How to become a freelancer

Thu 08 June, 2023
Article Header Image

Freelancing is becoming an increasingly popular career path. It offers flexible working hours and the possibility of working in the comfort of one's home, in a cafe or even on a beach on the other side of the world!

Now, how does one become a freelancer you might ask? Here are some tips to help you if you’re thinking about freelancing alongside your studies or once you’ve graduated from University.

First, you want to figure out what you want to specialise in. This can either be in areas you're interested in or know a lot about. If you're a copywriter you might want to work with brands which – for example – focus on skincare and beauty, sustainability or tech, or you could specialise in a specific area of copy such as script-writing, blogging or email marketing. If you're a graphic designer, for example, you might be interested in producing freelance designs for advertisements, motion design, websites or brand packaging.

Selecting a niche is important as this will help reduce competition, show that you have expertise in your chosen area, and finds you your target audience – a specific group of clients who are looking to have unique needs met and will come back to you in the future for more work.

Don't know your niche? It's normal and okay to not know what you want to specialise in, especially once you're starting out. It doesn't hurt to start broad and then narrow down what you do later. Not to mention there are people within the freelancing business who are involved in more than one niche.

The University of Bedfordshire’s Careers & Employability Service can offer you advice on career progression and deciding which job or freelance area may be most appropriate for you.

The university’s Research & Innovation Service also helps students to start their own business or social enterprise. With the help of Pathways4Recovery programme (part-funded by EU), they provide access to resources and coaching to help you become your own boss. This programme is only available until September 2023, so you must register quickly so not to miss out on this free initiative!

Once you've picked your niche or found a client, you want to research the market. You want to understand your clients (and their customers if they have any) and find solutions to any existing problems so that you can provide a service that will appeal to them and fit their needs. This involves keeping up with trends in your industry and knowing about competitors, customer attitudes and uncovering client/audience needs so you can best understand and make the right decisions.

To land a gig you're going to need to build up a supply of work to show off your skills, thought process, and prove why a client should hire you and not someone else. It's important to include only your best pieces in your portfolio and if you only have one or two pieces in total then something to showcase your skills is better than nothing but what if you don't have anything whatsoever?

Thankfully with freelancing, there's a surplus of ways to build yourself up from scratch. You can start by showcasing any personal projects you may have done, such as work you produced for school or university coursework and practice projects. A beginner's portfolio doesn't need to be paid work. Fake clients is a great website to find briefs if you require practice.

Another way you can develop portfolio pieces is by reaching out directly to companies via email, advisedly smaller ones, and volunteering yourself to provide a one-time free service. You'll only need to do this once or twice. Following any work, ask the company for a testimonial to add extra credibility to your CV and portfolio – and if you went above and beyond there's a chance, they'll want to hire you for paid work in the future or refer you to someone else.

Looking for start-up companies to work for is a good way to put yourself out there as they're in a similar spot as the name would suggest starting out as you. They'll happily take on contributors and often have opportunities for those looking to land small gigs.

Internships are another good way to gain experience and build up work for your portfolio. Creative Access provides a surplus of paid internship opportunities in creative fields with a speciality for those within marginalised groups. LinkedIn is always a great place to find gigs and internships but more on that later.

Lastly, always check your university emails as there are many opportunities, paid and unpaid, for you to take advantage of such as becoming a student content creator or becoming a volunteer for the Luton carnival. The University’s Careers & Employability Service can also help you find opportunities to help boost your CV and experience., google drive or making your own website (depending on your industry, the website could be a portfolio piece in and of itself) are a few free ways to put your portfolio together and provide easy access for prospective clients.

Personal branding and networking are key to success. Be genuine. Be you. You are the key to setting yourself apart from the competitors and it's how you carry yourself and how you work that will draw people in. And if people are turned away then don’t be disheartened – those people just maybe weren't the right customers. You want clients who can connect with you and your strategy. The clients who stay loyal, come back to hire you again and will tell their friends, family and everyone else to hire you.

Now is the time to talk about social media. It's a tool you can leverage to showcase your work and digitally network. You may have already seen on sites like Instagram, Tiktok and YouTube people showcasing their work (be it art, coding or carpentry) and explaining the process behind it all, as well as giving an insight into their personality. While it might not seem like much, it is an effective way to build personal and creative branding. The nature of social media encourages users to be authentic and personal, creating rapport between creator and consumer. This piques the curiosity of potential clients and drives traffic to your products and services as well as providing an additional stream of revenue.

You've most likely heard of LinkedIn, a social media platform similar to Facebook designed to help people like you find jobs or internships and strengthen your professional relationships. Make yourself a LinkedIn profile as it's a goldmine for career opportunities and help — multiple industry experts offer up free advice. You want to stay up to date on LinkedIn so potential clients can see you're active on the site. Connect with people within your industry, companies and brands you're interested in and people you know in general. The Careers and Employability Service can support you to develop your LinkedIn account.

You want to post consistently, once a week, once a month, however many times you can manage. Talk about and share examples of your work, whether you are job searching, personal musings about your chosen industry and any job experiences and integrate it all with what you can do for your clients. Someone may take an interest and want to hire you. Also, comment on other people's posts. Not dry comments but comments filled with value, something to make you stand out and grab attention. You might think the big names in your industry won't notice you but they will and they'll remember you if you're consistent (so will others in the comment section — more potential clients). Take this as an opportunity to expand your knowledge. Most of them will be happy for you to pop up into their DMs or inbox and answer any questions you might have. You can do this even if you don't comment. They might even offer up to send work your way if their schedule is too full. You might even become friends.

As a freelancer, you'll come across sketchy job opportunities and when you're just starting out it might be hard to tell what's authentic and what's not. In these cases, you have to go with your instincts and if you have a rapport with your connections, asking for their opinion will help with your judgement.

Also, know your value, don't accept a job that provides small pay for hard work or where an employer treats you with disrespect. By all means, don't feel bad about instantly quitting if you start a job and realise that it's exploitative. You can turn it into an opportunity to warn others about similar tactics on LinkedIn and other social media platforms, which in turn helps with your personal branding.

The following organisations offer information and advice. Some also provide funding to help you get started with self-employment.

  • GOV.UK – support starting up your own business
  • Prince's Trust - supports young people in setting up their own business
  • Prospects - website dedicated to graduates
  • Shell Live Wire - online community for young entrepreneurs
  • Wenta - 'one-stop-shop' for business support
  • Start-up Loans - offers government-backed personal loans for business purposes.

See the University’s guide to Self-Employment - a quick guide to setting up your own business [PDF]