2020 has been a phenomenal year for remote work and freelancing. It grabbed the attention of the world as it became an essential part of their lifestyle and not just an option.
It did not matter if it’s a small, medium or large company, there was no other option but to adopt instantly and widely across the entire team.
~1.2 Trillion $ is now the total freelancers income this year, this is up 22% from last year, the Gig Economy is on track to grow well for the coming years.
The percentage of American workers that freelance has been pretty stable and growing slightly for the last 6 years continued to grow from 35% to 36% even in 2020 despite all the uncertainty
(Source: Upwork Freelance forward 2020 report)
I’ve personally been sharing everything I know about freelancing on linkedin since April 2020 to help peers, folks that have entered the world of remote work, freelancing and lastly folks who were affected by the pandemic due to pay cuts, job losses etc.
This ultimate guide is another attempt to help all the data professionals and folks from any tech communities
So how does one get started in freelancing?
Just like anything in life, I would recommend reverse engineering and starting with the end in mind!
So, Let’s forward a year or two from today.
Imagine this for yourself :-
- You wake up without an alarm clock
- You have three new client invites for projects you want to work on
- You have three client projects running on multiple areas in your domain
- You work for a couple hours and then head for a swim/workout/surf session depending on where you are
- You decide when you are working and not working, your schedule is in your control
- You are working from your favorite location
- Your work is growing and opening up multiple new business opportunities
- More importantly, you love your work, because you literally choose what work you do, daily
- Your schedule is packed – but you can still choose what you want to do, anytime.
No – don’t worry, I’m not selling you another pipe dream of “digital nomads”, this is just to show you that you can mix travel & work as you want. You can define your lifestyle and not just rely on your employer’s set protocols.
All of the above pointers basically sums up my lifestyle from 2016-2020, where I’ve been working remotely for my clients across the globe. In all honesty, I’ve lived in one city/country for 8 months of the year and traveled for 3-4 months each year for my own sanity & peace.
Sure, it’s definitely not as glamorous as the famous “digital nomads” would tell you, but it’s an interesting career path.
This was not as easy or as impossible as I used to think before. There is no magic bullet here – just a simple system with consistent efforts, work and commitment.
In this post, I will lay down the entire system and processes that I have followed from the start of my freelancing career till date.
If you want a lifestyle like that & a sustainable freelancing business, read on!
How I kickstarted my freelancing journey
- Hustling a side project: I started building my freelancing business along with my job in February 2016. Oh, and not just another boring 9 to 5 job – I worked at Mu Sigma Inc. The amount of working hours are crazy, to say the least. Side project is how I recommend it to most folks as you get the taste of freelancing without any downside.
- Quit my job, with sustainable projects: The freelancing business grew so much that I could not handle it with my job. I finally quit my job in August 2016 when I had three consistent clients and I achieved 75-80% of my current monthly income at my then job. Along with this cash flow, it’s also highly recommended that you have 6-12 months of expenses saved up in the bank. (I had 6 months saved)
- Clients started coming to me: Designed my freelancing profile and positioned it in such a manner that clients approach and invite me for jobs and I am screening them and their work requirements if they are a good fit for me or not rather than the traditional vice versa process.
- Build team: Slowly started building a quality driven and closely monitored team to bifurcate my share of responsibilities.
- My own online business venture: Started working on multiple other side projects in online products that can be scaled rapidly by understanding market needs, competitions, problems, pain points of my target market and niche
Disclaimer: There is a lot of survivorship bias & my timing at play here. Whenever you read this blog, take it with a pinch of salt & plan for your own unique career accordingly.
Personally, I always recommend folks to start freelancing after they have done a job at a junior position for a few years and have learnt a few relevant skills and have their basics very clear.
Along with reverse engineering, plotting the worst case scenario is a great exercise I’d recommend i.e. fear setting.
Mine was that I had to go back to finding a new job – that’s it. And, maybe I’d have to move back in with my parents.
That’s not too bad, eh?
So think about your worst case scenario, prepare strategically with cash flow and savings to avoid potential pitfalls.
Choosing your platform – freelancing in data science & data analytics
When I set out to find my first online client, I wanted to choose top 1-2 platforms where I can go deeper and understand the platform.
In general, your skills and your positioning matter more than the platform.
However, choosing the platforms is also important based on some top criteria here :
- Clients are actually spending money and actively hiring on the platform for all their needs
- Your target audience and client profiles exist there
- There is demand for your set of skills & work that you can help clients with
For data analysts, data scientists & data engineers – this is the list of niche platforms I would suggest in the order of priority for both contracts/gigs and also full-time jobs, remote jobs at times
- Data Science Central
I personally get all of my freelance work from Upwork. The main reason why I chose Upwork was it has premium quality clients, provides top-notch service and ease in payments. They have a payment protection policy and to put it very simply in their words – “One hour worked is one hour paid” on Upwork – no matter what if the client and freelancer are on a contract agreed upon with each other.
Having actually worked with the upwork analytics team personally (another story), I can vet that the product teams are fantastic and they want you (the freelancer) to be successful! They’ve changed more lives than you can imagine including mine.
