As soon as I began my full-time communications and marketing career, I also started freelancing on the side. I wrote blogs for websites, managed social media accounts, and conducted media relations. It helped me gain more work experience and… money. After all, salaries for entry-level jobs are low and I wanted to pay off my student loans ASAP.
A 2019 survey found that 40% of Canadian millennials have participated in the “gig economy” in the last five years. This included work like graphic design, computer programming, babysitting, and more. That’s not the majority of millennials but it’s an incredible percentage nonetheless. For 30% of the respondents, they needed to freelance to make ends meet while 13% freelanced because they couldn’t find a full-time job.
After graduating, finding your first job can be a lengthy process. And for most, a full-time job that provides a salary and stability is the goal. But while you’re searching for stability, doing freelance communications work is a great way to make money, connect with professionals, and bulk up your resume. Also yes, you can find freelance work even if you’re only at the beginning of your career. It’s not an option only available to seasoned professionals with a huge network.
Wondering how to get started? I reached out to some super freelancers and asked how they did it.
How to find freelance work
A common way to find freelance work is through personal and professional connections. However, at the beginning of your career, your network might be very small. In that case, turn to job boards first.
My first freelance job was writing blog posts for a U.S.-based organization. I found the opportunity on a job board that posted remote opportunities and I applied using a speech I wrote in college as a writing sample. During the interview, I hit it off with my future manager as she was impressed I had a bunch of blog ideas ready. Our relationship lasted for a year-and-a-half before I moved on to higher-paying freelance work.
Freelancer extraordinaire Michelle Nguyen recommends joining Facebook groups such as Women Who Freelance Toronto, Girl Gang and Toronto Ads & Networking as they’re always posting last-minute opportunities. But for her, opportunities came through other avenues: “All of my existing clients have come from referrals from previous jobs I’ve worked or friend-of-a-friend type referrals.”
Same here. Apart from the first job I mentioned, all my freelance work came from personal connections. These jobs were never posted anywhere and the ‘interviews’ were just casual conversations. Was it dumb luck? Sure, I was lucky to know the right person but that person also observed I was good at what I did and when they heard of an opportunity, they thought of me first.
Michelle had a similar experience: “I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how you get into freelancing and a lot of it comes from an existing trust in the work you do. For me, that came from previous employers reaching out with new opportunities or recommending me to their colleagues who needed some support. They liked working with me, so they kept finding reasons to insert me into new projects.”
If you do have an expansive network, then be vocal with your contacts that you’re looking for freelance work. Poke at your friends, peers, siblings, aunts, and everybody else. You can even create a job where one doesn’t exist yet.
Here’s Michelle’s advice: “Do you have any friends or family with side-hustles who need help with their website copywriting or their social presence? Does the cafe near your place serve amazing croissants, but their Instagram game is weak? Consider reaching out to these people and ask if you can help them out. Often this approach doesn’t include much compensation, but in this case, it’s really about the investment in your portfolio and testimonials.”
Still having trouble finding work?
So, you’ve followed all the above advice but still can’t find clients. It’s time to make yourself a more appealing candidate.
Michelle notes, “Clients want to see what they’re buying.” She suggests compiling all the work you’ve done before into a digital portfolio that is publicly accessible (such as a website) or can be easily shared along with your job application. And if you don’t have many work samples, create them. “Did you pitch an amazing communications plan for class that you are proud of? Have you always wanted to write a blog about your world travels, or start a food Instagram but never got around to it? These are terrific pieces that a potential client would want to see.”
During the hiring process, you’re not only selling yourself as a stellar communicator, but also as a person that people want to work with. Use your personal social channels to show that you’re passionate about your profession as well as the industry you want to work in. (Yes, all your sports tweets may actually lead to a career in sports.)
Marcy McMillan calls herself a “part-time communications freelancer” because she takes on freelance work on top of her full-time job. She encourages people to show off their abilities on channels they already use: “I have found clients through referrals from friends and colleagues, my website, and social media. Your personal social media accounts can be seen as an informal resume and I have been contacted through channels like Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.”
While you’re building up your social presence and starting your travel blog, you can also be learning about how to be a better communicator.
