I’ve been freelancing since my college days – more than 10 years ago as of writing. WordPress was just five years old and I was just learning to blog. If I remember it correctly, my blogs started with Friendster and Multiply until I eventually moved to Blogger then WordPress.
So much has happened since then but blogging and writing paved the beginning of my freelancing career. It was back then that I discovered oDesk, where I actually found a client who paid me $3/hr to write product descriptions. Not bad for a college student in the Philippines back in 2008.
The Growth of the Freelance Economy
With the rapid growth of technology and the Internet, it’s not really surprising that so many of us are making a shift to the digital world. According to Betterment’s 2018 report, more than one in three US workers are freelancers and this is expected to grow by 40% by the year 2020. The growth has been so rapid that the gig economy rose from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015 – that’s only 10 years in between!
So many jobs have become obsolete because of technology but so many have opened up as well. And even better, you can work from home – or basically anywhere in the world as long as you have Internet access!
Of course, freelancing and working from home isn’t always rainbows and butterflies but I think that its advantages far outweighs its disadvantages.
Now…how exactly do you enter the freelance economy when you have no idea where to start?
Make the Decision to Start
Back in 2015, I had been dying to get out of corporate. I enjoyed my work as a junior programmer back then but sometimes, I felt like I was only functioning like a robot. Did you know I spent roughly 12 hours each weekday in the office? I’d get out of the house – and then get back home – each time with a sleeping baby.
It’s normal to feel scared. I certainly did not make my decision overnight. In fact, I only handed in my resignation after I received my first fortnightly paycheck from a full-time online work I just got into. They were aware of my situation, of course, and allowed me to work flexi even though the rest of the team worked fixed schedules.
If there’s one thing I can advise those who are just starting out or those who are thinking of making the shift, it’s to do it when you’re scared. If you wait until the conditions are perfect, it will never come and you will be spending the rest of your life thinking about the what-ifs.
This might interest you: 10 Common Myths About Running a Freelance Business
Pro Tip: This is a no-brainer but I don’t suggest making the switch until you have emergency funds – take it from me, it will be difficult. But, you can always start taking in a few freelance gigs while you are still with your 9-to-5 job.
Figure Out Your Services
The great thing about freelancing is that you don’t have to look any further to figure out what service to provide your future clients.
When I started out freelancing, I just marketed my love for writing and started making money out of it. Take note that I never had any professional background in writing (I was still in college) and the only experience I had was writing for school contests back in elementary and high school, and the blog that I started.
Start with what you know
You can start with the work that you are currently doing in your 9-to-5 job. Maybe it’s data entry work, admin services, translation, transcription, bookkeeping, copywriting, programming, design… there is basically no end to the type of services you can offer online!
Upgrade your skills
Eventually, you’ll want to explore other areas that complement the services that you offer, or move to an entirely different area. With freelancing, you take charge of your career and your business so whatever direction you choose is totally up to you!
It’s also possible that the type of service that you currently offer is not as lucrative as the others – that’s also a sign that you might want to upgrade your skills and explore other areas. Obviously, writing gigs will pay more than data entry work and most things that involve strategy and sales pay the highest of all.
Some online courses I highly recommend:
- Write to 1k by Elna Cain
- 30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success by Horkey Handbook
- 30 Days or Less to Virtual Assistant Success by Horkey Handbook (I personally enrolled in this course and love it!)
Start Marketing Your Services
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why so many people are scared of making the switch from employment to freelancing is because you are left to fend for yourself.
There will be no upper management to look for clients on your behalf and you also have to do a lot of admin work such as answering to client emails, sending invoices and following up on overdue payments, and taking care of your finances. But that also makes things more exciting!
Now…how to market your services? Below are some places to help get you started:
1. Your personal network
Try to look around if friends and family – or anyone they know – are looking for the types of services that you offer. I’ve had some success getting local writing gigs from my personal circle of blogging/freelancing friends.
2. Job marketplaces
I currently use Upwork for my own freelance business but you can also explore other sites such as FreeeUp, Freelancer.com, Fiverr, OnlineJobs.ph and so many others. These places may be littered with spammers though so you just have to be careful (if they ask you to pay first before starting work, it’s likely a scam). Also take note that these sites usually take up a percentage of your income so include that when calculating your rates.
3. Facebook groups
I’ve had a lot of success in getting clients in FB groups where my ideal clients hang out. In some cases, these people were upfront about looking for a freelancer to help them out; but there were also cases when I was just genuinely helping them on a question – and then they decided to get in touch with me to learn more about my paid services.
4. Cold pitching
This strategy can be a little intimidating especially for those who are just starting out. Cold pitching involves reaching out to a potential client who doesn’t know you, offering to help their business with the services that you offer.
Eventually, you’ll have a big enough client network that can generate you additional clients on autopilot. I usually encourage my current clients to spread the word about my services in exchange for a free hour or 10% off their next invoice.
Build Your Portfolio
You might be asking… how do you build your portfolio when you have no relevant experience yet?
I started with a blog and it has provided me with among the best returns of all. Given that my ideal clients are coaches, course creators and bloggers, it’s natural that I am required a working knowledge in running websites (particularly WordPress) as well as digital marketing.
So what to do next?
1. Build a portfolio site.
You can always create a free WordPress blog here. However, if you want to go a little more professional – and maybe explore using Divi on the side – I suggest using Portfolio PH. (This service is fairly new but run by my former colleagues who has been taking care of the hosting and domain of a majority of my websites since 2013.)
You can get a professional looking website and showcase your work there, but you can also opt for an upgraded version for more advanced customization. Or you can also go the self-hosted route and install WordPress yourself, if that’s something you’re up for.
I use the same company mentioned above – you can start your own website for as low as Php1,200 for the entire year (includes domain and hosting). Check out Masaion.
2. Optimize your social media profiles.
Now that you’ve decided to enter the digital marketplace, it’s time to clean up after your digital mess. Transform your social media profiles into professional portals: update your profile picture, hide those embarrassing photos and update your privacy settings. Most importantly, make sure that you announce to the whole world that you are a freelancer for hire.
3. Optimize your profile in job marketplaces.
It can be a struggle to build your online portfolio in marketplaces based on feedback and previous projects. If you have none to showcase yet, you can start introducing yourself and describing what results you can provide your clients. It can be something as simple as reducing the amount of time your clients have to spend on their businesses because you can take care of the admin or the tech work on their behalf.
4. Ask for testimonials.
Once you start getting the ball rolling, don’t forget to ask for testimonials from your clients. I once had a client tell me how much she liked my Upwork profile and that social proof truly works. I have my best testimonials prominently displayed on top of my description section, before I go on and introduce myself to my potential client. In Upwork, positive feedback also helps raise your Job Success Score (JSS) so you can become a Top-Rated Freelancer.
5. Always be learning.
Always be learning. Social media profiles isn’t just for stating the things that you can do for your client – you can use it to SHOW exactly the services and results that you can provide. For example, if you offer social media management services, use your social media accounts as a training ground to learn how to increase followers, reach, engagement and so on. It can also be a way to showcase your design or copywriting work or you can even use a Facebook page to practice developing chat bots. Be creative!
Pro Tip: It’s totally okay to offer your services for free (an hour or two) or at a discounted rate if it means getting the experience and testimonial that you need to get started. I once offered a client 20% off her next invoice so I could get inside a particularly intimidating email platform that I couldn’t try otherwise.
Another Pro Tip: If you want to specialize in profitable platforms, go for those that come with premium pricing (eg. ClickFunnels, Kartra, Kajabi). Since clients already have budget to pay for these platforms, they most likely have a budget to hire people to set up and manage it for them.
Come Up with a Base Rate
There are many ways to come up with your rates. Because freelancer skills can vary and there is no standardization, rates can come in very wide ranges.
