent platform like MarketerHire.
If you like a lot of consistency, for instance, you might decide to target long-term clients or set up your rates in a retainer format.
If you don’t like promoting your work on LinkedIn, joining a talent platform might be the best way to find potential clients.
2. Determine what services to highlight.
Could you just put “digital marketer” on your freelancer business cards?
Sure, but that term is pretty outdated. Identify that way, and you could end up overworked, underpaid — and disappointing.
“A lot of freelancers over promise things, and then they don't show up,” Glover observed. “I think that that's the worst thing you can do.”
“A lot of freelancers over promise things, and then they don't show up. I think that that's the worst thing you can do.”
Our experts recommended picking a specialty instead.
These days, it’s practically a full time job for paid social media marketers to keep track of the major changes happening in the field due to Apple’s privacy updates, and the impact those updates are having during peak seasons.
Paid social media marketers can’t also be expected to be PPC marketers and social media managers at the same time.
They can’t even be expected to master every channel.
“Midway through my career, I was like … I need to be an expert at Instagram and Facebook and TikTok and Twitter,” Omidi said. “I was spreading myself too thin trying to learn each one at the same time.”
Eventually, Omidi made a conscious decision to focus on learning just one channel at a time.
New freelancers should think seriously about what they can offer, Glover said. He recommends asking yourself:
- What skills do I use in the job that I’m doing right now? Listing these will help you define your expertise and build case studies that you can present to prospective clients.
- What do I enjoy doing? When you freelance, you get to be your own boss — so be a good one, and assign yourself projects you like.
- What can I do efficiently and easily? Even if this isn’t all you do, it’s good to keep one eye on the projects that bring in the most revenue per hour.
- How much time do I want to spend freelancing, and what services can I really accomplish in that amount of time? Figuring this out ensures that you won’t overpromise — or burn yourself out.
- How much time would providing this service take away from my day job? If the answer to this is “a lot,” you might want to consider renegotiating your full-time contract.
“It’s really looking at your skill set and seeing how it translates in terms of money and in terms of bandwidth,” Glover said.
3. Identify your ideal client.
Picturing your ideal client helps you decide what skills to focus on and how to market yourself.
To do that, it helps to think about what freelance marketers’ clients typically want.
- Why are they hiring a freelancer? According to a Stoke Talent study, companies work with freelance marketers for three primary reasons: for their unique expertise, for an urgent project, and for administrative help. Deciding which of these needs you want to fill (and not fill) is an important step to take before you get started, our experts said.
- What channels do they need help with? Would you prefer to work with a company that’s big on in-person, local communications, or a company that’s more active on digital channels? “If you want to crush digital, I have you on those channels,” Sandler said. But he doesn’t tend to work with clients that want to grow on television.
- How mature is the company? Based on your experience, can you best serve a client who’s a fresh entrepreneur? Or do you work best with more established business owners? “My focus is clients who are doing [around] $500k in revenue a year, and I can get you upwards of that to $15 or $20 million,” Sandler said. “When you’re ready to go up to $50 to $100 million, I’m not your guy.”
- How many hiring hoops will they make you jump through? Are you interested in working with big name clients who will mostly need to go through a talent platform or agency? Or do you want to work with local businesses that you reach out to yourself? “I always had such a hard time with the sales part of [freelancing],” Omidi said. “I am not a cold call person.” So he targets companies that work through an intermediary to get to him.
If you have a clear idea of your ideal client, it’s important to understand why you dream of working with them, our experts said. You can then design your freelance business around reaching that type of client.