Finding your sweet spot
I see many folks jumping on platforms and expecting money to churn out next week, next month without putting in the hard work and research needed before.
The research you do before entering marketplaces, before sending your proposals, before researching your dream clients is absolutely critical and most people just avoid this completely
This is very similar to sending resume after resume to get new jobs in the marketplace.
Here’s an alternative approach and a quick research you can do to find your sweet spot. :
After actually creating your profile on a marketplace (like Upwork, Fiverr, Experfy etc) – you have to deeply analyze these 3 aspects
👍 Your skills and exact type of work you would offer (Yes, I know can do 99 types of data analysis, create 10 new predictive models, build another 100 types of dashboards, but pick Top 2-3 things you really want to focus on and find your 1st project)
👍 Demand in Marketplace – Are there clients paying for these type of services? Are there clients posting jobs similar to this work?
👍 Your work interests and future – Do you really want to work on this 3-6-12 months from now? Will this project matter and help you in future?
Based on the above three aspects, your profile and positioning on the marketplaces should be designed to attract your ideal dream projects and dream clients.
Now, do the research and go find your sweet spot!
For freelancing in data science, choose the search filter category as “Data science & analytics” (in upwork) and then go deeper in your market research.
How I leveraged on my skills in getting freelance work in the initial days
At Mu sigma Inc, I worked on various different types of analysis for large websites (website analytics) and also built executive dashboards.
My core experience and strength was website analytics – so these were what I set out to offer to potential clients. I targeted small-medium businesses that need help in “Google Analytics” and thus went about finding my first customer.
You can see some of my early projects done here & the top softwares I use here
Similarly, find 1-2 relevant skills to start off with. You must sell relevant skills together. You should not be a developer, designer and marketing expert at the same time. You can always diversify later – but start off only with one or two skills only.
Prepare your unique profile
You should not spend a lot of time on your profile but focus on a few important things to add value to your target customer. You must completely separate yourself out of the masses.
Stop talking about “I” – Talk about Your customer
98% of freelancing profiles and their websites are all about themselves, their services, degrees and educational qualifications. All these are quite important for the initial context and quick view but the client really cares about solving his problem.
In your profile – talk as less as possible about yourself and more about your target customer, their problems, their pain points and how you would go about solving them.
At the start, it’s fine if you do not know what your target market is. You should constantly test and refine, as you evolve.
Focus on following points while writing your profile.
- Know your target market and talk about them
- Few big problems of your target market
- How you will solve their problem by your service in best possible way
- Your list of services
In the portfolio – you can add a few samples of any old work that you have done. Do not worry about adding a lot of stuff – just use some quick methods – like screenshots and links of small help you have provided.
Your portfolio should be very relevant to the work you are aiming for. Once clients can see the relevant samples in your portfolio – they would love to talk to you.
Know the fear of clients looking for freelance work
- Low quality work
- Trust Issues
- Following Timelines
- Unreliable freelancers
High valued freelancers vs low value freelancers
Now, along with the market research of jobs, clients etc, you can also research and learn a ton from your competition (other freelancers) on any marketplace.
You can learn what not to do and what type of profile not to create. In upwork, you can actually search for other freelancers in your domain too – so let’s start with that.
From the top search feature -> choose “Browse talent” and add any title similar to yours -> let’s pick “Data analyst” for now and also choose a category”
You can see the image below on how to search, filter and find the profiles of freelancers in your domains & categories quickly.
All freelancer names & images are blurred – this is only for educational purposes
Now, look at the ones in your field and find the biggest mistakes and just make your profile unique in that manner.
- Are they all talking about themselves in the profile?
- Which type of profile(s) have made the most money/least money?
- How many are in the “Top rated” and “Top rated plus” pool of freelancers?
- How can you position yourself uniquely among these lists of profiles that the client wants to pick you?
You don’t need to have all the answers yet. Preparing your profile is an iterative process that can take months as you understand and go deeper in the freelancing world.
All the answers lie in the market research of clients, jobs & your competition
Setting up portfolio & sending your first proposals
Before talking to clients and working towards getting your first paid project, I would highly recommend doing some relevant work before. If you have already done the relevant work before, go ahead and add them in your “Portfolio section” of your profile.
If you are not experienced in the work that you want to do, go ahead and do your own project work, anything that can be showcased in the form of a quick portfolio. Yes – this means doing free work and creating a momentum for yourself at the very start. This is where most freelancers fail – so it’s really important you get past this step by doing work irrespective of whether you get clients or not.
To be clear, I am not at all advocating doing free work for clients if you are experienced. The only point is for the people who are not experienced, to not sit idle and do work for yourself and for your field so that you are ready as soon as you get your first project.
