Doing freelance online on Upwork, PeoplePerHour, Freelancer or similar platforms is hard because of global competition. Almost everything you have thought of doing is already being done by many others.
To make your business successful, I wrote these eleven empirically-proven freelancing hacks to make sure your business can stand the test of time regardless of which platform you choose.
(Originally I posted these tips on LinkedIn during September–November 2019. Follow the links in the headers to join the discussion!)
There are a number of tricks you can play online to raise your rates and grow your business.
Every time you’re fully occupied with your current clients, you can raise your hourly rate. It is perfectly safe. Let the market work to your advantage! $$$
I used this tactic when starting on Upwork at a $30/h rate which I calculated (wrongly!) by looking at the market rates of other software developers. From $30 I went to $44. Then $55, $66, $77, $88, $99 … the rest you can easily extrapolate. 🙂
I increased the price every time right after starting a new project so that the next potential clients saw a slightly higher price than what the current client had accepted.
When you’re in the long-term game, the conservative increase is the best way.
The other way is to add 50% or even 100% at one step. If working on freelance sites, doubling your rate too quickly will inevitably start to look strange.
Few clients would ask a guy who just did a 100-hour gig for $40/h suddenly charging $80/h for the next gig. The doubling tactic is more feasible if you only do fixed-price projects where the hourly rate doesn’t show in the list of previous jobs.
I recommend you play for the long term. That’s REAL freelancing. 😉
Once you find a good way to reach your clients, be sure not to stop there.
Keep experimenting with different ways to reach your clients. No method is permanent, but your freelance career could last your lifetime.
I started the usual way by offering my CTO-as-a-Service to the people I knew and found in Singapore. I found local clients.
I experimented with Elance.com. I found American clients.
Elance become Upwork, I got Top Rated from the beginning. I found global clients and they started to find me.
This year I’m experimenting with LinkedIn. Again, I found global clients and they started to find me.
Don’t get stuck in just one way. It might become obsolete quickly or you end up missing better potential.
At some point, you realize that you no longer need to find clients. Your clients find you.
The next step is when your clients start to fly to meet you in order to discuss a new big project.
At that point, be sure you can scale up your operation:
- Bring in other freelancers as teammates
- Define the interfaces to every collaborator
- Excel in organization and management skills
- Design the overall delivery, let others work on the details
- Make sure everyone in your team gets a good slice of the cake 😉
Before this can happen, you’d need to be prepared for all of the above points.
To do that, you can:
- Do small projects with others to find who can deliver what you need
- Outsource a small project to someone else completely to try it out
- Observe your own effectiveness of communications
- Measure your ability to predict the delivery of others before they give their own estimates and quotations
Some people separate work and personal life very strongly. Some prefer not even to pick up their phone after working hours.
This works great when you work for someone else.
When doing freelance you have a couple of key activities that you have to keep working on constantly:
- Grow your skillset
- Find clients (or talk to old ones)
- Optimize your work process
All of those require some planning, reflection, and creative thinking for doing things differently. Getting stuck with routines would lead to a situation not so different from a corporate hamster wheel. No point.
The way I combine routine and brain work is simple:
- The routine part comes from daily physical exercise which does not occupy the mind, such as hiking, cycling, jogging, etc.
- The mind is free to explore new ideas which seem to come to you much easier outside than when staring at a flat-screen
- Exercising increases the blood flow which in turn makes your brain run a tiny bit better
The impact is:
- I get plenty of new ideas and perspectives
- My work is twice as productive as in any previous job
- I stay fit
- I stay sane
- I get fresh air
- (I can scout for the best coconuts on the street)
It is not enough that you are good at what you do. You also need to be fast.
Without being fast, I suppose you can make a living, but you can never get cozy because your revenue and profit depend on your own time and that alone. Not being fast means you will spend a lot of hours earning enough $$$.
Being fast but not very good … well, that doesn’t make any sense. 😀 The result of your work would not stand on its own without someone else touching it before it’s finalized. Few would ever bother to buy from you.
The fastest milestone I’ve ever delivered was a custom-made recorder program made in exactly 48 hours. I did not sleep much, though, but my client mentioned something about “perfect work ethics,” which was a nice way to show his appreciation.
The fastest complete project took 4 calendar days: a demo version of a body-driven augmented reality dance game made over the weekend that enabled my client to win an award on Wednesday. In this case, I did sleep 8 hours a night and ate properly every day. After that, I took a day off. 😉
Doing complicated things fast when your client needs it is good business. Just organize your life accordingly.
Take only projects that help you nail at least two goals with one single activity.
Once your personal productivity is as high as it can humanly be, this is the only way left to improve your overall efficiency.