4. Set your hourly minimum rate.
You have to set your rate in order to actually work as a freelancer and get paid. You can charge by the hour, the project, or on a retainer basis. You’ll need to take your own priorities, taxes, and the larger market into consideration:
- How much do you want to work — and make? A big part of setting your rate is calculating your ideal ROI for freelance work, Glover said. To do that, MarketerHire’s sales operations manager Rod Waynick has seen freelancers use this formula to calculate their rate:
[desired annual income] / [weeks of work per year] = [weekly rate]
[weekly rate] / [hours worked per week] = [hourly rate]
- How much will you pay in taxes? When you freelance regularly, you pay those taxes yourself in the form of quarterly payments — they aren’t deducted from your paycheck before you get it. You’ll pay both income tax and the self-employment tax, which covers both Social Security and Medicare taxes, out of your take-home pay.
- What’s the market for your services like? When talking to freelancers about how to set their rates, MarketerHire’s VP of marketplace operations Ash Garber always notes that demand “is dynamic [and] shifts over time.” The rate you calculate on your own might be significantly lower than the rate clients are prepared to pay if demand for your specialty is high.
If you freelance through an agency or a platform like MarketerHire, a talent team will help you understand what standard rates are for their clients. When Omidi was trying to set a freelance rate, “I went by the advice given to me by the talent team and made adjustments based on my availability,” he said.
Ultimately, your rate should be pretty fluid, but it’s useful to set a minimum.
5. Make sure your LinkedIn shows your experience.
Build a portfolio and they will come?
Sort of, when it comes to freelance marketing. But what’s a growth marketer or a CMO to do? They probably don’t have the same clips for a portfolio that a freelance writer or graphic designer would.
The answer, for most, is to turn to LinkedIn. “A big part of [finding initial clients] was having my LinkedIn profile really updated about everything that I was doing and what my actual skill set was,” Glover said.
“A big part of [finding initial clients] was having my LinkedIn profile really updated about everything that I was doing and what my actual skill set was."
He recommends listing out all of the major projects you’ve led, and keep updating the list so you have it as a reference point.
“I looked over all the major projects I worked on — both in corporate and as a freelancer — and chose the most impactful ones to turn into case studies,” Glover said.
Those case studies are an important way many freelancers show their past impact to future clients. They can be relatively short. The ones MarketerHire freelancers build are usually just a few sentences long, and feature the name of a brand, the action taken, and a few numbers to contextualize impact.
As part of his portfolio development process, Glover also used his list of major projects — and their associated skills — to “build out the keywords that I wanted people to search me by.”
For instance, if brands are searching for someone to do “web & campaign optimization” or “content strategy” on LinkedIn, they will clearly see those keywords on Glover’s profile.
Of the experts we spoke to for this story, all three use their LinkedIn profiles (and representatives from agencies and talent platforms) as a professional portfolio. Two of them use LinkedIn instead of a more traditional website.
In the course of a “presence audit” to see what people found when they Googled him, Sandler updated his LinkedIn profile about six months ago to include more information about his experience.
It now includes:
- An executive summary
- A full resume with case studies
- A summary of his recent LinkedIn activity
- Badges he’s earned through online courses
- Referrals and endorsements from peers and past clients
“It gives clients the comfort of knowing … I’m not just some random dude,” Sandler said. Sandler has noticed that before an interview, the CEO of a potential freelance client almost always takes a look at his LinkedIn profile. Having his profile updated means that the potential client has peace of mind before the interview that he’s a real person, working in marketing, with other connections.
Putting a portfolio together on LinkedIn doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to post about your experience all the time, though. “If you feel like you can be the person that can post on LinkedIn and post on Upwork and get work like that … then fine,” Glover said.
“But for me … it’s not just getting freelance gigs,” he added. “You can get freelance gigs from anywhere. I want to get something that’s quality.” To Glover, quality means something he can learn from and apply to other jobs in the future.
6. Leverage freelancer communities.
One thing Omidi wishes he’d done before he started freelancing: “building out my network.”
Freelancing can be lonely, but more than that, it’s important to network with other freelancers with expertise you lack, Omidi said.
Content marketing freelancer Kaleigh Moore agrees:
So — where can you find them?
