The first $100 I made freelancing was before I even knew what freelancing was. I was working at Rice University in Houston as a media relations intern in the athletic department. The Owls’ men’s basketball team was hosting the University of Utah on a nationally-televised Monday night game, and the ESPN crew called a day ahead to secure help for its TV broadcast.
For the duration of the 60-minute game, I stood behind the scorer’s table wearing a headset and recording how many points each team scored in the paint and off of turnovers. At the end of the night, I walked outside to the ESPN truck and received my payment – a crisp $100 bill.
This, I thought, was surely the greatest job in the world.
The road to my first $1,000 as a freelancer came considerably later and was not nearly as well-paying as those two hours watching Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller tear up Rice’s zone defense. I was into my late 30s when I started pursuing freelance opportunities online, and those next $900 came into my checking account from all corners of the universe doing jobs that now I chuckle at when I see them listed online.
But one of the realities most freelancers face is it’s not all that easy to get started and instantly receiving jobs and salaries that are on the level you expect. You have to work for it, but that’s nothing new for freelancers; after all, if we had wanted the mindless job where you clock in, sit at a desk for eight hours and clock back out, we’d still be living in the rat race rather than striking out on our own.
So when you’re starting out and building your way to that first $1,000 milestone, here are a few tips on how to streamline the process so that you can work smarter, not harder.
- Lower your standards. When I won my first job off Upwork (at the time oDesk), I was a copy editor for a large chemical news bureau. That first job was writing 25 book reviews for fantasy books, and paid $2.50 per review for a grand total of $62.50. With twin 1-year-olds at home, the money was spent milliseconds after it reached our checking account, but the five-star rating I received for my reviews was worth its weight in gold.
- Beat the bushes. When you’re just starting out, leave no stone unturned when you’re seeking out potential work. Over time you’ll be able to weed out false sources of jobs, but for now you should be like a beagle on the trail of a rabbit – nose to the ground, sniffing out every possible lead. Case in point: In my first two weeks as a full-time freelancer, I applied for a copyediting job I found on Craigslist. It turned out to be legitimate and I was hired on the spot. The work was consistent and the money came instantly every time I submitted an invoice. I wound up working for this client for two years straight, netting just shy of $5,000 – all because I was willing to explore as many forums for work as I could.
- Don’t say you can do things that you can’t. One of the biggest traps that up-and-coming freelancers fall into is looking at a job description and thinking, “I could probably do that …” If you have no experience in what the job describes, don’t pretend that you do when applying for it. There will be other fish to fry in your areas of expertise. About five months into my freelancing career, I applied for a job post which read “Female Wellness Book Ghost-writer, content Editor”. Now I am not female and at the time had never ghostwritten a book, but that didn’t keep me from repeatedly selling the author on my skills during two lengthy phone interviews. Once the process started, it was clear on all sides I was out of my element – the author didn’t like my editing style, didn’t like ghostwriting style (such as it was), and openly questioned decisions I made in the text. Two weeks into the job, I was let go, given only a partial payment, and worst of all left a 2-star review on my profile page.
- Work your butt off on every job. One of the toughest lures to overcome will appear in the early days of freelancing when you’re working on a job you feel is beneath you – either price wise or position wise. I recall an early job I had writing previews of college and NFL football games for a website in Singapore. I was only make $3.50 per previews, but it added up over the course of the week and was steady income. There were plenty of times I felt like turning in inferior work, because the guy on the other end just wanted clicks, he didn’t care all that much for content. Besides of which, I had been a professional sportswriter for 12 years, wasn’t this sort of work beneath me? I hadn’t thought about that job in years until this past May, when another client looking for someone with experience writing NFL previews wrote me an email, hiring me later that day to write previews for all 32 teams at 20 times the fee I used to make.
Remember, karma is alive in the world of freelancing. As you begin making your name and your brand felt in our specific spheres of influence, remember that every job you take should be considered an audition for the next one. Stay humble and focused and your first $1,000 won’t be your last.