In 2020, there were 59 million freelancers. Today, insights show that there are 70.4 million freelancers—about 36% of the total U.S. workforce. By 2027, researchers with Statista predict the number of freelancers to grow to 86.5 million people, making up more than half of the workforce by that time.
With freelancing on the rise, finding work requires careful planning and research. This is particularly the case if you’re looking to freelance in one of the highest-paying industries like web design, digital marketing, or writing.
Before you start freelancing, consider the average salary for a freelancer in your specialty. In general, the average freelance salary is $68,947, according to ZipRecruiter, which may or may not be a viable full-time salary for some.
If you are currently looking for freelance work, though, learn these ten important steps that will help you achieve optimal success as a freelancer.
- Some people earn over $300,000 per year freelancing.
- A salary calculator can help determine your hourly rate.
- Freelancing can be done either full-time or part-time (called “moonlighting.”)
What Does It Mean to Freelance?
Freelancing is when a person makes an income through work that they provide independently. Unlike when working with a full-time employer, freelancers choose their projects, clients, and rates in accordance with the demand for a particular skill or service.
While a full-time employee must adhere to the stated responsibilities, schedule, and expectations of an employer, a freelancer sets their own responsibilities and schedule. Freelance workers must also manage their own billing and invoicing and file their taxes as a 1099 independent contractor.
Benefits of Being a Successful Freelancer
When done right, the rewards of a successful freelancer can be abundant. Kate H., a top-rated branding and design expert on UpWork, for example, has earned over $300,000 in freelance jobs alone. Tanya, a UX and graphic design expert on UpWork, has also earned over $300,000 as a successful freelancer.
Once you’ve built a strong portfolio and client base, freelancing allows many to leverage certain advantages like the ones listed below.
Successful freelancers benefit from:
- Uncapped income: Some of the highest-paid freelance jobs can easily earn freelancers over $100,000 per year, and one can decide to push that even higher if they choose.
- Tax breaks and write-offs: When you’re running your own business as a freelancer, the government makes certain tax deductions, like home office expenses, available for you to claim come tax time. Visit the Gig Economy Tax Center for more information.
- Flexible schedules: One freelancer may only work Mondays–Thursdays, and another may only work six months out of the year. Freelancers make their own schedules to fit their personal goals, projects, and lifestyles.
- Greater work-life balance: Because freelancers can choose when to work and who to work for, this affords them a greater work-life balance. If, for example, they are inundated with work, they can toggle that back or accept fewer projects as they need.
- Personal and professional independence: Not being tied to an employer affords a freelancer significant autonomy over what they do and how they do it. This is the reigning benefit for many people who want to start freelancing.
How to Become a Freelancer: 10 Steps
“Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”Jim Rohn
Whether you’re looking to learn how to become a freelancer as a small side hustle (called “moonlighting”) or to transition fully out of your day job, there are a few things to know. Here are ten steps to start freelancing.
1. Consider Your Goals and Define Your “Why”
As business leader and author Simon Sinek says in Start with Why, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Becoming a successful freelancer requires first understanding why you want to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. What’s your motivation? What specific goals do you have along with this motivation? Consider this aspect fully before trying to find work as a freelancer.
Things to think about for determining your “why”:
- What is a particular cause or belief that you feel strongly about?
- How do you see yourself potentially serving that cause or belief?
- How would your efforts impact the long-term vision or mission of that cause or belief?
- What opinions do you want your potential clients to have about this cause or belief?
For more insight on defining your “why,” read Start With Why: A Powerful Way to Lead With Purpose next.
2. Find Your Specific Niche or Expertise
Some freelancers choose to work with anyone that they can, and if you’re just looking to make a little extra money on the side, this isn’t a bad strategy. If you want to create a viable long-term source of income, however, narrowing down on the exact type of client you want to serve will be critical. Not only will doing so attract potential clients more aligned with your “why,” but it will also uniquely differentiate you from your competitors.
As success coach and entrepreneur Sunny Lenarduzzi shares, “Your niche is not out there. Your niche is not what somebody else is doing. Your niche is going to come from constantly moving forward, constantly testing, constantly learning, and constantly evolving. That is where your niche lies.”
How to narrow down on your niche market:
- Identify what problem exists that interests you and that you can help solve.
- Determine how you can solve that problem more effectively than others.
- Research your competition; consider how you can fulfill a need they miss.
- Define who experiences this problem the most and whom you could serve.