- Twitter and LinkedIn are great places to build your own community by following peers and thought leaders with similar target audiences. (Try Sandler’s strategy, and follow marketers who are mentioned in your favorite marketing newsletters and media outlets.)
- The Freelancers Union is an organization that helps freelancers connect with each other and learn about health insurance options and taxes.
- Online Geniuses is a Slack community for digital marketers.
- Meetup is a platform for organizing in-person and virtual gatherings, where freelancers sometimes host community-building events.
- The r/freelance subreddit has 280K+ members, and frequently hosts discussions about the trials of freelancing.
If you start freelancing through an agency or a hiring platform, they may also have resources available to help you meet other freelancers.
How to prepare for your first interview with a potential client
Landing a freelance job usually involves an interview, where the client asks questions about your background and expertise, and gives you more information about your (prospective) assignment.
You should also ask questions.
“It really is an assessment on both ends,” Glover said, “to figure out whether or not I have the skillset to help them, and whether or not they have the infrastructure to actually execute.”
To prepare for a standard 30-minute interview with a prospective client, you’ll need to make a list of your questions, prepare to give potential clients relevant information, and figure out what you won’t say.
Make a list of relevant questions for the client.
At the interview stage, your future client will have questions for you about your experience. But the experts we spoke to also prepare a list of questions to get a sense of who the client is. (Sandler’s standard list includes 12 questions.)
Questions he often returns to include:
- How are you financed? This helps assess whether the client has money to spend on new initiatives and new channels.
- What does your current marketing strategy look like? The brand’s overall strategy will help you see where you slot in and where you might recommend changes.
- Who’s currently implementing that strategy? This helps you figure out what resources the company is already investing in marketing, and who your future contacts will be.
- What do you have in your tech stack? Make sure to ask what tools you’ll have access to, and what tools they’ll expect you to provide.
Once he has clear answers on the above, Sandler starts to ask the client very specific questions like, “Do you have this setting turned on?”
If the client doesn’t know what the setting is, or hasn’t tried it, “then their walls will kind of come down,” he said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, this guy seems like he knows what he’s talking about, because he was able to call out a very specific problem that we’re already facing.’”
"Oh, this guy seems like he knows what he’s talking about, because he was able to call out a very specific problem that we’re already facing."
Prepare to give potential clients relevant information.
Pitching yourself is a skill, and as a freelancer, you go to a lot more job interviews than you do as a full-time employee. There are two main things you should prepare to get across to the client:
- How has your experience prepared you for the job? “I don’t like to just go down my resume because I think that’s pretty boring,” Glover said. “I like to give really practical examples of what I’ll be doing.” If you’ve built out case studies, they might help you talk about your experience in a concrete way.
- How much time do you expect the job to take? Before the interview, start to imagine potential timelines. Glover recommends that freelancers use their experience to set appropriate deadlines that guide the client — not the other way around. That said, if a client has an urgent need, the freelancer can help them understand what resources they’ll need to meet their deadline.
If you prepare your ideal answers to these questions before your interview, you’ll avoid overpromising and under-delivering.
Figure out what you won’t say.
All three experts recommended keeping the conversation about your services high-level.
Let’s say a client asks you something pretty concrete — like “If I had a $5,000 budget for ad spend on LinkedIn, how would you spend it?”
“You don’t want to answer things like that,” Glover said. Or, at least, answer carefully.
“Keep the process focused,” he said. Why? If you reveal all of your dashboards and tactics, the client may decide they can do the work themselves.
“In my early interviews, I gave a lot away,” Glover said. “I realized if I gave them the entire plan … they didn’t have to [work with me]. They knew exactly what they needed to do.”
How to onboard new clients
Once you have a new client, you have to get everyone on board and ready to communicate before your work can begin.
This phase of freelancing is not dissimilar to starting a new full-time job. You’ll get access to your client’s dashboards and meet other people on the marketing team.
As a freelancer, though, you’ll be more active in the onboarding process than an in-house employee would be. Here’s what you need to do to kick things off.
Share access and establish communication channels.
If you use specialized tools or platforms to get your work done (like Asana for task management or SEMrush for SEO) you’ll need to connect your new client to that technology.
You’ll also want to get set up on their tech stacks. For instance, many marketers need to request Google Analytics access, or a login to Canva for graphic design.
You’ll have already talked about communication preferences at the interview stage, but now’s the time to make sure you’re set up on Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts.
Audit their existing work.
All of our experts recommended starting with an audit of the client’s existing marketing work. The scope of the audit will depend on your specialization.
Email marketers tend to audit all past email campaigns and measure any deliverability problems the client could be having. SEO marketers start an audit with an analysis of technical SEO and existing content.
The audit validates what the client has told you about their needs. “I really, really figure out what the scope of the project is and make sure that I can handle the workload and it’ll actually be valuable for both of us,” said Glover.
It will also help you set reasonable expectations with the client. For instance, if a brand marketer finds that there isn’t enough existing creative to launch a new product on the timeline requested, they can set a new timeline or work toward more creative before really getting started.
Adjust hours with existing clients as needed.
Taking on a new freelance client might mean that you need to reshuffle work with other clients. Perhaps you’ll deliver work to them at a new time, or reduce the number of hours you work with them.
Communicate that your schedule has changed so no one is surprised.
You’re not under any obligation to reveal new clients to existing ones, though. If a new client doesn’t impact the flow of your work with existing clients, no need to notify them.
How to communicate with new and existing clients
When freelancing, it’s important to keep clients informed of your work, but it’s also important to avoid frittering away your whole day on email.
So how do you balance communication and work?
Set up regular communication times.
“I set up weeklies with all of my freelance [clients],” Glover said. Omidi said his clients appreciate daily communication.
Sandler uses Slack to send relevant information to clients whenever he has it.
The important thing is to set up a system that works for you, and set clear expectations with clients so they know when and how often they’ll hear from you.
As an engagement gets going, Glover recommends communicating about what you will and won’t prioritize.
For example, he explains to clients early on that they’ll get detailed PowerPoints, but he won’t invest extra time in making them look slick.
“I don't overcommit myself to fancy PowerPoint decks that I'm building for our clients,” Glover said. “I know I don't have the bandwidth for that.”
Similarly, Sandler, a growth marketer, sets boundaries around creative feedback. “I will say what I like about a creative piece, and I’ll say what I don’t like,” he explained. “I’ll say why it doesn’t work on a landing page, but if you ask me for a brand director’s opinion, I will not answer that.”
Clients need to hire a brand marketer if that’s the opinion they want or need.
Support your recommendations with evidence.
“In marketing, there’s a lot of buzzwords and there’s no accreditation,” Sandler said. “Anyone can say they can do anything.”
So when you communicate with clients, it’s up to you to support your suggestions with evidence.
One trick Sandler uses: he loops in representatives from Google or Facebook before implementing new ideas on those paid channels. That way, “it’s not like some random guy said to do it,” he said. “Facebook said we should do this.”
You can also validate your ideas by citing industry trends. Sandler recommends subscribing to marketing newsletters — like The Hustle, Modern Retail, and Raisin Bread — and taking notes on industry-wide challenges and trends.
Put your recommendations in writing.
At every stage of the engagement, our experts recommended communicating recommendations in writing as well as verbally.
Omidi likes to do this with a written “mini-report.”
This document has four key elements, he said:
- The issue, explained
- The steps recommended to solve it
- The KPIs to track
- The desired outcome
When Omidi follows that reporting structure, clients understand his plan from the outset. “Within seconds they understand the value behind it,” he said.
Ask questions to get to the bottom of weird ideas.
Clients often come to freelance marketers with ideas of what they want. Sometimes, those ideas are… really zany.
