What is freelancing? And how do you become a freelancer?

Being your own boss can be more challenging than it sounds. Here’s how to start freelancing

WeWork Gotham Center in Long Island City, NY. Photograph by WeWork

Companies of all sizes have one thing in common: They all began as small businesses. Starting small is the corner for those just getting off the ground. Learn about how to make that first hire, deal with all things administrative, and set yourself up for success.

It’s hard to resist the allure of the freelance lifestyle. Ditching the 9-to-5 slog. Becoming a digital nomad. Working wherever there’s a power outlet and an open WiFi connection. Sipping margaritas on the beach between emails. It’s the dream, right?

Well, talk to anyone who’s tried it and you might be in for a rude awakening. Yes, it’s true that millions more of us are turning toward freelance work each year, whether as a means to earn some extra cash on the side or to achieve a better work-life balance as we emerge from the pandemic. But most are discovering that to become a successful freelancer, it requires patience, preparation, and enormous self-discipline.

Like most types of remote work, freelancing can be lonely too. Coworking spaces and shared offices are a great way to stay connected with friends and colleagues, whether you’re full-time or self-employed. WeWork On Demand gives freelancers pay-as-you-go access to stylish workspaces and meeting rooms in 50 cities across the world, with no monthly commitment to worry about. 

Whether you’re thinking of becoming your own boss, or you just want to pick up some extra gigs on the side, our guide to freelancing can help lay the groundwork for whatever comes next.

What is freelancing?

Freelancing is a style of work in which a person isn’t permanently employed by any one organization, but instead may contract with multiple clients at once.

The word was coined in the early 19th century to describe mercenary soldiers for hire—literally a “free lance”—who would sell their skills to the highest bidder. While today’s freelancers are less likely to be found on the battlefield, the essential meaning of the word hasn’t changed much. Freelancers are self-employed workers for hire who take on projects, tasks, commissions, and assignments from individuals or companies that require their talents. 

While freelance workers have always existed, freelancing is quickly becoming more popular. A 2021 survey by Upwork found that 59 million Americans had carried out freelance work in the previous 12 months, representing more than a third of the U.S. workforce. That increase is partly driven by the emergence of the gig economy, but the survey also found a growing number of skilled and highly educated workers turning away from traditional employment and toward more flexible freelance work.

How do you start freelancing?

Everybody’s path to freelancing is going to look different, and a lot of it will depend on the kind of work you choose to do. That said, there are a few common steps most freelancers tend to follow. Many start out in full-time employment somewhere or bounce around a few different jobs, all while steadily building up a portfolio of work and an (ideally glowing) reputation in their industry. 

Over time they might take on small jobs outside of work hours, usually advertised or offered by other companies, before developing their side hustle into something more permanent and leaving their current role behind. Others begin freelancing to tide themselves over between full-time jobs, then decide they enjoy the lifestyle and stick with it. 

Some writers and graphic designers might skip full-time employment completely and dive straight into freelance work just by raising their profile online, but this is hard-going and fairly uncommon. Almost every successful freelancer will have laid the groundwork for going freelance over the course of a number of years by creating a name for themselves in their field, building experience, working their contacts, and growing their networks.

Types of freelance jobs

Most roles an employer needs to fill can technically be outsourced to a freelancer, but certain tasks are far more suited to this kind of work than others. And there are industries where freelance work is especially lucrative. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular:

  • Writing. Content production, journalism, and copywriting are all popular fields for freelancers. Companies have seemingly bottomless appetites for well-written press releases, blog content, product guides, and articles. And the flexibility of hiring freelancers allows editors to pick and choose an appropriate writer for each job based on the expertise or perspective needed to make a story work.
  • Software development. The demand for software developers is enormous and still growing, and because the industry is so heavily project-based, coders can find plenty of freelance work in their field. New businesses may take on app and mobile developers in the lead-up to a product launch, while even the largest companies will often hire specialist coders at the later stages of software development to get a project over the finish line.
  • Graphic design. While larger organizations might continuously hire the same design agency to create and evolve their brand identity, smaller companies in search of one-off designs, such as logos and web assets, will often reach out to freelancers instead. Self-employed graphic designers have greater creative freedom and can pursue more interesting, riskier projects, but the challenging job of client management falls squarely on their shoulders.

How to become a freelancer in six steps

1. Find your best clients

Advertising yourself on job recruitment boards is one way to find new clients, but the strongest and longest-lasting relationships you’ll build are with those you meet through word of mouth and industry networking events. 

