How To Find Freelance Work
(and why you should be "Freelance" instead of Freelance)
I want to talk about how *you* can get busy working for yourself with skills you already have or can acquire with a few months of hard work.
There are a lot of people out there with 69-84% of the pieces they need to do it and just need to fill in the gaps to become a W2 de-transitioner.
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Media, Design, and Coding are all great I lean on them the most because a lot of people have these skills already.
If you don’t, you can literally learn this stuff from 0% with YouTube and Udemy tutorials for very cheap. If you throw a few months of intense learning time at it, you’ll know if you have a talent for it.
This is a big deal because if you’re not into doing sales full time, this offers another way into a 6 figure career path with no college necessary.
Ask around The Jungle as to how you’d package your knowledge and sell it as a consulting service if that’s not your thing.
If you have a valuable skill or knowledge of some industry, there has to be a way to sell it that could potentially help you quit your job, or provide a 2nd stream of income so you sleep easier at night while people are getting laid off left and right. Saying it’s not possible is simply an excuse.
I say “freelance” in quotations because of some other chatter that came up withwhere he managed to piss off a decent chunk of freelancer Twitter while making some very good points about how you market yourself and how that affects pricing.
Here is my original thread that inspired this.
The first and most important thing you need is examples of your work and if you have them, testimonials or case studies that feature results of what you helped accomplish.
I don’t have the best example of this in The Jungle right now because I’m busy as fuck well into June. Portfolio updates generally happen when things slow down and I’m looking for more to do.
What if you’re new?
You need at least one strong example of work you can synthesize on your own. This does not need to be something for a client, just don’t use a tutorial project that was spoon fed to you step by step.
Even if you’re showing off a piece you made totally for fun, if it’s representative of what you can create for others, that counts. No reason you can’t use that to sell your skills.
A client is going throw a bunch of novel challenges at you that you’re going to have to figure out solutions on your own so you need to be able to solve problems independently.
And it’s always better to show not tell them you can do this.
You'll have to grind more to get your first few clients, but remember everybody starts somewhere and this resistance is a big piece of what keeps a lot of people stuck in their day job.
For the more experienced people
Go over everything you do regularly. I call this “taking inventory”. If you’ve been doing the thing you plan to freelance in for a while, take some time to review your work from the past year or two.
One thing I’m very guilty of is doing a project, then completely forgetting it ever existed. When I do portfolio updates it always feels like I’m starting from scratch until I comb my hard drives and remember all the stuff I worked on.
I’ll often come back to something I didn’t think much of at the time and see that it stands the test of time much more than I thought it would.
Your Offer & Pricing
Before you start sending your portfolio around, you need to do some research and get a feel for what people are willing to pay for different services you offer, what you can reasonably charge, and what you do that sets you apart.
What makes you different doesn’t mean you re-invent the wheel. It can be something as simple as specializing in a certain industry. Example: You do web development, but you know exactly what lawyers need in a great website so you focus on that niche.
Make a private menu of options in a document with your various offers once your clear on what you do and who it is for (as well as who it is NOT for). These should be a few services bundled together as packages.
Some people will write out a few customer avatars to crystalize this. Detailed profiles of their ideal clients, what their needs are, pain points, budget, all that.
You also want to incorporate some flexibility to subtract services clients don’t need and look for upsell opportunities.
For example, a production company usually wants a flat day rate for me to be on-site and my upsell is charging rental fees for certain equipment like nicer lenses.
If I’m selling a video package to a brick and mortar company, a basic package would be a brand video, 1-3 explainer videos, with an option to put me on retainer and crank out 10-20 pieces of short form content per month.
As you work, I encourage you to track the amount of time you put into things closely because you’ll need to tweak your pricing structure as you go and you want to be aware of what your time is actually worth.
There’s no way you get all this right on attempt #1 so you’ll be refining this a lot as you go. Some of it depends on what opportunities come your way just by dumb luck. As you work, take note of which projects are a pain in the ass and which ones have better margins so you can go get more of them.
Know what your time is worth by the hour and put together your proposals with that in mind, but don’t directly charge people by the hour. If I’m aiming to make around $100 an hour, that isn’t the offer I make. The offer is a video package from $5-10K that reflects this.
To quote the illimitable Jungle founders BowTied Bull:
“Hate sales? Too bad.”
Lots of people think they can rely exclusively on personal network to bring in business then are rudely awakened by reality. This is a good place to get your feet wet, but it should not be your only source of leads.