3. Narrow Down Your Target Client(s)
Once you know your niche market, you’re ready to identify your target clients. If, for example, you do freelance graphic design work, and urban retail clothing is your niche, your target client might be small business owners. Narrowing down on your target clients will mean saying “no” to other potential clients, but it ensures that you’re serving the people who best align with your “why.”
As YouTuber and marketing strategist Adam Erhart says, “One of the biggest differences between the brands and businesses that thrive and succeed and manage to be profitable year after year versus those that struggle and stay stuck or ultimately fail really comes down to their ability to locate and to find and to identify and to connect with their target market.”
Factors to consider for your target client:
- Stage of business (startup vs. established)
- Education level
- Professional role
4. Gather Any Required Materials or Paperwork
Some freelancing jobs require various paperwork and materials. Makeup artists, for example, are required to have a license in 14 states, and freelance residential painters need a license in 28. While many other freelance jobs don’t require a license, obtaining a certification in a particular area of expertise can also be a good idea. Check with your local chamber of commerce or city hall to see if a license will be required for you to work independently.
Other materials you may need:
- A business plan
- Business cards
- A website
- Office supplies (notebooks, folders, a planner, etc.)
- Financial freelancing software (like PayPal, Quickbooks, or Quicken)
5. Determine Your Schedule and Availability
How much time and energy you invest into your freelance business will depend on your goals. If your goal is to become a full-time freelancer, you’ll want to make yourself more available for work. If your goal is to freelance for some extra weekend cash, your schedule can likely remain more fluid. In either case, sitting down and determining precisely when and how much time you can devote to your freelance jobs is critical for success.
Tips for planning your schedule:
- Determine which day(s) of the week you’re already most available.
- Consider any existing obligations or routines that could be shifted.
- Use a planner or calendar to block off time for freelancing work.
- Be sure to communicate your availability to potential clients on any freelancing platforms.
For more tips on time management, read 5 Time Management Skills That Increase Productivity.
6. Choose Your Platforms
Many successful freelancers get most of their work by advertising their services on freelancing websites. Unlike other job sites, these websites are tailored to freelancers, allowing them to view available projects within their niche, connect with potential clients, and establish authority within the platform. As you start freelancing, exploring these different platforms to see which best fits your plan can be key to finding work.
Kenny Gunderman describes his initial experience freelancing on UpWork: “After about 24 hours on the platform, I ended up landing my first job . . . after my first ten-dollar job, I got a five-star review on my profile, which kind of propelled me into landing my first real gig.”
Common platforms for freelancers:
7. Build Your Online Brand, Portfolio, and Network
Like with any business, your reputation, who you connect with, and your brand image are everything. Potential clients will choose a freelancer with a robust portfolio of previous work, a professional image, and a shared network. By taking steps to build these aspects of your freelancing business carefully, you optimize your positioning with competitors.
“Branding is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room . . . and then there’s a lot of touchpoints, what they call brand touch points. So, for example, my website is a touch point,” explains Flux Academy.
Tips for building your brand, portfolio, and network:
- Have a logo, social banners, and other graphics created.
- Book a photographer to obtain professional images of you and your service.
- Compile examples of previous relevant work and make them digitally visible.
- Use professional, verified social media accounts to connect with potential new clients.
- Encourage current and previous clients to leave reviews and endorsements.
8. Establish Your Rate
What your rate should be is largely determined by the demand of your service and how much experience you have providing it. While graphic design is an in-demand skill, for example, a designer with three years of experience would have a different rate than one with ten years of experience. The key is to charge enough to cover your expenses without charging more than someone would pay for your experience level.
As financial expert Paco de Leon advises in their TED talk, “Make sure your price includes your taxes, your overhead, and your profit. When you’re a freelancer, you are your own business, so you’re responsible for marketing, accounting, taxes . . . if you price too low, you’ve already negotiated against yourself.”
How to determine your freelance rate:
- Research what other freelancers in your field charge for similar services.
- Determine your ideal annual income (you can use a salary calculator to help with this).
- Divide your desired annual salary by 52 to see how much you need to earn weekly.
- Take that figure and divide it by 40 (or however many hours you plan to freelance); this is your hourly rate to charge clients.
9. Find Potential Clients
While finding potential clients can look a little different for each freelancer, there are a few general tips that universally apply. The first is to always only submit proposals to or pitch for freelance jobs that you’re confident you can do. Taking on a project you can’t effectively complete damages your brand image.
Secondly, one of the first things potential clients will look for is recent relevant experience. For this reason, make your previous relevant experience visible or accessible to them, or at least be ready to supply it on demand.