The better you understand your own field and its major players—and the more connections you can make within it—the more opportunities for work you’ll find. Most freelancers use the contacts and friends they made while working in-house to help kick-start their independent careers.

2. Promote yourself, relentlessly

You won’t get far as a freelancer if you’re shy. You are your own boss, but you’re also your own marketing team, so have confidence in your abilities and start building out your brand as you go. For freelancers doing highly visible work online, such as content writers, photographers, and graphic designers, each new gig is a chance to raise your profile further or push into new parts of your industry.

Your collective social media presence is your new homepage and a stepping stone to your wider portfolio. You don’t need a thousand followers, but use your feeds to regularly share and promote your own work, so that when a client comes looking for you, they’ll know exactly who you are and what you can do.

3. Identify your niche

Think about what interests you most about the work you do and lean into it. Not only will you become more skilled and experienced in your preferred topic, but when you focus on a subject, you’ll end up competing with fewer rival freelancers for the same work, and become known for your style.

For example, weddings are a freelance photographer’s bread and butter. But by specializing in, say, a documentary or reportage style of photography, a freelancer can set themselves apart from the pack and reach a smaller, more concentrated pool of potential clients.

4. Make friends

When it comes to keeping clients happy, it’s about the quality of your work. But when it comes to actually finding those clients, freelancing is mostly about who you know. We used the term “rival freelancers” in the step above, but the truth is, there’s no such thing. Unless you’re working at a very high level, or in a hyper-competitive space, other freelancers in your industry are often your best source of information on who’s offering paid gigs. 

Freelancers are generally happy to recommend people they trust to their existing clients, and having a group of fellow like-minded freelancers meeting regularly in a shared coworking space takes the edge off working alone.

5. Figure out your rates

As a freelancer you generally don’t have access to full-time perks such as paid time off, equipment, office space, matched pension contributions, and employer-backed health insurance. Your salary when working full-time takes these benefits into account, and so your freelance rates should reflect that they’re no longer there. 

Everybody’s circumstances are different, but aim to earn at least enough to give you the freedom to take a break every once in a while. A common trap many new (and some veteran) freelancers fall into is not knowing when to stop working, or being unable to turn down gigs for fear of losing future work. By properly managing your rates, you can create space to breathe, carve out some vacation time, cover your extra costs, and avoid burning out.

6. Don’t forget the admin 

The specific legal details of being a freelancer will change from state to state, so be sure to research things like your tax filing and reporting obligations, as well as any tax relief and deductible business expenses you’re entitled to. As a self-employed worker, you’re required by law to keep a record of your earnings and expenses, so hire an accountant to properly manage your books, or to at least audit your accounts at the end of the tax year.

Working exclusively for just one company can also push freelancers into a legal gray area, particularly if the freelancer is held on retainer or works regular hours (In the eyes of the IRS, you might actually be considered a full-time employee.)

In California and New York, freelancers have certain rights to prompt payment and can gain some employee benefits once they do enough work for a single client. 

What are the benefits of freelancing?

There are lots of reasons why people choose to freelance. Freelancers are their own boss and can choose their own hours. They can take on more work if they need extra cash, and turn jobs down if they’re not interested or don’t have the time.

What freelancers lack in job security, they make up for by spreading the risk of losing work over many different employers. That is to say, if a salaried employee is fired from their job, they typically lose their entire income, whereas a freelancer can lose a client or two and still continue earning elsewhere.

There are downsides too. Without a regular paycheck, freelancing is inherently unstable. Income can fluctuate from month to month, making it difficult to plan ahead financially. Depending on where in the world they are, freelancers might have very few protections when it comes to labor laws. A client can stop giving a freelancer work without warning or reason, for example, and freelancers typically aren’t entitled to full-time benefits like sick leave and paid time off.

But despite all of the uncertainty that comes with the freelance lifestyle, freelancing attracts people who want to take direct control of their careers. It unlocks the ultimate in workplace flexibility: the option to work as much or as little as you like, whether at home or in a shared coworking space, and in a way that suits your life. 

How to start a freelance business

When you’re ready to launch your freelance career, or take it to the next level, WeWork can help you achieve your goals with a flexible workspace that fits your lifestyle. With customizable offices for individuals that adapt to meet your needs, WeWork All Access is your ticket to hundreds of dedicated workspaces in WeWork locations around the world. 

And for those all-important client meetings, when the coffee shop on the corner just won’t cut it, WeWork On Demand offers pay-as-you-go access to meeting rooms in more than 285 locations in 50 cities across the world, with no monthly commitment to worry about. 

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

Rethinking your workspace?

Was this article useful?
Business Solutions