If you’re in data analytics, data science (or other tech fields) and have very less experience, you can do the following:
- Build up your kaggle and github profiles by doing public projects
- Use publicly available datasets and analyze them deeply
- Publish your results in forums, areas of interest and among communities
If you already have experience, you can focus more on “marketing”, “market research”. Here are some points that would help you create your own feed on Upwork within “My Job feed”:
- Search for the “Top keywords” for the exact jobs you would want and save search so that it appears on your feed
- Search from Category, Subcategory in the search feature and save search again to add to feed. (No filters initially are needed in client criteria as you would aim to get anyone to get started)
- Add saved jobs and create them for automation and so upwork algorithm helps you in finding the best job
The quality of your proposals is directly proportional to the time taken to get clients to reply to you and eventually landing your first gig. The main role and objective of a proposal is always to just get a response and conversation flowing between you and the client.
A proposal will NOT land you a job – if it does, you should be quite wary and careful of the client. It’s very similar to two folks going on a first date and getting married – some serious fast forwarding.
Writing proposals (like your profile) will again be all about the job, the customer and how exactly you will help them along with offering extra value.
Don’t know how to write a great proposal? But, still want to get big and small projects from high quality clients?
Don’t worry, just fill in your details below and I’ll send you my top word-by-word script of winning proposals that have helped me get projects worth 10-50K$ on various platforms
Getting your first customer
Getting your first customer dependents on your ability to show the client that you can complete the work within time without compromising the quality.
The proven system:
- Send extremely relevant and high quality proposals for 30-60 days. Make sure you spend enough quality time on each and every proposal
- After the response, the conversation and the experience of a client talking to you should be as professional as possible. Ask very relevant business questions before taking up any job to fully understand business requirements and so that you can do great work
- Never do a hard sell – main focus has to be on adding value irrespective of whether you get the job or not. There can be exceptions in cases of sequential follow ups
- Propose to do a 1-2 week/month long pilot project wherein you will showcase your skills and do such amazing work that the client is blown away and you can then continue working for them on a long – term basis (depending on client / project size)
- The old saying is true as always in sales – “Follow up is where the money is” – just keep asking if they have any questions for you, keep adding value & keep answering questions
Effective Project Execution
After getting your first project, it’s essential that you treat it with utmost sincerity and respect as this will pave the path to your next projects.
Here’s one of the offers I got that I accepted from a client for some analytics and dashboards related work on upwork.
You are no longer in a big company with multiple teams. You should remember that you are the sole owner of your entire business here – there is no sales team, no execution teams, no delivery teams.
Delivering your work is absolutely critical as per the requirements laid down. There are three main things here which are also very important for giving your clients a great experience.
Regular communication with the client with updates on the project is crucial. For long term projects, I like to do a “2 week pilot” where I plan to give extraordinary work and win them over just by my service, work quality and the entire experience.
Setting timelines for the project is crucial for setting expectations right with the client. Always add “buffer” time before giving the time estimation for any project. Buffer could be a few days to more depending on the level of work.
In the 1-2 week pilot project that we decided everyone should start off with, this is your golden time period to win over a client for long-term. What you do for this small time period decided how long the client will be with you.
So two words – Always over-deliver!
Do much more than what was asked for you to be done! If the requirements were A, B and C – you must do that and add your own D, E along with next steps and ways to grow the client’s business using your skills – this is very key in initial stages if you want to convert your pilot projects to long term ones.
Client feedback is more important than money in the initial days. You should ask your client for the feedback after the completion of the project. This should ideally only be done after a good amount of work has been done, value has been created for the client, there is goodwill and trust in between both of you. This will help you in not only getting testimonials, but also in improving your work & your communications with every new client you onboard
Automating your business to get clients from invite-only Jobs
It’s great that you want to attract customers like flowers attract honey bees. In marketing – this is called the “pull” process instead of a “push” – you want to make your profile a “Pull” for clients.
Here are some steps you need to get started in your journey as a freelancer
- Define your IDEAL client – be very detailed in your description and as narrow a field as possible. Basically, pick a narrow niche for your work
- Define the PROBLEMS that they face with respect to your work and niche.
- Define the RESULT you will give them.
All the above 3 steps require significant research on what your work is, what your profitable niche is, who your clients are, how exactly will you add value to their lives and much more.
Your profile should not be about YOU. 99% of freelancer profiles are about themselves. It’s a big mistake! Yes – I am repeating this again here as I really want to drive this point home.
“Research, iterate, take action – and enjoy the results”
Pro Tip: Edit your profile after you do the above research & add “testimonials” also on your profile when you get feedback from your clients
I wanted to give out full credit to some mentors and great marketers.
I learnt principles and psychology related to freelancing and online businesses from Danny Marguiles, Ramit Sethi & Pardeep goyal.
Over to You
Phew! That must have been a lot to digest if you read it all in one go!
Well, you know what it takes to build a freelancing business, you’ve been handed a very simple system structured in a manner to help you out. Now, it’s time for the ACTION. Do not read any more information. Information overload and undertaking action is the saddest thing to see around these days.
“Actions Speak Louder Than Words. Never confuse Motion with Action.”
I would be really happy if you took action after reading this. If you follow the steps and do all the hard work, we would love to know about more problems you face, successes you attain and more.
Again, if you want my winning proposals that helped me get enterprise clients and projects worth 10K-50K$, you can get them for free instantly from the form below.
Let me know in comments if you have any more questions
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