Freelancing has set a new precedent in 2020. It’s slowly getting accepted as the new norm as we’ve adjusted to working from home, and it appears that for freelancers there’s nowhere to go but up. There are now 36% more full-time freelancers, who will undoubtedly shift the landscape of online work. So, in this article, I’ve set out to explore what it takes to survive as a freelancer in 2021, and how you can make it work for you full-time.
Table of Contents:
- Why working for yourself is tough
- Tips and strategies every freelancer needs in 2021
- Never undersell yourself
- Learn how to present yourself to others
- Make a clear freelance career roadmap
- Build a personal website and a portfolio to showcase your skills to others
- Learn how to upsell yourself
- Use the stacking tactic, or “What’s in it for THEM”
- Stick to your specialty, but be ready to expand
- Practice your negotiation skills
- Be ready to let some clients go and embrace the risk
- Use the fear of missing out to test the waters
- Look everywhere for new ideas
- Other strategies
Why working for yourself is tough
For a few years, while I was finishing up college and starting my first full-time job, I did content writing here and there. Working for different clients on all sorts of projects proved to be an invaluable experience in pitching, negotiations, work ethics, and business communication overall. But the one thing I never seemed to get a hang of was earning more money.
I didn’t know how to expand my client base.
I had no idea how to up my rates and justify them to regular clients.
My confidence was awful, and I never valued my work properly.
Knowing I couldn’t provide seasoned freelance advice on my end, I’ve decided to contact two of my good, years-long friends. One of them is Stefan Radojčić, who waded through thick and thin of freelancing to become a brand communication manager. The other is Jovana Zorić, who loved to write, but ultimately decided to swap the stresses and uncertainties of freelancing for more secure work as head of customer success at a software development company.
Stefan and Jovana went through similar freelancing hardships, but came out on two very different ends, which I found could be great for the interview. I put them on a call one night and picked their brain on what it takes to advance in an already saturated market.
Here is what they had to say.
Tips and strategies every freelancer needs in 2021
Stefan was more than happy to share his years-long experience, as he quickly took over the conversation. He started by emphasizing how most of these strategies came as a result of numerous trials and errors.
They include steps to earn more money through:
- Acquiring higher-profile clients
- Upping your rates
- Creating more value out of your work
- Negotiation tactics
- Being your own marketing expert
The ones you are about to read are just some Jovana and Stefan had found worked best at getting them to where they are today.
💡To see how well you already fare in the freelancing world, you can read our article on starting freelancing full-time. We discuss questions every freelancer should ask themselves and how to know you’re being at your most productive.
1. Never undersell yourself when freelancing
Stefan started off by saying that the biggest mistake he made from the get-go was pricing his services too low. And while in retrospect, it was still a valuable learning opportunity, he would advise people to think long and hard about how much they value their work.
Calculate your time’s worth
I asked Stefan if he always charged by the hour, or if he followed the other common advice of charging by the project.
He was adamant about charging by the hour and calculating your work’s worth when you are starting out. This data is the one foolproof thing you have as a freelancer because successfully pricing by the project takes a lot of experience and skill. It’s not an easy thing to assess.
When you feel like upping your rates, have a two-week period of tracking your time in more detail as you work.
- Note how much time you spend on research
Some clients or companies will take more time and effort than others; Even seasoned agencies know this.
- Take negotiations into account
Track time spent on calls and count the number of emails exchanged because they too affect your work time;
- Observe how much time you spend on revisions
Of course there will be things that need fixing. But to make sure clients don’t go overboard and cost you valuable time, you should always track time spent on these fixes.
- Reports are your best friends
After tracking time across several projects, you can use your time tracking software to generate a report for your clients. That way, both parties can see how much time was spent on what activity: actual work, meetings, emails, revisions, brainstorming sessions, etc.
If you decide to earn more by charging more, you are making a statement about your time’s worth. So make sure to first all the necessary data to back up any questions potential clients may ask when they see the change in price.
💡 At Clockify, we’ve created a free hourly rate calculator to help you out, which you can use from your browser.