As most projects I do are for new businesses and most of them don’t get very far no matter what I do, I’ve accepted the possibility of wasting time as long as my clients get what they hope to build their businesses on.
I’ve taken projects of the smallest possible chance of success and unsure payoff to myself at best compared to the time invested.
I don’t mind being part of complete failure as long as I have a personal goal that I’m sure to achieve.
And I don’t mean copy-pasting code here!
Many times, I’ve taken a project that has offered learning opportunities such as going knee-deep in a technology that I haven’t used before, get more understanding of a business domain I haven’t touched yet, work with a new type of client, and so on.
Don’t only focus on earning as much as possible, find your personal development goals within each project that you take.
Nail multiple goals with each project to maximize your personal productivity!
Setting a price tag on your freelance work is the art part of freelancing. Sometimes, clients are not open to discussing a higher price than their original budget (no matter how inadequate for any reason).
There is a workaround:
- Listen to the whole story of your client.
- Identify other problems that are related to the one client is directly asking you to solve.
- Suggest solutions to those other problems.
- Offer your service for solving all of them at once.
- Organize, execute and hire others under your wing as needed.
This way you never need to ask for a higher price you might deserve as you can easily embed it to the overall price of the “complete solution” that you offer.
You can offer to take more load off your client’s shoulders instead of asking a higher price for one thing.
I’ve used this strategy to expand my offering from an expert software developer to CTO-as-a-Service. In the simplest case, this is nothing more than hiring a graphic design specialist to do those bits of a project that I’m not very good at. Yet, I can claim a bigger budget and take charge of the overall delivery which saves the hiring and management time for the client.
One of the hardest things about freelancing is the Zeitgeist of our era: New clients whom you have just met often need the work to be started right away. You take the job now or you lose the job forever.
Creating a backlog of projects that start months later can be hard in various industries.
This can lead to periods of working long hours to keep all your clients happy. And sometimes there isn’t any meaningful project in your niche at the moment.
The best solution is to race on two tracks. Your primary project work brings the big bucks and you have a secondary offering that brings small amounts of cash on a constant basis.
A good option for the second track is some sort of teaching or consultancy for other freelancers like you. As long as you know more than they do, your experience and skills have value you can trade for cash gladly paid by less experienced freelancers.
For the first three years of freelancing, I did bi-weekly meetings with Ph.D. students whom I helped as an external adviser and a “consulting professor” paid by my alma mater. Later, I turned the same activity into freelance-oriented CoachLancer.
Sometimes discussions with clients turn too much into the pricing of your services.
Some clients negotiate for the sake of negotiating. Some simply don’t have the money. Some are just squeezers by nature.
In case your price is not low enough for your client, just drop the case!
It is difficult and perhaps frustrating to have taken the time of discussing a project that doesn’t really land in a meaningful gig.
In those times, it helps to think of the good future that dropping a bad deal enables.
Perhaps the next client you don’t know anything about today brings you a really good deal which you would have missed because of being stuck with the bad deal.
Don’t worry about losing gigs. Just skip bad deals.
In the early days, I was developing a #Kinect application with the Preview version of Kinect for Xbox One for Windows. My version of the device did not have any warranty as the hardware was being finalized for the consumer market.
Halfway through a cool project, I realized my Kinect doesn’t wake up. It went dead 2+ weeks from the project’s end and the device was not available in any shop in Malaysia!
I had to tell my client about this as there was a big impact on the project:
“I regret to inform you that Kinect, a trusted colleague, and a close friend, passed away last night. His power levels don’t rise, his lights don’t blink. My CPR attempts did not revive him. R.I.P. Kinect.”
Of course, I also explained how I planned to acquire a new piece (from Singapore!) and how I could catch up with the schedule by working through the next two weekends.
He laughed. 😊
Everything was finished on time, I got paid, and we gave 5-star reviews to each other.
So, when you have done good work and your client is certainly happy with it, be open and transparent about unexpected problems you face. Most people appreciate your honesty and give you some slack to manage your challenges.
Documenting projects is a good practice for keeping track of your work. When you play for long-term success, you should be able to use all of your previous experiences to stay competitive in your market.
Take photos of you doing the work, scan initial sketches you may have produced, archive all milestone and final deliveries to every single client, and so on.
Good documentation helps you to:
- Build and maintain a good portfolio.
- Establish an online presence.
- Do healthy self-promotion of any kind.
- Re-use some ideas or materials that do not conflict with ownership of the results.
- Fine-tune your operational costs.
- Remember the good moments when things don’t go so well. 😉
You might think that “documenting everything” takes too much time from the real work, it pays off in the long run as it improves the overall efficiency of your business.
“Brilliant, but is this all I should know?”
Absolutely not! There are more hacks: