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How to Successfully Kickstart Your Freelancing Career

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After several years of consistent freelancing, I am finally in a position where my clients nowadays find me and I regularly receive new work inquiries. But that wasn’t always the case.

When I first started freelancing, I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that I wanted to design & build websites and make money doing it. The idea of managing my own paid client projects was completely foreign to me.

So how did I get my first client?

Well, there was a small non-profit that gave me a scholarship for college. At one of their meetings, I met the web administrator who informed me that he needed help creating a website.

I had very little experience, but I nervously agreed and after a few weeks I was able to launch a very simple website for them. It was a very simple and unpaid project, but it got me a new portfolio piece and my first client got a free website.

I met my next client in one of my drawing classes. She was an older woman who owned a glass studio nearby. We got talking and came to an agreement. After a few months of work (and a lot of nervous Google searches), I was able to launch a pretty robust website for their business. It even had a CMS that allowed them to edit content themselves.

They paid me about $500 for the work (which was awesome at the time). A few projects later, I caught a big break with my first $1,000 project for the family lawyer. For the next 4 years I completed $250 – $2,000 projects on and off in between classes making money and building my portfolio however I could.

After years of hard work and dedication, things are a bit different. I regularly receive high quality project inquires and charge about $125 per hour for custom web and mobile solutions that help my clients get results that help their businesses grow.

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How did I do it?

I can look back and say that the main thing that helped propel my freelancing career forward was simply making everyone aware of the services I offered (website design) and being confident in the work I did (even if I really wasn’t that confident).

From time to time, people noticed. When people noticed, I used my communication skills to seal the deal and get started. I had a website (in fact, it was an early version of this one) where I put my best work and let people learn about me. I even made business cards to give to people I met. You never know where new leads might come from.

One time, my friend and I went door to door in New Jersey trying to convince random businesses to let us redesign their website. We quickly learned that is not an effective way to sell web design.

The bottom line is that I put my work in as many places as possible and did whatever it took to get new projects (paid or unpaid) to build my portfolio. After a while, I got invited to Dribbble, which allowed people from all over the world to see my work.

This significantly boosted the number of clients who were interested in hiring me. Unfortunately, invitations are hard to come by, but there are other websites like Behance that are open to the public and also very popular.

With lots of hard work and dedication, you too can sit back and watch the emails roll in every week. I’m almost never without freelance work opportunities, which puts me in complete control of my professional career. That is where I think you want to be too.

What can you do?

Here are a few things you can do to get clients contacting you for work early in your freelancing career. Remember, you’ll eventually want to automate this process as much as possible and minimize your advertising and marketing efforts.

The ultimate goal is making your website do the heavy lifting for you. It can take years of hard hard work to do this, but my hope is that these tips helps you get there a little faster and more efficiently.

1. Make Your Work Public

Join a popular community like Behance or Dribbble that let you display your work in front of thousands of people around the world. It’s great to have your own personal website, but that is not nearly public enough to get you noticed as a beginner.

2. Make Your Services Public

Always be telling people about what you do. Whether it is on social media, at lunch with your friends, or your date at a coffee shop, show that you are passionate about whatever it is you do. Clients want to hire someone who is motivated to see the project through to fruition and provide a good service for their business.

3. Build a Network

I happen to favor LinkedIn, Twitter, and Dribbble for online social networking, but that is just one medium. If you want to build a strong network, you need to exercise your communication skills and be ready to publicize your passion in person when the opportunity arises. Again, this could be as simple as telling someone about what you do, but it could also be a sales pitch if the opportunity is right. You have to get the word out there in face-to-face conversations and know how to communicate effectively.

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4. Be Convincing

When I first started out, I had no idea what I was doing. My clients told me what they needed and I would excitedly tell them, “Sure! I can do that for you.” Then I would go back to my room and frantically search the internet for a way to do what they wanted. As I learned more and more, the search results were common knowledge and I didn’t have to panic as often. I faked my own confidence until I made it a reality, but I always found a way to deliver on the expectations I set for my client.

5. Never Give Up

It wasn’t always easy. I had bills to pay and in the beginning, work was definitely not rolling in. I never knew when I was going to get my next project, but I was always designing or coding something and getting it out there for the world to see. My early work was not very good and I would be ashamed to show it to any of you now, but we all start somewhere. Simply put, make sure your work is good for the experience you have. Don’t compare yourself to the all-stars. Instead, use them to remind you of where you want to be.

6. Be Passionate

This is perhaps the biggest key to success as a freelancer. You have to be passionate. I absolutely love what I do. It’s what makes me tick. I love creating things and my career allows me to create something new every day using design and web technologies. Passion will get you through failed projects and crappy clients because when you love what you do, nothing else matters. Never lose your passion.

About Matt Olpinski
Matt runs his own web design and development company Matthew’s Design Co. and teaches thousands of freelancers how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers — The Freelance Institute.
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