Set a price higher than the minimum you’re willing to work for
As he grew more experienced, Stefan had learned a neat little trick:
“It’s fine if you want to work for say, $35 an hour. However, you should then set your rate at $45 or even $50. Because when you pitch your services to a client, either through a platform or independently, you can “lower” the price to $35 if needed. This does two things: firstly, it lets you haggle the price without lowballing too much, and secondly, the client doesn’t really know your actual rate is $35. So they will interpret the lower rate as your eagerness to work on their project.”
In short, another effective strategy is taking your desired rate, and upping it by a small percentage. Some clients will pay without thinking, while with others, you can haggle down to your actual working rate.
Do the necessary research
To know how much more you can earn with regard to your niche and skillset, you will want to:
- Study other freelancers
See how they compare to you. What do they offer? How much do they charge for each service? Who were their clients? What kind of reviews do they get? What makes them stand out?
- Study your job market
Not every market is the same. Programmers will have vastly different struggles from content writers. Stefan himself said that looking at the supply and demand in the copywriting field helped direct him into which services he should offer, and which he should leave behind.
Source: Clockify – Freelancing and consulting average hourly rates
If your specific niche has a saturated market, you will have to work much harder to stand out, or shift to something with higher demand, but not enough supply.
2. Learn how to present yourself to others
One of the things Jovana and Stefan agree on is that the way a person presents themselves online plays into landing higher-profile clients.
If you want to start earning more by attracting more serious clients, regardless of what you do, it’s important to have:
- A professional-looking photo of yourself;
- A LinkedIn profile that emphasizes your skills and strengths, projects you’ve worked on, prior client and coworker impressions, etc.
- An informative email template with your title, email, relevant links, and/or numbers at the bottom;
Think of it as putting your best self forward. A clean and clear online presence is more likely to draw in higher-paying clients.
💡There are hundreds of freelance job websites and platforms out there. Take a look at our 140+ freelance websites list if you’re considering switching, or want to expand your client base.
3. Make a clear freelance career roadmap
Before going into specific steps, the crucial first move is to make a roadmap.
This is the moment where you set aside a few days to mull over your freelancing goals. If you want to earn more money, take a look at where you are now, where you want to be, and which steps you need to take to get there. Whether it’s short or long term goals, having this kind of framework helps you plan out your next move, assess risks in time, and make more informed decisions.
In 2019, Harvard Business Review published an article examining what it takes to be a successful freelancer. They listed that every freelancer’s survival kit needs three things:
- Mental agility;
- Resilience and
In their research, those willing to set aside the time to plan out their career paths and create frameworks with specific goals, reported having greater work satisfaction and more success.
As an example, a freelancing roadmap could look like this:
Source: Adam Yaeger, Medium
If your goal is to earn more, you can narrow it down to a specific goal. For example:
- Raise my price from $35/hr to $50/hr in two months
Then your roadmap could look like this:
Assess current clients —- Assess current workflow —– First raise —— Second raise
4. Build a personal website and a portfolio to showcase your skills to others
“Probably my biggest increase in price came after I had made a personal website”, recounts Stefan. “I would talk to potential clients on a platform, whether it’s Upwork or LinkedIn, and then I’d direct them to my website if they wanted to learn more about what I do.”
As he draws from his own example, a quality website can take a big chunk of pressure out of the initial communication with the client. There’s less of a need to form a perfect pitch or employ strategic phrases just to get their attention. Because once a person follows the link to your website, you let the portfolio speak for you.
The only downside to this strategy is that you can never really tell if potential clients will visit the website and hire you. Plenty of employers nowadays are used to information being delivered on the spot. Some might not feel like spending the time to browse through your portfolio and just go for the next best candidate.
Still, having a website is an invaluable resource, as you will also have employers who will find you through it.
What kind of website should you build?
This is a wholly individual choice.
Depending on the industry you work in, the design, the layout, and specific examples for the portfolio will vary. Luckily, today we have numerous hosting websites and platforms that cater to freelancers of all skill levels.
So you won’t necessarily have to learn to code.
