My first attempt at freelancing was a giant failure.
In 2012, I left my job as a university research assistant. I’d been reading plenty of stuff about how people were making money as freelancers and it seemed simple enough. Surely I could do it too, right?
I had good experience in doing design and illustration work, so I decided to be a freelancing illustrator.
I ran out of savings, fast.
So, reluctantly, a year later, I went back to get a job as a banker in Hong Kong. Banks were where all the money was, I was told. I ended up being hired as a wealth manager and within a year’s time, I was earning $85,000 per year. But I had no stable time off. My life was hectic and I was deeply, viscerally unhappy despite having the money.
It motivated me to try freelancing again.
Using the spare time I had, I spent more time to learn how to really build a freelancing business on the side. It took me two years of intense trial-and-error, but eventually I found out what really makes freelancing works. By the end of the whole process, my illustration business alone was able to bring me my first six-figure income. That was when I realized that I could make it without my job.
Nowadays, I do more than just illustrations. My service has expanded to doing creative and marketing consultation as well, with last year’s earnings totaling $105,000.
But it didn’t just happen randomly. Here are the three things I did which helped me earn as much (and even more) than I did as a banker.
A lot of us think this is how freelancing works in the beginning:
I did this, too. I offered my rates at $25 per illustration. I was proud of myself because I wasn’t charging five bucks, but I wasn’t charging hundreds of dollar for one, either.
Did it work? No. I didn’t get any clients despite my low rates.
After a month of frustration and feeling another failed attempt, I recklessly increased my price to $60 per hour — beyond the average market price. Much to my own surprise, that was when clients started rolling in.
It is tempting to charge low when there’s a lot of competitors out there charging abysmally low and undercutting each other in their pricing.
Don’t follow this trend.
Instead, research how much your market is willing to pay by looking at your leading competitors. These leading competitors show how much you should be asking for to show that you are serious about your work.
I’m not the only person who’s realized this. A good example of how lower prices don’t win the best clients is a post from my friend Brennan Dunn, who wrote about why he ended up hiring a videographer that cost 10 times his allocated budget when he could have easily hired another for far less.
Not everyone is going to be your customer.
This includes the people who like what you’re offering. A vast majority of them won’t actually pay you, and that’s okay.
It does, however, make it important to find a way to identify the people who are or will be genuinely interested in hiring you. These are the people you want to talk to and find out the most about.
I prefer to test my audience by offering giveaways of posters I created or even a free illustration from myself. From that, I’ll be able to track which of my audience is willing to share and participate. Of course, the exposure from a giveaway is great, but the important thing is that it lets me see which of my audience is willing to take the extra step.
The people who take the extra steps to be involved are often the ones that have a higher likelihood of paying for your services. When you know who they are, you can focus your energy to cater to them.
One of the most common mistakes that I see freelancers make is creating a website or a Facebook page, posting that their services are available, and settling in to wait.
Please don’t do this. Do not sit and wait for other people to message you about your service.
Instead, directly reach out to your qualified fans. Ask them if they are interested in your services for a price. One of the simplest way to do this is simply send them an email, if you have an email list. If you have catered to a social media platform, sending them a simple message through the platform often works too.
Yes, you will receive a lot of rejections. But you’ll also find people who are willing to pay a lotfaster than just sitting and waiting for them to come to you. The importance of the momentum you get out of these quick wins and hires cannot be overstated.
One last thing: Have an iron reason why you’re doing this. Not everyone is meant to be a freelancer, and that’s perfectly fine. Often, like for me, this reason has more to do with freedom than money. It will give you the strength to weather the storm.