Cold outreach will move the needle the fastest. Yes, you’ll do marketing and eventually start getting referrals so you have some inbound traffic to lean on, but you’ll be a lot more confident in yourself if you can bring in business by just sending some emails or phone calls.
Why selling yourself isn’t so bad, even if you hate sales
You have control over the product, branding, and get to keep all the money. And selling is part of your job, but not the whole job.
I’ve done a little corporate sales work. I was bad at it and hated every second in the office. But this was for a smile-n-dial kind of place selling a lame ‘also ran’ kind of product. And the commission structure became less interesting over time as new management started nickle and diming everybody.
I’m grateful for the experience.
That was the first place I used systems like Salesforce, learned how to obtain tricky to find emails, saw what information is worth paying for and what isn’t. And most importantly, got a lot of time talking to people.
Eventually I put together that I could just do the same things to market my own skills. I also saw the level of intensity you needed to approach it with. I was making 100-200 calls a day and not getting very far.
Ran the math. I did not need anywhere near that amount of volume to sell my own services to people and match my old paycheck. Better targeting and better offer were not hard to figure out. Went and did that. It worked.
During this period of my life, I was still pretty broke to be honest (I wasn’t selling a great service then) but this was my come to Jesus moment where I saw the light. Got me out of the W2 and opened up a huge chunk of time I could put into better things.
How to do cold outreach
You’ll hear different ways people approach it but for my work the portfolio does most of the talking and the sales process is pretty chill. Plenty of video guys don’t even have a good website, they mostly lean on a reel they send around as a YouTube link.
If I’m looking around for a new client who may need my help and find a good prospect, I just send a friendly email with examples of my work and offer to help. If I can show ways where I’d specifically improve things, that’s also helpful.
There tends to be a lot of follow up that happens because timing matters a lot.
People will often respond saying everything looks and sound great, but they’re between projects or are all covered for the moment. It’s common for them to be interested, but want to chat in a few weeks and not just be blowing me off.
Ok cool, so I just make a note to keep in touch with them and move on. Start with a basic spreadsheet of who you contacted, when, and when to follow up with any notes.
“Hard sell” tactics will do more harm than good. If you’re pushy and annoying in the first interaction, they’re not going to want to work closely with you on a production or retainer agreement that takes 3 months or more.
If you end up closing people over the phone, remember that it’s of course a sales call, but also a kind of job interview. You want to make a good impression, a strong offer, and also look out for any red flags that might make them a crappy client.
For a more concrete example, here is how I will do it when I’m ready to push my new After Effects and animated video products you’ve seen in The Jungle:
First I need a list of prospects.
(warm) Existing contacts who don’t specialize in graphics/animation, but might be able to recommend me or hire directly. Whenever I have a new skill to show off, I like to drop a line to these people. Sometimes even as a text message for people I’m very close with.
(cold) Production companies who subcontract this out or large agencies that specialize in motion or titles. Tougher to get “in” here, but the money is worth the struggle. A single win here could mean 30-50% more work for the entire year.
(cold) Corporate people with content marketing jobs.
Small business owners looking to grow with novel content.
Then I need to email around and get in touch with the right person to make sure they see my work.
Follow ups. I’ll probably get some trial projects at this phase, then play a lot of phone/email tag until some of my connections are ready to work with me. In the mean time I try to also follow any social channels they’re active on where I keep a presence. Instagram is usually pretty good. Lots of creatives are there and pretty visuals do well, so good odds they see my new portfolio work as I publish.
Contracts and scope of work. When they’re ready, there’s some discussion about creative choices, my offers, scope of work, and what the payment structure will be. Then we lock it in, collect deposit and get to work.
A lot of stuff closes completely over email.
But for larger projects, there’s usually a zoom call and a more formal pitch with a presentation, especially if I’m dealing with corporate people or small business owners. They’re steeped in a culture where they have meetings to discuss the agenda for other meetings. They can’t help sending out that calendar invite. So make sure you’re set up for this!
The video and film people are the opposite. A production company will tell you to show up at some random building in LA at 7AM and ask for Pete, then email a plane ticket and confirm my day rate. Two days later I’m sitting on a Pelican case in loading dock waiting for Pete to show up and explain what the fuck we’re doing today. There’s usually a crew call sheet floating around somewhere, but I have to ask for it a lot.
I’m sure your specialty has its own funny peculiarities like this.
I don’t do free trial projects or speculative work.
The culture of “spec work” is a scourge to society. People do it anyway because they want to work in a cool kid industry.
Its great to be on the other end of because you get to see a wider variation in ideas for free or extremely cheap, pick the one you like, then take credit for it so your colleagues can tell you what a brilliant artistic mind you have.
If I were a talentless creative director, I would shill for this system all day long.
The free work you should actually do:
Learn new skills and add them to your portfolio.
Make ads for your business for free until one hits.
Start a YouTube channel or grow an Instagram/LinkedIn/TikTok/Email list/whatever.
This is more than enough to make a case that your services are worth paying for. Don’t let someone cuck you into “proving yourself” to them because they worked at HBO for a couple years.
Where to get help on the sales stuff
I’m not really a sales guy so if you see ways to improve the way I do it, I’m all ears!
This is just my current method and I still have plenty to learn. I’m sure they are ways to optimize, but it works well enough to keep me busy.
Unlike when I started, we now have access to all these sweet Jungle accounts dedicated to sales skills likeand
Follow these guys on Twitter, buy their courses, pay for consults with them if you’re really struggling in this department. Whenever I need to sharpen my skills up for a big call, this is where I go.
If you want a second opinion on all of this from someone on the other side of the glass who you could potentially be pitching your services to, especially if youre into video or media,works in content marketing and writes a Substack called that would be worth checking out.
Avoid. This is a trap. Unless you want to become a commodity because you enjoy having things in common with literal soybeans.
Fiverr, Upwork, Thumbtack, all these kinds of places. Fuck these things. You’re competing with too many people charging rock bottom prices.
No one sees what differentiates you. They see your prices first. On a Zoom call with a prospect, I literally do the opposite. Show as much value as possible upfront, try to address objections before they come up, and package prices + offer are the last thing we get to.
I used to scan these for marketplace work from time to time just to see, but its not even worth that. Go walk the dog, call your mom, or stare at a wall for 15 minutes. All would be more productive activities.
Being the expensive guy on a list of 200 freelancers charging $15-45/h is a good way to not be able to pay your electric bill.
If you live in a country where that is lot of money, it might be worth the time to do some of this work but I’ve never personally been in this position.
Even if that’s the case, putting effort into learning English fluently, learning about US culture, and how to sell your services independently has an absolutely insane upside for you. Do that instead of getting stuck on Upwork forever.
Also. The good clients I work with don’t want to deal with hiring people on these platforms as much as I don’t want to be on them.
Why would you want to build out a presence on gig marketplaces that people go to where the main attraction is cheap services? This is a step away from being a Wal-Mart greeter as far as I’m concerned.
An alternative strategy
If you are trying to pitch something like design or video services, you’d be better off going on a job website like Indeed or LinkedIn, search for companies hiring content marketing positions, then get those on your radar because you know they’re planning on investing in content in the near future.
You’ll hit them up, probably get a no which is actually a “not right now” then follow up once the position is filled.
A new hire is going to lean toward using people they already have a relationship with because they want to look good for their boss, but if you have strong portfolio pieces you’re eventually going to find someone who will take a chance on you for whatever reason. Maybe their main guy is unavailable, their boss hit them with a novel request, whatever.
When that happens, just make sure you give them an excellent experience that makes them want to come back and recommend you. Make them look like a genius for choosing you.
Which leads me to..
You will eventually get people passing your name around once you’ve delivered great results for a client. Some people even like to brag that they have “the best guy” for something.
This makes life easier. The general level of trust is higher with a referral than a cold lead or someone who finds you via marketing efforts.
Chances are decent that they’re already familiar with your work through the person who put a good word in for you.
Be careful about offering discounts. Avoid if possible. I find referrals ask for this more often because they’re more comfortable with you right away.
One trap I fell into was you give Person A a discount because there were on the line and needed a little push to close. Margin is tighter, but it goes well otherwise so you’re good. They then refer you to their good friend Person B who wants the discounted price, but then pushes for more on top of that because they like to haggle. You can’t do that, so you pass. Now Person A gets weird with you because you rejected their friend.
So I’m not a big fan of incentivizing people with discounts. Your price is the price for a reason.
If a client needs to work with you on pricing, that’s fine, subtract services or deliverables but don’t do $1,000 in work for $700. It’s better to incentivize them with value.
“The $6k package is double what the $3k one is in cost, but you get way more than double the value because of A, B, and C” That kind of thing.
Some people just like to bitch about price and want to see the number go down so they feel like they won the negotiation. Sure you can price in some wiggle room for people that need this itch scratched, but people who do this tend to be a pain in the ass who send pages of the most anal retentive revision notes about things that don’t matter.
My move is to tell them to go shop around, even point them to a few other options and mean it. I’ll also say that I’m not the cheapest option and explain what to watch out for if they go that route.
This is a good defense against people that aren’t a good fit for me and they go take their used car guy haggle routine somewhere else.
Or they go talk to 3 other companies then come back because the other offers were not as good.
Or they go with the cheap guy after I warned them to watch out for X, Y, and Z. One of those things happens and they come back to me because I was at least honest with them it proves that I know what I’m talking about.
Marketing Yourself As Freelance vs “Freelance”
Now I finally get to tell you what I mean by “freelance” work.
Even if you’re working on your own and hiring help as you need it, it makes way way more sense to position yourself as a company or agency.
You look more established and can charge more money for basically the same work with a little extra setup.
This is a move out of theplaybook. You can do well as an indie freelancer or solopreneur if you really aren’t a corporate 9-5 kind of person. I can speak to that personally.
But. Don’t go around telling people that.
Most people think Freelance = you’re poor
Be mad if you want. But it’s true. People think freelancer is a euphemism for “unemployed person scraping by on $20K a year.”
In my rougher years I lived this life and discovered that basically nobody feels bad for you. They love telling you to get a real job and be miserable. Like them.
In my better years, pure jealously. You work for yourself and you’re doing well? Parasite People will actively try to sabotage or steal your work. Downplay the perks and tell the Parasite People how hard and stressful it is.
Agency isn’t a scary word
If you’re like me, you prefer to work mostly on your own. The thought of running a busy office with a bunch of people who all have HR grievances is hell on earth.
This not what your agency will be. You’re going to do mostly the same work with a few extra steps.
It’s all the same work
Your initial “agency” or dev shop or whatever you choose to start is going to be you plus 1-5 other people you hire for jobs as needed. Maybe you purchase white label services as an add on for your clients. That’s it. If you want to scale up, cool but you don’t have to if you want to build some other thing.
Your life isn’t that different than if you were advertising yourself as a solo person for hire in terms of what you actually do, but you can go after bigger clients for juicier rates.
A company with a budget is going to be way more comfortable partnering with XYZ Motion & Video Services for their content needs over Phil C. from Syracuse who does video on weekends. They want an invoice from a real company. Not a Venmo request from Phil.
Its fine if Phil starts out doing a few jobs on his own to test the waters, but if it’s a go he needs to get that LLC setup, get a tax ID, and build out the basic infrastructure of a company.
For me, this means instead of charging $1500 for a one-off brand video, I can charge $3,000 and sell them on a monthly retainer package to make ads or social media content which can vary from $3k-$12k/mo depending on the needs of the company you’re working with.
Your marketing activities are going to be more or less exactly the same to get inbound leads. You don’t need to paint your logo on a blimp. Your marketing won’t be that different than the usual stuff.
You need a company website, a sales process and billing infrastructure.
Email contact form at the least, but these days I’d recommend a service like Calendly where leads can book a call with you. For invoicing and my books, Quickbooks works fine for me.
Write SEO articles, run some paid traffic, collect testimonials & case studies, find an organic social media channel you’re good at, etc except instead of “hire me” the message is “book a call with us”.
This takes some time to build up which is why you need to start with cold outreach to get the ball rolling, however once you have delivered work to a few clients successfully and spent time on marketing, people will start to come to you.
Fortunately, unlike being an influencer or selling a mass market product you do not need an enormous online audience or email list to sell to. 4-6 solid clients can easily keep your schedule full and then some.
You’ll have a reputation. Instead of being worried about finding clients, you’re more concerned about saying no to things, scaling up so you can accept more work without a quality compromise, or finding other ways to add value for them. This can flip much faster than you think.
You suffer for a few months of bleeding while you try to get clients in the door, but then in another 3 months you have more work than you know what to do with.
If you made it to the end of this, good shot you have the fire in your belly required to operate working for yourself. This article is on the longer side, but hopefully is one you come back to as you build.
There’s a staggering amount of NGMI level information out there on this topic, most of which I’ve tried at one point or another because I didn’t know any better.
I blame a lot of this on the rise of ‘gig economy’ work which is in many ways a renegotiation of the same old same old with a shiny new tech veneer.
Don’t let the people who think that’s the only option discourage you. There’s just too many people out there who need help from someone like you with specialized skills, but hopefully this article shows you that how you package and deliver your skills makes a massive difference in terms of what you take home from your effort.
You’ll still have to fill in gaps and adapt this to your talents and experience, but this gives you a framework for what to do and more importantly a framework for knowing what information to reject.
I hope this saves you from learning some things the hard way like me. Good luck!
Tamarin's Treetop Laboratory is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.