- WordPress is a solid, safe choice for any beginner that wants a little more control over their website. Stefan himself lists this as an important reason for using it in the beginning, and I quote: “I really wanted to make it cool, and kick ass, and I wanted to be proud of it, even though making it aged me from all the stress, since I can’t code at all.”
- Wix is a website building platform with hundreds of templates to choose from. They’re categorized according to the type of work you do – designers, writers, small business owners, architects, etc. There are even solutions for educators, hoteliers, and travel agents.
- GoDaddy is another example similar to WordPress, but it differs by allowing users to create their websites simply by dragging and dropping boxes onto the layout. It’s easy and accessible, but not as feature-laden as WordPress.
5. Learn how to upsell yourself
Upselling is a technique sales experts use, and it’s more common than you think.
One example is when McDonald’s used to offer their customer to supersize their meal at checkout. Instead of regular fries or soda, they’d get the largest size for a fraction of a higher price. The same technique is used by car salesmen when they offer the same model but with leather seats, or Dollar Shave Club, by having their most expensive products smack-dab in the middle of the landing page.
Now, before you dismiss this as a sneaky tactic, consider that numerous businesses (and individuals) need ways to stand out from their competitors. And there is no scamming involved – you’re simply playing the game smart.
Stefan actually gave a great example:
“I had this client contact me, I think they wanted me to write a short pitch. But, by that time I no longer did copywriting projects of such a small scale. I’ve moved on to more lucrative work. I did, however, visit their website they linked, and honestly, it looked rough. It was bad.
So I replied and was straightforward – ‘Look, I can write the most perfect pitch for you, but the fact is people will visit your website and potentially be turned off by it. You won’t convert clients that way.’ She understood me, and asked if I did websites – which was the more lucrative work I was doing at the time.”
Through just three to four messages, he managed to land a project that potentially earns him five to ten times more money. Also, excelling on a higher-profile job like that earns the client’s trust and possibly converts them to long term clients.
Of course, this isn’t the only upselling method. There are great examples of how brands do it, especially in e-commerce. With a little brainstorming, you can easily convert any of those methods to suit you.
6. Use the stacking tactic, or “What’s in it for THEM”
As we talked about upselling, Jovana was reminded of Russel Brunson, a serial entrepreneur and author of Traffic Secrets. In one of his webinars, he mentioned a marketing tactic called “stacking”.
For Brunson, this method is as simple as they get: “Make the thing that you are offering so much more valuable, than what you’re asking for in return.” As he likes to illustrate, would you rather go on a date with a person who approaches with:
A: “Would you go out with me some time?”, or:
B: “I was wondering if you wanted to go see this new movie they are showing? We can go to lunch before that, I know a great Italian place. And there’s a cool little coffee shop that recently opened up, we can go thereafter.”
The difference between the two is that A is asking for a date without stating clearly why YOU would want to go out. All they know is that it benefits them. While B openly shares the experience you will have, making the offer that much more tempting.
The same is in business. Jovana summed it up nicely:
“Clients most likely won’t know how important that landing page is, or the brochure they want, or what goes into a brand’s logo design. You need to point that out, and let them know the value of what you bring to the table. You really need to go the extra mile, but with things that won’t necessarily take a lot of time, like preparing a landing page, proofreading, a website wireframe, etc.”
7. Stick to your specialty, but be ready to expand
In your pursuit of higher earnings, it’s logical you’ll work on expanding your skillset. Whether it’s through additional courses, studies, articles, YouTube tutorials, etc. What both Jovana and Stefan agree on, however, is that freelancers should stay in their lane, and not expand too much.
“As a content writer, for example,” Jovana says, “You will want to learn how to make and hold engaging presentations, create wireframes, perfect proofreading, and so on. You don’t go into it ready to learn coding because maybe some client one day will need those services too. You’re just stretching yourself thin, and it won’t help you earn more money.”
Stefan adds that if you want to start earning more through skills, you should follow these steps:
- Start off inside a niche (like copywriting, for example) and offer as many services within that niche;
- After some time, find the one aspect of your niche you know you’re good at and love doing. Work on perfecting that skill and those related to it; Specialize.