It’s no coincidence that marketers really bonded over this tweet:
If an idea seems out of left field, you can’t be dismissive.
Clients “just want to be heard,” Glover said.
When he gets a strange or out-of-scope suggestion, he usually asks three questions:
- What are you trying to accomplish?
- What about that idea feels valuable to you?
- Are you open to hearing another way?
Omidi has found that outside inspiration is often the source of clients’ ideas. “When it comes to marketing, they’re getting battered by all these messages — from their friends, from what they’re reading,” he said.
Omidi recommends responding with a measured analysis.
He typically says: “This is all the education that I’ve had, and this is my understanding of how it’s going to work.”
Similarly, Sandler thinks of himself as a lawyer in these moments. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we can do that … but this is something that I think will take 40 hours,’” he said.
He explains what it will cost them, and he is very direct about what he expects the outcome to be.
For instance, “I think it will be a lot of work and I’m not sure there’s a gain to come from it,” he said. “Do you still want to proceed?”
The client then gets to make a decision based on all the information you can give them about:
- The work required
- The cost
- The potential outcomes
Then, when you land on a plan, put it in writing.
How to manage multiple freelance jobs at once
Freelancers’ obligations tend to be more of a tangle than full-time employees’. Instead of having one boss, you have two or three. Or 10.
As a general rule, “you want to layer your work schedule so you’re busy but not overwhelmed,” Glover said.
But that’s easier said than done, even for the most established freelancer.
Here are our sources’ best practices — though “I’m still trying to figure this part out, to be honest,” Omidi said.
Rank your priorities.
Our experts recommended ranking the work that’s most important to you at any given time. You might determine “importance” by balancing a number of factors:
- How much you like the work
- The client’s prestige
- The pay rate
- Whether you’ve worked for the client before
For instance, “I always look at my full-time job as my main client,” Glover said. “Then, with other clients I take on, I treat them accordingly.”
“I always look at my full-time job as my main client."
They might not get the same in-demand meeting slots, the most frequent access to you, or your most productive working hours.
Be firm with deadlines.
As mentioned above, when you freelance, deadlines aren’t determined exclusively by the clients, said Glover. “Be very direct about the bandwidth you have,” he added.
Track your deadlines using a calendar that works for you, and over-communicate (in advance!) when it seems you won’t be able to meet them.
Life as a successful freelancer involves being extremely organized, Sandler said. He keeps detailed notes in Evernote, and organizes them by client.
“Every conversation [for] every project I have is logged,” he said. He never relies on memory alone to track his freelance work.
His notes mean that, whenever a client asks him a question, he can keep his answers consistent with what they’ve already discussed.
“A lot of clients will try to throw things on you and ask you about things that were not in scope,” Glover said.
When that happens, be firm and say no, he advised. Instead of overcommitting to jobs beyond your skill set, reiterate what you are able to help the client with.
When a client comes to Glover with a task that is outside his job description: “I’m going to just step back and say, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t have the bandwidth to do that. However, this is what I can do for you,’” he said.
If the client keeps pushing, it’s time to recommend someone else in your network who might be able to take on the task. “Don’t be shy to bring in other experts,” Omidi said. (MarketerHire actively encourages this, and gives clients a 10% discount on both freelancers’ hourly rate. Freelancers still get their full rate.)
“Don’t be shy to bring in other experts."
Demand for freelance talent is growing
With more freelancers joining the independent workforce every day, there’s more competition than ever for freelance opportunities. But the number of opportunities is growing, too.
Just as quits have hit record levels, job openings have also declined for the first time in 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in August.
Those jobs could potentially go to freelancers instead of full-time hires. Harvard Business School research from 2019 suggested that many highly-skilled jobs were already starting to go to freelancers.
It’s possible to access those jobs without burning yourself out between advertising your services, managing billing and communicating with prospective clients. MarketerHire handles all of that for you once you join our network. Apply to join today.