For example, in the Philippines, virtual assistants are paid an average of $3-$5/hour – some of them are even experienced and/or multi-skilled freelancers. However, in the US, virtual assistants often go with $20-$25/hour as their entry-level rate.
Now…how do you come up with your rates? There are many ways:
1. Look at your competition.
The world of freelancers is a huge market. Someone you look at as competition might not exactly be: you could be offering the same services but offer it to a different group of people. However, looking at the rates of people who offer more or less than same services as you (plan to) do gives you a good idea on how much to charge your future clients.
2. Base it on your most recent paycheck.
When I shifted to freelancing full-time, I made sure that the paycheck I received from my new online work was the same, if not bigger, than the paycheck I received working as a junior programmer. For me, it justified leaving the stability of corporate world. Take note that this is based on gross pay – after all, you have to pay for your own benefits once you go freelance.
Later on, when I shifted from freelancer to business owner, my base paycheck rate increased. I had to make sure that I was earning more than the gross pay of myself and the partner’s combined.
3. Figure out your income goal.
Or the best way to go about it is to figure out your income goal. Now, take note that this approach can be tricky and intimidating, but it does give you a good idea on how much you need to make in order to live comfortably.
- First, determine how much you want to earn in a year’s time. For example, you might want to earn Php 1 million – or around $20,000.
- Next, divide it by the number of working days in a year. Dividing it by the number of months or weeks in a year is also an alternative. That means Php1 million / 261 days (number of working days in 2019) OR Php1 million / 12 months / 20 working days per week. That’s around Php3,900 ($78) or Php4,200 ($83), depending on which formula you chose.
- Next, divide by the number of hours you plan to work in a day. Let’s say you plan to work 8 hours each day, that’s $78 / 8 hours, so you now have a base rate of $10/hour.
Personally, I try to limit working only 20 hours a week so that means: Php1 million ($20k) / 12 months / 80 hours per month = $20.8 base hourly rate.
Easy peasy, right?
Pro Tip: Of course, you also need to keep in mind other hidden expenses when coming up with your annual income goal. This could include the following (with the first three being the most basic measure to see if a job is worth your time, money and effort):
- platform fees (Upwork, PayPal, Transferwise)
- loss due to currency exchange
- utility bills (Internet, electricity)
- equipment (laptop, office items, etc) and software
- government benefits (SSS, Pagibig, Philhealth)
- insurance and HMO
- sick and vacation leaves
Invest in Yourself and Your Business
I believe that it takes money to make money, and you will need to invest money into your business if you want it to grow even more.
For example, you might want to invest in knowledge, which provides the best return of all. There are plenty of courses out there for virtual assistants in all levels. You can also explore courses that help you specialize in a niche or in a particular platform. Doing so will give you more in-depth knowledge so you can confidently raise your rates.
Personally, I invest in a CRM called Dubsado which helps me automate a part of my business. This platform allows me to send a proposal + contract + invoice all in one go so I don’t have to worry about anything else.
I also have a leads subscription that sends out solid leads on a monthly basis. The contracts I’ve gotten through this platform has given me more than 20x the money I pay for it.
Check this out: 15 Essential Tools You Need to Run A Virtual Assistant Business
At the very least, I suggest getting a domain and a website (get one for Php1,200/year through Masaion). Sure, you can use free platforms but having your own website gives you more flexibility and also has a lesser risk of you losing all your data in cases where they go temporarily or permanently shut down.
Consider Going Full Time
Eventually, you’ll soon get to the point that your freelance gig far exceeds the amount of money you make from your full-time job. It can be extremely tempting to make that jump (and I really do recommend making that jump when you’re scared), but it’s also wise and practical to consider all angles first before making that leap.
Advantages of going full-time freelancing:
- You set your own hours
- You set your own rates
- You get to work from anywhere
- You get to choose which projects to work on
- You can explore multiple ways to earn income
- You get to spend more time with the family or yourself
- You get to enjoy a vacation in the middle of the week and not wait for your manager’s approval
Advantages of staying employed:
- You get to receive a steady income
- You still get paid even when you’re sick or on vacation
- You have a good insurance coverage
- You get to mingle with other people, in-person, on a regular basis
- You don’t have to worry about finding new projects or clients
Keep in mind though that no one is indispensable. Employment may promise stability but it losing your job with just the snap of a finger can be very, very possible – you just have more days to prepare for it.
Weigh the pros and cons of both angles very carefully, and keep your emergency funds in tact when you make that transition: there could be slow months in your freelancing journey and you want to make sure that the bills get paid and there is still food on the table when that happens.
My Journey from Employer to Freelancer to Business Owner
I’ve shared my own journey multiple times now. I started freelancing in 2008, as a writer, when I was still in college. It eventually opened up various opportunities for me and I remained an on-and-off freelancer for the next seven years or so.
I continued to write on the side even during my 3-year stint as a junior programmer. I had a baby in between and soon realized that the corporate world was not somewhere I wanted to be in: I wanted more freedom to spend time with the family and travel and do the things that I want.
I had gotten hopeless when I read from a blogger friend that she was working online for a parenting website. I decided to create an opportunity out of it, contacted my friend whom I realized was the executive VA for the website, and was basically hired on the spot after speaking with the owners. Still, I didn’t hand over my resignation letter until I actually got my first paycheck from that online job – for about a month and a half, I juggled two full-time jobs, just so I could achieve my goal.
Thing is, we didn’t have any emergency funds back then, which was a huge mistake. When I resigned, the partner also got laid off of work. We had a mortgage and bills to pay and a kid to raise so we had to make it work.
The website owners eventually had to let go of me and, on the third month of working from home, I found myself thrown into the freelancing pit. Thankfully, I still had one of my side gig clients but it was exhausting and paid pennies ($1/500 words; had to write 5 articles a day, 5 days a week).
My first attempt at raising my rates: I jumped from $1/500 words to $10/500 words. It was amazing how easily that transition happened. It went on for the next year or so, but honestly it still wasn’t enough and we were running behind our mortgage (we were also still paying for the equity which we had to prioritize because they were paid with post-dated checks). Looking back, I’m not sure how we survived this period.
Since I was already blogging, I made attempts to expand my network and audience and decided to guest post for bigger blogs. Surprisingly, I was offered paid gigs for these blogs and I eventually became a full-time editorial staff for one. This wasn’t the freelancing setup I had envisioned but there were bills to pay so I had to grab the opportunity.
Still, my restless, workaholic self made sure I still had side gigs even with the full-time work. It was in 2017 that I started VA work, which was really no different from what I do as a blogger and an editorial assistant. Plus, my client paid me $5/hr with a max workload of 30 hrs/week – and coming from a corporate job that paid $3/hr – it sounded like GOLD.
2017 was a very eventful year for us. I was pregnant with baby #2 for the most part. My editorial assistant position shifted to sales and marketing (love trying new stuff) in the same company, which meant I was speaking with local hotels (big plus in experience for my travel blog and for my freelancing career in general) and also receiving commissions. It was also then that I did a lot of VA work, getting clients at $5, $8 and $12 hourly rates.
However, after getting back from my 2-month maternity leave that I decided I needed to shake things up once more. I sent in my two-week notice so that I could run my virtual assistant business full-time. And guess what, the moment I did that, I basically switched from charging $5/hr to $20/hr.
In the first year of running my VA business, I was able to earn $20,000 in gross income with a 70-80% profit margin.
As of writing, my business is already 1.5 years old. I finally became legal this year – registered myself as sole proprietor with one employee and started paying for mandatory government contributions.
Currently, I earn a full-time income ($2,000-$3,000 each month) while working only 20 hours a week. There’s still a loooot of room for growth but I am truly enjoying the flexibility that comes with it.
Have you considered making the switch to freelancing? What about it attracts you?