The key to finding clients is to put yourself right in front of them. As financial and freelance expert Paco de Leon says, “After you determine what sets you apart, position yourself for your ideal customer . . . then, use the kind of language that appeals to your target customer. Create the kind of marketing materials or the kind of portfolio that attracts them.”
Other tips for finding new clients:
- Consider people you already know (friends, family, and former colleagues, for example).
- Lean on local events, groups, and resources to get out there and network.
- Use social media channels to showcase your services and connect with followers.
10. Work With a Mentor
Mentors can be incredibly helpful when learning how to freelance, particularly if you can connect with one within your realm of expertise or interest. A professional mentor with good experience can help you refine your freelancing business and ensure no details are being overlooked.
In a YouTube interview, business leader and bestselling author Simon Sinek describes mentorship: “You can’t just walk up to a random person and say, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ . . . That’s not how it works . . . Mentor relationships evolve because a mentor always has time for you. They see something in you, for some reason, that they make time for you. And they learn as much as they teach.”
How to find a mentor:
- Use online platforms like SCORE.
- Create a profile on Meetup.com to explore local resources.
- Reach out to respected colleagues, professional acquaintances, or online groups.
- Join a mastermind group (like our Million Dollar Business Method mastermind course).
For more information on mentorship, read How to Find a Mentor and Why You May Need One.
Freelancing Requires Knowledge, Discipline, and Habit Change
“The less intelligent we are in a particular domain, the more we seem to overestimate our actual intelligence in that domain.”adam grant
With the right planning and discipline, freelancing can be tremendously rewarding, offering many a life of freedom, autonomy, and privilege. Poor organization or lack of business knowledge is largely the reason why some freelancers fail to thrive.
As experts with Flux Academy share, “You should, first of all, understand that you’re running a business and that probably you don’t know everything that you need to know about running a business. So start reading books about business, about finance, about accounting, about sales.”
Other reasons freelancers fail:
- Undercharging for their time.
- Not having a clear or unique brand identity.
- Relying solely on one client or project for income.
- Becoming too confident and reducing work standards.
Trying anything new requires time and practice to master. Fortunately, developing atomic habits, a productive routine to support them, and knowledge can help circumvent the common causes of growth failures.
Additional resources for how to start freelance work:
- Explore webinars and live events for freelancers from UpWork.
- Join a freelancer forum or discussion board.
- Read Radical Candor by Kim Scott.
- Read The Six-Figure Freelancer: Your Roadmap to Success in the Gig Economy by Laura Briggs.
For tips on supercharging your days for success, read “Build Better Days With These 10 Morning Routine Tips” next.
Leaders Media has established sourcing guidelines and relies on relevant, and credible sources for the data, facts, and expert insights and analysis we reference. You can learn more about our mission, ethics, and how we cite sources in our editorial policy.
- Zane, Matthew. “How Many Freelancers Are There In The U.S.? – Zippia.” Zippia, https://www.zippia.com/advice/how-many-freelancers-in-the-us/.
- Department, Statista. “Gig Economy: Number of Freelancers in the U.S. 2017-2028 | Statista.” Statista, 30 Sept. 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/921593/gig-economy-number-of-freelancers-us/.
- 15 of the Best, Highest-Paying Freelance Jobs. 26 Jan. 2022, https://www.upwork.com/resources/highest-paying-freelance-jobs.
- Freelance Salary. ZipRecruiter, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/Salaries/Freelance-Salary#:~:text=While%20ZipRecruiter%20is%20seeing%20annual,annually%20across%20the%20United%20States.
- “25 High Paid Freelance Jobs in 2022.” ZipRecruiter, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/g/Highest-Paid-Freelance-Jobs.
- “Gig Economy Tax Center | Internal Revenue Service.” Home, https://www.irs.gov/businesses/gig-economy-tax-center.
- “The REAL Secret to Finding Your Niche as an Entrepreneur…” YouTube, 2 Feb. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjUFJMTk90o.
- “How To Find Your Target Audience | Target Market Research.” YouTube, 4 Oct. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzEkHlYt2uA.
- “I Spent 30 Days Freelancing on Upwork.” YouTube, 24 Jan. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARqAJQo24rs.
- “What Is ‘Personal Brand’ For Freelance Designers?” YouTube, 27 Feb. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAs4LWN44QI.
- “The Secret to Being a Successful Freelancer | The Way We Work, a TED Series.” YouTube, 2 Nov. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UV3xm9pZ0g.
- “What I Got Wrong About Mentorship | Simon Sinek.” YouTube, 2 Dec. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TChiE1FDXdY.