“If all else fails, you can play up your education,” Michelle suggests. “Take courses and get certifications. If you want to get into social media, take courses in photography, graphic design, writing for social or social media management for starters. Hootsuite, Google, Facebook Blueprint, and LinkedIn Learning have free or relatively cheap options that can be pinned to your LinkedIn profile, and absolutely can be put on a resume.”
Setting the right price
When you’re discussing a freelance opportunity, payment needs to be a part of that first conversation. Maybe at the start of your career, you are willing to accept less money. Or, you’re a few years in and are taking the opportunity for its other benefits. That’s totally fair! But if you are freelancing because you need extra income, it is imperative that you are paid fairly.
Follow Michelle’s golden nuggets of advice:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.
- Never go under your minimum hourly rate.
- Get everything in writing.
There is no magic number. It all depends on who is paying you, the work, and how much time you devote to it. Payment options also vary, from a certain amount per project to an hourly rate—or some other arrangement.
In Marcy’s experience, each freelancer has their own way of figuring out their rate. “For some people, it is an hourly rate and for others, it is project-based or an agreed-upon flat rate. I have personally tried all of these options. There are many things to take into consideration when establishing rates—the client, project, time, tools/resources, experience, budgets, and the list goes on. There is a lot to consider when summed up into a dollar amount.”
Michelle takes a more calculated approach (literally): “Combine your rent, bills, groceries and figure out your average monthly spending. If your expenses are around $2,000, then you need to make at least $2,400 a month to live comfortably. (Put 20% aside for taxes.) From that, you need to make a profit. Add another 20-30% profit margin to $2,400, or however much you feel comfortable asking. As a point of reference, 20-30% is modest. Very modest. From there, you know you need to make at least $3,000 a month to live comfortably. Divide that by the number of hours you want to work in a month and boom, that’s your hourly rate.”
What I commonly do is ask the client, “What is your budget?” Before an organization brings on a freelancer, they usually figure out how much they can pay them. There are varying degrees of freelancers and, frankly, you get what you pay for. If they can’t afford to pay much, they are likely to bring on an entry-level professional rather than a consultant with five years of experience.
Peaks and pits of freelancing
Michelle gets right to the point when she shares that a big benefit of freelancing is money (and freedom)! “The sky is the limit on how much you can make. You don’t have to make $40,000 a year if you don’t want to. You don’t have to work on boring projects if you don’t want to. You have the freedom to accept or reject projects if they don’t pay you enough, aren’t interesting enough, or even if you don’t align with the brand. That’s the best part for me, knowing that I never have to do work that I hate if I don’t want to.”
For me, even though I pursued freelancing to make extra money, the other benefits were just as good. I got to work on projects I found more fulfilling (compared to my 9-5 work) and meet incredible people. Marcy agrees that these factors are a major benefit of freelancing: “I love freelancing because I have had the opportunity to meet great people and clients and work on different types of communications projects in industries that I may not have worked in. With that, I have also learned along the way what a good client is and what kind of work is best suited for me as a freelancer.”
At a full-time job, you can get stuck doing the same work over and over. (Think endless pitching.) While freelancing, you choose the work you do and you’ll benefit greatly if you choose work that is challenging and new to you. It may not be immediately obvious what kind of freelance communications work is available but let’s just say, anything’s possible.
Marcy’s done it all: “Traditional media relations work, social media strategy, marketing and execution, strategic communications planning, crisis/issues management, blog and content writing, and even live broadcasts and events. You name it, and I probably have a communications plan for it.”
On the flip side, you can stick to one specialty and build a reputation for mastering that domain. Michelle’s freelance work focuses on social media strategy and implementation: “I take a look at the brand and their goals and then create campaigns around that and decide on the platforms it should live on.”
But what are some of the pitfalls of freelancing? At the end of 2019, I was burnt out but my student loans were paid off. I dropped my remaining freelance work and decided to only focus on my full-time job and this website. If you are already stressed out and overworked by a full-time job or full-time course load, then don’t freelance. Wait until you can give freelancing more attention and focus. You’ll only end up disappointed when you won’t be able to give it your best effort, and you’ll disappoint your clients too.
For many people, the decision to freelance isn’t a choice. Financial needs drive many of us to turn to alternative sources of income and job competition (particularly in a slow, pandemic-impacted market) means we have to become freelancers until we find a full-time position. So, becoming a freelancer may not be your ideal scenario, but give it a shot. It may just be the boost your career needs to launch to greater heights.