- When you perfect a service, it ends up becoming, as Stefan calls it – a high impact skill – one that you can justifiably charge more. However, you also reach this skill “ceiling”, and can’t really raise your price for that service beyond a certain point. That is when you look into related fields for skills that will help you broaden your portfolio. And the cycle begins anew.
He himself claims he used to do everything, from copywriting, content writing, marketing, basically “bringing virtual coffee to the clients”. Over time, he narrowed his services down and worked until he noticed he was reaching the skill ceiling: there was nothing new to learn, nor could he get better. What’s more, there was no real way for him to up his rates.
So, to keep evolving as a freelancer, he slowly switched to building brand strategies. It was a new field (but still in the marketing niche), a good learning opportunity, and most importantly – it paid more.
8. Practice your negotiation skills
Negotiations are a big part of a freelancer’s career. After all, you are your own agent, marketing strategist, and salesman. Most of the time, earning more money will mean upping your rates, which means – talking to clients and convincing them why your services are worth that much.
When I asked them about their own negotiation experiences, both of them had a few valuable nuggets of wisdom.
Treat freelancing platforms as marketplaces
Even Upwork advertises itself as a talent marketplace. Jovana advises looking at these platforms as eBay:
“If I want to sell some computers, I can just list them on eBay or Craigslist and have people find them just by browsing the site categories. But if I want to sell them without a platform, I’ll have to come up with an ad, find papers that will print them, pay for it, and still the outreach will be much smaller.”
Job websites are a great starting point for every freelancer to learn how to best advertise themselves, and negotiate prices. You can have up to dozens of interactions per day, which on its own is a great help to build the appropriate skills and confidence.
Confidence and patience can’t always be learned
Stefan shared the example of a friend who started off as a freelancer but was quick to realize how much he disliked negotiating prices and the fickle nature of employers. And since he had no patience nor drive to become better, he quit.
It’s good to first check with yourself how well you communicate with clients, what your patience threshold is, and how well you can project confidence. Will rate negotiations come easy to you, or is it something that can be a potential hurdle?
The harsh reality is that negotiations will play a big part in how much you earn. And if you are unable to overcome certain fears or issues (lack of confidence, anxiety, antisocial behavior, irritability), then you may not have a bright future in freelancing.
Invest time into learning what you can
Aside from practicing on job platforms, it’s useful to look into actual learning materials. There are books, YouTube channels, TED talks, and online courses all teaching negotiation tactics.
While they are a matter of confidence, negotiation tactics don’t come naturally, no matter how many times a day you chat with clients. Most of them need to be learned over time.
In one of our articles, we’ve covered how freelancers spend their time. What do you think, how much time do they spend promoting and marketing themselves?
9. Be ready to let some clients go and embrace the risk
In our humble freelancing beginnings, we were all justifiably wary of losing clients. After all, when you don’t have much work, and you’re still building a presence online, there’s the urge to cling onto any work, even if it pays less than we want to.
So it’s unsurprising that upping your rates will come with the fear that you will lose more clients than you will gain. However, it’s a risk every freelancer needs to face at some point. As I’ve interviewed them, Jovana pointed out how this especially was the difference between Stefan and her as freelancers.
Where he was willing to raise prices and shift tides at the expense of old clients who weren’t willing to scale with him, she was reluctant. Moreso, she had trouble letting go of clients she knew wouldn’t be willing to pay more because she needed the work.
As Stefan says, you need to do some introspection:
“I’m working with these types of clients right now who are paying X amount of money. Who are the ‘2.0 clients’ who will be willing to pay more?”
You can use questions like these when formulating your freelancing roadmap. It will lead you to creating the exact steps that will help you reach the goal faster, with more confidence.
10. Use the fear of missing out to test the waters
As our conversation neared the end, Jovana mentioned a tactic she often sees in business as a marketing specialist.
“If you’re unsure how your existing clients will react to a rate increase, you can announce it to them via email a month or two before you actually raise prices. Aside from it being a heads up to gauge how well your clients accept the increase, you use the opportunity to create FOMO (fear of missing out).
Let them know that, if they aren’t willing to hire you again after the increase, they can still use your service at the current more affordable price. Kind of like a promotional period.”
And personally, I find it ingenious (as someone who never really tried marketing themselves). The clients who’ve learned to trust you and got used to your quality of work will probably stay. Those who value their finances over freelancers will probably pass up the opportunity, which is a blessing in disguise.
11. Look everywhere for new ideas
Stefan shared how he created a zone for himself, where he would find inspiration from seemingly everyday things. He was getting inspiration from “Wolf of Wall Street”, or while browsing websites of his clients and peers.
It’s important to create a framework that will suit your personality and your career goals. After all, how many times have you heard entrepreneurs who found inspiration in fictional characters? Nearly 20 years later, the infamous “coffee’s for closers” scene from Glengarry Glen Ross inspires millions of people. Study movies, books, podcasts, look for inspiration in people and philosophies that represent you.
After talking to Stefan and Jovana, I found myself researching even broader. After all, it’s 2021, so there had to be even more strategies we haven’t covered. And of course, after some digging, I found a few more I felt like sharing, which aren’t necessarily directly tied to increasing your prices.
Earning more through crowdfunding platforms
For freelancers in the creative business, there’s always crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, Ko-Fi, Indiegogo, etc. This kind of side-gig can become quite lucrative if you are a designer, illustrator, cartoonist, writer, podcast host, etc.
Crowdfunding platforms allow you as a creator user to make your page where you can upload various types of content for a specific audience. Visitors can then subscribe to your content on a monthly basis, paying a set fee. This is a unique way of earning more while pursuing other avenues.
Find your freelance “tribe” to help you
While connecting to various other freelancers and entrepreneurs via LinkedIn sounds tempting, it’s not always prolific. When I opened my own page, I was excited at the idea of having hundreds of connections because hey – I’ll get more exposure, right? Well, not really. Every user on a platform like that aims to expand their network out of their own interest. Very few will direct their connections to interesting job postings, or individuals who could use their skills.
Your best bet would be to find people you can really network with. Whom you can help, and who will in turn push you forward. People who will give you feedback, offer tips, that you can attend webinars with, exchange information, and so on.
Of course, it’s always easier said than done. But, you can always use your social media, offer advice, follow people you find interesting and engage with their posts on LinkedIn…
For example, a few years ago I had found an illustrator on Instagram whose work I really admired. I left a few comments and followed their work for about a year before learning they had wanted to publish some of their works as a booklet. The artist asked on their Instagram story if any of their followers could help with proofreading it afterward. I contacted them immediately, and sure enough, due to our common interest in illustration, and knowing each other on some level (even if it was a few back and forth comments), the person was more than willing to hire me.
And as one-off as it was, it’s still one more person who will potentially contact me again, or recommend me to their peers.
Use freelance blogs, websites, and newsletters to your advantage
All of the above strategies we’ve mentioned require great proactivity on your side. After all, it’s what makes freelancing so challenging. And it also makes for thicker skin after you’ve spent a few years battling to come out on top.
However, you don’t always have to be alert and check your email obsessively. Choose a few freelancer websites and blogs to follow. They normally offer good tips, heads up on new platforms arising, opportunities, etc. There are dozens of freelancer newsletters, which email you the latest job offers, news, legal changes, and more. It’s a good way to stay up to date on the latest development. You don’t waste time seeking them out on your own.
With how the freelance landscape is changing, we need to become more resourceful and creative about earning online. That includes brushing up on negotiation skills, knowing what the best platforms are, valuing our own work hours properly and adapting big business sales and marketing tactics to our one-man-show.
And while using these strategies requires quite a bit of effort, the payoff will be enormous. Not only will you secure higher work hour rates, but you will gain communication skills, be able to read the market better, know your own strengths and weaknesses to be able to use them to your advantage. Working out how to earn more in freelancing will make you an all-around more valuable freelancer.
Finally, I would like to thank Jovana and Stefan for taking the time to chat with me about this topic, and willingly sharing valuable advice.
If you would like to get in touch with them, you can find them on LinkedIn:
Jovana Zorić – Head of Customer Success
Stefan Radojčić – Freelance Brand Communication Manager